Fastest Drummers Take a Beating
When it comes to playing fast, few can beat Gene “The Human Drum Machine” Hoglan.
“There are young dudes coming up behind me who want to take my throne, but I’m not going to give it up that easy,” says Mr. Hoglan, 46 years old, who warms up with drum sticks twice as heavy as usual, a trick he learned from baseball that makes his normal sticks seem lighter. To tone his legs, crucial for foot-drumming, he wears 3-pound ankle weights. When he pops these off, he can really fly.
Though he weighs nearly 300 pounds and is, in his own words, “really lethargic,” Mr. Hoglan has been called one of the quickest and most precise drummers in heavy metal.
Ever since spinning out of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s, metal has gotten faster and faster. Like many drummers of his generation, Mr. Hoglan left the drum-pounding abilities of his heroes in the dust, fueling an arms race that has sparked an unlikely crisis. Speed metal, as this subgenre is called, has become so fast that drummers can’t keep up. Instead, more bands have quietly switched to using computerized drum machines.
Mark Mynett, a British music producer and lecturer at the University of Huddersfield’s Department of Engineering and Technology near Manchester, England, says he once “produced a whole album where the drummer didn’t play a single bass-drum track on a single song.” He likens it to “magazines airbrushing models.”
How did heavy-metal drumming get so fast?
Ian Christe, author of “Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal,” says the genre speeded up in the 1980s, when drummers for bands Metallica, Slayer and Testament one-upped older groups by making metal more about fast rhythms than melody. Over the next decade, “grindcore” and “death metal” groups got even more extreme. Musicians “took to wearing sweatpants on stage” because the playing was so athletic, Mr. Christe writes.
When new technologies arrived, metal drumming standards entered the realm of the physically impossible. Today, many bands write songs using computers without even rehearsing them. When an English band recently came to Mr. Mynett’s studio, “none of the musicians could play the parts they’d written,” he said. The band’s bass-drum tracks—the foundation of metal songs—had to be digitally constructed.
Some bands say they like the cold, inhuman quality of machine sounds. But the trend raises hackles among purists, because metal aficionados put a premium on authenticity and virtuosity, and sometimes don’t know that they are being duped. Paradoxically, to make drum tracks sound more human, metal producers deliberately introduce mistakes into their own programming. “They cover it up,” Mr. Mynett says. “The idea is to make people think the virtuoso is real.”
Bands themselves don’t deny using machines. Kaizen, a French metal band, forges its songs with “instrumental discipline” and “devastating clockwork guitar rhythmics,” says its Facebook page, but also taps a “Clavia ddrum4 module,” a synthesizer for drums. “We are human, not machines, so it’s good to use a bit of technology to make better records,” 30-year-old drummer Fabien Rault explains.
This sleight of hand can cause embarrassing missteps live, but bands often rely on some computer drum tracks for concerts, too—especially if performances are recorded for a live album, says producer Russ Russell, 44, from Northamptonshire, in central England. “There are some ‘live’ albums where there’s not that much ‘live’ on it.”
Rick Magill, a 25-year-old metal fan at Mr. Hoglan’s recent sold-out performance with Testament here in Silver Spring, Md., was surprised to hear some metal bands fake their drum tracks. “Maybe part of that comes from the pressure to be perfect,” he says. “People are like, if we can’t do it, we’ll cheat.”
To be sure, it isn’t easy being a fast drummer. It is like “running a marathon while screaming,” says Mr. Hoglan. Mr. Hoglan’s foot-drumming, which involves stomping on pedals that hit bass drums, is, he estimates, equivalent to running 15 miles a show, and his top foot-speed is 240 beats a minute.
Mike Mangini, the 50-year-old drummer for progressive-metal band Dream Theater, used to be the world’s fastest drummer, with a record for hand-drumming of 1,203 b.p.m.—as fast as some hummingbirds beat their wings. He was beaten in Tennessee in July by 23-year-old Tom Grosset at the World’s Fastest Drummer competition, a contest in Nashville founded by Boo McAfee, an inventor of a gizmo called a “Drumometer” that clocks drummers’ speeds.
More metal-heads are bucking the trend. Fenriz, the drummer of Norway’s Darkthrone, a group known for sounding like they are recording in a garage with one microphone, says bands that overuse computers are “losers.” “Anything that makes a bass drum sound less bass-y is ridiculous,” he says.
Some of metal’s elder statesmen are encouraging drummers to slow down.
Dave Lombardo, former drummer of Slayer, has removed the parts of his drum set that once helped him play superfast and thinks today’s metal drummers sound sterile. “They’re missing the whole point,” he says. “You’re going to lose the feeling if you try to achieve [speed] in an artificial way.”
Rick Allen, Def Leppard’s drummer, has found new feeling in slowing down a little.
On New Year’s Eve 1984, he lost his left arm after speeding and crashing his Corvette in England. “I remember saying, ‘I’m a drummer, and I’ve lost my arm.’ ” Using a custom-made electronic drum set, the then-21-year-old Mr. Allen was able to play the band’s songs without hitting as fast or hard—and barely missed a beat. The band’s next record, 1987’s “Hysteria,” was one of the biggest-selling albums of the 1980s.
When singer Joe Elliott recently suggested performing “Good Morning Freedom,” an unreleased song from the band’s earliest days that zooms at 160 b.p.m., Mr. Allen got nervous. “I was like, you’re kidding.” He ended up removing beats so the song didn’t require him to play so fast.
These days, for Mr. Allen, drumming is more meditative than manic.
“As soon as I start to feel tension when I’m playing, I back off,” he says. “I think, ‘I’m not ready yet.’ Then, I relax.”