by Brian McKinny, Senior Editor
Underneath the cool façade of Johnny Rabb — one of the hottest, most-talented drummers in the world — is a heart that beats like a metronome on fire. The first person to break 1,000 single strokes in 60 seconds, Rabb held the WFD title of “World’s Fastest Drummer”, by playing 1,071 strokes, and brother let me tell you, that’s fast!
Rabb has made quite a name for himself in the realm of elite drummers of the world. As a graduate of the venerable Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass., co-founder of the electronica dance duo, Biodiesel and drummer with Collective Soul, Rabb is constantly on the move. He created his own custom line of Meinl Cymbals, invented groundbreaking drumsticks (The Rhythm Saw) and is reviving his drumstick company (coming to a music store near you!). He also spends a great deal of his time as a product specialist for Roland V-Drums, and conducting clinics and attending competitions all over the world.
Music Insider Magazine recently had the distinct pleasure of talking with Rabb about drums and how he got his start, as well as the company he keeps, what it’s like to be touring with Collective Soul, and what he thinks it takes to make it in the music business today.
Music Insider Magazine: Did you choose to play drums or did they choose you?
Johnny Rabb: They chose me. My parents took me to a Christmas parade in Fairfax, Va. when I was just a kid, and I remember the feeling of the snare line of a marching band coming up Main Street, and then being amazed by the sounds as the drummers marched by. My folks were not musicians, but I remember I got a toy drum set as a gift at around age 3, and anytime I saw a drummer, I just loved the movement of air, the feeling I got inside, I was just drawn into that. I got my first drum kit when I was in fourth grade, a hodge-podge kit that I got for free. I got my first real drum set a few years later, a Tama Swingstar kit.
MIM: What caused you to become serious about playing the drums?
Rabb: The start for me was going on a camping trip with my parents and some buddies, and they showed me “YYZ” by Rush. My friends weren’t musicians, but they were all about the solo on the album “Exit … Stage Left.” It blew me away; I could not believe that it was just the drummer making all that music. I even said to my friends, “All three guys are playing that!”
I can remember they played the song for me on one of those old-school flat decks you’d get at RadioShack, a single mono speaker tape recorder. There was no sound separation, and the sound was really weak, but we were happy that we had batteries, and we could hear this while we were out camping. From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., while they were all trying to sleep, I was in my tent listening to that solo over and over, and I still couldn’t believe that’s it was all Neil Peart. I thought that the whole band was playing it, not just Neil.
After I brought home a slip of paper from school that asked, “What do you want to play in the school band?” my mom make the mistake of hiring a drum teacher for me out of the paper. I had circled “trumpet”, because it was the only thing offered on the list that I thought would be cool, because drums weren’t on the list. My mom had the presence of mind to ask me, “Are you sure you want to play trumpet? Wouldn’t you rather play drums?” I’m really glad she asked me that question, because I said, “Yeah, I really want to play the drums.”
MIM: Who influenced you most when you were starting out playing drums? Did you have any formal teaching before attending Berklee College of Music?
Rabb: My mom got me this teacher, and I’ll never forget … The guy wrote me back later in life, after many years and said “good to see you turned out to actually be a drummer.” I was like, “Oh my god! I’m so sorry for what I did to you!” Because what I did, was this: I took two lessons from him, and in the first one, I barely even listened to him. In the second lesson, I put Rush’s “Exit … Stage Left” album on the stereo, made him listen to “YYZ,” and went, “Oh my god, have you heard this before?”
Of course, he had heard it before, but he was also trying to bring me back down to earth, with his “OK, that’s great, but it’s time to come over here and do this”. He quit after that. I don’t blame him at all, but it just cracks me up that “idiot me” was like, “Dude, that’s cool and everything, but check this Rush stuff out!” That was my poor first drum teacher.
My second drum teacher was Mike Lawson from Skip’s Music in Sacramento, and he stuck. He did all those things, kind of being the tough-love guy, with the “You’re outta here,” and “I’m done with you” routine many times — making me focus on what he was trying to teach me. That continued right up to Berklee, and he definitely rocked. Those two teachers both influenced me — one who did not make it, and I understand why — because I was an ass; and the second, Mike Lawson, who I was probably an ass with, too, but he realized how to make me work hard by doing what he did with some of that tough-love stuff.
MIM: What are some of your earliest memories of playing drums?
Rabb: The vivid memories I have as a kid are of me in my room with my drums, having to play my bass drum with a stick in my left hand — I didn’t have a bass drum pedal yet — and then after, getting a Camco bass drum pedal for about $25 bucks and practicing for a Mother’s Day concert that we did. It was kind of cool, because it wasn’t a school band or anything, but we had a band. There was a tenor sax, a trumpet, something else — I forget what — and me. They weren’t even proper songs; they were warm-up scales! But I had put drums to them, and that was the concert in this neighbor’s backyard.
MIM: Being that Neil Peart was such a huge influence on you early on in life, have you ever had the opportunity to meet him and sit down to talk drums?
Rabb: No, but I’ve been like a foot away from him a bunch of times. He was at DW before when I was there, and we’ve been at several other places at the same time. I really love Steve Smith (of Journey), so there were these couple of times when Steve had to be wondering, “Who is this guy, and why is he at every clinic and concert?” At first, it was like I was stalking him almost, jokingly, of course. I mean, I ran into him at the Zildjian factory, and again at the Berklee Tour — I ran in and asked for his autograph there. Then I asked for his autograph at Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston, and again at another drum clinic, and Steve looked at me as if to say, “Man, you already GOT my autograph!”
I just loved Steve’s fusion playing, and I did come to like his Journey stuff more later on. There’s a point in here, about Neil Peart … So Steve Smith is my favorite drummer still, and we’ve become friends, I’m proud and happy to be able to say that. He occasionally uses the Freehand Technique, which I developed, and is extremely supportive of it, and we have done countless clinics where I’m opening for him, or we’re on the same bill, even some weeklong drum camps in Germany. We have become good friends in addition to musical colleagues.
The point of this whole story is that Steve had invited me out to see him and his band, Vital Information out in LA at some jazz club. I’m sitting there with my friend, Mike Snyder, and I see this guy and his date, maybe his wife, I don’t know … But I notice that there’s this really nice-fitting jacket on this dude sitting right in front of me. The whole concert goes by, and I remember thinking, “It’s pretty cool that this guy dressed up for a night out at a jazz club with his date. So the guy stands up at the end, and I turn to my friend Mike next to me, and I said to him, “Dude, that’s F-ing Neil Peart!”
Then I remembered from watching countless interviews with him that he doesn’t really like for people to come up to him going, “Dude! Oh my God, you’re NEIL PEART!”, and doing the whole star-struck fan thing. So I didn’t go up to meet him on purpose, because I knew that I was so psyched that he sat in front of me the entire show, that my ability to just be cool was totally gone. I was in that mode of, “Dude I used to listen to your songs in my tent when I was 10!”, and that’s just out there, you know? That would’ve sounded weird. I couldn’t think to say anything, so I thought, “I’m just going to leave him alone.” Then Steve comes over, shakes Neil’s hand, and says, “Thanks for coming,” and they leave.
What’s so ironic is I’m just as excited about Steve — but I’ve gotten to know Steve more as a person, and not be so ‘over-the-top’ about it. It was ironic that Steve later came up to me and said, “Did you meet Neil?” I told him no, and Steve said, “Oh! Let me go grab him real quick!” and I said, “No, no, no! It’s OK, I don’t want to intrude, and I know I’m too pumped up and don’t trust what I’d say to him, and it would just be too weird.” So ever since then I’ve thought that maybe it will come up again when it’s more spontaneous and not about anything, but just more a “How’s it going?” kind of thing.
MIM: How do you warm up before a show? What are some of the things you do just before a show?
Rabb: This is totally lame, but honestly, I don’t. I’m not proud of that. For the Collective Soul shows, I do have a pad, but nine times out of 10, it’s a few taps, some double-stroke singles, and a few different things I’m used to doing.
I’ve never had a problem doing the “cold” thing. If it’s literally freezing, that’s one thing. But if it’s a nice room temp, and it’s not freezing … I don’t dig that it happens, but again, nine times out of 10, it’s line check, sound check, show. I don’t bring my sticks back stage with me to the green room and just start tapping anywhere. I don’t really realize that I’m not warming up, but sometimes inspirational fear will make me think, “I’d better go warm up.”
MIM: Do you ever get stage fright, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Rabb: I used to when I was young. I remember I would get the shaky left foot on the hi-hat, like really out of control, and then it just went away. Then I started realizing that I’m able to play the best I can, and if I make a mistake, I can either realize I tried my best or freak out about it, psych myself out and have even more of a chance to be lame. So if there are five people or 15 to 20 thousand people at a festival, I just feel like they are there to see the show, not me. The only time I get stage fright — and it’s not really stage fright, it’s insecurity — is if I’m at a drum festival, and I see some of my buddies absolutely annihilate it on stage, and I go, “I’d better have something to show here, and I had better get rid of the fear of I’m not good enough to do this.” Because when that weird insecurity happens, I’ve noticed that my playing will suffer. If I calm down, relax my brain, and go “Dude, you have a choice — you can either freak out or you can get a handle on this!” That’s when the warm-up thing will happen. For me it’s not so much a physical thing to warm up, but a way to get my mind in the right place.
MIM: Given the extremely physical nature of playing the drums, what are some of the physical difficulties you’ve encountered as a drummer, and how do you cope with them?
Rabb: Unless someone has experienced it personally, that person probably won’t know the exact feeling we’re speaking about, but I can vividly picture and understand what you’re talking about. It’s that “I’m going to lose this stick, it’s gonna be thrown” thing, because your muscles completely lock up your grip, and it is the most helpless feeling.
I’ll tell you, when that happens when we’re playing — I’m thinking of Collective Soul — if it’s been a couple of weeks (since I’ve played a show), there’s a couple of things that happen: I’ll get a few tunes in and realize that I am gripping the sticks so hard to try to drive this thing, that I actually flex the little muscles between the thumb and index finger to the point of them locking up. The first thing I do in that case is to mentally say to myself, “Dude, relax your forearm, relax your grip right now.”
Every time there is a simple 16th note fill going in, and they want it driving the song, if I tell myself to relax the hand and regain my composure, I’ll be fine. I’ll relax the hand, and whichever hand is having the problem, I’ll go to an open-handed grip. I will play eighth notes on the hi-hat and do back beats with my right hand.
It’s funny, because during the rock, country and heavy-hitting gigs is when I get the tension issues. With my other electronica band, speaking about going in cold — I literally do go in cold, and because it’s more finesse playing with drums and bass, and up-tempo stuff, nothing like I just described ever happens. If I’m fighting a monitor, or in-ears, or something’s not right with the levels in my mix — and my mix with Collective Soul is always fantastic — but if I’m fighting my mix or it isn’t monitored well, sometimes I can overplay my parts, hitting the drums much harder when it’s more of an issue where my mix should just be monitored better.
To get back to the question, it’s mainly just a matter of getting me to relax, and then between songs I’ll stretch out my fingers, hands, and do palm-to-palm isometric stretches to work out the kinks. Again, those issues for me don’t have much to do with warming up pre-show but more to do with the fact that I’m just physically gripping the sticks too hard. It’s a mental thing.
Another thing that I’ll do to combat that is go to a bigger stick. If I’m playing a 5A with Biodiesel and have these issues, I’ll go up to a 5B, or while playing a 5B with Collective Soul, I’ll go up to a 2B stick. Luckily, I’ve never had to go to the doctor for anything like carpal tunnel or sprains. If I ever have anything like that happen, I take a break from drumming for a little bit, but that’s been a very rare thing with me.
MIM: How did you start playing with Collective Soul, and what kit are you using on tour with them?
Rabb: I met them by meeting Will Turpin, the bass player at my friend Jennifer Lowe’s birthday party at National Association of Music Merchants. Both of us were very tired from NAMM, and we went to Jen’s party to celebrate. Will was really cool. We were just hanging out talking, and Will mentioned they were auditioning drummers. I wasn’t looking for that at all, I thought the job was already filled! It’s definitely because of the chance opportunity of meeting him there at the party, and then Jen said, “You guys need to have this guy play drums; he’s a bad-ass.” She really pushed and supported the idea of me playing drums with them.
She invited Will come down to the Roland booth where I was demonstrating the V-Drums, and before he got there Jen was like, “Hey download one of their tunes, and do it in a demo.” Reluctantly, I took her advice and did it as a sort of live remix. I changed the tempo real time, and Will smiled when he heard it. That’s pretty much how it went. I did last year’s full tour with them. We’re doing summer shows now, and I’m honored to do it.
MIM: You endorse Roland V-Drums and Meinl Cymbals, among other drum product manufacturers. How did you come to endorse those particular company’s products? Also, what kit are you playing on with Collective Soul?
Rabb: I’ve been with Meinl Cymbals for almost 15 years now, and it’s been amazing. I work for them as an artist. Sometimes I do things for Roland — doing editing and such for Roland Japan, doing patch programming, and stuff like that has been exciting. I love to develop stuff, too. I’ve been fortunate to develop a signature line of cymbals for Meinl, the Safari Series, which is some Gen-X line stuff. To answer your question about the kit I play with Collective Soul, I got really big help from Remo for years with drum heads, and I had my own drumstick company, and I’m starting that up again — that’s a whole other story that was a success back in the day, but I had a bad partnership so now me and my wife are restarting it.
The endorsement thing is different now. I was with DW for about eight years and I stopped, because my partner sold my drumstick company to DW. That was a drag for me, and I just couldn’t be excited about it anymore. They’re great people, and they make great gear, but I just felt like, “Man, I’m doing this for the wrong reasons, I need to end this”.
That segues to the kit. I’m in this kind of thing now where if somebody makes good gear, I get into it. It doesn’t mean that I’m exclusive. I’m really trying to change that, and it’s a very tall order because I’m just one guy, but I’m trying to change that whole endorsement thing a little bit. I have the core things, like heads, cymbals … But when it comes to drum sets, I’m trying to either brand my own drums or work with certain drum manufacturers to come up with something that works for me, as well as the drum company but doesn’t tie either one of us down.
I’ve been working with Hendrix HD Custom Drums, using a drum set that I bought from Rhett Hendrix for use with Collective Soul, and he gave me a good deal on it in return for some promotion for his drum company. The whole tour last year with Collective Soul I used my new HD Custom drum set for all of those shows, including the HDNet Live in Concert show last June in Portland, Ore.
He’s doing stave drums, and this kit is not a stave kit, but he really built this kit quickly, and I used it all last year, and the front of house loved it. It’s like a crushed glass finish, and the lights look killer reflecting off it. Rhett was willing to accept what I was talking about doing, with the “no endorsement endorsement,” with me basically saying, “Hey I used these, and they’re great drums.”
I’ve also been working with Wac’d Drums, the name of which comes from the CEO and president Gary Wachowiak’s last name. He does some amazing free-floating stuff, and I’m working on developing my own drums with them and hopefully retailing them online. I’m just trying to show people that you don’t have to be endorsed if you don’t want to be. You can have the freedom to play a Ludwig kit, or a DW kit, or a Pearl kit or even your own kit.
Once stuff starts going your way, you can become too locked into something through endorsements and contracts and find yourself saying, “Oh, I wish I could play that old-school snare drum, but I can’t because I’m endorsed by so-and-so.” Since I’m not endorsing any particular drum manufacturers, I’ve noticed a freedom of backline, and nine times out of 10, it’s a DW kit up there. I’ve played some Ludwig kits and some Pearl kits while in Canada for the backline.
I don’t have to go to Hendrix Drums to say, “Rhett, you’ve got to ship a kit off to Canada, I’m playing some gigs up here.” Having to provide backline for me everywhere would kill a smaller company. At the same time, with bigger companies, I don’t have to say, “Where’s my DW, where’s my Pearl, where’s my Tama? I have to have it!”
It allows a flexibility I’ve come to enjoy, and I like the innovative side of it, with these smaller drum companies who aren’t afraid to try new and different things. For example, Rhett Hendrix is the guy who’s making the drums, emailing me to say, “Hey, we’re going to do a promo video, can you do it?” I like to be able to do a promo video for him and say, “Hey everyone, these are great drums!” Then my website (JohnnyRabb.com) links back to him, and my mission statement explains how I do endorsements.
By the way, I don’t get stuff free — I bought the kit from him. It’s a very fine line. There’s no way I’d go, “Yeah, give me a free kit” to anyone. It’s “what kind of deal can I get on the drums and equipment I buy?” Because you will get some really good exposure when I use them, and that way I’m not that guy who is the gear whore.
Some people I know have done that — they’ll go booth to booth at NAMM, “Dude, give me that 10-inch snare … Yeah, I’ll put it in my next video,” and they’re “endorsed” by 20 drum companies. That’s not good. So the two companies I’m working with now, Hendrix Drums on the (Collective Soul) tour, and John Spinelli and Casey Grillo, who’s a great drummer, too — they’re working together with Wac’d Drums and Wachowiak. I have a little travel kit, called the City Kit that I built with them and it’s just so cool!
There are so many sides to this: me playing as the drummer for Collective Soul, the clinic side, trying to sell stuff, play in the electronica band, Biodiesel; and me trying to innovate. And this is the magic of having all of these affiliations with the different drum companies — The drums are all by Hendrix Drums, and the snare is by some friends I met in Italy that make solid steel shell snares. The guy uses drill bits to make different artwork on the shells that is just ridiculous. It’s amazing. It’s been awesome to have two snares that I just love, and Ed really love those snares, especially the piccolo sound on “December!”
I’m used to those snares, and there’s no one going, “What the hell are you doing playing those?” The response I get is more like, “Hey, Johnny, thanks for using the snares!” And for that, I can promote the drum manufacturers and their products. For a company like Vibe Drum out of Italy, , , maybe people who see me using the company’s product will ask me where they can buy some of them to sell through their drum shop. They know I’m using the other kits. Rhett knows I’m using the Italian-made snares. There’s no one being had. It’s pretty cool!
To get back to the kit with Collective Soul, it’s a standard 22-inch kick drum, 12-inch rack tom and 16-inch floor tom. The cymbals I’m using are Meinl. I use 14-inch hi-hats, a 16-inch crash for my main crash, a 20-inch dry ride and an Mb20 18-inch crash. Then I have a small stacker cymbal, a 10-inch Candela, a Percussion 14-inch cymbal, and then on top of that is a 16-inch Filter China. I use that for some of the start-offs and some of the trashy stuff in particular tunes.
I’m happy to say that I’m using the Roland SPD-SX Sample Pad. My affiliation with Roland has allowed me to keep the band playing in real time — they’re always playing live, but we’re not locked into anything now. I can trigger loops in real time, or stop them if Ed wants to talk to the crowd, or if someone wants to take an extended solo. You get my point.
For keyboard parts that are literally the chorus, I trigger the keyboard tracks. Boom, they’re live. If I make a mistake, I make a mistake. If I let them bleed into the verse, then it will sound like crap — it’s the wrong damn chord.
So, I’m not playing keyboards, but I’m triggering the keyboard parts. These guys are a live band, there’s no question about that. If you took away what I do — I’m not saying there are so many tracks, there aren’t — I just add a keyboard part to the chorus here and there, a loop to play along to what I’m playing. I’m playing live as well. For example, there’s an 808 bass-drum sample during the song, “Run,” that I do during the chorus, and I’ve got a loop that I do the breakdown on during the song, “Hollywood.” Sometimes that can last the actual album length; sometimes it will go for 10 minutes. It’s great because I can really control this with the SPD-SX, and I think the guys dig it. I don’t want to speak for them, but it seems like they dig the freedom of it.
When Ed starts a tune on acoustic guitar, we don’t use a click. With some of the tunes that have keyboard parts, of course, I’ll use a tambourine click, but the magic is it’s not like some monotonous thing. I’m still so used to playing the electronica music, like house and drum and bass, that the click is not that loud. I’m not so reliant on that, and in fact, there’s times where for all the endings I trigger the click off to do a retard or whatever. So I love that I’m responsible for something besides drums. It’s really a cool thing; it keeps me on my heels.
MIM: What challenges, if any, come with playing and recording with a click track? Do you find it to be constricting, or do you find a certain freedom in using it?
Rabb: It’s not restricting to me anymore. When I first started at a young age as a student at Skip’s, the store started a “Weekend Warriors” program. My drum teacher actually founded that program, and I learned how to use a click at an early age but sucked at it. But then I started listening to programmed music. A lot of Kraftwerk, a lot of Thomas Dolby, or anything programmed. I didn’t know they weren’t using acoustic drums; I didn’t know they were machines.
I got my first drum machine from my drum teacher, started messing with that, and now it’s hilarious how fast I can tell if I’m ahead, behind or right on. It’s very funny, even to the point with my electronica band, Biodiesel —130 bpm for a lot of the dance stuff; 170 bpm for my drum and bass stuff — I can jam. People come up and ask, “Are you using Ableton?” I use Ableton Live quite a bit, by the way. And with Biodiesel, it never stops; there’s never a point where we take a break and say, “Hey everyone, welcome to the show!” It’s an hour and thirty to two-hour-long DJ set. I’m triggering [all kinds of sounds], and as you can imagine, there are a ton of waves taking off, so I haven’t been using a click.
I’ve been using the house four-on-the-floor beat as a click or a drum loop, but if we get to a live jam with a keyboard player, we’ll go 10 minutes with no click, and it’s kind of funny how internally I’ve built that click up, because when you fire it back in, it’s rare that I’m like “Oh my god, I’m five or 10 clicks off.” I’m ready to get right back on it when I fire off the drum loop again. There’s no train wreck, so it’s kind of cool.
I wrote a book called “Jungle Drums ‘n’ Bass”, it’s all programmed stuff, but it’s a catch-22. I can play with a click like crazy, but sometimes, I’ve noticed with the old-school funk that I’m a little stiffer, and it’s always good to out and play a jazz/funk gig and get away from the click for a while. I’ve noticed that my “feel” had suffered over the years, and I love DJ/dance music. As for the studio stuff, it’s always smart to play with a click. If you want to lay in a loop or do some overdubs later or an actual locked-in part, it’s important to use a click. It just makes things easier for the engineer to punch you in, or if you’ve got a producer who wants to drag and drop a part on top of what you played after the fact, in post(production), it has to line up. It’s ridiculously hard to do that without the base tracks having been played to a click track.
MIM: Electronic drums can be strange and intimidating to the uninitiated. What are the key things to learn first when a drummer starts using electronic drums and programming the drum’s brain?
Rabb: I have to tell you that I appreciate hearing exactly what you just said, because I’ve been with Roland for what feels like 12 years — it’s probably been around eight years, and that’s because they’ve been like family. Back in the day, I owned a Yamaha PTX-8, and I was inspired by Pat Mastelotto of Mr. Mister. I was so into what he was doing, and (Dave) Weckl, too. So I experimented, and I didn’t realize how much I was learning back then; in fact, I was still intimidated. But then I got rid of it because it was so expensive. There’s no doubt that it’s an investment. People can’t seem to differentiate, and I agree with this, that the acoustic kit is a necessary thing, and the electronic kit is secondary, or possibly, they still don’t get it.
In fact, it’s different because when you think about guitar players and the acoustic guitar, I doubt that too many guitarists have only an electric. I’m sure there are the players who have a nylon-string acoustic, a 12-string acoustic, and then their Les Paul or Stratocaster or Telecaster — whatever is their main instrument. So at some point, it will be looked at as both a necessary and secondary instrument. But unfortunately, because the technology is still so new, a lot of people are saying, “Oh man, I hate electronic drums.”
I’ve been with Roland for so long that I’m training people on these drums, and so my point is that I admit I got “trained” without even knowing it. It’s funny, because I laughed when a guy from a big rock band, I won’t say who or which band, asked me how to perform one of the most basic things on the drum brain. “How do you do a factory reset?” and to me it was a simple push of a button.
So I can’t see living without them at this point, and I do full gigs with them right now. Do I play in Collective Soul with a Roland Td-30 V-Pro Series? No. But do I record pieces for demos and for finished album projects? Absolutely. Do I do audio? Yes. I know Roland doesn’t love hearing this because they want to see their drum kits on the main stage, and I do, too. But it is the most amazing practice tool ever devised. And when I say practice, I got ready for the entire Collective Soul tour last year without ever playing an acoustic kit. Electronic kits — I’m all for them.
There are times that I’ll be at home with headphones on, or my in-ears, down in my little basement studio , and I get so inspired by a kit that I start playing total fusion, and then I’ll bump over to this rock kit and just play a whole lot simpler, and I can vary styles easily.
On an acoustic kit, I get that one kind of sound, and I understand it — I love it! But on the Roland set, I’ll go from a jazz kit, to a punk kit, rock kit or a futuristic kit, and my playing style changes, and this is what has been so neat to me about V-Drums, or any electronic drums. I think that they’re necessary, from the beginner level all the way up to the professional-artist level. This will help people like yourself, or anybody, be able to practice and record, and get a better sound than most people could on an acoustic kit, without having to learn how to mike an acoustic set, head selection and tuning, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I mean I’m into it all.
But electronic drums simplify all that, and that’s a good thing. They’re awesome. There is a price tag that goes with them, though, and I get emails from people every so often, “Dude, Roland just came out with these new drums, and I just bought mine a year ago! What the hell?” And I understand how you’re frustrated, but it’s no different from buying a new car. I mean, Toyota’s not going to fold up shop and not come out with another new model next year. Look at it this way: What do you do with a used car? You sell it and go get a new one.
The V-Drum market is much the same. You have to decide whether or not to get involved. The price point varies, as there are kits at every price point to fit every budget. There are so many ways people can go, and I think that people forget that cymbals, heads, cases — and all that goes with buying and owning an acoustic drum set — cost money. The price point to me is very comparable to what you would spend for a quality acoustic set, because you change heads often, break cymbals occasionally, and sticks break or wear out.
On V-Drums, I’ve never worn out a mesh head. I’ve also never broken a stick playing V-Drums. I understand that for most people, though, it’s a choice of one or the other — acoustic or electronic. If I would have had these at Berklee in the dorms, even an entry-level Roland HD-1 kit with the patch pedals; I would have been able to do so much more. I mean, just because I had to haul the acoustic kit down to the shed, set up, play, tear down and haul it all back, a lot of the time I’d go, “Maybe I won’t practice today.” Honestly, I didn’t always feel like going through all the hassle just to set the kit up. I’m a big advocate for both acoustic and electronic drums — there’s no favorite to me, I love them both, but an electronic kit is so much more conducive to regular practice and playing.
MIM: Do you prefer playing live shows and clinics, or do you prefer playing in the studio and recording?
Rabb: I love the live performance more, but it’s a close second with the studio. I like performing live, whether it’s with Collective Soul or my band, Biodiesel, or live solo stuff or clinics. You get the interaction from the audience, and I love it. And I always loved it as a kid when I saw a live band. You’re like, “They sounded great live!” It’s right then. There’s just something about it, especially if the mix is good, and you’re nailing it. I’m talking both as an audience member, and as a performer on stage.
I’ve seen studio sessions — they’re fun to watch — but I’d rather watch a live show. It’s pretty cool when people are into something you did, and they respond in a way that makes you go, “Wow, that’s awesome!” I don’t care if it’s a club situation or a big outdoor thing with Collective Soul, it is such a rush to feed off the crowd’s reaction to what we are playing on stage. It’s the best feeling I can imagine.
MIM: Tell me a little about your drum clinic work.
Rabb: I started off as just that — a clinician, and it was by accident. If I was going to have a drum career, that meant I had to play in a band, I had to be a road guy, a studio guy or a clinic guy, because I wanted drummers to know who I was, and that was my personal goal. I started doing clinics right out of college. The first one I gave for free, and then, quite honestly I did it out of the necessity to promote my drumsticks.
I was in Nashville for 12 years, and in Nashville, I did everything from playing country with a bunch of country artists to touring to develop my stick line. To get the line into the dealers, I’d do free clinics, and that’s when DW jumped on board. And then different companies, Meinl and others got involved, and I thought, “Wow, I’m actually making a career out of doing clinics!” I was being paid to do festivals, and it was actually a happy accident with doing clinics.
The days of how they used to do clinics seem to be over. I still do some with Roland, but I used to do literally a hundred clinics a year. The economy took a hit, and now it’s an entirely different thing. But that was what put me on the map, just drummers drumming, with clinics and festivals: Montreal Drum-Fest, Belgium Fest; I did Meinl Drum Festival a couple of times and Mexico Drum-Fest. There have been a lot of cool stuff like that, and the reason I love clinics so much is that you’re not playing with anyone. You’re playing on the instrument as a soloist, and that is a fun thing. Some people probably don’t like it, but I think it is loads of fun!
MIM: What do you think has happened to the clinics these past few years? Do you attribute the decline in the number of clinics being sponsored by manufacturers and music retailers to the slowing economy, or are there other factors?
Rabb: I think the audience is definitely still there for clinics and clinicians. I did clinics for Guitar Center and even Mars Music when they were still around; I did so many of those! I don’t want to be negative, but there’s a lot of these Internet guys that drive me a bit bananas, because they’ve got a whole following, which I give them respect for beating people to the punch, getting in on it at the right time. I think the most frustrating thing for me is that I had the idea to do these things, probably around the year 2000 or so.
Back then, it took a lot of money to do something like this — there wasn’t anything like YouTube. Now these online contests make people who win think they’re immediate drum pros, they’re top-level players, and that is what can be a pitfall for some of the younger, less experienced players. And again, I want to make it clear. I love these contests. I did contests, too, like the Guitar Center Drum-Off. I didn’t win, but I worry now that the people who win these things get instant endorsements. I’m worried about the message this sends to these contest winners. They think their careers are set, and when the hype has settled down from their drumming, will they be gigging after the fact?
I think there will be a point where someone in the know says, “Hmm, I don’t think this person knows totally what he or she is talking about.” Some stuff going on online really bums me out — I have to be honest. I think that the Internet is neat, but I’m trying to learn to not let myself get frustrated, because I’ve had some things I’ve developed stolen that these Internet guys have marketed as things they’ve done, and it’s frustrating.
It’s very easy to see how an entire generation can miss out on the people I grew up watching and learning from how to play. It’s easy to be bypassed and get a kind of flavor-of-the-month thing going, and then somebody else comes in, and people start saying, “Oh this guy’s the best in the world, I’ve never seen anything like it!” And then some young players aren’t aware of Steve Smith or Dave Weckl. It’s just so weird to me. I give credit for some decent drumming, but I can’t lie and say I’m not a little bummed about the way things are on the Internet. And it’s hurting the live drum clinic market.
MIM: Being a successful musician, takes a level of business savvy and self-marketing skills that a band or artist used to leave up to the record companies and A&R executives. Today’s industry provides anyone who has the talent, business sense and drive an opportunity to be heard by taking advantage of the various types of electronic distribution available to musicians today. Internet behemoths like YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, Amazon.com and ReverbNation provide portals that the independent musician could only have dreamed of just a decade ago. The power has shifted from traditional record companies to artists, and the artists’ ability to create music and market it directly to their fans for sale by download is the business model currently driving the music industry.
This shift has turned the music industry upside down, as it has become much more of a “democratic process.” However, like every democratic entity, it can be chaotic, and this democratic chaos has created an environment ripe for picking by unscrupulous people. They have no qualms about stealing works and ideas of artists and making illicit dollars from those thefts. How have you personally been affected by these changes to the music industry?
Rabb: Yeah, it’s bitten me so many times. Case in point: my “freehand” technique. It was ripped off from Day One when it went out on VHS. YouTube had just come out, and this guy sees the video, goes into the studio, makes this video, which is a virtual copy of my technique. He was selling his version of my technique on DVD for $70 bucks a pop! This guy had to have been in grade school when my video came out, the initial VHS tape of it, and he had no clue before seeing my video of the technique or how to use it. And it just kills me, because it’s the one thing that I worked really hard on to develop and market. I got the dude to admit it to me over the phone that, yes, he took it from the video I made on YouTube, and now he totally goes backwards on it, and I was just about ready to release it on DVD — and now I’m not. I got on YouTube to start researching, he’s done it again, and this time he’s giving it away free! This is the kind of thing that really worries me about the industry today.
MIM: Tell me about your band, Biodiesel. How did you and Clay Parnell come together on this project, and how would you describe Biodiesel to those who may not be familiar with it?
Rabb: We met around 2007, I believe. He was already in a band called Brothers Past, and it was kind of a live EDM/electronica kind of jam band, playing the club circuit. A mutual friend wanted me to join the band, The Disco Biscuits, and that didn’t end up happening, but at their Camp Bisco, which is this huge, very successful jam-band concert festival in upstate New York, I got to sit in with the band The New Deal.
A buddy of mine who took me there was trying to get me to meet people, and I met Clay, and we did an impromptu gig in New York City. It was supposed to be me and Clay with keyboard players, all live electronics stuff. Clay played bass and keyboards, and I played drums and threw in some samples off Ableton Live — live drums and bass, house and some dub-step and other different things. We’ve been doing it for the past five years. We have a few festivals coming up in the near future here, like Disc Jam in Massachusetts on June 15, 2013. We’re doing the circuit, playing in clubs and at festivals with a mix of live electronica, DJ and rock.
We just got done doing a Southeast tour and an East Coast tour for about three weeks, playing in Philadelphia at The Blockley. We played in Connecticut, in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Bowl. There were some really good shows. We got to work with LTJ Bukem, a pioneer of drum and bass; we got to play with DJ Logic and have him scratch and do some stuff on stage with us at a warehouse event. It was amazing, I have a recording of it, and we’re going to do a free download of it. It was so cool to have him play with us. The look on his face is just so intense, like he’s going to kill you. I’d think, “Man, is he hating this?” But he came up to me after and said, “Man, you’re like a machine!” I was just like, “Oh, fantastic!” That was so fun, because here’s a guy scratching like a great player would groove, or do a riff on a conga, or play rhythm guitar. It’s just ridiculous! We did some really exciting stuff on this last tour, and Clay’s one of my best friends.
MIM: What do you do in your down time when you’re on tour?
Rabb: I went mountain bike riding with Collective Soul bass player Will, and that was a lot of fun. A lot of the time, I’ll just program or write music. In the future, I’ll probably do more working out, or stuff with Will, or if I have the time, fish. On the road, it’s kind of hard to find places to do that, and I really love to fish, especially bass and cat fishing. Growing up in the Sacramento area, me and my buddies spent a lot of time fishing for some pretty major stripers in the Delta, and it was nuts! Fishing is definitely my biggest hobby.
Also, I’ll probably do a lot of on-the-road business stuff — my wife and I have a cymbal sales business that is starting up, called Meinl Select, where I’m selling cymbals from Meinl that I’ve hand-selected from their warehouse, and then also the drumstick company that my wife and I are starting back up again, so I’ll be trying to keep track of that stuff as well, both for fun and business. The new online endeavors probably will mean recording more content for that on the road, video lessons and things like that. But purely for fun, I love hanging out with the guys, fishing, exercising. The last tour really didn’t allow for a lot of that, but the next one might.
MIM: What’s on your iPod? What kinds of music do you listen to for pure pleasure?
Rabb: It’s just been such a mix of things. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of electronica stuff, and DJ mixes, a lot of house and drum and bass: DJ Goldie, LTJ Bukam. And then there’s stuff like Robbie Robertson, Robert Palmer, The Outfield, Wang Chung — every one of that type of pop band from the 80s you can imagine. Older Robert Palmer, his funkier stuff — I’m just freaking out over. I was listening to the “Power Station” CD just the other day. Weirdly enough, I don’t really listen to Rush that much anymore. I’m still very influenced by Neil Peart, but there’s a lot of old funk stuff on my iPod these days, too. There’s everything from P-Funk to Earth, Wind and Fire’s early stuff , to Bootsy Collins, and James Brown. I mean all those old bands like the O’Jays . And then from DEVO to Kraftwerk, it really is all the genres. I’m even a sucker for those female vocal lead dance remakes of like a Don Henley tune. That’s how weird I am — I love the production! My collection is really eclectic in the mix, to say the least.
MIM: What are your plans for the future? What do you have in store in the coming month and year?
Rabb: I see myself doing more teaching, performing with Collective Soul and drum clinics. It’s just that I love being home. I’m focused on family stuff. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy touring, going all over the world playing clinics and festivals, and especially touring with Collective Soul. The guys in Collective Soul are just such real pros, as are the crew and management, and they all have their act together. It’s a real pleasure to play and tour with them. It’s cool! We’re all buddies, we have fun and laugh, and have a great time doing the shows, but no matter what tour you’re on, you inevitably reach a point where everyone says, “I’m ready to go home and sleep in my own bed!”
I’m very thankful for the road, but man, I’m hoping someday to be able to make a living just from home. It would be nice to be able to play a funk gig down the street for free and have an outlet, and still be able to make all my money from home. It’s something nice to wish for, because I like being at home.
MIM: Are your Collective Soul tour dates firmed up and posted on your website?
Rabb: They are up! I will say that this year, they are taking a bit of a break to do some writing, and have some family time. We just had a baby, and everyone’s doing stuff with their own families — all but one of the members has children. We did about a two-month-long tour last year. We’re busy May through July, and Collective Soul is preparing for the 20th anniversary of their first release, which is next year, so I think it’s going to be a big year for the band. They deserve the success. I’m happy to be a part of that, and I’m gearing up for it! I’d like to record a solo album — I don’t see when I’ll have the time to do that, to be honest, but it is a personal goal of mine. I’m working with Joel James on a recording project, and you should check out his website www.joeljames.com! He is one hell of a guitar technician and musician, and I’m looking forward to doing more work with him on his project.
I’ve also been revamping my online business, the drumstick company, Johnny Rabb Drumsticks, and the Meinl Select website for sales, and then my online venture for drum lessons and video downloads. If you want to find out about Biodiesel, just check out our website.
As I said, I just want to be home for events like birthdays and anniversaries, and to hang out. At the same time, it is important, as you know, to get out there and make a living. So I’m trying to figure out ways to change it up a bit and not rely on what I used to rely on, which included heavy travel with Roland, and change it to only being on the road to make money, and find ways to revamp my career to make it make more sense for my home life. It’s a lot to try to get a handle on really, but I think in the end it will be well worth it.