Q&A With Mike Dolbear

A couple of years ago, Mike Dolbear was manning his booth at the NAMM show in Anaheim, when another drummer looked at his name tag. “Mike Dolbear!” he said. “I’ve been following your website for fifteen years, but I didn’t know you were real!” 

Studio West owner Peter Dyson, Mike Dolbear, and Drum Ambition owner Simon DasGupta.

Studio West owner Peter Dyson, Mike Dolbear, and Drum Ambition owner Simon DasGupta.

Studio West has definitive proof that Mike Dolbear is real, as Mike recently spent a week here giving master classes and organizing other events at the studio in conjunction with drum teacher Simon DasGupta of Drum Ambition. Who exactly is Mike Dolbear?

Drum Website and Forum

Mike is involved in a wide array of drum-related enterprises, but he’s perhaps best known for his website, mikedolbear.com, which he started in 2000 as a place for the drum community to meet. And he succeeded—the website is one of the biggest drum forums in the world, with over 800,000 visitors each month discussing drums, from gear to gigging. The website has grown over the years to include news and interviews and a web show that features Mike interviewing top drummers in talk show fashion.

Drum Schools

In addition to the website, Mike is well known as a drum educator, particularly in England, where in addition to his own school there are many Mike Dolbear affiliated schools that use his teaching methods and popular drum instruction book. 

Network for Drummers

Mike’s website, educational programs, and gregarious personality make Mike the perfect networker for drummers. A drummer whose band is touring England can contact Mike, who will create extra work opportunities by booking the drummer to teach master classes at one of his affiliated schools. Pick a famous drummer, and it’s likely that Mike knows him, making conversation entertaining if, like Studio West owner Peter Dyson, you’re a drummer hearing about drummers you’ve long admired. Mike goes running with Steve Gadd (of Steely Dan); he jams with Stewart Copeland (The Police); he once cut his head while he was with Matt Helders (Arctic Monkeys), only to have it stitched up later that day by Hal Blaine (of the famous “Wrecking Crew,” who stitched up Mike perfectly due to his experience as a paramedic in the Korean War).

Mass Drum Events

Mike is known for getting things done in the drum community, and in 2012, he was asked by Danny Boyle to design a drum spot for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. (Filmmaker Boyle—of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame—was in charge of the entire opening ceremony). Although he had never done anything like it before, Mike organized one thousand drummers to play and also pace the Olympic athletes in their march around the stadium. This took complex planning, and Mike ended up directing the drummers in the moment via a microphone and headphones. The drummers in the opening ceremony were a big success, and Mike quickly became the go-to guy for mass drumming events in the U.K.  He’s organized mass drum events for the European Champion League Final, the London production “Hans Zimmer Revealed,” and recently, the biggest drum lesson in the world (1,831 students at London’s Olympic Stadium, breaking the Guinness world record).

Studio West Visit

Given the numbers Mike is used to working with, the drum event he organized in Studio A on October 8th, with about 25 drummers, proved a piece of cake, as did his master class for advanced drummers. Since Mike spent the week at Studio West, we had a chance to catch up with him and ask the burning questions that drummers want to know.

Q&A

Who is the most underrated drummer?

There are hundreds of them. All drummers are underrated—anybody who can survive in the music industry for a long time. One of the reasons I set up mikedolbear.com sixteen years ago, was because I was tired of reading about the drummers in the big successful bands. So many of my friends in the UK had been working forever and just didn’t get the recognition. The list goes on and on. In the UK there’s Clem Cattini who’s played on fifty number one songs. There’s younger guys, the Ash Soan, Ralph Salmins, Geoff Dugmore, Ian Thomas, there’s so many if I started naming them, I’ll leave too many out. They just don’t get the credit. It’s bizarre, but while we’re talking, a minute ago, I just got an email from Hal Blaine. He’s now 87, and although he’s recognized as a great drummer, he says he’s about to check out—his children are with him now—and he thinks no one wants to know. If it was Frank Sinatra, it would be a different story.

If you had to choose between a brand new 2016 DW kit or a 1967 Rogers kit, of the same quality, what would you choose?

I can’t announce a brand, since I’m independent, but if the question is between a modern kit or a vintage, I think there’s room for both. There’s a reason why we’ve got modern kits now. They’re a lot more roadworthy—we need modern on the road. The hardware is far superior than the old kits. The argument could be made that for studio recording, people prefer the sound of the older kits. They’re correct, there is a sound difference, but the only reason why they think the sound is better on the old kits is because that’s what they’ve been listening to. People think they need a Ludwig kit because the Beatles used it, they think they’ll sound like Ringo Starr.  Back in the day if Ringo had a DW Collections kit, and that’s what we’d all be used to, is that what we’d all want now?

Do you think the software tools that are available now to correct timing flaws, like Beat Detective, are making drummers lazy in the studio?
No, I think it’s made engineers lazy. Every drummer has to be able to keep time. That’s just silly to think otherwise. But the art of making music has gone into the control of the sound engineer or producer more than the drummer. The drummer should always be able to keep time for a three and a half minute song. That’s what we do, that’s our job. It’s the engineers who have changed, who are starting to think, “we only need them to play for four bars and we’ll slice it, quantize it,” it’s all nonsense. Drummers know they need to stay in time to work in a band.
Is there anyone that plays the drums, who will surprise people?

A lot of soccer players in the UK play the drums for therapeutic reasons. I know a lot of comedians and actors who do. I’m not ever surprised, but obviously I’m passionate about the drums. I did a feature on my site called “Something for the Weekend” about famous people in other fields who play the drums. There’s a gentleman in the UK called Richard Desmond who owns OK! magazine, he’s a huge media tycoon, but drums are his passion.  He couldn’t make any money out of the drums. There’s no one I’ve met who I’m surprised who plays the drums, but there are probably a few drummers I know who I’m surprised have careers.

Is there a new product on the horizon that will solve a problem for drummers?

Yes, I’m working on it. I’m designing with a business partner, affordable, portable sound proof rooms that you can put into your house, because practice issues are a big problem for a lot of people, which is why electronic kits are so popular, you put your headphones on and just play. Electronic kits are very good but they’re not a real feeling drum kit, especially the inexpensive electronic kits that the young kids buy.

How would you pursue a sixteen year old who loves playing drums for the fun of it, it’s important to learn drum notation?

More than anything else, if you’re having lessons, your memory is not good enough to remember everything they teach you. By reading drum notation, you’ll be able to remember that’s what you did, your muscle memory will kick in. Also, I talked about dep’ing for gigs (substituting for another drummer), if someone tells you what they want, you should be able to write it down quickly. If I’m playing with a couple of new bands, I’m not going to sit and practice with them for two months, I’m going to write it down, it’s much quicker.

Do you play any other instruments?

No. I did play piano, and tune percussion like Timpani, glockenspiel, and vibraphone. I played in Brighton Youth Orchestra and hated every minute of it, but that was the deal with my parents. At the beginning of my career it probably helped, because I could do musicals and double up on gigs, but I had no interest in it. I should have pursued it but I didn’t. The drums took up all my time—it was hard it enough trying to master one instrument.

Do you think young drummers should learn a melody instrument?

I feel they should know about music, verses, chords, chord structures, so you can work as a team. You should also know about recording drums. It’s a different industry now. You need to know a lot more to survive in this industry. The drummer’s job has changed. I know drummers who are tour managers as well as playing drums in tours. I know drummers doing artwork. Neil Peart wrote all the lyrics. A lot of people are setting up home studios, you need to know mic placement, how to record drums. I have that knowledge when I’m doing live gigs, I know if someone puts a mic the wrong place, I’m not going to sound good. They should know about business studies as well. You should know how to manage your accounts and fill in your tax returns. You are a business, at the end of the day.