Heavy Metal Blender
Many heavy metal drummers play like their arms are caught in a blender, but to watch Jimmy DeGrasso play is a lesson in balance, precision and fluidity. And it's not as if Megadeth's music is Carmine Appice's Realistic Rock boom-bap lick #1. DeGrasso is metal's answer to Tony Williams, ferociously executing lightning-fast chops and laying down dead-on time, all the while looking like he's reading the Sunday funnies.
After DeGrasso's first full-length album with Megadeth, Risk, the group has now released Capitol Punishment: The Megadeth Years, with the new songs "Kill The King" and "Dread And The Fugitive Mind."
Before Megadeth, Jimmy worked with Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osborne, Talas and Suicidal Tendences. He also played on the MD-45 album put together by Dave Mustaine of Megadeth. We caught up with the Pennsylvania native to talk about beginnings, landing the Megadeth gig, and drum ergonomics.
Musician.com: When did you start playing?
Jimmy DeGrasso: I started playing drums when I was two-and-a-half. My dad was a weekend warrior drummer, doing casuals on the side. I was banging on everything in the house and he thought, "Well, he actually has some sort of rhythm. Let's get him a drum set." And they got me a drum set, and after about six months on an inexpensive drum set they got me a good drum set, a Ludwig. Then they found me my first drum teacher when I was five.
Musician.com: What were you studying?
DeGrasso: It's funny, because when you're five, you're really not interested. My dad could show me so much, and I was already playing along to all the records I could pull out of the collection. The guy that was teaching me then was teaching me how to read music, and rudiments. Then a year later I got another teacher, and he really jammed me into this rudimental school of drumming. I took lessons from him until I was around ten. But that's where I got my initial vocabulary, and from listening to a lot of different music.
Musician.com: And you were listening to...
DeGrasso: At the time, anything I could get my hands on. When you're five or six years old, it's all new. My mom had Elvis and Beatles records, so I'd play along with those. And I remember seeing Buddy Rich on The Tonight Show, and my dad got me some Buddy Rich big band records. So I was six years old, trying to take Buddy's stuff apart. Then a few years later it was Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, and whoa, that was really cool.
Musician.com: In your teens, did you get into school bands, garage bands?
DeGrasso: Everything. The high school I went to had one of the best marching bands in the country. I was really lucky then growing up where I did, because there was actually music in the schools. Now it's a lot different. I was playing tympani in the orchestra when I was ten. The schools had full orchestras, stage band, jazz band, at the junior high level. Now at the high school level you have a marching band with 75 people. The high school marching band I was in had something like 265 people.
Musician.com: And you were playing snare drum?
DeGrasso: Snare drums, yeah. Did some tympani with the orchestra, and was dabbling with xylophone and things like that.
Musician.com: How did you learn about technique and setting up your kit?
DeGrasso: When you're 11 or 12 and you're trying to play along with some intricate things, it's not like it is today. There was no instructional video. You couldn't take your favorite drummer on video and slow it down to half or quarter-speed. You really had to figure it out. So a lot of it was self-taught. I was schooled in one part, but really did a lot of things on my own.
Musician.com: Obviously you picked up a lot-- your playing is very fluid. And you try to pass this along to students in your clinics.
DeGrasso: When I wasn't playing, I was teaching a lot. And one of the main things I always get into with people is this idea of posture. I meet guys in their 20s or 30s that don't even know how to set up their drums properly. They don't know to have your thigh perpendicular with your bass drum head, or to have your snare drum up off the floor, or to sit up straight. Visualizing your hands moving in a circle in front of your chest, not over-extending yourself.
Kids always ask me about the double-bass drum stuff: "How do you do it while doing something else?" First thing you do, you center your balance at your waist, that's your center. And you can't play if your ride cymbal is four feet away, you can't lean and overextend your upper-body and expect your lower-body to play a smooth flow. You can't keep good time and be completely in an awkward position. Which gets to the whole, "Well how do you play good time?" You have to be relaxed about it. It all ties in together, and this is what I tried to teach people when I was doing clinics or lessons.
I judged one of the Guitar Center Drum-offs a couple years ago, and I was pretty impressed. There were a lot of kids coming out, 10-11 years old, and they're doing all these Dennis Chambers licks. Wow. But again, what's great about being young now, you have accessibility to Dennis Chambers videos and all the Zildjian Day videos that they put out. Which I think is great, you can really get in there and watch everything, which like I said, I didn't have that when I was a kid.
But I think that's why these kids are coming out so young, with this incredible amount of chops, but they miss the time thing. They spend so much time emulating a really fast double-pedal roll, cymbal stick crossovers, and I go, "Great. Now play some time." And then that's a little awkward for them.
When I was doing clinics a couple years ago, I was asking kids, "I'm just curious. How many people know what rudiments are?" Four hands would go up. "Anyone know what a ratamacue is?" One hand goes up. It was sort of scary.
Musician.com: Talk a little about how you acclimated yourself to the west coast, from Pennsylvania.
DeGrasso: I reached a point in Pennsylvania, the Tri-state area, where I thought I had done everything that I could do there. So I moved to LA and unbeknownst to me I started to break into the recording industry. I was basically playing on whoever's demos for free. And I don't know how my name got around, but it just happened. People would call me, "Hey, I'm doing a demo and we're recording this weekend, I have two days blocked out at A&M studio B." I'd be like, "Yeah, I'll do it!" I mean, I can get into A&M and record for two days? Yeah, I'm there, you know? And I did everything I could like that. Before you knew it, I was doing it non-stop. And then I did a cattle-call audition around March of '85 with Ozzy Osbourne, and got the gig. So that's when I flew to London and started playing on demos and recordings for him as he was putting together another record. I was only with him for March-April-May of '85, for The Ultimate Sin record. I really learned a lot, though. Basically while I was there, the rest of the band was getting fired around me, and eventually the clock pointed to me, so I was also released. His bands, of course, had a history of changing a lot during the '80s. But, you know, great experience.
Musician.com: What's the new Megadeth material like?
DeGrasso: We did it really fast. Risk was a huge production, re-songwriting and re-songwriting, a production-heavy record for us, and we got away from what the band had been doing. The new material is basically, and I hate to say it because everybody else does, it's guitar-bass-drums, what we started out doing. Metal, but it's very groove oriented. Basically, we didn't make Pink Floyd The Wall this time. We trimmed it down considerably. I almost hate to say, there's a lot of double-bass drumming on the album.
Musician.com: This is a bad thing?
DeGrasso: You know, I try not to, like there's no songs that are just constant digga-digga-digga-digga, you know? There's some of that here and there, but I really tried to use it for patterns and adding to the song, rather than the constant 16th note thing. The snare sound usually sounds like a 7-8" snare tuned down, and I used a lot of 5" and 5 1/2" snares on the record, all tuned up. So that sounds different from anything they've done before.
Part 1 | Part 2