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I have had a long and interesting history with the Guitar Center Drum-Off. In 1989 I had just relocated to the West Coast and somehow I learned that there was a drum solo contest and it was that very day; I called the store and got a slot to play, and tied for first place with another guy. When it was all over, I think we each got a snare drum and we walked across the street and the judges bought us a pizza. It's a stark contrast to now, where we are now seeing GC giving away what amounts to a down payment on a house!

So for the next six years I stayed on as a contestant until 1995, when I took 3rd place nationally. In January of 1996 I got picked up by Pro-Mark and was told that because of my endorser status with a major brand I was no longer eligible to participate. It was, for me a great place to jump off and start participating as a judge. I was involved up until 2000 and from there I just got busy with gigs and life and raising my kid.

And here it is, 2014 and I'm beginning to participate as a judge again so I figure it would be a good thing to impart some wisdom for those of you who are competing in this thing, that has turned into a pretty large affair with some serious booty being strewn about. Much more than a pizza and a snare drum!

Some universal things- RECORD EVERYTHING YOU DO. Use a video camera, an iPhone, whatever. Just capture your performances both in your own practice as well as your performances. By having a visual record of what you play, you'll quickly determine what bits of your playing are strong and what's weak. Bring your A-game, always.

  1. Drumming is not a competition. This is most important. While you are being judged on your abilities, you should never approach this as a "numbers game". The drummers that sit in front of you writing down their impressions on a scale of 1-10 don't live their lives critiquing other drummers in such a manner. This is not how we roll.

    Rather, we hear a good drummer and our instincts are "hey, get his/her number because maybe we can trade some gigs". When you hear "it", you know "it" is there. "It" being that thing that says "this is a baaaaaad cat..." So it can be pins & needles for us too!

    Just remember, "Be in competition with your best self".

  2. Groove is king. Too many times I've seen drummers sit down and start fishing for a direction, playing a bunch of disjointed fragments of ideas that never truly go anywhere. So when in doubt, just take a deep breath and play a beat. Any beat, just mean it when you play it. And from there other ideas can emerge and reveal themselves.

  3. The more notes you play do not equate to "more points". So tonight I sat at the first judging for the competition and saw some players really try to get ALL the notes out of themselves; playing stuff that was disjointed and completely unmusical and at one point I could see the player thinking, as if they were trying to remember that pattern they were impressing themselves with in the practice hall that afternoon.

    And the reason I say, is because I've been "That Guy." Negative space is so effective, even more so than the wall of notes some drummers think that are helping their cause.

  4. Dynamics will get our attention. When a player really breaks things down from a roar to a whisper or starts at PPP (really quiet) and goes to FFF (really loud) it's those contrasts and shades that make us go "yeah!" And like negative space, a busy sounding groove played at PPP is just as, if not more effective as the same groove played at a level that would make your ears bleed.

    Remember, the judges are sitting there absorbing your notes and if you're going to "scream" at us, it's human nature to either tune that person out or get up and leave. But since we're drummers and you only have three minutes to make your case, that's not gonna happen. Personally, I bring earplugs so do your worst. ;)

  5. So much is conveyed with a smile. True story- One night I was having trouble with my In-Ear monitors and the only way I could get them to seal up and sound right was to smile real big. After the show the number of people who came up to me was exponentially higher than ever before. And every last one of them said "I just had to come say hello, you just look like you're having too much fun up there and you seem so approachable and friendly because you smile so big".

    Annnnd... just like that... as if I'd gotten a new crash cymbal or a cooler hat than what I already wear, my newest built-in accessory was therefore made a permanent part of my gig attire! When you look like you're having fun, people react favorably.

  6. Have everything you need ready to go. There's a lot of time spent by some tweaking on the house kit, trying to get everything *exactly* like you have it at your practice space. Give it up, let it go.

    When you get to the GC, have a look at what hardware is available and put together your setup in your mind before you touch anything; imagine yourself putting the kit together as you're watching the other drummers do their thing. Figure out what's going to go where and when it's your turn, get to work.

  7. Use a smaller setup. If you want to better your chances at the peliminaries, then I strongly suggest learning to play a 4pc kit. There's really nothing you CAN'T do on a rack tom, floor tom, kick and snare with two crashes and a ride and some hats.

    When you are working up a routine for the gig then I would suggest taking yourself outside of your "normal percussion environment" and getting yourself fluent on a "workhorse". This part of the contest is to get you through to the next phase.

    Don't jeopardize your chances because you're uncomfortable on the house kit because maybe the toms don't go as low as you'd like or maybe the toms are smaller than you're used to. It's technical issues like those that can kill your spirit, keep you distracted and that short 180 second drum solo you just did was half-baked and messy because you kept hitting the rim or the cymbal that you couldn't quite get into position. Avoid all that by doing without any unnecessary items.

  8. Work up not one, but three routines. By giving yourself "three separate roads" to start from, it eliminates some of the nerves that you may face upon starting. That way you can get back to the main part of your routine once you "reach cruising altitude". And that way you've got options so if that part in 7/8 goes awry you can quickly jump to another option and still maintain a confident flow. Because it's really all about flow.

  9. Pre-visualization will do you wonders. One technique I got from professional athletes is to "see yourself playing the game, scoring the runs, leaping the hurdles, WINNING THE GAME...all before you even touch the field."

    I would lie in bed at night in the days ahead of my time on the riser and dream my performance; I'd go through the motions, at some points in my dream I'd even drop a stick just to keep it interesting and "practice" how I'd handle that. I would see and hear myself playing the best solo I'd ever whipped out and upon finishing, stand up, absorb the cheers and then by that time I'd have fallen asleep. Doing this as you're drifting off is preferable, as it touches on your subconscious mind.

  10. Thank the judges. It's always nice to have an interaction with someone "on the spot" and a simple smile and "thank you" gesture may not be the determining factor that "seals the deal" for you but one thing is for certain, it makes the judges feel good. Also, it will open the door to maybe chatting afterwards and getting some insight into your performance; what could be stronger, what was strong, what really came across.

Drumming should always be fun. There's no need to stress out over a gig or a drum solo contest! Just get up, say your piece, have a blast and don't worry about screwing up. All drummers screw up, all the time. But the mistakes of masters, while still existent, are far smaller and we know how to cover them up. "Do it once, it's a mistake. Do it twice, it's Jazz. Three times, it's an arrangement".

Best of luck to you and have a blast!