Neil Peart: The Heart and Soul of a Drumset, Chapter 1

Chapter 1Among the many advantages of living in Southern California, despite wildfires, mudslides, and earthquakes, is being so close to Drum Workshop’s headquarters. The factory itself is a drummer’s paradise, of course — nothing but drums, here, there, and everywhere, and nobody but drummers and drummakers. But the journey is good, too, up the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu and the wilder regions of the Santa Monica Mountains into Ventura County.

Even on a day like yesterday, with January rains and gusty winds pushing me and my bike around the road, there was still the ocean and the mountains. And at the end, there were all those drums, and some friendly drum-makers to take me out for lunch.

While we ate, we talked about how I might share with other drummers my enthusiasm for DW’s recent innovations, all of which have been so valuable to me in the business of music-making.

For myself, I told the DW guys that I thought it would be easy for me to talk about those new products — the 23-inch bass drum, the VLT snare drum, and the X shells — because each of them has such a story behind it. Plus, in a small way, I felt part of those stories.

Leaning back from the table, I spread my hands like an old-time comedian, “You couldn’t make this stuff up!”

The story begins in 1974, on Rush’s first American tour. Back then we were an unknown opening act from some northern wasteland called Canada, and we played anywhere that would have us — clubs, colleges, theaters, arenas, puppet shows, and kite-flying contests.

Many promoters in those days threw together a whole bunch of bands on what they called “multiple-act shows,” with three, four, even five other bands. When we drove our camper-van up to some Midwestern arena, the backstage area would be a chaos of road cases and equipment. The bands above us on the bill were sometimes competitive, insecure, ill-tempered, drug-addled, or all of the above, (and likewise their road crews), so the lowly opener couldn’t expect too much.

First, the headlining band would set up and do their soundcheck, then the “special guest” (second on the bill) in front of them, and so on — until somebody ran out of time and the doors were opened. Very often our two-man crew would be setting up our amps and drums on the edge of the stage, in front of all the other amp-lines, while the seats filled.

So for us in those days, soundchecks were rare, deli trays were meager, and our set was brief — twenty-five or thirty minutes. One time our set was actually cut to just two songs, at the old Stanley Warner Theater in Pittsburgh. A multi-act show was running late, so naturally the first band’s set would be cut. I guess we were lucky to play at all (true enough, in every sense).

One good thing about being the opener on those shows was that once our brief set was done, I could stand backstage, or go out into the house, unknown and unnoticed, and watch the other bands. I paid a lot of attention to the drummers (of course), and to how their drums sounded from the audience. In all different kinds of venues, from bars to arenas, and through widely varying sound equipment, I listened to snare drums, bass drums, toms, and cymbals.

Back then I was impressed by the sound of 24-inch bass drums, as they seemed especially powerful out front (for once the indignity of the term “kick” would be appropriate). However, when I tried playing a 24-inch myself, it didn’t work for me — it felt a little too loose and “floppy.” For playability and my preferred response and dynamics, I stayed with the versatility of a 22-inch bass drum for the next . . . thirty-three years. And now our story flashes forward those thirty-three years, to 2007.

During a visit to the DW factory early that year, I was telling the above story to John Good, DW’s maestro of instrument design (the Wood Whisperer), telling him how “in the olden days” I had liked the sound of a 24-inch bass drum, but not the way it played.

Without dropping a beat, John turned to me and said, “What about a twenty-three?”

I could only laugh, “What about it?”

Everybody knows there is no such thing as a 23-inch bass drum.

But at that moment, all at once a 23-inch bass drum did exist — in John Good’s imagination.

He set out to make it real, but the challenge of that enterprise was sizeable — starting with the simple fact that if there had never been a 23-inch bass drum, it follows that there had never been a 23-inch bass drum head.

Not one to be discouraged by that minor detail, John contacted the various drum-head manufacturers. Right away Remo stepped up to the plate, and offered to make a few prototypes, by hand. John went on to design a shell that would express his latest theories growing out of the Vertical Low Timbre philosophy — a further refinement that would eventually become the “X” series.

Once I got my hands — or my foot — on that 23-inch bass drum, I was sold. As John had suspected, it retains all the response and dynamics of the 22-inch, but adds the punch and bottom-end of a 24-inch. For me, the bass drum is the heart of the drumset, and this heart, like a good drummer, is both strong and sensitive.

Like all of us . . .

to be continued.

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