John Von Ohlen – I Look at Things in an Ass-Backwards Way

John Von Ohlen

SKF NOTE: From the transcript of my interview with John Von Ohlen, published in the March 1985 Modern Drummer. This interview was done by phone. I was in my MD office. John was home in Indiana. My introduction to John’s playing, years earlier, was through Stan Kenton’s Live in London album.

Scott K Fish: How do you feel about drum method books?

John Von Ohlen: I’ll have to tell you a story, reportedly true, about a wise old Indian sage.

This German came to the village where this sage lived and he wanted to find The Truth.

The German was in a bookstore one day and this sage happened to walk by and see him in there. And this wise man knew what the German wanted.

So the sage picked the guy up by the collar, threw him out of the bookstore and said, “It’s not in books, you fool.”

That’s the way I feel about drumming. I’m sorry, but I look at things in an ass-backwards way.

I know it’s nice to have a book. I know these teachers who put out books are well-meaning. Maybe some of them are just trying to make a buck. If some of them have families — they ought to put out a book. But it’s not in books.

What book did Mel Lewis study out of? What book did Elvin Jones study out of?

You might study rudiments. Okay, that’s a good foundation. It’s like learning the scales on a piano. Once you’re past the rudiments, I’d say don’t get too steeped in the book knowledge of drums. You need to go out and work. That’s where you get it. You get it on the job. If a guy works, and he’s a well-meaning drummer, and he’s right in there pitching, and he’s working all the time, these things will come to him anyway.

My main gripe is in developing musclebound chops from practicing things that aren’t natural for you anyway, in the name of speed.

You’ve got your own natural licks. If a guy just keeps playing, man, he’ll come up with some bomb licks that nobody can play. It may not be that big a thing, but there will be nobody else who can play it. Like you’ve got a patent on it. That’s the kind of chops you should have. You should have things that came out — an you didn’t even know how you did it.

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