Hal Blaine is a legend. As the top
Los Angeles studio drummer in the 1960s and early 1970s, he played on more than
8,000 different tracks for hundreds and hundreds of different musicians. His
list of hits is staggering, and it's almost impossible to listen to an oldies
radio station for more than 10 minutes without hearing a Hal Blaine song.
In March 2000, Hal was one of the
first five "sidemen" inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
(One of the other inductees was Hal's long-time friend and rival, Earl Palmer.)
While officially "retired," Hal continues to play an occasional live
date with pianist Sam Ocampo, and he has recently played on albums by Mark
Wilson (www.goldenbullet.com) and
Lorin Hart (home.earthlink.net/~lorinhart/).
Interestingly, Hal's accomplishments
extend beyond drumming. He wrote the book Hal
Blaine and the Wrecking Crew, which chronicles his career and the golden era
of studio playing; you can find it at your local bookstore or online at
Amazon.com. Hal is also a bit of a comedian ("What do you call a guy who
hangs around with musicians? A drummer."), and he recorded the comedy album
Buh-Doom!, which is available at
1-800-221-DISC (1-800-221-3472) or online through Amazon.com or
What Makes a Drummer Great
I have to admit, I'm an unabashed fan
of Hal Blaine. To my regret, I was too young (and too self-involved) to be aware
of Hal during his heyday, but I have come to appreciate him greatly in the years
since. (Wisdom and maturity come with age, apparently--something else I've only
What is so great about Hal Blaine?
First, you have sheer quantity. Name any 10 hit singles from the early 1960s
through the mid-1970s, and chances are that Blaine played on three or four of
them. When Dick Clark featured Hal on his Rock,
Roll, and Remember radio program, he essentially played his normal song list--because
when you play a list of Hal's records, you're playing the top hits of the era.
The second great thing about Hal
Blaine is the variety of styles he had to play--and master. How many drummers do
you know who could play for both Frank Sinatra and the Mamas and the Papas--and
play the right kind of drums for each? When you read the list of artists Hal
played for, and then consider how different these artists sounded, you really
appreciate his versatility.
Beyond this versatility is Hal's
creativity, his ability to play just the right part for whatever song he was
playing on. Sometimes that meant playing full-out, as on the Fifth Dimension's
"Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine." Sometimes that meant playing a Buddy
Holly-like tom-tom riff, as on Tommy Roe's "Dizzy." Sometimes that
meant playing nothing but bass drum and snare drum, as on the Ronettes' "Be
My Baby." Sometimes it meant playing something other
than drums, as on the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows."
(By the way, in spite of the huge
Octaplus tom setup he used in later years, Hal was a master of not
playing cymbals or toms, if that was what the song called for. Just listen to
the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds; I don't
think there's a single cymbal or hi-hat struck through the whole album.)
The point is, Hal played what was
right for the song--and then put his own mark on it. You can always tell when
you're listening to a Hal Blaine drum part, no matter what style it's in. Even
though Hal's part on the Grass Root's "Midnight Confessions" is
completely different from his part on Sonny and Cher's "I Got You
Babe," you still know that it's Hal Blaine on drums. He played for the
song, but was still Hal Blaine; his personality always came through.
Not that there aren't typical
"Hal Blaine moments." Back when he was cutting records with Phil
Spector, Hal typically played just bass drum and snare (sometimes snare and
large tom hit together) throughout most of the song, with no cymbals or hi-hats,
just to cut through Spector's heavily produced "wall of sound." When
the end of the song came, however--what musicians call the "out
chorus"--Hal would cut loose like a man possessed, with thundering rolls
around the toms and all sorts of amazing licks while the song was fading out.
When you listen to these records, listen closely for Hal's trademark lick, a
quarter-note triplet played on two toms simultaneously. You'll hear this lick on
numerous songs (the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron" and the Ronettes'
"Be My Baby" are good examples), and it's vintage Hal. (Max
Weinberg once wrote about how he would occasionally throw that lick into one
or another of Bruce Springsteen's songs; every time he played the lick, Bruce
would yell out "Hal Blaine!" in joyful recognition.)
I can point out many other examples
of prime Hal. Towards the end of Simon and Garfunkel's majestic "Bridge
Over Troubled Water," Hal played emphasized the backbeat with tire chains--just
one of many times when he knew that something different was called for. Any of
the classic Phil Spector "wall of sound" recordings also show off Hal
at his best; to get it all in one blast, spring for the Back
to Mono box set, which includes the legendary A Christmas Gift for You album, which may be Hal's best recorded
work. Finally, to get a taste for how Hal's drum parts developed in the studio,
check out the boxed set of the Beach Boys' Pet
Sounds album; the four CDs in this set include lots of live in the studio
takes and in-between-take recordings, providing a rare look at a masterpiece in
If you want to listen to more of the
"best of Blaine," I recommend you check out his tasteful fills on any
of the Carpenters' hit singles, especially "Close to You"; his dynamic
big band-like backup on Petula Clarks' "My Love"; his solid grooves on
a plethora of Fifth Dimension tunes, particularly "Up, Up, and Away"
and "Wedding Bell Blues"; his incredible versatility navigating
different styles and tempos on Richard Harris' "MacArthur
Park"; and his driving snare drum on the Mamas and the Papas'
"California Dreamin'" and "Monday Monday."
Hal Blaine--along with Earl
Chester, Benny Benjamin,
Roger Hawkins, Al Jackson Jr., Bobby Graham, and other studio contemporaries--truly created the
drum sound of a generation. Hal did it with flair, with humor, with impeccable
technique, and with his own unique style. That's why I'm a Hal Blaine fan--and
why I always turn up the radio when
one of his songs is playing.
The Hal Blaine Interview
As I was writing this book, I had the
good fortune to talk to Hal Blaine about his career, his opinions on today's
music industry, and his advice for beginning drummers. I found him
charming and extremely entertaining, full of great stories and great advice; any
drummer can learn something from this master.
Miller (MM): I want to start out by congratulating you on your induction
into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Blaine (HB): That was fun.
It's good to see you and Earl Palmer and the studio guys finally getting
I know, I know, and they cut it all out of the TV thing, which is really a pity.
Earl was just livid. Personally, I couldn't care less. It was 20 years ago,
great. Seriously, who in the hell cares? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you
know, it's nice, and that's fine, and goodbye.
The one that I was very interested in
was Bill Gates' former partner, Paul Allen. He put this museum together in
Seattle, called the Experience Music Project. They came down here with a film
crew and filmed me. They're going to have film running for as long as the museum
is open each day--people like myself, different artists, different musicians,
talking about music. The crew that came in here blew me away! They were the guys
that just got the Oscar for Titanic!
Well, Paul Allen can afford to hire the best. (laughs)
Evidently! I didn't realize that he's a guitar player. Plain and simple. A very wealthy
guitar player. (laughs)
A big Jimi Hendrix fan, I hear.
Yeah, well it was originally going to be called the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but
then it became the Experience Music Project. They're supposedly doing a
Hal, one thing that every beginning drummer is fascinated by is how other guys
got started. How did you get started
playing the drums?
Well, I had a couple of relatives who were drummers: a female, who was with an
all-female orchestra, and a cousin, Bill, who was a drummer in some little band,
and a brother-in-law who was a great trumpet player. So I was kind of around
music growing up.
When I was a kid, my dad used to take
me to work every Saturday at the State Theater in Hartford, Connecticut, and I would watch absolutely every band, every singer, every dance act--absolutely
everything. And I got hooked on drums, being a showoff. You know, drummers are
showoffs, and they get all the toys to play and hit. A guitar player has one
guitar and a piano player has one piano, but a drummer has all this stuff to
play. We're built-in showoffs, and I guess we need attention. That's how it
works. My sister bought me my first little set of drums, and you start bangin'
How old were you when you got your first set?
Oh, I was about 11 or 12. I used to set them up on the front porch; we lived on
the second floor. After school, with the kids coming home from school, I'd be up
there banging my drums, getting the attention.
When you were first starting off, were you taking lessons?
No, I was the only Jewish kid in an all-Catholic drum and bugle corps, which was
kind of a funny thing. The priest used to see me peeking through the bars,
watching the guys play and march and everything. Finally, he came over to talk
to me one time, and I told him I was a drummer. I wasn't a real drummer, but I
was a drummer. So he invited me in, and I got to play march music with the guys
and march with the guys. It was really a lot of fun.
You know, one thing leads to another
that way. Eventually we moved to California, and I was in high school, and I got
in some little bands. I had my own little band and played around San Bernadino
and up in the mountains of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake. You know, we used
to play a job for $5 and a free chicken dinner. For real.
That's kind of the way it starts. I
went through the service, played USO shows, played Army bands, got out of the
service, came home from Korea. I met some nice people in San Bernadino who
wanted my band in this new nightclub that was opening up.
One of the top disc jockeys, Bill
Bellman (he was known as Bill the Bellman), asked me if I could come into the
radio station sometime. They had a studio, and he was a songwriter. He wanted to
do demos, and he just happened to be a friend of mine. I'd go into the studio
with him and several other San Bernadino musicians, great musicians. All black,
by the way--most of my early days were playing with black musicians, it was just
one of those things that happened. Anyway, we got to do all these demos with
Bill the Bellman, which led to eventually being in Hollywood and doing demos for
all the big songwriters, which led to, "These guys that did the demos, we
better get them for the record."
So I'd had a certain amount of studio
time behind me and studio experience when I really got my first big break and
started working with Tommy Sands, who was a teenage idol in those days, and Sam
Cooke. Sam Cooke was a major, major artist, and of course that led to Phil
Spector, and the rest is history.
If somebody were aiming for studio playing today, how would they go about it?
First of all, studios are not like they used to be. Every kid has a garage
studio today. They make their own demos. They have their own computer that plays
their own drums and their own horns and their own violins and everything. The
synthesizers that do all of that, the sampling that has been done through the
years--there used to be companies advertising that they had me sampled, and
Shelly Manne sampled, and various drummers, various other artists. You could buy
those samples, and you could have me playing an entire track to no music--you
write your own music to it, that type of thing.
So today it's a different thing.
Today, if you go in live--well, there's not a lot of live recording going on
anymore, like we used to do with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and those kind of
people that sang live. With the Beach Boys, we did live instrumental tracks, but
they would go in and do their voices later. The same with Jan and Dean, and the
Monkees, and the Partridge Family, and all those groups. I mean, I can't tell
you how many television pilots I did, from The
Brady Bunch and on and on and on. We did everybody, because we were the new
kids in town that knew what the words "rock and roll" meant.
And it was just crude, it was just a
backbeat. There was nothing to rock and roll; it was nothing--but to the old
established guys it was a dirty word. Rock and roll was just "dirty black
music, and we're not gonna play that." So when rock and roll started to
infiltrate the television shows, the movies, the commercials, and records, of
course, whenever they were gonna do something, they said, "Call those rock
and roll guys." Well, that was us. That was the Wrecking Crew.
The reason they called us the
Wrecking Crew--that was a phrase really that I kind of coined. Because we were
working with a lot of these old established musicians who'd been in the studios
for 30 years, and they used to look at us; here we were in Levis and T-shirts,
and smoking cigarettes--no drugs--and these guys would look at us, in their
three-piece suits, and they'd say, "These kids are gonna wreck the
business." So we became the Wrecking Crew, and it got so that producers
would call my secretary, and say, "We need that Wrecking Crew for so and
so," and she'd just book the dates. I mean, we were booked three months,
four months in advance, sometimes.
And you'd be playing, what, three dates a day?
Probably a minimum of three dates a day, sometimes four, up to seven.
Pretty much the same cats playing?
It was me and a nucleus of rhythm players, you know, bass players and guitar
players. Later they would bring in their own strings, their own horns, that kind
of stuff--if they were gonna do that.
I'd do rock and roll records in the
beginning. You can listen to Sam Cooke, "Another Saturday Night"--I
think it was H.P. Barnum who was the arranger. Those were the kind of records
that we were doing that the old established guys were saying, "That music
is terrible, it's filthy, it's awful, it's not music." They had no idea--and
within a year they were begging us to work with them. After all, I became the
big contractor, and a lot of us became leaders, and these guys had their noses
up our asses. At the beginning they hated us and then all of a sudden they loved
us because we had work.
When I was a kid, I remember reading an article in Life
or Look or one of those magazines
about a drummer--later on I realized it was you--that everybody wanted the Hal
Blaine sound to make a hit record, and if they couldn't book you, they'd book
It wasn't that they couldn't get me, but if somebody was doing a date with their
own group and they wanted my sound, they would ask if they could rent one of my
sets for their drummer. I had about a dozen sets of drums then. I had a guy that
took care of my drums exclusively, and he still is--this is his 36th or 37th
year with me, taking care of my drums. And he would, you know, deliver the drums
and set them up for whoever and then pick them up after the session.
The rental was putting me on the
contract, which today, of course, has managed to give me my pension from the
union. Because every job that we did, it was an employer's pension, and I did so
much work, obviously, in those days, and built up that pension.
What kind of set were you playing back then?
I had a little four-piece set. I started out with Ludwig, then I had some
Rogers, then I went with Pearl.
In the early 1960s, I designed a set
that completely changed the drum world. We went from a little three-, four-piece
set of drums; I built a set of drums with an octave of tom-toms so that I could
make those long filling rolls rather than just one or two or three tom-toms.
Who made that set for you--was that Ludwig?
No, no, no. I stupidly gave it to them. I was a Ludwig drummer, and they were
thrilled. I introduced that set--my set of drums--on an Ed Sullivan special, and
every drum company in the world within three months was putting out that set of
drums. Like a fool, I never patented anything; I didn't get a design patent or
an actual patent. When I do clinics today, one of the first things I do is talk
about that if you come up with any design or anything, you get yourself a design
patent, which is the easiest thing in the world--costs you nothing.
There's a little item out there
called the ching-a-ring. Well, I made a ching-a-ring out of a tambourine,
probably 1959. I was using that on my hi-hat--I still have the original
tambourines here that I was using. I should have put a design patent out on 'em,
and before you know it, companies are making ching-a-rings.
I'm amazed, listening to the old recordings, how many of the songs really didn't
have traditional drums or traditional drum beats on them. I think back to a lot
of the stuff with the Beach Boys, the song that you played the orange drink
That was just a matter of percussion sounds, coming up with different sounds. I
remember playing my snow tire chains on "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
You know, I just used to--I don't know, perhaps it was my creativity. I wanted
to know what the song was about, and wherever it led me, that's where I would
come up with a certain sound that they wanted, certain sounds.
One thing I find is that a lot of drummers just play too much. When do you know
when not to play?
Well, you know, that comes with experience, learning that less is more. That one
good knock in the right place is worth a million sixteenth notes.
Kids today don't listen. I'm amazed--when
I go into a studio today, if I go into a studio that I haven't been playing in
for some time, where the guys don't know me, everybody has headsets, and the
engineer says to me, "Hal, what do you want in your headsets?" And I
say, I just want a little bit of everybody and just a touch of the singer, and
no drums. They say, "No drums?" That's right. I don't want any drums
in my headset. "Why is that?" Well, I don't have to play with me, I have to play with six or seven or eight guys out there. If
everybody listens a little bit to everybody, you'll play together. But these
guitar players get in, and they say, "I wanna hear my guitar, turn me up,
turn me up"--it's crazy. All of a sudden they're playing with themselves.
They're not listening to anybody else.
They just don't make music today the
way we used to make music. Now maybe each generation has said that, but it's the
truth. There'll never be another golden era like the Sixties and Seventies, part
of the Eighties. It has all changed. I mean, you can't understand the lyrics
today, these kids screaming. These drummers who are using baseball bats for
drumsticks. I mean, it's hysterical.
When guys look at me, when they see
the Hal Blaine signature stick, they say, "My goodness, how can you play
with that little light stick?" I say, first of all, I got microphones on
me. I don't have to play loud. I play what I feel. I play dynamics. Now if they
want me playing really heavy, I'll just turn the sticks over and use the butt
ends, it really doesn't matter. I don't need the sticks that these guys are
using--they're building muscles and they're getting cramps and they're hurting
their fingers and they're getting deaf.
I'm still amazed by the versatility you guys had back then.
Yeah. In the morning I'd play on some rock and roll record, then I'd be doing
Barbra Streisand records, some of the most beautiful music in the world, and
then three hours later I'd be in playing a Latin session. I mean, it just went
on and on and on. It's amazing to me, and I guess amazing to a lot of people,
that we could do that. It was wild, but we were guys who, at that time, had that
experience, and we could do it.
It was an amazing era, and great stuff came out of it. They don't make 'em like
I know. They really don't. It's really a shame, but, you know, it'll come around
again. I remember the big bands, and I was a big-band drummer, that was my meat.
I was with Count Basie, I was working with lots of big bands. It was wonderful,
and I loved it. But the big bands were getting crazier and crazier, the
arrangements were getting wilder, the chords were more dissonant, where it
really wasn't pleasant to the ear--even to the ears of the musicians! It finally
wound up with Stan Kenton playing all this wild music, I mean, it was wild! Then
all of a sudden this guy came along with a quiet little trio, Capitol Records,
and turned the whole recording business upside down. His name was Nat King Cole.
Quiet, little wonderful music.
So people who were really getting
enough of the Stan Kentons and these wild bands who were just blowing their
brains out, all of a sudden Nat King Cole came along, and you could hear every
word. It was impeccable, and his music was beautiful.
One of the saddest parts of my career
was, after he died, going in and putting drums on all his stuff. He had a fine
drummer, Lee Young, but Lee played quiet little brushes; you never knew
he was there. Dave Cavanaugh, who was one of the big producers of the time, a
great arranger at Capitol, decided, let's update, put some real drums on Nat's
stuff. So I spent, I don't know, a week or so, everybody crying in the studio
listening to Nat on tape, talking in between takes, and so forth. Really very,
very sad. Very sad.
All this music that we're listening
to today that's so crazy--people are coming along, like this chick Diana Krall,
she's playing very quiet. I think she's eventually going to turn the tables
around where everybody starts coming out with kind of a quiet version of songs.
I've always seen a trend more toward simplicity, over time.
Oh, absolutely! Less is more. It's one of the things you learn.
When MTV had all those "unplugged" concerts, that was kind of that
trend. Take the electronics away, strip down the instrumentation, and see what
it sounds like.
Right. That's one of the wild things about David Grisman. He has this wonderful
company, and he's made over 30, 35 albums. We've done records with Jerry Garcia,
various people, but acoustically. He will not have anything electric on his
records. You listen to these albums, they're magnificent. And he sells a lot of
albums, a lot of albums.
You worked with John Denver for a long time, right?
Working with John Denver is the perfect example of how we used to build a song.
John would sing the song; we would all produce our own parts. When we were ready
to make it, we would yell into the booth to wake up the producer, who was
sleeping there or doing a crossword puzzle, and we would make a record. I had 10
major hits with him, 10 major albums through those years.
You've done studio drumming, you've done live drumming, you were on the road
with John Denver. For a beginning drummer, what's the difference between doing
studio and being on the road?
The difference is, when you're working a live performance, you're getting
immediate response to what you're doing. People are screaming, and they love
what you're doing. People are listening with their eyes.
You become more of a showman when you're on stage.
People listening to records--when
you're in the studio, you're playing music. You don't have to show off, so to
speak. You don't have to raise your arms a little higher than normal. Things
like that, the little tricks you learn--you know, how to jump up out of your
seat on the very end of the song--those kind of things that you do onstage.
Another difference is that you can
have an awful lot of fun on the road because when the show is over at night, you
know that you're going to get a good night's sleep and have a nice breakfast in
the morning. Especially the John Denver show. We never carried a bag; our bags
where all numbered, they were always in your hotel room whenever you arrived. I
mean, it was just the most incredible job, probably ever, in show biz. And
everybody made money.
Nowadays, as you know, all you have
to do is look at VH1 to see where are they now. You know, these guys are
homeless and living in the streets, and they made millions and they put it up
their nose or in their arms. Of course, now that they realize how foolish they
were, they want to start the band over again. It doesn't work. Today, the
demographics of record buyers are from 11 years old to about 24. They don't want
old people anymore. They want young kids; they want little gorgeous chicks. You
see this on MTV and VH1 when they're doing videos. It's just the way it is. It's
hard to understand the songs because everybody's playing as loud as they can,
and the singers are not really trained singers--they're people just out of high
school or whatever, and they're screaming. They're just hollering, and you don't
know what the heck they're saying.
I'm not a young kid anymore. You know, if I was a young kid in high school, and
that was the trend, and we were all 15-year-olds, maybe I'd be going along with
I know that there are an awful lot of
fine musicians out there, and they're all trying hard; they're studying hard. I
try to tell drummers, you've got to know how to read music. How do you expect to
walk in and sit down with maybe a 60-piece orchestra when they put a part in
front of you? You know, it's the old joke, how do you get a drummer to quiet
down? Put music in front of him. (laughs)
When you do your clinics and you talk to the drummers, what mistakes do you see
a beginning drummer making?
The first thing is, they don't want to study. They just want to get in and play
music. They want to play their favorite rock and roll song that they've heard
2,000 times on the radio or on their CD player at home, and now they're a
drummer because they're playing exactly what the drummer played on the record.
They think that's all they have to do, and they start these garage bands and
they play cover songs. But how in the hell can they possibly be creative and
play their own songs?
You know, it's easier to hit the
lotto than hit the jackpot with a group. There are 10 million groups out there,
and record companies don't sign groups anymore today. I shouldn't say that--sometimes
they do. But if you have a band today, and you write songs--let's say 12 or 14
songs--and you record them--they're not bad, you know, halfway-decent commercial--you
can get them burned on CDs for next to nothing. You can have them packaged for
next to nothing. And every time you go out and play somewhere, you sell your own
Now, I know, from heads of record
companies, that they watch some of these sales. I know there was one big group,
Smashing Pumpkins or Hootie and the Blowfish, all of a sudden there was some
group that was selling something like 30,000 records almost every two months.
Well, that's when a record company takes notice. They'll go in and offer them a
lot of money, to put the record on their
It's not like the old days. It's not
like you went in, you worked on a record in the studios, and so forth. It just
doesn't work that way today. That's why it's such a long shot for a drummer to
really make it.
I think the last guy to really start
to happen, along with me and after me, was Jim Keltner. Fine drummer.
Fine, fine drummer. You know, he'll even tell you, I was the guy that started
recommending him for work. Even Jim, now he's out on the road today with Crosby,
Stills, Nash, and Young, he's out there because he's making more money on the
road than he's ever known in the studio. Studios are just not happening anymore.
If you're going to be a sideman, so to speak, you have to be with a group that's
out there making it, and making money.
It's such a long shot today, it's a
Aside from popular music, there are a
lot of musicians, who are fine, fine musicians; they study classical music all
their lives, and they go into a symphony orchestra. Well, a violinist can always
find work because they use 20, 30, 40 violins in a symphony orchestra. And if
it's not this town, it's the next town or the next town.
But a drummer, there's only one
drummer in a band. If you're lucky enough to get into that band, whatever it is,
whether it be pop or classical, you're very fortunate to have a job.
I hate to discourage guys, but damn
it, it's a fact of life!
It's a tough industry--like you said, there's only one drummer in a band. But
I've been surprised at how noncompetitive--how friendly and cooperative--most of
the people in the drumming community are.
That's true. Drummers are all friends. I mean, when we, the so-called rock and
roll Wrecking Crew came along, we were all guys working in nightclubs, making a
hundred bucks a week. All of a sudden we're making a thousand dollars a day.
Now, that's one hell of a leap! Like falling into a vat of chocolate. And you
gotta be friends.
One of the things I used to tell the
guys when I was contracting was, "If you smile, you stay around a while. If
you pout, you're out!" Because a lot of guys would walk in, look at their
music, and say "Eh, the same s**t today," or "What kind of s**t
are we playing today?" Well, the microphones are on and producers hear
that, then they'll come to me and say, "I don't want that guy around here!
I want guys who want to play on my records."
So that's one of the things I used to
tell the guys. So everybody was friendly. Everybody loved one another. There
were no arguments, there were no fights. Fortunately, during our era, there were
no drugs. Rarely were there drugs.
The Mamas and Papas was a different
story. They had lots of drugs. Coming out of the Mamas and the Papas, Michelle
Phillips, who became quite a great actress--she does a lot of movies, she
recently married an old buddy of mine who's a plastic surgeon--she's the only
one, really, who didn't do drugs. The rest of them, you know, Denny was always
drunk, jumping out of windows and breaking his legs. John Phillips had a liver
transplant, and now he's drinking again. Cass, of course, unfortunately passed
I look at all these groups, there's
something like 175 groups that I worked with, did their records, and there may
only be a couple of guys still out there. Freddy Cannon goes out once in a while
to do something. Gary Lewis still goes out to do something once in a while. He's
one of the few guys that won't admit that I played drums on his records. I
played on his records, I played on his father's records, I was doing movies with
his father. I mean, it's ridiculous, I've got pictures in the studio, of him
sitting, you know, fooling around with my drums!
He's the only guy who said, oh no, he played his own drums on his own records.
I do need to say, when it came to the
Monkees, for an example, they really did play music, but they didn't make their
own records. Now I remember one night, there was this big, big thing that hit
Hollywood: The Monkees do not make their own records. I mean, it was the scandal
But nobody made their own records back then...
That was common knowledge, but not necessarily to the general public. To the
kids, all of a sudden this thing came up, the Monkees do not make their own
records. So, in order to straighten that out, they took the Monkees, and they
had them in the little Studio C at RCA one night. Coincidentally, we were in Studio A making Monkees records. Closed session, nobody
could get in there. In Studio C, all the press, all the media was there, all the
TV guys with their cameras, taking pictures of the Monkees playing music, and
singing. (laughs) So, that kind of took care of that.
A lot of guys are constantly asking
me, still, didn't it bother Dennis Wilson that you made the records with
the Beach Boys? Well, Dennis loved
that I made the records because he could be out surfing and motorcycling and
boating and you know, nothing but chicks and boozing and getting in car crashes.
(laughs) That was Dennis. The proof of the pudding is when he made his own
album, he hired me. (laughs) He really didn't mind.
There was only one drummer that did.
When I did the Byrds, that was the only drummer that pissed and bitched and
moaned, and Terry Melcher, the producer, had to tell him to shut up and sit the
f**k down! (laughs) Anyway, they were thrilled at the end, because right out of
the box came "Mr. Tambourine Man."
Of all the people you played with, is there anybody you wanted to play with that
you didn't get to?
There are many people, obviously; there were lots of people in those days that I
did not get to work with. But they were mostly people who did have their own
group and had good musicians, and went in and made their own records.
It seems that the ones you weren't playing on, Earl Palmer was.
Right! Exactly, I was just gonna say, "You've Lost That Lovin'
Feeling"--I was in England. I was always Phil Spector's drummer, so Earl
got to do that, and it was a big hit. I mean, it was Phil Spector producing.
Everything he did was a big hit.
What drummers do you listen to today--who do you like?
There are some fine drummers out there. I have friends like Gregg Bissonette--very,
very fine drummer. Kenny Aronoff, that I see with so many groups, knows
just how to play--like I said, less is more. Of course, Nashville discovered
drums about 15 years ago, so Paul Leim and those guys are down there, and
country music has become rock and roll, and they're just playing rock and roll
what we were all playing in Hollywood, and they're doing a great job.
What advice would you give to a new drummer, just starting out?
Study. You know like they say, location, location, location? Study, study,
study. Practice, practice, practice. Because practice makes perfect. You're not
gonna get anywhere if you haven't studied because you walk into a band and they
throw that music in front of you--how in the hell are you going to play a song?
Unless you happen to know it backward. Now what if it's a brand-new song?
What is music? Music is only a
roadmap. You start here and you end here, but in between there may be some stops
and starts and left turns and right turns, and so forth. That's all music is.
Everyone is reading the same part, that's so that everyone--whether it's a
five-piece band or a thousand-piece band--everybody starts at the same downbeat
and ends at the same place.
It's only a roadmap, and if you can
read English, you can read music. I've heard guys say, "I don't want to
have to read notes because it'll hurt my soul." Well, that's such BS,
absolute BS. If you can read the newspaper or a comic book, you can read music.
It's no different. You learn to read in groups.
When you first started to learn to
read English, you were reading, "the," "man,"
"dog," "cat," "c-a-t." Music is no different. When
you first learn it, you're learning your one-e-and-ahs and two-e-and-ahs and so
forth, but before you know it, you're reading in groups. Now when you read a
newspaper, you don't think about the word "the," "can,"
"run," "cat," "go," "stop." You don't
think about those things. You're automatically reading them. Once you start
reading music you learn to read in groups. Bop bop, bop bop, dadadadadot,
dadadadadot. Once you've practiced it and studied it, you don't think,
"one-e-and-ah two, one and two and"--you don't think that way; you
think in groups. So you automatically do it without thinking about it.
Once in a while you run into a figure
that an arranger has written that's really difficult, and you go back to the
old, "Let's see now, this is one-and two-and-ah three-and four-and
one-and." You spell it out and then you've got it. But if you don't know
those basics, you can't do that.
The hardest thing I ever did was a
movie called The Carpetbaggers, with
an incredible arranger who writes some of the most difficult music in movies. He
writes a lot of stuff in six. I walked into this session--why I even got hired,
I don't know. But I walked in and the percussionist saw me, and I didn't know
this percussionist. He was an older guy, and he was one of those guys that read
fly specks. I mean, he played all these marimba and xylophone parts on all the
cartoons, for years. One of the great, great guys, terrific guy. He saw me
looking through the music and sweating. He came over and put his arm around me,
and said, "Look, there's no problem, we run into something here, we just
talk it out. Nobody has to know." And it was beautiful, and it came out
great! It would go from six to three to four to two to one, unbelievable stuff.
And it worked out fine.
So, if I hadn't had some kind of
basic training, I could have never done that in a million years. That's all it
The advice that I give kids is that
you must learn how to read music. Because then you become a part of the
joke, you know. What did the drummer say on his very first professional job?
"Would you like fries with that order?" (laughs) What does a drummer
say when he knocks on your door at night? "Dominos!" You know, you're
either gonna be a drummer or you're gonna work in a fast food joint, and that's
all there is to it.
There are so many things that I try
to explain to kids when I do clinics. When you drive a car, if you remember when
you first started driving, maybe you were 12 or 13, and you were learning; you
couldn't wait till you were 16. Finally you're driving, and now you're scared to
death; you're shaking all over, you're looking ahead, you're trying to see a
light, remember to step on the brake, step on the gas, turn on your signals...
Well, within three months or four months, you're now looking at people, you're
waving to people, you're listening to the radio, you're not thinking because
you're automatically seeing that light coming up that's green or red; you're
automatically stepping on the brake or the gas or turning on the street you're
supposed to turn on. You don't think about it. You're not saying to yourself,
"I'm going to turn here and then I'll step on the brake and then I'll turn..."
You don't think that way.
Reading music is the same way. You
don't think about it; you're just doing it. You're playing those licks--they're
just in groups. Every time you see those triplets, dadada dadada dadada, you
know what they are. Not the first
time, but by the fifteenth or twentieth time.
So, I guess that's my advice.
That's great advice, Hal. Thanks for spending the time talking.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Drums, 2nd Edition is available at bookstores everywhere, or you can order the book online by clicking the button to the right.
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