Archive for 2014

Gretsch Highlights From NAMM 2014

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

From January 23 to 26 the music-products industry gathered at the Anaheim, California convention center for the annual winter NAMM trade show. It’s the largest display of instruments and related items in America, and it draws thousands of attendees each year. As usual, Gretsch drums and guitars figured prominently among the must-see items for those in attendance—and there were plenty of new and exciting introductions from both lines for them to check out.

In addition to the products on display, the NAMM show is also an occasion for awards and concert events—and Gretsch figured prominently there, too. So join us for a look at all things Gretsch at NAMM 2014.

A Tour of The Gretsch Drums Display

Matt Sorum's Kit

The Gretsch Drums display actually started outside the door to the exhibition room, where visitors were met with a Red Glass Glitter USA Custom kit created expressly for veteran rocker Matt Sorum. With credits that include The Cult, Guns ’N’ Roses, and Velvet Revolver, Matt is now touring with Kings of Chaos.

Immediately inside the exhibit was yet another artist’s kit—in fact, a truly iconic one. This was the classic left-handed Black Nitron setup used by Phil Collins on tours and recordings with Genesis and on his solo projects between 1989 and 2007.

Phil Collins' Kit

Appearances on seven albums with sales totaling 40 million units make this one of the world’s most listened-to drumsets.

The incredible variety of available Gretsch drum finishes was illustrated by dozens of rack toms stacked atop Phil Collins’ drumkit road cases from the last Genesis tour.

The USA Custom Ltd. jazz configuration (right) featured a 14×18 bass drum, an 8×12 rack tom, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 5×14 10-lug snare, all done in Ribbon Mahogany.

From the Brooklyn series was a classic setup in Black Oyster wrap. It included a 14×22 bass drum, 8×12 rack tom, 14×16 floor tom, and a 5½x14 snare. The drums were fitted with unique Brooklyn series 3-mm double-flanged “Stick Chopper” steel hoops, which bridge the gap between the open sound of rolled steel hoops and the rigidity and tuneability of die-cast hoops.

A sizeable Catalina outfit (left) was fitted with a new style of drum hardware for the series, including a distinctive new “gas cap” tom mount. The kit included an 18×22 bass drum, a free 7×8 rack tom along with 7×10 and 8×12 toms, 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms, and a 6×14 snare, all in a Satin Deep Cherry Burst finish.

The new Marquee series fits into Gretsch’s drum line just below the Renown series. Marquee drums feature 100% maple shells with tinted exteriors that are given a special poly finish that produces deep colors but still lets the wood grain show through. The drums come fitted with 2.3mm triple-flanged hoops. This kit includes an 18×22 bass drum, a free 7×8 rack tom along with 7×10 and 8×12 toms, a 14×16 floor tom, and a 6½x14 snare, all finished in Satin Indigo.

Pictured to the right is a Catalina Club Rock kit with a classic shallow-depth/large-diameter 14×24 bass drum, matched with an 8×12 rack tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 6½x14 snare. The mahogany shells are fitted with newly designed drum hardware and are finished in Satin Walnut Glaze. For display purposes the kit was tricked out with a Sabian Hoop Crasher atop the snare and an LP Americana Series Octo Snare Cajon on a side stand.

The Brooklyn Ltd. Vintage White kit was on display and had a classic look with a 14×22 bass drum, an 8×12 rack tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 6½x14 snare. And it truly is a “limited edition” since only thirty will be sold world-wide.

This kit on the left was just to see what kind of craziness the USA Custom drum builders could come up with. Starting with the configuration: 20×20 bass drum, 7×10 and 8×12 rack toms, a 12×14 floor tom fitted with snares, a regular 16×16 floor tom, and a 7×13 snare. The deep black finish is set off by two different sparkle inlays. Definitely one of a kind.

On the opposite end of the design spectrum was a USA Custom prototype vintage kit. Inspired by the great Gretsch kits of the 1940s, it featured 3-ply 9×13 and 16×16 toms, with a 6-ply bass drum and snare, all with round-over bearing edges. The hardware fittings are authentic to the period, including a rail consolette tom holder, vintage spurs, internal drum mufflers, and T-rods on the bass drum. The finish is called Capri Pearl.

The striking look of this Renown series kit (right) was created by a new Jumbo Flake vintage pearl finish combined with contrasting dark walnut bass drum hoops. The configuration included a 16×22 bass drum, 7×10 and 8×12 rack toms equipped with special Renown suspension mounts, a 14×16 floor tom, and a 6½x14 snare.

The Catalina Ash series was re-introduced with new Catalina series drum hardware including the “gas cap” tom mount. This kit had an 18×22 bass drum, 7×10 and 8×12 rack toms, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 5½x14 snare—all given a Black-Natural Burst finish.

Gretsch Energy

Gretsch’s entry-level series is called Energy, and it’s been given new drum and hardware specs. The Grey Steel-wrapped kit comes with an 18×22 bass drum, 7×10 and 8×12 rack toms, a 14×16 floor tom, and a 5½x14 snare. Also included with the kit is a selection of Sabian SBR cymbals.

Two “walls of snares” highlighted the many offerings from Gretsch. They featured drums from the USA Custom Shop, the Brooklyn series, the Gold and Silver series, and artist models like the Stephen Ferrone signature snare, as well as drums from the Fender Custom Shop.

Unique snare selections included the Gold Series Zig-Zag Stave model and two Barn Board Stave models.

Distinctive artwork quickly identified the Vegas and Crown of Skulls maple snares (right), both in 8×14 sizes.

For those who’d like a “played hard for years” look in a brand-new drum, Relic models from the Fender custom shop were also displayed.

The Catalina Club kit in White Vintage Pearl graced the “percussion stage” at the LP Music booth. LP is marking its 50th anniversary this year, and Gretsch was pleased to be a part of the celebration. The kit was fitted with new Catalina style drum hardware, and drum sizes included a 14×18 bass drum, an 8×12 rack tom, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 5×14 snare. It was also “tricked out” for the occasion with a variety of LP percussion instruments to give it added sonic versatility.

For more information about new Gretsch drums visit GretschDrums.com.  For more drum-related images from the NAMM Show, visit our drum photo gallery.

A Visit To The Gretsch Guitar Booth

The Gretsch Guitars booth was as much a Mecca for guitar fans as the drum booth was for drummers, with plenty of fabulous instruments to check out. Here’s an overview.

Brian Setzer was prominent among the many artists featured on video explaining why they play—and love—Gretsch guitars.

Gretsch Guitars is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Gretsch USA Custom Guitar Shop, so the display prominently featured guitars that are the work of the shop’s talented craftsmen.

From the USA Custom Shop were two gorgeous instruments, each master-built by Stephen Stern. The first was a ’53 6192 Electro Relic that featured a maple top and neck, mahogany back and sides, a rosewood fingerboard, Dyna-sonic pickups, and a Nitro lacquer finish.

'53 6192 Electro Relic

Ice Blue Falcon

The second was an Ice Blue Falcon NOS, with a maple top, mahogany neck and sides, an ebony fingerboard, TV Jones classic pickups, a space control bridge, and a Bigsby B-6 tailpiece. Both of these custom beauties carry a $12,500 price tag.

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Kaves Custom Designs

Kaves Custom Designs

A totally different type of guitar artistry was offered on some G-6120 models, each of which was custom-decorated with a Kaves Brooklyn finish created by graffiti artist Kaves.

No Gretsch display would be complete without a few classic models, such as the G-6134 White Penguin, the G-6138 Bo Diddley, and the G-6199 Billy-Bo Jupiter Thunderbird.

Bevy of Gretsch Classics

Along with dozens of guitars, Gretsch basses were also on display including a G-6128B-TV Thunder Jet and a G-6073 Electrotone.

The hands-down winner for most unusual instrument on display was the 12-string bass created for Cheap Trick’s Rick Peterson. It featured four standard bass strings, each of which has two accompanying guitar strings. Every string has its own tuning peg.

The Gretsch Roots Collection (selected as a “Gotta Stock It” item at the show) offered historically authentic banjos, mandolins, resonator guitars, and flat-top acoustics, along with a variety of ukuleles.  And Gretsch was proud to have the 9100-L Soprano Long Neck Ukulele selected as a “Best in Show” item by Gayle Beacock of Beacock’s Music in Vancouver, WA.

Rockabilly teen sensation (and Gretsch artist) Wyatt Maxwell took a break from his duties as lead guitarist in Mad Max & The Wild Ones to do some tasteful fingerpicking on a new Gretsch G-5034TFT Rancher Dreadnought.

Gretsch honored many of their guitar artists by including photos of them as part of the display. These included Paul Pigat, Buzz Campbell, and Adam Burchfield—all of whom were performers at Gretsch’s Twang-o-Rama event.

A billboard-sized image of a young Chet Atkins sat high atop the Gretsch display and seemed to offer Chet’s good wishes to all who visited.

For more information on Gretsch guitars visit GretschGuitars.com.  For more guitar-related images from the NAMM Show, visit our guitar photo gallery.

Gretsch Twang-o-Rama

Anaheim, California’s popular rock club The Juke Joint was rockin’ indeed on Saturday, January 25th when Gretsch Guitars presented the Gretsch Twang-o-Rama. The evening featured seven of the hottest roots-rock and rockabilly groups in the country, as well as a last-minute super-surprise addition.  Visit the Gretsch YouTube page for videos from all the great performances.

Paul Pigat And The Memphis Kings

The show was kicked off by Canadian guitar star Paul Pigat, ably backed up by The Memphis Kings (bassist Michael Turturro and guitarist Tommy Harkenrider, joined for the event by drummer Marty Dodson). Blessed with a jazz man’s sheen, a rockabilly heart, and a hobo’s soul, there aren’t many genres of music that don’t pull at Paul’s wayfaring imagination. The immediately recognizable sound of his distinctive guitar playing has helped this unassuming Vancouver native to compile a list of credits that would be the envy of anyone in the music business. (PaulPigat.com)

Paul Pigat and The Memphis Kings

Mad Max & The Wild Ones

Next came Mad Max & The Wild Ones, a unique family band featuring the youngest artist endorsers on the Gretsch Guitars roster: brothers Wyatt (lead guitar) and Duke (vocals, harmonica, and guitar) Maxwell, along with brother Cole on drums. Accompanied on bass by Shane Kiel and fueled by equal parts teenage energy and polished talent, the group was an instant crowd-pleaser. (Mad Max & The Wild Ones)

Mad Max & The Wild Ones

Buzz Campbell

Next up was Buzz Campbell, who’s been touring with Stray Cat drummer Lee Rocker since 2004, and who has impressive credits in his own right. (He founded rockabilly favorites Hot Rod Lincoln, and played with Sha Na Na from 2000 to 2004.) Backed by drummer Ty Cox and bassist Jonny Bowler, Buzz sported a devilish grin and a happy rocker’s attitude as he demonstrated his mastery of rockabilly, roots-country, blues, and roots-rock styles. (BuzzCampbell.com)

Buzz Campbell

The Hot Rod Trio

You don’t get any more authentic in rockabilly look and sound than Southern California’s Hot Rod Trio. With over twenty years of performing together at literally thousands of shows, the group—featuring guitarist Buddy Dughi, bassist Suzy Dughi, and drummer Pete Bonny—were recently inducted into the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame. Their Twang-o-Rama performance left no doubt as to how they earned that honor. (TheHotRodTrio.com)

Hot Rod Trio

Billy Zoom

Billy Zoom opted to perform in a somewhat stripped-down format with a bassist and acoustic guitarist/vocalist but no drummer. The guitar legend is best known as a founding member of the seminal American punk band X, but has also worked with rockabilly great Gene Vincent, The Blasters, Etta James, and Big Joe Turner. In honor of Billy’s longevity in the music community and his contribution to the legacy of Gretsch guitars, Gretsch unveiled the G6129BZ Billy Zoom Custom Shop Tribute Silver Jet in 2008. (BillyZoom.com)

Billy Zoom

Hard Fall Hearts

Hard Fall Hearts are Bryan Kelly (guitar and vocals), Eli Rinek (drums and vocals), and Andrew Verdugo (bass). Hailing from nearby San Diego, this punk/rockabilly outfit offered a high-powered set that combined super-speed playing, in-your-face energy, and a sound that was dark and distinct yet reverent to the roots of rock ’n’ roll. Definitely “not your father’s rockabilly band,” but a hit with the crowd nonetheless. (HardFallHearts.com)

Hard Fall Hearts

The Octanes

The Austin, Texas-based Octanes are one of America’s premier roots/rockabilly bands, and they look and sound the part. Consisting of Adam Burchfield (guitar and vocals), Drew Hays (bass and vocals), and English rockabilly veteran Brian Fahey (drums), The Octanes play mostly original material heavily rooted in hillbilly, while revving up the traditional sound with driving rhythms and a big guitar sound. (TheOctanesTexas.com)

The Octanes

The Romantics

The surprise closer for the evening’s show was The Romantics, featuring Wally Palmar (guitar and lead vocals), Mike Skill (lead guitar and vocals), Rich Cole (bass and vocals), and Brad Elvis (drums). Formed in 1977 in Detroit, the band is considered a pioneer of the American New Wave style, but was heavily influenced by 1950s American rock ’n’ roll, ’60s garage rock, and British Invasion music that was itself an offshoot of American roots-rock. Their crowd-pleasing closer “What I Like About You” was right at home in a rockabilly show, and served as a great capper to a terrific night of music. (TheRomantics.com)

The Romantics

For more great photos from the Gretsch Twang-O-Rama event, check out our photo gallery.

Gretsch Generations

Will, Rane, and Garrett Gretsch

There’s nothing more important to Fred and Dinah Gretsch than family and they are proud to represent the fourth generation of the Gretsch family in the music business. Following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather (and dynasty founder) Friedrich, his grandfather Fred Sr., and his father Bill and uncle Fred Jr., he as well as Dinah are equally proud of the succeeding generations, who are poised to carry on the family name and legacy.

And so it was that Fred and Dinah were joined at the 2014 NAMM show by their cousin Garrett Gretsch (fifth generation) and by two of their grandsons, Will and Rane Gretsch (sixth generation). In addition to attending the She Rocks event on January 24 in celebration of Dinah Gretsch’s Vision Award, the three young men were prominent figures at the Gretsch Guitars booth. Garrett also helped to represent the family at the Gretsch Twang-O-Rama concert, where he introduced members of yet another family: teenage rockabilly family band Mad Max & The Wild Ones.

Proud to be sharing the family legacy, Fred and Dinah Gretsch were happy to be joined at the NAMM Show by fifth and sixth generation Gretsch family members and are looking forward to many more such family gatherings in the years ahead.

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How The Beatles Forever Changed Gretsch

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

Fond memories of February 1964 and how The Beatles forever changed the Gretsch Company

By Fred Gretsch

**SPECIAL UPDATE** Fred Gretsch’s recent interview with Lindsay Lowe of Parade Magazine now posted!!

I remember February 9, 1964, vividly. I was a teenager living in the New York City area and for weeks, all the great AM rock ‘n’ roll radio stations like WABC with Cousin Brucie and WINS with Murry the K had been shouting “The Beatles Are Coming!” and saturating the airwaves with Beatles music. Their single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” had just reached #1.

Yes, The Beatles were making their American debut in New York–still the center of the music world–and would be performing live on America’s top show for showcasing new talent: The Ed Sullivan Show. I couldn’t wait. Local media were in a frenzy and the city was abuzz in anticipation of seeing and hearing these four lads from Liverpool.

Like millions of teenagers, I watched The Beatles with my family (my three sisters, in fact) on the black and white TV set in the living room of our Forest Hills, NY home. The home my grandfather, Fred Gretsch Sr., had built in 1916. The Beatles opened and closed the show and performed five songs live. Seventy-three million viewers also tuned in to see what the excitement was all about. The Beatles didn’t disappoint. In fact, they knocked it out of the park.

Even on a small black and white TV screen, The Beatles didn’t look or sound like any other rock ‘n’ roll group. They were cool in so many ways, but the coolest part for me was that George, the one in the middle, played a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar. I was really proud of that.

As you know, the world of music literally changed overnight as did the fortunes of the Gretsch Company. The day following The Beatles’ performance on the Sullivan show, the guitar boom of the 1960s officially started. We were flooded with orders, letters, and catalog requests – even people wanting to tour our relatively small factory. Like other musical instrument makers, we were not prepared for the British Invasion.

When I joined the Gretsch Company full time in 1965, I saw the impact Beatlemania was still having firsthand. We could barely keep up with the demand for guitars and drums and at one time there was a six-month waiting period. Six months! The two guitars George Harrison played at the time – the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman and Tennessean models – were especially popular. We even moved drum production out of the Gretsch factory to a building a Gretsch cousin owned several blocks away in order to expand guitar production. Without a doubt, the mid-60s were busy and exciting times at Gretsch.

George Harrison was a lifelong fan of Gretsch guitars. Chet Atkins was a huge influence on him and was the reason George purchased a Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar in 1963. George had been playing a ’57 Gretsch Duo Jet up to that time. He bought his black Duo Jet used in 1960 from a Liverpool sailor who had purchased it at New York’s legendary Manny’s Guitar Shop. Since my summer job was helping deliver Gretsch guitars to area music stores, I probably delivered George’s Duo Jet to Manny’s. According to George, it was his sentimental favorite guitar because it was his first American guitar and his first good guitar.

Dinah and I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know George in the late 80s. Dinah wrote George a thank you letter for showing his ’57 Duo Jet on his Cloud Nine album. Two weeks later he called her to thank her for the letter, told her how much he loved Gretsch guitars, and talked about the Traveling Wilburys project he was working on with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. George even invited us to a recording session at Dave Stewart’s home studio and showed us the 20 vintage Gretsch guitars they were using on the album. He also wanted to share an idea for a special Traveling Wilburys guitar. We liked George’s idea and introduced the special-edition Traveling Wilburys TW-500 guitar a year later.

Looking back, I have fond memories of February 1964, The Beatles, and George Harrison. Next to Chet Atkins, George was the other guitar superstar that helped put Gretsch on the map and changed our company forever. The Beatles’ debut led to the formation of countless new rock n’ roll groups. Fortunately for us, and thanks to George Harrison, these new groups also wanted instruments like The Beatles played. I’m grateful George was a Gretsch guy.

Fifty years later, improved versions of George’s favorite classic Gretsch guitar models are available and remain as popular as ever. In 2064, I’m sure we’ll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival to the U.S. I’m also sure a sixth generation family member will be running the business my great-grandfather started in 1883 and offering even better versions of Gretsch Country Gentleman, Tennessean, and Duo Jet guitars. Long live The Beatles. And long live rock ‘n’ roll!

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Celebrating The Career of An Explorer

Monday, January 20th, 2014

On The Passing of Chico Hamilton

by Fred W. Gretsch

Chico Hamilton

If I was asked to describe jazz drumming great Chico Hamilton-who died this past November 25th at the age of ninety-two in one word, that word would be “explorer.” Throughout his long and stellar career, Chico consistently explored new musical territory, new concepts in drum sounds, and new approaches to the design of the drumkit itself. And I’m proud to say that most of that career saw Chico on Gretsch drums.

Of course, there are lots of other words that can–and should–be used in connection with Chico. “Innovator,” “composer,” “teacher,” “leader,” and “pioneer” all come to mind. And I’m sure that those who knew and appreciated Chico’s gifts could add many more.

As a young drummer in the late 1940s and early ’50s Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton gained experience (and early recognition) as a sideman. Even then his versatility and creative nature was displayed, as he worked in a wide variety of musical situations. Those included serving as the driving force in sax great Jerry Mulligan’s quartet (which also featured a young trumpeter named Chet Baker), and spending eight years backing singer Lena Horne.

But it was with his own quintet, which he founded in 1955, that Chico first made his mark on the jazz scene. This was where his “explorer” nature came to the fore, as he put together a decidedly non-traditional group consisting of drums, bass, guitar, cello, and flute. Featuring compositions by all the members of the group combined with collective improvisation, the sound came to be known as “chamber jazz.” The experiment had its fans and its detractors, but no one could deny that it was totally original. In fact. The Chico Hamilton Quintet made such a name for itself that it was featured in the 1957 movie The Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

But it was a different kind of movie–a documentary titled Jazz on A Summer’s Day–that cemented Chico as a jazz star. Filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1958, it captured performances by jazz legends including Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Gerry Mulligan, and Sonny Stitt. Chico and his group added their unique sound and style to the mix of more “traditional” jazz, to wide acclaim.

Based mainly in Los Angeles for most of his career, Chico was a pioneer of what was dubbed “West Coast” jazz, also known as the “California cool” sound. But he never focused on one style for long. After establishing the “chamber jazz” style with his early quintet, he took a harder-edged direction in the 1960s. In 1966 he recorded a funky, soul-leaning jazz album called The Dealer, which introduced guitarist Larry Coryell. (Other bands led by Chico featured such future jazz stars as Ron Carter, Paul Horn, Gabor Szabo, and Arthur Blythe.)

From that time right up until his passing, Chico never stopped creating. He played and toured with a group called Euphoria in the 1980s and ’90s, and he was appearing with them at a monthly New York City residency at the time of his death. He also continued to record up until his ninetieth birthday, when he released a 22-track CD called Revelation.

Many drummers might say that Chico wasn’t a skilled technician on the drumset, in the manner of contemporaries like Max Roach or Art Blakey. But few would deny his contributions as a drumming innovator. The late Phil Grant, long-time artist relations manager for Gretsch, said of Chico, “He had a style of playing drums that was completely different from anyone else. He used timpani sticks on the drumset before anyone else. He was an individual, and his playing was unique.”

Chico also had very specific ideas about drumset design, as described by Chet Falzerano in his book Gretsch Drums: The Legacy of “That Great Gretsch Sound”: “Chico had some progressive ideas of his own for his drumset. He wanted his toms without bottom heads. Gretsch was accommodating and built him a custom set without bottom heads [in 1958) long before it became the rage in the 1970s.” (Interestingly, it was another great Gretsch drummer–Phil Collins–who helped promote that rage.) Chico continued to play his signature drumkit design throughout his career, often removing the front bass drum head as well.

In addition to sharing his musical ideas as a performer, Chico also shared them as an educator. He was part of the faculty at the Parsons New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, as well as the Mannes College of Music at the New School University, both in New York City. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2004. This led to a visit to the White House, where Chico was both an honoree and a featured performer.

In a 2008 interview in the magazine Jazz Times, Chico said, “I can play all over the world, and I don’t have to play anybody else’s music. That’s my reward. I’ve been blessed because I’ve been able to make music, and I make music for music’s sake.”

Checking Out Chico

A clip of a young Chico Hamilton in a battle with drumming legends Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton is posted on Drummerworld.com at http://www.drummerworld.com/Videos/genekrupachicolionel58.html.

You can hear the unique sound of Chico’s unique “chamber jazz” quintet featuring cello, bass, guitar, and sax playing “The Wind” (1956) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_8uztsWTOo.

In contrast, check out the high-energy title track from Chico’s 1966 album The Dealer, which introduced a young guitarist named Larry Coryell. It’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDPmO1VNVJI.

When he visited the White House in 2004, Chico demonstrated his signature mallet-on-toms style in a solo that can be enjoyed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzJ1Pls0n5Q.

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On the Passing of Sam Ulano

Monday, January 6th, 2014

One-Of-A-Kind Drummer And Educator

Drummer, teacher, and controversial drumming icon Sam Ulano, shown at his 92nd birthday celebration and drum clinic in July of 2012.

On January 1 of this year we lost a genuine drumming icon when Sam Ulano passed away at the age of ninety-three. For those who may not know Sam, he was a fixture on the New York City drumming scene for more than sixty years. He was also quite a character, and it’s hardly surprising that “Sam the showman” would make his exit on New Year’s Day.

Sam enjoyed a long and successful career as a performer, including thousands of club dates, shows, and other gigs in the New York City area. He performed or recorded with diverse artists ranging from Moondog to Johnny Lydon’s PiL. And I’m proud to say that Sam began playing and endorsing Gretsch drums in 1947—making him the longest-running Gretsch drum artist.  He was still swingin’ on his Gretsch kit in NYC clubs until shortly before his passing.

But it’s as an educator that Sam truly made his mark on the national drum scene. And he definitely did it his own way—making him equally revered and controversial. Besides his private teaching practice, he founded a drum studio in the 1950s that hosted such guest artist/instructors as Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Papa Jo Jones. Sam also had the first-ever drum-oriented cable TV program, which ran from 1975 to 1981. And he released literally dozens of self-produced books and CDs, along with over 2,500 pamphlets that he called “Foldys.”

Sam’s publications had almost comically “lo-fi” production values, but they were nonetheless high in informational content. In what was perhaps his most controversial teaching philosophy, Sam denounced rudiments as having nothing to do with playing a drumset, since drumsets didn’t exist when the rudiments were established for marching drummers in the 1800s. Instead, Sam focused on reading, timekeeping, and providing the foundation for a band in a musical situation. “Your hands can’t see, hear, or think,” Sam declared at a Gretsch-sponsored clinic at Manhattan’s Sam Ash Music in July of 2012. “You do that all with your brain. That’s where you learn to play the drums. And that’s the only way you’re going to be successful as a player in the music industry.”

Sixth-generation Gretsch family member Logan Thomas (at left) met with Sam at Steve Maxwell’s Vintage And Custom Drums in Manhattan this past August 3. Logan began his own drumming career with a Gretsch kit this Christmas. Also shown are Rob Cook and John Sheridan (left and right, behind Sam), authors of The Gretsch Drum Book, and Logan’s proud grandfather, Fred W. Gretsch.

I’m gratified that my grandson Logan Thomas—a sixth-generation member of the Gretsch family—had a chance to meet and speak with Sam at a Gretsch Day event at Steve Maxwell’s Vintage & Custom Drums this past August. Logan got his first drumset as a Christmas present shortly thereafter, and I know he’ll benefit from the advice that Sam gave him during their discussion at Maxwell’s.

Logan will be in good company, since Sam’s former students include noted TV drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, New York studio stalwart Allen Schwartzberg, and jazz great Art Taylor. These drummers and dozens like them benefitted from Sam’s major premise, which was that reading is the means to success. According to Sam, drummers who can read—and who can play in many styles as a result—are more likely to get work than are drummers with great rudimental technique or blazing speed.

Sam recommended practicing with metal sticks—or even lengths of copper pipe, as shown here.

Another controversial recommendation from Sam was regular practicing with metal sticks to improve hand and arm strength. “If I hadn’t practiced with metal sticks all these years,” he said at the July 2012 clinic, “there’s no way I could still be playing at ninety-two years old.”

Admittedly, Sam had his detractors—or at least those who would debate his opinions about rudiments. Few, if any, teachers would argue Sam’s point about the importance of reading for a drummer with professional aspirations. But many also stress the value of listening to music in order to develop an “ear” for various styles. Some teachers tend to focus on this ear training as the way to develop an authentic “feel” within any given style.

Sam Ulano might have taken issue with these points…but that’s what drumming education is all about: different approaches. Sam’s approach was a practical one, based on years of working within the music business and a desire to prepare drummers for that sort of work. You can agree with that approach, or disagree, or take some of it and leave the rest. But no matter what you do, you should absorb Sam’s fundamental, overriding message: You need to learn to play the drums. Drumming may come “naturally” to you, but to develop those natural skills you need to pursue an education on the instrument. That, I think, will be Sam Ulano’s lasting legacy.

For more information on Sam Ulano, visit samulano.com. There are also some great YouTube clips of Sam. Go to this video to learn how Sam set an early record for long-term drumming. Go to this video to hear Sam discussing how rudiments don’t serve drumset playing. And go to this video to view Sam in performance at his birthday celebration and clinic, held at Sam Ash Music in Manhattan on, July 2012 (just prior to his 92nd birthday that August).

Sam authored dozens of books, CDs, and DVDs over his sixty-year teaching career.