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Les Ismore

Article by Jayson Brinkworth // November 02 2007
Les Ismore

This is a story about a great friend of mine, Lester Ismore. Lester (or Les, as we will call him) is a fantastic drummer and musician. He works all of the time and always delivers just what the music needs. I have always confided in Les for musical advice and for making the best musical choices in my own playing. The following article is dedicated to my friend Les Ismore, for all of the valuable lessons he has, and continues to, teach me in my music career. Read on and I am sure you will agree that Les is exact in his approach to playing the drums.


The first thing you will notice about Les when he plays is that his kit is not very large. He says, “I only use what drums are necessary for the music I am playing, no more no less.” His normal setup would be a bass drum, snare, rack tom, floor tom, and his cymbals would consist of hi-hats, ride and two crashes. This could vary depending on the style and textures needed for the music he was playing. Les has a minimalist approach to his playing: “I want to say the most with the least amount of clutter in the music.” I love hearing him play, always such clarity and he never gets in the way.


When Les was younger he wanted to learn all of the cool, fast licks that he heard (like all of us). This was almost an obsession. It seemed to be a gauge of how good you were as a drummer. You needed to play fast, have lots of drums and cymbals and don’t forget to spin those sticks! We all have had these moments in our playing when speed and technique ruled the music we play. There is nothing wrong with speed and technique. Check out some of the young metal guys today. They are killer!

Music all comes down to groove and this is where Les’s playing started to change. He started listening to a lot of drummers play, focusing on how they interacted with the music. One interesting observation he had made was that so many of the players he was digging were older, more experienced musicians. He would talk about Levon Helm, Bernard Purdie, Charlie Watts, Earl Palmer, Ringo Starr and many others. I would ask him, “Why are you listening to all of those guys?” He would reply, “Because they have so much to pass on and teach us.”  

I wasn’t sure where he was going with this; I was still young and needed to do a lot more listening of my own. One thing I did notice is that over time Les’s playing started sounding more mature—I couldn’t figure it out. His drum parts started speaking to me like those of AC/DC’s Phil Rudd. “Play some fast quadruplets. "Where are the 1/32 notes, Les? At least spin your sticks, man. Come on!“


Les Ismore was becoming quite a player. He was getting hired all of the time for all kinds of work. Studio, live, television, radio, it seemed like he had it figured out. When I would ask him about his gigs and why he didn’t use all of the technique he has all of the time, his answers would be simple, “Play less notes; get more work,” or “Pay attention to the space between your notes.” After hearing these comments, I thought Les had lost his marbles. Pay attention to the space? Did he forget I was a drummer and not an astronaut? Although thinking Les was losing it, I couldn’t deny the fact that he was working lots and doing some great gigs. Maybe he had a point. Maybe I should take the techniques of less notes and paying attention to space more seriously. How does one practice these techniques? How many less notes should I play? Should I visit the space station at NASA?


So I have bought into Les’s philosophy and now I have to put it into action. My first step is not playing; it is taking the time to listen to some of the drummers Les had mentioned earlier. I checked out drum parts from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Band, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and many others. I am hearing discipline, focus and groove in all of their playing. It is a treat to listen with this new approach in mind (I refer to this as my new ears). The listening part of my practice routine becomes huge. I am definitely becoming more aware of playing less notes. The space idea is also starting to stream in from listening to Ray Charles' songs. Some of his songs are so slow and groovy.

I am also hearing how few crashes and fills are actually going on. Just straight up groove. Check out Bonnie Raitt's song “Good Woman, Good Man.” Count the crashes and fills. John Mayer's Continuum disc is also a perfect example of this idea. So now I have to put this into my drumming practice. First I will play along with a bunch of these songs to feel the parts. This works great. My next step is to work on focus and discipline. I will bring in the metronome for this one. I set up a tempo of 60bpm, and play a straight quarter note groove. All the time seeing how long I can go without hitting something other than hi-hat, snare and kick. I make 8 measures and I hit a crash on 1, try again. This time I make it to the seventeenth bar, but my time wavers into measure 9. I need to concentrate more. After one hour of this practice I am drained, but made three minutes straight with pretty good time and no extras. Yes!

I continue to practice this way at various tempos, as low as 35bpm and up to 200bpm. I also start incorporating different feels such as 1/8 notes, 1/16 notes, shuffles, swing and others. All along just playing the groove, no fills, no crashes, no stick spinning. I quickly realize that I have to be in every moment of my playing to do this correctly and had to mean everything I played—no mumbling. This Les Ismore philosophy is paying off in a big way. I am definitely sounding better on the kit.


As I continue to practice in this way, I am really starting to think in minimalist terms. Les Ismore always says, “My favorite drummers are all minimalist in their approach.” What does this mean? Well it goes back to an earlier quote, “Saying the most by playing the least.” Lots of musicians mistake these as boring, dumb and easy parts to play. This is a big pet peeve of mine. I always say to them that music will make more sense when you get older. They laugh and I just smile.

There are lots of great drummers who have a minimalist approach to playing. Two of my favorites are Questlove (Ahmir Thompson) and Leon Parker. Questlove plays with a band called The Roots and is a groove machine. His kit had consisted of a kick, two snares, floor tom, hi-hat and ride, but recently he added more toms. Check him out on an album called The Philadelphia Experiment, all groove all the time.

Leon Parker is the ultimate minimalist. Some gigs he uses only his body as his instrument, sometimes he will use only a ride cymbal, sometimes a little kit, and other times a huge assortment of instruments. Check him out on the web. He will teach you a valuable lesson.

My practice went to extreme minimalist using only kick, snare and hats. If I could make these three instruments speak with clarity, groove and feel, I knew I would be on the right track. There is a freedom in playing and practicing with less drums, but concentration and focus are a must. We must always stay in the moment and care about every note and space that we are playing.    


As I wrap up my thoughts on this very important subject I want to leave you with some things to think about. First of all, Les Ismore is with me whenever I play, as my imaginary drumming buddy. He reminds me to concentrate and serve the music with groove and feel, be in the moment and to not overplay. I love when I am on a session and the producer has to ask me to play fills and crashes. I know I am doing my job when this happens.

The "less is more" concept is one of maturity for sure; this is why the older cats always sound great! This doesn’t mean that we can’t be conscious of this at any age and start working towards sounding better on the drums. Take some of the practice tips listed above and incorporate them into your routine. Also, do as much listening to music as possible; this is the first step to understanding. (After practicing today, I think I will take Les out for a coffee. He has been such a great teacher.)



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About the Author
Jayson  Brinkworth

Jayson Brinkworth is an accomplished drummer, percussionist, vocalist, educator and writer based out of Canada. He is co-owner of the Saskatchewan music school Music In The House, as well as the founder of both the Regina Drum Festival and The Stickman Drum Experience.

Jayson proudly endorses Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Evans heads, Impact cases, Kickport, Flix, Future Sonics and Mountain Rhythm. Visit Jayson online at www.jaysonbrinkworth.com.

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