Combining Psychology With Mechanics – Making a Good Drummer a GREAT One.

Following the recent passing of Neil Peart, I realized the rather long post I had previously written missed a crucial part in the development of his talent, one which I’ve always highly respected and admired:

His undying, constant drive to reinvent and better himself, not only as a drummer, but in every way humanly possible.

Imagine this:

It’s 1996, and you’re considered one of the best (if not the best) drummers in all of Rock. At that point, it would be safe to rest on your laurels, wouldn’t you think?

Not if your name is Neil Peart.

Instead, you set out to improve yourself even further. So, he decided to begin taking lessons from legendary drummer and teacher, Freddie Gruber. I know it’s hard to picture Neil Peart needing instruction, especially at that point in his career!

Freddie Gruber
The Legendary Freddie Gruber.

However, the reason was simple: Even a musician of Peart’s caliber realized that perfection isn’t possible, but damn the torpedoes, there’s always room for improvement. It’s obviously why his instructional DVD is entitled “A Work In Progress”.

Gruber and Peart - 1994-95
Freddie Gruber and Neil Peart in 1996.

Longtime pal Buddy Rich described Gruber as “none of a kind,” the sort of compliment that only he could bestow.

Buddy Rich and Freddie Gruber - 1946
Rich and Gruber discuss technique back in the 1950’s. Freddie (at right) looks a little bored to me.

Initially, Freddie himself had doubts about his own unique and inventive style of drumming, which stressed drum ergonomics: A means of achieving fluidity and alleviating tension, which he often discussed with Buddy (who unsurprisingly, was Peart’s idol and greatest influence).

In my mind, what Gruber did for drums is comparable to what Eddie Van Halen did for guitar.

Freddie Gruber - Dual bass drums
Freddie Gruber in the 1940’s, one of the first to utilize double bass drums.

“I was always saying to Buddy, ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing.’ And finally one day Buddy replied, ‘Do I?’ The bottom line is, Does it work? You know, it’s about time you took responsibility for what you are and not who you are. And anyway, nobody gives a damn—especially you! All your life two pieces of wood have kept you out of a Mobil gas station and the electric chair. It’s time to give something back.”

And, that’s exactly what he did, ultimately becoming one of the finest drum instructors in the history of the instrument, for over 40 years.

He was a veritable walking book of musical history, and one of the few remaining links to the most innovative era in drumming.

Freddie’s student list was long and varied, and naturally included many other famous drummers. To name just a few:

  • Frank Zappa’s Vinnie Colaiuta and Terry Bozzio
  • Steve Smith of Journey
  • Chick Corea drummer Dave Weckl

Over the years, he also instructed scores of session drummers (such as Jim Keltner, who worked with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and the Traveling Wilburys) as well as less-prominent students.

Here’s a short video of Gruber and Peart, discussing what Freddie calls “The Approach”. It may take a few views to sink in because it’s a deep philosophy, but struck a chord in my brain that I related to immediately:

Following his instruction from Gruber, Peart stated in an interview, “I had the realization in the past week or so, as the playing started to come together, that these days, ‘I am playing the way I always wanted to play’. Meaning that for all these 47 years I have been working toward this combination of technique, power, and feel — ‘chops and groove.’ That’s a nice feeling. Shame it took so long!”

Sadly, Freddie died from complications of leukemia on October 11, 2011 at the age of eighty-four.

Read a dedication from Neil Peart to Freddie, written the day after his passing.

Another telling farewell to Gruber, originally published in Modern Drummer magazine:

“There are drum teachers, and there are drum legends. Freddie Gruber was decidedly a member of the latter camp. He will be remembered for his distinctive personality and for his contributions to the many drummers he called both students and friends.”

You can read more about him, as well as view additional videos and photos, at his official web site:

Closely related to this article:

My Finnish Amigo and Guitarist extrodinaire Elmo Karjalainen created an excellent video that’s available on YouTube, in which he explains why “Perfection is a Myth”.

Even though Peart was and still is considered one of the world’s all-time greatest drummers, what I’ve written here clearly demonstrates he realized that fact.

There’s no doubt like any other musician, he lived with flubs in his performances, many that probably only he would notice. Then again, some people hate the music of Rush to begin with, so that’s a deal breaker right there… As utterly fantastic as it is, how could it possibly be “perfect” for everyone?

All that said, as Elmo so eloquently states there’s no way musical performance can be perfect, at the very least not for every listener, or musicians themselves for that matter. But, that preserves the “human factor” as well as creativity, which are both a natural part of a given artist’s overall sound.

I find exactly the same thing in my recordings… Some mistakes make me cringe when I hear them, while other folks don’t notice them at all.

After all, nobody’s perfect, nor would you want them to be. That’s especially true when it comes to music!

Many thanks go out to Elmo once again, for his kind permission to include this video in the article.

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