Glen Sobel's top 5 tips for drummers
“To be a working drummer, you have to be reliable," says Alice Cooper's star sticksman Glen Sobel. "If there’s a gig coming up, I want somebody to say, ‘Oh, I’ll call Glen. He's dependable.’ It's not always about chops. Sure, you have to be a great player – that's a given – but there's tons of great players around. A lot of times, getting hired comes down to being responsible and reliable."
The ability to get along with other musicians is also a key quality one must possess, says Sobel, who expands on this issue in his top five tips for drummers. The top-call player just wrapped 72 US arena dates with Cooper, who was featured as a special guest on Motley Crue's farewell tour, and he says that one of the reasons for the package's success was the camaraderie shared by both camps.
"Everybody with Alice and everybody with the Crue got along great," Sobel enthuses. "When you’re doing a long tour, that’s really important. You need things to go smoothly at all times. I’ve heard about tours where two of the key people in the different bands were at odds, and that can throw everything into disarray."
During days off on the road, Sobel would conduct drum clinics – he notes that the events were as beneficial for him as they were for the students. "It's really easy to get burnt out on the road," he says, "especially if you're playing basically the same set night after night. Playing to tracks of other material at clinics helped to keep me fresh. I even taught a few private lessons at music shops on the road. That broke up the routine, too."
Sobel also found another creative outlet on tour by jamming with other members of the Cooper band at impromptu club gigs. "Most everybody in the band is a singer, so each person has songs they like to play and sing," he says. "One of our guitarists, Ryan, likes Cheap Trick, so we’ll do Surrender or California Man; Tommy, our other guitarist, likes the Ramones, so we’ll do Blitzkrieg Bop; and our bassist, Chuck, likes Motorhead, so we’ll play Ace Of Spades. That helps to mix things up."
And sometimes just taking a break from the drum kit altogether can clear out the cobwebs. “Especially if you feel a rut coming on, give yourself a rest," Sobel says. "I’ll take off for two, three, even four days, and when I come back to the drums, I’m fresh and rarin' to go. There’s a lot to be said for keeping at it and busting through a wall, but you also have to know when to walk away. Give yourself some mental and physical time away from the drums. You won’t lose your chops, and what you’ll gain in sanity will be very beneficial.”
On the following pages, Sobel runs down his top five tips for drummers.
Find the good in everything
“From teaching at a music school for a long time, I’ve come in contact with a lot of young players. Many of them are right out of high school, and they have their minds made up about a lot of things. They place a lot of rules and restrictions on their playing: ‘I’m gonna do this, but I’m not gonna do that.’ It’s almost like they’ve gotten into these cliques in high school that dictate what’s cool and not cool to listen to.
“That’s a bit of a trap. You have to find a way to get away from peer pressure, which is another way of saying, ‘You have to have an open mind.’ When you’re out of high school and you’re trying to become a professional musician, you really can’t be so narrow-minded. I’m not saying that you can’t have your likes and dislikes – everybody does – but try to look beyond what you know and are comfortable with. Getting out of your comfort zone can be really beneficial when it comes to playing music.
“Find the good in everything. If you want to work, you need to be versatile. You never know when an artist will say, ‘Can you play it more… whatever.’ And you should be versed in that other style of music to be able to tackle it. If you only play one thing, you’re going to limit your opportunities.”
“A casual listener enjoys music in a very general way, and of course, it’s important to do that. Music is supposed to be fun on all levels. But when I listen – and it could be anything, a song or a piece of music in a movie soundtrack – I often do something else: I really focus on what’s going on. ‘What’s the drummer doing? Why is he playing that way?’ I might not be learning it note for note, but I’m filing it away for possible future use.
“I really do have this mental filing cabinet of interesting drum parts and tones that, if I wasn’t paying attention, I might not have noticed. It comes about from what I call 'listening defensively.’ It’s a kind of trick I have so that I always have some new things to pull out and offer when I’m playing a new song with somebody.
“This has come in handy on a lot of gigs or even at house parties when people start jamming. Somebody will mention a song, a cover of whatever, and I’m ready. I’ll have listened to the song and made those mental notes – ‘The drummer is doing this.’ So while I might not have played the song before, I’ve kind of done my homework on it already. It’s a little like practicing even when you’re not practicing.”
Be a library of songs
“This kind of dovetails into the previous tip. You need to know a lot of material if you want to be a working musician. Not only will you be able to bond with other musicians – again, you might play a house party or whatever, and that’ll lead to work – but you’ll add so much to your playing wheelhouse.
“There will always be musicians or producers who reference other material, especially during recording sessions: ‘Yeah, we’re going for a real John Bonham vibe here.’ They might even mention a specific song: ‘We want a Kashmir feel here.’ And you have to be able to go, ‘Yep, I’ve got that. Here you go.’
“Or it might be something that’s on the charts right now – people are always borrowing stuff from what they hear on the radio. As a drummer, you need to be up on that. If somebody names a song, you’re going to look really good if you can go, ‘Oh, yeah, it sounds like this.’ You’ll make that recording session fly, and the producer and artist will be very happy they hired you. And they’ll want to hire you again.”
Make a good song cheat sheet
“This has to do with reading music. When I make a cheat sheet or a musical roadmap for a song, it involves notation, but I’m not transcribing it note for note; I’m doing a bit of a Cliff Notes version of the song. I have probably 25 manuscript books with charts for different songs written out. They’ve come in really handy for me.
“If there’s a specific beat for a verse, I’ll notate that beat for one bar, and if the verse is eight bars long, then I’ll put the number eight over it – ‘Do this for eight bars.’ Or maybe I’ll do it for seven bars, and on bar eight of verse one, there’s a break on beat three, so I have to notate that and put the rest on beat four. Maybe then I come into the pre-chorus, which could be the same beat but on the ride cymbal, so I’ll mark that down. And so on. Maybe the chorus is the same beat, but I’m riding on the crash cymbal – I’ll note that, as well.
“Sometimes I don’t write down the fills per se – more like the types of fills: ‘A Dave Grohl-type fill here’ or ‘Do something like Bonham there.’ You start to develop your own form of shorthand. It helps.”
Build your social skills
“People in this business like to keep things in the family, so your overall demeanor and attitude will have a big impact on what kinds of gigs you get. If you’re going to be somebody who's negative and who spouts all of these opinions all the time, people probably won’t call you. They want somebody who’s positive, who’s cool to be around. So you have to work on your social skills and be somebody that people want to have around.
“I’m not saying you have to be fake. I see that all the time, people who do what I call the ‘uber-hang.’ They have an air of desperation about them because they’re always trying to get a gig. It’s a fine line. You don’t want to be negative, but you shouldn’t be phoney, either.
“Friends call friends for gigs – that’s just the way it is. You need to know how to roll with people, how to get along with many different types of musicians, and you also have to know the value in doing favors. That’s important, too. Somebody needs you to help out with something, go for it. You never know when one little favor will lead to something big.
“I’ve never gotten a gig from one of those cattle calls where there’s 200 drummers lined up. I’ve done auditions when there was a shortlist of players, but again, those came about from recommendations. Somebody in the band knew me and vouched for me: ‘Oh, yeah, Glen. He’s a cool guy. He can play the stuff, and you’ll love him.’
“The other thing is, it takes time. I talk to a lot of students who moved to LA to make it in this business; they want to give it six months, maybe a year tops. I tell them, ‘Whoa, whoa… slow down. You need to establish relationships and work your way into the scene. Maybe you can do it in that time, but chances are it’ll take longer than that.’ But all you have to do is make that right connection, and it’ll lead to something. Just be patient and do the work. And make friends. I mean, you can never have enough friends, right?” [Laughs]