October Drum Clinics: Jim Riley and Ndugu Chancler

The #1 clinician of 2009, as voted by readers of Modern Drummer, showed up at Tom Lee’s Granville Street shop on October 24th to give a clinic, as part of Vancouver International Drum Festival 2009. That’s Jim Riley, drummer and musical director of Rascal Flatts.

After the standard clinician solo, Jim went on to share a simple message with the audience over the next couple of hours. Something like:

  1. Learn your rudiments and their variations
  2. Accent certain notes of the rudiment to create phrasing
  3. Use the rudiment creatively around the kit for grooves, fills and solos
  4. ???
  5. Become drummer and musical director of commercially successful international act

Despite the big room and high stage, Jim was incredibly down-to-earth with his clinic. He handed out a sheet of paradiddle combinations and kit exercises, which he had written out for the clinic goers himself. No hoarding secret moves here.

He even dragged on stage two high school kids, and individually helped them through playing paradiddles around the kit. At the end of everything, Jim got all the clinic attendees to huddle around the stage and take a picture with him. #1 clinician award well deserved.

About a week later, on October 30th, I caught Ndugu Chancler at Long & McQuade in Langley. You might know this guy from the rock solid beat that Michael Jackson moonwalked to on “Billie Jean.” And from his crazy cymbal angles.

According to Mr. Chancler, he started putting his cymbals that way back in the day when he had a beautiful ‘fro that needed to be seen, unobstructed.

Again, the clinic began with the mandatory drum solo, but Ndugu really stretched to take this somewhere else. The solo must have lasted over half an hour, during which he went from sticks, to brushes, back to sticks, to sticks held upside down, drawing an absolute wealth of sounds from the kit.

This was particularly impressive, given Ndugu’s 3 cymbal approach. Using only a crash, a ride, and a china, but hitting them in different ways, Ndugu let the cymbals be themselves while he did all the work to get the sounds he wanted.

Somewhat confusingly, Ndugu also expounded on his multitude of hi-hat sounds when an audience member later asked him about it. By my count, hi-hats are another 2 cymbals in his 5 cymbal set up. But, as most people already know, drummers can only count reliably up to 4.

To add to the confusion, Ndugu themed his clinic around the importance of 6/8 meter, which he contended was the African rhythmic root of western music, and something modern drummers were getting too far away from.

To demonstrate the point, Ndugu started playing the Mangambeu, a drumbeat from Cameroon that’s as difficult to comprehend as it is to spell. Most people didn’t seem to follow, but was reportedly in 6/8. It was  From there, he transitioned seamlessly into different beats – swing, jazz, shuffle, R&B, funk, latin, country, disco, rock.

I think Ndugu made a valid point for sure. Most forms of modern popular western music fundamentally grew out of African rhythms and influences, but… how do you play standard rock and disco beats in 6/8? When you’re taking only the 2 emphasized beats in 6/8, and skipping out on the triplet feel subdivisions as you do in rock and disco, well, then isn’t that just plain old 4/4?

But what do I know? I’m not the Adjunct Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of Southern California’s music school!

Both clinics were enjoyable and enlightening. By funny coincidence, Jim and Ndugu touched on different sides of the ever-contentious bass drum technique debate.

Jim was a proponent of the no-nonsense, heels-up, bury-the-beater technique. For many years, he said he used to not bury the bass drum beater into the head for a fuller sound. Later, he found that his beater was bouncing on the head and making a puttering sound under the scrutiny of studio mics. Jim decided to sacrifice that little bit of extra resonance, burying the beater for a cleaner, consistent sound.

Ndugu, by chance, spent some time talking about his fondness for heel-down playing. Coming more from a jazz background, playing heel-down, bouncing the beater off the head was essential in order to “feather” the bass drum so that its presence could be felt, not heard. The crowd laughed as Ndugu whispered praises of the subtleties and nuances possible with heel-down technique, all the while continuing to feather the bass drum inaudibly.

Personally, I’ve found it’s completely possible to get a solid, resonant thump by bouncing the beater off of the bass drum, and still catch the rebound so that there’s no sloppy puttering. I’m also a fan of the heels-down approach because of the stability that comes with having my heels planted on the ground.

It was a privilege to have had the chance to see two such accomplished drummers share their varied perspectives so candidly and humbly. October 2009 was a good month for drum clinics in Vancouver. Thank you, sirs, for the inspiration and knowledge.


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