Female Drummers

by Paula Bocciardi
Drum Magazine

Ever been to one of those drum clinics where they give away a bunch of great stuff at the end of the night? Well, at a recent clinic in San Francisco, the grand-prize cymbal giveaway went to a woman drummer in the audience. And as she walked onstage to claim her prize, a guy in the crowd yelled out, ‘Hey! That’s no fair! She can’t be a drummer!’ [Andy: I actually witnessed this.]

Unfair as it may be, in the court of musical scrutiny, women drummers still find themselves shouldering the burden of proof. Why is that? Why is the notion of a woman drummer still foreign to some people? What is it about drumming that some people see as decidedly un-female? Is it because it’s impossible to play in high heels?

Drum! magazine decided that this issue is a serious one that hasn’t been properly investigated, and that it was time to ask women drummers what it’s really like to be female in a profession that has primarily been the province of men. It was not an easy task, in some ways. The drummers we talked to seemed to choose their words carefully; as one of them told us, ‘In reality, the whole sexism issue is avoided, because people don’t want to sound like they’re whining, and you don’t want to alienate half the population.’ Still, with persistence we were able to glean some interesting perspectives–both visceral and analytical–from the women we interviewed, and we found that they share a common strength, a mixed bag of experiences, a true passion for drumming–and a strange affinity for John Bonham.

The drummers who spoke generously about this unexplored subject were:

* Dawn Richardson, the former drummer for the Four-Non-Blondes who now fronts her own band, Trinket, a sort of industrial/rock hybrid that’s unafraid to throw anything into the mix. Richardson has just started up a new label–Slot Records in San Francisco; recently did background music for some radio dramas picked up by NPR; and is also beginning to teach (she’s looking for students, by the way!).

* Debra Dobkin, percussionist with Bonnie Raitt, who lives in Los Angeles and has recorded with L.A. musical icons like Jackson Browne and Don Henley. With Bonnie Raitt she just got done recording a double live CD, Road Tested, which will be released November 7, with an accompanying PBS special to be aired on November 28. Dobkin just worked on a Subdudes [Andy: spelling?] record and has been helping out with other independent projects in the studio.

* Michele Graybeal, who has played with San Francisco Bay Area musicians like Mark Isham but is now committed heart and soul to Ronnie Montrose. Montrose’s rock/fusion trio released Music from Here in 1994, went out on tour, and just completed a yet-to-be-named live CD that should be out in a few months. And don’t let the past fool you; it’s not ‘Rock Candy’ but raw, spontaneous groove instrumental music.

* Kate Schellenbach, the original Beastie Boys drummer, who has been responsible for the solid groove behind Luscious Jackson since 1992. Natural Ingredients, released in 1994, was the band’s first full-length CD but immediately won them praise for its blend of hip-hop, funk, jazz, and an intangible overlay of New York street culture. Luscious Jackson is on tour with R.E.M. until Thanksgiving and then will immediately begin working on a new record. Meanwhile, Schellenbach’s Ladies Who Lunch side project with Josephine Wiggs of the Breeders is out now.

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When you started playing drums, did you encounter any resistance because you were a woman?

Richardson: Well, they did try to discourage me, but it’s hard to say why. In junior high I didn’t play drums in my school band because there were always so many drummers. I played other things, so if they needed any other instrument, they’d say, ‘No, no, we’d rather have you play that than have another drummer.’ So I don’t know. But when I moved to high school I finally said, ‘I don’t care, I want to play drums.’ And by the time I was a senior, I was head of the drum section. With some of the guys it took some persuasion, and I think the band director was a little hesitant to make me section head. I don’t know that he was sure it would work. Then when I got out of school, I started calling the ads in Music Connection. Sometimes when the ads wouldn’t specify what kind of drummer they wanted, people would be surprised to hear from me. ‘A woman?’ Like they’d never thought of it before. But often I’d go audition and it would be fine. Some people are cool about it and some people aren’t.

Dobkin: I actually started as a singer. Then some friends turned me on to Latin music and I just fell in love with the drumming. So I went to music school, and it’s interesting–I did go to school because I didn’t want anybody to say to me, ‘Oh, you’re just a singer; you don’t know anything about music.’ But it wasn’t a gender-based thing.

Graybeal: Actually, I started on the insistence of my brother, because he played guitar and he had a friend with a drumset for sale, and I’d always been interested in drums anyway. But I’d never actually considered playing. I was about 14, and I went and bought the drumset, much to my mother’s chagrin. She didn’t really have any choice, though, because I brought it home without asking her. So my brother was obviously very supportive of my playing, as was my drum teacher. I guess the response from people was pretty positive.

Schellenbach: I started playing when I was about 13, when I started going to see bands. It was the later years of the punk era in New York, and one of the first bands I went to see was the Student Teachers, who had a female drummer. Seeing her clicked in my head, like, ‘Wow, this is something I could do.’ I remember the guy upstairs lent me his snare drum, and I was banging on that for awhile, and on big cardboard boxes that were lying around the house. Then as luck would have it, a friend of my mother’s asked if she could leave her drumkit at our house. It was a woman, just to make it more inspirational. It was like the gods coming down and saying [in deep voice], ‘YOU’VE GOT TO PLAY DRUMS.’ I think it was a good sign for my mom that I was interested in doing something creative and productive. And I also didn’t get any negative reaction from the other people around me. I think I had it really easy; my social group was based around going to see bands, and everybody was so into music that if you were playing music, that was really cool. Everybody was really encouraging–the guys and the girls. I was probably the only girl of the social scene who was playing drums, but ironically one of the first bands I was in was the Beastie Boys, where it was never an issue that I was a girl. I was a Beastie Boy, and it was totally accepted.

Did you have role models, and did it make a difference whether there were women drummers who had made it big?

Richardson: When I was growing up, the stuff I liked was Blondie, Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin. I like the way Joey Kramer plays, and I especially like John Bonham. I guess I’m a band member-oriented drummer. I think it was good to see women musicians, though; I remember the Pretenders when they first came out and Chrissy Hynde was cool–a female rock chick that wasn’t all foofy. That kind of stuff was definitely inspirational.

Graybeal: I’m 29, but when I first started playing, I was listening to Jeff Beck and Zeppelin and Yes, which were the records that my brother had. I really liked John Bonham, because everything had a really funky groove to it and I could relate to the way he played, rhythmically and emotionally. And I absolutely love Ginger Baker–he has such an earthy feel. Most of the drummers who inspired me were groove-oriented; very technical and finesse-oriented drumming, with monstrous rudimental fills, doesn’t really get to my soul. I wish there were a woman on my list. There have been more women drummers out in the public eye lately, but it’s been primarily in alternative music, and I don’t quite get what those groups are trying to say musically. I don’t know– maybe I’m just an old fart!

Schellenbach: I really try to learn from listening to different styles. I really liked Budgie, who played with Siouxie and the Banshees; he also played with the Slits on their first record. Then later I got into John Bonham. His drum sound was incredible, but he was also very funky in a way. And from what I’ve read about him, he was into Motown and soul and R&B. I guess I like the drummers who played with people like Al Greene and Sly and the Family Stone. The style of music I’m playing now tends to be more of the funk and hip-hop, so I get into that.

Let’s talk about what it’s like to be a female drummer. What do you think are some of the prevalent attitudes about women in the music community?

Richardson: I think that with everything in the world, women have to prove themselves better than men, or else they may not get the chance to do it at all. I just judged Guitar Center’s Drum-Off contest, and afterwards one of the contestants–a guy–came up to me and said, ‘So you play drums?’ Like, ‘Duh! No, I’m just here to judge the stage presence portion.’ What do they think I’m doing there? And I don’t like having to prove things to people. It automatically puts you on the defensive. I feel like I have to give them my r’sum’ for them to respect me, instead of it being automatic.

Dobkin: Some people will always have a problem with it. It just depends on who they are, how they were raised, what their educational background is, and what their orientation is with women. These attitudes come and go: there was a time in the United States when it was okay for women to do whatever they wanted, and then they got too ‘uppity’ and men kind of cracked down and thought we should all go back in the kitchen. But that’s not going to happen now. You know, I’ve had people say weird, weird, weird things to me, and I’ve had people do weird things to me, but I don’t care about them. I don’t really tend to think about it very much. I just go about doing my job and creating and leave it at that. You can’t take the time to dwell on negativity; it’s the positive reinforcement you get that keeps you going. My feeling has always been to get the right person for the job, no matter who it is, and I think most other people look at it the same way. And I think in music, there is certainly more equality than in almost any other place in the arts.

Graybeal: It’s been a pretty positive experience for me; otherwise, maybe I wouldn’t be doing it. I’ve gotten a lot of nice feedback. And the women think I’m great, which is wonderful. I’ve gotten a few comments here and there–like, ‘Oh, you’re good for a girl’ and that kind of stuff, and it usually comes from other musicians because I think they don’t know how to talk to me or they’ve got their own ideas of how you play drums. I think if you’re a bad woman drummer, that really goes against you, as opposed to being a bad guy drummer. Since you’re already pre-judged, it’s like, ‘Aw, she’s going to be wimpy.’ And then if she is, she’s like out of there. [laughs] So I think if you’re a good player, you’re going to change people’s attitudes. People have been really supportive, because I’m playing music that guys associate with pretty heavy, macho stuff, and I play with authority and have a good time doing it. I think that once people figure that out, they forget their stereotypical attitudes. If I do something that’s not what they were expecting, maybe they’ll have a different opinion next time, or give other women a chance. But sometimes people look at me at first and say [wryly], ‘Let’s see who this chick is.’ They’ve got their arms folded and they’re looking at me doubtfully, but I get off on that!

Schellenbach: Actually, my overall experience has been very positive, and I’ve had a good time and lots of luck and support. But a lot of other people I’ve talked to have had HORROR stories, and I’m just really glad that I haven’t had to deal with that. My drum teacher, who started playing in the sixties, told me stories about record companies who’d say, ‘Your bass player has to lose weight’ or ‘You play too much like a man,’ that kind of shit. In some ways I’m probably where I’m at musically and professionally because I haven’t had to deal with that. Sometimes guys who haven’t seen me play before and don’t know anything about me or my band will underestimate my abilities. I always have people coming up to me and saying, ‘Wow, you actually play really well’–that kind of backhanded compliment. You know that what they’re thinking is ‘(for a girl).’

Why is that? What are some of the specific stereotypes about women and drumming?

Richardson: A lot of people think that drumming is all about how hard you hit, especially in rock. Men have a lot more upper body strength because of the way they’re built, but with drumming it’s not about moving your whole arm; a lot of the power is in what you get is from your wrist. But because of that basic misconception about how the sound is produced, people think that it would be harder for women to play drums. So the whole false premise is based on a false premise! [laughs]

Graybeal: I think drums are still seen as a really aggressive kind of instrument.

Schellenbach: I also think that women are socialized to be quiet and not very strong. So it’s very shocking when women play any kind of loud instrument, like lead guitar or whatever.

So do you think it’s more acceptable for women to be percussionists than drumset players?

Dobkin: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s because percussion can be the icing on the cake. It’s a lot like painting. You get all these textures and colors and you add to whatever the picture is. You come at it trying to add some life to the music, to nurture it.

Schellenbach: I think maybe it’s because the set drummer is sort of considered the driver of the band, the lead, the one who gets you where you’re going. And maybe there hasn’t been much confidence in female musicianship. Let a woman drive the band? She’s the driving force of this group? Also, with percussion, you could still wear a dress! [laughing]

What kinds of people have these attitudes about women? Musicians? Audiences? Does it matter whether they’re young or old?

Richardson: Younger people can be more flexible in their thinking, maybe, and a little more open. They don’t have to listen to an all-guy band for it to be cool anymore. Everybody gets MTV, so I think people are getting more used to bands being any kind of configuration. I was in a band called Urban Artillery for a while in L.A., and it was all men. And they were so great to play with because they were all so talented and so relaxed about everything, and really accepting. Half the group was black, too, and I guess maybe they’d experienced their own prejudices, so they were like, ‘Oh, you’re a female? Who cares?’

Dobkin: Musicians aren’t usually the ones who discriminate. Often, discrimination comes in when you’re being looked at by businesspeople as a commodity. But I don’t think most people have an attitude about it. If male drummers feel that way, it might be because that means there’s somebody else vying for their gig besides all the other guys. Now it’s women, too, and that can be upsetting. As for young/old differences, it varies for every single person. Younger people who are exposed to MTV and whatnot have a better view; they see more women playing instruments–very strong women.

Graybeal: The only negative comments I’ve had are from other male drummers. But not a lot.

Do you think the stereotypes come as much from women themselves as from men?

Dobkin: Oh, no doubt about it.

Graybeal: I think women associate it with this idea that you have to be really big and muscular and strong. A lot of people think, ‘Wow, you’re so tiny, how can you hit so hard?!’ I get that all the time. People actually come up and pinch my biceps. But I’ve never heard a woman say, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good for a chick’ or anything like that. They’re usually really enthusiastic about it.

What is it like going into a drum store? Do you think women are treated differently there?

Richardson: [makes a horrendous face] Why is that always a horror? I used to hate going because people were condescending to me. They assumed that I didn’t really know what I was doing, and a lot of times I got treated like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It can be really intimidating. Luckily, after a while I found a small store in Pasadena where the people were really cool, and I may have ended up paying a little more, but they would talk to me. It has gotten better for me in the last few years, though, because a lot of the guys now know who I am and that I do play drums, and they treat me nicer because then I’ll spend my money.

Dobkin: One of the clerks in a music store once said to me, ‘Are these sticks for your husband?’ I said no. He said, ‘Are they a gift for someone?’ And I said, ‘N-o-o-o.’

Graybeal: Usually there are mostly men in the stores. And you get looked at with curiosity, not respectfully, not like a musician coming in. Guys look at women in general, and you kind of get that at first on a sexual note. I just shine it on, get what I need to get, and get out of there.

Schellenbach: It wasn’t until I had to actually go into a music store that I felt like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a girl playing drums, and it’s really looked down upon.’ People can be really patronizing towards you. I was just terrified to go up to 48th Street, which is where all the music stores are in New York. I was a teenage girl walking into a big bastion of male rock dudedom, and I’d be like [in meek, little-girl voice], ‘Um, I need to buy drumsticks,’ not knowing what kind of drumsticks or drumhead or whatever. You don’t want anyone to know that you’re unsure of what you’re doing–especially as a girl, because you’re already having to fight the stigma. So that was hideous. It was a combination of being very insecure but also feeling unwelcome. You walk in and you see tons of teenage boys all playing ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ and these long-haired rock dudes are asking stupid questions like ‘Do you play the drums?’ or ‘Are those drumsticks too big for you?’ It just took me years and years and years to be comfortable going to those stores.

What about drumming magazines? Do you think they represent women fairly?

Dobkin: I’ve had some pretty good gigs, but I’ve never been in Modern Drummer. I don’t know why; they’ve just never called me up. But it doesn’t matter. That’s not the Bible. And I can’t really make a judgment about it because I don’t read it.

Graybeal: Occasionally if there’s an article on somebody I really like, I’ll look at a magazine. But I don’t subscribe to anything.

Schellenbach: The only magazine that I’m really familiar with is Modern Drummer. They don’t carry Drum! magazine in New York, so it’d be cool if it got a bigger distribution, ’cause the more magazines the better. I’ve seen debates in Modern Drummer about whether or not they cover female artists sufficiently, and I remember there was a Letter from the Editor that was incredibly defensive. You just can’t say, ‘Well, we’re not going to write about female drummers because there are no female drummers.’ Well, if you wrote about female drummers, there would be more female drummers! And it’s not like reading about women drummers is going to alienate the male clientele.

Do you think drum advertising can be sexist? Do women find it difficult to get endorsements?

Dobkin: I think that when you’re first starting out, it’s very hard to get people to look at you until you get the big gigs. You get a good gig, you can get a good endorsement. That’s just business and money talking, plain as day. And it doesn’t hurt that if you’re a woman and you get a really good gig, they might want you to endorse them because it’s good to have an equal number of women to men.

Schellenbach: Initially, advertising was just incredibly sexist. Certain companies would show a drumkit with a girl in a bikini lying on it! And of course, as a female consumer I remember the brand names, and I will never buy those companies’ stuff, ever. Those things do affect you. And there’s also the wording of ads: ‘We’re looking for a few good men’ and that kind of stuff. These companies are clueless, because they’re alienating what is an up-and-coming part of their clientele. I remember a few letters to the editor in Modern Drummer once about sexist advertising, and the excuse for the advertising was, ‘Our readership consists of 98.5 percent males between the ages of 15 and 24’–whatever their statistics were–‘and our sponsors have to appeal to this age group.’ And it’s like, well, why do you think your readership is 98 percent male? It’s a vicious circle. I think it’s definitely changed in the last five years, though, because you see ads that feature female endorsers, and you never used to see that. Maybe you’d see Sheila E once in a while, but in addition to being incredibly talented she was certainly a very beautiful, very sexy woman pushing drumsticks, and you have to think about that. Now you see Cindy Blackman and Patty Schemel featured with all the other guys, which is great.

Do you think at times it could be an advantage to be a woman, for any reason?

Richardson: Well, in some ways, you’re still a bit of a novelty. And sometimes it’s beneficial. You might get a lot more attention than you would if you were a guy.

Dobkin: I think it varies. A lot of this business has to do with the way things look, and if somebody wants a particular look, and there are players of equal caliber of both sexes, if they want a guy they hire a guy, and if they want a woman they hire a woman. Maybe the big bonus women have is that we can bring every ounce of our sensitivity to the music because we don’t have to be macho all of the time. I don’t always have to be this soloing monster; I would rather play something that enhances the rest of the groove, that sparks an idea or a picture in someone’s mind through some sound that I happen to put on some beat somewhere, than to have somebody say, ‘God, that was a bitchin’ solo. You rock!’ [laughs]

Graybeal: People dig it when they see a good player, especially if it’s a woman. People like to talk to women, too. It’s refreshing because there are so many men in the music industry, and I guess it’s nice to talk to a woman and get a different perspective and just a little tilt on things.

Schellenbach: Well, I guess it can sort of be an advantage that people underestimate you all the time. You’re constantly impressing people!

Getting back to Debra’s comment about soloing, do you think that women relate to the music–or to other musicians–differently?

Richardson: It’s really hard to generalize. I’ve had things both ways. I’ve been in bands with all men, and in some ways it was easier for me, because I didn’t feel like they wanted to get in your head so much. It wasn’t as close. There are certain lines, and nobody crosses over them. Sometimes with female bands, everybody gets too into everything, and maybe it goes too far. In some ways it’s good, because you feel like you have a really close connection with everybody, and maybe you hang out a lot more. But in some ways it can be bad because bands can be a very weird thing, especially if you’re with people all the time–touring with them, eating with them, sleeping right next to them. Sometimes it’s good to keep a little bit more space because it becomes overwhelming.

Dobkin: I can’t generalize either, because the people I work with work for the good of the whole situation. I’ve never been in an all-girl band, and only recently played with all women. It’s very powerful. But I like it mixed. I do think, though, that women don’t have to be macho. We have nothing to prove in that area. I can’t be macho. But I can kick the shit out of anybody.

Graybeal: It depends on your personality. I personally don’t feel it’s necessary to go in and impress anybody or flex my muscles or anything like that. ‘Cause I can’t stand it when guys do it. It’s just a little show and you kind of laugh at it. Maybe guys are more professionally aggressive and pursue more gigs and sessions. But I like to be in a band. I don’t like to do sessions that much ’cause it demands a spurt of energy and then it goes away, whereas with a band you get the creative process and it’s an ongoing thing.

Schellenbach: My experience in a mixed band has been very positive, and my gender has never been an issue. But that’s great, ’cause I was able to grow as a musician naturally and learn how to play with people–not just be in your face soloing. I learned to play by learning how to fit into the musical scheme of things. My broad generalization is that women musicians tend to listen to each other more, whereas a lot of men just wail away, and you have to say, ‘Hey! Hold on a second. Let’s work on this groove.’ But that’s a really broad generalization, and I don’t want to ignore all those male musicians who are good at listening. I think it’s also socialization; women are generally insecure and will take the time to make sure they’re doing something right, whereas men are generally very confident.

So how can women drummers get more credibility?

Richardson: Visibility. Just more and more people doing it, so that it won’t be such a novelty. But then again, women will never be in the forefront of anything as much. They’re more willing to be part of a group instead of saying, ‘Hey, here I am.’

Dobkin: For the longest time, it was only acceptable for women to be singers. I think that more women need to play drums, and it won’t be so shocking when you see one. Younger women who are just getting started need to be encouraged by seeing other people that they admire playing drums.

Graybeal: I think that articles like these really help women and really promote them as players–even the little write-ups. I wish more of that were happening.

Schellenbach: Certainly the visibility of female drummers on MTV and in drum magazines and so forth does help change people’s perceptions.

Any words of wisdom you might have for women drummers, or anyone thinking about learning to play?

Dobkin: I think that if you make yourself a victim, if you allow yourself to be open to those kinds of negative attitudes, then you become the victim. And the way to get around that is to be the best musician you can possibly be and keep the learning process–have it be a continual, lifetime commitment.

Graybeal: I guess my main thing is to tell women not be intimidated to play. If there’s ever an opportunity for a woman to get in a situation where she can sit behind a drumset and play, even if she might feel intimidated, she should seize that opportunity. Have confidence, and just don’t care what anybody thinks.

Schellenbach: I definitely feel that it’s my job to be visible and talk about drums, talk about sexism, talk about my experiences, because I know that I needed to hear that and see that when I was young and wanted to become a musician. I definitely have to stress that my experience has been very lucky, and I appreciate that luck. I definitely would not be a professional musician today if I hadn’t had so much support from my family and my friends. That was really key. And I would hope that parents would support their children–and friends as well. If you’re wanting to play an instrument, you have to find your support group, however that may be.

I took piano lessons when I was four or five years old at a music school, and I remember sitting in the waiting room and these little boys had drumsticks and were banging away on a table. I was like, ‘God, no one asked me if I wanted to do that! How come I’m taking piano lessons? How boring can this be?’ So maybe we should give every child drumsticks–little keyboards, little drumsticks, little ukuleles or something. All the annoying kids’ instruments. A little care package for everybody.

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