By Zack Albetta
At age 26, Paul Ringenbach has found himself in the upper echelon of the Las Vegas show scene. Last year, he became the drummer for Showstoppers, a Broadway revue which opened recently at The Wynn Hotel & Casino. He was born and raised in Vegas, the son of Dave Ringenbach, a well-respected percussionist who has been at the top of the Vegas call list for decades. With this pedigree, it may seem that he is fulfilling an obvious destiny as a working drummer in his hometown and he owns it proudly. But he wasn’t always sure it was what he wanted, and with a lot of years ahead of him, he may have bigger goals yet.
Paul’s dad Dave moved to Las Vegas in 1976, and “started working immediately. He was one of the guys doing production shows and star room stuff for years.” The term “star room” refers to a theatre in a casino/resort, where various headliners coming through town would perform, backed by a house orchestra. These gigs were Dave’s bread and butter until 1989, when the Las Vegas Musicians’ Union Local 369 initiated a strike. (Read about the strike here.) Dave’s gigs and those of hundreds of other musicians became casualties of that strike, when many of the big shows moved from using a live orchestra to recorded music. For most of his childhood, Paul watched his dad piece together whatever gigs he could, and teach for extra income. In 2000, as the hotels and casinos were once again investing in live music, Dave landed a gig with singer Danny Gans. “They were at the Rio then the Mirage. To this day, my dad says that was the greatest gig he’s ever done. Danny was the sweetest guy and took care of his band. After eight or nine years, they left the Mirage and went to the Encore Theatre [at the Wynn], where I’m at now. And two or three months into that run, Danny died suddenly and that was the end of the show. This is twice now that a gig has ended for my father and I’ve seen it happen.”
Watching his dad’s ups and downs didn’t deter Paul from a life in music, and it didn’t take long for the drums to go from being a toy to something he took seriously. “My dad would set drums up on a Sunday afternoon and I’d screw around and hit shit. I remember fourth grade was when I was like ‘this is what I want to do.’” Paul pursued the typical performance opportunities in school; marching band, jazz band, etc., and as you’d expect from the son of a pro, made consistent appearances in All-State and honor bands. He gave serious consideration to Berklee College of Music in Boston after attending one of its annual camps. “I auditioned and they gave me half a ride, which was like 20 thousand per year. I think the tuition was 40 grand a year at the time. I liked the vibe there, but what I started realizing was the sheer volume of players. You’re competing against 800 other drummers and I thought ‘I don’t want to do that, I want to play all the time!’” Paul’s decision was also driven by a financial savvy that most teenagers don’t have. “After seeing my dad lose gigs, I didn’t want to deal with debt as a musician coming out of school. My dad’s big point to me was ‘save your money and plan, because you never know when your gig is going to end. Don’t think it’s going to run forever because it won’t.’”
Paul approached Dave Loeb, the jazz director at University of Nevada Las Vegas, “and that next semester, right off the bat, I was in the top band at the school and like five other bands there. I wanted to get experience playing music in every aspect and I got it at UNLV. I had always thought I wanted to go to some big school like Berklee. But now I’m glad I went [to UNLV} because it’s where my family is and I was able to work while I was in school.” Although Paul didn’t finish his degree, the years he spent at UNLV gave him the chops and the contacts he would need to be a working drummer in Vegas. It was through Loeb that Paul landed his first steady gig on The Strip, a Sinatra revue at The Wynn called Dance With Me, when he was 22. That show only lasted for six months, but Paul was then invited to join Come Fly With Me, the touring version of the show. He left school, spent a year on the road, and ended up in New York where he lived for most of 2012 and 2013. “I love the scene there, being able to see guys who are on albums I’ve been listening to for years, but I didn’t like living there. I like having a house and a car. I mean, it was difficult to go buy toilet paper in New York, you think I’d want to have a kid there? I thought maybe I could stick it out there and see what happened, but I didn’t think I’d like living there anyway. So I came back to Vegas in 2013.”
Paul found it easy to work his way back into the Vegas scene, he says mostly because it’s an easier scene to navigate than New York. “Honestly, I feel like the Vegas scene is not about the hustle. If you’re a good player and a nice guy and just take care of your shit, I feel like you end up getting work inevitably. The guys that I see hustling their way around town burn themselves out here. You can network, there’s nothing wrong with that, but they’re always pushing. In New York, it seemed like you had to be really proactive about getting work and be aggressive with people, and it’s not like that here. It’s very laid back.” Paul’s network is made up of musical directors, contractors, producers and fellow musicians, but it all started with other drummers. “I actually got my first show gig from a guy named Jeff Ray, who just passed away recently. I told him I wanted to get into doing shows and he told me to call the drummer for the Rat Pack show. I didn’t hear back from that drummer for like three months and then out of nowhere he called me to sub the show. Through stuff like that, you meet other drummers, rhythm section players, M.D.’s, etc. It’s a pretty small community, everyone pretty much knows each other.”
So what’s it like to play one of these shows? “Once you’re going, show playing is just maintenance. It can be difficult, playing the same thing every night and maintaining it and making it sound fresh. Some people don’t like that but I happen to kind of enjoy it. To be able to do that on a long-term thing is an interesting process.” Paul says most shows run five or six nights a week but some, like the Sinatra show he did, run seven. “Sometimes I would sub it out just to have a night off, just to be at home and do nothing.” Not many working drummers have the problem of never having a night off, but it’s a burden happily shouldered by many in Vegas.
Paul describes working with a musical director as an essential skill for any show drummer. He says musically and personally, this relationship can make or break a show. “Getting used to certain people’s conducting is a big thing. I also think conductors want you to be in charge as the drummer. Everyone makes mistakes, even conductors. They’ve got eight million things going on in their head, so I think they like it when you’re in control and can take some ownership, especially with tempos.”
Like most working drummers, a Vegas drummer has to be stylistically versatile, but Paul says it’s not just about the styles. It’s about the energy. “I do think there’s a Vegas sound. It’s more aggressive and energetic. Vegas is all about bright lights and shit moving fast—Vegas shows are always fast. The Sinatra show in New York was two hours with intermission. Here, it was cut down to an hour and 25 minutes with no intermission, and it was going. You were playing the entire time.” Paul chalks this up to the reality that ultimately, the casinos want people out on the floor gambling. If they sit in a theatre for too long, or if the show doesn’t leave them energized and ready to continue the party, the casinos miss out on revenue. Paul is well aware of his role in that objective, but it leaves room for (arguably requires) some musicality and craftsmanship on his part. “You have to pick your points and know how to arc the show. You can’t just go balls-to-the-wall all the time because it’ll be boring. Nothing will ever pop out of the show if it’s always loud or always aggressive or always energetic. In one of the closing tunes in Showstoppers, there’s a spot where I have a big fill into a giant hit on ‘2’ and the big lights come on and all this stuff. But if you don’t arc the show into that, it’s boring. At the end of the day, they want people gambling. Our job is to get them hyped up and send them to the casino. You don’t want to put them to sleep.”
Live musicians are less of a commodity than they used to be in Vegas, but Paul is optimistic. “I think it’s slowly creeping back. I’ve seen a lot of lounge work open up here, and there’s my show, which is a 31-piece band! That hasn’t happened for a long time. You gotta hand it to Steve Wynn, he wants a big band in his show, he wants them on stage, and he’s doing it. He’s been a trend-setter here for years, so it’s pretty cool if he thinks that’s a valuable thing.
With his career as a Vegas show drummer in full swing, Paul is now beginning to think about what the next stage of his career might look like. “I thought I’d be 30 or 40 by the time I got on a show, and that happened at 22. That’s not to say I’m over the city, but I’ve done that.” He next goal is to expand his recording capability at home. For over a decade, it’s been commonplace for musicians to receive digital files, record their parts remotely, and send the files back to the client, but Paul is looking beyond that. “I think internet bandwidth is going to get so big that it’ll just be done live. That’s probably where it’s going and if you’re not hip on how to run Logic or Protools, you’re going to be way behind.” He also has one eye on Los Angeles. “I’ve been there a few times and I liked it. Since I have two nights off every week, I want to use them to go see what’s there.” L.A. is just a few hours’ drive from Vegas, but Paul adds with a laugh, “Who knows, maybe I’ll start flying planes for fun.” For now, Paul is happy piloting one of the most popular new shows in Vegas, and continuing his family’s musical legacy.