Living his dream, Donny Gruendler is not only the Director of Performance Programs at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, he runs his own studio, authors, and plays with some of today’s most soulful, funky artists – just to name a few of his accomplishments. Donny has set up a system for continued, lasting success in the music industry, and we would all be wise to follow his lead.
OLD: I understand that the latest Rhett Frazier Inc. release, “Every Day Is Saturday,” was recorded in your Inc. Studios. Can you tell us a little about the history of this studio?
Donny: Back in 2004-5, I wanted to build a soundproof practice room – as my Wife was very tired of hearing me practice! So I contacted a contractor who subsequently introduced me to an architect named Charles Swanson. He had designed not only soundproof rooms; but also full high end studios here in Los Angeles. Charles explained to me that the cost differential between a practice room and a studio was not that wide. The main differences would be creating non-parallel walls, a 45-degree angle ceiling and a slightly larger room to handle bass frequencies properly. He went on to say that we could wire the room with openings for mic panels, conduit wiring and as budget permitted – I could consistently add to the space. I was building the room from the ground up on my property – so a full studio with a tracking and control room started to make fiscal sense.
At this same time, many large studios were closing in LA and home studios were still in their infancy. I saw the need for a space that could get high quality drum sounds at a mid-level price point. So from a business point of view – this approach also made sense. I began to ask many of my producer friends what they thought and the feedback was extremely positive. Thus, I designed the room to be very drummer friendly with a lot of outboard gear (and a Pro Tools HD rig) in the control room. Outboard gear helps the drums to sound more analog and the HD rig cuts down on the latency, which is really helpful when working to picture and/or click. In the tracking room, I have a wireless keyboard and mouse alongside two additional computer monitors. This way, I can control the Pro Tools rig myself from behind the kit (without hiring an additional engineer). Not to mention that I have enough headphone feeds to track a live rhythm section too. Fast forward 7 years and I’ve shot my 3 DVDs here, the 2 Rhett Frazier Inc records and numerous other records, TV and film projects.
OLD: How was the experience of recording “Every Day Is Saturday” while in your own personal studio? Were there advantages? Drawbacks?
Donny: Working in your own space is always great. Without worrying about an hourly rate or any specific deadlines, I was able to experiment with grooves, tones and textures. It really felt like complete creative freedom. In addition, I have all my snares, cymbals and kits within arms reach – so I was able to tweak the drum sounds for each song perfectly. As an example, “The Pig” has a P-funk vibe- so I used my old birch Yamaha’s and muffled the kick and snare with tons of tape. “WTH?” is a late 70s Jackson 5 tune, so I pulled out the Yamaha Recording Customs, played center of the head on the snare and used 10” hi-hats to mimic a funky James Gadson groove.
As for drawbacks – I have not noticed any…… Although, my son likes to sneak in, hit the drums and move the mics a lot during tracking!
OLD: What’s your favorite song to play on this latest release?
Donny: Rhett and I wrote these tunes together – so each song is deeply personal and I’m proud of each on their own merits. With that being said, there are a few that are challenging “drumistically”. “The Pig” is funky and syncopated, WTH? has a ton of hi-hat and snare ghost note work, “Every Day is Saturday” is a study in concentration and minimalism – a 4-on-the-floor groove. My most fun song to play live is “Secret Pieces”. It’s a big bad shuffle with a nasty guitar solo!
OLD: Can you share some drum beats from them?
OLD: Can you explain a little about your writing process for coming up with beats, song structures, etc?
Donny: Rhett and I usually start with a groove, synth part or general lyrical subject matter. There are no rules…. However, we do like each tune to be unique and have its own sonic signature. So we’ll spend a great deal of time discussing the vibe we are going for…. If it’s a 70s tune, we’ll take notes of particular records we like the sound of – or even the players that contributed to those records (and their approaches). These initial notes give us our blueprint, as we progress into the writing and demo stages.
Once we have a skeleton idea and chorus hook – we’ll enlist a bass player and guitar player to track with us live in the studio. (Again, while being really careful to get the correct tones during tracking). Thereafter, I’ll add synths and Rhett will re-track his vocals. This gives the record a loose and live feel – yet it still benefits from all technology has to offer.
OLD: OLD members have recently been discussing the importance of being able to read/write music notation. Can you share your opinion on the topic?
Donny: Could you imagine trying to function within society without being able to read and write English? It would be difficult to accomplish even the most simple of tasks – like ordering food at a restaurant or getting directions to a friends house. This is also true of reading and writing the language of music.
I read and write music everyday. I’ll give you three examples:
1. For gigs: I work with many different artists and it would be impossible to memorize a full set of tunes for each of them. Thus, I write short hand charts for each tune and store them both digitally on my iPad and in a file cabinet. The charts are comprised of the main grooves, ride surfaces (hi-hat, ride) and the song forms. This way (and prior to a gig) I can do a short review of each tune without the hassle of complete re-memorization.
2. Learning and Teaching: Being able to read music enables you to learn many new ideas – very quickly. As a student, you have the last 100 years of drum resources at your fingertips. You can read and learn concepts from Gary Chaffee, John Riley, Jim Chapin, George Stone and all the other great authors – very quickly. From a teachers perspective, I can also write down ideas very efficiently, which allows me to custom tailor a lesson for a given students interests and deficiencies.
3. Sharing information: I also enjoy writing books and editing other authors books. I have been able to create the entire manuscript for my Playing With Drum Loops book, which consists of both English prose and musical notation. This made my publisher (Carl Fischer) very happy. In addition, I’ve also created the musical examples for (and edited) Bob Terry’s “The Beginners Guide to Electronic Drumming” book for Hal Leonard too. Essentially, I am able to create these items without any outside help. Therefore, I am able to share my ideas with the world.
OLD: Another recent topic has been regarding being “self-taught” vs. pursuing formal training. In your experience, why is formal training important?
Formal training forces you to address your shortcomings. As drummers, we love playing so much — that we always want to play our “best stuff”. By doing this consistently, we overlook the things that we may not be good at playing. Therefore, not improving as fast as we may like. By securing some formal training, you are able to address deficiencies in a nurturing environment, with a skilled (and experienced) professional. This ultimately makes you a better and more well rounded player.
OLD: Can you describe your practice routine? What do you do to keep up your chops and continue to develop?
I break my practice routine into (3) segments:
1. Movements/comfort at the drum kit: As I get older, I want to be able to play – while utilizing the least movement possible. I also want to be 100 percent comfortable doing it. So I spend a great deal of time analyzing my setup and paying attention to how my body feels. When I feel good – I know that I’m happening.
2. Timing and Sound – I’ll usually begin this with my own Timing exercises found here:
They are a series of musical forms and grooves played at 45 bpms – while simultaneously focusing on a consistent sound. I.e. an even Rim shot on the snare, light hi-hat and even bass drum. (Its pretty involved – so take the time to view the video in detail.) Once I feel centered from these exercises – I move on to no. 3 below.
3. Stylistic and groove Vocabulary – I’ll make various iTunes and Spotify playlists that are based on groove type and/or style. I’ll play to these songs, which help me to stay proficient in all real world performance applications. As an example, I’ve made playlists for:
a. 4-on-the-floor grooves
b. 8th note grooves
c. 1-handed 16th note grooves (shuffled and straight)
d. 2-handed 16th note grooves (shuffled and straight)
e. 4/4 Syncopated hi-hat patterns (1-and-ah or 1-e-and)
f. 12/8 and 6/8 feels
g. Rock shuffles
h. Blues Shuffles
i. Up-tempo & Medium Rock
j. Up-tempo & Medium Swing/Jazz
k. Reggae One-Drop (shuffled and straight)
l. Many more…
It’s also important to note that I only work on fills that are stylistically appropriate. My goal is to play and record with people. So I don’t spend a great deal of time working on crazy chops. I wish I had the time to though! I love listening to the guys that have this stuff down cold….its very inspiring. Now that I’m a Dad — it’s a juggling act between music, family and sleep!
OLD: If you had to choose one accomplishment in your musical career that you’re the most proud of, what would that be?
I’ll give you two: I’m extremely proud of what Rhett and I have attained artistically within “Every Day is Saturday”. We worked really hard and I’m proud of the fact that the writing and drumming sounds like me. It’s a homage to my influences and growing up in Detroit, MI.
Professionally, I was extremely proud to work with both Rick Holmstrom and John Medeski. Coming up, I listened to Rick’s records constantly and tried to cop every lick that his drummers were playing. And of course Mr. Medeski from MMW. When I listen to Roll Tape and Hump (from Hydraulic Groove) — I still can’t believe that we recorded together.
OLD: If you could only pass one piece of advice on to the next drumming generation, what would it be?
If you pursue this art form as a career, you’ll see music go through many changes. So it’s very important to keep an open mind with people, players and musical styles. Today’s not-so-hip is tomorrow’s hip…and today’s adversary is tomorrow’s ally.