Extreme metal band Shadows Fall has been a driving force in aggressive modern rock for so many years, it’s almost startling to realize that the group’s latest offering Threads of Life – the band’s fifth album – is actually its major label debut. When asked if he felt pressure regarding his performance for the album, knowing it would be Shadows’ first for Atlantic Records, drummer Jason Bittner had a very thoughtful response. “I felt that I had to step up my performance, period,” Bittner explains, “because I feel like that with every record. I always want to do something different. On Threads of Life, for example, I played different beats than I’ve ever played on an album, including a shuffle, a 16th note disco groove and a few varied feels that I’ve never done before. Obviously, I want to give my best performance regardless of what label we’re on, not just for myself but for our fans.” Jason, who recently came in at #2 in the Best Metal Drummer category of Modern Drummer’s 2007 Reader’s Poll, spoke to Metal Edge about his drumming technique from his home in upstate New York.
Metal Edge: You worked with producer Nick Raskulinecz for this record. How did he advise you on your drum parts?
Jason Bittner: In the past, our producer Zeus was like a sixth member of the band. He was a champion of my drumming and loved everything I played. If I played a fill that had a splash hit in it or I did something that was a little off time, Zeus would never say, ‘don’t do that there. It doesn’t sound right.’ On the other hand, Nick had no problem saying, ‘you know that little splash thing you’re putting in there? Let’s try it without that.’ Of course, my instinct is to say ‘No,’ because that’s the part and that’s what I want to play. But when I played it and actually listened to it in the context of the music, I realized it was okay to take that hit out and simplify the part. It just makes the song have more impact. Nick said, ‘you’ve established yourself on the other four albums to the fans that enjoy your music. They already know you have chops.’ He made me understand that I was going to have my moments on this album and we should make those moments really jump out instead of having a semi-moment in every song.
Metal Edge: Describe your two-handed ride cymbal approach and why that works for you?
Jason Bittner: My two-handed stuff started initially with Neil [Peart]. He would play two-handed patterns between the hi-hat and the ride cymbal, because he didn’t have two ride cymbals, whereas I like the sound of two cymbals. What put me over the top was listening to drummers like Gene Hoglan, Richard Christy and Nick Barker: You hear the double ride stuff much more in the death metal genre. The first time I used the second ride cymbal was in the summer of 2004, when I was recording tracks for the Death tribute album, which has still yet to come out (laughs). I put the ride cymbal up because I’d done a couple of Gene’s songs and I wanted to replicate his parts in the right way. [But after that] I never took it down. On songs that we’ve been playing for years and years – that sometimes can get a little stale – now, if I’m playing all the ride cymbal stuff with my left hand instead of my right, it’s a totally different ball game. It’s given some of the old songs a bit more life and has become one of my signature moves.
Metal Edge: As a player who’s lauded for his speed, what do you tell students about playing fast as it relates to playing well?
Jason Bittner: In clinics, I always have a section on double bass, because that’s one thing I’m most commonly asked about. Usually the question is ‘how can you play so fast?’ My answer is ‘years of practicing!’ (Laughs) There’s no secret to it. The most important advice I can give is to start slow and play the beat with power, conviction and a great sense of timing. It doesn’t matter how fast you can play, because you can’t run before you can walk. I would rather have a student play an exercise at the slowest speed imaginable and get it right than have him try to play it at twice the speed and have no idea what he’s doing. Either the feel or the accents are wrong or he’s just not playing the pattern correctly. You have to start at the bottom to get to the top is how it works. It doesn’t come over night.
Metal Edge: How do you feel about the importance of versatility?
Jason Bittner: Drummers should be open to all kinds of music and try to have some knowledge of playing different styles as well. Think about being in the position maybe years down the road, where you’re not just the drummer from a certain band anymore, but you’re a drummer known for being able to play in various situations: Terry Bozzio and Steve Smith are perfect examples. Because I had a year of schooling at Berklee, I learned a little bit about jazz and Latin styles. I’m not an expert at playing those styles and I don’t play them half as well as I play metal, but I know the basic beats and feels. If I was in a situation where the drummer in the lounge band at the Holiday Inn had a heart attack, and I was sitting at the bar, I could sit in with the band and hold them together.
Drums: Tama Starclassic
Sizes: (2) 18”x 22” Kicks; 20” Gong Bass; 10,” 12,” 14” and 16” Rack Toms; 6 ½” x 14” Bell Brass Snare
Sticks: Pro-Mark Jason Bittner Signature Series
This article was originally written for Metal Edge Magazine as part of a monthly column by Gail Worley (under the pen name Jayne Rollins). With the magazines’ dissolution, the article has been added to the content base of The Worley Gig for our readers’ enjoyment.