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Roy Burns

Interview by Sean Mitchell // December 16 2013
Roy Burns

Our purpose is to help the drummer play music and I’ve always thought that if we do that we’ll do alright. That keeps us on an honest, even keel and keeps us in tune with drummers. That’s why I still answer the phone—if a drummer calls up here with a problem, I take the call. Very few owners will do that – if any.

When I was a teenager and began my very first drum lessons, there were two books permanently housed in my school knapsack. One of those books I still have (and use) today, Advanced Rock Drumming. This publication brought me into the world of a man I have come to admire greatly. The word legendary does not begin to describe Roy Burns' career and accomplishments. Words like profound or prolific describe a man who represents the very essence of what our art form is based on.

Chatting with Roy for this interview was, to say the least, a huge honor and a learning experience in drumming technique and concepts. By the very definition, Roy lives and breathes integrity, honesty, humility and curiosity. I know of no master more educated in all aspects of drumming and no student more eager to learn. I humbly encourage all of you to take his words to heart.

Roy with all your experience was it natural for you to move in to a manufacturers role?

Well, I must tell you that I’m the most low-tech guy here. Years ago my wife and I had a small apartment in Greenwich Village with a tiny little kitchen and the faucet wasn’t working. I said, “I’ll fix it.” I’m the least mechanical guy on the planet and I broke it. She hasn’t let me fix anything since. She fixes the furnace, the car – she does everything. She won’t let me touch anything. However, I will say I’ve been working with engineers since 1968, and after awhile working with the engineers you begin to learn what works. I’ve discovered that most drummers after they’ve been playing for awhile they think they know what makes sound and what works and what doesn’t. They really don’t know if they’ve never talked to an engineer whose business it is to understand those things. Fortunately, after all these years, I’ve finally got a good handle on how a lot of this stuff works. It’s really from working with the engineers and people who understand this.

How long have you known Aquarian engineer Ron Marquez?

We’ve been in business since 1980. Ron’s a genius with the manufacturing and coming up with machines that do things that other companies can’t do. We’re the only company that vacuums the air out between the two parts on a two-ply head, and no one’s ever seen how we do it because the machinery that he put together. We just don’t let anybody see it.

I wonder if Ron ever imagined that he’d be working with a drum head company as an engineer.

What happened was I was working at Roger’s Drums doing clinics. I was also working with a sales group doing a lot of things that the average person didn’t know I was doing—they thought I was just doing clinics. Ron used to have a company called Aquarian Coating Corporation. They applied the black coating you see on the hatchback of cars or camera equipment – various colors, everything. He did the whole gamut. He was quite successful. He was doing all the powder coating for CBS’s musical instruments. One day they decided that they could maybe get rid of the chrome because the EPA was hassling them and use powder coating instead. So they told me to go see this guy Ron Marquez who does the powder coating for them. So I came over to the building they’re in now and had a meeting with Ron and we discussed the pros and cons of it and decided not to do it.

Then one day he called me up and said, “Hey, Roy, I’m not getting any more work out of CBS musical instruments. What’s happening?” I said, “This place is going south. I’m going to quit.” He said, “Don’t do that. Come over and see me, today. I’ll wait here for you.” He said, “I’d like to start another company with musical instrument accessories if you think that’s a good idea.” I said, “I think it’s a great idea.” And he said, “What would we call it?” I said, “Let’s call it Aquarian after the coatings corporation." Ron’s an Aquarius and I had a mentor and a friend in New York City who was an Aquarius and he was killed in a plane crash. So the name Aquarian appealed to me for those reasons and I said, “There’s no other percussion company with a name like Aquarian.” That’s how we got the name and that’s how Ron and I became partners. We’ve been in business for 33 years.

People used to make jokes about us when we first started—"Roy Burns is never going to make it." I think we kind of fooled everybody.

Our point of view here, it is our job is to help the drummer play music, not to trick them into buying a product or running an outrageous ad campaign that can’t be backed up like some people do. Our purpose is to help the drummer play music and I’ve always thought that if we do that we’ll do alright. That keeps us on an honest, even keel and keeps us in tune with drummers. That’s why I still answer the phone—if a drummer calls up here with a problem, I take the call. Very few owners will do that – if any.

Let's talk about your time with Modern Drummer, your Concepts column was very popular. How did that develop?

I had my drums set up in the garage and my son, Steve, is a guitar player. He’s a very good singer, plays very good guitar. I got home from work one day and said to my wife, "You know, I’m going to go in the garage and play a song with Steve. I’ve heard him play at college and stuff but we’re going to play a tune together.” I played a shuffle with him, he played a blues and it was a really great moment, father and son playing together.

I walked back into the kitchen and I told my wife, “You know, Steve has never played with anybody older than himself except me, and I’m his father.” What happened was when I joined the big bands, like Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton’s band, I was the youngest guy in the band. So the older guys, if they liked you and you were respectful of them, they would help you out—"play that cymbal; hit the back beat; Benny likes this; or play the brushes here"—and they would really give you a wealth of information. So I became that “old guy on the bus" talking to the young drummer,  passing on the experience because when rock 'n' roll started that link was broken. The young guys were doing their own thing and the old guys were all resentful in a lot of cases—or didn’t like the music or whatever—so the passing on of information from the more experienced older down to the younger players was broken. I tried to bridge that gap.

And as far as the writing, I never tried to be a writer I just tried to get my ideas on paper. I must say the guys at Modern Drummer, like Rick Mattingly is one that comes to mind ... that’s a very famous writer. He edited all my articles and he made them seem a little better than they were; he’d clean them up a little bit. That was really how I did it. Of course, I’d done a lot of teaching; I’d written drum books.

Roy, you have three new books out. Can we talk a little about each?

Yes, they came out last year. What happened was my wife and I went out to dinner and a pipe broke in the bathroom and flooded three rooms in our house. We came home to this mess. We got it cleaned up; we had to move everything out of the rooms, had a new floor put down. I discovered a lot of notebooks and stuff that I had collected over the years that I had forgotten about and wouldn’t have been able to find them otherwise if we hadn’t had to move everything.

I came across some information, one of the key things was the left-handed bass drum. I would see Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Philly Joe Jones play some really unique patterns between the left hand and the bass drum while the right hand was doing something else—except you couldn’t find out what it was! You’d go to see them play, but it went by so quickly that by the end of the night you couldn’t remember anything. So I developed a very unusual discipline – I would sit over to the side—it used to be called the “bull pen”—you’d sit at the side of the stage and you could see the drummer’s feet as well as his hands. People who sat in front of the stage had to pay a cover charge. I would watch just the right hand for one whole tune and I wouldn’t take my eyes off of it no matter what was being played, then the right foot, then the left foot, then the left hand. I would do that until I understood what the patterns were and how they were broken down and I was able to put them together and do them myself.

So the first book we put out last year was the Solo Secrets of the Left Hand and Bass Drum, how to play those left-hand and bass-drum patterns that you’ve always seen or heard but were mystified by. To make things better for the drummer to really understand, there’s a DVD of my last drum clinic in which I demonstrate all of them so you can see me playing them live. That was really lucky. Joe from Joe’s Drum Shop, he had me do a clinic and he’s got a video camera and filmed it and as it turned out. That turned out to be my last clinic. It’s quite a nice package and it’s been nominated as one of the six best drum books of the year by Modern Drummer.

The second book was the Relaxed Hand Technique. When I went to high school I was studying with a teacher in Kansas City. I used to take a four-and-a-half hour train ride in each direction to take a drum lesson. He would charge me two bucks, drive me to the train station, buy me dinner, and put me on a train. He didn’t make any money off me. He was a really nice man named Jack Miller.

He gave me this exercise—eighth notes, triplets, sixteenth notes and you play them on a practice pad, same tempo, and go back and forth and extend more measures before you go to the next note value. I noticed that when I went from eighth to triplets the sound changed, and when I went from triplets to sixteenths the sound changed again. I didn’t think I was doing anything different, but I figured out by using my ear that I must be changing something with my hands or the sound would stay the same. So by using my ear I learned how to play all those note values at various speeds for long periods of time without the sound changing.

Playing relaxed and by being able to use my ear rather than the rudimental approach where they have you pounding out rudiments relentlessly till you can’t think of anything else and you’re exhausted. I use my ear as a guide and that’s why I’ve developed the ability to play single strokes at an incredible speed at a high volume level without sacrificing sound quality, endurance or anything. There’s a CD in the second book, Relaxed Hands Technique, that has some video things where I actually demonstrate how you can play all these things and stay relaxed and keep the sound musical.

I wasn’t a big strong guy. I learned how to get the drumsticks to do the work because how fast the stick is moving determines how loud it is. So I learned how to move the drumstick instead of trying to move my muscles.

In the third book, I had students who technically when they sat down at the drum set didn’t know what to play—they couldn’t play more than just beats. So I wrote out twenty-nine snare drum solos with the idea that the student, once he played the solo and he got it down, then he would replace all the accents with either the bass drum or floor tom-tom, cymbal crash or whatever, or even re-voice the solo. That would be a creative process for them. The good thing about it was that each young person who did this would wind up with a different sounding solo. That’s called the Creative Drum Set Workbook. Several teachers have commented and said they really like it 'cause it fills a need.

When I wrote a drum book it was always because I couldn’t find anything that covered that subject. That became my guide. If there were five or six books that were successful and really had it nailed down ... I didn’t try to write a syncopation book because Ed Reed had that covered, or do a George Lawrence Stone book cause he had that covered. But if I found a need through my teaching and through talking with drummers that wasn’t being satisfied, then I considered writing a book about it. At this late date of my life I had three books published last year. I had that material around for a long time.

What does practice mean to you?

Henry Adler straightened me out on that. When I studied with Henry I took lessons for about three months and he helped me quite a lot. He said, “Now look, when I give you these exercises go home and do them exactly as I showed you how to do them. And when you go to play, forget everything—just play the music." This stuff works; it will creep into your playing in a natural way – you won’t have to force it. You don’t want to be sitting there worrying about your hand grip when you’re trying to play fast Bossa Nova and screwing up the tempo.

I think practicing means picking something that you need to work on and trying to develop it. One aspect of practice could be practicing playing, playing with records, recordings, doing some creative work, soloing, playing different rhythms just to see what you can do.

Your practicing should be divided in at least three areas: the basic stuff you are working on like say, reading, because everybody needs to read even if you’re not going to be a studio drummer because it helps you understand rhythm in music; then there’s technique where you get your hands together and you try to develop better and more control with less effort; and the drum set work practice with music. One thing I always said is when I had to warmup before a gig before I left the house if I was warming up on a pad I always put on some music so I was always playing with music, not just mechanical stuff over and over. I think that whenever you practice a lot, practicing with music and with recordings is invaluable.

What attracted you to drumming?

When I was five years old I lived two blocks from the local college. It was World War II and they had drum lines for soldiers to do their marching routine. They would have a drum line marching and playing these beats and I would hear them from two blocks away. I learned how to play all the marching beats on the sidewalk in front of my house with a couple of tree branches. I would run away from home and run along beside the drummer—the snare drummer, I was attracted to the snare drum. Finally one guy looked at me and said (I must have been six or seven years old, no more than that) he said, “Can you play the drums?” I said, “Sure.” I can still remember the moment like it was yesterday. He let me play on his parade drum. He found out where I lived and he went to see my mother. He said, “Listen, you’ve got to give this kid lessons; he’s just a natural. If you don’t give this kid drum lessons it’s going to be a crime.”

My dad was a butcher. He’d been forced to leave school early to work and help support the family so he said, “Drum lessons—I don’t want to listen to that.” My mother prevailed upon him, so he agreed that I could take lessons. The lessons were fifty cents; he said, “I’m not going to spend fifty cents for nothing so if the teacher tells me that you don’t practice, that’s the end of the lessons.” I was practicing four hours a day and he looked at my mother and he said, “How do we make him stop?” She said, “You told him to practice or you wouldn’t let him do it.” He said, “Well, I take that back.” He built a room on the end of the house for me to practice in; it was about ten feet by ten feet – just enough room to set up a drum set and practice. That’s how it all got started.

Then I bought the drummer’s drum set who worked in the local dance band. They were all GIs and went to school on the GI Bill [they were] ex service men so they played quite a bit. So I bought the drummer’s drum set and that’s how I got in the band cause there was no other drummer in town – playing gigs at 14.

I went to New York when I was 19 because I met Louie Bellson at a studio in Kansas City, Missouri. He came up to the studio and he listened to each one of us play and he sat down and played and then he said, “I’d like to hear you play some more,” so I sat down and played again and he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “Kid, that’s as good as you’re going to get if you stay in Kansas. Go to New York or LA and study.”

So two years later when I was 19 I went to New York City. I went to one of Louie’s clinics and he recognized me. I could see this look on his face like, “Oh my God, what have I done? I hope this kid’s not going to ask me for money.”

Eight years after we met we were doing the Drumarama through Rogers Drums, playing together for the first big drum promotion that was ever done in the music industry. Louie and I were having breakfast the morning after our first performance and he said, “Gee, Roy, I’ve never seen anybody improve so much so fast. As long as it’s not illegal keep it up.” He was so gracious and so warm and helpful it made it easier for me. That’s how I really got my name out there, so to speak.

The other big break I got was I auditioned for Woody Herman’s band. I got the gig. About three months later I get a call from Benny Goodman’s manager. We had a couple of weeks off, I was in New York, and he says, “Benny wants to hear you play.” I said, “Well, I’m with Woody.” And he said, “No, Benny wants to hear you.”

I went up to Carnegie Hall Studios; there was Mel Powell, this genius piano player arranger who I didn’t know, Benny and me, not even a bass player. They said, "Let’s play 'Lady Be Good.'" So I started playing brushes, feathering the bass drum. We played one tune after another for two hours. Benny puts his clarinet down and looks at me and says, “Be at the Waldorf tonight and wear a dark suit,” and walked off. I didn’t even know where the Waldorf was. I did have one suit—fortunately it was a dark grey suit.

So I went up to the Waldorf, I was standing up in the corner – it was like a sunken ballroom – and they play a dance set, a concert set and a dance set, and the manager comes up and says, “Benny wants you to play the next concert set.” I walked down to meet Mousey Alexander, the drummer, who was very nice; he said, “Kid, I’ve already given my notice. I’ll help you with the charts. I’ll talk you through it and tell you what to watch for. This is a hell of a way to audition – somebody else’s drums, reading in front of a live audience—this is rough.” But I did it and I did pretty well. Mel Powell leaned from the piano and grabbed my hand and said, “Congratulations, young man.” Mousey Alexander said, “You played this show exactly like I did and on my drum; I hope you get the gig. Play as steady as you can. Music to Benny Goodman is time.” I got the gig and I lasted three-and-a-half years with Benny. We made the recording at The Brussels World’s fair, which got my name out there and the rest as they say is history.

Where did the idea come from—in head and on head products?

It came about because of Miditronics. They develop the electronic stuff and they were looking for a company that could develop a drumhead that would work with their electronics. When we got together they had researched it and other companies were not interested, so we said we’d give it a try. It turned out to be a lot more complicated than we thought but we’ve had some amazing results. We had the fourteen-inch in-head ready. People love it and recording studios say it’s kind of changed everything.

That’s the idea to come out with the electronic on-head 'cause it’s kind of an electronic pad so you can play silently—put it on your desk, listen to drum sounds with headphones, put them on top of your drums, have an electronic kit play them through speakers. It’s a versatile little instrument. We’re starting to sell those. We’re starting to advertise them, and I think the interest is going to be tremendous.

We’re an idea company. We have to be better and more inventive in order to compete because we’re a small company. We have to make better decisions and that’s what we’ve tried to do.

What does an endorsement actually mean to you?

Well, for one thing, don’t call up a company thinking you’re going to get an endorsement before you’ve had any real exposure or experience. You have to be with a band, proven with high visibility, done a lot of playing, and so you have real credentials. Then you shouldn’t try to endorse a product unless you really love it. I’ve had guys call up here and say, “What kind of deal have you got on endorsements?” I ask if they’ve heard our heads and they say, “No, but if the deal is good I’ll endorse them.” We’re not playing that game; if you don’t like our products, if you’re not going to love the sound you’re going to get, we’d rather not been involved with you because you really shouldn’t play a product you don’t really like. It’s not being honest with yourself of anybody else and it won’t lead to good things. So you get the reputation of being a guy that jumps from company to company – which we have quite a few of these days.

Now once that’s said, you want to say to the company, “What can I do for you guys?” It has to be a two-way street. All we ask is that the guy use our products, that he lets the people know what he plays, and if they’re going to do a big promotion or be highlighted somewhere and if it’s convenient, let the people know what products they’re playing and be loyal. And we try to do the same thing. We work with the endorser.

Now, there are not very many people who get free drumheads or free anything – money’s just too tight. The other thing is there are so many endorsers. I’ve got it broken down into three categories. One is the super drummer like a Louie Bellson or Buddy Rich or some genius player; he’s going to be famous no matter who he plays with. Then you have the drummer who might be the drummer with Marilyn Manson or The Beatles or somebody like that; the guy’s not a super player but he’s very visible and for the most part very musical. Then the third category is the drummer who plays and teaches; he’s an accomplished player and he’s got a lot of playing experience but teaches young people and he’s the guy that usually gets overlooked by the companies. So we try to have a mixture of those three categories 'cause I think that rewards each guy based on what he’s achieved.

I got to tell you there’s a lot of great drummers and musicians. As a guy who’s played for years (I haven’t played in a long time now; I’m retired. I’ll be 78-years-old this month), I got to tell you there are more good young drummers today than ever before. They can play more stuff than guys from my era could. Their feet are better; they can play more grooves. So this idea that drummers aren’t as good as they were years ago, doesn’t hold water. There are a lot of great drummers out there, young ones that are so creative. And I think it’s good when you run into young drummers who are aware of the history ... who say “I’ve heard Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Max Roach, Art Blakey. I’ve heard their recordings and know what they’re like.” Learning the history and having respect for the guys who preceded you is always good. I think respecting the creativity of the younger person is equally valid.

So the main thing about getting an endorsement, you want to get an agreement with a company that you can be comfortable with for a long time—they’ll provide you with artist’s price. But you don’t want to contact the company too early 'cause if you contact them and you get turned down they’ll probably remember you. If you re-apply later, they’ll say, “Didn’t this guy apply before?” And don’t use one company against another. I had a guy call up and say, “I had an offer from such-and-such-a-drum company; what’s your offer?”  I said, “We’re not going to make an offer; we’re not in that game. We only want to work with people that want to work with us.”

If you pay attention to some of those concepts, when you feel that you’ve got credentials enough that it merits it then try to develop a good working relationship and get to know the people there – that’s one thing.

Have we lost the ability to communicate in our drumming language. It seems less and less drummers focus on terms like up stroke and free stroke.

I think the problem is young players always want to play right away. They don’t really want to bother with the lessons – just give me a drum set I’ll work it out for myself. Some talented people can do pretty well doing that. There’s a myth out there between studied-players and self-taught players. My theory is everybody is self-taught because the only way you learn how to play is by playing.

What taking lessons does is teaches you how to practice. You have to learn how to play by yourself. When a guy says “I’m a self-taught player” I say, “So what—isn’t everybody?” The only way you know how to play is by playing. You can’t get it out of a book and you can’t just listen to records and become a great drummer – you have to go out and play.

Now by the same token, if you took some lessons, which gave you more information, gave you better technique, gave you a better understanding of rhythms, gave you a better idea of how to organize your equipment, and you still go out and learn to play on your own that will put you ahead of the game.

My advice to young people is learn as much as you can while you’re young cause whatever is going on now won’t be going on ten years from now. At my late age, I’ve seen so many changes in the music business, and in the music, the style of drumming, and the equipment. The only thing you know is from the time you start out and by the time you finally get where you can play professionally it’s going to be different. Nothing stays the same. So learn as much as you can while you’re young—later on you’ll regret it if you didn’t.

Do our friendships with other drummers influence our playing?

If you’re in a band, you’re the odd man out. You’re the only guy not playing chord changes and notes. 

Panama Francis, the old big band and blues star, told me years ago, “Roy, the drummer’s like the hub of a wheel; all the horn players and guitar players are nothing but spokes.” If you don’t have a hub, you can’t run on spokes. That means the band with the hot drummer will be the hot band. Every beat we play or don’t play affects everybody else in the band more than any other player. If the drummer’s dragging or rushing or not playing his part right, everybody feels it. That’s one reason that they’re so hard on drummers is 'cause they have to depend on us for so much. Like I tell the guitar players, "If you guys could count I wouldn’t have to hit the back beat so hard." (laughs) That’s a little drummer joke.

Every band has to depend on a drummer. We were doing a clinic years ago, Buddy Childer, and he was doing his station at the clinic and some kid said to him, “Mr. Childer, who’s the most important person in the big band?” And Buddy says, “The drummer.” "The drummer? I thought you’d say the lead trumpet player,” he said. “Son, if we don’t have a good drummer we might as well all go home. Show me a drummer I can synchronize with and I can play all day.” The drummer has got to be solid or otherwise it’s just not going to work. Basically the bass player, the drummer and the lead trumpet player are the three most important guys in the big band.

Then you get groups like The Rolling Stones. I always liked the drummer there, Charlie Watts, 'cause he’s so solid. He doesn’t play anything that’s unnecessary and he doesn’t play anything that detracts from the music. He's always there to play what’s in front of him. You can’t quarrel with that. You may like other styles, you may like guys who play more or less – it’s up to you what you like cause that’s all personal – but when you get a guy like that who can play music and make time for a band for years, it’s a really wonderful thing. Gene Krupa with Benny Goodman’s band changed the way drummers were perceived by the public. Then Buddy Rich came along and man, where did you get that kind of technique? Jo Jones showed the guys how to play the hi-hats with brushes. Then you get today’s drummers like Vinnie Coliuta and some of these monster players.

You’ll always find there’s a respect amongst the players. Vinne Coliuta, Dave Weckl and guys like that used to come to my clinics, and you have no idea how much you influence drummers of today through your clinics. But there’s a camaraderie amongst drummers that doesn’t exist amongst other players. It’s weird. The single guy in the band with the most responsibility; drummers stick together. The one thing I know is there’s a general camaraderie amongst drummers and there’s not the jealousy that exists with other players. That speaks well for drummers.



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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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