The guiding principles that a musician follows when they’re just starting out can be just as valuable as their equipment and education, and can mean the difference between the launch of a lifelong career and a frustrating struggle to get gigs. One man that has made an art out of giving valuable wisdom to many young musicians around the world is legendary drummer Gregg Bissonette.
Gregg Bissonette and Dixon Drums have been travelling the world for the last few years, bringing Gregg’s signature style of inspiration and teaching within reach of students and fans in many different countries. Education and inspiration are close to Gregg Bissonette’s heart, and his clinic tours with Dixon have been a great way to exercise that aspect of his passion.
What follows is a list of our favorite Gregg Bissonette guidelines, the top 10 tricks of the trade that any musician can follow to positively affect their career.
Gregg Bissonette’s Top 10 Tricks of the Trade
#1: Record Yourself When Practicing
“Do what most drummers don’t do and record yourself playing to get the most out of your practice. I tell drummers to play for a minute with a click, and then play for a minute without the click and then go back and listen to the difference. That’s how so many session guys have gotten so good. They play and listen back. Make this a habit. Record your playing and listen back.”
#2: Always Carry…
“Having great equipment like my Dixon drums and Sabian cymbals is crucial, but two lesser known accessories I feel everyone should incorporate are a good pair of in-ear monitors and a great song starter metronome. I actually use both in-ear monitors and wedges, but in-ear monitors help me keep track of my playing throughout a song and drown out stage noise. Having a song starter metronome eliminates the guesswork when you have to count out a tune. They’re often programmable and can store dozens of songs, so you can be prepared to do a whole set and have the correct tempo ready for you at the start of each song.”
#3: Networking Is Everything
“When you’re just starting out, being able to find gigs and session work is a great skill to develop. A lot is done online today but being face-to-face is really important. When I first moved to LA I went to music stores a lot, and found that the people behind the counters always seemed to know who was looking for a drummer and who was auditioning. I would also go to rehearsal studios because when bands hold auditions, it’s usually at a rehearsal studio. The studios in LA, Nashville, New York, and London are good places to pop your head in. If there’s a bunch of drummers sitting outside one of the rooms, you’re in the right place. Also, every city, big or small, usually has some kind of ‘jam night’ or open mic, and I really recommend going to those.”
#4: Practice Professionalism
“There are some habits you can adopt that will help you thrive as a musician. I try to always show up on time. My dad always used to say, ‘On time is late and early is on time.’ I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs. No one wants to be on the road with someone that isn’t all there. You gotta keep up the body and mind that God gave you.
“One of the most important things about being a professional, if you want to do recording session work in a major city, is that you can’t really do it by ear. You really need to read music. Often they’ll put a chart in front of you and say, ‘Here’s the first song.’ If you can’t read, you’ll be in trouble, there’s no two ways around it. I don’t know where I’d be if I couldn’t transcribe and make cheat sheet notes, because things are always changing in a session and on stage. Being able to keep things organized on paper is invaluable.”
#5: Be Stylistically Diverse
“One of the most important things that any musician can do for their career, is to constantly work on being stylistically diverse. Many times, people don’t get gigs or don’t stay on gigs because they do not continue to broaden their stylistic knowledge. Not only are new styles of music coming out every year, but there are lots of different relevant styles of music from the past that are not addressed by many musicians. World music of different cultures is also important to stay up on, because many times these influences are introduced each year into today’s popular music.”
#6: Keep Positive and Healthy When Touring
“When you’re touring, the best thing you can do, believe it or not, is always try and keep focused on your mental and physical health. The road is grueling. You have to sleep well. You have to eat right, avoid sugar, and try to stay positive. Go to the gym, work out, swim, or just walk. Especially with drumming, you have to be physically in shape. I stay centered by exercising a lot. I pray a lot. I talk to friends and family.
“With the iPhone, or whatever device you have, you can FaceTime or talk like never before and from anywhere. Years ago you had to dial 8 in your hotel room to call someone. Now it’s so much easier to stay connected and that’s a kind of therapy when you talk to your best friends and family. You’ll often speak about things you wouldn’t necessarily with your band. But the other thing is to try and really get close with some of the guys in the band because they’re like your brothers out there. You’re in a band, you’re on stage. You should really be hanging and getting along and enjoying it. Keep things light. Keep things upbeat.”
#7: Be the King of Your Throne
“Ringo Starr, my favorite drummer, and the greatest leader I’ve ever played with, once gave me some great advice about stage presence. He said, ‘Don’t slouch.’ He has perfect posture and an amazing core—he’s 76 years old, and I’m 57, and I slouch. My daughter came to a gig once, years ago, and she even asked me, ‘How come when I look at Ringo he looks so in control and sits perfectly straight and relaxed, and you’re slouched over?’ I told Ringo what she said and one day he caught me slouching in the hall and he said, ‘You’re not listening to your daughter.’
“This has to do with both ergonomics and confidence. Drummers with bad posture have back problems, disc problems, they have to reach too high for cymbals, and they don’t exude confidence. I used to study with the great Tony Williams and he said, ‘Why do all you young drummers sit so low? You’ve got to sit high and be the king of your throne.’ Ringo sits really high. Tony Williams sits really high. Phil Collins sits really high. All three of those drummers are strong personalities who changed the game in the drumming business, so sit up tall and be confident.”
#8: Even Your Heroes Are Human
“It’s very likely, if you’re chasing your musical dreams, you may end up opening for or even playing with one of your musical heroes. I’ve seen people crash and burn in a single situation when they’re so nervous they’re meeting one of their heroes that they clam up. They’re worried about appearing too gushing or looking like a fan. Be honest and tell them how honored you are to meet them or play with them. They’ll love that and probably give you a big hug.
“We’re all humans, the celebrity and you, and we’re supposed to love each other. That’s the way it should be. And at the same time celebs need to not come off as greater than anyone else. We’re all equal, every race, color, religion, and quality of musicianship. You have nothing to be nervous about if you think that way. Be honest and be yourself.”
#9: Be Inspired by Other Players
“If you’re looking for inspiration, look at other drummers. There’s a great website I’m involved with called DrumChannel.com and you can go on that site and find an endless supply of great, creative drumming videos and performances. When I was a kid you had to get records and albums and listen, trying to imagine what your favorite drummers were doing behind their kits. Now you can go to drumchannel.com or sites like it and you can see these drummers and watch them break down beats and see where their hands are going and slow it down. It’s so much easier to be good than it used to be. Use technology, it will inspire you.
“What I really do to fill the tanks, personally, is I invite one of my best friends to come over, Dean Zimmer. I challenge any musician to complain about anything once you’ve watched Dean Zimmer play. Here is a friend, close to my age, who was born with a paralyzing condition called arthrogryposis. What it takes for him to get out of his wheelchair and get on the seat, and wrap the sticks around his hands with ropes so he can hold them, is inspiring enough, but he also kicks serious butt, with amazing groove, feel, and musicality. He’s the nicest and humblest guy, and he never complains; every time I see him play, it’s a huge inspiration for me.”
#10: Pay It Forward
“Throughout my career, people have always given of their time and knowledge and energy and good will, and now it’s important to me that I do the same. I love to teach and have a degree in teaching and doing these seminars and clinics is wonderful to me because I leave feeling like I’ve made a difference. I feel so blessed to be doing what I do today and to be playing every night just five feet away from my favorite drummer, Ringo Starr. I’ve had an amazing amount of teachers, and friends like him who have given great guidance and now it’s a true honor to be giving back and influencing students and musicians around the world. I think most professional musicians will get the same fulfillment if they open themselves to it.”