BY ANDY ZIKER
Often unfairly compared to contemporaries such as Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker definitely marches to the beat of his own drum, leaving an indelible imprint within a number of genres. Putting aside his well-known, unpredictable personality for a moment and focusing on music, Baker could be described as the Forrest Gump of drumming – and has quite often been at the cutting edge of many musical genres. In terms of feel, sound, setup, and technique, his approach is much like an abstract painter (not surprising since he has always had an interest in modern art) as he borrows from his favorite drummers, but at the same time, is all about forging his own path. If you’re not familiar with his approach, the following list will open your ears to one of our greatest stylists. Baker may not be anyone’s definition of a role model, but you may certainly want his sound to influence your style.
1. BE IMPULSIVE
When Baker was four, his father was killed in action in WWII. Before going into battle, his dad wrote a note to young Ginger not to be opened until he was a teen. In the letter he told his son that in life, you have to depend on your fists. This endorsement of violence unfortunately became entrenched into Baker’s character and precipitated a number of brawls as a young man. He also took part in other extremely risky behavior such as drinking, using heroin (after being introduced to it by iconic English jazz drummer Phil Seamen), crashing cars, and getting in trouble with the law. Throw in a bad temper, stubbornness, and sour relationships – his fights on and off the stage with Jack Bruce are legendary – and we can safely assume that working with Baker can sometimes be a challenge. Chronic health issues including severe hearing loss, COPD (a lung condition), and degenerative osteoarthritis of the spine, have cumulatively created a loud talking, cranky 74-year-old who recently broke filmmaker Jay Bulger’s nose with a cane during the shooting of the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker. On the flip side, those same problematic tendencies may have positively influenced his musicianship: Baker is known for his tenacity, overcoming obstacles, pushing the limits, and an improvisational spirit. Would Baker have contributed as much if he had been a mellow, nice guy? Probably not.
2. EXPERIMENT WITH SETUP, SOUND, AND TECHNIQUE
Baker couldn’t afford a drum kit when he first started on the drums, so he built a toy set out of biscuit tins and proceeded to pass an audition with a Dixieland band. A few years down the road, legend has it (Baker is a celebrated storyteller) that he constructed his own acrylic drum set by bending the shells over a gas stove. With Cream, Baker used Ludwig Silver Sparkles with 20″ and 22″ bass drums, 12″ and 13″ rack toms positioned flat, 14″ and 16″ floor toms, and a 14″ black finished Leedy Broadway snare. Baker still plays some of the same Zildjian cymbals today that he used in the ’60s, including a 22″ ride with multiple rivets (for that jazzy sound) and 14″ or 15″ hi-hats. (He also uses an assortment of 16″—18″ crashes and 8″ and 10″ splashes.)
Baker likes his drums tuned medium high or “jazz,” as he puts it, so that the batter side provides the necessary rebound and melodic tone, though he is still able to achieve his telltale sound – both thunderous and full of attack. To boost the necessary bottom end from the floor toms, the resonant side is tuned down. His bass drums are mostly wide open with only felt strips on both sides, and tuned to have distinctively different fundamental pitches. (In the ’90s he began to favor a more muffled bass drum sound). Groundbreaking in so many ways, Baker revolutionized the concept of the hybrid kit when he used orchestral elements such as timpani (Check out the bolero-esqe 5/4 intro to “White Room”), two cowbells (to help with African and Latin influenced patterns), and infrequently a 14″ crash cymbal, which he places on his small floor tom. Baker likes his mounted toms flat to keep from overplaying, for ease in playing double strokes and loud singles, and to play rimshot accents. Bucking the trend of jazz drummers of the ’60s (and beyond) who used traditional grip, he mostly espouses matched grip (which appears to have helped him with his ever-meandering left hand), the ability to lead with either hand when playing fills, and overcoming loud Marshall stacks. To hear an unfettered account of Baker’s vintage drum sound, listen to his extended solo on “Toad” from Fresh Cream.
3. MAKE WISE MUSICAL CHOICES
As a young man, Baker was considered the best drummer in London (having taken over for Charlie Watts in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and then a stint in the Graham Bond Organization) and in turn, his reputation lured guitar god Clapton into Cream. Why was he such an in-demand drummer? An examination of his ensemble playing, musical taste, and knack as an improviser provides the answer.
The intro of “Had To Cry Today” by Blind Faith demonstrates his well-developed sense of phrasing. In the first and third measures, Baker shows restraint as he comes down emphatically on beat 1 with a crash (and bass drum), but allows it to ring out while Bruce and Clapton play a tandem lick. Characteristic fills (more on these later) in the first two beats of the second and fourth measures lead into unison hits. The fifth and seventh measures reveal Baker’s penchant for contrast: the bass drum at first melds with Bruce, but then goes off on a tangent. The first two beats of the sixth and eighth measures act as big band—era set-ups before three emphatic crashes (Ex. 1). To hear another example of his use of contrasting elements check out the second-line influenced “Hey Now Princess (Live),” a once unreleased demo found on a compilation called Those Were The Days. Listen to how Baker plays a 2:3 Brazilian clave pattern against Bruce’s quarter-note pulse and Clapton’s intricate guitar lead.
In the first four measures of “Sunshine Of Your Love,” Baker again shows self-restraint by leaving plenty of space (Ex. 2a) and, like a show band drummer, sets up ensemble hits in the chorus (Ex. 2b). A segment from “SWLABR” reveals bashing snare and crash cymbal hits along with a driving bass drum, a simple but contrasting fill, and a stop (open spaces can be extremely effective), ending with a power flam on beat 4 (Ex. 3). The verse of the Blind Faith tune “Can’t Find My Way Home” exhibits his strong command of dynamics – two soft bars followed by two loud bars (Ex. 4).
Since he came from a jazz background, it’s not surprising that Baker developed into such an advanced improviser. There is spontaneity to his grooves – he reacts more to sounds, melody/harmony, and other band members than the typical regurgitation of patterns. Cream’s protracted guitar solo sections were at the forefront of the jam band movement – listen to Clapton’s solo in “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” off Live Cream Vol. 2.
Baker is also an advanced soloist, known for both short and extended ad-libs. In the intro of “Politician,” Baker syncopates a short burst of power flams over a guitar riff (Ex. 5). His longer solos (such as on “Early In The Morning” with The Graham Bond Organization and “Toad” and “Do What You Like” with Cream) show that Baker spends the time necessary to develop an idea before moving on to the next one. He was also one of the first drummers of his era to solo over ostinatos and to use beats as solo material, to better engage the audience.
4. FORGE AN ORIGINAL FEEL
It’s easy to overgenrealize about Baker’s time feel, but this much is beyond dispute: he has always had absolute command over the pulse. Most probably without even thinking about it – and influenced by his rigid personality – he puts it where it best serves the music and doesn’t budge. However, when you begin to place Baker’s feel under a microscope, trends do come into focus. He quite often appears to play “behind the beat” or have a “lazy” style, but at the same time the overall groove somehow continues to have forward momentum. Listen to the 12/8 chorus of “Sleepy Time Time” (off of Fresh Cream), for instance, and you can hear him hold back his snare backbeat (reinforced by crashes into the ride). In the intro to “I Feel Free,” Baker plays stick clicks on 2 and 4, markedly behind handclaps by Bruce and Clapton. Although this is not exactly a momentous drumming moment, it’s a clear example of his approach to time.
He lays back on a whole slew of slow-to mid-tempo blues-tinged songs such as “Born Under A Bad Sign,” “White Room,” and “Politician,” not only by lagging back-beats, but also by using grace notes on the snare and swung ride patterns to swing the sixteenth-notes. Playing swung (vs. straight) notes divides the time unevenly thereby creating a sensation of leaning back. Two main factors keep his unique feel from becoming too lazy: First, at least in the case of Cream, Baker wedges his beat placement between Bruce’s bass (which is further behind than Baker) and Clapton’s guitar (which is on the front side of the beat). Second, he staggers time within the parts of the drum kit creating a wider pulse: His ride cymbal (or hi-hat) and bass drum(s) are right on the beat, while again his snare lurks behind. Baker often holds back on seams (downbeats or anticipations of song sections) with a crash/bass drum hit or a power flam, a characteristic attributed to iconic jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones. This effect crimps the time, creating forward momentum on the other side of the hit. Check out the downbeats at the beginning of “Sunshine Of Your Love” and the power flam on beat 4 at the end of the form of “SWLABR.” In addition, displaying the versatility of his feel, Baker delivers an edgy, slightly on-top-of-the-beat sensation to up-tempo tunes such as “Crossroads.”
Besides using swing and beat placement to affect feel, Baker is also a pioneer at open hi-hat insertions, ghosted notes, and buzzes. The first seven measures of “SWLABR” (Ex. 6) involve hi-hat pushes, an offbeat open punctuation (on the & of 3), and ghosted notes (which cause the slightly swung feel). The funk groove at the beginning of the first verse of Cream’s “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” incorporates open hats to thicken the backbeat, ghosted notes, and a subtle buzz on the & of 4 (Ex.7).The first two measures of “I Feel Free” reveal a samba-influenced open hi-hat pattern contrasting a mambo-like bass drum (Ex. 8).
5. BREW STRANGE GROOVES
Baker was a groove innovator as far back as 1964’s “Wade In The Water” from The Graham Bond Organization (Live at Klooks Kleek). Here, Baker plays a shuffle in the A section while moving to straight eighths in the B section, definitely an unusual occurence in the early ’60s. In “Sitting On Top Of The World” (off Cream’s Goodbye), a slow 6/8 blues, Baker plays left foot hi-hatchicks and a legato buzz roll the second time through the blues form (Ex. 9a), and then emits a double-time flavor by emphasizing sixteenths on the hi-hat (closed and then partially open) the third time through (Ex. 9b).
Baker’s frequent use of tribal grooves has sparked countless imitators. The Native American drumming style of “Sunshine Of Your Love” (Ex. 10) – reportedly suggested by producer Tom Dowd – is Baker’s most well known tribal beat; the relentlessly pounding toms (driven by eighth-note bass notes) during the instrumental interlude of “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” provide tension and release; and Baker’s triumphant floor tom riding on the blues shuffle (also very unusual for its time) “Take It Back,” fits like a puzzle piece with Bruce’s bass and Clapton’s guitar parts.
“Born Under A Bad Sign” (Ex. 11) uses displaced backbeats in the second half of each measure, while the tip of the stick on the bell allows the ride to cut through the mix. Baker serves up a jazzy flow in Cream’s “Politician,” featuring well-placed crash-into-the-ride punctuations and missing backbeats (Ex. 12). Check out his creative use of inverted paradiddles and funky offbeat hi-hat chicks in a more recent performance (1992’s Sunrise On The Sufferbus by Masters Of Reality) called “Ants In The Kitchen.”
6. DEVELOP COORDINATION
Baker often tells the story of being invited to sit down on a drum kit at a jazz gig and immediately having the natural coordination to pull it off. Whether that’s100-percent true or not, (again, Baker tends to exaggerate from time to time), there is no doubt that his sound involved the layering of all four limbs. Baker’s jazzy shuffle from Cream’s “Steppin’ Out” (BBC Sessions) is a good example of this (Ex. 14). Also, check out the extended solo from “Do What You Like,” by Blind Faith, in which Baker pays homage to Joe Morello’s “Take Five,” transforming it into a random 5/4 rumba (Ex. 15).
7. INFUSE SPACE INTO YOUR FILLS
You could fill an entire book with Ginger Baker’s catalog of drum fills. However, his most identifiable fills occurred while playing with Cream and Blind Faith. In these groups he often rolls from high to low (or left to right) and plays combinations of eighths and sixteenths and consecutive eighths, sixteenths, and sextuplets. He mostly plays these rhythms as single strokes, flat flams, and power flams, sometimes over a bed of driving bass drum(s) and/or hi-hat eighth-notes. The following five fills mined from “Outside Woman Blues” off Disraeli Gears encapsulate those elements (Exs. 16a—16e).
8. TAKE A TRIP TO AFRICA
Well before he set foot there, Baker had already absorbed the virtues of African drumming, first brought to his attention by his mentor Phil Seamen. Baker loved the complexity of the African rhythmic landscape – especially syncopation and the constant shifts and layering of duplets and triplets. The drum solo from “Early In The Morning” (Graham Bond Organization off Live At Klooks Kleek) demonstrates his passion for broken rhythms and the 2:3 polyrhythm. Have a listen to Baker’s solo from the BBC Sessions version of Cream’s “Steppin’ Out,” and you’ll notice how he orchestrates and opens up power flams on a number of sound surfaces, oscillating between 4/4 and 12/8 time. In the C section of “Da Da Man,” from the eponymous debut by Ginger Baker’s Air Force, he navigates brilliantly around the drums while playing a complex set of figures that read like a syncopation exercise (Ex. 17).
t’s one thing to listen to records and find inspiration in world music. It’s quite another level to drop everything and move to the birthplace of your influences. In 1970 Baker drove across the Sahara in his Range Rover to follow the groove and parked in Nigeria, a hotbed of revolution and turmoil at that time. He met and joined forces with Afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Kuti, filled in for drumming icon Tony Allen on tour, and played on the album Live! (Fela Kuti Album) 1971. In the song “Ye Ye De Smell” – written especially for Baker by Kuti – Baker lays down an adept dance groove, filled with both open hi-hat and unique bass drum placements (Ex. 18). Hurry up and buy one of those huge backpacks and take a trip to your favorite drumming birthplace (or at least invest in a bunch of world music CDs).
9. PUT YOUR BEST TWO FEET FORWARD
Baker is one of the first drummers to use double bass in R&B and rock, a link in the chain started by big band drumming hero Louie Bellson in 1946. He played alternating double bass strokes on many occasions, not necessarily at the breakneck speed you hear in today’s heavy metal, but for more powerful articulation. This example, taken from the end of an extended drum solo off “Toad” (Fresh Cream), demonstrates syncopation with the hands on top of a double bass sixteenth rumble (Ex. 19). Though the origins of the technique may have been to compete with loud stage volumes, Baker is known for playing unison double bass parts: The outro of “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” is a great example of turning up the bass drum volume to 11. Baker was also one of the first drummers to move his left foot between his left bass drum pedal and hi-hat pedal to create interesting combinations.
10. DON’T STUFF MUSIC INTO BOXES
Baker was at the cutting edge of rock, progressive metal, heavy metal, jam band, and fusion. Dave Holland (bass) and Bill Frisell (guitar) joined the Ginger Baker Trio in the mid-’90s with the release of Coward Of The Country, and Baker held his own in fascinating “drum battles” (more like duets) with the likes of Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Phil Seamen. (In addition, Baker’s current group, Jazz Confusion, is touring on a limited basis.) He even joined ranks at one point with John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) in the singer’s post—Sex Pistols band, Public Image Ltd.
The irony here is that Baker – though a key figure in the development of many styles – has an intense disdain for the labeling of music. Though one of the all-time great rockers, if you call him “rock drummer” to his face, prepare for a fight. Baker is a true artist and accepting these arbitrary style assignments would serve only to minimize what he has to offer. It makes you wonder if this kind of labeling is necessary at all, especially considering how many hybrid styles exist today.
No matter in what context you hear Baker play, his style is always recognizable. He has avoided being confined to small conceptual boxes in the pursuit of making great music, no matter the consequences. If you get a chance to talk to Ginger Baker, be sure to thank him for all that he’s done for the music world. However, you just might want to keep your distance.