We’ve featured Mark Guiliana before, as one of the Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters. He is indisputably a superstar on the jazz scene. And on the fusion scene. And, frankly, on just about any scene he cares to take part in. Recently, he added the “education scene” to his resume, with the release of an eighty-eight page book and accompanying three-hour video, titled “Exploring Your Creativity On The Drumset.”
Of course, just listening to Mark play is an education in itself, and I highly recommend that you check out his playing on any of his recordings. (Some YouTube clips are included below for your enjoyment.) But Mark’s book/video package has already received so much acclaim that it’s been nominated in the “Best Educational Project” category in the prestigious Modern Drummer magazine 2017 Readers Poll. Not bad for his first effort in this area.
What makes Mark a Great Gretsch Educator is the way he shares his information. Instead of claiming to have a secret formula for success or a quick way to get good, Mark simply lays out the practice methods that he himself used to achieve his unique voice on the drums. He doesn’t suggest that you learn to play exactly like he does; he simply suggests that you might benefit from studying the way he learned to play that way.
Mark’s system involves what he terms “D.R.O.P.,” which stands for dynamics, rate, orchestration, and phrasing. Each of these concepts has a section in the book defining and explaining it, with plenty of challenging material to work on.
In the accompanying high-quality video Mark personally demonstrates many of the exercises contained in the book. There’s also a great studio performance featuring two of Mark’s long-time collaborators—bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist Jason Lindner—that puts all of Mark’s instruction into a clear and entertaining musical context.
In their December 2016 review of Mark’s project, Modern Drummer called it “a rare look inside the systems and practices of one of the most distinctive and influential drummers of the past decade.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Mark in clinic performance at the 2015 Percussive Arts Society International Convention. (PASIC).
Here’s Mark soloing (in 7/4, no less) with the group Now vs. Now, recorded back in 2010. He was remarkable even then.
Not a playing clip, but a nice backstage interview with Mark at the 2016 London Drum Show, where he discusses how he unlocks creativity.
Today’s young guitarists are taking advantage of the thousands of guitar and recording app options they can download onto their smartphones and tablets. Without a doubt, digital technology has played–and will continue to play–a huge role in the day-to-day lives of these young musicians. The rise and success of these young guitarists can still be attributed to good, old-fashioned drive, hard work, and hours upon hours of practice…but with some help from today’s technology to boot.
Okay, now about these “Young Thumbs”…
“Who are these kids, and why are they winning these awards?” That was the question fingerstyle guitar fans were asking back in 2013 and 2014, as a wave of young guitarists – many of them barely teenagers – were not only competing against adults in national guitar competitions, they were also winning.
Young Thumb members pose for a group photo at the 2015 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention. From left: Evan Twitty, Gracie Constable, Chelsea Constable, Samuel Grounds, Parker Hastings, Kirby Jane, Tanner Duckworth, Sojourner McClure, and mentor John Knowles CPG. Photo: Jennifer Keller Easler.
John Knowles CGP (left) and Parker Hastings performing together at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN. Photo courtesy of Parker Hastings.
Sixteen-year-old Sojourner McClure placed first in the Traditional Category at the 2013 International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Championship, held annually at the Merle Travis Music Center in Powderly, Kentucky. The following year, history was made at the competition when 14-year-old Parker Hastings won BOTH the traditional and the contemporary thumbpicking categories (and history would be made again two years later when two young ladies swept the thumbpicking event for the first time).
In Nashville, the same youth movement was being noticed at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society (CAAS) Convention. Although not a competition, the largest gathering of fingerstyle guitar fans and performers in the country saw an increase of young attendees who were jamming with each other in the hotel lobby, and signing up for as many Open Mic slots as possible at the four-day event. Older, more established performers were noticing too, with several of them inviting these young up-and-comers onstage to play and get exposure.
At the 2014 CAAS Convention, John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel, two legendary master guitarists who were both awarded Certified Guitar Player (CGP) honors from their mentor, Chet Atkins, were impressed and excited with this infusion of new talent at the Convention. John and Tommy decided the time was right to gather these teenagers in a room and have them perform for each other for the first time. The result was magical. The room was packed, the young players were jaw-dropping good, and the older players realized the future of fingerstyle playing was in very good hands. As a result, a new club was formed: The Young Thumbs. “At some point, someone suggested calling the players the Young Guns,” said John Knowles. “But I said, no, this isn’t a shootout. It’s a family. What about the Young Thumbs? It was a paraphrase of Young Guns and everyone liked it.”
The original goals of the Young Thumbs were to get them noticed at the CAAS Convention so they could perform their own sets onstage; help them make connections with the older, established guitarists and find a mentor; and encourage them to connect with each other. Two years later, these initial goals have been met. The Young Thumbs currently total about 25 male and female members up to the age of 21, with some residing as far away as New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, and Australia. In addition to the invaluable advice and encouragement they receive from John Knowles and Tommy Emmanuel, there’s also a small support group of adults volunteering their time to manage the Young Thumbs’ Facebook page and assist them with basic marketing and promotion.
When talking with these young guitarists and asking them about influences, two answers come up regularly: Tommy Emmanuel and YouTube. “I think it’s Tommy’s world travels and YouTube that are the two biggest factors,” said John. “Tommy is the gateway to this style of guitar playing now because there’s more people hearing him and there’s an electrifying energy in what he does. They’ll find Tommy on YouTube, then click on the recommended links and discover who came before Tommy and influenced his playing: Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Merle Travis.”
Katelyn Prieboy, Grand Champion (left), and Bella Speelman, Runner-Up, with mentor John Knowles CGP, after receiving their Gretsch guitars for being the first females to sweep the Legends Thumbpicking Championship. Photo by Ron Denny.
Two Young Thumbs members, Katelyn Prieboy and Bella Speelman, made history at the recent 2016 International Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Competition in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, by being the first females to place first and second in the 28-year history of the event. And, both credit YouTube as being their primary teacher.
“YouTube has been simply invaluable. I don’t know how many hours a week I’m on it,” shared 19-year-old Grand Champion Katelyn Prieboy. “There’s so much music for this genre available that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s such a great resource for watching videos of your guitar heroes and learning from them.”
Runner-Up Bella Speelman, 17, and a senior in high school added, “My teacher didn’t know this style, so YouTube played a big role in me finding Chet Atkins and learning how to play like him. Although I’ve listened a ton to Chet and I’ll listen to a song at least 50 times before I try to learn it, it’s so helpful watching a video of Chet; seeing where he played things and learning by watching his movements on the fretboard.”
Fellow Young Thumbs member Parker Hastings added, “YouTube is a pretty powerful tool to see footage of Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Jerry Reed, Lenny Breau and other artists. Literally with a click, it is all at your fingertips; an endless supply of visual inspiration. Plus, YouTube now has a feature that lets you slow the video down if you’re trying to learn or steal a lick without affecting the song’s pitch. A far superior method to how the older pickers learned back in the day: loading a turntable with coins or weights to slow the record down.”
Kirby Jane, 22 and a Young Thumbs “Alum,” is one of several female fingerstyle guitarists making a name for herself in Nashville. When asked about the importance of YouTube, Kirby shared, “I was one of those kids that started with YouTube. Joe Robinson is one of the first guitar stars of the YouTube generation. He taught himself primarily through YouTube because, like me, he lived in a small town. Joe’s videos on ‘Australia’s Got Talent’ led me to Tommy Emmanuel’s music, then Tommy’s music lead me to John Knowles. I can still remember watching Edgar Cruz’s `Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Tommy Emmanuel’s ‘Beatles Medley’ videos on YouTube. They’re the two videos that lit a spark and led me down this road to learning fingerstyle playing.”
In addition to YouTube, today’s young guitarists also take advantage of the thousands of guitar and recording app options they can download onto their smartphones and tablets. GarageBand and JamUp are two apps that give them access to dozens of stompbox effects and amps and makes recording easy. GuitarToolkit is a popular app containing scales, chords, a metronome and a tuner, and Audacity TempoSloMo, and BestPractice are apps that let them import and export audio files and slow songs down for practicing and learning. Many Young Thumb artists also use OnSong, an app that replaces binders and paper, and digitally stores music and set lists. And, Skype is a very popular tool these young musicians use for staying in touch, sharing songs they’re working on, and swapping guitar licks back and forth in real time from practically anywhere in the world.
Without a doubt, digital technology has played – and will continue to play – a huge role in the day-to-day lives of these young musicians. And, with one hour of video being uploaded onto YouTube every second, (that’s right, every second!), it will continue to be the primary site musicians go to for learning and inspiration. But, these young musicians are quick to point out that technology is only a tool. The human element of playing together with other people, jamming, sharing guitar licks, and getting feedback and encouragement from fellow musicians is still vital to their growth and development as artists. John Knowles, the main mentor of the Young Thumbs, shared, “I haven’t seen any parents pushing their kids to play like Chet Atkins. Each of these Young Thumbs found this fingerstyle playing in their own way, but once they heard it, something clicked, and from then on they were relentless like I was, like Tommy was, like Chet was, like all of us were. The Young Thumbs are all self-motivated, and they’ve gotten this far by being self-learners, self-motivated learners.”
Check out these great videos from these fantastic Young Thumbs:
Bella Speelman performing “Black Mountain Rag” at the 2016 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention in Nashville, TN:
Parker Hastings performs an original composition “Looking for Licks” at 2016 CAAS Convention:
Katelyn Prieboy performing one of her favorite Chet Atkins arrangements, “Swedish Rhapsody,” from Atkins’ 1956 “Finger-Style Guitar” album:
Kirby Jane performing her arrangement of Randy Newman’s “Lonely at the Top”:
Parker Hastings and John Knowles CGP, performing “Cold, Cold Heart” at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN:
More videos from the 2016 CAAS Convention can be enjoyed on The Gretsch Company’s YouTube Channel.
If you’re looking for a drummer who can do it all—and, in fact, who has quite literally done it all—you need look no further than Alvino Bennett. A veteran of stage and studio, Alvino has made a career out of providing whatever a given artist needs from a drummer. And he’s done it with his own brand of style, taste, and musical skill.
To say that Alvino got an early start is an understatement. He was only ten years old when he joined the William Penn Elementary School drum and bugle corps in his home town of Chicago. Only a few years later he was playing for various local bands, and by the age of fourteen he was traveling the country on the club circuit. When he was seventeen he was spotted in a club by blues legend KoKo Taylor, who tapped him to lend his talents to her act. This led to calls from other blues and R&B luminaries including Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Cash McCall, and Mighty Joe Young.
But blues and R&B were just a part of Alvino’s skill set. In 1974 he was called to tour with the great pop songstress Minnie Ripperton. This, in turn, led to a whole new variety of projects, including recording with The Sylvers and several other Motown artists.
Then came 1978 and membership in the million-selling R&B band L.T.D. Alvino’s five-year stint in this group boosted his reputation to first-call status, and he quickly became the go-to drummer for such stars as Cheryl Lynn, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Loggins, Bryan Ferry, Robin Trower, Sheena Easton, Little Richard, Slash’s Blues Ball, Patrice Rushen, Little Richard, Soul II Soul, Chic, Bo Diddley, and many more.
In 1996, at the summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Alvino became part of history. He was playing with Jack Mack & The Heart Attack (on Tony Williams’ Gretsch drumkit, no less!) when a bomb exploded nearby.
“We had played two or three songs when we realized that something had happened out in the park,” Alvino recalls. “I was sitting directly under the Jumbotron that showed everything that was going on. It was moving. We saw the audience running in all directions. We thought one of the big amplifiers had gone out. But it was the bomb that went off.” (You can read the full description of this event on Gretsch.com. The blog is: The Gretsch Drumkit That Made Olympic History.)
So how do you follow being part of a historic event? You go on tour with a historic artist. Since 2002 Alvino has been anchoring the touring band for 1960s icon Dave Mason. Best known for his soulful voice and unique guitar playing, Mason is a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame alum as a member of the legendary 1960s band Traffic. His song “Feelin’ Alright” is a rock and roll anthem, and his other hits include “We Just Disagree” and “Only You Know And I Know.” He has enjoyed a lengthy solo career and continues to play to sold-out audiences—with the able support of Alvino Bennett. According to Mason, “Alvino is a treasured member of the band.”
Alvino with Fred Gretsch.
Alvino has been with Dave Mason for a long time…but he’s been part of the Gretsch family of artists even longer. As he puts it, “To be part of the Gretsch family is great. They’ve always been there for me. I played Gretsch drums as a kid and a young adult. Gerry Brown introduced me to Fred and Dinah Gretsch a year or two before they re-acquired the company, and then I re-introduced myself to them a few years later. We established a relationship in 1986, and it’s been wonderful. And I don’t say this just because I’m with them, but I love the drums.”
Audio And Video Clips
Enjoy a full-length interview with Alvino conducted in 2016 by noted drum writer/radio personality Robyn Flans.
December 12, 2016 marked the 117th birthday of Paul Adelbert Bigsby. When it comes to guitar history, names like Leo Fender, Adolph Rickenbacker, and Les Paul may be more widely known. But their work would not have been possible without the man who designed and built the first solidbody electric guitar.
A skilled motorcycle machinist—and also a music fan—Paul Bigsby got into the world of guitars in the mid-1940s when he designed a replacement vibrato mechanism for C&W artist Merle Travis’s Gibson L-10. Paul’s device set a new standard, and it rapidly became the vibrato of choice for most guitar manufacturers the world over—a reputation it still enjoys today.
In late 1946, Travis approached Bigsby with a concept for a new guitar. Travis’s rough sketch depicted a solidbody electric with all six tuning pegs on one side of the headstock. Bigsby, whose personal philosophy was “I can build anything”, immediately went to work to make the concept a reality. When the guitar was completed, Merle Travis played it on recordings, on radio, and on public performances. The revolutionary design caught the eyes and ears of guitar players and builders alike—and it changed the sound and look of guitars forever.
Paul Bigsby continued to hand-craft custom guitars and vibrato units for the next twenty years. But by 1965 health issues prompted him to sell the Bigsby name and inventory to his friend Ted MCarty. That sale that was effective on January 1, 1966. Paul Bigsby died on June 7, 1968, leaving a legacy of innovation and craftsmanship for which every guitarist today should be grateful.
On May 10, 1999, the Gretsch Guitar Company purchased Bigsby Accessories from Ted McCarty.
To learn more about the life and story of Paul Bigsby, check out of The Story of Paul Bigsby: Father of the Modern Electric Solidbody Guitar by Andy Babiuk. A standard edition as well as a special collector’s edition are available at GretschGear.com.
Dinah and Fred Gretsch are honored during the Otis Redding 75th Birthday Celebration. Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Otis Redding 75th Birthday Celebration
Dinah and Fred Gretsch were presented the RESPECT Award from the Otis Redding Foundation in recognition of their long history of leadership in music education and outreach programs. The prestigious award, which recognizes the “tireless dedication to education through music,” was presented onstage to Dinah and Fred Gretsch by Karla Redding-Andrews, Otis Redding’s daughter and Foundation Director, at the September 11 Otis Redding “Evening of Respect” Tribute Concert at Macon’s historic City Auditorium.
The high-energy Sunday evening concert wrapped up a weekend of events that celebrated 75 years of the legendary King of Soul, Otis Redding. The star-studded show featured the Otis Redding Foundation’s DREAM Choir; The Redding’s, featuring Otis’s sons Dexter and Otis III; plus Mark Lockett; St. Paul and the Broken Bones; Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Andra Day; Rolling Stones pianist Chuck Leavell; and Stax Records legends Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd, and William Bell. Grammy-nominated violinist Robert McDuffie also performed and received a RESPECT Award from the Foundation. Proceeds from the event benefited the Otis Redding Foundation and DREAM Academy–Georgia’s first authentic statewide arts-integrated public charter school.
Fred and Dinah Gretsch have been president and chief financial officer, respectively, of the Savannah-based Gretsch Company for more than 30 years. The husband-and-wife team represent the fourth generation of the Gretsch family, which has been manufacturing world-famous guitars and drums since 1883. Both are actively involved in not one, but two foundations they created: The Gretsch Foundation, the charitable arm of the Gretsch family, and Mrs. G’s Music Foundation, which Dinah established in 2010 to fund music teachers and in-school music education programs. Both foundations support the Gretsch family’s mission of enriching lives through participation in music.
Dinah and Fred Gretsch. Photo: Tracy Crum/Platinum AVP.
“It is really a great honor to win a RESPECT Award, especially from the Otis Redding family,” said Dinah Gretsch. “Karla and I have worked together for many years, and we’ve always focused on enlightening children’s lives and we both think music is very important. I believe music has the power to change children’s lives for the better. I find that music makes children happy; it gives them satisfaction, and they become better overall citizens. And anything we can do to give children these opportunities is something I want to do every day.”
The Gretsch Foundation, the charitable arm of the Gretsch family, has been involved in music education for many years by providing scholarships, instruments, and financial support to various colleges and universities. The Foundation also sponsors a long list of festivals, concerts, clinics, and workshops, including the Gretsch Institute, a music, art, and dance camp for elementary and middle school children. It has donated dozens of used Gretsch guitars through the unique GuitarArt program, where guitars are painted, decorated, and auctioned off for school fundraising efforts. The Foundation has also donated professional-level Gretsch guitars that have been signed by musicians from such bands as R.E.M., Widespread Panic, Sugarland, and The B-52’s, and auctioned off to raise money for music and arts education programs.
In 2010, Dinah established Mrs. G’s Music Foundation to fund music teachers and in-school music education programs, and provide opportunities for children to participate in music. In addition to donating instruments to schools, the Foundation sponsors a visiting artist program that brings top professional musicians like drummers Mark Schulman and Steve Ferrone, and Australian guitarist Joe Robinson into schools for seminars, workshops, and concerts. Dinah’s Foundation also sponsors professional musicians to perform and conduct clinics at Little Kids Rock and School of Rock camps, and gives scholarships to children to attend guitar and drum camps across the United States.
Fred and Dinah Gretsch visiting the Otis Redding Memorial Marker in Gray, GA.
In addition, the Gretsch Company supports several music education initiatives including the “Georgia On My Mind” Benefit Concert; the annual fundraiser for the Georgia Music Foundation where Dinah currently serves as a board member. In 2015, the Company provided funding for the Dinah and Fred Gretsch Family Gallery at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum in Nashville. This state-of-the-art interactive exhibit helps children learn how to write and record songs, mix a band, and more.
“Over 40% of people playing music today got started in school. That’s why music education in school is so important,” shared Fred Gretsch. “My father, Bill, was a strong believer in the value of music education and personally established a scholarship for a talented clarinet player at the University of Michigan in 1946. It was a large part of my father’s business philosophy, and a tradition that Dinah and I are proud to continue for the Gretsch family.”
Matty Amendola is one of the newest and youngest members on the roster of Gretsch drum artists. But though he’s only in his mid-20s, he comes to that roster as a veteran who’s been playing behind a kit almost since before he could walk. (Matty is the son of Billy Amendola, who drummed for the 1970’s pop/disco band Mantus, and whose studio playing on then teen-sensation Debbie Gibson’s hits “Only In My Dreams” and “Shake Your Love” earned him a triple-platinum record award.)
Today, Matty is a multi-threat artist. In addition to his drumming skills, he’s a talented guitarist and bass player, a record producer, and a skilled audio engineer. And you can add to that list the role of highly motivational educator, eager to share his knowledge and experience.
Considering that Matty is a cutting-edge artist, it’s not surprising that he’s been using cutting-edge media as his educational platform. Most recently he’s done a series of video tutorials for the audio engineering web site Sonicscoop. In that five-part series—titled “Making The Mix”—Matty details exactly how he produced and mixed the latest single (titled “Blah Blah Blah”) by 13-year-old pop phenom Juliana Wilson. (Check out Matty’s videos at Sonicscoop.com.)
The Sonicscoop video tutorials were recorded at Matty’s own 825 Records facility. Founded in 2008, it houses the 825 Records studio, a video suite, and an apartment for out-of-town artists. “It’s a company that’s based on artist development,” he says, “but the studio is an integral part of that.”
When asked what his tutorials can offer to drummers who aren’t audio engineers or producers like him, Matty replies, “There are parts of my mix series where I describe the why of certain things. Something that has always steered me away from taking formal lessons is that they often teach people how to do things, before they teach why you should do them. So I spoke a lot about why some of the drum parts were being chosen before I explained how I did them.
“For instance, when I was compiling the electronic drums, I knew that there were also going to be live drums on the track. I tried to explain how this electronic kick might seem a little weird here, and that snare drum might seem a little sporadic there, but I knew in the back of my mind that there was going to be a live groove there. Those parts have to be complementary; they can’t be fighting each other.
“One particular thing that I thought drummers were really going to dig—and they did—was that there are a lot of parts in the song where I put the drums in reverse. That’s a huge trick that I use on pop records. As a drummer myself, I’m naturally into putting live drums on as many records as I can. But that’s not really all “in style” these days. So what I do is subliminally let someone’s ear get accustomed to the sound of live drums before they kick in. I explain in the video that you can’t get behind the kit and start smashing away if you’re going to put things in reverse. You really have to start thinking, ‘Okay, did I hit this accent before? Was there a sixteenth note here?’ And then go against that, knowing that when you put it in reverse the parts are going to work together.”
That’s assuming, though, that the drummer is also going to be the audio engineer/producer. Matty usually is…but what about drummers who aren’t?
“Well,” he replies, “I actually brought up in the video that drummers shouldn’t be afraid to contribute ideas. If you’re in the studio and you think you can hit this trick, ask the producer to give you a pass—when you’re done doing what they ask you to do—and say, ‘Hey, do you mind throwing that in reverse real quick?’ Drummers shouldn’t be afraid to go for things like that. Now, obviously you have to know your place on a session. Sometimes the producer doesn’t want any creative input from the musicians. But nine times out of ten they’re hiring you because they do want a little bit of that.”
Speaking not only as an audio engineer and producer, but also as a skilled live and studio musician, Matty reflects on how things have changed in recording world since the heyday of the great studio players.
“Actually,” he begins, “it’s changed dramatically just since I started doing it. Let me back up a bit and say that I learned myself by watching, and by being lucky enough to be exposed to things at an early age—and then eventually to actually get involved in those things. With drums, it was my dad putting me in a high chair to watch him, and then behind drums to play them. In the studio it was [New York studio legend] Butch Jones bringing me into multi-million-dollar studios on sessions where I just sat back and kept my mouth shut and absorbed as much as I could.
“Unfortunately, the community thing that I benefited from isn’t as strong as it used to be. Back in the day you were able to just walk in, watch one of your favorite drummers playing on a track for two minutes, and pick up invaluable information. That can’t be done anymore.
“That’s one of the reasons I love doing these tutorial videos,” Matty continues. “Video clips can give people a glimpse into what they no longer can see on their own.
Which begs the question: Will Matty be doing more video tutorials? To which he replies, “Well, instead of doing these giant tutorial projects, I’ve recently been trying to steer people towards my Instagram page [@mattyamendola]. I’m in the studio six days a week, working with different people. This always generates really cool little nuggets of information about things we’re doing—like miking an amplifier with a telephone. As another example, a company called Big Fat Snare Drum has been making all these new audio accessories, like tambourines and stuff. I’ve been putting them all over the drums in places you wouldn’t expect. I’m happy to go on Instagram and tell people about these things, just saying ‘Check this out,’ or ‘Try it this way instead of that way.’”
Matty concludes with what he calls a “fun fact,” saying, “My first job ever was teaching drummers. It was at Street Sounds [music store] in Brooklyn, where the annual Gretsch Day has been held for the past several years. Sharing information with other drummers has always been a thing I really enjoy doing. What form that will take in the future, and via what outlet, is yet to be determined. But my educational efforts will definitely continue.”
In this video, Matty focuses on live drums and getting a huge drum sound. You’ll hear his Gretsch Brooklyn kit in action!
A record-breaking event of historic magnitude deserves nothing less than a “one night only” film screening at thousands of cinemas around the world. The film Havana Moon was shot during The Rolling Stones’ March 25, 2016 concert in Cuba—which was attended by an astonishing 1.2 million adoring fans. The highly-anticipated September 23 screening will not only allow audiences to enjoy the epic concert but will also include exclusive content only to be seen in the theatre. With this upcoming screening, we reflect on a special connection Gretsch had with the historic journey—and has with the equally historic band. (Gretsch has enjoyed a long association with legendary Stones drummer Charlie Watts.)
In early March we were contacted by a member of The Stones’ staff asking if we “would be interested in helping The Rolling Stones provide products to Cuban musicians.” He went on to say that “These incredible musicians have not had the luxury of decent gear for many years and we would love to change that with your help.” We jumped at the chance to help.
We carefully looked through our personal family drum collection for just the right instruments to donate for this great cause. We selected a Gretsch USA Custom 16″ x 18″ Satin Maple bass drum and 5″ x 14″ snare (seen in the front of the photo below, which was taken in the Gretsch studio in Pooler, Georgia shortly before shipping). We knew that these special pieces were perfect for this very special musicians-helping-musicians initiative. We got the drums packed and quickly sent down to Florida to make their own historic journey to Cuba. Along with other donations that The Stones organization had received, it was reported to be the first time a shipment of instruments of that size was being sent into Cuba since the blockade.
Fred and I are very passionate when it comes to the mission of the Gretsch family: enriching lives through participation in music. Although we focus a lot of our efforts on young musicians—from providing scholarships, donating instruments, and establishing music education programs for disadvantaged children, to sponsoring a long list of musical and educational events—we also recognize other initiatives such as this one undertaken by The Rolling Stones, where we can help to enrich the lives of others.
We hope these special, hand-picked drums are now helping to keep a uniquely Cuban beat on the stages in clubs and halls in Cuba, and that they will continue to do so for many years to come.
Enjoy The Rolling Stones – Havana Moon Cinema Trailer:
As the world focuses on the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, I’d like to share a story that took place the last time that the Summer Olympics were located in the Americas. North America, in fact, exactly twenty years ago.
It was 1996, and the games were being held in Atlanta, Georgia. As always, the athletes of the world had assembled to compete in dozens of events. Also as always, thousands of people had come to view those competitions. And in the evenings, after the competitions had concluded, those thousands of people were enjoying concerts in Centennial Olympic Park, which served as the “town square” for the Olympics.
On the evening of July 27 there was a midnight concert scheduled, featuring Jack Mack & The Heart Attack. This high-energy R&B band was anchored by long-time Gretsch drummer Alvino Bennett. Prior to coming down to Atlanta for the show, Alvino called the Gretsch office to say that the band wasn’t carrying a drumkit for their tour, and to ask if Gretsch might be able to loan him one for the Atlanta show. My wife Dinah and I had a great relationship with Alvino, and as it happened it was Dinah that he spoke with when he called.
Dinah was eager to help Alvino, and she also realized that having a Gretsch kit seen and heard at the Olympics would be a pretty historic situation. So she decided to loan Alvino an already historic set of drums: the iconic yellow kit played by drumming legend Tony Williams during the latter part of his career. When Alvino called, that kit was proudly on display in the Gretsch museum at the company’s headquarters in Pooler, Georgia.
Tony Williams' iconic yellow Gretsch drums are on display at Gretsch Company headquarters in Pooler, Georgia.
As most drummers know, Tony Williams was arguably the single most influential drummer of the 20th century. Initially identified as a “jazz” drummer—mainly because he arrived on the scene as a member of Miles Davis’s legendary 1960s quintet—Tony quickly demonstrated that he was not to be pigeonholed within any style. His playing encompassed elements of jazz, rock, R&B, and Latin music. He combined these with formidable technique and unbridled passion to create dynamic performances that electrified audiences around the world—and sent millions of drummers racing to their practice rooms. Many of today’s greatest drum figures cite Tony Williams as their most important influence.
Fred Gretsch and Alvino Bennett in 2012.
“I was so honored,” says Alvino today. “The Gretsches didn’t have to loan me that particular kit; they could have given me any drumkit. But they gave me Tony Williams’ drums—that yellow drumkit that was so identified with Tony himself.”
So there was Alvino Bennett, playing with Jack Mack & The Heart Attack at the 1996 Summer Olympics, sitting behind a historic drumkit that had been previously owned and used by an even more historic drummer. But the history doesn’t stop there.
Many people might remember the significance of the date—July 27, 1996—but for those who don’t, Alvino picks up the story, saying: “We were on stage, and I was playing Tony’s drumkit, which was a big thrill for me. We’d only played two or three songs when we realized that something had happened out in the park. I was sitting directly under the Jumbotron that showed everything that was going on. It was moving. We saw the audience running in all directions. We thought one of the big power amplifiers for the sound system had gone out. We were sitting there wondering what was happening when all these authorities came up to us yelling, ‘Get off the stage. A bomb has gone off!’”
Hearing those terrible words would likely send anyone running to seek safety. But Alvino Bennett isn’t just anyone. He’s a drummer. He continues the story, saying, “There I was, thinking, ‘This is the kit that Tony Williams played; they’re his drums. And I’m responsible for them.’ So I started trying to take the drums down and get them someplace safe. Then a security person walked up and said, ‘Get your ass off stage.’ I told him, ‘I’ve gotta get my drums off first. These are really historic drums.’ I was trying to explain the situation to him. And finally he said, ‘Listen partner . . . These drums, or your life? You think about it for a few seconds.’”
Alvino laughs, and then says, “I actually did think about it. I thought, ‘If anything happens to these drums I’m going to feel really bad. All of us in the musical world love Tony Williams, and I’ve got his drums!’ But the security guy insisted, so I had to go. In fact, we had to leave everything on stage, because the investigators had to do their sweep of the whole Centennial Park area. We went back to the hotel, and it was surrounded by TV trucks, as well as ATF, FBI, and other agencies. We gave interviews that were broadcast from the Atlanta stations all over the country. And all the time I was still thinking, ‘God I hope those drums are gonna be okay.’”
Fortunately the drums were okay, and after all the investigations were concluded they were returned to Gretsch headquarters. They’re still displayed there today, representing a combination of musical, sports, and political history unrivaled by any other drumkit ever made.