Fred Below: The Drum is a Beautiful Instrument if Played Correctly

SKF NOTE: This is an excerpt from my interview with drummer Fred Below, arguably the father of Chicago electric blues drumming. Mr. Below recorded with Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, The Aces, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, and other pivotal blues musicians.  The interview was published in Modern Drummer‘s September 9, 1983 issue as, Fred Below: Magic Maker.

Mr. Below is shown in this blog post behind Ludwig and Sonor drumsets. He was playing the Sonor kit when we had this interview. In fact, the Sonor photo here is one of several MD used for this interview. 


Fred Below

Scott K Fish: Do you have a preference between matched grip and traditional grip?

Fred Below: I use traditional myself because it works good. But, I’ve seen guys use drumsticks like mallets. To me, that gives off a different sound and a different beat. It’s harder. It’s not soft enough.

I like my way best, the traditional, because of the technique and the pressure. You’re no so much slamming/bang, slamming/bang.

The drum is a beautiful instrument if you play it correctly. You can get beautiful sounds. And your drums should be tuned so that you can hear different tones coming out of all the different sizes.

You can be playing in a band, and all of a sudden you hear that their tones are going up. You can’t reach it up if your drums are flat. You just have a plop sound that don’t have no tone. But if you’ve got tone, if the band goes up, you can go right up with it.

SKF: Was there any one person that taught you how to tune drums?

FB: That was back when I was going to DuSable [High School]. Way back in the early ‘40s.

SKF: How do you like to tune your drums?

FB: I tune my drums left to right, so that the two tom-toms have different tones. My floor tom has the lowest tone. My hardest, flat tone would be my bass drum.

Fred BelowMy snare drum has an intermediate tone. That is, it’s between the two tom-toms on the top so that, when you flick the snares off, you’ve got three tones. The two tom-tom tones and the snare drum in the middle of both of them.

I never put anything inside the drums. I never understood why drummers want to stack all that stuff in there. It’s okay for recording purposes — putting padding in the drums. But not for when you’re playing! God! That just kills all the tone. You don’t know what you’re playing. I don’t put no foreign matter whatsoever in there.

SKF: Are you using a wood beater on your bass drum?

FB: No. Felt. Hard felt.

SKF: Obviously you were using calfskin heads when you first started playing and recording. Did you mind switching to plastic heads?

FB: No. I think I liked it better. It’s a different tone. The calfskin gave a little sharper tone. The plastic heads are better for different weather conditions. That’s the main thing. When it got damp and muggy and bad weather them calfskin heads would go up and down. They’d be flabby and all other kind of stuff.

With the plastic heads you don’t have that problem.

Then it was the way you had them tuned. The part that you beat on is the only part of the drum that you tune. The part that you do not beat on — you do not tune it. Like, on the bass drum, you loosen the part that you’re playing on and that’s all.

But when you’re playing on the top head, you keep the top head for tuning. Tighten the bottom head of all the drums. You just tune from the top. You never tune from the bottom. The bottom stays like it is. Once you tighten it up, then it stays. The top head is what you tune. You can loosen it or tighten it.


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7 Responses to Fred Below: The Drum is a Beautiful Instrument if Played Correctly

  1. Pingback: Fred Below on Backing Singers (Audio) July 9, 1982 | Scott K Fish

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  3. scottkfish says:

    Thank you, Nick. Max Roach said he enjoyed the challenge calf heads presented. In nightclub environments the heads were never the same, requiring Max to adjust his playing accordingly. // Best, skf

  4. Nick says:

    reminds me of a time when i was playing calf skin bongos and the weather was strange out, a tornado watch i think, and the air was think enough to cut with a knife. i was getting no sound at all, like there was a mute on them. and then suddenly it started pouring rain outside and the bongos went back to normal almost the same instant.

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  6. scottkfish says:

    Hi Sean. Thank you for writing. It took me a few moments to figure out what Fred Below meant about tuning. And I had the advantage of “hearing” him. I think he is talking about tuning in general. Plastic or calf heads.

    Let’s say we have Remo Ambassadors, top and bottom, on a 9×13 tom. We start by hand tightening the bottom lugs as much as we can. Then, using a tuning key, we tighten all the lugs one-and-a-half turns.

    Then we give the same treatment to the top head. Now we have top and bottom drum heads tuned or tensioned alike. If we think the drum sounds too low or high — we change the pitch by adjusting the top head only, leaving the bottom head lugs at one-and-a-half turns.

    Best, Scott K Fish

  7. Sean. says:

    Very interesting comment on tuning, where he says only tune on the part of the head that your playing on , never heard of that before, I take it he’s talking of calfskins here, I’m going to be trying a calf batter on my radio king snare, am wondering if this would be good advise?

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