John Mader | Dixon Drums

John Mader’s Survival Guide for the Modern Drummer

For drummers and musicians just getting started, finding the guidance of veteran musicians and hearing what they have to say about generating a thriving musical career is crucial. Our long-time friend and endorsee, John Mader, is exactly that kind of seasoned professional and educational sage. A performer, teacher, and composer with 30 years experience, John has toured and/or recorded with some of music’s biggest acts, including Josh Groban, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, and Carl Verheyen. John is currently the drummer for the west coat presentment of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Dixon Drums recently got together with John to talk about all things drumming, from technique and practice to the business side of things; an essential survival guide for anyone in the industry, from the dreamer to the professional…

DIXON DRUMS [DM]: Early on, what is important for a drummer to keep in mind when assembling their kit?


  • Use a rug. There is nothing more annoying than a sliding drum set.
  • Mark your rug for quick set up.
  • Set up your drumset so that your upper body lines up in a straight line with your snare drum and the first tom. This allows for the ability to hit any drum (standard size drumset) without having to twist one’s back.

DD: What are some essential starting tips, and how can a young player endeavor to separate themselves from the crowd?


  • Working with a good teacher will keep you focused, on track, and aid in your overall development.
  • Work a little harder and a little longer than most.
  • Give some time and attention to developing an aspect to your playing that is unique.
  • Play a melodic instrument. This will affect how you hear and react to the music.
  • Take some singing lessons. Study some mallet percussion. Most of my favorite drummers can play a melodic instrument. A drummer who has great time, feel, can read well, play mallet percussion, can sing a few background parts or lead, and has a great attitude is going to find opportunities.

DD: What’s a good routine to get into that encourages continual learning and inspiration?


  • Practice the same time daily.
  • Study privately with a good teacher.
  • Dave Weckl said, “If you want to continually grow, work on things you cannot currently play well.”
  • See live music often.
  • Listen to inspiring music often.

DD: How does a young drummer monetize his skills?


  • Give lessons to less experienced players.
  • Be as versatile as possible.
  • Learn how to read standard music notation for drums.
  • Have a good attitude. Be genuinely nice and supportive of others. People enjoy being around positive energy.
  • Reinvest in yourself. Learn a difficult piece of music. Form a band that plays challenging music that you like. Study privately.

DD: As a student becomes a professional and drumming becomes their primary income, what are some good steps to take in terms of approaching drumming as a business? (I.e., should they incorporate? Join a guild?)


  • Keep track of all of your expenses.
  • Hire a good tax professional. They will most likely have you file as the sole proprietor of your music business.
  • Befriend other talented drummers. This increases your odds of being recommended for a band or other music opportunity.
  • Take a few classes on business related skills. Some colleges offer specific music business courses.

DD: As a teacher, how do you go about finding students?


  • Secure a teaching position at your local music store. Music stores attract parents and potential students.
  • Visit school bands in the area. With the teacher’s permission, assist the drummers with their parts. School teachers most often will start recommending you as a private teacher to students and parents.

DD: What’s your favorite method of motivating students?


  • Working on their favorite songs.
  • Being genuinely enthusiastic.
  • Being invested in my student’s growth.
  • Having a good attitude.

DD: How did you go about getting gigs like your work with Carl Verheyen and the Hamilton show?


  • Stu Hamm recommended me to Carl Verheyen.
  • A few people recommended me, including a great sax played Mike Zilbur, for my first musical (RENT). They liked what I did so they continued to call me for future productions of various musicals.

DD: When on the road with a band, what is the key to a happy dynamic?

  • Exercise is important for me. I have a workout program that only takes 30 minutes and I can do it in my room. It’s a very effective stress reducer. As an additional bonus, I play better.
  • Eating healthy. As the gigs get better, there is more and better quality alcohol in the dressing room every night. I try to lay off of that stuff during the week. I might have a couple of drinks on the weekend but that’s it.
  • Get as much sleep as you can.
  • Stay positive. Attitude is EVERYTHING! Be thoughtful. Respect your bandmates’ personal space. Look out for your bandmates and crew.

DD: What attributes can a player work on that will make them a great session player?


  • Treat the song with as much care as if it is your own.
  • Be very comfortable with a click.

DD: How should a drummer/musician prepare for and deal with the pressure of a big show like Hamilton?


  • The biggest stress reducer is preparation. I spend three weeks to a month preparing for the first orchestra rehearsal. I set up my practice kit exactly like the drum kit in the pit. I will practice the material about eight hours a day for two weeks prior to the first orchestra rehearsal. I like to feel ready to actually play the show before the first rehearsal.

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