You might think that Mike Mangini, Dream Theater’s acclaimed drumming virtuoso and a former faculty member at Berklee College of Music, never needs a tune-up. As it turns out, the much-honored sticksman can point to a number of areas of his playing that could be improved. “There are definitely things I’m doing wrong,” he says, “but first we have to consider what the word ‘wrong’ means when it comes to playing music.” 

According to Mangini, the biggest “wrong” is playing in a way that leads to injuries. “Whatever you’re doing—whether you’re playing sports or performing music—if you’re hurting yourself, that means something needs to change,” he says. “You simply can’t go on if you’re in pain.”

The second “wrong,” says Mangini, is when you’re simply not considering the possibilities that are available to you. “People get discouraged when they can’t do something, and they start to think that their body just isn’t up to the task,” he says. “I don’t buy into that. Take speed, for example. It’s not always that you can’t do something—you can do it, but you need to examine the ways that you’re playing and address the steps you need to follow in order to execute a certain technique.”

Mangini is big on self-analysis, and he frequently categorizes certain elements of his playing that need improvement. He isn’t keen on watching himself on video (“I hate doing that”), but he does listen to live performances to catch faulty bits of execution. “But I don’t do it in a way that upsets me,” he stresses. “Rather, I try to motivate myself.”

Unlike, say, pro golfers, who work with swing coaches, Mangini doesn’t consult a fellow instructor, but he does communicate with peers in the drumming world. It’s a mutually beneficial system in which bits of information are exchanged. “I communicate certain things to them—hand technique, practice methods, stuff like that,” he explains. “And they do the same for me. In effect, I’m going to people who have pushed certain elements further than me. Everybody is the best at something, but nobody’s the best at everything. So, it’s really useful to share information with people who are at the top of their game.” 

Here, the ever-humble Mangini, whose latest effort with Dream Theater, Distance Over Time, was released in February,  opens up in his own words on five areas of his drumming that he feels he could work on. —Joe Bosso

1. I Need To Play Ghost Notes Louder When Recording

I don’t play my ghost notes properly on my snare drum when recording. The reason this happens is because microphones are not the same as ears. If you look at a guitar track for rock music on a computer, it looks like a solid wall of transient sound—because it is one. Soft ghost notes can’t be heard through that wall of sound, and rock guitar is almost always the loudest thing in a rock mix. 

That’s the basic problem here. I need to play by eye. What that means is that I have to watch my stick tip height, and I need to watch the area of the drumhead that the stick tip hits so the sound is thick and not thin. I forget that when I’m in the studio it’s a different perspective.

Given that I typically use a deeper snare drum, this means that for the ghost notes to sound correct when the recording is all said and done, my stick tip has to be somewhere around eight inches off the drum, as opposed to two inches. To the ear, this will sound strange—when you hit a snare drum from that height, it’s not what we perceive naturally as being a ghost note. But for the microphone, which perceives the decibel level different than the ear, the ghost note has to be struck from a higher distance. I have to think more to do this because it’s not natural, and I often go back to what it is my body knows, which is to balance my velocities for how I sound in a room.

The stress on dynamics appears to be the most important thing to teachers outside of the rock style, and it is indeed super important! This is a main thing taught to jazz players, for example. In fact, in the studio many styles require a drummer to possess dynamics with maximum volume, lest the instruments with less transience get buried under guitar and keyboards that have similar frequencies and more transience. 

It bothers me when I hear that a student is considered “unmusical” because they “need more dynamics,” when what is really meant is “play more quietly.” Quiet alone isn’t dynamics. Quiet, or piano, can indeed be the correct dynamic in some rooms, but in many rooms, and with rock drums, playing as loud as you can is often the most musical thing to do.

For rock music, I need to play the ghost notes unnaturally loud—so loud that they do not sound musical to me in a room—because that is indeed “musical” and correct in the studio.

2. I Don’t Warm Up Correctly

Whether I’m at home or in the studio, I don’t warm up correctly. Either I have songs to learn, which makes me play slowly, or I’ll work on chops, which I need to build up to anyway. Also, I’m impatient and I almost never stretch before playing.

When I say that I don’t warm up “correctly,” I mean that I know better and I’m not taking the time to first learn the motions of the different techniques to build up velocity. I’m just jumping in and getting to work on the parts, which sometimes means hitting hard right away. Sound checks are dangerous because I’m required to hit hard at certain points to get mic levels right—if I’m not warmed up, that could spell trouble.

Before I go onstage, I need to focus on playing relaxed and starting out easy before increasing the intensity. When I get near a pad, I sometimes simply want to work on coordination exercises or rush to the faster speeds right away. I want to work on progressing at something, to get better, and often I feel like warming up isn’t part of that—I have to force myself to do it.

3. I’m Not Maintaining My Volume Chops Between Tours

I need to practice really hitting those drums hard, and sometimes my interest level isn’t there. I can’t fake being adrenalized. I want to learn new things, and a lot of the time those things sound wrong if I’m banging the drums overly hard. 

Maintaining your “volume chops” is important. You can’t just get on your kit at 8 in the morning and start beating the heck out of your drums. I should clarify something: When I play, my volume chops are there, but the problem is my body takes a beating. It’s not that I can’t do it, but it hurts. Behind the scenes, I’ll suffer for it the first week of a tour. It’s another thing I have to be aware of and be more diligent about—it would make things easier on my body.

4. I Need To Work On My Foot Techniques

I need to make my foot technique switches between speed changes more natural. This is the biggest thing I’m doing wrong. I’m a ’70s and ’80s drummer—I hit the drums for volume, and every time I’m in a professional situation the engineers are hammering me to maintain that. That just isn’t conducive to competing with the new breed of players and how they use their feet. 

My hands have that ability to hit as hard as I can at the faster speeds; my feet do not. I never learned that. For me to access faster foot speeds, I’m doing it absolutely wrong because I’m overhitting and too concerned with sound. 

The decibel levels the microphones pick up for rock and metal music is monstrously different than what ears in a room hear. I sometimes can’t use my faster speeds in any professional situation because I’m overhitting, and I don’t know how to lay off.

My top speeds are useless until I learn how to play with a trigger in a rock or metal situation, because the definition disappears. I’m not a trigger person by nature, but my feet don’t know that. I seem to get so amped up that I can’t lay off and play in a more relaxed way. I think it sounds wrong to lose volume and not feel—or sometimes, even hear—the notes. Still, the mountain exists for getting a new view and it requires climbing, so I’ll work on it.

5. I Can’t Do Stick Tricks

I’ll come right out and say it: I stink at stick tricks. I’m absolutely horrible at it. I only use the old-school stick twirl, and I often feel silly doing it as I know it’s so typical. It’s not that I don’t think stick tricks are fun or cool, but I just don’t have the time to work at them. There are so many other things that I have to do. Plus, I just don’t have room on my drum set to allow me to do tricks. The only tour I’ve done in a while with a four-piece kit was the G3 tour with John Petrucci—if I tried to spin my sticks on my current kit, I’d knock into something.

I used to try to practice twirling in front of the mirror, but it just seemed like such a waste of time. I’d rather just play instead of watching myself play. I may look like a robot because I’ve trained myself to maintain my balance for even velocities and speed when needed. Because of this, I don’t feel like I’m at all entertaining to watch. I like to watch drummers do tricks like they mean it, like Tommy Lee and Tommy Aldridge—maybe only guys named Tommy can do it best.

So, even though there’s a lot about my playing that I’m really happy with, there’s a lot I’m not good at. I could also list the 444,000 polyrhythms and speed moves at high velocity that I am not doing correctly, so there’s more than just what’s listed here for me to work on.

Groove Analysis: Mike Mangini’s Super Sonic Drumming