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With the release of Shadows Fall's 2002 album The Art Of Balance, Jason Bittner came to the attention of heavy metal drummers everywhere. His breathtaking chops, astonishing fluidity and unbridled creativity – along with his uncanny ability to turn on the double-bass flash without mauling whatever song he's playing – have made him one of the most emulated modern drummers of the past decade, earning the New York-born sticksman a Grammy nomination and numerous awards from the world's top drum magazines.
Growing up in the '70s and '80s, Bittner developed his style by playing along to videos on MTV and his favorite albums. "Playing to the TV was important because I didn't pay attention to genre," he says. "Whatever was on – ska, pop, metal, rock – I played it. So I got a pretty open mind from that. But drumming to albums was the main thing. By playing along to records, I really keyed into certain licks and grooves. It's also how I developed my ear."
Back in the pre-CD era, the then-teenaged Bittner would slow down vinyl albums in his attempts to divine the secrets of his favorite players. "I'd be like, 'Now, what the heck is Neil Peart doing here?' he says. "So I'd slow it down... 'Hmm, I think that's what he's doing.' I'd do this over and over. I might not have nailed the licks exactly, but I made up my own way of doing stuff – and that became part of my style.”
When not recording and touring with Shadows Fall or working on side projects such as Burning Human, Bittner, who at one time studied at the prestigious Berklee College Of Music, maintains a busy teaching schedule. He raves about his some of his students' almost preternatural abilities ("a lot of these kids are absolutely sick, way better than I was when I was their age"), but he has noticed a downside to what he calls today's "instant everything" culture. "You have kids who can learn tons of technique – fast chops, faster chops, jazz chops, gospel chops, 7/8 licks, pick your poison – and they get it all on YouTube," he says. "The danger is that they’re copying things so exactly that they’re not developing their ear and their imagination, like what I did when I was playing to albums."
He laughs, then adds, "I don't want to sound like an old man, but I think they could be missing out. Sit down with whole albums, not just the one track on iTunes. Some kids do it, but they might be the exception to the rule. I wish they all would do it."
They could start right here. On the following pages, Bittner runs down his picks for 12 Essential Drum Albums.