My friend and mentor, Roy Burns, passed away on May 2, 2018.
You may not have heard of him, but Roy was a drummer’s drummer. To give some perspective, when Modern Drummer Magazine began in the late 70s, Roy’s picture was featured on the second cover – second only to Buddy Rich. In the 1950s and 60s, Roy performed with big band jazz greats like Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, and Lionel Hampton, played on the Merv Griffin Show, and filled in regularly on the Johnny Carson Show.
During the late 60s, Roy began to establish ‘drum clinics’ in music stores and schools. My dad took me to one of Roy’s first clinics at La Habra Music in Southern California when I was 13 years old, and I’ll never forget it. Roy had amazing stick technique, seamless buzz rolls, and did this thing where he placed a business card on a snare drum head to illustrate how sensitive that drum is. These lessons and demonstrations were fascinating stuff for any young drummer! The experience laid out the groundwork for my career later on.
A few years later, during my senior year in high school, I saw Roy do another drum clinic at Fullerton College. Roy walked out onto the stage, threw a drum stick on the floor, and as it bounced straight up, he caught it in mid-air! He then looked straight at the audience and said, “Hi, I’m Roy Burns”. I was floored: it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
For many years after, I practiced that stick trick and got pretty good at it. But, about one in five times, the drumstick would go wonky and bounce sideways or lay flat. I assumed that Roy probably did that trick at every clinic. After we became friends years later, I told him that I had been trying to master that trick, and I asked, “Weren’t you ever worried that the stick would bounce out of control and embarrass you?” He laughed and said, “Steve, I only did that trick on stage twice and got it right both times.” With a grin, he said, “I figured I’d better quit while I was ahead”.
That was Roy. A risk-taker, but also wise and practical. And always an inspiration.
Roy was ‘old school’. His staff told me he never owned a computer. Roy made regular personal phone calls and wrote handwritten letters. I received quite a few of those letters over the years, and I soon learned that there were many other drummers who he reached out to and inspired as well.
At his drum clinics, Roy often told humorous stories about his career. One that stood out was about a show Roy played, where the Woody Herman Band opened up for the Buddy Rich Band. As drummers often do, Roy played on Buddy’s drums. At the end of the opening set, Roy closed things out by doing a drum solo. Roy told it something like this: “As a drummer, you don’t expect much audience appreciation when you’re opening for Buddy Rich. But that night as I did my solo, I noticed the audience standing with focused attention. They even began pointing. Even the band started to stand and point. I thought to myself, ‘I am really something tonight!’ Finally, I looked down so I wouldn’t lose my concentration. Buddy’s cymbals had been buffed and polished so much, they had sharp edges and the hi-hat had cut my left hand. Apparently, every time I hit the snare drum, blood was splattering onto my white shirt. So much for my ego!”
After I studied drums at Musicians Institute in 1985, I wanted to further my skills by taking lessons with a master drummer. Roy had been writing a column for Modern Drummer magazine called, “Concepts”. His article was the first thing I would read each month. At that time, Roy had ventured into a drum accessories (and eventually, drumhead manufacturing) company called Aquarian. I thought I might be able to contact him there, so I called the company. Within moments, and to my starstruck-amazement, his receptionist connected me to the man himself. I was startled by how accessible he was! He was very personable and made you feel special. I soon began driving to Orange County (from San Luis Obispo) once a month to take a drum lesson with him. We became friends and he taught me to be a better drummer, and a better person as well. He talked about how he developed his buzz roll dynamics from watching circus drummers, and he helped me build stick technique with exercises that he had learned from legendary teacher Henry Adler (and others along the way).
One of the rudiments he helped me achieve was the “paradiddle”. For you non-drummers, the sticking pattern is, R-L-R-R, L-R-L-L. He outlined an exercise from one of his many instructional drum books, that later inspired a piece called “Paradiddle Solo,” written for a bucket drumming group I formed called Bucket Busters. We recorded the composition for an album and dedicated it to Roy. He loved it.
During the time I was studying with Roy, my own drumming and teaching career really started to take off. I decided to open a drum shop called The Drum Circuit. I said, “Roy, I’m going open a drum shop. It’s going to be great! I can be around drums and on my practice pad every day!” He kind of chuckled a bit and said, “Steve, I guarantee, if you open a drum shop, you won’t have time to practice.” Well, he was right, but I never regretted it. In 1988, with his advice and encouragement, I opened that drum shop, and in October of that year, I was honored and proud to host our first of many drum clinics, featuring none other than my mentor, Roy Burns!
Roy was a true gentleman, a brilliant drummer, and a world-class teacher, author, innovator, and inspirer. He was a man full of integrity, wisdom, knowledge, and friend to many. I will miss him.