I remember when I first saw Billy Ward play on the Modern Drummer Festival DVD in 2008. I had no idea who this genial looking guy was (not being familiar with his resume and recorded work - of that, more later), but taking a look at his (ergonomically - yes, I am 'that' guy) kit set up and all of the interesting bits on it, I was kinda hooked before he played a...erm..note?
His approach was loose, open and fluid, with an easy command of the tunes he was playing (and let's not forget, in this situation these players have the palpable stress of being scrutinised by an auditorium full of drummers). With his Lennon-esque tinted glasses, he was cool personified.
He came across as very friendly and approachable, he talked about feel, serving the song and the search for those things that drummers can do to make a track 'tick'. It wasn't overtly 'technical' (technique is of course important) and the phrase 'less is more' was used often in his delivery, but Billy wanted us to make more of the 'less', to make the 'less' mean even more (even if the band or artist don't notice).
At that point I became a fan, so when it was mooted that Hal Leonard were going to distribute his new DVD, I watched the release sheets eagerly and got a copy as soon as it arrived in the UK. I wasn't disappointed. Given the title of 'Big Time' Billy talked (not just at us, but with some of his students too, we were sort of 'included') about looking at the small 'wheels' (of our own mechanics at and on the drum set) to make the big 'wheel' (of the song) turn more smoothly. Be able to reach those things on the kit, make it your ally, search out sounds, combine those cymbals to give you a greater (and more individual) palette, all of these things got covered (and more). I likened it to a drummer friend of mine as 'drumming with a friendly face', not intimidating, just useful, with plenty of things to take away and apply on the gig at the weekend.
Billy Ward has been featured in countless drum magazines since (a fantastically titled article 'Billy Ward : Deep Thoughts, Deep Rhythms is a particular favourite) and had a very high profile in the drum world for many years (touring with Joan Osbourne (amongst others)). Sadly, after the passing of his wife and a close friend, he put down his sticks and let his home in NYC for the relative seclusion of Nashville. It is only recently really that Billy has thankfully returned to the limelight and I'm glad to report that it seems he's happy and playing as well as ever.
But, backing up a bit, the Cincinnati native began playing drums aged 9 and pretty much was looking at a career in music when he became the house drummer for a local recording studio aged 15! Things continued apace as he studied in Dallas, took a lesson with Elvin Jones and moved to NYC, to get, well, really busy.
Cymbalswise, he has always favoured 'the only serious choice' of Zildjian and this is where, at least for me writing this, things get a bit difficult. Known for his sound innovation and penchant for combining cymbals, it is quite a challenge to get a definitive list of his set up. I did try, so here goes...
10" Avedis Mini Hi-Hats (more brilliant than anyone realises)
17" A Custom Fast Crash (the 'standard crash' as he describes it)
20" A Zildjian & Cie Vintage Ride (possible overlay)
20" Crash of Doom over an 18" Crash (unspecified) on an X-Hat clamp - to adjust the amount of sizzle - to give a fast china-esque sound.
His recorded and filmed work is all out there for you to enjoy (he has a second DVD titled 'Voices in my head' on Alfred Music) and I would urge everyone to seek out a clip (or four) and maybe even push out that boat and purchase some of it (remember that?). I don't think you'll be disappointed, whatever style of music you find yourself playing/listening to, as all of the concepts he talks about apply universally to music.
And Billy, we do have a cymbomute to cover that so don't worry, you can keep the feel and not the volume.
I (nearly) met Billy at Winter NAMM in LA in 2007. He was having an animated conversation with Simon Phillips and it didn't feel right to go over and interrupt them. I have regretted this decision several times since, but after mailing him when I was back in the UK I needn't have worried. His reply spoke volumes, so yes Billy, next time I will come over and say 'Hi' (and yes, I do still use your sticks when the situation demands it - Promark Billy Ward 'The Bulb').