BY PHIL HOOD
Freddie Gruber was a drum teaching legend. Over a career that spanned almost half a century, until his death in 2011, he became known in the drumming community for mentoring top artists such as Jim Keltner, Peter Erskine, John Guerin, Adam Nussbaum, Ian Wallace, Anton Fig, Rod Morgenstein, Kenny Aronoff, Neil Peart, Dave Weckl, Daniel Glass, Clayton Cameron, Steve Smith, and many others. The last time I visited Freddie before he passed in 2011 I marveled at the pictures on the wall and the handwritten notes from players he had helped along the way, like Mitch Mitchell of Jimi Hendrix fame.
If you want a taste of learning Freddie’s dancing techniques and drumming philosophy the man to call is Bruce Becker. A longtime top-call session player, performer, clinician, and teacher to many pros, Becker not only studied with Freddie, he traveled the world with him, watched him teach others, and took a lot of notes along the way. But before we get to my interview with Becker, let’s get into a little more about what made Freddie such a legend.
Freddie was one of the oddest, most unforgettable characters you will ever meet. The essence of his outsize life and personality was captured in detail by Bill Milkowski in Jazz Times back in 2004, who described him as a Zen-like Yoda with the caustic wit of Don Rickles.
But Freddie didn’t start out as a master teacher. As a young drummer in New York in the ’40s, Freddie was a young phenom, making waves for his polyrhythmic approach to jazz. But heroin use and an independent, rebellious indifference to his own prospects cut his musical career short. It took him more than a decade to clean up his addictions. Helped by friends Shelly Manne and Buddy Rich he moved to the West Coast, where he found his true calling in education.
Freddie taught all aspects of drumming but his gift was, in his most famous student Neil Peart’s words, “an unparalleled understanding of the physical ‘dance’ involved in playing the instrument, the ergonomic relationship of the drummer to the drums.”
Now, back to Becker. He’s now imparting the education he gleaned from Freddie as well as hard-won lessons from the studio and the road, teaching five to seven drummers a day both online and in his studio. I Skyped with him last week to get some insight into his relationship with Freddie and how it impacts his teaching today.
Drum!: When did you get started with Freddie?
Bruce Becker: I studied with Freddie from 1977 to 1984, about seven and a half years. I think at the end he was trying to shake me because that was a long time. A lot of players would study with him for a year or a year and a half.
After that I would hang around because we were friends. In 1992, I moved to Europe and Freddie was on my doorstep within two months. I took him around Europe; we did some clinics, and I introduced him to some European drummers. We went to the Frankfurt show (Musikmesse) and the Koblenz Drum Festival, which was going strong at that time.
But with all due respect, I think this was the point at which he began to propagandize what he had been doing and teaching for many years in Southern California. He became a caricature of Freddie Gruber. This is just my take, and, of course, Freddie would dispute it. [Affecting Freddie’s nasally voice] “No man, you don’t get it,” that’s what Freddie might say. I used to say Freddie didn’t care if you loved him or hated him but he wanted you to know who he was.
But wouldn’t you agree that Freddie’s personality was also a huge part of his teaching and his reputation? He was a night owl; he made students wait hours for their lesson; his house was an incredible mess; and he talked to you about drumming rather than showing you technique.
When I met Freddie in ’77 he was still a lean, clean, well-oiled machine–at least for Freddie. His house was clean and he had a very good routine teaching. He still wasn’t on schedule. If you showed up at 7 PM for lessons there would be two guys in front of you and a student in the middle of a lesson. Freddie would be eating dinner and saying, “I haven’t eaten all day.”
He used to pull me into the backyard late at night and say “Hear that?” I’d say “I don’t hear it, what do you hear?” He’d say “Nothing.” He really loved it when the noise and hustle and bustle went away.
I cut ties with him later in ’99. He was using again. I would still make pilgrimages over to his house because he was close with my brother David. He would see us and go, “David,” but he would give me an eye and say, “Hey, man.”
Which part of your teaching today is you and which is Freddie?
That’s a hard one. I got the Moeller method straight from Jimmy Chapin. But Freddie had his own take on that. Jimmy once said to me, “Freddie never mentions that he studied with me.” I know he studied with Henry Adler, too. [Legendary Las Vegas drummer] Bobby Morris says he and Freddie studied with Henry in the 1940s.
I always took notes when working with Freddie, pages and pages. Here’s a thing from Burnes and Malin, Developing Finger Control. [Holding up a book in his office] Here’s a page all ripped apart with notes from Freddie. I would never say I came up with all this shit because, honestly, Freddie handed me a big template. But I was fortunate to have recording experience and thousands of sessions and teaching lessons. That all brought a clearer narrative to my teaching where Freddie was quite cryptic in how he taught and expressed himself.
Here’s another example: French grip. In the early ‘80s I was at Cal State Northridge, studying timpani with Karen Ervin-Pershing, and she taught the French grip. Freddie never touched upon that. But Freddie started to get into a French grip approach, from about ’87 to ‘92. If you remember his house with the little room with the Ludwig set–
I was playing there one day and he walked in–while he was shaving–and he says, “Bruce, put your thumb up.” Now, at this time I was listening to Billy Higgins a lot. And Freddie looked at me and said, “Billy Higgins!” and I thought, I get it, because Billy played with his thumb on top.
When did you first get into teaching?
I started at the Music Stop in 1982 so that would be 36 years. Glen Sobel (Alice Cooper) was one of my students back then.
Since then you’ve taught lots of others who are or have become famous drummers. Can you discuss some of those?
David Garibaldi, Tris Imboden, Mark Schulman, Daniel Glass, Jiro Yamaguchi from Ozomatli, Gabe Ford from Little Feat. David Bronson, who used to be with the Righteous Brothers, is a student of mine. Burleigh Drummond (Ambrosia) was a student last year. And, then there are just great working drummers. Adam Steinberg is a guy who plays here in LA, Steve Hatfield is a teacher at Wichita State and a working drummer who does a lot of summer stock musical gigs; Steve Mancuso who teaches at Humber College in Toronto; Larry Graves is a working drummer in Toronto; it’s those kinds of people.
Do you ever take beginners?
It depends on their disposition. I have a group of students in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and then a younger group in their 20s and 30s. Working drummers, as well as weekend warriors. I do have one younger student whose father is in music. He’s 14 and very talented. I try not to be technical [with a young student] but teach him concepts that keep him interested.
When students talk about Freddie’s later teaching they don’t talk about exercises. They talk about his philosophy and concepts, how to him drumming was like dancing.
You may recall at the beginning of this century Freddie would say, “It’s the age of information.” He was right. Because of quick button pushing, I want to be substantive in what I teach in terms of articulation and [technique] but I also want to communicate the colorful, philosophical side of it as well. The bag of goods that Freddie taught about the body and motion was a flexible tool that could accommodate any musical style. He never gave you a lesson like, “Here’s lick number 32.” He might give you an indication of how to get there but he used colorful analogies and colorful ways of putting things in to engage you in thinking. But it was never with clarity or pinpoint accuracy.
You must have some hilarious stories from working with Freddie?
Yeah, I’ll tell you one. I watched Bob Newhart on the Johnny Carson show one time and he was discussing a trip to Europe he’d taken. Johnny asked him if it was vacation or if he did comedy over there. Bob said that Germans don’t get his comedy. He said, “I always get questions like [fake accent] ‘You have this funny group called the Three Stooges. But one of them is named Curly and he has no hair. How can that be?’” [laughs] Well, I told Freddie about that exchange.
So the story is that a few years later Freddie and I are together in Europe. And, I knew a German percussionist named Pitti Hecht who has played with the Scorpions and others. When Freddie came to Europe I wanted to introduce him to Pitti. As it turned out there was a writer who wanted to write about Freddie in the German magazine Drums & Percussion. We went to Baden-Baden to see him for the interview and Pitti was there.
Later we were sitting in the hotel and Freddie is arguing his ideas about drumming technique with Pitti. Freddie says, “It’s a concept, it’s natural.” And Pitti is saying, “How can it be natural if it’s a concept?” And, they’re both looking at me for support for their position. So I look at Freddie and say “It’s like the Three Stooges. How can he be called Curly if he has no hair?” And Pitti looked at me and says “Exactly, how can he be called Curly if he has no hair? “And we fell down laughing so hard.
You created a course for Drumeo last year. What was the response to that?
I did a Drumeo course for Jared that ran for six months and went extremely well. I’ve had notes from users saying that [before the course] they had rheumatoid arthritis and I saved their life. The drummer for the Hooters wrote to me and said it was amazing what the course did for him, that he had a tour and it was going great.
I often think that one little idea or musical phrase from a teacher can give you enough to work on for a long time.
You can’t give people six steps when they can only process two. You’ve got to watch where their heads are at.
How gratifying is it to be recognized and have these players who want to study with you?
Take Jiro Yamaguchi. When he took the gig with Ozomatli he was second percussionist in the band and he became the drummer. He did not have drum set chops. He had been a student for a while and I had never been to a gig so I went. When I saw him play it hit me, “I’m doing all the stuff this guy needs, I can hear it in his playing.” Then he told me, “Oh yeah, it makes a big difference.” That’s what I love.
I try to know who I’m working with and I want feedback. If you study with me I don’t sleep through the lessons. I know I’m helping student make a paradigm shift by giving them the tools that were bestowed on me. Today, my chops have never felt better and I’ve never had an ache or a pain. That’s from watching Freddie teach and taking it and making certain adaptations that have really quantified results for me and different players.
Want to get in touch with Bruce? Visit Brucebecker.com for all the details.
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