John Mahon and JoVia Armstrong

John Mahon and JoVia Armstrong


Want to play better? Maybe instead of woodshedding more you should try what some other drummers have done: play hand percussion.

It’s hardly a new idea. Many great drummers excel at both. Sheila E. and Alex Acuña come to mind. The idea that playing percussion makes you a better drummer was raised recently to me by John Mahon when he was interviewed for an upcoming story in our March issue. As Elton John’s percussionist for the past twenty years he has played nearly every instrument. But he only gets behind the kit on side gigs.  And when he does he says he’s a better player because he listens better now. John says that particularly when he’s playing percussion parts that accent the song, as opposed to carrying the rhythmic responsibility, he’s able to hear the band and think about what they are doing. “When you play drum set you’re busy,” he says, but as a percussionist he gets to hear the band “like a producer.” And as a result, whenever he plays drum set today he says he plays less. He has a better feel for what needs to be there.

So, I put the question to another percussionist who straddles three worlds of drumming. JoVia Armstrong plays cajon and all the hand percussion in JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, a group aptly described as post-punk soul. The description is apt: they sound like James Brown brought up by punks. She also plays a hybrid cajon set with the world jazz group Musique Noire. And in a third outfit, Phim, she plays only drum set.

I asked if she hears the rest of the band better or differently when she’s in a supporting percussion role.  “I’m definitely more relaxed in the percussionist’s seat,” she says. “I have a wider arsenal of voices so I can think differently about what I’m going to play and when, not to mention how I’m going to play it in terms of pattern.”


As for drum set she says, “I’m not a great trap drummer, but I get the job done by playing pocket.” Like Mahon she thinks drum set is busy and loud. “Personally, playing drum set makes me feel a little isolated from everyone else because it’s so loud.”

Jovia adds that playing the hybrid cajon kit has directly influenced her performance on drum set as well. In a way this kit is both: It’s hand drumming and drum set. She’s right-handed and when playing cajon her right hand is on the box and her left holds a stick to play hi-hat and cymbals. “I’ve always felt awkward on drum set because I felt like doing things open handed. Playing cajon the way I do, I feel like I’ve given myself permission to be unconventional on the drum set. I sometimes put my ride on my left side now.”  Incidentally you can see Jovia in clinic below.


Questions, I’ve Got Questions So You Can Share And Win

So, I put it to you? Does playing percussion change how you hear your music? Has it changed the musical choices you make behind the kit?


Answer this week’s question for a chance to win a handy Drumclip

Let me know by posting a comment below. I’ll share some responses and reward others with Drumclip, compliments of Drumclip. It’s the clever way to mount cellphones, sheet music or anything you want to your drums. Off topic: Extremely clever answers may win a suitsy, but don’t hold me to it.