|One of the most recorded drummers in history, John "JR" Robinson began his career with Rufus and Chaka Khan in 1978 and has since worked with top artists such as Steve Winwood, Michael Jackson, Peter Frampton, Quincy Jones and Barbara Streisand. Guitar Center recently caught up with JR to talk about drums, his studio and his advice for aspiring young drummers.
GC: So John what are you doing now? What are the latest projects you're working on?
JR: I was recently a judge for the University of Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival. That was my first year doing that and I was honored to be in the presence of other great jazz musicians.
I was in Miami doing the next Tobey Keith record on Dreamworks, produced by James Stroud. I did the last Tobey Keith record and I think he had four number-one hits on that record! The guy is just cruising right now. The new record we did is very musical and I think it appeals to a much greater audience than just a country-based record. It's enjoyable. I keep a drum set down in Nashville for that very reason.
We have put together Rufus and Chaka Khan again after 18 years and we're about to embark on a new record deal on Dreamworks. It's been 18 years since we've done that, since we had the hit with, "Ain't Nobody," which was a Grammy winning song for best band. I'm excited about that because it's been so long and there's this whole new audience that's addicted to buying CDs and new music. They're going to consider this sound as new music instead of old-school music.
GC: Do you think it might be a project where maybe parents and their kids can finally connect and actually listen to the same music and not fight over it?
JR: Let's certainly hope so. The interesting thing about this is, it's not going to be some pencil-pushing nerd in the room with Pro Tools editing us to make us sound really good. We're going to be able to go in there like the Stones and like Aerosmith and play. Imagine that, being able to play as a band on a CD! It encompasses rock and roll, R&B. It's the kind of music I think is everlasting instead of just the flavor of the month. I think it will be a connection record.
GC: Why do you choose to play Yamaha drums?
JR: It's interesting. It's 2002 now and I still choose to play Yamaha drums. I first started playing Yamaha in 1981 and I was influenced by the sound of them in the old days of cats that were playing on Yamaha: Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason. I always wanted to be in that same family of sound and quality as those two guys. We went over to Japan in 1981 with the Quincy Jones Band and that's when I first signed my contract with Yamaha. I play Yamaha drums because first of all, it's a family. You're not with some corporation company where you're just a number. It's very personalized. The quality of the drums is by far superior to any other drum I've seen. I've been to the factory twice. I've seen how the shells are made. I've made my own shells, which I totally messed up the first time. The shells, the plies are set in at angles instead of straight up and down seams. It's flawless and seamless and it causes the sound to suck in. The bass drums are the foundation of my particular style and Yamaha's bass drums always sang to me. You know, similar to the old days with Gretsch drums. But to me a little more musical, a little more well rounded for different styles of music--if it's anything from an 18" to even a 26" and I have all those bass drums from Yamaha. I use a 24"x16" birch and I would challenge anybody to have a bass drum sound that's better than mine with that bass drum. So that's one reason. Another reason is obviously the snare drum library that Yamaha has is very full and a huge variety for any kind of drummer that wants a particular sound or a snare drum that has full capabilities. Yamaha makes those. I love Yamaha's hardware. I've seen other companies and played other companies' hardware. And I've been on the road and with roadies throwing the crap in the case at the end of the night. The next city, everything's up and not moving--no slippage! So I'm happy with that. It's just the best company.
GC: I notice you use pretty big drums and today the trend has kind of gone towards smaller drums. Can you talk a little bit about why you choose the drum sizes that you're playing now?
JR: You know I've always had a physical connection with that. I'm 6'4" and I choose a drum set that I think is rounded for my size and stature as a drummer and my physical capabilities. I've always liked the sound of a 24" bass drum. I mean there were days when I was using a 26" and a 24" at the same time, but I think it was a little too much. And I use a 12" tom, 14" rack tom, 16"x16" and 18"x16" floor tom. And the rack toms are 10"x 8" and 14"x10". I don't like really deep rack toms because the bass drum size is very hard to sit up real high and play it that way. I always liked building a track or playing live and equating that to a carpenter. So you're building your house from the bottom up. If you were building a foundation, I would rather build it from a fat perspective so that house is not going to fall over. However, I also use a Bebop kit from Yamaha with an 18, 10, 12, and a 14 on certain aspects.
GC: Do you take one approach to choosing cymbals and drums for recording and a different one for live applications?
JR: Let me put it this way, I have a generic concept that works I would say 98% of the time for what I'm doing in the studio or live. I use my new set from Yamaha and my Zildjian cymbals and my new Remo heads and I take the exact same concept from the studio to live, and it works perfectly. In detail, if we want to discuss that, I'd say it's the same drum set sizes. The cymbal selection, the only time I would ever change from a generic cymbal set is going from K Constantinople to 22" medium to a 22" heavy K ride. I like the heavy K ride because then I have the capability of serious definitive ping in a 20,000-seat auditorium or arena with still some K qualities and a nice clear bell. Whereas sometimes on the Jazz ride you don't get that in a live setting or a big setting. I still use the same 15" Quick Beat hi-hats, which are discontinued. And I still use large cymbals. On my left is a 20" A thin, in the middle is a 16" A thin, and on the far right is an 18" A thin. I start with those three, matched. Then what I do is I compliment it with K's, so on my far left is a 15" dark K, on my far right, up high, is a 20" dark K, and then underneath the ride I have a 22" swish knocker. I also have 5 or 6 vintage 1940 swishes. That cymbal, by the way, is priceless and the quality of that 1940 cymbal is irreplaceable. And then I've got a china trash up on the right. In the studio, I would not necessarily have all that peripheral stuff, just most of it. Let's say I'm doing a big ballad or a heavy ballad, I'd use thicker stuff and the bigger stuff. If I'm recording with Chris Bodey, for example, I may downsize everything. What I'll do is go from 15" down to 13" K's or some sort of K combination. They have several KZ combinations or K combinations. I'll go to a flat jazz ride or I'll go to a K Constantinople or I'll switch the 20" crash on my left to an 18." I'll paint the picture for the song basically.
GC: Of the recent additions you've made to your drum set, what's your favorite?
JR: My kit is fat and big, like Bonhams, especially with the new snare drum adding to the sound of the bass drum--it's now equated to the sound of my bass drum. I used to toy around with a couple of bass drums and I am a terrible double bass drum player. I can do things other guys can do, but I stay within my own frame and style. I added a 20" Yamaha birch bass drum with no muffling, Bebop sound. I have it cranked and I have the May mic'ing system with Shure Beta 52's in both. There's no hole in the bass drum so you can't mic it from the outside. I've added that to the left, and above that I added another Yamaha tripod. I brought in a 10" maple snare drum. It's just "Bap!" It can slice your neck off. I've added that. My kit's a little wide so we had to have a special cable made that goes across and I have a remote hi-hat to the left of the switch, on my right, below the ride and it just barely fits in there. Instead of hi-hats, I think I used a K heavy bottom and I used a 15" china cymbal on the top, so it creates this open sound. What I'll do then is use an access pedal for my main pedal and then I have a Yamaha reversed double pedal--a left footed pedal. I can actually play the bass drum left footed and then I take my right foot off and just move it over to the right extended pedal. I can come over to the small snare drum and I can play all these hip hop grooves way up in pitch. I've added that and it's like a kid in the candy store. There's other stuff we've always wanted to do and sometimes you can't do them because the nature of the music or the producer you're working for. This is my band and I can do whatever the hell I want, so this is what I'm doing.
GC: Say I have a really basic drum set and I'm ready to start adding on, what in your opinion would be the first thing to do to?
JR: Well let's assume a basic set today would be a 22" bass drum, a 10" and a 12" tom, a 14" floor or a 16" floor, a ride, crash, and a hi-hat. I remember when I first started expanding and I would go to a second floor tom. Sometimes that creates another number in your system and so you start to work on different patterns because of that. However, you're going to find that you don't use the lowest floor tom that much anyway. My buddy would use it as a towel holder. Expanding with drums for example, a lot of us now are using two snare drums live because of tuning time. If you're in a live situation, you don't really have enough time to tune your A snare drum up or down per song. So an alternative snare drum is good.
GC: So the little 10" and 12" side snares that seem to be popular today make a lot of sense?
JR: If you do have a situation where you are able to plug in more mic inputs or electronic inputs it's easy to implement electronic pads, a sampler or some sort of triggering unit in and around your drum set with today's stuff. You need a situation where you have enough time to make sure your balances are correct and you're going to have to be able to hear yourself because the transition between acoustic and electronic is night and day. I always expand not with a lot of drums. When I joined Rufus, I was using 7 toms, playing like Billy Cobham and then I realized that this is not for the best interest of the band so I simplified. It depends what your concept is. I sometimes learn different tuning techniques or sizes and expand via cymbals.
GC: Do you use cowbells and mountable tambourines and small hand percussion?
JR: I don't. I can see adding small timbales or any kind of ethnic timbre range to add to your pitch because your drum set is an instrument like a piano. You have a tuning range that you can add to. Some guys use multiple splash trees and different things. It depends on what's right for the gig.
GC: The new signature nail drum, it's pretty unique. What characteristics does that drum have as far as the combination of the nails and the birch shell? What does that do for you?
JR: Well obviously I'm sure a lot of you drummers have played on Yamaha's wood snare drums and other companies' wood snare drum, you know either birch or maple or whatever. We make a birch and we make an oak. I've always preferred the birch sound in general through all the years I've been with Yamaha. Yamaha's birch wood is by far superior to any other company's birch because it comes from kind of an endangered area. The trees are very special. The way the weather temperature is on this particular birch wood is superior to any other company's wood. So the concept came up of adding 2" to 2mm copper nails into the drum. I AB'd 2 kinds of metal nails and I AB'd brass, also. On my prototypes I would turn the snares off, tune the snare drum the exact same depth and play with my hand and hit it. And at 120 BPMs I can get the snare drum with the copper nails to sustain two full bars. Now if I hit the one with the brass nails, it would only sustain six beats, so I choose to stay with copper. The other reason why I choose copper was because Yamaha makes a copper snare drum, 14 x 5 1/2, I believe. And I'll tell you, that snare drum is almost as good as mine. I'm prejudice here but it's a very good snare drum. I always liked the way copper sounded. So we implemented that. Take the rim off and look at the bearing edge, it is unbelievable how it's made and sanded. And the concept of the nails is that the drum becomes a hybrid. I'm sure there are times when all of us can relate to a live or studio situation where you're playing on your snare drum and it sounds really good but, it's a little boxy or it's too much crack and no body. This drum has the best of both worlds. It's got the warmth of a wood drum, the seven-ply birch. It has the warmth of a wood drum with the attack of a metal snare. So Remo makes a special head for it where it comes clear 3/4" so you can actually see the nails in the shell. And that's really good. I'm extremely happy with the outcome of the snare drum.
||GC: That snare drum comes with zinc diecast hoops. Why is it that you prefer the diecast over the triple flanged hoops?
JR: I think that when I play my cross stick or side stick depending on what you call it, it's very durable. The cross stick sound is brighter and with fuller body than the other and I just like it better. Plus mine are all smoked chrome instead of just chrome in the finish and my lugs are also smoked chrome, which is not cheap. But what it does is it has the appearance of an old drum right from the get-go.
GC: Is this drum best suited for any particular style of music?
JR: One day I'll do the Olympic Nike commercial and the next day I'll be with Barbara Streisand and a 65 to a100 piece orchestra. The next day I'll be doing Tobey Keith. The next day I'm doing Rufus and Chaka Khan. Then the next day I'm doing some sort of funk tune and the next day I'm doing a jazz tune. So I try to do everything, any kind of style.
GC: So it's versatility. Maybe your snare drum would make a logical addition to a drum kit for anybody who is looking for versatility and looking for a great drum?
JR: I totally agree with that statement. For years I have been collecting snares. I have Ludwig Black Beauties and nickel-plated brass Ludwigs and all sorts of drums. We all know how those old Ludwig drums sound. My 15" drum is patterned after a 15 Black Beauty, but it's a little more nostalgic in a sense from sonics. I think if a drummer were to buy a second snare drum or a third, he'd be playing this one more than the original ones he was playing.
GC: I know you've got a nice little studio set up in the back of the house. Can you talk a little bit about the gear you have in there?
JR: I've always been heavy home studio since the old portastudio days. I've got a Mackie D8B digital console. I have another Mackie 32, which I run all my synths through. I've got a full range of synthesizers, from Yamaha synths to Akai and E-mu samplers. Obviously the studio runs by the Macintosh. I'm about to get a new dual 1GHz Power Mac G4. It's the Ferrari of computers and it's just unbelievable. And I use digital performer-- I've always used digital performer. I also have ADAT and I am going to get Pro Tools because I've done over a hundred records out of this house and people have different formats they send. It seems to me that Pro Tools is the standard.
Of course I'm playing Yamaha synthesizers--I've got an S80 and a Motif 8. I've got the Yamaha DTXtreme set so I can do drums a number of ways. When you write music you obviously put a loop up, which seems to be what everyone does today. Or I can play however I want to, which works out very well. And then I have a partition and it goes into the drum room. I have a full clone of my A studio kit. I've also got a Bebop kit that I can swing mics on.
GC: You've got a pretty long history using electronics. You seem to be one of the early pioneers with electronic percussion. Where do you see electronic percussion going as far as its importance to a drummer?
JR: I think it's going to go a lot further. I also want to put this point in to preface this: as drummers we have to remain loyal to acoustic drums. I think that's our number one priority because if we don't, there is going to be a time when there may not be acoustic drums. I hate to think as a Star Trek analyst here but it could go that way especially with the techniques and breakthroughs that these companies are coming up with, with electronic drums. I foresee it becoming extremely advanced slowly with drummers having huge responsibility, even more than they have now. I think the advances in electronics with new sampling rates, with computer based information and being able to off load and different triggering capabilities, new technology with triggering, like the Yamahas will be coming out with a new kit very shortly within the year 2002. It's going to replace the DTXtreme and we all look forward to that.
GC: Would it be safe to say that it is advantageous for a young drummer coming up today to get a good grasp of electronics, how to use them and how to apply them?
JR: Yes, but a young drummer generally doesn't have two times the drum set costs in his pocket. I still would recommend a young drummer to buy an acoustic drum set and then branch into electronics. I think another issue of this is it would be really good to see some of the schools invest in not just acoustic but electronic instruments, I think that would be a good idea.
GC: So with your busy touring and recording schedule, do you still have time to practice?
JR: I don't practice as frequently as I use to, but I do practice before I go do something. I always just stay in mental shape and make sure the chops are normal. The advantage of being in my position is that I get to play a few times a week in a full capacity, so generally the chops are always in tune. Touring up for Rufus and Chaka Khan on a road tour, I practiced a lot and making sure everything is in sync that way.
GC: What are your thoughts on the importance of reading especially to aspiring young drummers just starting out?
JR: It's absolutely imperative! I get that question asked of me every time I'm out. Not because I'm a great reader, but I've been reading since I was five on piano. However, my piano reading is not that good now, but I correlated that switch to drumming. Knowing how to interpret a chart musically or reading drum notes or reading a master rhythm chart is absolutely imperative. To work in today's industry you have to read.
GC: Are there any books that you would recommend to someone to start off with if you were going to start learning?
JR: All I can do is give you the bibles such as, Ted Reed's "Modern Steps to Syncopation." The nice thing about that is it has recognizable patterns written correctly that are applicable for chart reading. It looks like reading a chart and you can apply these exercises and add your own exercises to this. Obviously, for the mathematic boys, stick control, and that also has pattern recognition. I think that's what you want to look for when you can go clone somebody's idea. My teacher when I was young was Ed Soph and Ed's got some books and I always liked that concept of musical drumming. So I'm not going to recommend anything more than that.
GC: What kind of advice can you give a young drummer that might be trying to model their career after yours? Is there a secret to your success?
JR: I don't think there's a secret. You've got to be diligent and you have to want it. Actually, it has to be in you and I think that is something that is sometimes is hard to tell parents' of young aspiring musicians. If it's not in the kid, then it's going to be hard to keep paying for the lessons. If the kid doesn't want to do it, then it's not going to happen. If you see a promising thing in a twelve year old, the kid wants to play drums or guitar or piano or bass or violin, you encourage that so you always build a kid up. It's important to expose the child to different avenues of music. I was fortunate enough to go to different band camps and play in different situations and I was put out there. To see competition without it being a bad thing is seeing who the players are that are your age and what they're doing and say, "Wow, look at how they've developed."
GC: What things could they do to help further themselves along?
JR: As a drummer you have to create solid time. Basically, what you are is a time keeper. There are different kinds of drummers out there and if you want to pattern after me, you need to be a great reader. You need to specialize in time concepts. Time is the most important aspect of a drummer. Then comes style, personality, the sound and those kinds of things, but the time is incredibly important. If you're the kind of drummer that's always pushing on top, then generally, you're not going to be able to play in the studio. If you drag and lay back, you're also not going to be able to play in the studio. But, if you have the concept of being able to control time either way on either side of the straight edge, you'll be able to do that. You need to stay straight. You can't mess up. It's disciplined like a pro athlete should be considered. You need to be as versatile as possible. I always analyze myself as I've got ten fingers and each finger represents a different avenue I can go. If I want to be a metal drummer tomorrow, by damn I'm going to be good at it and I can do it. I don't choose to do it, but I can do it. If I'm going to play polkas one day, I can do that. You need to be as versatile as possible and consider that the career is not a five-year career. I've been in LA for 24 years and I've been on top for 23 of those 24 years. It's important to maintain a long career without letting stuff go to your head. It's not making 4 million dollars in 4 years, it's how much you can create and contribute to the music world in 50 years.
GC: Have you or do you shop at Guitar Center? And how do you like your Guitar Center experience?
JR: Hey I've been shopping at Guitar Center since it opened! When Guitar Center first opened I was shopping there. And I've done many clinics for Guitar Center. I've been connected with Guitar Center indirectly for a long time and I've always liked the stores. I wish there was one in Thousand Oaks, but I know it's too close to Oxnard. In other stores, I've seen guys that just don't know s--t. They hire people with absolutely no musical background! When I walk into Guitar Center, no matter what department you go into, there are guys in there that are players and professional musicians and people that are knowledgeable about what they're dealing with. I'm a keyboard guy. I love keyboards. When I go to Guitar Center it's always a little bit about helping myself grow as a musician. So I can go tap those guys and get the best out of them to help me.
GC: Every time your name comes up in conversation amongst drummers, your work on Steve Winwood's, "Back in the Highlife" comes up. The little timbalist thing you did on the snare drum in "Higher Love," turned out to be the hook of the tune, which is kind of a rare occurrence. Can you talk about how that developed?
JR: I was in New York doing a George Benson record with Tommy Lipuma producer. Russ Titleman called the producer for Steve Winwood and found out what hotel I was in. I was already done working with George. And he called me up in my hotel room and asked if I wanted to go over there and listen to some Steve Winwood tunes. So I got in the cab and went to the studio, mind you the drums are still with Benson in the other studio. I'm listening and they're playing me some really hit shit and one tune I hear is "Higher Love." I heard the track and raised my hand and said, "I have to play on this tune." Russ asked, "When can you bring your drums?" I said, "I can bring them tomorrow." So I had them moved from one studio to the other and started with that. The first thing I did was lay kick, snare, and hat down, so the basic groove was down. Steve had ideas about having the bass drum go with the bass. I was basically overdubbing over a computer in those days. Then Russ goes, "We might as well put the toms and cymbals on." We had pieced things together before in those days, but at least I got the hi-hat in on the piecing this time. So I got to play the drums full. I overdubbed the tom parts and the cymbal crashes and 2 hours had gone by. They're in the control room and I'm up in the tracking room by myself and I'm just kind of d--king around. I turned the two snares off and I start playing and all of sudden the talk comes back down and Steve Winwood says, "John play that. Do that. Do that from the top. I'm hearing it." So I played it from top to bottom in certain sections and it worked! What they ended up doing was taking a section of that and moving it back to the front. That's why when you hear it 18 or 20 seconds before the song comes in, there's a bar of 4/4 and a bar of 5/8 I think. There's a digital edit where they cut it that sounds unique to the situation. That's basically how it happened and the concept of that was I like being able to create things musically and making a statement on a record.