Posts Tagged ‘Modern Drummer’

Great Gretsch Educators . . . Mike Johnston

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Mike Johnston: 21st Century Digital Teacher

by Fred Gretsch

Many Gretsch drum artists are also excellent teachers. But Mike Johnston puts things the other way around. While a fine performer in his own right (with years of touring credits that include recording artists Simon Says and Filter), Mike is currently focusing on his career as an educator. And he’s primarily doing it the way you might expect in this digital age: online, via his educational website

As Mike himself explains, “When I was touring I’d put videos on YouTube for my students while I was out of town. I figured that when I came home I’d have seventy or so views from those students. But my clips would get 20,000 views in a weekend. Things kept growing, and when they got a million views I realized that there must be a need for online lessons. At the time DVDs with any kind of educational content cost $40—and sometimes a drummer might want just one chapter. So I thought, ‘What if I film everything in five to ten minute chunks?’ You could get just one rudiment…or just one funk pattern…or just the songo. So that was the concept.”

Since that time Mike’s concept has been wildly successful, propelling him to celebrity teacher status around the world. And he comes by that status legitimately, having himself studied privately for fifteen years with some of the greatest educator/drummers of our time, including Pete Magadini and great Gretsch drummer Steve Ferrone.

Since establishing his website Mike has expanded his offerings beyond pre-recorded lesson clips. He now presents thirty-six “live” online drum lessons monthly. In addition, he hosts ten International Drum Camps each year at the facility in Folsom, California.

Mike is also highly in demand as a clinician. He spent most of 2012 touring the United States giving clinics at various music stores, and he performed both days at the 2012 Meinl Drum Festival in Germany. All of this activity earned him nominations for Educator/Clinician of the Year by Modern Drummer magazine in 2011 and 2012.

Although he spends most of his efforts teaching online, Mike hasn’t abandoned the more traditional forms of drumming education. He’s also the author of a critically acclaimed instructional book called Linear Drumming. About the book, Mike himself says, “It’s a collection of my favorite linear patterns. It covers three different subdivisions and uses them as fills and grooves. Each page is built around a simple system.”

You can get more information about Mike and his teaching program at (big surprise) But for just a taste of what Mike has to offer there, check out any of the many clips available on YouTube. Here are a few to start with:

“The Simple Show-Off Lick”

“Breaking Down Polyrhythms”

“Improving Bass Drum Speed”

Mike has also contributed several educational articles to Modern Drummer and DRUM! magazines.  Here’s a YouTube clip based on one of those articles (“The 45-minute practice routine”).

And finally, some great clips of Mike discussing Gretsch drums and his teaching program are on his artist link at

All of us at Gretsch are proud to have such an energetic and forward-looking educator on our artist roster.



Gretsch Helps Celebrate Sam Ulano’s Birthday

Friday, July 20th, 2012

Teaching Legend Is Going Strong At Ninety-Two

Sam Ulano

The New York City drumming community came together this past July 10 to honor and enjoy the wit and wisdom of drum teacher and icon Sam Ulano. The event—hosted by’s Peter Greco and held at Sam Ash Music on 48th Street—combined a clinic by Sam with a celebration of his August 12 birthday, when he’ll turn ninety-two.

With sixty years as a performer and teacher to his credit, Sam is equally revered and controversial. Besides his private teaching practice, the drum studio he founded in the 1950s 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’s released literally dozens of self-produced books and CDs, along with over 2,500 pamphlets that he calls “Foldys.”

Sam’s publications are almost comically “lo-fi” in production values, but they’re nonetheless high in informational content. In what is perhaps his most controversial teaching philosophy, Sam denounces rudiments as having nothing to do with playing a drumset. Instead, Sam focuses 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 his clinic. “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.”

Sam’s philosophy may not be for everyone, but it’s been enough for some pretty stellar former students including Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Tony “Thunder” Smith, Allen Schwartzberg, and Art Taylor. These drummers—and dozens like them—have benefited from Sam’s major premise, which is 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.

Another controversial recommendation from Sam is regular practicing with metal sticks to improve hand and arm strength. If metal sticks aren’t available, short lengths of copper pipe will do, as Sam demonstrated at his clinic. “If I hadn’t practiced with metal sticks all these years,” he said, “there’s no way I could still be playing at ninety-two years old.”

And play he does. Sam still gigs regularly in Manhattan clubs, focusing primarily on swing and Dixieland music. To demonstrate his playing skills, Sam was accompanied at his clinic by keyboardist Les Kurtz, saxophonist Tom Olin, and vocalists Michelle Zelkin and Diana Nikolos.


The combined clinic/birthday celebration at Sam Ash Music drew many of Sam’s current and former students, as well as professional drummers who cite Sam as an inspiration. Key among those was veteran TV and Broadway drummer Ray Marchica, who’s currently in his eighth year of drumming for the Broadway production of Mamma Mia. Ray told the audience that he’d been inspired to play the drums as a youngster, after seeing Sam perform one of his “drum stories” at a clinic presented at Ray’s elementary school.

Sam has proudly played Gretsch drums since 1947—quite possibly making him the oldest and longest-running Gretsch drummer currently active. To commemorate this long association, Dinah and Fred Gretsch sent a personal birthday card to Sam, offering the good wishes of everyone at the Gretsch Company. Dinah and Fred also sent a number of souvenir Gretsch coin banks as giveaways. The banks are reproductions of models that date back more than seventy-five years to the Great Depression, when Gretsch encouraged people to save in order to purchase musical instruments.

Also on hand was Modern Drummer magazine’s ad director Bob Berenson. Bob informed the audience that Sam’s feature in the September 2011 MD had helped to make that issue a quick and total sellout.

In addition to Gretsch Drums, Sam’s clinic was co-sponsored by Sabian Cymbals, Remo Heads, Sam Ash Music, and For more information on Sam, visit