Sometimes you can’t judge a book by its cover. Take Jim Riley for instance. A Nashville resident since 1997, the Rascal Flatts drummer is actually a native of Boston, Massachusetts, where he began formal percussion studies at age 12. Not one to be content with merely drum set play, Jim studied Tympany, Symphonic Percussion, and upon graduation, attended the University of North Texas, where drum studies resumed with the likes of Ed Soph and Kal Cherry. Jim then became heavily involved with UNT’s acclaimed Jazz program, orchestral percussion ensembles, and drumline, where 5 national championships were won. As a member of the Velvet Knights Drum and Bugle Corps, he played in the Drum Corps International Finals.
Ludwig HQ: What is your schedule like for the next few months with Rascal Flatts?
Jim Riley: Pretty busy. We've just started up on our new tour and we will be hitting amphitheaters across the U.S. and Canada. We have some TV appearances, as well as a performance in a big movie coming out next year.
Ludwig HQ: Backing one of the biggest acts in Music on countless arena tours is the dream of every young drummer; since you have been doing it for about 8 years now with Rascal Flatts, what are some of the things you love about your job?
Jim Riley: I love that I'm still doing it! I truly enjoy my job. My dad has always told me that if you love what you do, you will feel like you have never worked a day in your life. That's the life that I'm living now. I love playing the shows, hanging with the guys, and all of the joking and pranking that goes on. It's like a 6th grade field trip that never ends. My schedule is great as well. Rock bands leave for months and never get to see home. I have a wife and a new baby at home and I'm at the house with them at least part of every week.
Ludwig HQ: What are some of the drawbacks?
Jim Riley: I have thought about it a great deal and I couldn't come up with any...
Ludwig HQ: You have played as both a “Hired Gun” and “Band Member” in various situations; how does one situation differ from the other?
Jim Riley: I came to Nashville with the express intent of being a hired gun. As many of you know, getting your band signed is tough, and staying on top is even harder. Call me a sellout, but I did not want to risk the possibility of being a "could've been" or an "almost was". My dream as a little kid was to play big shows on the big stage and travel the world in a tour bus. I felt I had the best chance of doing that on my own, rather than tie my chances to the hopes of a band. I moved to Nashville hoping that, eventually, someone would walk in the club, see me play, and say, "That's my new drummer," and that's pretty much how it happened. As a hired gun, you are held to a higher standard musically and professionally. The artists that I have worked for have a lot on their minds musically, as business people and as entertainers. They look to me to be a rock that they can lean on. If you are a band member and you are playing like crap, the other members will grumble amongst themselves until it all comes to a head. When you are a hired gun you either give 100% every night, or you won't have a job. The best things about being a hired gun is this: When the artist walks off the stage they are still famous. they can't go to the mall without it being a major event. As a sideman, when the show is over, you can essentially finish the show and slip into the crowd undetected. It's kind of the best of both worlds.
Ludwig HQ: You have an extensive background in percussion studies, including a degree in Music Education; yet since your gig requires you to play for the material at hand, you are often categorized as a “Country Drummer”. Is this a designation you are comfortable with?
Jim Riley: Sure. This gig is a big part of what I do. The one thing that is consistent about country music is that it is always changing. The music we play bears little resemblance to the music of George Jones, which bears even less resemblance to Bob Wills. The common thread is that country music has always been about the songs...the stories. In my study of this genre, I have become very comfortable playing old time country as well as the modern stuff, but I feel the same about rock. Since its inception, it is constantly changing, and I take pride in being able to play in the old style as well as the new.
Ludwig HQ: You even marched with the Velvet Knights Drum and Bugle Corps. How has this kind of background helped you in your career?
Jim Riley: When you play in drum corps, there is a high level of concentration, execution, and commitment that stays with you forever. It was a great experience. It did wonders for my hands as well. I have spent time in my recent clinics shedding light on what I learned in drum corps and applying it to the drumset. Pretty fun stuff. Also, traveling with the VK was my first experience with touring. The buses held 48 people. We slept on gym floors and took cold showers everyday. These days, my bus sleeps 8, we have satellite tv in our bunks, and a warm shower in the bus. Traveling with the VK made me appreciate how good we have it now!
Ludwig HQ: What do you do to develop and maintain your versatility?
Jim Riley: Teaching has helped me a lot in that regard. Over the years, I have played in almost every musical situation imaginable - from metal to big band, orchestral to country. My versatility has been one of my keys to success. Teaching has forced me to revisit all of it with my students, on my quest to make them as well rounded as possible.
Ludwig HQ: In your opinion, what in your playing says “HIRE ME” to acts in need of a drummer, and what advice can you give to help others develop that?
Jim Riley: I think the biggest thing (besides playing well) is how you carry yourself behind the kit. Every band is looking for the drummer to lead them. Think about it...you count off the songs, you hold down the tempo, and you cue the ending. The band wants to know that they can count on you. Your tone of voice when you count off the songs and your body language behind the drums should be telling the band, "Don't worry guys, I've got it under control." As far as advice, I would say focus on playing simple, solid time. If you'll concentrate on playing for the song, regardless of genre, your playing will convey that you care about the music. That's a very hirable quality.
Ludwig HQ: It has often been said that breaking into the Nashville drumming community is difficult, yet you were able to in a fairly short time. What did you do to get in, and what does it take to survive in it?
Jim Riley: When I showed up to Nashville, the music was just getting to a crossroads. Back then there was a lot of traditional country, as well as an emerging pop sound. I came to town pretty confident in playing both styles. Many of my first gigs in town were traditional in nature. I wouldn't have gotten those gigs if I wasn't familiar with the repertoire. My first big gig was with a guy named Mark Chesnutt, who is a tremendously talented traditional country music singer. He and I got along great because he was a big Kiss fan like me. Playing with him was a huge break and helped establish me as a top touring musician. I left his group in 2000 to start backing up a little known group that not much was expected of, called Rascal Flatts. I felt like the music, more pop and rock in nature, reflected the direction that country music was heading. Everybody thought I had lost my mind to quit a big gig like that to play with some unknown group. It worked out pretty well, I guess.
Ludwig HQ: Are there certain shows that stick out in your mind above others?
Jim Riley: Definitely. One that I will always remember is playing Madison Square Garden last year. There I was in MSG, playing a drum solo on my amber vistalights in front of a sold out crowd and I thought, "Is this a John Bonham moment, or what??" . When I got out to the bus that night I turned on the TV and Led Zepplin's 'Song Remains The Same' movie was playing on VH1 Classic. Same drums, same venue....Crazy.
Ludwig HQ: What was the strangest thing that has happened (or that you have seen,) during a tour?
Jim Riley: One thing that was super strange was when we were in a quiet part of the show and we kept hearing this sound that was like a twin engine airplane taking off. Nobody could figure out what it was, until I looked up and there was a bug sitting on my stereo overhead mic flapping its wings...pretty funny.
Ludwig HQ: Your Ludwig set-up is constantly changing. Can you explain what you look for in each of these set-ups?
Jim Riley: Changing my set-up is something that I have always done. It keeps me thinking and makes me re-examine my approach to individual songs. From a visual perspective, I like to change my kit up to fit in with the overall concept of the show. Last year, we did a lot of shows in the round, so I kept my kit low, not to block the fans' sight lines. This year, I knew the scale of the show was going to be huge, so I wanted my kit to reflect that.
Ludwig HQ: What’s your set-up like for this tour, and what are you digging about it?
Jim Riley: My current set-up is 6, 8, 10, 13, 16, 18 toms 24" kick and 12" and 14" snares. I'm really digging the 13" tom. I have never toured with one before, and now it is my favorite drum on the kit.
Ludwig HQ: You have some experience in making custom drums. How do you think this has affected the way you play and select gear?
Jim Riley: Well, having worked in drum design and manufacturing, I know what it takes to make a great drum. First of all, I really appreciate that Ludwig makes their own shells. Seeing that process was amazing. Having walked that floor of the Ludwig factory and meeting the people that actually make the things, I know that those people are very proud of what they are doing. I'm proud to be playing drums made by Americans.
Ludwig HQ: Spending so much time on tour, are there any “Road Essentials” you take along to keep you grounded?
Jim Riley: The road is where I do my writing. I've been writing some articles for Modern Drummer and I'm also writing my first book. We are bringing out an NBA basketball hoop this year,and I'm very happy about that. I would say the thing that keeps me most grounded is my cell phone. Talking to my family is the best way to keep my feet on the ground and remember what I'm doing this for.
Ludwig HQ: Can you describe how you tweak your drums to get your personal sound?
Jim Riley: I'm proud to say the all of the drums that I tour and record with are just as they were when they left the factory in Monroe, NC. No modifications whatsoever.The heads that I use vary depending on the situation. I have been using coated Ambassadors on my touring set, and the drums really sing. Those heads bring out the deep tone of my Ludwig shells and allow the drum's tone to decay naturally. I almost never use any muffling on the toms. On my kick drum, I'm using a powerstroke 3, and I'm using a pillow in the drum from our old living room set. We are using 2 mics on it, Shure Beta 91 and Beta 52. The drum I have out right now is a 16X24, and we are getting the best kick sound that we have ever gotten live.
Ludwig HQ: During the rare occasion that you are off the road, you often do drum clinics. What do you normally focus on as a clinician?
Jim Riley: I actually do most of my clinics when I'm on the road. It works better for me and my family. As far as my focus, it seems like many of the clinics that I have been to have turned into mini-concerts...lots of playing, not a lot of teaching. I approach each of my clinics like a masterclass. I get young players up on stage and use them to teach everyone something that they might not have known before they showed up. In my opinion, clinics should be educational as well as entertaining, and I strive to deliver both at every event that I do.
Ludwig HQ: Are there any upcoming projects that you are particularly excited about?
Jim Riley: We are getting ready to do a performance with the Boston Pops. Growing up in Natick, Mass., I had always dreamed of playing with these guys, so I am very excited.
Ludwig HQ: Everyone has their own snare drum sound. What snare are you playing, and how have you made it your own?
Jim Riley: Right now it is the 5X14 hammered bronze with diecast hoops, imperial lugs, and a millinium strainer. I'm running a Remo Coated CS on the batter side, sometimes with a sliver of moongel, and on the bottom I use an Ambassador snare head with puresound snares. My key to tuning it is don't tune it too high. The hammered bronze has a dry, meaty tone when you tune it in the middle of it's range, so that's what I'm going for these days.
Ludwig HQ: Who are your major drumming influences?
Jim Riley: There are so many!! When I'd think about developing my own style, I always tried to steal from the best and make it my own. Bonham's approach, Dennis Chambers' pocket, Vinnie's ingenuity, Manu's smooth style, Tony Williams' speed, Buddy's confidence, Peart's creativity, Will Calhoon's velocity, Trilok Gurtu's spirit. All of these great players, and many more, inspire me to be the best that I can be.