Buddy Rich: History and Sound

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-Written By Bruce Jacoby- Education Manager, Remo Inc. 

'Buddy Rich truly was one of the, if not THE, most amazing drummers of all-time. Similar to sentiments regarding other legendary drummers such as Tony Williams and John Bonham, their sound was as much in their hands and feet as it was in their equipment. Buddy always sounded like Buddy, whether in concert, on TV or on countless recordings.

Buddy adopted Remo drumheads as part of his set-up in the late 1950's, and played them for the remainder of his life.

*Check out this letter he wrote to Remo Belli in 1958, shortly after Remo, Inc. was founded: http://remo.com/experience/post/buddy-rich-letter-to-remo-belli-1958-2/

Buddy's head choices:

Buddy originally played the Diplomat Coated (which was the first Remo synthetic drumhead). Soon after, the Ambassador Coated was developed (what is now the Vintage A, combining the Diplomat with the Ambassador snare-side for a total thickness of 10.5-mil).  Shortly after that, a single-ply 10-mil film was introduced by Dupont, which led to the Ambassador Coated. That original version of the Ambassador is now the Ambassador Vintage.

From the 1960's until the end of his life, Buddy played primarily Ambassador Coated. The only discrepancies the public would see would be when he played a brand-new kit supplied by Ludwig or Slingerland (whichever he was endorsing at the particular time), particularly for a TV show or a one-off gig where they had their respective original heads on the drums. His Rogers Drums would have had Remo heads, along with the Fibes snare drum.

For a brief period in the 70's, Buddy experimented with the super-thin Remo Diplomat M5 Coated. This is an orchestral drumhead developed for very light playing (think the opening of "Bolero"). The late, great percussionist and teacher, Jerry Steinholtz, was a friend of Buddy's, and he would meet up with Buddy whenever he played The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson after the show moved to L.A. in 1970.  Jerry shared with me that Buddy would use three M5's in a 75-minute set, having to change out the snare drum every 20-25 minutes. Because the head is so thin, it is the most sensitive batter head available.  However, in Buddy's case, it wasn't practical to play, especially in a big band context, as the risk of a breakage mid-performance was high.

Buddy's Sound:

According to people I know who knew and worked with him, Buddy generally used a felt strip on each bass drumhead for his bass drum. He did NOT use any dampening on the snare and tom heads.  His second floor tom was just for appearance, as it was used to hold his towel. Buddy was known to use pretty high tension on all of his heads, as that helped give his sticks more rebound and the higher frequencies cut through the horn section.

The majority of Buddy's recording career was in the era of 1, 2, 4, and 8-track recording. Also, big bands rarely had more than 2 or 3 microphones on the drum kit before 1980, simply because most bands did not carry large PA systems, consoles and large quantities of microphones. Most often, they used a "house" PA at the venue and festivals, or they rented a small PA for the gig.

What you hear on TV (usually The Tonight Show) was highly compressed audio, which was necessary. Remember, there were no "home theater" systems back then and TVs were built for visual, not audio quality. In the 80's, most venues did not have more than 24 inputs, so the drum kit would not be "close-miked" with a mic on every drum and 4 mics for the cymbals.

Emulating Buddy's Sound:

Overtones are inherent to every drum. You won't hear them the farther away you listen to the kit.  The same goes for what the microphones hear, especially when the entire ensemble is playing. In fact, the overtones are what help the drum cut through the mix, so eliminating them is not going to make the drum sound better by itself. Controlling the overtones is the key, and that is a result of proper head selection, tuning, and your playing technique. Dampening should be used only as a last resort when nothing else works. Remember, overtones are not bad, but unwanted overtones can be a distraction. In a big band setting, the frequencies of the drums should compliment the bass, piano, and guitar, as well as cut through the horns. If you eliminate the ring/overtones, no one will hear your drums very well, including your band.

Try a higher tension of the heads. Experiment with the resonant heads one-half to a full step higher in pitch than the batter. Also try tuning both heads approximately even in tension and pitch.

One very important consideration is that all drum kits in the 1960s had identical heads top and bottom, with the exception of the snare drum. Try Ambassador Coated on both heads for toms and bass drum. Also, try a Diplomat Hazy on the snare side with an Ambassador Coated on top.  Keep the snares as loose as possible-this really helps to not choke the bottom head.

Don't be obsessed with snare buzz and overtones that you are hearing from 30 inches away from your ear. They will usually disappear when the band comes in, and the audience won't ever hear it. The overtones are essential to your sound. Remember, what it sounds like in the mix out front is what is most important. Don't judge your drum sound from your vantage point behind the kit. No one else in the world, including the mics, will hear your drums from your perspective.

Have a drummer whom you know and respect play your drums. Walk around the room listening to how your drums sound away from your position behind them, and you will probably be pleasantly surprised!'

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