Monday, 6 May 2013

Keep It Simple & Play The Song

Having played drums & percussion for around 30 years in a wide range of different setting & with lots of diverse musicians (ability-wise & experience-wise) I have seen many highs & lows in approach.

One of the questions I get asked most is,

"How do you approach your playing?"

I have two simple & probably quite disappointing answers:

"I keep it simple & I play the song"

I personally think one of the biggest mistakes we make as musicians is that we spend so long expanding & refining our technique: touch, rudiments, speed, stamina, tightness at very slow tempos, keeping the groove, feel & tempo during our breaks etc, that we almost feel obliged to use it in our playing whenever we can. There is nothing wrong with 'clever' or 'technical' playing but I always ask myself, "Does the son need it?" before I use it.

I guess it comes down to how we see music & our place within that music; are we playing it to show how good we are (i.e., for our own benefit) or to make the song sound good (for the benefit of others).

We musicians tend to be rather insecure & in many instances taken for granted, so it isn't surprising that we want to be noticed. But I wonder sometimes whether we're more noticed because we're invisible, fitting seamlessly into the music & the song, rather than standing out because if what we do.

If you read or listen to interviews by the great players & studio drummers like Steve Gadd they always emphasis the song & 'playing the space'. No-one will doubt their amazing ability & technical skill, but these guys are used so much because of the feel they bring to a piece of music. It's not so much what they play as how they play (though Steve Gadd's amazing breaks in songs like 'Chuck E's In Love' & his legendary grooves on Steeley Dan's 'Aja' & Paul Simon's '50 Ways to Leave Your Lover' give examples where technical ability & interpretation bring a new dimension to a song). Steve freely admits that what he doesn't play is as important as what he does.

Hopefully, if we leave people feeling good about the music we play we will feel good about ourselves & our playing.

People ask me to play drums & percussion for them not primarily because of my 'chops' or 'technical skills' but because I have built a reputation of adding to a song, very often as much by what I don't play as by what I do.

Just a thought! I'd love to hear your responses.

Until next time ...

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Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Leiva Cajons

I am often asked,

"What's so special about Leiva cajons?"

My initial answer is,

"They're just good, reliable instruments, with a great sound, innovative & professional features that you don't find on other drums of this price."

J Leiva cajons (to give them their full title) are new to the UK market and are hand made in Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain; the heart of flamenco music, by a company passionate about their instruments. All cajons feature external snare tensioning mechanism(s); one, two or three knobs on the back which increase snare tension when turned clockwise (tighter snare sound) or decrease snare tension when turned anti-clockwise (more snare rattle). Some models feature additional reflex bass ports to deliver a punchier bass note. All have excellent separation between the high tones and bass tones without the myriad of mid-tones that contribute towards a more boxy sound typical of cheaper cajons by other brands. Even their cheapest cajon produces a sound that is rarely found on drums made by other manufacturers at twice the asking price. So for less than £100 you can have a drum that sounds like a typical £200 cajon.

Materials range from beech to birch to eco-woods (including pine). The theory tells me that non-birch drums should sound grossly inferior; the reality says that they do not. Of course there are subtle differences in tones and sound profiles, but somehow the sound quality remains excellent and professional across the whole range from budget to top-end professional/studio models.

Birch is still the material of choice for a tight, punchy sound with a wide dynamic range, but Leiva beech cajons (Mezquita & Mezquita Classe models) also achieve a great sound, as do all of their cajons made from the other woods.

Please don't think I'm sponsored by Leiva to write this; I most definitely am not. My basic philosophy has always been that I only recommend or sell instruments that I would be happy to play myself and indeed, the core of my service is that I personally choose every cajon I sell, not just select a box and ship it.  I don't keep drums in stock; instead I visit my supplier (the UK importer of Leiva cajons) and work my way through their stock until I find a drum that matches the needs/specification of my customer.

Why is this?

Firstly, EVERY cajon sounds different; 10 drums from the same manufacturer and same line will sound different. Why? I don't really know except that they're handmade instruments and presumably subtle differences like density of wood used, amount of glue and other 'inconsistencies' add to each drum's individuality.

Secondly, I believe that every customer deserves to receive the drum they want rather than just 'any old drum'.  This is much easier when one can go into a shop and try them out. But how many shops stock multiple examples of the same drum  and, without trying to be condescending, how many average drum shop assistants understands about cajons? They are a specialist instrument and from personal experience, the majority of assistants are drum kit players to whom the cajon is simply 'a box that sounds like a drum kit.'

Although I play a Leiva cajon, I have 5 others in my collection by other manufacturers that fulfil different musical needs and situations. I keep my advice impartial, so it is not unusual for me to recommend a 'non-Leiva' drum to an enquirer, especially if they are not UK-based and the shipping costs are prohibitive.

So, if you're going to choose a cajon, what would be my recommendations?

  1. Whenever possible, listen to the drum you're buying. Try it out in a variety of positions within the shop as surroundings greatly influence the sound (and that in addition to the materials from which the cajon is manufactured).
  2. Always get someone to play the cajon whilst you stand away from it (directly in front, to the sides and behind); they sound very different in each different position and by moving around you'll get a much better overall example of the drum you're trying and it will always sound very different compared with what you hear when you're sat on the drum
  3. Go for the sound you want, NOT the name on the front. Many high profile manufacturers make inferior sounding drums; check them out. Conversely, smaller manufacturers may make excellent sounding drums that don't break the bank.
  4. If you can't check the drums out yourself, find someone you trust, tell them what you want (e.g., type of music you play, sound profile, portability, price) and allow them to make the choice for you.

If you're interested in learning more about cajons, their history, manufacture, features and sounds, along with how to choose the best cajon for your needs why not have a look at my web page; hopefully you'll be able to pick up lots of tips on choosing a cajon that will fit your needs.

If you want any personal advice, I'm always happy to answer your questions. Send an e-mail to stuart at waywood dot com or use any of the Contact Us  links at the foot of the web pages on the Waywood Music web site.

I hope this helps and am always happy to receive your feedback, publicly and privately.

Thanks for reading & take care.


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Monday, 7 January 2013

A Cajon For All Seasons

The recent explosion of the cajon onto the drumming & percussion scene has been phenomenal, perhaps equalling that of the djembe in the 80's & 90's.

Why is this?
  • Perhaps because it is a portable drum kit that sets-up faster than a brass or woodwind player
  • Perhaps because it is instantly accessible to people of all ages and abilities
  • Perhaps because it is able to fit seemlessly into most musical styles
  • Perhaps because it is 'just a box' that produces a huge range of tonal colours
Whatever the reason, the cajon is here to stay.

The cajon (cajón) originated in the tea plantations of Peru, probably in the 18th Century. It is likely that the original instruments originated form the tea chests/boxes used to pack the tea. These boxes were constructed using thin wood and therefore, would be prone to warping and splitting in the wide ranges of humidity and heat they experienced. It is this splitting which is likely to have produced the characteristic rattle or snare sound of the drum, imitated today through the use of snare wires.

Traditional Peruvian cajons still have no snare wires inside so are much closer to the original African box drums from which they probably originated, producing a much drier sound than those with snares. cajons are still used to accompany many of the traditional Peruvian dances.

The cajon emerged from relative obscurity in the 1970s, when the Flamenco guitar virtuoso, Paco de Lucia, was given a cajon as a present by Peruvian composer and cajon master, Caitro Soto. De Lucia liked the sound of the instrument so much that he introduced the cajon into his repertoire. The instrument grew in popularity and today it is the mainstay of many styles of Flamenco music, a genre of music producing some of today's cajon masters, such as de Paquito Gonzalez.

However, it is not restricted to one musical genre, having found its way onto many stages and recordings in the pop, rock, folk, indie, Latin & jazz scenes.

For me, the secret of its success is its accessibility to anyone, drummer, non-drummer or total newcomer. With practice and a bit of effort it is possible to coax a vast range of sounds from the drum using the front (tapa) face, or any of the other surfaces available for hitting.  Counterbeats with the fingers and heels turn a simple box into a rhythm extravaganza.

There's so much I could write here, but a lot is already written on my drumming and percussion web site, Waywood Music. You'll find historical facts and what i consider to be the most important information: how to choose the best cajon for your personal needs. You'll learn about construction, snares, tensioning, materials and importantly, how you can decide which particular brand or model of cajon is best for you.  The information is all free and impartial, so you'll read about different makes, styles and brands.

I personally love the cajons made by J. Leiva from Andalusia in Spain, which is why I play them and sell them.  I also love some of the models by other manufacturers like DeGregorio and Schlagwerk. I've played many different makes and models over the past 15-18 years so like to think I know a bit about what sounds 'good' and what doesn't.  Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give is that every drum, even the same model made by the same manufacturer, sounds different. Therefore, the only way you can really choose a drum is to be physically in the room and listen to it and where possible, compare it to others.  Very few people seem to realise this and just click a 'Buy' button on a web site.  I like to talk to my customers, find out what they want (especially regarding sound characteristics), perhaps even help them choose the best model for their needs within their budget. I then visit my supplier and personally try out as many cajons as it takes to find the best one for my customer and I believe, very importantly, a cajon that I would be happy to play myself.

So, if you're looking for a cajon and looking for some help or advice, why not drop me an e-mail or call me and I'll help you as much as I can and what's more, I don't expect you to buy from me.  All advice comes with no strings attached.

Still interested?  Why not visit the How to Choose the Best Cajon for You page on my web site and take a look and then, of you're still interested, you'll find my contact details at the bottom of the web page.

And if you're interested in what I sell, take a quick look at the Cajon Sales page; as I am an individual, I keep my prices as low as possible so they're probably some of the cheapest in the UK (and you get a bespoke service by a percussionist who cares about his instruments, playing and customers).

Thanks for reading.

Until nest time ...

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Thursday, 25 November 2010

Who's The Best? a pretty meaningless question!

We all have our favourites and there are many players across all genres who excel at what they do and how they play.  But who's the best?  It's like asking, "Who's the most successful?"  It's a meaningless question and one which plagues so many drum (and wider music) communities, magazines etc. 'Vote for the best drummer' etc.

Everyone has strengths and EVERYONE has weaknesses.

No matter which player you choose, in whatever musical setting or genre, there will always be someone better than them in another genre or setting. 


Because superlatives like 'best' depend on personal opinion, backed up by evidence.  And even when the evidence shows one thing, personal opinion will override.

Rather than getting hung up on who's best, why not look for something we can learn in every player.  The interesting thing is that a lot of our drumming icons, like Steve Gadd, admit that whatever musical setting they're in, they always look for something that they can learn from other players ... and that includes gigs at their local pub.  So if someone of their stature can adopt that attitude, why can't the rest of us ... ?

Insecurity I'd suggest, but that's a whole different topic.  Until next time ...

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Thursday, 22 April 2010

Dynamics - The Breath of Our Playing

Playing an instrument is much more than producing sounds.

There are many drummers I meet who seem hell-bent on hitting their drums hard, all the time.  There is no doubting their ability.  But I do doubt their musical understanding.

If I was holding a conversation with you did nothing but shout you'd get fed-up very quickly!  It would feel as if I was assaulting you; giving you no space to breathe; forcing you into a corner; denying your say. 

So it is with music played at a single, intense level.  We become fed-up; irritated; battered.

Music is more than a faithful reproduction of notes or beats.  It's about engaging our emotions and expressing those through our playing.  It's about communicating with others; exchanging ideas and feelings ... whether that's in a classical setting or something different.  The notes on the page are a composer's attempt to communicate what they're hearing and feeling.

Our job as musicians is to take those notes and breathe life into them through our playing.  Part of that life is injected through our dynamics.

So, if you want to make a difference in your playing, why not try a bit of light and shade; loud AND soft.  make that difference with dynamics and stand out: it's a dying art!

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Thursday, 22 October 2009

Lessons from Buena Vista Orchestra

Last night was one of the most amazing experiences I've enjoyed for a very long time. Eight months after buying the tickets, I witnessed the phenomenon that is the Buena Vista Orchestra (also known as Orquestra Buena Vista & Buena Vista Social Club).

Many of the original stars from that special night in Carnegie Hall in 1998 have since passed on, but what remains is still a testament to the skill, passion and fun of Cuban musicians, many of whom have been formative in the creation of what we now know as Latin music.

Reflecting on why they were so special, I came up with several things that set them apart from other concerts and bands I have seen (and enjoyed):

  1. A sense of history - Many of these people have helped to create the music synonymous with Cuba, the platform on which today's musicians build. Age is no issue; it's a strength and a valuable commodity. Experience is something we often overlook as we clamber to be new and different; often too insecure to learn from those who've gone before.

  2. A sense of value and heritage - These people are firmly connected to their music and cultural roots. It's not a problem; it's a bonus. They are not afraid of their culture, nor to share that culture and history with their audience, most of whom have little or no connection to it (apart from music). It's not about preaching; it's about showing and sharing; inviting others on board ... and judging by the response of the 2500 people at the concert, they were successful.

  3. They connected with their audience - Many of us could learn a great deal from the members of Buena Vista Orchestra. They brought something that can be difficult to connect with if you're not a part of that culture ... and enabled us to connect with it. Even musicians often fail to connect with the complex rhythms, how the pieces fit together, how the melodies interweave. Others can't handle the fluidity and movement in the music, music that doesn't sit comfortably with a click track yet is devilishly tight. Yet, this wasn't a problem for the audience as these masters of their art communicated with people's hearts and souls, calling them on board to experience something new, even if they didn't understand it. They felt it, were drawn in by it and stoked the fire for more ... which they got!

  4. They promoted each other - The musicians were clearly 'old school' in their playing, but that is what made it so great. There were no stars on stage; they were all stars and they created a platform for their colleagues to shine. Their playing was an expression of themselves but was for each other and the audience, not self-indulgent and about themselves ... a lesson many of us could learn.

  5. They exuded joy - Music wasn't just something technical to be played; it wasn't just an exercise in playing the correct notes; being safe or cerebral. The music they played was part of them; it was their soul; their passion; something to express who they are; from their hearts. It was something to enjoy and that enjoyment spurred each other on and fired the audience. Their enthusiasm and passion was infectious, drawing others in.

  6. They were themselves - As we passed the stage door after the gig (and there was no-one else around ... how rare is that?) the band emerged and were no different to how they were on stage; smiling, laughing and very willing to give time for a brief chat and sign tickets.

It took me a long time to fall asleep last night. I was full of the gig and my mind raced over and over through the tunes and why I'd enjoyed the evening so much.

Now all I need to do is apply some of what I've learnt and hopefully those I meet will benefit.

Thank you Orquestra Buena Vista. Long may you continue to inspire those who have the privilege and pleasure of witnessing your concerts (and your music).

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Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Keeping Up Appearances

The aesthetics of a kit are not essential to its sound and performance, but they make a big difference for visual impact and even making us want to play it. If the kit looks great, we feel inspired to play!

One problem with we humans is that we have greasy fingers, even if we've not been eating burgers or fish and chips and this grease is transferred onto everything we touch. Shiny surfaces like chrome, lacquered drums and cymbals will reveal where we've been touching them better than Hercule Poirot! Our fingers also secrete acids which can make a real mess of cymbals if they etch the surface. Non-brilliant cymbals and especially Zildjian K series for some reason seem to suffer badly in this area and the marks are very difficult to remove.

So to cleaning!


Drum shells can be kept clean simply by using a moist cloth and wiping over the shell, taking care not to get any grit under the cloth as you will leave scratches. Proprietary cleaners such as those made for guitars (especially electric guitars which themselves have a lacquered finish) work well on lacquered drums but should be avoided on satin or matt-finish kits as they will change their finish into a shiny one!

On lacquered and plastic wrap finishes, a household wax polish can be used to great effect but always read the label as some are not recommended for use on plastics. If in doubt, find a small area that cannot be seen and try a bit. Do not leave the polish/cleaner in contact with the material for longer than say 10 seconds and always wipe off quickly. Remember, the aim is to remove the greasy fingerprints and dirt. One advantage of a wax-based polish is that it will also provide a protective layer on the drums. I have used spray-on wax polish and original furniture wax and beeswax polishes on my Yamaha natural wood finish drums for years with no problems .


Proprietary chrome cleaners work well if there is evidence of pitting or firmly attached dirt, and can be used on drum rims, chrome hardware and stands. However, a good lint-free cloth can be used to remove most surface fingerprints and grease marks. The advantage of a cleaner is that it usually has a mild solvent or detergent base of some sort which really does remove the grease.

Once you've wiped the chrome with your cloth, plus or minus cleaner, give it a good wipe down and buff with a soft clean cloth or duster. This also works well for chrome-plated snare drums.

If there is evidence of pitting or flaking or corrosion, a small piece of steel wool can be used to remove the problem. However, always be careful to rub only in the area of corrosion as it can produce very fine scratches which are okay when limited to a small area but are much more visible over a larger area. Once the pitting or corrosion has been removed, you can use the chrome cleaner to bring up the shine. A useful product I have found for removing mild corrosion, dirt and fingerprints is T-Cut a proprietary cleaner used to restore car paintwork and chrome work. You can apply it with a damp cloth, leave it to dry to a mist and then buff it off to a brilliant shine. But beware, it also has a very fine grinding paste in the formulation so should be used with care near lacquered surfaces to avoid scratching.


By far the greatest area of discussion and disagreement is the cleaning of cymbals.

My personal view is that I avoid any abrasive cleaners, even those supplied by the cymbal manufacturers themselves. My main reason is that I have found the use of warm, soapy water to do the same job as long as you dry the cymbal thoroughly after cleaning; I use a cloth followed by a warm, but not hot, hairdryer.

Wipe the damp cloth in the direction of the tone grooves i.e., around the cymbal parallel to the edge not from bell to edge. Rinse with clean warm water and then dry. This will not remove all of the finger marks which are likely to be etched into the metal and will require abrasion to remove which I am not comfortable with. When I first started playing in the 1970's I did use cymbal cleaners on non-brilliant finishes such as with A-Zildjian and found that they caused the cymbals to become more shiny, but also they seemed to become dirty and tarnished much more quickly afterwards. By using warm soapy water I have had none of these problems.

So there you have it; a few tips on how to keep your equipment looking good for maximum visual impact and for personal inspiration and motivation.

Until next time ...

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