Lessons Learned While Going to Play

By Ed Bettinelli

My philosophy is that a musician must always be on a quest to bring his or her playing to the next level. It’s an endless trip measured by time spent on the journey with countless lessons learned along the way. My trip started when I was about 11 years old seeing some of the older kids in my neighborhood on Long Island, NY, who had a rock band. On Saturdays, they would open the garage door and allow the younger kids to sit on the front lawn and watch them practice.

Seeing the drummer lit a spark in me, and it was drums for me from that point on. By 15, I was playing in local clubs. My parents supported my passion and suggested that I start taking drum lessons. At 16, I started studying with a well-known teacher. His teaching studio was state-of-the-art for its time, and remains the blueprint for my studio set up to this day.

In the musically heady days of the early 1970s when rock and jazz collided to create fusion, I was a fan of great drummers: Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham, John “Jabo” Starks, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Steve Gadd, and others. Billy Cobham’s solo record Spectrum made my head spin. It was about this time that I realized that I wanted to become the best musician I could possibly be. At my parents’ suggestion, I applied to Berklee. Much to my disappointment I didn’t get in. I had no music theory background, and at the time, that was the deciding factor for admission.

But I was on a mission. A good friend of mine was in his first semester at Berklee and suggested I move to Boston and audition for a band he was in. I got the gig and was often in Berklee’s rehearsal rooms. One day after a rehearsal, I ran into a professor who suggested that I take one of his courses. I told him I didn’t go to Berklee, I hadn’t gotten into the school. He set up a meeting for me with admissions, and after some back and forth, I was accepted to Berklee.

Those Best Laid Plans ...

After my second year at Berklee, I was home for the summer when I read an ad in the Village Voice for the band Preview, which was looking for a drummer. I auditioned and got the gig. I thought it would be a summer gig, but by the end of summer we had created a huge buzz in New York City and six major labels began bidding for the band. It was a signing frenzy. Ours was one of the biggest record signings in New York at the time. We were the 13th band signed to Geffen Records. Keith Olsen, one of the hottest producers at the time, worked with us in the studio and I found myself recording and playing with some of the best-known figures in the industry. Thrown in the loop as they say.

The band’s eponymous debut record fell way short of everyone’s expectations after its release in 1983. But it took the band about 10 years to concede that fact. I found myself at a point in my career where my major record deal had fizzled and a number of auditions with such artists as John Waite, Michael Schenker, Def Leppard, and others hadn’t gone my way.

So I did what any sensible 30-year-old musician living in New York City would do: I took a job tending bar to supplement the big bucks I was earning in the music biz and put another band together. The new group, Beg Borrow & Steal, scored a major deal with RCA/BMG Records. We flew out to Los Angeles and made a record during the Rodney King riots. Those were crazy times. The band made only one album, Push & Shove.

Two major record deals and about 20 years later, I found myself living outside of New York in Dobbs Ferry, a river town 18 miles north of the city where I still live with my wife and two sons. I set up a teaching studio, the Art of Drumming, and started giving private drum instruction. All of my experiences in the studio and playing live gave me a lot to share with my students as well as the idea to create a percussion instrument.

A New Thang

Understanding the process of recording and the many layers that go into creating a composition is one thing, but trying to reproduce and add to those layers while playing live is a different challenge. As a musician and drummer, I’m always trying to bring diverse textures, tones, and colors into my drum part. Having four limbs to work with, I often found myself taking pieces of shakers, tambourines, and other things and strapping or duct taping them to my body in an effort to create a more colorful, lush groove to support and elevate the song. In doing so, this would often create limitations, and impede the mobility and dexterity required to play the drums.

The shaker has been the default piece of percussion for decades. In many recordings, if you listen closely, someone is playing a shaker. Adding it to a track can be magical and hypnotic. If there is anything unsettling in a song, just add some shaker! Most people who add a shaker track usually play a 16th-note pulse that creates a rhythmic grid. All the rhythms happening within a song can usually find a resting point within this grid. Often it relaxes whatever might have felt unsettled within the song.

So You’re the Guy Who Invented the Shaker Thang?

I started seeing devices on the market that would attach to drum sticks or the back of the fingers in hopes of enabling a drummer to add the effect of a shaker. To me, these often felt like a ball and chain. Balance is so important to stick control, so attaching something to a stick made absolutely no sense to me. I knew there had to be a better way. I set out to make a shaker that sounded, felt, and looked like no other and that could be hand held or attached to a finger without impeding mobility and dexterity.

Having an idea and then making it tangible is quite a process. I did years of research and development, opening up countless shakers to learn about the beads, weight, and volume that gave them their sound. Coming up with a prototype, name, and logo for a product, branding it, acquiring a patent, funding it, manufacturing and packaging it, and marketing it are a substantial undertaking. Finally getting a patent for my Thumb Thang was an accomplishment. But it offered far less protection than I thought it would.

After receiving my patent, I went to the NAMM show in Anaheim, CA, to show my patent-protected Thumb Thang to peers and some music companies. Within a year, a well-known percussion manufacturer to whom I’d shown the Thumb Thang at the NAMM show, released a knock-off version that was an absolute infringement on my patent. My attorney sent the company a cease-and-desist letter, and they countered with a letter that opened up the floodgates for litigation. Those costs are not in my budget! The moral of the story might be that a patent is only as good as the amount of money you have to protect it. What to do? Move onward and upward!

Made in the USA

It was important to me to make the Thumb Thang in America with a nearby manufacturer in case I had to do some trouble shooting. I also wanted to send a message about supporting products made in the USA. So many businesses go outside the country to manufacture their goods. It’s much more expensive to make things in the United States, but I didn’t want to sell out like others that outsource their manufacturing to other countries to save money on the front end. It has taken me years, but finally, in addition to my brainchild becoming a reality, I am able to attest that the Thumb Thang is made in the USA!

I didn’t plan my various career moves. Never once did I say, “I want to be a rock star.” I just saw some kids in a garage playing music and knew I would become a musician who happened to play the drums. In the back of my mind I thought that at some point I would set up a teaching studio. But I never set out to go into music product manufacturing.

There are many roads that lead to a destination. But to get there, we need to find our passion, head toward it, and work hard. I’ve learned that at the end of the day if you fall shy of the mark, at least you know that you spent a good portion of your time doing what you love. To this day, I never say, “I’m going to work.” I say, “I’m just going to play.”