A Joe Morello Drum Master Class

After a busy morning, I reckon it’s time for a pause and a quick blog post. I stumbled across this clip of a great drum solo a while ago and immediately bookmarked it for future posting. As happens most times I do that I then forgot about it, only finding it again right now so I thought I’d post it before I forget again.

This is the great Joe Morello at the very peak of his prowess in 1964, with the Dave Brubeck Quartet with whom he recorded over 60 albums. That band pioneered the use of unusual time signatures in jazz, such as 3/4, 7/4, 13/4, 9/8 and most famously in their big hit Take Five which is in 5/4 time throughout; they recorded a number of other tracks in which the time signature shifts backwards and forwards between, e.g., 7/4 and the standard 4/4.

A few points struck me watching this clip. The first is that it’s a great example of the use of the ‘trad’ grip which is with the left hand under the stick, passing between the thumb and index finger and between the second and third fingers, thusly:

The right stick is usually held with an overhand grip. Most jazz drummers (whether they play ‘trad’ jazz or not) use this grip. Most rock drummers on the other hand use a ‘balanced’ grip in which both sticks are held with an overhand grip. You might think holding the left-hand and right-hand sticks the same way is the obvious thing to do, but do bear in mind that people aren’t left-right symmetric and neither are drum kits so it’s really not obvious at all!

The trad grip looks a bit unnatural when you first see it, but it does have an advantage for many of the patterns often used  in jazz. Once you’ve mastered the skill, a slight rotation of the wrist and subtle use of the fingers makes some difficult techniques (e.g. rolls) much easier to do rapidly with this grip than with the balanced grip. I’m not claiming to be a drummer when I say all this, but my Dad was and he did teach me the rudiments. In fact, he thought that drummers who used the balanced grip weren’t proper drummers at all!

(I’ll no doubt get a bunch of angry comments from rock drummers now, but what the hell…)

Anyway you can see Joe Morello using the trad grip to great effect in this clip, in which he displays astonishing speed, accuracy and control. The way he builds that single-stroke roll from about 2:28 is absolutely astonishing. In fact he’s so much in command throughout his solo, that he even has time to adjust his spectacles and move his bass drum a bit closer! Jazz musicians used to joke that atomic clocks could be set to Joe Morello, as he kept time so accurately, but as you can see in this clip he did so much more than beat out a rhythm. It’s only about 3 minutes long but this solo really is a master class.

Joe Morello was never a ‘showy’ musician. He never adopted the popular image of the drummer as the madman who sat at the back of the band that was cultivated by the likes of Gene Krupa in the jazz world and later spread into rock’n’roll. Bespectacled and wearing a suit and tie he looks a bit like a bank clerk, but boy could he play! The expression on Dave Brubeck’s face tells you that he knew he was very lucky to have Joe Morello in his band.




12 Responses to “A Joe Morello Drum Master Class”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    There is, presumably, a prior left/right asymmetry which causes drummers like Morello to prefer different grip by their left and right hands. (Otherwise you’d expect some drummers to prefer Morello’s left-hand grip on both sticks.) Is this prior asymmetry to do which is your leading hand, in which case do left-handed trad drummers play with grips and kits the mirror image of Morello’s? Or is it that drum kits are themselves designed to be assembled asymmetric, with their left-right asymmetry inducing Morello’s asymmetric grip? If so, why exactly does the kit asymmetry induce the asymmetric grip, and can you buy a left-handed kit?

    Yang and Lee got a Nobel Prize for their answer this question so I have great expectations of your reply!

    • telescoper Says:

      You can quite easily set up a drum kit to be left-handed, i.e. a mirror-image of the one in the clip. You don’t need different drums or cymbals, it’s just a question of putting them together differently. Funnily, though, don’t think I’ve ever seen any drummer play such a kit, even one who was left-handed. That goes for the feet too: it’s always the right foot on the kick drum (bass) and the left foot on the hi-hat.

      The one thing I have seen left-handed drummers do is play open-handed, which means hitting the snare with the right stick and the hi-hat with the left.
      The usual thing for a right-handed drummer is to cross hands when playing both the snare and the hi-hat, so that the right stick plays the hi-hat and the left plays the snare. This involves crossing the hands.

      This approach is presumably used because the right hand is stronger and the right arm can more easily manage the extra reach for the hi-hat as well as the tom-tom and the crash symbols, to the right of the kit, while the left usually stays closer to the body.

      I’m not sure why you don’t see many fully left-handed kits, except that it must be like the piano. Left-handed pianists use the same keyboard as the right.

      Many rock drummers do have a kit which is more symmetric, however, e.g. having two kick drums.

      • telescoper Says:

        Joe Morello didn’t need two bass drums to play fast!

        Interesting, he also used quite a large (22″) bass drum by Jazz standards (18″ is normal for small-group drummers). He certainly gets a big booming sound in the clip, and he there lots of heavy bass drops in his famous solo on Take Five.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, that’s right. I think the marching bands set the symmetry and as drum kits grew from a simple snare, cymbal and drum combination the other components were added to the right of the kit (e.g. extra cymbals, tom-toms) so they could be more easily reached with the stronger arm.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thanks Peter; has anybody played with both hands holding the sticks beneath, as with Morello’s left hand; and if not , why not, please?

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, I’ve seen Billy Cobham play like that. It’s rare, though. I think it’s to do with the ability of moving around the kit with the right hand. With a classic grip the stick is pointing inwards, roughly at right angles to the arm. That’s fine with the left because you’re usually playing on the snare, but with the right hand it’s awkward to reach, e.g., the tom-tom that way because you have to move the arm further and open out the wrist if you use a trad grip on the right. With the overhand grip the stick is parallel to the arm which makes for easier access.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        There have been some rock drummers who are perhaps not so technically proficient but have a superb feel for the music they play. Keith Moon comes to mind, and I reckon he could manufacture an appropriate fill for any gap.

      • telescoper Says:

        Interesting you should mention Keith Moon. His favorite drummer and inspiration was none other than Gene Krupa. It is said that “Animal” (the drummer in the Muppet Show) was based on a combination of these two!

      • telescoper Says:

        I think one of the very best rock drummers was Mitch Mitchell (of Jimi Hendrix fame), who I think is exceptionally underrated. I just checked on Youtube and discovered, to my surprise, that he also used a classic grip.

  2. […] way of a small postscript to last week’s post about the great Joe Morello, here’s a piece that shows he was such a great drummer he didn’t even need a […]

  3. […] up the post I did last week about Joe Morello which proved very popular, here is another about a drummer whose name came up in the discussion […]

  4. […] long ago I posted a clip of a drum solo buy the great Joe Morello which has proved to be extremely popular. Since a meeting I thought I had […]

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