"I have only known Mike Dolbear for 31 years so am not completely equipped to comment on him! But having given him his first job as a Saturday boy in my Drumstore in 1977, and paid him less than half the train fare up from Brighton for his troubles, I knew he was either crazy, or dedicated enough to make it in the drum business! (Imagine trying to persuade a teenager to do that in the 21st century.)"
So, years later it turns out that young Michael was, and obviously still is, both of these things: crazy and dedicated.
Crazy enough to be the driving force behind the world's most popular time and money-consuming drum site and dedicated enough to teaching and 'tweaking' the techniques of some of its best drummers!
How did you first get into drumming?
I was about ten years old and would tap on everything that was in sight and my Dad tells me that he got fed up with all the tapping and said: "do you want drum lessons?" and that was it! Every Saturday morning I would have my weekly lesson with Phil Solomon, a local teacher in my hometown of Brighton.
But, it wasn't until we had a new music teacher at my senior school, when I was about twelve, that I took it seriously. The new music teacher was into pop and jazz and formed various bands in which I was the drummer and from then onwards I knew what I wanted to do. I was very determined that I was going to make a living out of playing the drums for the rest of my life. My parents were very supportive and I remember by the time I was maybe 15 I was playing every weekend and Dad would take me to all these gigs. Sometimes he would sit outside and wait until I had finished playing and then take me home.
At about the same time Dad got me a Saturday job at Henrit's drum store in Wardour street (London) the number one drum shop at the time and owned by Bob Henrit. I loved it. I was surrounded by the top guys in the industry and along with that I took a trip to see Buddy Rich play which just blew me away and made me even more determined to get into the drum industry.
What happened next?
By the time I had left school I was playing in various bands around Brighton and on the South Coast, some with small record deals; covers bands and doing the local theatre productions playing kit and percussion, but to be honest I had no real interest in playing tuned percussion. I had also started studying with Kenny Clare and really was enjoying my lessons with him. We were working on Jazz mainly and he taught me all about swinging and playing 'open handed'. I studied with Kenny until he died in 1985 when I was 21.
I was getting some good gigs and sessions in Brighton but it wasn't enough for me - I wanted more. So I went out on the road working with a host of bands touring all around Europe that I did for about 5 years. It was a great way to travel and learn the industry - I would just finish one job and immediately go on to another. I toured and recorded with The Piranhas, One Liners, Amazulu, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Edwin Star and Fashion to name a few (that I can remember!) played in touring musical productions. One of my favorite recordings at that time was the theme to ITV's world cup Spain 82. I am a big football fan so to watch the matches on TV and hear that being played was a real thrill.
Next it was time to have a crack at working in London which was (and still is) one of the capitals for making music in the world. But it was tough. I spent about two years trying to break into the scene but I was not going to give up. I had a few sessions and some tours during that time; I recorded with Five Star (on the album that never came out!) and played live and recorded with Stomp (Children in need show), The Full Monty and lots more!
This was also when I started studying with Bob Armstrong.
How did the Talk of London gig come about?
I saw an advert in Melody Maker and the drummer who was on the gig put my name forward. The Talk of London was a good gig to have - it was the old Talk of the Town and was very prestigious; it was in the New London Theatre on Drury Lane in the West End. I called the band leader and he knew of me and told me to come down and go through some of the charts with the band so I thought I had the gig because we'd talked money and everything. I remember turning up, getting to the stage door and somebody gave me a raffle ticket 97! I still remember that number as I walked into the auditorium I couldn't believe it, there were all of these drummers up for an audition! I felt such an idiot for thinking it was my gig. One by one they were calling drummers up, putting a couple of charts in front of them and having them play them with the band. Luckily my reading was good at the time! Fortunately I got the gig and spent ten years there.
The band started off being a nine piece and we would have to back all the cabarets that would come in and play the floor show. It was great. We would have a six night a week contract and could go off and do other work if we wanted. There is not a gig around like that anymore.
That was a great time; I got to do sessions during the day and would go to the gig in the evening. We were backing all the major cabaret acts of the time and new ones coming through. If a tour came in I could do it and after the gig I would go to Ronnie Scott's and catch the last set. It's such a pity that scene is not around anymore.
How did you get into teaching?
That whole industry had changed in the early 90's - the band at the 'Talk' had gone from a nine piece to a five piece band and the venue was losing money and was making changes. I had also had enough, my wife Julie was a dancer there (which is where we met) and we had our first child so I didn't want to go back out on the road. The session scene was drying up and I didn't want to go back into the West End musicals. I had been doing some group lessons at Talking Drums, a local drum school inside a shop in North London; as well as some private teaching and really enjoyed it. I was lucky because I was getting a good standard of students coming to me. It was also a good way for me to have some control over my career, keep playing the drums and stay close to home most of the time. I could also be a little choosier about which gigs I did because I didn't have to depend on them for my income!
The teaching just developed from there.
What is your ethos on teaching?
I love playing and teaching and feel very passionate about music and the drums, I feel so lucky and honored that I have and continue to make a living by playing the drums and hopefully that comes across when I teach.
Students should be taught as individuals; we all have different ways that we learn and so I don't believe there is one system that you can teach that will work for everybody. All of my classes are structured to suit each student with a strong focus on being a musician, timing, having the correct attitude, mental awareness and having as much information about all styles and stick grip so it prepares them for what ever the music industry throws at them.
I have had many debates with friends like Thomas Lang, Jojo Mayer, Billy Ward, Stanton Moore and Jason Bittner about stick grip, Gladstone or Moeller techniques? or heel up or down on the bass drum pedal? to come to the conclusion there is no one way but it's down to what is correct for you. The one thing that everybody agrees with is you need to have good time, groove and musicality and everybody needs to be individuals - That's what I try to teach.
How did mikedolbear.com come about?
I am a real believer in fate. I had written my book "Rhythm and Fills" and after having various conversations with publishing companies decided that the deal I'd been offered wasn't good enough. So I published the book myself. The book has done very well and is now distributed by Music sales and Hudson Europe which is good.
All the big drum shops stocked the book but I needed another source to sell it. I had been in conversation with somebody who was going to set me up a very basic website to sell the book - I knew nothing about web stuff! At about the same time Gerry (my website business partner) who used to be one of my old students whom I hadn't seen for years, got in contact with me completely out of the blue. I told him what I had been up to and he told me that he'd just completed a three-year course on computer studies and that he could do what I needed. After looking into it we decided on more of a basic on-line mag. Nine years on we have a website that is being viewed in over 100 countries around the world and gets just under a million visits a month. We now have ten people working on the site!
To be honest if I had ever predicted the size of the site I would never have called it mikedolbear.com because it's not about me and promoting Mike Dolbear. The ethos is to promote drumming and education and stay independent of any one person or manufacturer. I know it's especially hard for Gerry too because he doesn't always get the recognition he deserves.
It's a labour of love and a lot of hard work goes into the site and family time has gone (and still does go) into getting the site to where it is now - and moving it forward. We now have drumtube.net, classified ads, the forum and also run our "Young Drummer of the year" competition. It's a full-time job on its own which we have to fit around our proper jobs; but we're all drummers and feel it's a very necessary resource for others like us.