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Drum Clinic – Jason Bittner

by Omar on May 18, 2011

in Drummers, Event Review

There are so many great drummers out there these days that it’s hard to keep up with them.

We of course have our main influences, the drummers we’ll always like and will always be our favorites, no matter what.  But it’s always a good idea to ‘broaden our horizons’, if you will, to check out the unique skills that so many up and coming drummers bring to the table.  This becomes great fodder for inspiration.

In my case, I favor the classic rock drummers such as Neil Peart and Phil Collins, plus guys like Steve Smith, Alan White, and the like.  It’s a style that’s very ‘composition’ like, and I find that it’s not always necessary to be ‘blasting’ beats throughout entire songs, be it with your hands or your feet.

However, one day I was driving around and changing stations at random on the radio, and I hit upon a college station playing death metal, or something like that.  Mind you, I am not a fan of this type of music, because the themes at display and the constant screaming at the top of your lungs or sounding like you’re hawking all the time – that style just doesn’t appeal to me.  But the drumming – I had never heard anything that fast before.  Lots of single strokes, for sure, but they sounded clean, both from the hands and feet.  I couldn’t stop listening.  I pretty much focused on the drummer (I don’t know what song or what band it was).  That was my epiphany moment regarding drummers in that genre.

I gained a lot of respect for drummers that can play that fast for any length of time, let alone a whole song!  I didn’t necessarily go looking for that kind of music to listen to even still, but if ever I did hear it, I would always pay attention to the drumming.

Flash forward a bit, and now I’m watching the Modern Drummer Festival 2006 DVD, and one of the drummers featured was Brann Dailor of Mastodon.  Here’s what I said back then in the review of the DVD:

“I’m not into heavy metal or death metal or whatever it’s called these days, but I really liked Brann Dailor’s presentation. I’m accustomed to seeing huge-o drum sets for this style of music, but Brann showed you don’t need that many drums to play in this style. Again, very fluid and precise.”

Once again, an eye-opener for me as far as the ability and skill of these drummers.  Now I really had to pay attention.

Fast forward a bit more, and Drum! magazine back in February of this year offered participants in their forum a chance to ask Jason Bittner any question they wanted (well, ok, the questions needed to be drumming related, and he had to feel impelled to answer them!).  Just before this forum event I had been in the market for a digital recorder.  I came across the Zoom recorders and one of the audio demos featured at ZoomH2.net was a drum solo of Jason Bittner recorded with the Zoom H2.  Not only was the sound great, but the solo was phenomenal.  I was convinced right there that that was the recorder I wanted.

Since Jason would be answering questions in the forum, I decided to ask him about the settings that he used on his H2 when he recorded the above-mentioned drum solo, and he was gracious enough to set me straight on some of the settings he used.  He also set me straight on something else, which you can see for yourself in the thread.  🙂

By this time I was now familiar with who Jason was, I’d heard and seen a couple of his solos, and now I knew he was someone to pay attention to.  So when Ken Stanton Music of Marietta, GA announced that he was going to be performing a drum clinic on May 10th (2011), I knew I had to be there.

The Venue

As usual, I arrived about an hour and a half early to get a ‘lay of the land’, as far as the seating arrangement, which part of the store the drum set would be set up, my possible camera angles, etc.  Jason was already setting things up, making adjustments to the kit and the audio equipment he’d use to play the music he’d be drumming to.  He was also coordinating with the sound engineer located at the back end of the audience.

I decided to walk up to the kit, and when I noticed a pause in the setup activity, I decided to start a little small talk with Jason.  He mentioned that he had flown a lot that day, with very little sleep, but that of course, the show would go on!  Since that was the case, after confirming that it was ok to take pictures, I let him continue his setup process.

During the sound check he played to a song, and it actually was a great performance, although to Jason it sounded bad, which made him play bad (at least to him).  He got a round of applause from the audience, because at least to them it was great!  But Jason refused the applause, explaining that it was just sound check!  Just a testament to his professionalism.

The Kit

The kit Jason played on was a beautiful Tama Starclassic Bubinga 5pc kit with what I believe is the garnet red glitter finish.  The snare was the Starclassic 5.5”x14” Antique Maple snare, rounding off the 6pc kit.  The cymbals were Zildjian, of which Jason became a recent endorser (he used to use Meinl):

  • 3(!) hi-hats
  • 2 chinas
  • 2 splashes
  • 3 crashes
  • 2 rides
He also had a Latin Percussion micro snare and jam block (the latter next to his left-side hi-hat).

The Clinic

After a few words from the Zildjian representative, who was very glad to welcome Jason to the Zildjian family, Jason came out to thunderous applause.  After a brief introduction as to the content of the clinic, Jason rips in the first song.  (Note: since I was not familiar with Shadows Fall or the other projects that Jason was and is involved in, I didn’t catch some of the song names.  My apologies!).  Watching this first performance, right off the bat, convinced me why it’s such a great idea to go to as many drum clinics as possible.  You learn so much from the different styles of play.  Jason played with a lot of power, but his movements are extremely efficient.  From my perspective, he wastes no energy.  He’s not flailing away all over the place just for a showy display.  To play the style of music that he plays, you have to conserve your movement, and he’s a master at it.  Contrast that with, say, Thomas Pridgen, who plays all over the place!

Oh and by the way, this clinic was loud – the loudest I’ve been to.  My head was pounding on the way home.  I’m not complaining, though!

During this song, it seemed like there were some audio problems.  You could see in Jason’s face that he was very frustrated, but that turned out better for the audience because he played with anger and ever more power.  It was very impressive.  Since he had a ride cymbal on each side, he often switched between them, riding the right cymbal as is typical when playing right-handed, and also riding the left cymbal, playing ‘open-handed’.

Jason continued through a few more songs, including Shadows Fall’s “Thoughts Without Words”.  He displayed some serious blast beat drumming.  I was really liking his use of the two ride cymbals.  Having one on each side makes it easy to incorporate 32nd note playing on the rides, which is a very colorful way to fill in the musical space.  I also continued to be very impressed with how much control and efficiency of movement Jason played with.  If you didn’t know who was drumming on these songs and you listened to them for the first time, you’d think he’d be flailing his head all over the place just for show.  His control was admirable.

Next Jason put on a drum solo where he put on an incredible display of independence.  The first part of the solo he dedicated to the late Joe Morello, playing a little traditional grip.  But after that, it was on!  Jason has very fast hands and feet, of course; but not only that, he really showed his independence skills during the solo.  He was playing these double bass patterns while also alternating strokes with the hi-hat and jam block (all feet).  Each stroke was cleanly articulated.

During the solo Jason displayed a couple of other jaw-dropping independence patterns.  He was playing a pattern with the two hi-hats that he controlled with the pedals while playing some other pattern with his hands.  On another occasion he played a constant pattern with the bass drum, while seemingly playing different meters with the sticks.  Each time he changed the time signature with his hands, it still matched what he was playing with his feet.  Don’t ask me what the time signatures were, because I don’t know them.  🙂

He then ended the solo with a little swing pattern, which morphed into blast beats, then ending with another swing pattern.


Next was a questions and answers session.  Here are some of the interesting answers that came out from questions from the audience:

  • Jason uses DW pedals “because they rule!”  They are what work best for him.  He tried the Tama Iron Cobras, but he just didn’t like the feel.  The DW 9000 pedals, adjusted at medium tension, are what give Jason the best response.  Any tighter and his legs start to hurt.  He emphasized that that is what worked for him. Each drummer needs to test different models and settings and determine what works for them
  • It was around 2005 during Ozzfest where Jason got the idea of using two ride cymbals on each side of the kit.  He wanted to spice up some songs that he played a lot, and this was a way to do it.  It stuck with his kit ever since
  • He tries to execute patterns however it’s easiest to play it at the moment.  This teaches dexterity as it allows for multiple ways to play the same pattern.
  • He leads with his left foot when playing double bass patterns.  He didn’t realize this until drummer Dom Famularo pointed it out to him!
  • His favorite drummer of all time is Neil Peart.  His favorite ‘modern day’ drummer is Steve Smith (hey, those are my two favorite drummers!)
  • One day he showed Steve Smith a certain pattern on the bass drum (1-2 1-2-3 1-2), which is a pattern that can be played in a jazz setting.  Next thing Jason knew Steve was already playing the pattern like the next day live.  At least Jason had the satisfaction that he taught Steve something!
  • The first drummer to inspire Jason to play drums was Keith Moon
  • Jason had high praise for Mastadon drummer Brann Dailor (who was actually present at the clinic):  “He’s like a baker – he has rolls for days”

Down to Business

Next Jason went into the ‘clinic’ part of the clinic, if you will, where he handed out sheets that had many bass drum exercises.  He explained that the right foot lead is beginner level, whereas left foot lead is intermediate.  Some of the exercises he went over included:

  • single strokes
  • double strokes
  • 8th note triplets
  • 16th note
  • 32nd note (very fast!)

Jason emphasized that it’s a very good idea to alternate and reverse footing on each exercise which will expand dexterity and independence.

A tendency beginning drummers, and even intermediate drummers have is when they’re not double-bassing their hi-hat foot does nothing.  Jason emphasized that it’s important to learn how to keep time with the hi-hat.  “You have four limbs – use them!”

What does polka have to do with blast beats?  They have the same time signature (1-2)!  Jason displayed this by playing a basic polka beat, and then speeding it up super fast – it morphed into blast beats.  I’ll never look at polka the same.

Jason went on to play a song from another project he’s involved in (Hellspeak) where he incorporated a lot of the double bass techniques he had discussed.

More Q&A

Jason went on to answer more questions from the audience:

  • Some of Jason’s weaknesses in his playing include:
    • His right hand.  He has had some physical issues with his right shoulder and elbow, so he always has to work really hard to keep his right hand up to speed
    • Double bass!  Although he’s known for his exceptional double bass skills, he feels he always has to work very hard at playing them cleanly; it doesn’t always occur naturally
    • Jazz, swing, odd time signatures
    • Traditional grip – he uses it when he plays Jazz and Latin, but that’s not often
  • Always play for the song.  There’s no need to overdo blast beats just because you can.  If it fits, play it – if not, don’t.  Everything he practices he thinks of how they can be incorporated into songs
  • As far as how often Jason practices – always!  After a tour he may take a five-day break, but any more than that and he feels he starts to lose something.  So if he’s not touring or in the studio, he’s practicing
  • Some projects Jason’s working on is Hellspeak (he had played a song from that band earlier), and is working on a fusion project with Megadeth guitarist great Marty Friedman.  This latter project is ‘way out of the box’ for Jason, but it’s another way for him to express his creativity and to show that he’s not just a metal drummer

Next up was a discussion of the multi-pedal exercises on the lesson sheet.  It’s basically like playing double bass, except that you’re moving your feet to the other pedals.  It may sound simple, but it takes practice to execute it smoothly.  He demonstrated how to play a paradiddle with the feet using the different pedals (which, by the way, were bass drum, hi-hat, and jam block).  He had to try it a couple of times, but when he got it, it was downright musical.

Before he played his last song, Jason went on to talk about one of his experiences at Berklee.  He took a Jazz Independence class, and to teach Jason a ‘lesson’ he asked him to play a swing pattern, which he did.  The teacher then told him to play four on the bass with the swing pattern.  Then he was told to play heel down.  Jason is a heel up player, so that took some getting used to.  Then the teacher told him to walk the hi-hat.  That set him back about three weeks (Jason demonstrated what walking the hi-hat is)!  [Editor's note: Mr. Bittner later confirmed with me that he said 'rock' the hi-hat, not 'walk' the hi-hat. Thanks for the clarification, Jason!] Then the teacher told him to play in ‘unison’, which if I remember is throwing in the snare.  Well once he did that he lost his swing on the ride, so he had to go and get that back.  All happy now Jason showed the teacher, but now the kicker:  the teacher now told Jason to sing “A Hard Day’s Night” while playing!  So after all that, when Jason finally got that down, the teacher told him, “I just taught you 5-way independence”.  That was a beautiful lesson.

To sum it all up, Jason said that to him these are the most important things:

  • Independence
  • Dexterity
  • Slow and steady
  • Have fun!

He then proceeded to thank Ken Stanton Music for putting on these clinics.  He loves doing them and feels there aren’t enough of them.  I agree!

To yet more applause, Jason plays one more song.  This time, I put the camera and notepad away, and just enjoyed the performance with the rest of the audience.

In Conclusion

Seeing the type of drummer Jason Bittner is in a live setting confirmed for me one thing:  there are great drummers in all genres of music.  Not only that, but it’s very likely that a lot of these drummers are good at other genres of music as well, not just in the one of their profession.  Jason is one such drummer.  He’s mainly known as a metal drummer, but he showed that he is a very well schooled drummer, very versatile, and his colorful drum solo and displays in Jazz and Swing really displayed his creative and technical side.  And let’s not forget:  Jason is an awesome metal drummer.  Very fast, and also plays with plenty of power.  Definitely a world-class drummer.  A Jason Bittner clinic is not one to miss, and I’m glad I didn’t miss this one.

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