BY AJ DONAHUE
Since 2010, J.J. Johnson and Tyler “Falcon” Greenwell have served as co-anchors of the Tedeschi Trucks Band live and in studio. Carrying a double-drumming legacy forward from Derek Trucks’ time as guitarist for the Allman Brothers, the pair have big shoes to fill. But from almost the very beginning, they’ve been more than prepared for the task.
And these dudes must not ever get sick of each other, because when they’re not on with TTB, they’re sharing drumming duties for improvised quartet Whose Hat Is This?
Johnson and Greenwell have a done a number of print and audio interviews about the nuances of playing together and sharing musical space with another drummer, so when we contacted them in the early months of TTB’s 2019 tour, we wanted to focus on something a little different: sound management and gear choices.
The drummers were nice enough to sit down for a live interview ahead of a Tedeschi Trucks Band performance in Asheville, North Carolina. While we spent most of the time discussing gear choices and sound decisions for the TTB gig, the conversation inevitably moved to the demands of performing alongside another trap set drummer a few times for added context. They also send over a few Whose Hat videos to go along with the piece.
DRUM!: Was there a learning curve for sound management when you first started playing together?
J.J. Johnson: A little bit. There was some trial and error, but there was some magic there from the beginning. With any musician you’ve been playing with, there’s a hookup that feels right. When we saw it was happening, we both thought “Oh, this is going to be great.” The biggest piece was just listening to find the holes. But as we went along, we had to find ways to stay out of each other’s way without being timid.
Tyler Greenwell: Yeah, that’s the hardest part—staying out of the way, but being as aggressive as the tune needs to be. I think it’s a constant learning curve as you go along. You have the initial hookup and you see that it can work. That’s not always the case with double drumming. But even as we get older and our styles change and our ears change, we’re constantly evolving as players. Or devolving [laughs].
Once you’ve established that you can work with someone, there’s always the process and reality of a learning curve. You’re always learning. You rise together, you fall together.
Were there any sound-related items like hi-hat level or bass drum volume that you had to adjust?
JJ: Absolutely. What we do is in service of the tune. That always dictates what should be happening. You always sort of self-edit unless there’s a specific thing that comes from the band, it’s just about listening.
TG: One of the biggest things we’ve had to discuss is low-end, bass drum stuff. Just by virtue of it being two guys, it’s always going to come up. I’ve tried to be more conscious of it. Even just ghosting can get real messy.
JJ: It can get clunky if you’re not paying attention to it. There’s a lot of improvising, and we’re taking liberties based on what’s happening. That’s a great thing as long as we can keep that chaotic beauty together. If we’re not listening to everything—and listening to the space—it can get out of hand. We both have to stay aware and recognize, Okay, he’s filling up that space, so I don’t need to be there.
TG: The top-end stuff is easy. You can look at each other and lock in and hear what’s happening, but with the low-end stuff, you just have no idea what’s going on until the band or crew lets you know.
J.J. Johnson’s Gear
- Gretsch Drums: Broadkaster in Vintage Walnut Finish
- 20″ x 12″ bass drum
- 13″ x 8″ tom
- 14″ x 14″ and 16″ x 16″ floor toms
- 14″ x 6.5″ USA Bell Brass snare
- 14″ x 8″ Chrome Over Brass snare
- 14″ x 6.5″ Broadkaster snare
- Zildjian Cymbals
- 22″ Medium Thin Constantinople Ride (x2)
- 15″ K Light Hi-Hats
- Remo heads
- Vic Firth sticks
- DW hardware
- LP Percussion
Tyler Greenwell’s Gear
- Gretsch Drums: Broadkaster in Vintage Walnut Finish
- 22″ x 12″ bass drum
- 13″ x 9″ tom
- 16″ x 16″ floor tom
- 14″ x 8″ Broadkaster snare
- 14″ x 5″ Broadkaster snare
- 14″ x 6.5″ USA Phosphor Bronze snare
- Zildjian Cymbals
- 23″ A Sweet ride
- 23″ K Sweet ride
- 16″ Prototype hi-hats
- Remo heads
- Vic Firth sticks
- DW hardware
- LP Percussion
Let’s talk specifics. After endorsing the same company for years, you both made the move to Gretsch Drums fairly recently. Were you planning on choosing a new company together?
TG: No, it just sort of worked out. We were in a strange position for a while, and then Stanton Moore introduced us to Paul Cooper, the drum builder at Gretsch. He and his wife, Amy, came out to a show in Savannah, Georgia, and he said, “I don’t know what your situation is, but I’d love to see two Gretsch drum sets up there.” The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We still owe Stanton.
JJ: We’re extremely fortunate. I love Gretsch drums, man. All my favorite drummers have played them. And it just happened to work out this way. It’s a superior instrument. Every little detail is perfect. It’s an honor to be invited to be part of their roster.
TG: These drums are killer, man. I owned some old Gretsch drums coming up, and I always loved them. Yeah, this is a high honor. And of course, the instrument is important, but the relationships are a huge part of it. You get to know these dudes who are lifers. They’ve been building drums for so long, and they’ve seen everyone. You’re not going to blow them away with anything, so it really meant something when they came to us.
You’re both playing shallower bass drums. Does that help with the low-end issues you mentioned before?
JJ: Yeah, I’m playing a 20” x 12”, and Tyler’s playing a 22” x 12”. It’s just something we’ve been experimenting with, and it’s more fitting for me personally. It’s right in the middle of something I prefer and something that suits what I need to be doing.
TG: I don’t know if you feel this way, J—and I’ll be the first to admit I need to step up my tuning skills—but I’ve always felt longer bass drums are very one dimensional. I’ve heard great players sound great on those drums, but the shorter drums just sing to me.
JJ: And they feel great too. You can feel the air moving, the low-end, but I can still hear the note. I’ve had to play 18” deep bass drums before, and I just don’t get it. Different strokes, I guess.
TG: I look at it, and I’m like, That’s two bass drums, man. Can we cut this in half?
Do you find that shallower drums offer shorter notes? Is that more practical for a situation like this?
JJ: It’s quicker, but it’s still full. Those drums are really flexible with tuning, too. I tend to tune a little bit higher—I’m a fan of the old school Motown and rock and roll tones where the drums just sang a little more. It speaks well. I’m playing an 13″ x 8″ rack tom instead of the standard 9” depth. I love the way it responds. I love the tone. The rest of the stuff is pretty standard. The floor toms are standard sizes, and that works.
Sometimes I look at sounds not so much as specific tones, but as characters. Like the rack tom is a character, and the floor toms are two other characters. That’s one of the reasons I brought out another floor tom. It extends the range and gives me another voice. I can’t tune all of the drums really high because that wouldn’t work, so the second floor tom lets me keep the rack tom higher, but still have two deeper sounds in the floors.
Are you both tuning the same as you would on a one-drummer gig?
JJ: Yeah, I always tune about the same. Even if I’m on a session, I’ll start there, and if something needs to change, I can adjust. But in those cases, I’ll usually just put up different drums. I like them to live in a certain space. Same thing with snare drums.
TG: I just walk into a session with one of those big, fuzzy bass drum beaters, crank everything up, and say, “It all sounds great. Let’s hit record.”
That said, the tunings are a little different for this gig. I play completely different in this band, including the way I sit. Sometimes we need to get to a certain dynamic level, and to do that, I just have to be really on top of the drums. Sometimes I have to hit as hard as I can possibly hit. I have to meet the dynamic level of a guy who’s soloing and has been playing in front of two drummers his whole life. My differences are more about seat height and stick size than tuning, but there are a few changes I make here and there.
Does that include trying to avoid certain frequency ranges to leave room for each other?
JJ: Hmm, maybe a little bit. It’s nice to play with some space, and differences make things a little more colorful.
TG: J’s 13” x 8” is obviously going to be a little bit higher in pitch than my 13” x 9”. My floor tom is kind of right in between his two floor toms.
JJ: That just started to happen over time. We’re playing two kits that are tuned in roughly the same range, but we naturally found space for each other. That makes everything sound a lot more interesting.
What about cymbal choice? Was that a challenge to figure out?
TY: I think we’ve both gone through a lot of setups. It didn’t always work, but we’re at a really good place now.
When didn’t it work?
JJ: Oh, most times [laughs]. Honestly, I don’t know if it really worked until this setup I’m using right now. It’s also in the touch as well, you know. The cymbals we’re playing now can come up, but they sound great when you just touch them. I had the luxury of going out, picking these, and pitch matching them. At first, I thought they were a little bit bright for me, but it works. I hear them in context of the band, and it’s clear that they work.
For cymbals, I prefer dark stuff, but it’s a trial and error thing. Dark cymbals just speak well in sessions, and people have finally started to figure that out. But, sometimes you need something a little higher-pitched for gigs.
We tried a couple of things, and they just weren’t translating. I’m really happy with what I’m playing now though. I’ve been playing this setup for about a year, which is rare. Normally, I’ll get ear fatigue, or something just won’t be working. This setup is just perfect though. I don’t like to sacrifice character or quality for projection.
TG: I want to go on record and say that I hope Brian Speiser (TTB Production Manager/Front of House Engineer) reads this, because I really miss my 24” K Light Ride. We had a long discussion about it, and I get it. I had it above my rack tom on the left. It can be a pretty monstrous cymbal, and I think that was occupying a lot of sonic space. I had to replace it with something a little more controlled.
I like the setup I have now though. It’s a good blend. I can get real loud, but still come way down if I need to.
JJ: I think we’re finally at a place where we complement each other. We have our own character, but sound complementary.
TG: Yeah, the cymbal choices are really happening for us right now, but we went through a lot of years of trying to figure it out. Your ears change over time, though. You know, we’ll keep getting brighter and brighter stuff. I’ll be playing ZBTs before you know it.
You’re both playing larger hi-hats. Is that specific to this band or something you both use elsewhere too?
JJ: I’ve been playing bigger hats since the mid- to late-’90s. I started with 16”s, and then went up to 17”s or 18”s for a while. It did start with a pitch thing. I got tired of hearing that pre-packaged hi-hat sound. It sounds dominating to me. You know that really heavy chick sound? It always stuck out to my ears, and didn’t blend with the rest of the cymbals. I don’t hear that in bigger hi-hats, and they feel better too.
TG: They’re softer, man. There’s a lot more give and bounce. You can still get a big chick out of them by putting some bells and stuff on top of them, but they just feel so nice.
JJ: The combination you’ve had for a while sounds so good. I never even think about them as being a certain size. They just fit so well.
TG: They let me be a lot more dynamic. I can feather them and play a swell easily. I imagine larger hats will be the standard over the next few years.
Do you all have to clear any gear changes with the band or crew?
TG: Yeah, I just had that discussion. I’m thinking about taking my floor tom away and putting in conga. I don’t know. I saw some Rototoms in a pawn shop today. I’m telling you, they’re going to end up on stage. [Editor’s note: we would really love to see/hear that.]
For any readers interested in double drumming, can you offer some advice for working cooperatively and finding a fit?
TG: Playing with another drummer isn’t like you would play to a song naturally. You’re leaving stuff out, and only playing half of what you normally would. If you get a chance, try it. Go into it thinking super minimal, and focusing on what the other player is doing. It’s weird and it’s challenging.
JJ: It requires a lot of work and patience, but it’s totally worth it. Sometimes you need to make sacrifices, but it’s worth it if the team wins, you know? Maybe you get to bat the next night, but tonight you made it work. It’s powerful.
Tedeschi Trucks Band is touring the U.S. through November.