The Tiger Interview Rod Morgenstein

Rod talks about his career and what is takes to make it in music

Rod Morgenstein

Rod Morgenstein has been playing drums professionally for more than 20 years. In addition to his claim to fame as a founding member of the progressive rock-fusion band Dixie Dregs (who have received multiple Grammy nominations for Best Rock Instrumental Performance), he was also an original member of the heavy metal group Winger (who received an American Music Award nomination for Best New Heavy Metal Band in 1989).

In addition, Rod has worked with many jazz-fusion greats over the years and has won Modern Drummer magazine's Readers Poll award for Best Progressive Rock Drummer many times.

I met Rod backstage at the Modern Drummer Festival 2001. Rod is one of those positive people who always has a smile on his face and he was nice enough to grant me an interview where he talks about his musical beginnings, his latest projects, and offers tips to help others on the road to fame and fortune.

He also discusses his latest drum book )see the sidebar for my review). Take a few minutes now to glean some valuable tips from one of drumming's greats – Rod Morgenstein.

TB (Tiger Bill): What was it that made you want to become a drummer?

RM (Rod Morgenstein): I knew I wanted to be a drummer the moment I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in the early '60s. I instantly identified with Ringo, the drummer.


TB: When you were first starting out on the drums, did you have formal instruction or were you self-taught?

RM: My parents bought me a bass drum, snare drum, and a cymbal (on a stand mounted on the bass drum), and I began copying the drum beats to The Beatles records. About a year later, after my parents saw that I had an affinity for the instrument, they hooked me up with Howie Mann, a local drum teacher who still teaches in Hicksville, Long Island. He's a wonderful guy who taught me how to hold the sticks correctly, how to negotiate my way around the drum set, and he exposed me to the fact that there was music beyond rock music.

He taught me how to read big band drum charts and showed me how to set up figures and play the kicks, etc. I studied with Howie for about five years and it was a wonderful experience. While I was a typical kid who emulated the drummers of my favorite bands like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Jethro Tull, I owe my well-rounded background to Howie Mann.


TB: When did you first start to use double bass drums?

RM: I was traveling around the southeastern part of the US with the Dixie Dregs and had just finished a show in Florida when I ran into a guy who had an old chrome Fibes drum kit for sale. It had two bass drums, 2 floor toms, 4 rack toms, and a snare. At the time, I was obsessing over Billy Cobham with The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Billy was playing a clear Fibes kit. So, I bought the chrome Fibes drums and set them up on the next gig. I've been playing double bass from that day on. It's funny that you mention it because I play with this band called Jazz Is Dead and I inherited the drum chair after Billy Cobham left. It's all based on the Grateful Dead's music but you wouldn't know it after a minute into a song because it's basically a free for all jam.

Anyway, every time the band goes on tour there's a different theme. This particular tour was based on two relatively mellow Grateful Dead albums from the '70s called "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty," and it was billed almost like Jazz Is Dead Acoustic, even though it turned out not to be.

The idea was to have everybody scale down, so I took out a single bass kit with a double bass pedal, one floor tom, two rack toms (instead of my usual three), and it was a very weird feeling.

After 20 years of playing behind two bass drums it's like, all of a sudden, one side of my body was open to the audience and I felt like I lost my security blanket. But by midway through the 30 some odd dates we played I was like, hey, this is really cool!

When you play on a different configuration it makes you play differently, you rethink your playing. It's nice to try new things, it's like continually being a student. By not always playing it safe, you'll find things out about yourself and you'll keep improving.


TB: What's your latest project?

RM: Jazz Is Dead has a live CD coming out and we'll probably support it with a month or so of touring. I'm guessing somewhere around August. I also work with Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess. We have this power duo made up of just one keyboard and drums. We played the Modern Drummer Festival in 1998.


TB: Tell me more about your power duo.

RM: It's really an amazing thing in that 95 percent of what we do is totally live. Essentially, other than the drums, what Jordan is playing IS the band and you wouldn't know that there wasn't an army of musicians playing.

Jordan has harnessed the existing keyboard technology to do things like layer multiple sounds on one note and access each different sound based on how hard you strike that key on the keyboard.

Jordan also splits his keyboard into three sections where he plays bass with his left hand and chords in the middle section where he programs his sustain pedal to sustain only those chords that he selects to be sustained. This leaves his right hand free for soloing. Then, since he can't pitch bend with his left hand because he's playing bass, he programs the keyboard to pitch bend based on the pressure he uses on the keys. It's astounding!

We refer to ourselves as the world's mightiest duo: Never before has so much music been made by so few people [laughs]. Here I am saying how great our band is but I'm saying it's because of what Jordan is able to do.


TB: Does Jordan use sequencing with the duo?

RM: Remember I said that 95 percent is live? Well that's the other 5 percent. At times Jordan might use a bass sequence so he can do pitch bending or some other astounding thing with his left hand, but the whole idea of the band is to pull it off live, which we don't think anyone else can do. We have a couple of CDs out already and we'll soon be working on another one.


TB: I know you've authored some drum instructional books and videos in the past, but do you have anything new coming out?

RM: I have a new book called Drum Set Warm-ups (see sidebar) that came out on Berklee Press recently. The story behind this book is interesting. A couple of years ago I was warming up on my drum pad and I was struck by a very funny scenario. I was thinking alright, it's time to warm-up so guitarists go get your guitars, sax players go get your saxophones, keyboardists go sit at your synths and drummers go get your chunk of wood with the slab of rubber glued to it! It dawned on me that everybody warms-up on their own instrument except for drummers.

While we all know how important it is to warm-up on a pad to focus on our finger, wrist, and hand technique, there's no way that the range of motion required on a drum set can be covered just sitting at a pad.

It struck me as kind of amazing that never before has there been a drum set warm-up book and so I set out to write the Stick Control equivalent for the drum set using some of the exercises I've been creating for myself over the last 20 years, based on things that have frustrated me. Things like: I can't get around the set fast enough because the cymbals are so far away; My coordination's not happening; I'm not playing dynamically enough; My right side is weaker than my left because I'm left handed, etc.

When I completed the manuscript and sent copies out to my drummer friends and acquaintances for their opinions, I got really wonderful feedback. Vic Firth (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra), John Beck (from the Easton School of Music), Danny Gottlieb, Steve Smith, Kenny Aronoff, and Joe Morello, they all gave me great quotes for the book. Ron Spagnardi, editor/publisher of Modern Drummer magazine, sent back a quote that said, "This is the drum set equivalent for Stone's Stick Control."

I'm really excited about the book and I know it works because I've used the exercises myself. While many of the exercises in the book put demands on the body that you would never actually receive playing the drum set, consider them similar to the exercise that has football players running through tires. There are no tires on a football field but that exercise helps to condition the player's body. The result is some pretty bizarre exercises that force you to go in contrary motions but over time, you'll feel yourself moving up a notch technically.


TB: It sounds like the drumming equivalent to a martial artist's warm-up prior to a strenuous workout or tournament.

RM: Exactly.


TB: Here's my final stock question, Rod – Do you have any words of wisdom for drummers trying to make it in the business today?

RM: This is the most difficult question to answer because in rock and pop music there is often no rhyme or reason to success. But, based on my own personal experiences in the field, I would offer these tips:

End of Interview

Thanks to Rod Morgenstein for sharing his experiences and insights.

Until next time: Stay Loose.



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