BY PHIL HOOD
“To suffer the penalty of too much haste, which is too little speed” – Plato
The Axis bass drum pedal has always had a reputation for speed, smooth operation, and a certain high-tech aesthetic that goes back to their first successful product, machined out of solid aluminum. Along the way in the ‘90s it got the reputation as the world’s fastest pedal, arriving on the scene as all kinds of speedy footwork was moving out of dark corners of punk and metal and into the mainstream. Today, there are plenty of very fast pedals. Axis is not alone on the track. But the story of how it got that initial reputation is worth retelling.
Darrell Johnston, the pedal’s inventor, got a call in the early ‘90s from drummer Tim Waterson, who was trying to set a world speed record. An inventor named Boo McAfee in Tennessee had developed an instrument called a Drumometer. It was a pad with a pickup that could count strokes. Today it’s a teaching tool sold by Pearl but in the early days Boo was selling direct and was focused mainly on using the Drumometer in “World’s Fastest Drummer” competitions. Word was getting out about it and drummers were competing. Waterson called Axis and said “I’m going to set a world record and need your pedals to do it.” Not long after, he set a record of 1,408 beats in 60 seconds.
A little while later Johnston got a call from Pete Sandoval of the death metal band Morbid Angel. The group was working on a video shoot in downtown Los Angeles. Johnston, whose musical tastes run in many directions, says he thought he’d go up to Los Angeles to hang out with the kids and have some fun. “These guys were sort of the grandfathers of extreme metal. I really loved Pete and the guys in the band,” he says. Sandoval loved his Axis pedal and promoted it.
“I think because of him, and his early exposure to the pedal, it became popular with specific [metal] genres,” says Johnston. “But when you have an efficient, well-balanced, rigid machine, it’s good for any style of playing. It’s the setup adjustments that make the difference. Players like Carl Palmer, or JR Robinson, they adjust a pedal to do what they want. The fact that it is the fastest just means it’s an efficient machine.”
Drumming’s Loss, Machining’s Gain
That efficient machine got its start when Johnston got bitten by the drumming bug as a youngster. He was originally from Montana but the family had moved to Southern California, and by the age of 19 Johnston was gigging and had a job at Gray’s School of Music in San Pedro, California, teaching 34 students. Shortly thereafter he enrolled in the music program at Chico State University in Northern California. Then reality intervened.
“After I got into college I was in several bands, but I realized something very important,” says Johnston. “As much as I loved drumming, I really was not a super great drummer. The great players have a genius that I really did not have.”
His percussive self-examination had a silver lining. He took a job working with a gunsmith in a machine shop and found he had a natural bent for machining. “Once I realized you could make a living making stuff, I jumped into being a machinist,” he says. Later, back in Southern California, he built up a machine shop with his dad doing all kinds of work for electronics and aerospace firms.
In the 1980s CNC (computer numeric controlled) machines were just coming in to replace mechanical processes, and Johnston immersed himself in the technology. “That became the basis for the Axis pedal,” he says. “The first machine in my shop was a three-axis CNC machining center. It gave me the ability to produce parts for a pedal or anything else.”
One of Johnston’s inspirations for pedal design came from the smooth action of the legendary Rogers Swiv-o-Matic pedal. “I thought the Rogers was incredible,” he says. “But when I first started designing it was not with the idea of making a technological jump. I just wanted a product my machine shop could produce.”
Ball Bearings Everywhere
Johnston swiped a page from the Swiv-o-Matic by using ball bearings wherever possible. That and a little innovation called variable drive leverage were probably the two main things that made the pedal noteworthy. The variable drive lever allowed the player to obtain the feel of any pedal with one simple adjustment by changing the ratio of the footboard movement to the arc of the beater. Then there was that sleek aluminum appearance. “Had I had a large budget I probably wouldn’t have done it that way,” Johnston says now. “If I could have afforded castings I probably would have done that.”
He went through dozens of designs and prototypes to get that first pedal. “When something failed I would get rid of it and start all over. I wiped the slate clean several times,” he says. “One of the hardest things to know and overcome is to admit when there is a better way.
The Artists Weigh In
As early as 1989 Johnston was showing a demo Axis pedal at the NAMM show. But that was a doomed prototype. The design had a lever that moved forward as the footboard went down, but was difficult to make adjustable. Gibraltar later developed this idea in their Catapult pedal. “I built 20 of them like that and gave them to artists,” says Johnston. “Tommy [Aldridge] invited me to a Whitesnake rehearsal just prior to going out on tour. I walked in the room as he was practicing a solo. When I saw his foot on the pedal my heart just sank because I could see that design was not going to cut it. I didn’t want to look like an idiot to Tommy Aldridge, though. The variable drive leverage popped into my head right away as soon as I saw that.”
Other drummers whose input helped as the design involved included Mike Baird of Soundgarden and JR Robinson. The reason they were interested, Johnston says, is because they were playing a cool pedal in the ‘80s, the ASBA Caroline. “It had a ton of leverage. The guys who used it all said there was nothing else like it that had that leverage and power,” says Johnston. “When I first saw one I set my leverage point about a quarter-inch beyond the ASBA so you could get even more power when you set the variable drive far forward.”
JR Robinson had been looking for parts for his ASBA, so Johnston built a bunch of his new pedals and sent them out to him and other musicians, including editors at drumming magazines. Shortly after the NAMM show in 1991 Axis was swamped with orders, and production was backed up for a year.
He Read It In A Magazine
This was an overnight success that had taken years to come to fruition. “It’s nothing I did myself,” says Johnston, who still works on pedal designs but is no longer full-time with the company. “I had great advice and great help in building the Axis, including the staff.” Most of all he credits his partners, Chuck and Karen Blashaw, who today oversee the growth of the business. And he credits one other source near to this writer’s heart. “One of the amazing things was the help of the drumming magazines. It would never have been successful without them and the reviews that were run,” says Johnston.
Though the Axis pedal’s bias for speed made it the choice for many in the speed metal and death metal communities, that was never the company’s intention. Pedal preferences are highly individual. Some like precision and sensitivity; others want more give and the ability to bury the beater deep in the bass drum head. But Johnston knows pedals can be adapted to any style with proper adjustment. In fact, some later Axis models have been engineered to make it easier for drummers who want a to feel a little more “slop” and less sensitivity.
Other innovations from Axis have included their double pedals, unique hardware, e-pedals and triggers, and their newest product, the Catalyst pedal. But those are stories for another day.
We’ve Got Winners And New Prizes
Last week’s Supersticks giveaway attracted lots of interest. We’re sending a pair to JW Guard and Joel Klein. Congratulations to all who entered.
For the next month we’re accepting entries to win one of the following prizes from Trick Percussion. All you have to do is post a comment below and you’re automatically entered.
GS007 Throw Off & Butt (black)
The GS007 Throw Off is one of the most popular OEM throw offs of all time. Every Trick snare drum employs this throw for its smooth, accurate action. It is favored by builders and drummers looking to upgrade their snare.
Quick Release Cymbal Topper
The Quick Release Cymbal Topper is designed to be the ultimate product of this type. It is CNC machined to exacting tolerances for durability and dependability and dramatically reduces setup and teardown times while keeping your cymbals secured to the stand. The Delrin stem protects the cymbal’s center hole.