Harry Brabec, legendary Chicago drummer,
playing on the trap set he used from the mid-1940s on.

Show Drumming

Learning the Trade,
Designing Your Setup

by the late
Harry J. Brabec,
Legendary Chicago Symphony Percussionist
and Show Drummer (1927-2005)


The following article is one Harry wrote in 1985 just because he enjoyed writing. He never tried to publish it so I did it for him after he died. ~ Editor

AS YOU START TO READ this article, I don't want your thoughts to be drawn to the finesse of a rudimentalst or the flash of a great jazz drummer. This, in a sense, is a great "show" of many hours of study and practice. These people have worked hard and accomplished a great thing.

But what about the real show drummer . . . the one who plays the theatre pits, vaudeville acts, circuses and television? Where did he study? In all probability, most of his knowledge came from watching and listening to other drummers in places that were a little off the beaten path. Seeing a dancer kick up a heel . . . hearing a singer miss a beat . . . or even seeing a circus bear sit down when he was supposed to stand up. The drummer has to catch all the cues, plus remedy any mistakes that are made. So, from these experiences, he has learned.

These drummers are not exactly percussionists, but they are musicians. They have heard and watched, and they have depth of thought and feeling for what they have seen. It is really tragic that the students of show drumming nowadays usually are not exposed to such places as vaudeville, burlesque, circus, and show-type night clubs. These places were, and are, the training ground for great show drummers.

However, let's face the problem at hand. A good show drummer must be able to anticipate a tempo change, catch cue after cue, in addition to musically backing the group he is working with. (Naturally, the conductor has something to say about this!) Also, to be a complete, well-rounded show drummer, a technical knowledge and functional application of all the mallet-keyboard instruments, timpani, and "traps" is a necessity. Furthermore, modern-day musical shows may require anything from auto horn and anvil to washtubs, much after the fashion of the drummer's responsibilities in the pit during the days of the silent movies.

Coping With Space Problems

Now let's get into problems of space. There are very few places where a show drummer has enough room to manipulate all his equipment. You may say that this sounds impossible, but have you ever thought of playing timpani seated on a kitchen chair, or having to play a chime part picking up each tube one at a time, or having to play a xylophone part with your back to the conductor as you watch him in a mirror?

Every pit and stage has a personal problem for the drummer which, again, has to be remedied by the performer and the conductor. I find that in my particular work, a drum set consisting of a 22" bass drum, high hat, snare drum, two suspended cymbals, a floor tom-tom and a tom-tom mounted on my bass drum (with a reversible mounting that will allow me to turn this drum in any direction or angle) works best. A combination of wood  block or cow bell holder attached to the bass drum is a necessity. In addition, I have a special rack that places a set of bells over my bass drum and traps when necessary. To buy something like this would be an impossibility, but with a little thought and imagination, this rack can easily be made out of conduit, a tubing used by commercial electricians.

The cowbell and wood block should be carefully selected to produce just the sound that you have in mind. Also, the relative pitch of your bass drum, tom-toms, and especially snare drum (I recommend a metal shell-type) should be to your taste. This and all your other traps should sound the way you would like to hear them from the audience. You might ask one of your colleagues to go out into the audience area and listen to your equipment. His observations can be of great value in improving the percussions you evolve. If possible, the player himself should listen to his equipment from the vantage point of the audience.

Also remember that there is a tambourine, and there is a tambourine. Which means, of course, that you should always seek a better instrument or stick that might give a better sound for a particular purpose. Show drumming is the roughest style of them all, but after a fine performance, whether a one-nighter or a one-year's stand, the satisfaction is one of an award. Remember, you helped make it possible.

1985 by Harry J. Brabec

Harry Brabec's unusual trap set, designed
bass drum setup designed by Harry Brabec

A Note from Barbara:

Regrettably, the photo at left is the only one I have of Harry sitting behind his famous drum set. (The photo was cropped oddly to remove unwanted elements in the picture, which I put in a framed collage of pictures.)

Some details of the setup have been lost in the cropping, but if you look closely you can see the instruments mentioned in this article—how he attached the woodblock, cowbell, and triangle. On the rack that sometimes held a set of bells is a tambourine. (Notice that Harry never bothered to carry a drummer's throne. He simply turned his drum case on end and threw the pad he used to protect his snare drum over it. He was nothing if not practical.)

In the detail shot at left, you can see how Harry attached the bass drum pedal to the drum frame as well as the holder for his tom-tom (cymbal holder is on the right side). He designed this set for the hotel jobs and recording dates he was doing in the forties, and said that, in all his years of playing and meeting drummers across the country, he never saw another setup like his. What he wanted was a set of drums he could easily pick up as one unit and move it easily from one hotel room or recording studio to another.

Like the drummer who played it, this old set of drums was truly one of a kind, and Harry couldn't bear to part with it even when he was no longer playing. Just too much nostalgia attached to it.

It was still in his music room when he died. The interesting story of how it was acquired and where it ended up afterwards is told in my memoir, The Drummer Drives! (available in both print and eBook editions). The book also features stories about the many percussionists, musicians, entertainers, bands, orchestras, and conductors Harry worked with during his fifty-year career.

<<< Click the book graphic to go to Amazon, where you can read a lengthy excerpt on the site.


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