Bryan Hitt, the groovemaster behind the iconic rock team, REO Speedwagon, lays down his thoughts, knowledge and experience. From practice techniques, DVD recommendations, career tips and more, Bryan serves a tasty plateful with this piece.
OLD: What does it take to make a career out of drumming?
Bryan: First, it takes a love of playing the drums. If you don’t absoluteley love it, there’s no point to even trying. There has to be that innate desire to do it because you’re going to have to put in a lot of time, and this goes with anything. If you’re putting in 5 or 6 hours a day practicing, it’s hard enough if you do love it, but if you don’t, you’re not going to do it.
For example, I got my kids involved in music early on. My son wanted to play guitar and my daughter played keyboards, and they did fine, but they didn’t have the desire to go study on their own… They didn’t practice on their own. I could tell right away that they just didn’t have the desire to do it to the extent that I did, for sure.
You’ve got to have an extreme desire to do it. In the end, you gotta love the music, and hopefully you can find an area that you can excel in… be it jazz, funk, fusion, country or whatever.
You’ve also got to have confidence. The only way I found to get the confidence to go out there on a big stage or in a recording studio is by knowing your stuff. If they say go into a reggae section at the bridge, well you better have some kind of knowledge of that.
OLD: A topic that has come up on our drum forum recently is the value of a private drum teacher or formal training. What are your thoughts on the topic?
Bryan: There’s so many more avenues of learning available to young drummers today than when I grew up. There was no MTV, no YouTube or a million drummer sites where you could watch people play. You got it by going to live shows, but if you grew up where I grew up there wasn’t much of that going on. With all the videos and study materials, books, cds, dvds, online lessons, there’s so many more ways to get the knowledge now. It makes it a lot easier.
However, I can’t say enough about having a good one-on-one teacher to watch you play and see what you’re doing. They can really tear you apart. I think that’s very beneficial.
For example, I studied with Ralph Humphrey, who played with Frank Zappa and Don Ellis. He’s the drum department chair for the LA Music Academy. I had this old fusion project going on, and we did some tracks, which I thought sounded pretty good. I played a couple of tunes for Ralph, and he said, “You know, it’s all really good — good ideas and good execution — but your time is all over the place.” Once he said it, I really started listening and honing in on it and realized he was right. In the first four bars we had five different tempos going on.
OLD: What did he recommend as far as to improve your timing? We had that question come up on our forum recently, too.
Bryan: Work with a metronome or drum machine. I have a little Boss drum machine that’s set up with my kit all the time. I don’t go out there hardly without turning it on and playing to some time, but it’s not to say that I don’t ever play without the metronome because you’re not going to have the luxury of always having that. It can become like a crutch. You need to practice with the metronome, but you also need to practice without it. Maybe record yourself and play it back. That way you can really hone in on the tempo. You may be a little too into the moment when you’re playing it. A metronome or a drum machine is just invaluable.
OLD: How often do you get to practice?
Bryan: I practice when I’m home an hour, two, three a day… generally when I can. Obviously there are family responsibilities and life just gets in the way sometimes.
When I’m on the road I bring a pracice pad and sticks in my suitcase — a quiet one. That’s a difficult thing on the road in hotel rooms trying to bang out stuff, but I do it, and I’m respectful about the hours I play. A lot of people aren’t in hotel rooms during the daytime like we are. We’re just the opposite of most people. We’re out at night and in during the day time. It usually works. If somebody bangs on the wall next door, I stop.
Even performances can be difficult with my schedule. The night before the Chicago Drum Show we played in Dallas, TX. I got off stage at 12:30AM and had to be at the airport for a 5AM flight. Luckily, I had John Aldridge, my tech, with me. We prepped the kit, which I had never seen before, and then 10 o’clock that morning was my clinic. I always look back to that solo and that playing, and I’m always less than impressed with myself. I was losing myself just talking because I was beat. I was totally fried! But, you got to own it.
Developing a routine on the road can be hard.
OLD: What kind of setup do you have at home for practicing?
Bryan: I have a drum room that’s built to be pretty soundproof. If you were standing in my driveway and I was banging away, you could hear it, but it’s not very loud. I don’t usually play after 8 or 9pm because I’m considerate of my family and neighbors. We built a room within a room kind of thing. That way it’s very effective at reducing the sound. It’s great to have that sanctuary to be abe to go into and just play.
I try to mirror whatever kind of kit that I’m going to be using, whether it’s double bass or single bass, one tom in front or two toms, etc. I want to be practicing with the setup I’m playing on the gig, as far as obvoiusly not the same exact drum, but as close as I can get to it.
I’m very into hearing protection these days. I’ve lost a ton of hearing over the years. I’ve been playing for 48 years now. So, I wear in-ear monitors and ear muffs over those when I’m practicing. I really don’t even like the sound of live drums anymore because it hurts… it’s just too loud and too brash. I don’t recommend it after the hearing loss I’ve had. I wear hearing aides all the time now. In-ear monitors are a Godsend for any musician. Mine cut 25 decibels across the sound spectrum. So when I’m practicing at home, I’ll place a couple of mics overhead and a mic in the bass drum and run it through my Mackie mixer to be able to hear everything well.
OLD: What’s the most recent thing you’ve been working on?
Bryan: I really like Ray Luzier’s playing. I think he’s a very strong player. He’s with Korn now. He was with David Lee Roth for years, and he taught at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. I absolutely love Ray’s DVD. There’s some great stuff on there — really good motion exercises, ostinato exercises, double bass stuff — just stuff out of the box a little bit. Sticking, cross sticking patterns, like the cross sticking thing I do on the cymbals (see video below). I stole that right from Ray. I figure if a guy’s putting out a DVD, it’s ok to use his stuff.
I highly recommend it. Although it’s not one of the slickest DVDs I’ve ever seen as far as recording and performance, but there’s a lot of meat on the bone there. It will challenge just about any level of player, but I wouldn’t recommend it until you’re at least an intermediate player.
My good buddy Todd Sucherman(STYX), who we’ll be going on tour with this summer, his videos are great. I especially liked his first one. And, I get to have personal time working with him on the road. It’s hard to go out there every night and play either before or after Todd, which happens both ways, because he’s such an inspiring drummer. You know, we definitely have different styles, but it makes you want to be your best, listening to some cat play like that every night. I think that’s helped me a lot too, and that’s one reason why I’ve really been practicing a lot lately.
OLD: Was there a major decision in your life or decision you made that really was the turning point in your career?
Bryan: Most definitley in my instance, yeah. I’d been in Alaska for 10 yeras, and was playing a lot of really good gigs and making some pretty good money up there playing. I did a wide range of stuff, like piano trio jazz stuff to full-on rock. But, I made the decision to sink or swim — I was going to go for it. So, I made the big move to LA, and I proceeded to starve for my first couple of years here, playing some clubs. I had an ex-girlfriend who was down here, which was pretty much my only connection at the time, and we got a little band together and were playing clubs, cover tunes.
I almost fancied myself a jazz drummer at that point — boy was I wrong! I’d been playing a lot of jazz in Anchorage, Alaska, but when I got down here and saw the real cats that had been doing it 50-60 years and have lived the life, I was just like… wait a minute, I can’t compete with that.
It’s funny, my progression has been the opposite of most people’s . I think I was really into the jazz thing and fusion thing at a younger age, and the older I get probably the harder the music I like, as far as with an edge to it, especially drumming styles. I think I was kind of backwards in my progression, as far as that goes. But, I finally found a niche in the rock stuff here in LA.
OLD: How do you manage family life on the road?
I talk to my wife several times a day, always. I have a very good wife, which I’m blessed to have. Without a good parent at home it would be extremly hard because you wouldn’t know what’s going on. I just don’t worry because my wife just always does the right thing and is a terrific mother.
The first year we were married, I was on the road for at least 6 months, if not 9, with Wang Chun, so it was a little rocky at first, no doubt about it. We had to figure out, why are we doing this, what are we doing and how are we going to make it work? The good part is, we’ve been married for 26 years now, but it seems like, and it probably has been, only about 13 years for the time we’ve actually been together.
OLD: What advice do you give to the next drumming generation?
Whatever you decide to play, and hopefully every time you decide to play, you own it. Whatever style it is, own it. That’s yours. It could be the last time you get to do it, God forbid, but it could. Do the best you can, and own it.