Drum lessons from Ginger Baker

Posted Under: Expert

Want to play like drums like Cream’s drummer Ginger Baker? Here are some handy drumming tips to help you on your way. Often compared to drummers like Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker definitely marches to the beat of his own drum, leaving an indelible imprint within a number of genres. Putting aside his well-known, unpredictable personality for a moment and focusing on music, Baker could be described as the Forrest Gump of drumming – and has quite often been at the cutting edge of many musical genres. In terms of feel, sound, setup, and technique, his approach is much like an abstract painter (not surprising since he has always had an interest in modern art) as he borrows from his favorite drummers, but at the same time, is all about forging his own path. If you’re not familiar with his approach, the following list will open your ears to one of our greatest stylists. Baker may not be anyone’s definition of a role model, but you may certainly want his sound to influence your style.

1. Be Impulsive
When Baker was four, his father was killed in action in WWII. Before going into battle, his dad wrote a note to young Ginger not to be opened until he was a teen. In the letter he told his son that in life, you have to depend on your fists. This endorsement of violence unfortunately became entrenched into Baker’s character and precipitated a number of brawls as a young man. He also took part in other extremely risky behavior such as drinking, using heroin (after being introduced to it by iconic English jazz drummer Phil Seamen), crashing cars, and getting in trouble with the law. Throw in a bad temper, stubbornness, and sour relationships – his fights on and off the stage with Jack Bruce are legendary – and we can safely assume that working with Baker can sometimes be a challenge. Chronic health issues including severe hearing loss, COPD (a lung condition), and degenerative osteoarthritis of the spine, have cumulatively created a loud talking, cranky 74-year-old who recently broke filmmaker Jay Bulger’s nose with a cane during the shooting of the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker. On the flip side, those same problematic tendencies may have positively influenced his musicianship: Baker is known for his tenacity, overcoming obstacles, pushing the limits, and an improvisational spirit. Would Baker have contributed as much if he had been a mellow, nice guy? Probably not.

2. Experiment With Setup, Sound, And Technique
Baker couldn’t afford a drum kit when he first started on the drums, so he built a toy set out of biscuit tins and proceeded to pass an audition with a Dixieland band. A few years down the road, legend has it (Baker is a celebrated storyteller) that he constructed his own acrylic drum set by bending the shells over a gas stove. With Cream, Baker used Ludwig Silver Sparkles with 20″ and 22″ bass drums, 12″ and 13″ rack toms positioned flat, 14″ and 16″ floor toms, and a 14″ black finished Leedy Broadway snare. Baker still plays some of the same Zildjian cymbals today that he used in the ’60s, including a 22″ ride with multiple rivets (for that jazzy sound) and 14″ or 15″ hi-hats. (He also uses an assortment of 16″—18″ crashes and 8″ and 10″ splashes.)

Baker likes his drums tuned medium high or “jazz,” as he puts it, so that the batter side provides the necessary rebound and melodic tone, though he is still able to achieve his telltale sound – both thunderous and full of attack. To boost the necessary bottom end from the floor toms, the resonant side is tuned down. His bass drums are mostly wide open with only felt strips on both sides, and tuned to have distinctively different fundamental pitches. (In the ’90s he began to favor a more muffled bass drum sound). Groundbreaking in so many ways, Baker revolutionized the concept of the hybrid kit when he used orchestral elements such as timpani (Check out the bolero-esqe 5/4 intro to “White Room”), two cowbells (to help with African and Latin influenced patterns), and infrequently a 14″ crash cymbal, which he places on his small floor tom. Baker likes his mounted toms flat to keep from overplaying, for ease in playing double strokes and loud singles,and to play rimshot accents. Bucking the trend of jazz drummers of the ’60s (and beyond) who used traditional grip, he mostly espouses matched grip (which appears to have helped him with his ever-meandering left hand), the ability to lead with either hand when playing fills, and overcoming loud Marshall stacks. To hear an unfettered account of Baker’s vintage drum sound, listen to his extended solo on “Toad” from Fresh Cream.

3. Make Wise Musical Choices
As a young man, Baker was considered the best drummer in London (having taken over for Charlie Watts in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and then a stint in the Graham Bond Organization) and in turn, his reputation lured guitar god Clapton into Cream. Why was he such an in-demand drummer? An examination of his ensemble playing, musical taste, and knack as an improviser provides the answer.

The intro of “Had To Cry Today” by Blind Faith demonstrates his well-developed sense of phrasing. In the first and third measures, Baker shows restraint as he comes down emphatically on beat 1 with a crash (and bass drum), but allows it to ring out while Bruce and Clapton play a tandem lick. Characteristic fills (more on these later) in the first two beats of the second and fourth measures lead into unison hits. The fifth and seventh measures reveal Baker’s penchant for contrast: the bass drum at first melds with Bruce, but then goes off on a tangent. The first two beats of the sixth and eighth measures act as big band—era set-ups before three emphatic crashes. To hear another example of his use of contrasting elements check out the second-line influenced “Hey Now Princess (Live),” a once unreleased demo found on a compilation called Those Were The Days. Listen to how Baker plays a 2:3 Brazilian clave pattern against Bruce’s quarter-note pulse and Clapton’s intricate guitar lead.

In the first four measures of “Sunshine Of Your Love,” Baker again shows self-restraint by leaving plenty of space and, like a show band drummer, sets up ensemble hits in the chorus. A segment from “SWLABR” reveals bashing snare and crash cymbal hits along with a driving bass drum, a simple but contrasting fill, and a stop (open spaces can be extremely effective), ending with a power flam on beat 4. The verse of the Blind Faith tune “Can’t Find My Way Home” exhibits his strong command of dynamics – two soft bars followed by two loud bars.

Since he came from a jazz background, it’s not surprising that Baker developed into such an advanced improviser. There is spontaneity to his grooves – he reacts more to sounds, melody/harmony, and other bandmembers than the typical regurgitation of patterns. Cream’s protracted guitar solo sections were at the forefront of the jam band movement – listen to Clapton’s solo in “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” off Live Cream Vol. 2.

Baker is also an advanced soloist, known for both short and extended ad-libs. In the intro of “Politician,” Baker syncopates a short burst of power flams over a guitar riff. His longer solos (such as on “Early In The Morning” with The Graham Bond Organization and “Toad” and “Do What You Like” with Cream) show that Baker spends the time necessary to develop an idea before moving on to the next one. He was also one of the first drummers of his era to solo over ostinatos and to use beats as solo material, to better engage the audience.

4. Forge An Original Feel
It’s easy to overgenrealize about Baker’s time feel, but this much is beyond dispute: he has always had absolute command over the pulse. Most probably without even thinking about it – and influenced by his rigid personality – he puts it where it best serves the music and doesn’t budge. However, when you begin to place Baker’s feel under a microscope, trends do come into focus. He quite often appears to play “behind the beat” or have a “lazy” style, but at the same time the overall groove somehow continues to have forward momentum. Listen to the 12/8 chorus of “Sleepy Time Time” (off of Fresh Cream), for instance, and you can hear him hold back his snare backbeat (reinforced by crashes into the ride). In the intro to “I Feel Free,” Baker plays stick clicks on 2 and 4, markedly behind handclaps by Bruce and Clapton. Although this is not exactly a momentous drumming moment, it’s a clear example of his approach to time.

He lays back on a whole slew of slow-to mid-tempo blues-tinged songs such as “Born Under A Bad Sign,” “White Room,” and “Politician,” not only by lagging back-beats, but also by using grace notes on the snare and swung ride patterns to swing the sixteenth-notes. Playing swung (vs. straight) notes divides the time unevenly thereby creating a sensation of leaning back. Two main factors keep his unique feel from becoming too lazy: First, at least in the case of Cream, Baker wedges his beat placement between Bruce’s bass (which is further behind than Baker) and Clapton’s guitar (which is on the front side of the beat). Second, he staggers time within the parts of the drum kit creating a wider pulse: His ride cymbal (or hi-hat) and bass drum(s) are right on the beat, while again his snare lurks behind. Baker often holds back on seams (downbeats or anticipations of song sections) with a crash/bass drum hit or a power flam, a characteristic attributed to iconic jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones. This effect crimps the time, creating forward momentum on the other side of the hit. Check out the downbeats at the beginning of “Sunshine Of Your Love” and the power flam on beat 4 at the end of the form of “SWLABR.” In addition, displaying the versatility of his feel, Baker delivers an edgy, slightly on-top-of-the-beat sensation to up-tempo tunes such as “Crossroads.”

Besides using swing and beat placement to affect feel, Baker is also a pioneer at open hi-hat insertions, ghosted notes, and buzzes. The first seven measures of “SWLABR” involve hi-hat pushes, an offbeat open punctuation (on the & of 3), and ghosted notes (which cause the slightly swung feel). The funk groove at the beginning of the first verse of Cream’s “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” incorporates open hats to thicken the backbeat, ghosted notes, and a subtle buzz on the & of 4.The first two measures of “I Feel Free” reveal a samba-influenced open hi-hat pattern contrasting a mambo-like bass drum.


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