Ever since he made his entry into the international drummers circle, he’s had a major influence on drummers around the world. He is easily one of the most original, creative and fluent drummers. The prolific drummer from Germany, Benny Greb also put out an instructional DVD titled The Language of Drumming which is one the most creative educational DVDs to ever be put out. In addition to his work with numerous artists, he is seen actively taking part in clinics and has played at drum festivals around the world. Here’s what he had to say in his interview with Indian Drummer -
Benny – Thanks, pretty good.
ID – Was there any record or a moment in particular that made you want to pursue a career in music?
Benny - I can’t remember one particular event. Drums and drumming simply were very interesting thing to me right from the beginning. I also was interested in other things like graphic design or science, but drumming somehow always had a special place in my heart.
ID – You started off playing while you were six but took your first lesson at the age of twelve. Was there anything in particular that encouraged you to make this decision?
Benny - Yes a traumatising experience.(laughs) No seriously, the first guy my mother took me to for lessons was a local drums teacher and he was very scary and unfriendly, so I did not wanna have any lessons for a long time. Well for 6 years, but in retrospect I thank him for that because I think this was a very important time for me in terms of getting to know the instrument and getting close to the instrument all by myself.
ID – Tell us a bit about the bands and genres you played for at this stage.
Benny - Well in the beginning I tried to copy everything that I heard on the radio but of course also just sat down at the drums and just played what came to mind. Later I was a part of a teenie cover band that played locally but started to earn me some money which was a cool experience when you are 15. When I studied music I began to play in many different bands and moved to Hamburg where the club scene and the music industry was and still is quite strong.
I then decided to not play in any coverbands anymore and cancelled all my gigs at weddings and hotel lobbies because I wanted to focus on developing songs with people that write them and also write my own material and focus on how I wanna do things.
Financially I almost was suicide at first but turned out to work after 1-2 years.
I played more jazz, did more studio work and gradually built up a reputation of my own.
Nowadays I bring out my own written material there are two solo albums out. “Grebfruit” and “Brasssband” and I play with a couple of German artists in the studio and on tour. In the studio it can be really anything from movie scores to pop music to jazz. Another thing I do is that I began to share my knowledge and experience in my own Master session – Drum camps and educational products which is great fun.
ID – You of course put out a gem of an instructional titled The Language of Drumming that has benefited a ton of drummers around the world, for how long did you work on this?
Benny - Quite a while. First it wasn’t meant to become an instructional product for others. It was just my way to try to make sense out of the challenges that I faced over the years myself.
That’s why it really covers everything from the basics of rhythms and time to rudimental vocabulary to groove and independence exercises to sound and improvisation ideas. It’s my journey, my workbook that I used and written the last 10years or so. And now there is also a book called the Language of Drumming Book
Benny - Yeah I get the impression that I am famous for that since everyone asks me about it in terms of “did you really??” (Laughs). But for me it’s the most logical thing in the world and it helped me so much to write a practice diary.
Yes I now in the last ten years what I practised, in what tempo, when, how long and how I did. I couldn’t do without it. It saves so much time and frees me to think about something else. I love it. I always thought that discipline is the opposite of freedom. But when you discipline yourself to focus on the things you really wanna do. Discipline IS freedom.
ID – Drums being a rhythm instrument for the most part, it really is hard to play something that is more melody oriented which I think makes it that much harder to convey an emotion. How have you tackled this and made your playing so well defined that you’re able to make it sing and convey a feeling?
Benny - First of all I don’t think that melody is the only way to convey emotion. People can dance to a groove for eternity without any melodic structure. However we can think melodically when we play the drums. Just because we don’t have the definite pitch available doesn’t mean that we can’t use this musical principle. It changes a lot when you thing in rough tone height or texture. For example you can create contrast and make phrases more interesting when you use high and low sounds continuously and are aware of frequencies when you improvise. It is possible and very usable.
ID – What do you think is the best approach to go about improvisation? Is it more of applying what you’ve practiced or is it more of a thing where you play what feels right at the moment?
Benny - By focusing on the second you do the first automatically. When you focus on the first the second usually doesn’t happen.
ID – One thing about your playing is the precision in your phrasing, even while you’re improvising. How much of an effect does discipline have on this?
Benny - Discipline has an effect on everything (laughs) but so do emotions. I think the challenge is to discipline yourself in things that are important to you. When we talk about clarity of phrasing I think that it is the same of having a clear pronunciation when you talk. Sometimes its good to whisper but sometimes you have to say simple and loud things in order to convey your message ( in a loud environment for example or if there is a lot going on) it’s the same with drumming. The main thing is to communicate and the same rules apply.
ID – What’s your approach to dynamics? How do you take an ordinary groove and elevate it to sound a lot better?
Benny - Dynamics are so interesting. They make everything come alive. They outline the difference of important and unimportant notes. They help the listener to see through your information. Dynamics are to the notes you play, what google is to the information ocean of the internet.
Benny - Parallel to my many years playing drums as a sideman I always collected song ideas and did some writing. Some of that material was used from the artists and bands I worked with but some ideas were somehow just for myself. Then when the opportunity came to me to bring out a Solo Record I jumped at it and tried a weird concept I thought about for a long time. Just a cappella singing + drums. I did a couple of demos that were a lot of work but sounded really good so I thought “that’s it, I’m gonna make the album like this.” It’s an album I still get feedback on and I’m still proud of it, it is very unique and interesting.
ID – Following that, you played with Elbtonal Percussion where you got to work with Stewart Copeland. How was that experience? How much of an influence has Mr. Copeland had on your playing?
Benny - Copeland was a huge influence. I listened to The Police a lot and learned all the drum parts. I’m a huge fan so when I got asked if I could record drums for writer and producer Stewart Copeland. The answer was simple and it was one of these experiences where you can’t believe that this is happening in the moment. Finishing a take and then having Stewart Copelands voice in the Headphone saying”that sounded good, great drumming”. I really had to pinch myself.
ID – After so many years of playing and making music is there still any area in your playing that you consider being weak and constantly working on?
Benny - I think you have to work on all areas again and again as well. This is something that many people tend to forget. I sometimes have the impression that I really have to refine things a lot that I had once worked on already. It never stops.
ID – How do you go about writing drum solos? When you look back on your solos is there anything you would’ve done differently in a particular solo?
Benny - I don’t write drum solos. I like certain things of course. I have grooves and melodies that are a part of my personality and I don’t mind if they appear again and again. It’s like when you have a favourite dish that you enjoy eating a lot. But generally when I start a drum solo I never know what is going to happen. And to answer the second part of your question I try to not regret anything. (laughs)
ID – Are there any pointers you can give on maintaining grip while playing in spite of the hands being a sweaty mess?
Benny - Mmmm …Not really, since I don’t have sweaty hands. Sorry but I know that there are some that sandpaper the sticks or put wrap around them. However you have to be careful that these things are not a way to compensate for a bad gripping technique.
Benny - Oh there were too many great experiences. I owe great thanks to a lot of colleagues and heroes of mine that were kind enough to share their knowledge with me sometimes in long evenings in hotel lobbies or on tour in buses or backstage with a pad. Also I wanted many instructional videos and went through many books. Too many to select one.
ID – You were in India a while back, how was that trip like?
Benny - Very very inspiring! I had a great time played with wonderful musicians and the students there were maybe the most respectful and dedicated that I ever had. I was really impressed. And I’m a fan of your rhythmic culture anyway so … I was in heaven.
ID – It’s known that you’ve studied Indian rhythms, how much of it have you applied in your playing?
Benny - Quite a lot! Not so much the technique or specific phrases, but the kind of how to think about groupings and phrases changed my playing a lot.
ID – What are your tips for drummers to improve their sight reading skills?
Benny - I don’t have any, it’s not something that I find very interesting (laughs). It’s like learning to read. I can do it and it’s often very helpful but its more important to be able to talk with and understand other people. It’s the same in music.
ID – What does Benny Greb do while he isn’t drumming?
Benny - Spending time with his family and working on future projects. And I try to stay fit.
ID – What’s your schedule like for the rest of 2012?
Benny - Well we are on tour with the Ron Spielman trio right now. Our new album “Electric Tales” was just released and is getting great reviews. I just finished a recording with a great jazz trumpet player from Germany: Nils Wülker. In 2 weeks I’ll be on tour in England where I will play with my Band Blue Touch Paper. There will be a new Mater session Drumcamp in summer where students spend a intense week of drums and drumming with me in a great location in Bavaria, Germany. Last time we had 23 ppl from 12 different countries. Incredible! Also there will be some festivals with the German singer-songwriter Stoppok in the summer and a couple of clinics here and there.
Thanks a lot for doing this interview. You’ve been a huge inspiration to all of us. Indian Drummer wishes you the very best with all your projects. It’s an honour to have you on our site. We’re looking forward to speak again soon and we can’t wait to have in back in India.
Thank you very much for having me. All the best!