BY PHIL HOOD

behind the scenesFor 21 years the man pictured here was really the most important drumming product reviewer on the planet. As Modern Drummer’s original lab-coat-wearing inspector of all things percussion, it’s possible that Rick Van Horn has touched more drums, cymbals, sticks, heads, wing nuts, and spurs than anyone but the busiest of roadies and drum techs.

Since leaving MD Rick has kept busy with playing and other activities, including writing for Drum! and other magazines that like to tap into his deep expertise. For the past 11 years he has also kept a permanent gig as the drummer for ’60s hitmakers Jay And The Americans, and manages the band’s travel as well. We interviewed him last week.

What’s a typical date or tour like when you’re working with Jay And The Americans?

We tend to do single shows on a Friday or Saturday, or perhaps two in two different locations, over a weekend. If the job is more than five hours away from the New York area (where most of the group is based) we’ll usually fly. A day on the road for us will likely begin with a very early trip to the airport. We try to travel on the day before a show.

It’s hard to describe a typical show for us because we play in so many different kinds of venues. These vary from large, modern performing arts centers to much smaller, older theaters, many of which date back to the vaudeville era. We also play quite a few casino showrooms, many of the retirement communities in Florida, and the occasional Caribbean cruise. The challenge for us is to give the audience the best possible show under any and all circumstances.

So you mostly use backline gear?

Yes. I only get to use my own drum kit about 20 percent of the time. Our rider stipulates the configuration of drum kit that I require, and most of the time I get exactly that. Of course, there have been some shows where the kit was anything but what I asked for. I’ve played kits with bass drums without spurs, kits with stripped tom holders, kits equipped with brass cymbals, and other nightmare situations.

There are a lot of hits in a show like that. Do you play what was on the record or does the live show evolve?

When I first joined the group, I tried to capture the style and sound of the original recordings as best I could. Remember, Jay And The Americans’ songs were recorded in the 1960s and early ’70s, when the New York and L.A. studios boasted some of the greatest musicians in history. And the group used a lot of production: horns, strings, multiple percussionists, and the best rhythm sections the producers could find. Today, it’s just me, a keyboard player, a guitar player, and a bass player. On rare occasions we get to add horns, which is a real treat.

What I’m getting at is that, yes, the live show has evolved, out of necessity. The band still tries to capture the original character of each song, because our audiences are mostly very dedicated fans who know them all. But we also recognize that we’re doing a live performance, so we want to keep the music fresh and exciting.

Previously, you played with a lot of different “nostalgia” acts and shows where you were in the house band. Describe a situation where you only had a few minutes rehearsal or chart time, and then things got switched up when you’re onstage?

On many occasions I’ve played in the “house band” for a show featuring five or six different acts. The band generally gets just a quick run-through of each tune with each act during sound check. More than once I’ve rehearsed three tunes with a particular act, only to have them decide to do one or more different tunes after they came on stage. We didn’t have charts for those tunes; the act just assumed that we’d know them.

What’s the worst surprise you’ve experienced?

The worst surprise was coming to a rehearsal for a show with an oldies act that shall remain nameless, only to learn that they performed their entire show to mastered tracks. But they didn’t want the audience to know that. Aside from feeling really insulted (they couldn’t just let us play those easy tunes?), we all felt pretty silly—especially me, since I had to mime playing obviously stick-created backbeats with brushes in my hands.

You were the dean of drumming magazine product reviewers for a long time. Do your experiences now change any of your opinions about equipment?

When I play now, I have the opportunity to use a fair amount of modern equipment, most of which is excellent and serves me well. But, as I mentioned, I do get the occasional lemon—which makes me appreciate the good stuff all the more.

Playing on all this gear has left me with a few opinions about hardware design. This is mainly because I usually need to set up an unfamiliar kit and get comfortable on it very quickly. To this end I really appreciate universal cymbal tilters (as opposed to ratchet-style); I prefer bass drum pedals whose action and feel can be adjusted easily (as opposed to some that require an engineering degree and a mechanic’s toolbox); and I absolutely loathe floor tom leg brackets that must be tightened with a drum key instead of a wing bolt. (Guilty manufacturer, you know who you are.)

Do you still read the magazine reviews and check out online product reviews?

I do, in fact. I’m keen to learn about new goodies on the market that might make my job easier.

Is there anything missing in product reviews that you’d like to see done better?

It seems to me as though most reviews are done under “laboratory” conditions, in someone’s basement or testing room. That’s great for close examination of construction quality, finish, and other details. But when I reviewed gear, I tried as often as I could to take the stuff out on a gig. If it was a drum kit or a set of cymbals, I tried to get another drummer to come with me in order to hear them.

What about when your conclusions conflict with a manufacturer or advertiser? We’ve been in that situation at Drum! before and had a few heated conversations. Can you comment on how reviewers should work?

Part of my answer has to depend on the policy of the magazine or website. When I was writing reviews for MD, we were sometimes criticized by our readers for never running any negative reviews. But our policy then was that we had limited page space for reviews, and we thought that the best use of that space was to point our readers toward useful, quality gear. We still mentioned any flaws that we saw, even in a mostly positive review. And we often offered suggestions for potential improvements.

That being said, a reviewer should approach any given product with an open mind and no preconceived opinions. Test the product, make your notes, report honestly, and then let the chips fall where they may—it’ll be the editor’s job to take the heat.

In many ways your musical life has been an open book. Can you tell me something about Rick Van Horn that people don’t know?

What they don’t know about my musical life is that I’ve been a vocalist as long as I’ve been a drummer, and I still am today. And in another side of my creative life, when I’m not on the road, I’m designing and building sets for high school plays and musicals. I’m proud to say that I’ve designed 30 productions to date, including Grease, Into The Woods, Hello Dolly, and Les Miserables.

Oh, and I recently became a first-time grandfather. How cool is that!

Pretty cool, Rick. Thanks.

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