In early September I had an opportunity to do something I had never considered when I started playing drums. I was asked if I might be interested in being one of three judges at Guitar Center's annual Drum Off at their Raleigh store. I was honored to be considered but I wanted them to know what they were getting, or maybe it would be more appropriate to say, what they were not getting with me. After clarifying that not knowing a damned thing about music theory or having even a remedial understanding of drumming concepts would not be deal breakers, I told them they could count me in. I was happy to feel as though I was contributing to the local music scene in a different capacity. And who hasn't wondered what it might be like to have on nothing more than a long, black robe and tennis shoes? Plus, I get to be called "Judge Shelton" and "your Honor" now. I can work with titles like that!
I was a little nervous about exposing my lack of any music schooling. I mean, shouldn't we all feel as though a judge knows what the hell he or she is talking about when determining someone's guilt or innocence, especially when something as important as drumming is at stake? I watched some of the Guitar Center national winners videos online and I immediately laughed out loud. Right, I should be telling these guys what they did well and what they could have improved upon?!?! A couple of the drummers were out of this world! I was actually searching for clues about what to expect in terms of having to interact with the drummers or the audience. If this was to be a reality show style production, even without any cameras being present, I wanted to know what I was getting myself into. Was I expected to get into a Twitter war with any of the other judges because I felt like they were old and washed up has-beens riding my coattails to fame? Realistically I knew I'd be one of, if not the oldest person there. If anyone there would be a "has been" it would have been me, and even that would have been based on the assumption that there was an argument to be made for me having "been" anything at all. All that aside, I wanted to see if I had to brush up on my witty banter as well as my sighs of disappointment and eye rolling. As it turned out the judges were expected to show up and that was about it. I could keep my ignorance to myself if I wanted, which is often hard to contain but I felt I could fake it well enough. Most people would be wondering what I had on under the robe anyway, so I decided to focus on exaggerating my eye rolls and looks of disdain. This was going to be fun!
The drum off was to take place on three consecutive Tuesdays. The first two nights of competition would determine who would be able to compete for the chance to move to the regional round, and the final night would pit the three best drummers from each of the two previous contests against one another. Judges were to make their determinations based on five criteria; skill, groove, creativity, stage presence and finally their overall performance. Alright, I was ready to crush some dreams! "Bring forth the first victim!"
Let me say right off the bat that I never considered entering any kind of drum competition myself. My lack of confidence in my technical skills would have kept me from diving in even if my shyness somehow left me long enough to entertain the idea. I have to applaud all of the contestants for putting themselves out there in such a vulnerable way. When I'm on stage I have three or four other guys up there with me. If I do something wrong I can just shake my head disapprovingly at any of them as though they were the one who screwed up. That has worked well for me for years. Let's keep that between you and me, alright? Thanks. These guys were letting it all hang out with 100% focus on them. Bold move. Maybe they were working on their own confidence by jumping straight into the fire. I did ask a couple of them if they were nervous after the final scores came in and both of them said they were about to fill their pants. They didn't show it, and I was happy to let them know they had me fooled. As a white guy myself, and a ginger on top of that, I turn beet red at even the slightest embarrassment. My face gets warm and I can almost hear the low mechanical hum of whatever motor pumps all that blood into my cheeks. Then everyone turns to see why the room changed color and they all stare at me as if to say "Aaauughhh! It's a soulless ginger! Drive a stake through his heart and burn him alive!" It gets worse after that. Luckily for these guys that wouldn't be an issue for them.
The first night found a couple of metal kids, and by "kids" I mean they looked to be seventeen or so, who were clearly playing songs they probably wrote with a band they were in. There were a couple of guys who appeared to have come straight from work judging by the company t-shirts they wore, and a few others who looked as generic as anyone else you'd pass on the street. None of them had the telltale signs of "rock star" egos, which was really nice. I have been told that drummers are a different breed of musician. My experience has been that drummers and bass players are less outspoken, and therefore are harder to pick out of a crowd as "rockers". That suits me just fine, personally. Many of the drummers there had support groups, be they parents, girlfriends or whatever. It was heartwarming, but I get sappier and sappier as the years go by. Sue me for taking the little things to heart if you like. I understand that it isn't very "metal" so if that is unacceptable to you, I get it.
A couple of guys were clearly not ready to sit in the spotlight of a drum competition. You know what though, they came out and laid it all out. My hat's off to them. Even when the first guy who really knew what he was doing came out, I realized right away that I am a pretty harsh critic. No one ever got anything higher than an '8' on my scorecard any of the three nights. Honestly though, I wouldn't give myself an '8' for anything either. It's not like I felt like I could have destroyed them. Quite the contrary, I felt like most of them had more technical skill than I have. Most of them had only been playing for six or seven years, on up to maybe fifteen years. Jerks! Try sucking after thirty years! That's dedication, man! The guy who won that first night was head and shoulders above everyone else. He was the only one I felt was a complete natural. Other guys were good, even damned good. This guy had something more though and there was no way to deny it.
The second week of competition was a little tougher to call. Everyone who sat behind the kit was really good that night. Both nights I had to switch some of my scores around as other guys had their turn. I had to make sure that whoever I felt did the best ended up with a score that reflected my rankings. If one guy was sightly more original and got an extra point or two I had to make sure that the better drummer's overall score was at least one or two points higher. I felt that skill outweighed stage presence, but I did take that into account as well. I took more time after each contestant than either of the other judges to make sure I was comfortable with my scores. I had to deduct a point from the guy who ended up winning the second night because he went well beyond his allotted three minutes. I spoke to him about that after the scores came in and he said he never felt the gentle tap on the shoulder that was supposed to let them know they had to wrap things up. I mentioned that to the guy running the event so he could alert the "tapper" to tap just a bit more forcefully. It's easy to get distracted when you are performing, and the frail little girl whose responsibility it was to handle all tapping my not have felt any different to the drummer than one of his dreadlocks flopping over on his shoulder.
The stage was set for the store finals the following week. I was pretty excited to be a part of it, and I was very happy for all of the guys there. They let it all hang out and ended up doing really well. I found it interesting that most of the drummers had some metal chops with regard to double pass patterns. A long time ago no one would have bothered with double bass, but once underground metal changed how people thought about hard rock an entirely new, more aggressive approach to drumming was suddenly the hot new thing. Monica came to the second night's competition just to see what it was like and she ended up staying for the entire event. I saw her speaking to a much older gentleman for a few minutes. As it turned out he gave lessons at one of the local stores and convinced the guy who ended up winning the first night to enter the competition. He had to be talked in to entering because he didn't think he had what it would take to do well. Are you kidding me?!?! He was great! That's the kind of thing that makes me a little more comfortable with my own skills, or lack thereof. Everything is subjective, and people find inspiration in anything. I'm really glad the drum teacher was able to talk the guy into giving it a shot, and I hope he is a more confident drummer now because of his experience.
The night of the finals had a great energy. When I arrived everyone was either wishing other competitors luck or warming up on drum pads. My interaction with other musicians is always at shows or in full band scenarios. I don't think I have ever been surrounded by musicians involved in friendly competition, much less a collection of nothing but drummers. There was a sense of like mindedness, of community, that was new to me. After the contestants wished one another the best of luck it was time "... to rumble", as Michael Buffer would say. Strobe lights flashed and intro music pumped as the judges were announced and the first contestant took his place behind the kit.
The night of the finals proved more difficult to judge than the previous rounds. The winners from the earlier rounds both had off nights, but three of the remaining four had decidedly better performances than the those that earned them spots in the finals. It was great to see, but I had to change a lot of my individual category scores in order to make sure that the overall points jibed with how I believed the contestants should have been ranked. In the end I wound up with no more than a couple of points separating the first three guys. I knew that either of the other judges could upset my own rankings if one of them had two or more points separating first place from second place. There could only be one winner that night, and he would move on to a regional round in Charlotte.
I stayed true to who I felt was the most natural drummer, and the smoothest drummer. As I said before, he had an off night. As much as I would have liked to see the choice be an easier one for everyone, it didn't work out that way. There were five guys who all did very well, and a sixth who I was a little surprised made it to the finals, but so be it. Everyone seemed a little nervous, more so once it became obvious that many came prepared to give it their all. A case could be made for four of them to come out on top. One of the contestants put a towell over his face after sighing and saying "Here goes nothing!" I asked him later if he did that in part because he was nervous, and he said that was a factor. You know what? He actually played better with his face covered! It was as though he was able to borrow The Force from Yoda for thirty seconds. Maybe once he cut off the visual stimuli he was able to play more freely. It was quite a thing to behold.
As our scores were being tallied some younger kids took to the drum kit. The first appeared to be about fifteen and was surprisingly good. The next kid could not have been older than ten, and flat out kicked ass! He was better than at least one of the contestants that night. I gave him a standing ovation when he finished, and everyone was cheering him on. It was fantastic! One of those impromptu things you hope you never forget. I caught up with him a few minutes later and told him he should really think about entering the competition next year. He was already on to trying out basses in another room when I found him. He may not even remember our exchange as he seemed to be buzzing with kid energy. I remember though, and that moment will stick with me for awhile.
The scores came back after the open drum night portion of the evening came to a close. We were denied the final rankings since only one person would be able to advance. I would like to have seen how the other judges scored things. In the end, the guy I felt was clearly more gifted fell short, and the drummer who may now play blindfolded for the rest of his life won. His reaction was great and he seemed to be genuinely nice guy. I congratulated everyone who was still around, but I made sure to talk to the guy I felt was the best drummer. I wanted him to be able to have something more positive to take away from the event than a participation award. I told him he should be proud of himself and that playing on a kit other than your own can be really tough. I also told him it was clear he had an off night but I still had him up by a point. Since he was the one who didn't believe he was good enough to enter a drum competition I wanted him to let him know how close he came to winning. I hope that he has a little more confidence after going as far as he did. I hope that all of those guys are proud of themselves, and they should be. They were all great, and fun to spend a few Tuesdays with. Perhaps if any of them had taken us up on our offer to review scores after a substantial monetary donation to the judges' table things could have worked out different. All that we asked was that any donations be divisible by three so we could all feel the love equally.
Great job guys! And thanks to Guitar Center for organizing the competition and bringing so many like minded people together. I also want to thank all of the friends and family members who came out to support their beloved drummers. It meant a lot to me to see so many people cheering their loved ones on, and I'm sure it meant the world to the guys who were jumping into the spotlight to give us all a sample of what has inspired them to make their own music, and maybe even their own mark on the music scene. Maybe one day I'll have the cajones to enter a drum off. I'll definitely bring some back up in the form of a cash stuffed envelope. I need all the help I can get!