From Sky Ryders to Smashmouth – How drumline shapes Jason Sutter’s musical journey

By Zack Albetta

For over 20 years, Jason Sutter has been maintaining an active touring and recording schedule with some of rock’s biggest acts including Smash Mouth, Chris Cornell, The New York Dolls and Marilyn Manson. Although he makes his living as a rock drummer and received world-class jazz training from Ed Soph at North Texas State University, he traces many aspects of his playing and philosophy back to his experiences marching in drumline. Jason was a member of the snare line in The Sky Ryders Drum & Bugle Corps in 1988 and played snare and tenors in multiple years at North Texas. He also taught drumline at University of Miami and alongside Ralph Hardimon for The Blue Knights Drum & Bugle Corps. He has recently been reflecting on those experiences and developing marching/rudimental concepts to include in his clinics and practice routines. And the benefits are many:

Dynamics/Listening

Drumline is not commonly associated with much dynamic subtlety, but Jason’s perspective proves it to be extremely nuanced. “Playing on one surface [as a snare drummer], you’re constantly milking the most minute dynamic shading, whereas normally as a drumset player, you’d avoid that because you have all these other sound sources. So I think it hones your ears from listening to eight other drummers. There’s no study like that. Aside from some African or Afro-Cuban drumming, there aren’t many other activities where you’re listening that intently to another drummer. That alone tightens up your ears and ultimately your hands. You have a much more extended palate of shading.”

Technique/Stroke

 “You have more than one swing as a golfer,” Jason says, “you can have more than one swing as a drummer.” Most working drummers are called upon to play a wide variety of styles and situations, each of which comes with its own technical skill set. Rock/pop drummers often have difficulty finding the lighter touch for jazz, and jazz drummers can find themselves on a heavy-hitting gig that their hands aren’t conditioned for. “I try to keep those worlds coexisting,” says Jason. “When I was at North Texas, we’d be in drumline for 40 hours a week but then also playing in the big bands and small groups. So you could find yourself walking off the field and playing brushes in a trio within minutes. [Now] I’ll come home from a heavy rock gig at one in the morning and sit down and practice some brushes. You’ve gotta keep them both going.”

 

Jason, third from the left, in the North Texas drumline.  Keith Carlock is third from the right.

Jason, third from the left, in the North Texas drumline. Keith Carlock is third from the right.

Conditioning

“These sticks are little weights. You need to weight lift every day, you need to condition yourself. The nice thing about drumline is that it’s so systematic. There’s an incredible amount of conditioning that takes place. In drumline, you might drum three or more times in a day [rehearsal, sectionl, show, etc.] and you’re warming up every single time.”Drumline is often blamed for cases of tendonitis, carpal tunnel, and other injuries, but Jason makes the case that drumline was where he learned how to prevent injury; that injury is caused by improper technique and inadequate conditioning, which are no more prevalent in drumline than any other musical activity. “I’ve actually seen more injuries come from drumset,” he says.

Jason recalls the only time he ever hurt himself playing, when he was in graduate school at The University of Miami. He was the drummer for the Concert Jazz Band and was playing ride cymbal patterns for hours every day without warming up properly. “Drumset players tend to be a little reckless. Some of them don’t warm up at all, or warm up one time for the whole day. [Now] when I’m playing a rock show, I warm up before I do sound check. I warm up again before the show. Sometimes the show is only half an hour and I warm up more than I actually play. And the warm ups I do are all drumline warm ups…8’s, double-stops, ABC’s, Mission Impossible flam taps, Swisses… And there are ways of warming up without actually touching a stick—stretching, shaking out your hands–getting blood into your joints and bones and tendons and surrounding those areas that are going to take a beating.”

Another cause of injury Jason cites is not allowing your body the chance to recover after pushing it. “I have a friend who marched Bluecoats in ’07 and he and I will get together and ram notes. I’ll tell him ‘kick my ass, show me what was the shit when you were in the line.’ And it’ll be something like Book Reports or some other new hybrid rudiment. I’ll feel it after that and take a couple days off.”

Brushes

 Throughout his career as a hard-rocker, Jason has maintained curiosity and enthusiasm about brush playing. “I have this beautiful little Ludwig Club Date set at home with the dark Paiste Master’s cymbals, and I’m getting in touch with my light/pretty side after two years of playing with The Prince of Darkness.” He’s been finding many parallels and overlaps between the brushes and drumline. “One of the things I used to show my drumline students was to play a fast single stroke roll on the palm of their hand to show that it’s not going to hurt; because I’m using my fingers only. Playing off the drumhead, you’re not relying on the surface, you’re relying on your fingers only. Brushes don’t bounce, you’re relying on your fingers.”

Jason has also found that the horizontal techniques of marching tenors are applicable to brushes. “I’ve been shedding some tenor sweep ideas. The brushes inspired that, playing horizontally instead of vertically. Everyone has a couple licks that are kind of sweepy, going from the rack tom to the snare or whatever. But I’m working on the whole inside sweep/outside sweep concept that drum corps tenor players use. I think jazz lends itself to that kind of melodic playing.” It wasn’t until Jason sat down on his jazz kit at home that this idea came to him. On most of his rock gigs, he says, he’s playing big drums that are tuned low and loose. The jazz set, with smaller drums, higher tuning and more compact configuration, “lends itself to that kind of melodic playing.”

Experience/Discipline 

 Perhaps more than any other aspect of drumline, Jason touts the experience and professional skills he came away with. “You sleep on a gym floor, you eat in parking lots…you rough it. You wake up at the crack of dawn and have drumsticks in your hands. I remember thinking ‘It’s not even 9 a.m. and I’ve already been playing drums for an hour.’ There’s a camaraderie. You learn how to get along with people even though everyone has their own idiosyncrasies. It prepares you for real touring in the real world. If you take this profession seriously and you’re young enough to participate in drum corps, I think you owe it to yourself to get involved.”

Jason Sutter is an artist endorser for Ludwig Drums, Paiste Cymbals, Remo Drumheads, Regal Tip Drumsticks, and Humes & Berg Cases

Want More? Listen to Jason Sutter’s Drummers Resource Podcast interview:

Podcast 085 – Jason Sutter: Learn everything, then forget it all and just play.

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Zack Albetta is professional drummer and writer based in Los Angeles and an artist endorser for UFIP cymbals and Aquarian Drumheads. He was the timpanist for the Denver Blue Knights Drum & Bugle Corps in 1999, and the winner of the Drum Corps International individual timpani competition that year.

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