The night's long list of special guest performers included a collaboration by the legendary Steve Gadd and world-renowned percussionist Pedrito Martinez, which offered rich, traditional Cuban beats with exciting modern twists accompanied by the familiar sounds of a traditional drum kit. John Blackwell, Zigaboo Modeliste, Keith Carlock, Gerald Heyward and Darren King also took the stage, each offering his own tribute to the art of drumming.
The star-studded lineup of contest judges included many top touring and session drummers, including Brooks Wackerman (Bad Religion), Adrian Young (No Doubt), Josh Freese (The Vandals), Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp), Peter Erskine (Steely Dan), Ray Luzier (Korn), Glen Sobel (Alice Cooper), Nisan Stewart (Jamie Foxx), Tony Royster, Jr. (Jay-Z, '95 Drum-Off Champion), Jamal Moore (Cee Lo Green), and Dave Elitch (M83).
The five finalists fought their way to the finals through round after round of intense competition. Starting with a preliminary round at each of Guitar Center's over 240 stores, the finalists climbed the competition ladder, leaving thousands of skilled contestants behind. Aric Improta from Fullerton, Calif., Robert "Diamond" Johnson from Gardner, Kan., Alphonso Lovelace from Houston, and Devon Taylor from Fayetteville, Ga., each brought world-class chops, creativity and presence to the stage, but Juan Carlos Mendoza from Perth Amboy, N.J., performed the drum solo of a lifetime, and took home the crown.
"My experience was really humbling," Mendoza says. "I was honored just to be selected as a finalist, because all of the contestants are awesome players. Guitar Center's Drum-Off has blessed me not only with a new audience but with amazing gear, as well. I feel truly privileged to have been a part of it."
Like most Drum-Off Champions, Mendoza wasn't a first-time competitor. In fact, he first heard about Drum-Off in 2004, when a young drummer performing at his church told him about his dream of winning the Grand Finals.
"This 16-year-old kid was killing it," Mendoza says. "His name was Daniel Rodriguez. I spoke to him a little and he talked about this thing called Drum-Off. So I went to see my store finals in 2005, and thought, â€˜I can hang with these guys.' I entered the next year and won my store finals, only to have Daniel knock me out of the next round. He went on to win the whole thing that year."
In 2007, Mendoza reached the semi-finals-one of five regional competitions across the country-and competed against Jerome Flood, Garrison "GBeats" Brown, and Donnie Marple, who went on to win the Grand Finals that year.
"It's funny," Mendoza says. "I was advancing in the contest, but I kept getting knocked out by the guy who ended up winning the Grand Finals, so I felt like I was getting closer."
In 2008, Mendoza made it to the Drum-Off Grand Finals for the first time, where he came up against Jerome Flood for the second time. Flood had moved to Atlanta since the last competition, so the two had made the Grand Finals through two different regions. Flood won the contest that year, but Mendoza had learned an important lesson.
"In the Grand Finals, and even the semifinals, everyone has chops. The difference is the performance, grabbing the audience's attention and being memorable. The guys I had lost to weren't thinking about what they were playing, they were just having a good time, and the audience could feel that," Mendoza says.
While he entered Drum-Off in 2009 and 2010, Mendoza says he didn't take the contest seriously enough to make the Grand Finals. In 2011, he again made the semifinal round, only to lose to J.P. Bouvet, the eventual Grand Finals Champion.
In 2012, Mendoza says the game changed, as he was trying to get married and buy a house. He says he knew there was no way he'd reach his goal of raising $25,000 without winning the contest, which just happened to offer a $25,000 cash prize, plus another $25,000 in top-quality gear and sponsorship deals. His new perspective gave him a deeper focus and a fresh mental approach.
"It became about being as prepared as possible," Mendoza says. "By the time I won regionals, I wasn't practicing the mechanics of the routine; I was practicing the performance. I had started recording video of myself practicing back in August. It was humbling to think something looked and sounded good, only to watch it and see it was actually not working. I watched the video before I went to bed, and it was the first thing I thought about in the morning. It was Drum-Off every day. It became an obsession."
Leading up the Grand Finals, Mendoza says he knew he wouldn't have access to his drum kit for a couple of days prior to the event, and would have to play the drum solo cold. That was where his preparation would pay off. Mendoza's finals routine incorporated musical riffs on the Roland Octapad, a DJ scratch effect on an overturned snare, complex bell rhythms played with a kick pedal, and more.
"Using the Roland Octapad adds a whole other element to the performance. The sounds are great, but the samples are timed out. You really have to be mindful of and be on
time triggering samples, or an entire section can end up out of whack."
This year, Mendoza plans to complete his master's degree in music education and further his career in academia. He's spent the last few years as a middle school band instructor, and hopes to take his passion for helping students online.
"A lot of online educators either have one way of teaching, don't offer interactive lessons, or are great performers who don't have experience as an instructor. I want to be a great performer and a great educator at the same time," says Mendoza. "I really like how Jim Chapin was known as a great player, and was also a go-to guy for many top professionals when they hit a rut, or needed practice ideas. Great teachers can take someone at any level, inspire them, help them set goals and show them the way."
As far as touring or signing on with a big name act, Mendoza says he'd have to consider the length of the tour, and whether he'd be able to work in side gigs along the way.
"If a tour comes up, that's great, but it's not my main focus. As a musician, I get bored pretty easily, and I don't really like being tied down to one band. I want to perform festivals, but I'm really looking forward to working with manufacturers and building an online lesson program.
"I had a great drum instructor early on. Then the drum corps took it to another level. I really enjoyed that time, and saw what a great teacher could do. I want to give back, it's all about giving back to the kids," says Mendoza. "I'm never bored working as a music instructor."
For up-and-coming drummers interested in learning more about Guitar Center's Drum-Off, Mendoza suggests attending the regional round of competition to see what you're up against.
"At the regionals, those are the big boys. Everyone is so close to the finals, and everyone is prepared," Mendoza says. "Drum-Off prizes are amazing, but it takes a lot of hard work. And for those that have been trying for a while, keep trying. I almost gave up after last year. It took Eric Moore six years to win. The further you get, the more it becomes about who had the better night. Just do the best you can."
Written by Brad Porter
Photography by Ryan Hunter, Robert Knight and Briand Guzman