Chris Johnson's Rihanna drum setup in pictures
It was just before Christmas that Rhythm met up with Rihanna drummer Chris Johnson in a decidedly posh hotel in West London. Chris was just about to wrap up a string of sold-out nights at the O2 Arena with the controversial pop superstar.
It’s fair to say that, with her provocative lyrics and outfits, Rihanna would not have met with approval in Chris’s household as a child. He grew up playing gospel music in the church where his father preached in Los Angeles.
“Only gospel music was allowed in the household,” says Chris, who had to wait for his older brother to vacate the drum seat before he had a chance to play.
“My dad had four boys so he had a whole band basically,” he says. Chris is naturally left-handed but playing the right-handed set-up in church led to him developing an open-handed style.
“It was hard at first but I like challenges,” he says. “I just cheat a bit and put the ride cymbal over to the left to make it a little easier.”
Chris started his professional life with gospel singer Donnie McClurkin and had his first taste of international touring with Anastacia.
“That was actually my first arena tour in 2004 or 2005,” he remembers. “I didn’t realise how big she was here in Europe. She lives in the States but it’s like no one knows who she is. We did a two and a half year run, on and off. That got my feet wet for arena touring. That was a fun gig.”
Here we bring you pictures of his kit from that Rihanna tour, along with snippets from Rhythm’s interview, which you can read in full in Rhythm 201. Or you can subscribe to Rhythm Magazine to read interviews with the world’s top drummers each month.
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Next: The kit...
Yamaha Oak Custom: 24x18-inch & 22x18-inch kick drums; 14x51/2-inch snare; 14x8-inch Loud snare; 13x7-inch Musashi snare; 8x7-inch, 10x8-inch & 12x9-inch toms; 16x16-inch floor tom; 18x16-inch Gong drum
How do you approach replicating the sounds from Rihanna’s original recordings?
“I have electronic pads and triggers incorporated in my acoustic kit. We’ll take a lot of sounds from the record and place them in the sampler and then I’ll trigger that snare or kick sound or bells and whistles and reverb claps.
“It was designed that way so it wouldn’t feel like a robot is playing. This is the first time I’ve ever played electronics to this extent on every song.
“I have to change every patch myself, so I have a foot switch next to the hi-hat pedal so sometimes in the middle of songs I have to hit the switch. It took me a while to get used to it but I think I’ve got it now.”
Sabian: 20-inch Ozone crash; 17-inch AAX X-treme China; 19-inch AAXX-plosion crash; 12-inch splash; 6-inch splash; 18-inch Prototype Dry ride; 18-inch HHX Evolution crash; 10-inch splash; 22-inch Artisan ride; 17-inch hi-hats made from two 17-inch Explosion crashes; 14-inch HHX Evolution hi-hats
How do triggers affect the way you play?
“You can’t play ghost notes on a trigger. If you are playing the clap that is on the record on your main snare, you can’t play a fill on the snare.
“It takes some thinking and that’s why playing less is better for you on gigs like these. You don’t want to sound silly playing claps in the way of the song. I have to stick to the script.”
DrumKAT; Akai (x2); Yamaha Chain Drive pedals, Yamaha hardware, Vater 3A Fatback sticks; Remo heads - Emperor Clears on toms, Control Sound on main snare, Emperor Coated on other two snares, Powerstroke 3 on both kicks
With a star like Rihanna, is she heavily involved in the rehearsal process with the band?
“There were times when she was part of the creative process. We’d be in rehearsal in one room and she’d be in another room learning choreography, working on her vocals and she would come in about 6 or 7 in the evening.
“We would play the arrangement of a song and she would say, ‘Yeah I like that, but maybe we can shorten the verse.’ We’ll go from song to song until we get something locked down.”
The mighty oak...
For the Rihanna tour, even though the kit is littered with triggers, Chris still wants his drums to have power and projection.
“I’m playing a Yamaha Oak Custom,” he says. “This is only my opinion but I think oak is a more versatile sounding drum.
“In Rihanna’s show there is some pop stuff, some r&b, some rock and then there is some house-type stuff. Maple is kind of high-pitched so it’s more of an r&b, hip-hop kit. Birch is warmer but to me it doesn’t cut through like the oak does.
“When I sit at the drumset, I’ll take out one in-ear and listen to my drums acoustically. I want to hear the drums. With some drums in big arenas, you hit the drum and you can’t hear it because the sound goes straight out but the oak gives me that bounce-back that I like.”
Now check out Rhythm’s current Issue 202 for an in-depth tribute to the incredible Buddy Rich. Or subscribe to Rhythm here for a monthly dose of new gear reviews, kit buying guides, pro drum lessons and all-star interviews.
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