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Billy Ward

Interview by Jayson Brinkworth // September 02 2008
Billy Ward

I may be more obsessed with nurturing the two sides of the brain than most. Really, I love drums so much. I hear so much music in them. I simply can’t play anything and not hear pitch and tone.

It was September of 2007, and I was planning my teaching year. I wanted to bring in a “name” for a drum clinic at some point, and I had kicked around a few ideas before concluding that I should go right to the top. Who is the top clinician out there? Who can communicate their ideas in an inspirational and motivational way that all will understand? Who can play with fire, passion, finesse, chops, and an endless array of ideas and creativity? Billy Ward. I contacted Billy directly through email, and we started putting a plan together for a clinic. I was relatively new at this, so he patiently stepped me through the procedure and went above and beyond his role in this.

We planned the clinic for December, but bad weather stalled him in Minneapolis and said clinic ended up being cancelled. We rescheduled for March, but this time the weather didn’t even allow him to leave New York. Finally, April saw Mr. Ward make it to our fair city of Regina to do his thing, and what a thing it was! Billy Ward has been an inspiration to me since I first heard him on Robbie Robertson’s album Storyville. He played on the track “Hold Back the Dawn,” and the emotion of his drumming hit me like a truck. It wasn’t the notes he played as much as it was the notes he didn’t play. Spanning all musical styles, Billy’s career is one to be humbled by, as he has worked with artists we only dream of playing with. Indeed, his love of music truly goes beyond words.

It is an honor for me to call Billy Ward a friend and to have had a few days to be in the presence of greatness. This interview is also a career highlight for me; it is not often that a player of Billy’s caliber comes along. Not only is he an amazing musician, but he is one of the most giving, genuine people you will ever meet. This makes him even more of an inspiration. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my friend Billy Ward.

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When people see and hear you play, they are drawn in by your creativity and groove. Have you always been extremely creative on the drumset? What practicing do you do to remain as creative as possible?

As a younger drummer, I worked on rudiments, fundamentals, reading: all kinds of stuff. I’ve always been interested in diverse music as well—walking home from the record shop with a Sun Ra album along with a Jefferson Airplane record. To remain creative (or to encourage creativity, when under the gun), whether it be studio or a big live gig, I practice playing, as I’ve described in all of my materials including my book and two DVDs. I think I am getting better at describing practice/playing, but I am certain there is still room for improvement. I may be more obsessed with nurturing the two sides of the brain than most. Really, I love drums so much. I hear so much music in them. I simply can’t play anything and not hear pitch and tone. Perhaps I am more focused on these things than others.

I also hear so many different influences in your playing, two in particular: Elvin Jones and John Bonham. Any thoughts on the two greats?

Elvin Jones was a huge influence on me, thanks to a generous five hours that he spent with me during a day where I had booked a one hour lesson. I was seventeen years old, and we ended up gossiping about America’s racial relations, Louis Armstrong: all kinds of stuff really. What a gentleman. My meeting him created such an imprint; I spent years afterward trying to play like him. From what I’ve been told, John Bonham loved all the great R&B drummers and was always listening to that stuff. This makes a lot of sense to me and helps explain why John could be so willing to just simply stay on a groove forever— no crashes, no nothing, just pocket. If you want more of Bonham in your playing, then you need to study Bernard Purdie.

You played on B.B. King’s Grammy award-winning album 80. If you could, give our readers a glimpse into what it is like to be involved in an extraordinary project such as this.

It’s an absolute joy. For my parents, playing on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show meant I had “made it”. For me, playing with B.B. King was on that kind of level, kind of like, “Wow, I’m really doing something cool.” When a great gig like that comes in, it’s one of the best feelings. B’s a great guy, and the sessions were a pure joy. All the musicians on the session are veterans who’ve been there and done that, but we were all pretty awestruck to be with him. There is more about this on my forum on my website where I give more of a moment-to-moment report of those sessions. A secret geeky hope of mine is that 80 goes gold, and I can add it to my collection. Unfortunately, winning a Grammy doesn’t do anything for the others on the record.

You also have a new DVD out called Voices in My Head. First of all, I am curious about the title? Secondly, the material covered is so real world and practical; tell us about the process of doing such a project?Finally, can you compare Voices to Big Time?

Well, the title is Voices in My Head because I am trying (as best I can) to lay out the background, or behind the scenes influences, of what it takes to do a Bernard Purdie or similarly slinky groove. There are far too many drummers who are in a rut, and I believe the rut is their inability to trust their grip and improve their rudiments, particularly, the double stroke roll and paradiddles. If you watch this movie and do the work, you can do a Bonham or Purdie impression.

As far as making movies, it is a huge pain in the butt. The amount of time spent editing to get the best available shot is mind-blowing and extremely painful, that is, unless you think you are the handsomest, most amazing drummer in the world. I am not that, by any means, so every film that I make is a painful process, yet well worth the effort. I receive emails pretty much daily thanking me, and that makes up for all the pain. In the case of Voices, it was a one day shoot. Everything I played and said ended up in the movie. The bad news is I was sick as hell that day. I had a sinus infection and needed a root canal. But the show must go on, right? An incredibly talented editor (who also co-produced Big Time) Neil Miller, edited out the “moon gels” that were falling out of my nose during takes. Nonetheless, with all of that distress, we still had a movie at the end. It is selling very well, and it seems to be helping drummers much like Big Time, only it is far different. Big Time is there to help every drummer with the terror of timing, in that they will learn to have better time. Big Time offers a reference point on how to have serious time and timing in your playing, thus removing the need for lucky underwear!

The film also shows a more musical approach to drums and drumming. It is meant to inspire and create thought. It’s also a really neat movie that your civilian pals might even enjoy watching. Voices is more “drummy” and less psychological about things. It really shows, in a simple way, what you have to do to be able to play like Jeff Porcaro or Purdie. Or maybe you just want to get a bit better but only have twenty minutes per day to practice; this one is for you. I hope it continues to catch on in the drumming crowd because there are way too many drummers out there who don’t know what to do to improve themselves or to gain new inspiration.

For the readers that do not know who Bill Champlin is, tell us a bit about him and about his upcoming album that you worked on?

Bill wrote “After the Love Is Gone.” Need more than that? (smiles) Bill was a teenage rock star, leader and star of his band, The Sons Of Champlin, later they were simply called The Sons. They were the very first jam-band and also the very first rock band with horns. He also has been in the band, Chicago, forever (well, after Terry Kath sadly passed away). Bill has sang on more than four hundred hit songs and has written probably as many too. He is one of the real players in the music world. In my opinion, the singers that are as talented as he only fit on one hand, and one or two of them are dead. He is an extreme inspiration to play with. More often than not, when I am playing with him, I am honestly freaking out about the fact that I am playing with this badass dude. I’ve played with George Russell, who is an extremely talented jazz composer (think Frank Zappa in jazz). George received the MacArthur Fellowship, where our government gives a half a million dollars to somebody for simply being a genius. Bill Champlin gives me that kind of feeling.

What does the drumming future hold for Billy Ward? Do you have any more of your own projects in the works at this time?

I’d love to make another instructional movie, but I am always scared of the painful process. Yet, I love the sharing, the teaching process. It makes me a better person and definitely makes me a better musician. Eventually, I will hopefully be inspired to suffer the itchy and scratchy aspects of doing them and will do another. Until then, I’m like anybody else. I’m hoping to work with challenging, or at least wealthy, people (smiles). This year, I am playing a ton of festivals. In September, I am performing at the MD festival with my trio. This will be my second appearance at a Modern Drummer festival. Sometimes I think I am living a dream to be involved in so many creative things. After I perform at the MD Fest with my trio, I appear to be “offline” with gigs. Of course, the occasional recording session will appear, and, you never know, maybe something that is even more time consuming. But usually, as Christmas approaches, things slow down. I have to admit that I am very much looking forward to this time of re-tooling and planting seeds for the future. I’m looking forward to practicing the drums more than usual and looking into some new ideas and concepts.

I always need some time to update my recording studio. I may be engaging into the video world more regularly, which means purchasing four or five cameras. I am so fortunate; I get to do what pleases me. I finished mixing an interview with the Dalia Lama that will be released as a record (believe it or not), and that was one of the coolest things ever! If I have a need to write an article, all I have to do is write it and get it to a place where I think it works okay, and then so far Modern Drummer magazine publishes it. If I want to record, I have my own studio. I love my friends and family and co-workers. It’s all good. You have been playing DW drums now for sometime and have seemed to become a bit of a spokesman for these wonderful instruments.

How did you get started with the company? What is it about these drums that you like so much?

I was living in Los Angeles because I kept getting calls to record out there. I had several dear friends who were all drummers, and they were keeping me sane. Among them was the late and truly great Mark Craney. I had been playing Pearl drums in the mid eighties but simply wasn’t feeling any connection to the company or the drums, so I wrote them a note and quit. I was doing recording almost entirely and didn’t have need for the touring support, so it was possible for me to be a non-artist for anyone. Mark told me that I had to meet John Good. He said that John is every drummer’s best friend, whether they know it or not, because he is trying so hard to improve the standard. So I started going to lunch with Mark Craney and John Good. This led to a friendship and respect that runs very deep. John is unique in many ways but one very important aspect of the qualities he brings to the table is his history of being a world-class drum tech.

Before DW, he had worked for the best—Madonna, Earth Wind and Fire, Frank Zappa, Elton John, and all in their peak times. This is how he started taking drums apart, trying to figure out why one tom was happy and the other was not. When he quit the road to risk it all with his drum company, one artist offered him a crap-load of money to stay. I mean, I’ve never heard of a musician getting this kind of bonus, let alone a drum tech. So this is how DW started and after seeing what John and Don Lombardi were trying to do, I had to offer whatever support and encouragement I had. You might realize that probably Jim Keltner, Terry Bozzio, Neal Peart, or any of the other artists that are in DW’s stable might write the exact same thing.

 

To hear more of Billy visit him online:

http://www.billyward.com/




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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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