In September of 2006, Modern Drummer magazine named legendary drummer Dave Lombardo as "The Godfather of Double Bass." And rightfully so—with seven Slayer albums under his belt, including their iconic 1986 release Reign in Blood, as well as founding numerous other projects including Grip Inc. and Fantômas, Lombardo's drumming has been hailed as astonishingly innovative, strikingly fast, and unmistakably powerful. Lombardo's work has had a significant influence on countless rock and heavy metal drummers as he's so graciously shared his incredible and seemingly effortless talents with us. But Lombardo is more than just a heavy metal drummer. With new projects like PHILM, he is out to shatter all preconceptions of what it is that Lombardo has to offer the world.
"When I'm on stage playing in Slayer, I'm playing jazz," says Lombardo, casually spending his morning at Guitar Center Hollywood. His genre-bending comment evokes a funny image of his iconic, yet colossal 11-piece kit crammed on a tiny jazz club stage—or the thought of Lombardo performing with Slayer in a tuxedo, gently keeping time with a traditional grip. But the "jazz" Lombardo is referring to is the lightness and ease with which he executes his live show. But it's not just his execution; it's the way in which he mentally approaches the typically aggressive genre of heavy metal.
"I'm just very loose, improvising on songs that have been written," Lombardo says. "And it's fun. I've got to entertain myself. I cannot go on tour and play the same thing every single night." The ease with which Lombardo plays his instrument speaks volumes about his natural talent and drive as a true percussionist.
So why exactly did Lombardo choose the drums? "I ask myself that question all the time," Lombardo laughs. "It's something that I really feel I was born with. Something that came from birth, but also drums have been a part of our culture, where I was born, so I think having that traditional music is another reason." When asked what drew him to the genre of heavy metal, Lombardo was quick to clarify that his interests varied quite a bit in his youth. "It didn't start like that. It just kind of evolved," he says. "I listened to Cream, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin. Then when we were teenagers I started listening to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It was just something I connected with."
An inspired youth of endless passion and dedication, Lombardo spent countless hours honing his skills. Primarily self-taught, he defies all expectations of what it means to learn your craft. And for drummers out there trying to balance formal training with selftraining, the Cuban-born, California-raised rocker does believe that there is a trade off. "The con for me is when someone hands you some sheet music and tells you to perform it, you obviously can't do it. You try to figure it out, but it's not the same," Lombardo says. "I think the pro to it is that you develop originality. What lessons do…let me see if I can explain this…you're given boundaries. Instead of using your imagination to figure out what the drummer is doing, players can get tablature and think they know exactly what it is, and sometimes those tablatures aren't right."
"I like to listen to music that has peaks and valleys, and emotion, you know? When it's all perfect and sterile, there's no feeling." —Dave Lombardo
Lombardo always prefers creativity over perfection. And although he likes to limit the amount of technology he employs in his recordings, he does acknowledge that certain techniques make for a more consistent sound. "I do record with a click. Except when a song requires a natural crescendo, or it builds in intensity," he explains. "A song will be at, let's say, 180 beats per minute, and by the end of the song it will climb to 190. But we do that purposefully. I used to do that before I recorded to a click, and it was accepted by Rick Rubin and Andy Wallace as being 'natural.' So we kept it—and now we use it as part of the band's style."
"The advice I should have taken is to learn the piano— because if you learn the piano, you learn all the instruments." —Dave Lombardo
As a veteran drummer who has been recording for over a quarter-century, Lombardo can attest to just how the advancements in recording technology have changed over the years and how they have influenced modern metal drummers. "I recorded on two-inch tape, and we tried as hard as we could to make it as perfect as possible. But there's a fine line of using too much," he says in a calm demeanor that belies his behind-the-kit intensity. "I like to listen to music that has peaks and valleys, and emotion, you know? And when it's all perfect and sterile, there's no feeling—I mean, I really love industrial music, and other types of music that is metronomically correct.
I think a lot of metal these days just doesn't have the feeling that the metal of yester-years had. I mean, beat correction? Beat Detective and all that—the drummer has to be pretty bad if you have to use that," he continues. "You have all that technology out there but that doesn't mean you have to use it. Challenge yourself by limiting what to use, and what not to use. That's the way I've been approaching music these days, especially with my new band."
The new band Lombardo's referring to is PHILM, a three-piece project in which Lombardo has stripped down his massive 11-piece drum set to a traditional 4-piece setup, similar to an early '60s kit. "The band is punk, but it's ambient. It's very different, a very artsy kind of music. It's almost alternative – I don't like using that word, but some Slayer fans are not gonna like it," jokes Lombardo. "I'm sorry, hey, I gave you so many Slayer records, you know? I gotta feed my satisfaction." The other two members of PHILM are bassist Pancho Tomaselli of WAR who is, according to Lombardo, "a monster of a bass player," and guitarist and singer Gerry Nestler of Civil Defiance. "That guy has some strange tones coming out of his guitar," Lombardo says. "We've had this band since '95, but with all my different projects, I've always kept it on the back burner." PHILM is signed to Ipecac Recordings (founded by Faith No More's frontman Mike Patton), and their new album is set for release on May 15.
Refusing to be categorized, Lombardo continues to look into new ways to revolutionize his sound. With such a vast reputation and an overwhelming wealth of proven natural talent, one might assume Lombardo's heavy metal roots would empower and strengthen his own view of himself. But, according to Lombardo, being labeled as 'just a metal drummer' is a constant worry. "All the time. All the time," he sighs. "I mean, I love what has put me where I'm at. Don't get me wrong, I love Slayer. But there's so much more to me, and what I can do."
Lombardo famously purchased his first drum kit at Guitar Center Hollywood in the early 1980s. Now, more than twenty-five years later, Lombardo plays a custom-made kit built by Ludwig, a company made famous by drum legends like Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker and so many more of Lombardo's personal influences. "I had left Tama and I was with this other company, and it didn't work out. I was on the fence, and everybody said, 'Oh, you can go with any company you want.' But I wanted to make it special, and something that I connect with," says Lombardo." Then Kelly Paiste asked me, 'What drummers did you look up to, and what did they play?' Basically, all those guys played Ludwig. So she goes, 'There it is. There's your answer.'" He's already been seen onstage playing a clear Vistalite kit with PHILM, and now Ludwig has built him an 8-piece version for his upcoming Slayer tour. Guitarist Kerry King was one of the first to mention to Lombardo how stunning it would be to have such a huge translucent kit. "The lighting technician is gonna have a blast," laughs Lombardo.
Like any drummer out there, gear has become an important part of Lombardo's sound. With so much experience both in the studio and on the road, he has finetuned what gear he uses in a variety of musical situations. "Cymbals have become more of a focus for me," says Lombardo. "When I record I like to bring a variety of cymbals. Live, it's a different story. Live, I just use Paiste's RUDE cymbals. They're really loud, and all they do is project volume. They're brutal." In Lombardo's studio work, he likes to color the sound of his kit a bit differently. "On the latest Slayer record I used a huge, 24" Paiste 2002 crash ride, and I rode on it, which was a lot of fun," he says. "And I've been using thinner cymbals, because when you're recording drums, sometimes the cymbals become so loud that they bleed into the toms. We wanted to be able to crank up the overheads, but if the cymbals are too loud, you don't have any room to work with."
"Live, I just use Paiste's RUDE cymbals. They're really loud, and all they do is project volume. They're brutal." —Dave Lombardo
As iconic as Lombardo's immense 11-piece Slayer kit has become, he has actually reduced the size of it a bit. One might think that as Lombardo continues along in his music career his kit would continue to expand and evolve. In fact, the opposite is true. "Since the last Slayer record, I removed two toms," says Lombardo. "The right part of the drum set is reminiscent of a 4-piece John Bonham kit—floor tom, rack tom, snare and bass drum. But then you add a second bass drum and two or three toms over here, and you add another floor tom so that the 4-piece has now expanded. But I focus on the right bass drum and the traditional 4-piece configuration in my playing. Everything else is bells and whistles." And when it comes to bass pedal selection, as far as Lombardo is concerned, when you remove a bass drum (as Lombardo does with his band PHILM), you also remove a bass pedal. "I don't like a double pedal because when the beater hits, I immediately come back with the other pedal. And that head is resonating, which creates a momentum that isn't helpful. It throws me off balance. With two bass drums, I don't get any problems. It's just a feel thing."
As Guitar Center focuses this month on Big Decisions in a musician's career, we asked Lombardo if there was any piece of advice he received that gave his musical journey that extra special something. "I'll tell you the advice that I didn't take," he laughs. "The advice I should've taken is to learn the piano—because if you learn the piano, you learn all the instruments. My parents wanted me to learn, but I told them 'no way,' I want to play the drums." For any fan that may wonder how they can achieve that signature Lombardo sound, he offers this bit of advice, "Yeah you could probably pick out a drum set that's similar to mine, but then you'd have to tune it and play it like me. What I would say to any budding drummer is 'Why not create your own sound?' You don't have to copy anybody else. Be original."