Beatoffs And Tasty Licks: Inside The Guitar Center Drum-Off National Finals

Congratulations to 2013 Drum-Off winner D-Mile, seen here in his 2011 contest entry video.

“Welcome to the annual beatoff contest!,” hollered Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith by way of greeting the spectators and participants of Guitar Center’s 25h annual Drum-Off competition to Club Nokia on Saturday night. “Lotta notes, man! Lotta notes!”

With those three sentences, Smith did a remarkably concise job of summing up the musical proceedings to that point. The five finalists for Drummer Of The Year had all demonstrated a capacity for playing with impeccable timing at lightning-fast speeds. Sets by celebrity drummers Chris Dave, Roy Luzier and Smith himself had featured a good deal of what you could call Music For Musicians, the kind of jams that routinely allow the players in the audience a moment of “how the hell do they do it?!” wonder. For fans who measure quality in terms of notes per second, this had been truly an incredible display.

The five Drum-Off competitors were each allowed about five minutes to solo and show off their skills to a panel of judges that included such legends of the drumming world as Peter Erskine and Thomas Lang, who ultimately gave the honors to Lake Elsinore, CA resident D-Mile. (Congratulations dude, you were our favorite as well!) He’s picked up $25 grand in cash and a drummer’s dream prize package, along with a feature in Modern Drummer and some serious bragging rights.

While it was interesting to contrast the playing styles of the competitors’ solos, it might have been exciting to see how each of them could swing a band in order to gauge who the “best drummer” really is. But while all five are obviously highly skilled players, it was a pleasure to see the award go to the player who had the most success crafting a coherent musical statement, with moments of spare simplicity inserted among the displays of impressive wrist action.

MC Stephen Perkins (stickman for Jane’s Addiction and Banyan) kept the proceedings rolling with good humor and a roll-with-it attitude when hit by technical lapses, like the occasional video that could not be paused, or misspelled competitor names on his cheat cards.

The celebrity jam sets included some exciting playing, not surprising considering the “friends” on stage included legendary hotshots like Billy Sheehan and Steve Lukather. Certainly, it was intended for an audience of people who wanted to see this type of display, and all of the first three sets brought a whiff of 70s fusion. Smith’s group sounded like it might bust into Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” at any moment, while Luzier’s was the most modern, incorporating laptop manipulator Sluggo into the band, giving him the lead voice for a dubstep-inspired number. Dave, with his group the Drumhedz, delivered the most baffling set, a display of reverb-enhanced time stretch that was momentarily effective and no doubt technically impressive, but eventually led to the feeling that the men onstage were playing four different tunes in four different rooms.

But the appearance of Steve Ferrone at the end of the night turned the proceedings on their ear. Ferrone was there to be inducted into Guitar Center’s Sunset Blvd. Rock Walk, and we got to watch him ceremonially dip his hands into the concrete molds and make a gracious and appreciative speech in which he thanked Ahmet Ertegun for “giving him a career” and warmly his praised his employer of the last two decades, Tom Petty.

Ferrone’s set could not have been more different than the others we had seen. He managed to get two other original members of the Average White Band to come up with him, sax player Molly Duncan and frontman Hamish Stuart, along with a crew of session royalty that included bassist/ guitarist Will Lee and guest award presenter Questlove. They proceeded to launch into a set of AWB material that felt absolutely perfect, superbly tight, swinging with so much momentum and compressed energy. This was the real fantastic ensemble playing of the night – not flashy, but rather the epitome of “in the pocket” groove of the kind you don’t often get to hear in person anymore.

Steve Perry was on stage, yes the singer of Journey, jamming along on percussion and occasionally harmonizing behind Stuart, not drawing much attention to himself but playing his part well. It was an interesting thing, to see this most famous of rock stars acting in complete deference to the great band next to him, probably asked by his pal Ferrone to be part of his big night and saying “sure, man.” Hell, I think I like Steve Perry a little bit now. Isn’t it great how music can heal humanity’s psychic wounds?

May the quest for the perfect beat continue at a million miles an hour, so that we can craft messages delivered via 32nd notes at 300 beats per minute, played by humans. Who cares that they have machines that do that now? There’s always gonna be music that requires humans of exceptional skill AND exceptional empathy, and it did this old codger’s heart good to see young’uns stepping up to take the baton. 

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