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Journey's Drummers Are Among The Best of the Best

It seems there are as many “Best” lists as there are contenders for any given category. Drummers are no exception to the rule. And depending upon which list you
agree with, you may or not agree with the rankings. Those lists are subjective
with the results being derived from varying criteria, i.e., popularity,
influence, contributions, etc. Of the many lists I consulted in preparation for
this article, one thing remained almost constant: Neil Peart is considered to
be the greatest living drummer and widely held as one of the top 10 drummers
ever. Peart’s influence, contributions to the industry, technical ability,
musicianship as a true percussionist, perfectionism and intellect have all
contributed to his excellence. Obviously if there’s going to be a list of the
“Best of” anything, there has to be a Number 1. In the case of best drummers,
Neil’s presence in the field sets the bar so incredibly high that some
fantastic drummers get sent by the wayside when compiling the list. I mean
really….. how do you compete with greatness? The answer to that question is
more easily answered than you might think. Ask any professional drummer worth
their salt to list the drummers who have most influenced them and you will see
some names being dropped more than others. Neil Peart, Billy Cobham, Ginger
Baker, Buddy Rich, Steve Smith….. the list goes on. And while there are a pile
of great (for the sake of clarity let’s not confuse the words ‘good’, ‘great’
and ‘incredible’) drummers, only a few names are included in the list of
incredible performers whose names are not coincidentally the same names on the
short list of drummers who even great drummers hold as the gold standard.

Being a musician my whole life has being an honor and a thrill. Had I been given other talents not associated with music, I’m certain I’d still be equally passionate about music overall but my understanding and
appreciation of music would not and could not have been as keen and reticent as
they are. When I listen to a song, I am hearing the subtle nuances and varying
attitudes which are delivered through the voice of the song – not the singer’s
voice perse, but the voice the song itself has which is created by the
combination of elements at work within the song. Instead of getting real deep
into that whole subject, I’ll just suffice it to say that I really, really,
really listen to a song when it’s being played. ;>) Let’s see where was I….?
Oh yeah…. Being a musician and wanting to perform and someday become a
professional musician, I, like most other aspiring teenage musicians sought any
opportunity to be able to say I was in a band. And starting at age 14, I did. I
auditioned for and got the job as keyboardist for a working club act in the SF
Bay Area. A few short years later I found myself living in Reno, NV
playing in a large, well-known cover band called Replica. I ended up renting a
room from the drummer. That somehow became the norm for me going on to become
room mates with the drummer for whatever band I was playing with at the time. I
have had several very close friends who are or were drummers. Having had the
close relationships I’ve had with these musicians, I have a better
understanding of the kind of person that is a pro/semi-pro drummer. They are a
breed apart. They see music from a completely different perspective than other
musicians. Maybe it’s because their idea of making music is hitting/beating on
something rather than the rest of us who are concerned with creating notes and
tones and harmonies. Drummers take their craft very seriously. If you’ve known
someone who has been a performing drummer for any length of time, you’ve almost
certainly noticed that while the rest of the musicians they play with spend
scads of money upgrading their instruments and the accompanying accessories, a
drummer’s kit will remain largely the same focusing more on perfecting their
craft and to hear them tell it, never getting it quite as good as they were
hoping for. They are insatiable in their pursuit of perfection. And with good
reason too. Professional drummers have the full weight of the band on their
shoulders. It is after all the drummer who sets the time, pace and tempo of a
song. All the other musicians follow their lead.

A drummers role in any band is to essentially be the conductor initiating a song’s beginning, its pace and ultimately a tight, sharp ending which sees all the other members turning to him/her to follow their lead
for the final crisp ending beat to end uniformly. While making all of this
happen, they want to contribute their unique and skilled elements to any given
song using creative fills, roll-offs, etc., which with any luck will add to the
overall creative element of the song while not losing compromising their
initial duty as beat master, and do so in such a way that their performance
doesn’t overshadow the other musicians. That final point is not as easy to
accomplish as you might think. Remember, their music is made by hitting,
kicking and beating on things which have the potential to make very loud bangs
and booms. You’ve probably seen bands which employ an acrylic shield or partial
wall between the drums and the rest of the band. Drummers who have a heavy
touch use these to soften the volume being delivered by their kit. Those who
don’t prefer to control their volume through their finesse and touch. Whichever
the case, a professional drummer who has become skilled enough and has gotten
the attention of the music industry and the population at large has undergone
thousands and thousands of hours of intense practicing to get to that point.
Indeed the pond is wide and deep with respect to the number of professional
drummers out there all wanting to play music.

The “Best” lists which rank and feature the best of the best drummers – whether you agree with the rankings or not, all tend to feature the same names with a differing order. Those who appear on these lists have
achieved a level of playing which far surpasses the average, good and in most
cases even the great drummers out there. To be in the top 100 drummers of all
time is a feat most pro drummers will only ever dream of. To be in the top 50,
25 or 10 is a fantasy most pro drummers don’t even think about due to the level
of ability one must possess, the other contenders good enough to be among those
in these lists and the fact that I have never yet met a drummer who considers
themselves half as good as they actually are (remember what I mentioned about
them being perfectionists?) Deen falls under that last category. I’ll come back
to that later.

Neal has played with the best of the best musicians in rock, blues, country – literally all of the greatest musicians in the world – Hell, at 15 he was faced with the decision to play for Santana or Eric Clapton! His
career has taught him one thing if it has taught him anything and that’s the
importance and value of an incredible drummer. Journey’s drummers have been
among the best in the universe. Steve Smith is rated as the 5th best
of all time. Aynsley Dunbar is ranked as one of the 100 best of all time and
Deen is currently ranked in the list of the top 100 drummers currently
performing. Deen however will argue this point and deny his placement to the
death. He is insanely critical of his abilities and his talent. He is
self-conscious of his playing style and refuses to sit behind his kit if Steve
Smith is even in the same county! He considers himself an average session
drummer who got lucky by becoming friends with Neal which is the reason he
plays for Journey. Umm…. Helloooooo? Let
me explain something to ya Deen…. Neal employed the 5th greatest
drummer of all time in his band. His sights are kinda steep. If you didn’t have
the ability to play as well as you do and continue to do, you’d still be
friends with Neal and probably kick it on the weekends watching sports and
tossing back a couple of brews but one thing is certain – you would not be the
drummer in his band! Period!

I was backstage at a show in Vegas a few years back and witnessed first-hand how Deen turns to putty when he learns Steve Smith might be stopping by to see the guys. It was about an hour before the show and the
guys had finished the M&G and were pretty much kicking back before the
show. JT (road manager) comes from stage left out to the crew area behind the
stage and hollers over to Neal (and making the gesture with thumb and pinky
held up to the side of his head) “Hey Neal……. Telephone…..” Neal disappears for
a few minutes and when he comes back to the preshow area he says to Ross (just
loud enough for Deen to hear him) “….that was Smitty….. he’s gonna stop by in a
while.” Deen’s face became white as a sheet and he turned into a basket case.
“Huh uh….” he insisted to Neal. “You’re just F-ing with me……. Right?” “That
wasn’t really who was on the phone…… was it?”
Neal had in fact spoken with Steve Smith on the phone but Steve was
calling to tell him they wouldn’t be able to hook-up after all due to
scheduling conflicts. Neal didn’t confess that fact to Deen until just before
show time. Deen is THAT insecure about his own abilities and holds Smith in
that high of a regard.

The musicians who have made up the band that is Journey have all made their indelible mark on music history – some arguably than others but to be among those who’s talents have served to place them on the respective
lists on which their names appear goes to show these guys are no slouches. The
current lineup is proof that practice – and lots of it – makes perfect. Then
again, that’s just my opinion. I’m anxious to hear yours.

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