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Innovation is something many musicians strive for throughout their entire life and career. It’s not easy to innovate, to get that one single idea that will set you apart from your peers. Johnny Rabb is the extreme example of that. He has created a very unique voice for himself behind the drum set, and behind his many business endeavors. So, he not only had that one idea, but many more following it.
Johnny Rabb was raised with his family in Carmichael, Sacramento, California. His parents were very appreciative of music, although lacking any skill on musical instruments. It was through their enjoyment of music that Johnny Rabb first discovered drumming. At the age of 3, Johnny Rabb was taken by his parents to local high school concerts and holiday time parades. Johnny got really captivated by the music performed by the marching bands in the parades, especially by what the drums were playing. After this experience, Johnny Rabb became extremely addicted to drums. His addiction got fueled even further by his parents, when they got him a toy drum set for Christmas. However, he would only start drumming seriously a few year later.
As time went by, Johnny Rabb started getting opportunities for learning to play different instruments besides the drums, through formal lessons. Seeing he could take a different instrument because of the lesson factor and of his desire to do something with music, Johnny’s mother confronted him with it. Johnny Rabb then asked his mother to put him on drum lessons. The next day his mother got him a drum teacher. However, he wouldn’t last long as Johnny’s tutor.
On the day of Johnny Rabb’s first drum lesson, his teacher showed up at his house with a practice pad, wanting him to practice the basics of hand technique like single strokes and doubles strokes. At a given point in the lesson, Johnny showed his teacher what was inspiring him to play drums at the time – Neil Peart‘s solo on “YYZ” from “Rush’s” live album “Exit…Stage Left”. His teacher was blown away by Neil’s playing. After that lesson he quit on Johnny as a student. Johnny Rabb has stated that even he would’ve quit on himself as a student, seeing he was so sicked with Neil Peart and couldn’t care less about what the teacher had to show him. The solo on “YYZ” made Johnny Rabb understand the type of things that could be done on a drum set. Before that, he always thought that the drum solo on “YYZ” was being played by the three members of “Rush”, with each one of them using different percussion instruments.
After his first failed experience with a drum teacher, Johnny pursued drums by himself while learning to play by ear. He cites those early days as frustrating, but a lot of fun. He eventually began taking formal drum lessons with Michael Lawson at the age of 10. Michael became his biggest influence and inspiration through the years.
With the support of his parents, his drum teacher, and the influence of live concerts and instructional clinics, Johnny Rabb began to excel at a tremendous rate. After graduating from “Rio Americano High School”, Sacramento in 1990, Johnny’s passion for drumming led him to the prestigious “Berklee College of Music” in Boston, Massachusetts to pursue a dual major in music education and performance. It was during his stay there that he started developing his love for playing with loops. He would spend a lot of his time trying to recreate on his acoustic kit, the sounds and drum parts played by drum machines in hip-hop and acid jazz music. After graduating from “Berklee” in 1994, a 22 years old Johnny Rabb was offered a teaching position at the “Driscoll School” in Brookline, Massachusetts. He didn’t want to turn down that offer, but his heart was leaning way more towards playing drums, than towards teaching how to play them. He wanted to at least try to work as a professional drummer. This decision made him leave Boston. Johnny Rabb decided to return home to start working on his career.
At the time of his return to Sacramento, he got introduced to jungle/ drum ‘n’ bass through a friend of his who, strangely enough, was in the adult contemporary jazz scene. He asked Johnny if he was aware of jungle/ drum ‘n’ bass music. Johnny had never heard of that style of music, but his friend was sure he would just love it. After that conversation, Johnny Rabb started searching for some jungle/ drum ‘n’ bass albums on several stores.
He went to “Tower Records” and grabbed whatever he could find that had jungle or drum ‘n’ bass on the title. He bought many compilation CDs that included “DJ Goldie”, “Roni Size”, and “LTJ Bukem”, among others. As soon as he got home he listened to one of his purchases – a compilation CD called “Jungle Vibes”. After pressing the play button there was no turning back for him. Johnny Rabb really enjoyed the tempo and the energy of the music, especially the precise yet broken nature of the drum phrasing.
Johnny Rabb immediately started transcribing the drum parts and applying them to the drum set. He would also practice this style of drumming by playing along to music. It was at this point in time that Johnny decided writing a book on jungle/ drum ‘n’ bass drumming. Hence, Johnny Rabb began putting together a collection of his jungle/ drum ‘n’ bass transcriptions, while playing it live as much as he could with his acid jazz, hip-hop band “Stickboy”.
Sample CDs were major elements in producing and writing jungle/ drum ‘n’ bass music at the time. So Johnny Rabb bought one of those CDs – “Jungle Warfare III”. It had a ton of beats and cuts used for producing drum tracks for these styles of music. Johnny began by transcribing the beats on the CD, before practicing along to it for hours. His focus was on getting the correct feel and sound together.
After returning to northern California, Johnny Rabb worked on tours and albums with a few bands and artists. It didn’t take a while for him to realize that he had to relocate to a different location in the United States, if he wanted his drumming career to have any chance of taking off for good. So in 1996 he relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. In just six months of being there, Johnny Rabb started playing for “Grammy” award winner country singer Tanya Tucker, with whom he would tour on and off from 1996 to 2003. He also got to tour with Hank Williams III in 1997, and play with Billy Yates. Besides these gigs, Johnny played in restaurants & clubs in Nashville. His drumming career was finally developing.
In 1999, and after 17 years of very hard work and lots of hours spent on honing his craft, Johnny Rabb was finally in a position that enabled him to live off of his drumming.
Johnny’s favorite drummers are Neil Peart, Steve Smith, Steve Jordan, Gregg Bissonette, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dennis Chambers, Tony Williams, Phil Gould, Simon Phillips, Jonathon Mover, Charlie Drayton, Abe Laboriel Jr., Peter Erskine, Omar Hakim, Robbie Ameen, Dave Weckl, Terry Bozzio, Gerry Brown, Ignacio Berroa, and many more. He also gets a a lot of inspiration from producers and DJs, since he likes to reproduce beats played in electronic music, like trance and drum ‘n’ bass, on the acoustic drum set.
Between 1995 and 1996, Johnny Rabb did his fair share of album recordings and live playing. Johnny went on a tour through Europe with guitarist Michael Lee Firkins, recorded drums for Larry Tagg’s album “Rover” and performed live with him. He was also the featured drummer on some of the tracks for a Scott Reams album, and on all of the tracks for one of the albums of contemporary jazz artist Tony Windle. Just like he had done with Larry Tagg, he recorded drums for an album from the band “Analysis”, and performed live with them.
In 1995, Johnny Rabb wrote his first article for a drum magazine. The article, titled “Do You Want More Questlove?”, was published on “Modern Drummer” magazine, and focused on “QuestLove”, “The Roots'” drummer. In 1996, Johnny Rabb released his first ever instructional product, a video and book called “Hip House Groove”. This pack basically taught how to play a collection of basic hip hop, house, and acid jazz grooves on the acoustic drum set.
Although Johnny’s career started taking off around 1996, he couldn’t help but feel a bit stale at the time – he felt the need to give something back to the music industry. This quest for innovation led him to one of his most famous inventions – the “RhythmSaw” drumstick. The inspiration for that design came from a child’s wooden stick toy. Johnny Rabb designed his idea for the drumstick on a piece of paper. After over fifty phone calls a wood worker finally returned Johnny’s call and made the first “RhythmSaw” stick for fifty dollars. Johnny would spend the following months playing with it in his bedroom. At the same time he shopped his single prototype stick to around twenty or so companies, with all of them turning him away.
A friend ultimately introduced him to Gerald Hooper, a lumber milling professional in Tennessee. The timing for this meeting couldn’t have been better, since Hooper’s company was looking on diversifying their business. Hooper wanted to start producing an end-user product, apart from selling hardwood to manufacturers. In their first meeting, Johnny Rabb played drums for Hooper, showcasing what could be done with the stick. After taking a look at the “RhythmSaw”, Hooper decided to go for it. This is how the “johnny raBB Drumstick” company came to be in 1996.
Hooper’s expertise and resources were critical to Johnny Rabb. As the company’s CEO, Hooper managed the logistics, and designed manufacturing technology and processes for the company. Johnny Rabb was the company’s creative force. He came up with drumstick designs, and assisted with the marketing efforts. Company president Ed Sargent (also a drummer) rounded out the team. The “RhythmSaw” won numerous design awards, like the one from “DRUM!” magazine for most innovative drumstick. At one point the company offered 100 different models, including a standard drumstick line, brushes, mallets, and marching drumstick lines. Along with his efforts on coming up with new products for “johnny raBB Drumsticks”, Johnny Rabb also worked out of the company’s artist relations office – they had 150 endorsers, including Jim Keltner.
The company closed its doors in 2002. According to Johnny Rabb himself, Hooper didn’t want to make drumsticks anymore, so they decided on closing “johnny raBB Drumsticks” and selling its assets. The assets were sold to Drum Workshop (DW). After “johnny raBB” went out of business, Johnny worked on developing a signature drumstick with “Pro-Mark Drumsticks” for their autograph series. In 2010 however, Johnny Rabb was able to reclaim ownership of his brand and designs and re-launched “Johnny Rabb Drumsticks”, thus ending his partnership with “Pro-Mark Drumsticks”.
In 1999, Johnny Rabb toured in promotion of the debut album of American country group “SHeDAISY”. In that same year, Johnny’s good friend Boo McAfee teamed with electrical engineer and drummer Craig Alan, to develop the “Drumometer”. This machine is capable of counting the number of strokes one does within a preset time (from 1 second to 15 minutes). Johnny Rabb got the opportunity to test the prototype, performing more than 800 strokes on his first run. Boo was amazed by this performance. So they both started working on getting Johnny Rabb to be the first person in the world to play above 1000 single strokes in 60 seconds.
With the assistance of Boo McAfee and the “Drumometer”, the first “World’s Fastest Drummer” competition was held in 2000. Johnny Rabb was able to win the event by playing 1026 single strokes with matched grip for 60 seconds. In doing so, he came to the attention of the “Guinness World Records” committee. In that same year, Johnny was asked to defend his title live at the “Guinness World Records Experience” in Orlando, Florida. His title defense was actually documented by “VH1” for a show called “Rock & Roll Record Breakers”. Johnny Rabb defended his title successfully, and was able to brake his own world record by playing 1071 strokes. Johnny was then certified by the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the world’s fastest drummer. Johnny Rabb is featured in seven interactive displays at the “Guinness World Record” attractions, including Orlando in Florida, Gatlinburg in Tennessee, Hollywood in California, and Copenhagen in Denmark.
Johnny Rabb is not only known for his speed and inventions, but also for his very unique use of a drumming technique called “Freehand”. Johnny got introduced to this technique after watching a video called “Just Advance” by Kenwood Dennard. In the video, Kenwood shows how to play a one-handed roll using the rim of the snare as the fulcrum. This concept really spoke to Johnny, making him feel like he could do whatever he wanted to, if he just tried it.
Kenwood Dennard’s video also inspired Johnny Rabb to come up with a full curriculum and method to teach the ability to play any rhythm with one hand. Johnny came up with the term “Freehand” for the one-handed roll, since it allows the other hand to remain free to play grooves or ostinatos. In 1999, Jim Keltner convinced Johnny to put out a video and book on the subject. Johnny took on the challenge, and with Jim Keltner as the producer he came up with “The Freehand Technique” book and video. This pack went obsolete in the early 2000s, since the video was distributed on a VHS tape. In 2008, Johnny Rabb released an all new curriculum on this subject in the form of the book “The Official Freehand Technique”.
In 2000, Johnny Rabb released a video called “RhythmSaw Techniques”. In the video, Johnny showed some applications of the “RhythmSaw” drumstick on the acoustic drum set. This was also the year “Meinl Cymbals” launched Johnny Rabb signature products within their “Generation X” line of cymbals. This partnership resulted in four cymbals for use in electronic music – 12” Safari hi-hat, 16” Safari crash, 18” Safari ride, and an 8” cymbal called “drumbal”.
In 2001, Johnny Rabb came out with his first solo album – Acoustic Machine. Johnny’s first major release through a publisher was also published in this year. The book is called “Jungle/ Drum ‘n’ Bass for the Acoustic Drum Set” and was the first book to ever be published on this matter. It’s seen as the standard for learning how to apply jungle/ drum ‘n’ bass grooves to the acoustic drum set. Seven years after having the initial idea of writing this book, he was able to compile his exercises and transcription as a drum method book, which was released to much success. In 2003 the book received an award from the “Modern Drummer’s Reader’s Poll 2003” as the #1 drum educational book of the year.
In 2003, Johnny Rabb wrote an article for “DRUM!” magazine titled “How To Play Fast”, toured with American country singer Mindy McReady, and had the distinct honor of touring with Maynard Ferguson’s big band. In November of that same year, Johnny Rabb met Jason Edwards, owner and operator of a company specialized in developing practice pads – “Prologix Percussion”. It was there that he was introduced to the line of pads developed by Jason. This created another opportunity for Johnny to work on a new product for drummers. So after coming up with a line of cymbals with “Meinl”, and with a line of drumsticks with “johnny raBB”, in 2010 “Prologix Percussion” released the next brain child of Johnny Rabb, the “Multi-Sound” signature practice pad.
In 2004, Johnny Rabb wrote another article for “DRUM!” magazine titled “101 Ways To Play Better”. In this same year Johnny joined “Roland V-Drums” as an artist and clinician. He has worked with “Roland US” and “Roland Japan” drum and percussion division, programming drum kits for the “Roland TD-12” drum module and the “Roland TDW-20” expansion board. He’s also a product specialist, providing clinics on the full line of “V-Drums” electronic percussion instruments.
In 2005, Johnny Rabb joined forces with percussionist Chris Patterson (DJ Krushar) to form the “DrumJockeys”. They both played for a jam band/ drum ‘n’ bass act called “Super Action Heroes”. As the band ended they joined forces to compose drum ‘n’ bass, house, and acid jazz music with their acoustic instruments, while controlling samples of original music and remixing at the same time.
In 2006, Johnny Rabb toured with American country singer Deana Carter, and started a new project called “BioDiesel” with Clay Parnell the bassist for “Brothers Past”. In 2011 they released “Carbon Confidential”, their first EP. 2007 brought forward another project for Johnny Rabb to work on. He joined the rock n’ roll band “U.S.S.A.” as full-time member, just in time to tour with them and to record “The Spoils” album.
In 2009, Johnny Rabb joined Alain Caron (Canadian Bassist) and Frank Gambale (Australian jazz fusion guitarist) to tour as the “V-TRIO”. In that same year, Johnny started working on online lesson content. Johnny Rabb started working on his own online service for drum lessons – “Drum365.com” – a membership based online video lesson resource. He has also developed a very interesting teaching project called “Pro Drum School”. This is a mobile drum school that travels to your town for a weekend. The lessons are lectured in a small group setting, much like a master class, and you can learn directly from Johnny Rabb.
Johnny Rabb is an extremely passionate man about drum education. He sees music and drum education as being very important for anyone serious about getting better at their instrument. A large part of his professional career has been spent writing articles and books, and doing clinics. He has traveled worldwide to conduct clinics and master classes. He has participated in the “Montreal Drum Festival” (1999, 2006) in Canada, Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) (1994, 2001, 2003), “Musikmesse” (2006) in Germany, “Meinl Drum Festival” (2005, 2008) in Germany, “Meinl Generation X European Tour” (2002), “Ultimate Drummer’s Weekend” (2005) in Australia, Mexico City Drummer Fest (2001), and “Drummer Fest” in Belgium, just to name a few. He has also instructed at world renown drum camps, including “Marktoberdorf Drum Camp” (2002, 2004, 2006) in Germany, “KoSA” (1998 to 2001), and “Rhythm”, a drum camp organized by the “Bavarian Music Academy”.
Johnny Rabb has performed in duos with Marco Minneman – called “Magnetic Lobster” – with Japanese DJ/ Percussionist “MASAKing”, and with “Ten Fingers Orchestra”.
Johnny Rabb is an insanely creative and unique drummer. It’s quite hard to look at his playing, his products, his personality, and his teaching and be able to pinpoint exactly what is it that we can learn from him. You can think of this man as being more of an experience to the senses than a drummer. After watching him play, you’ll know you’ve watched something truly special. He can make a song groove as much as he can give a very entertaining and engaging visual experience with all of his tricks, techniques, and chops. So as you read this section of his bio, keep in mind we’ll only be able to scratch the surface of what we can learn with Johnny Rabb. Welcome to “Johnny Rabb 101”.
Johnny Rabb is unquestionably an all-around drummer. He has performed with country bands, drum ‘n’ bass bands, rock bands, hip-hop bands, and even in jazz settings. He’s also very fluent in various Latin styles, funk, and blues. Johnny honestly enjoys the styles of music he plays, which makes them that more easy to learn and master. However, from all those styles, the one he has a sweeter spot for is drum ‘n’ bass.
Having a favorite style of music shouldn’t be an impediment to your growth as a drummer. In fact, learning new styles will further enhance the one you love the most, with more independence and dynamic playing. Creativity is also a side effect of learning new styles of music. You’ll be able to mix and match what you like the most about each style of music to come up with your own voice on the drum set, and to enhance your favorite style of drumming with creative beats, fills, and solo ideas. Johnny Rabb’s level of independence and creativity are a direct result of just that, which his creative and experimental nature then takes to a whole different level.
Knowing how to play various styles of music is also essential to any drummer pursuing a career as a studio drummer, or as a touring musician. The more styles you have under your belt, the bigger the assortment of gigs you’ll be able to audition for. Learning to play a new style of drumming requires that you listen to that particular style’s music. Trying to play a style without listening to the music is like using a recipe for cooking Chinese food without ever having tried it beforehand. You’ll able to cook it, but you won’t be able to know if it tastes as it should. Making these styles sound and feel authentic is so important that Johnny Rabb even relocated to Nashville to be able to learn how to play country music accurately. And as you have read by now, it paid of big time since he toured with lots of famous country bands/ artists through the years. There are drummers (Tommy Igoe and Ed Uribe for instance) that have traveled the world to learn from master drummers of given styles, and to engulf themselves in their culture and music. You don’t need to do that to be able to play a style authentically, but this comes to show how important this is.
We all tend to look to at our drum heroes as untouchable warriors, gods who fear nothing and no one. Well, this is actually not the case, they are pretty much humans as all of us. They get nervous, they make mistakes, and they even think they should really practice more because of all the great drummers there are out there. So, in a way, they are pretty much like every drummer on the planet.
Johnny Rabb has been hosting drum clinics for a lot of years now. When he was younger he would get a bit nervous in front of audiences, he worried about the crowd’s reaction to his performance. In a conversation with Nathaniel Townsley, a drummer friend, Johnny realized that he has a choice to make when it comes to his performances – he can either worry and self-destruct then, or not worry and play the drums to the best of his ability. When Johnny Rabb starts worrying or getting a bit of stage fright, he reminds himself to not worry, have fun, and to play in the moment. Even the most accomplished of performers has the same fears and doubts as a first-timer going up on stage to play with his band for the first time.
Johnny has also stated that after some of the clinics and drum shows he has had the privilege to play on, he can’t help but to feel stale on the drums, because of the level of musicianship revealed by other drummers performing in those shows. He then goes home and does what he knows will make a real difference in his playing, practice. Even though Johnny has reached what is considered by many as the pinnacle of drumming, he comes to show how there is always room for improvement and new things to learn. The desire of becoming a better musician and to keep learning is also what has made him reach the level of proficiency he showcases today.
Don’t think for one moment that talent is the only thing that has made him the player he is today. Johnny Rabb has spent a lot of hours and years practicing and learning. Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced player, don’t ever feel discouraged by these great players when you see them on stage or in videos. They are the living proof that with tenacity and practice everything is possible. There is always room for improvement, and the more time you spend working on your drumming the closer you’ll get to playing like them. Keep going for what you believe in. We can do most anything that we put our minds to. If you believe you can be as good as Johnny Rabb one day, if you keep practicing and having as much fun as he has, chances are you will.
Johnny Rabb, much like Benny Greb is regarded as one of the most innovative drummers of our time. In Johnny’s case it goes beyond his drumming, as we have seen previously on his bio. His products, the way he uses the “Freehand” technique in his drumming, the different sounds he can get out of one single drum, and his playing of loop based beats on the acoustic drum set are the direct result of his natural way of thinking, that is, outside of the box. This comes to show how being different and doing things differently isn’t a bad thing. By doing things exactly like all others you’ll be just like them, and you’ll lose your voice. There is no right or wrong, there is only your way. So if you think you have a good idea on your hands, go for it.
Last but not least, we’ll be talking a bit about speed and technique, two obvious synonyms of Johnny Rabb. Johnny can be as fast and hard hitting as any heavy rock drummer, and play as soft and fast as any jazz drummer. The cool thing of learning technique, whether it be rudiments, Moeller, “heel toe”…is their interdisciplinary nature. Good technique spreads over any style of music you play. If you have fast hands for playing jazz music, you’ll have fast hands for playing rock. If you have your jazz independence up to date, your blues, reggae, and hip-hop independence will shoot through the roof.
Learning songs and having fun playing along to music is awesome and extremely fun. But taking your time in learning proper technique will get you playing faster with greater ease, and improve your overall playing and sound. The better your technique gets, the better you’ll be able to express yourself on the drums. Take a look at Johnny Rabb play and you’ll see what this way of thinking will do to your drumming.