Pure Genius: Inside the Mind of Dennis Chambers

By Wally Schnalle | From the July-August 1994 issue of Drum!

In the lobby between sets a young student of the paradiddle was overheard saying, “He’s so bad, when he plays a solo he can hold one hand in the air and still play faster than most drummers can play with two hands, just to prove it.” It’s hard to find fault in his observation. Graffiti, Dennis Chambers’ latest musical line-up, had just finished a set at Kimball’s East in Emeryville, California, that was so densely packed with chops that just listening to it was enough to wear this audience member out.

The rest of the crowd seemed to hold up well though, as evidenced by their enthusiastic vocal appreciation of the deep-pocketed grooves and high-energy solos that were featured throughout the set. As you might expect, the loudest of those outbursts were provoked when Chambers unleashed his blazing chops during his jaw­dropping solos.

A sizable portion of those in attendance were undoubtedly professional or aspiring drummers here to check out the current adventures of their latest drumming superhero.

Chambers has never had a problem drawing praise. After playing around Baltimore with jazz and funk bands he landed the ultimate funk gig at the age of 18 with George Clinton and the Parliament/Funkadelic crew. Since then he has taken a musical journey that has made him into one of the busiest session and touring drummers around. One of his first stops was with Special FX, a band that has given momentum to a number of drummers’ careers.

From there an extended stint with John Scofield opened many doors, dates with Mike Stern, Bob Berg, Michael and Randy Brecker, Bill Evans, Steve Kahn, Tom Coster, John McLaughlin with Joey DeFrancesco, and George Duke with Stanley Clarke are just a few. Those gigs have ranged from straight grooving to full-tilt chops-filled fusion to bebop.

Although he’s basically self-taught, Chambers has done his homework. Developing his drumming style onstage, he has taken all he can from the great drummers before him and bent and molded it into his own distinct drumming voice. Chambers was kind enough to share his insights on creating a drum style, making it as a sideman, his drumming sources and some of his own drumming tricks for you to integrate into your own drum voice.

DRUM!: How were you able to become the first-call drummer that you are while living in Baltimore, as opposed to the more established music centers like New York and L.A.?

Inside the Mind of Dennis Chambers

Dennis Chambers: It didn’t bother me. I hate living in New York and I don’t like L.A. But I’m only three hours from New York by train and about 40 minutes by airplane. So New York is like my second home. I’m always there. And once you get things rolling I don’t believe you have to stick around anyplace you don’t like. If you have a name, if you have a talent, people are going to hire you no matter where you are. Look at Ernie Watts.

He lives on an Indian reservation. Everybody thinks you have to move to New York. I do agree that I was lucky because by playing with a band called George Clinton and the Parliament/Funkadelic, everybody knew who I was. So it was just a matter of me not letting my thing die out. I could have left that band and just stuck around Baltimore. So I had to come to New York and show my face around there to let people know that I was interested in doing things.

That’s what it took. After George Clinton I was the in­house drummer for Sugar Hill Gang. When I left that I went on the road with Special FX and Gary (Grainger, bass player) brought John Scofield to check me out and the rest is history.

Is Graffiti a solo project, or is this another sideman situation for you?

No, it’s a band. It’s just that I’m the one that everyone knows.

Then how did you guys hook up?

The band came together when the keyboard player, Haakon Graf, saw Gary and I playing together in Europe on tour with John Scofield. When Scofield’s band fell apart, Haakon came to New York and called me up to play on his demo. He came down to Baltimore. I got ahold of Gary and we played on their first demo. We had a lot of fun playing on that demo and Haakon asked if we would do a tour with him through Norway. So we flew over and did a tour. And the band was happening from the first rehearsal. The best way I can describe this music is Mahavishnu meets the Headhunters.

Is that tour where the live cut “In Time” on the Graffiti CD came from?

Yeah and it’s a shame that they couldn’t put that whole tune on. It starts with a 25-minute drum solo they left off. Last night we played that tune the same way, with a drum solo leading right into it. And the bar that connects my double-bass pedal together came off. The tune usually comes in with this phenomenal double bass drum stuff but the pedal had come apart and the first chance I had to fix it was during the bass solo.

Do think your status as a well-known sideman helped to get this band a record deal or was it the strength of the music itself?

A bit of both. The music is the music, but I know the guy who owns Lipstick records and that’s the reason that my name is first on the CD. It makes it look like it’s my band.

When Graffiti began work on this project did you guys have any input as far as the tunes?

They were pretty much already arranged. All we had to do is put our colors to them.

It’s been said that you don’t read music.

Yeah, that’s right.

Then what is the learning process in a situation like this where the tunes are already arranged?

Well, for example the first tune in the second set, we just ran over that tune two or three times. It’s just a matter of learning the accents and finding out where he wants to go with it.

Do you think being a player that doesn’t read frees you up in some ways?

Oh yeah. That’s why a lot people call on me to do what I do. I present such a strong feel and people like that feel. That’s why they hire me to do what I do. My eyes are not always in a chart. My ears are good enough that it’s just like reading a chart for me because I catch on to things real fast.

What about any negative aspects of not being able to read?

The negative part of not reading, for someone who doesn’t have big ears, is just the communication. Reading cuts down on a lot of time as far as communication is concerned. A lot of musicians are not drummers and they don’t know how to relate to drummers. So they try to tell you “it’s like” and they got their hands going: [Chambers does an impression of someone air drumming].

Then all of a sudden you play that and they say, “No, it’s not like that.” They can’t tell you what they want. And even if they did write it down, it’s still not what they want. The best way I found for getting what they want is to describe things by records that they’ve heard. Like, “It’s like a Steely Dan shuffle.” Boom, I know it’s Bernard Purdie. Or they might describe, “It’s like a Police tune.” I know it’s a reggae groove with a serious backbeat behind it.

Speaking of grooves, one of the things you’re known for is your incredibly strong groove. Where did that come from?

Yeah, that came out of George Clinton and learning how to play behind those beats. Clinton liked things to be real laid back. When he would yell out, “Lay it back in the pocket,” that meant the tempo still remains where it is but the drummer has to lay back behind that.

How would you explain what you learned about developing a groove from George Clinton and a 20-piece band?

That’s something that they just have to experience. You can explain it but some people won’t feel the impact of what you’re saying. It’s something they just have to feel and hear.

Graffiti plays a lot of funk, but live you rarely play two measures in a row with the backbeat on 2 and 4. How did you develop that approach of being very interactive with the band yet keeping a very strong groove?

That started with listening to Elvin Jones with his triplet feel. I also got it from listening to Bill Bruford because he plays around the time but his approach is more structured than Elvin’s. With me it’s just about playing around the bass player, not getting in anybody’s way, and making it musical.

A good example of that is one of the tunes you played from the CD last night: “Tickle Me.” It has a strong groove with backbeats on 2 and 4 on the record, but what you play live is a much busier. What are you playing?

On the record I’m playing this (see Ex. 1). It works well with the bass and live I’m just improvising a lot more stuff.

dennis chambers music notes 1
Ex. 1

That groove illustrates something else that’s a big part of what you do: All the little ghost notes in-between the backbeats help to move the music forward. It’s reminiscent of Bernard Purdie.

Yeah it came from listening to Purdie and [David] Garibaldi. That comes from listening to other people’s ideas and then applying it to the way you feel the music. For instance, everybody thinks that Steve Gadd invented the feel that goes like this (see Ex. 2). That came from Rick Marotta. And Rick got it from Billy Cobham. After I learned what that was, I decided I could do this with it (see Ex. 3).

dennis chambers music notes 2
Ex. 2
dennis chambers music notes 3
Ex. 3

That’s an example of something that started with Cobham and worked its way to you. ls there anything that started with you that you think will live on through other drummers?

That’s a hard one because I never think of myself as one of those kind of players. What I do is what everybody should do and that’s just taking certain things from your favorite players and playing them the way you feel. That’s how Bernard Purdie got his thing. That’s how a lot of great players got their feel. You take a bunch of ideas and put them through a funnel and see what comes out.

You can’t be somebody else. What’s the point of being a clone? You know you might spend 10, 12, or 20 years on something and then end up a clone. That’s not what I want out of it. No one should learn how to play drums to become a clone. Get your own things happening. And the best way to do that is to learn somebody else’s phrases and then put yourself in the situation.

Like, what would you have played if you had done a particular recording date instead of me? It’s just like building a vocabulary.

Those kinds of licks you just demonstrated take both hand-speed and control. What kind of exercises did you use to get the chops you’ve got?

Well, this is something I learned from Buddy Rich when I was six or seven years old. It’s just basically working a lot of rudiments on pillows. I would suggest practicing all the rudiments, but mainly single stroke rolls, double stroke rolls, all the paradiddles, flams, flam accents and five-stroke rolls.

What about chops-building for your feet?

For feet, you take the spring off the pedal. The idea is that first you work on eighth-notes just to get the motion going, both flat-footed and on the ball of your foot. With this technique the bass drum takes on a whole new role. What’s happening is the bass drumhead is acting as a spring. Therefore it breaks in a lot of muscles a lot faster than working with the [pedal] spring.

That takes us to the subject of double bass drumming. When you play a steady alternating foot pattern do you lead with your right or left foot?

I always lead with the right because my left foot is always playing time. So I can’t play time if I lead with the left.

So, if your left foot is playing quarter-notes on the beat—like 1, 2, 3, 4—and you lead into a steady double bass pattern with your right foot, does your left foot stop playing time and start playing upbeats?

Yeah it plays upbeats, right.

One thing that’s become a signature of yours is when you play an ostinato or repetitive pattern with both feet while improvising over the top with your hands. I can think of three different ones I’ve heard you play.

Yeah, there are three favorite ones I like to play over, but it all depends where I’m at. If I’m into an experimental mood I might try different ones, but if I’m not, I know those patterns are there. Typically, those would be a three­beat or triplet (2 R 1 L), another one is sort of like a samba rhythm, and the last one is three on the right while I play two on the left (see Ex. 4).

musical notes 4
Ex. 4

You also involve the hi-hat in these patterns while both feet are already busy playing the double bass pedal. How did that come about and how do you do it?

Well, when I first learned to play it was on a double bass drum kit. And that fell apart because a lot of clubs in Baltimore don’t have stages big enough to set up two bass drums. Then I wanted to do a lot of things on a single bass drum and get a double bass drum effect. I wanted my foot to move fast enough so I could get that. I also would compensate for some things by using the low floor tom.

Then the double bass drum pedals came out. I think the first one I remember was the Zalmer Twin. I bought one of those. I used to play in some Latin groups and I started getting ideas on how to play over samba feels. Then with the double pedal I wanted to incorporate the other bass drum. So the first thing I did was to move the left foot from the hi-hat to the other bass drum pedal.

Then I was like, “Wow, if I can get the hi-hat dose enough I’ll be able to play them both (see Ex. 5). At one time I had it worked out where I could get the open-and-closed hi-hat effect while playing that. It’s a heel-and-toe thing. But I got lazy so that doesn’t happen anymore.

music notes 5
Ex. 5

You also do some mind-boggling things with your hands while these patterns are going on with your feet.

Yeah, I do things like play in 5/4 or dislocate beats.

You also accelerate and slow down your hands while your feet remain constant. How did you develop that freedom?

I had this little machine I used to work with called a Trianome. It was a little black box with three slide bars on it that went from one to nine. Then I would assign my limbs to different things. Like, for instance, I would play four­against-five-against-six, all with different limbs. The machine would be going so I could hear what was going on. I never mastered that, by the way. But that broke away my bottom half from my top half.

Alternatively, what are some of your favorite patterns that combine the feet and hands rather than patterns where they play against each other?

One favorite of mine is this thing I do with one hand and the bass drum. It’s like two with one hand and then two with the bass drum. The interesting thing is when I move my hand from the snare drum to the floor tom so each drum gets one beat except the bass drum. The bass drum still remains two beats. And if I alternate the hand-pattern it sounds like a paradiddle. Then I add other drums to it (see Ex. 6).

music notes 6
Ex. 6

What about other longer patterns?

Beyond that I just improvise and come up with weird stuff. I used to practice paradiddles between the bass drum and hand or left hand a lot. So, from there I just experiment.

Another one of your trademarks is the way you incorporate double-stroke rolls into to your groove.

Yeah, I just play doubles between the hi-hat and cymbal.

How can an up-and-coming drummer that technique?

I take a 4/ 4 groove and play this (see Ex. 7). Then I make them all doubles (see Ex. 8). Then I just try to make the right hand the backbeat (see Ex. 9). Then I just use it as I need it.

music notes 7
Ex. 7
music notes 8
Ex. 8
music notes 9
Ex. 9

There was another cool thing I saw you do between the ride cymbal and hi-hat on a blues shuffle.

Yeah that goes like this (see Ex. 10).

music notes 10
Ex. 10

There’s a tune on the new album that you played last night called “Do You Think It’s True?” It has a nice fat samba groove in it. What are you playing there?

Yeah, that goes like this (see Ex. 11).

music notes 11
Ex. 11

What about your sound? How do you tune your drums?

Usually on the toms, the bottom and top heads are the same pitch. Every once in a while I try to go for something different where the bottoms are tuned tighter than the top for the mounted toms and visa-versa for the floor toms. For the bass drum I like that loose, wet sound but right now I have two pillows and a Remo dead ringer in there, so I have it tuned a little higher.

chambers kit

What advice would you give to aspiring drummers who are their skills today?

The biggest point I’d like to get across is if you want to be a musician don’t go into this business with blinders on. You should learn all styles of music. Don’t just get into one thing, because one thing is not going to help you to become a good studio player, or a good musician, period. You should learn how to play and adapt to all kinds of music.