Wild and loud are just a couple of words to qualify one of greatest rock drummers of all time, Tommy Lee. Mostly known as the drummer for heavy metal act Mötley Crüe, Tommy became known for some of his gimmicky drum solos, which featured a revolving and spinning drum set. Tommy has become an icon on his own right, and an epitome of what it is to be rock ‘n’ roll.
Born Thomas Lee Bass from David Oliver Bass, a United States Army serviceman of Welsh descent, and Vassiliki Papadimitriou, “Miss Greece” 1957, “Tommy” Lee’s first moments of life were spent in the place that saw his birth, Athens, Greece. He would later relocate with his family to Southern California in the United States, more specifically to Covina, about forty miles east of Los Angeles. It was there that in 1964 Tommy’s younger sister Athena was born.
Tommy Lee began showing a natural predisposition towards music, as soon as he got tall enough to reach into the drawer his mother used to store the silverware in. With 3 years of age, Tommy would pick up knifes and spoons and just beat on everything he could find at home, especially pots and pans he arranged on the kitchen floor. Tommy drove his parents crazy with his “drumming” sessions. Thus, by the time Christmas came around, a 4 year old Tommy Lee was given a cheap little paper-headed drum set for children, which included a cowbell – something his later drum sets would all include – and a cymbal.
“I used to take it out into the backyard, because I wanted everybody on the block to know that I was playing drums; I wanted everybody to hear it!” – Tommy Lee in Goodwin, Simon. “Tommy Lee.” Modern Drummer Magazine Sep 1986.
By the time he was 6 years old, Tommy Lee got started on accordion lessons with his sister. This came about when their parents took on the offer of a man that went from house to house offering accordion lessons. He kept taking lessons until he was around 10 years old, when he decided to quit because of finding the instrument too hard to learn. At this time, rock music was already creeping inside of a very young Tommy Lee. KISS was his favorite band. Tommy and Athena also took on tap dancing and ballet, something Tommy really enjoyed.
After taking on the accordion and on guitar, Tommy began taking piano lessons when his parents got a piano in the house. Tommy Lee’s parents were always very supportive of everything he and his sister did. No matter what it was they wanted to do, Tommy’s parents would always find a way to make it happen. Still, Thomas and Vassiliki were as supportive as strict about their kids musical endeavors. No matter what instrument(s) Tommy and Athena were learning they would make sure they wouldn’t skip practicing them for whatever reason.
Tommy Lee’s turning point came after watching a marching band during a football game. The power of the drumline motivated Tommy’s desire to buy a proper drum set, so he could pick up where he had left off. As always, his father helped him out once again. This time around he did so by giving him his first real snare drum for Christmas. He began by learning how to play it and soon found himself playing snare drum his high school marching band and for a local drum corps. Tommy Lee learned how to read music notation for drums and of course, a lot about drum rudiments and stick twirls. Tommy was a very shy guy at high school and one his colleagues really liked to pick on and bully around.
In the meantime, Tommy began working after school and during the weekends to buy his own kit. At 15 years of age, Tommy finally got enough money to buy his first real set of drums and it was there that all really started for him. Tommy Lee’s father built him his first studio by giving up the work space he had set for himself in the family’s two-car garage. Thomas soundproofed the garage and built a door, so that Tommy could practice at will, alone or with his friends and bands.
It was also in that garage that his sister started learning to play drums also. Tommy Lee didn’t teach her anything, she learned all by herself by sneaking into to the garage studio without Tommy’s permission when he wasn’t around, to play around with it. Athena would eventually become drummer, winning a prize for Best Female Drummer in the 2nd Annual Rock City News Awards, and was the first female to be nominated for Best Drummer in the 7th Annual L.A. Music Awards.
By adding a drum set into his growing collection of instruments, things started going downhill with the piano. He wanted to rock out, pure and simple, but he wasn’t getting that out of his experience with the piano lessons. He learned to play scales and songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. After about one hour of piano practice everyday, he would run into the drum set to have a lot of fun. Eventually, Tommy’s piano lessons stopped, and he began focusing exclusively on drum set. While with accordion and piano he learned by taking lessons, he didn’t for learning how to play drum set.
On his sophomore year he began playing with his first rock band, a nameless power trio that specialized in performing instrumental music. They performed at backyard “keg parties” and rehearsed daily at Tommy’s parents garage. The Tommy Lee we know today started showing his teeth at about this time, when he began living a rock ‘n’ roll style of life.
After his first experience with a rock band, Tommy Lee joined U.S.101, a cover band which played mostly at high school dances. Tommy wasn’t too thrilled about this band since he had to play a lot of Beach Boys, Peter Frampton and ZZ Top tunes. His sister would run the lights on their shows while his dad worked as his roadie. His favorite part came when it was time for him to solo. His next band was called Dealer and worked on original material. Tommy auditioned successfully and played with them until the day he was kicked out, due to some personal issues with the keyboard player. Suite 19 was his next band, a hard rock trio that much like Dealer primarily worked on original material. This band served as the launching pad for Tommy’s exposure to playing in clubs like Whiskey A Go-Go, the Starwood, and the Troubadour.
On January of 1981, a bassist called Nikki Six kick started a new project of his. After watching Suite 19 playing live at the Starwood, he invited guitarist Greg Leon for a jam session. Nikki had also liked watching Tommy Lee perform, so after Greg’s recommendation he decided to invite Tommy into the band. Tommy Lee was a big fan of Nikki’s previous band which was called London, so he accepted to meet with him to listen to songs Nikki was working on. Tommy liked what he heard and so decided to join the band. Soon after, Greg was fired from the band. The next member to join the band was guitarist Mick Mars.
Mick had posted a classified ad in The Recycler newspaper in which he offered his services as a guitarist. After checking this ad on April of 1981, Tommy and Nikki decided to invite Mick to audition. The audition went well, and Mick was given the spot as main guitarist after firing the band’s rhythm guitar player at the time.
Tommy and Nikki still wanted to have a rhythm guitarist in the band, so they went scouting at the Starwood for the guitarist for a cover band called Rockandi. Since Mick wasn’t too comfortable with the idea of having a second guitarist on the band, their attention turned to the vocalist, Vince Neil a guy that went to the same high school as Tommy did. After harassing Vince for a long time to audition for the band, Vince finally gave up after the cover band he was in decided to become a new wave act. Neil quit the band and after a successful audition joined Tommy, Nikki and Mick.
The band was finally assembled, but they still lacked a name. While trying to find one, Mick Mars remembers an incident which occurred when he was playing with a band called Whitehorse in 1976. One of the other band members called the group “a motley looking crew”. He liked it so much that he jotted down “Mottley Cru” on a piece of paper. After making some changes in the spelling and adding some umlauts to give it a a more aggressive German feel, which was further inspired by the Löwenbräu beer they were drinking at the time, Mötley Crüe was born. After creating the band and getting a record deal, Tommy Lee decided it was time to give this project his full undivided attention, and so he quit high school two months before graduation. He believed the band would go far and would tour the world…let’s just say that he was far from wrong.
Besides KISS, Tommy Lee enjoyed listening to bands like Queen, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Judas Priest. His biggest influence on drums was John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. Tommy loved Bonham’s groove drumming, with a simple but heavy playing, and the sound he could get from the drums as well.
Tommy Lee has been the drummer for Mötley Crüe in two distinct periods. In the first one (1981 – 1999) his drumming was featured on the band’s first seven studio albums, a live album and two compilation albums. In the second period, which started in 2004, Tommy Lee’s work was recorded on one studio album (the late Randy Castillo was the drummer for the 2000 album New Tattoo), a live album and three compilation albums. Mötley Crüe has sold more than 80 million albums worldwide and has been nominated for eight awards (American Music Awards (4), Grammy Awards (3), and MTV Video Music Awards (1)), from which they have won an American Music Award for “Favorite Heavy Metal/Hard Rock Album” in 1991 for the album Dr. Feelgood. In 2006, Mötley Crüe was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Besides hearing the Crüe on their various albums, you can also watch them in action on any of the nine Mötley Crüe videos that have been released. They have been awarded a grand total of seven platinum and two gold certifications by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for their videos.
After leaving Mötley Crüe in 1999, Tommy Lee began working on Methods of Mayhem, a project he started with rapper “TiLo”. They released a self-titled record in 1999. The album featured special guests George Clinton, “Kid Rock”, “Lil’ Kim”, “The Crystal Method”, “Snoop Dogg”, Fred Durst and “Mix Master Mike”, selling over one million copies. This collaboration was short lived, with the band disbanding in 2000.
In 2009, Tommy Lee reformed Methods of Mayhem coming up with a very unique concept for the band’s next album with the help of his producer Scott Humphrey. The album is called A Public Disservice Announcement (2010). After recording the songs, they released the stems from the tracks online. The idea was to give anyone in the world the chance to record whatever they felt like over the stems, and then submit them back to Tommy and Scott. Whatever they liked the best from the submissions, Tommy and Scott added it to the record, and the names of the contributors to the album credits.
After his initial stint with Mötley Crüe and Methods of Mayhem, in 2000, Tommy Lee began working on what would become his first solo record Never a Dull Moment (2002). In 2005, Tommy saw the release of his second studio album entitled Tommyland: The Ride.
In 2006, Tommy Lee, Jason Newsted (ex-Metallica) and Gilby Clarke (ex-Guns N’ Roses), formed a band for a television show called “Rock Star”. The band was called Rock Star Supernova. The show was based on the premise of a rock band in search for their next/ first lead singer, with singers coming from all corners of the world to take part in the televised “audition”. Canadian singer/ songwriter Lukas Rossi won the contest and became the lead singer for Rock Star Supernova. They released their self-titled album in that same year, being certified as platinum in Canada.
This was not the first time Tommy Lee was featured on a television show. In 2004, Tommy briefly attended, but did not enroll in, the University of Nebraska for a few weeks, while filming and producing a reality television show called “Tommy Lee Goes to College”. In 2008, Tommy began filming another reality show, this time around focusing on environmental challenges. The show was called “Battleground Earth” and featured rapper Ludacris alongside Tommy. In 2010, Tommy Lee guest-stared in various television shows. He played a singer on an episode of the television show “Californication”, appeared on an episode of “Tosh.0″ and on the eighth season, sixteenth episode “April in Quahog” on the animated show “Family Guy”.
In 2001, Tommy Lee agreed on joining Vince Neil, Nikki Sixx, Mick Mars and writer Neil Strauss to work on the band’s autobiography entitled Mötley Crüe: The Dirt – Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. The book made the top ten on The New York Times Best Seller list, spending ten weeks there. In 2004, Tommy released another book, this time around his own autobiography Tommyland, a book he co-authored with Anthony Bozza.
Tommy Lee has made appearances on albums from other artists as a guest – Stuart Hamm, Nine Inch Nails and Rob Zombie – and produced an album for the band the Electric Love Hogs. He has also been touring with DJ Aero, the DJ for Methods of Mayhem, as an electronic dance music outfit known simply as Tommy Lee & DJ Aero. They have been Djing since 2000, debuting on the main-stage of the Ultra Music Festival during Winter Music Conference (WMC) in 2004. In 2009, Tommy Lee began accompanying Sharam (from the band Deep Fish) live on the piano during Sharam’s house DJ sets.
Tommy Lee’s main focus is to really compliment the music he plays. He’s not the most technical of drummers out there, but he knows exactly what he’s doing and how to get the best out of a song through his drumming. His powerful, loud and groovy drumming can be traced back to his love for John Bonham. A great example of this is the song “Dr. Feelgood” from Mötley Crüe, a groove based rock song. Tommy’s use of hi-hat barks on the off-beats of the intro, and the syncopated bass drum figures he plays throughout the song will really get you moving to this one. These different placements of the bass drum and hi-hat show how you can take what could’ve been a simple drum part for a rock song, and really bring it to life by adding some small nuances here and there.
Another cool showing of Tommy’s mix of rock with groove playing can be found on the song “The Animal in Me” from Mötley Crüe. Once again, Tommy Lee comes up with a cool combination of old school rock drumming with some little nuances taken from groove drumming. You can hear him spice up the song by adding some broken 16th and 8th notes on the hi-hat patterns on the first verse and by opening the hi-hat on counts 2 and 4 of the second verse. The song “Hooligan’s Holiday” from the Crüe is another cool example of Tommy Lee’s way of coming up with drum parts. By syncopating the snare drum pattern, playing it on the “and” of count 3 instead of on count 3 of the verse section, and by using double bass triplet patterns scarcely throughout the song he gives it a whole different dimension.
Now, Tommy Lee is not a groove drummer. His playing however, shows how you can take what otherwise would be a very straight drum part and spice it up a little bit by adding small nuances. So, even when you’re trying to come up with a simple drum part to compliment a song, thinking outside of the box can make a huge difference to the overall feel and sound of a song, while keeping it simple.
Of course, we could not talk about Tommy Lee without taking a look at his drum solos. Tommy is a musician and a drummer, but to a lot of Mötley Crüe fans he’s much more than that, he’s a full blown entertainer. His solos are rich in fun and visual drumming. From his solo phrases combining double bass and cowbell, to stick twirls and tosses, the man does it all. He’s also known for performing solos with his drum set bolted down to a revolving metal platform that can spin in 360º. This type of showcase and the enjoyment Tommy gets from playing live, has popularized the drum set as a real fun instrument to play. Tommy Lee’s drumming and solos have unquestionably motivated a whole generation to pickup a pair of drumsticks to learn to rock out and have as much fun as Tommy does.
It’s important you take this in consideration, the more fun you have at a drum set and the more you are able to externalize that, the more fun an audience will have while watching you. It’s all about emotion and connecting with people, and Tommy is a master at doing just that. People enjoy it more when the performer is enjoying it also. So if you’re looking to expand on your bag of tricks as a performer, try to find ways to connect with the audience first and foremost. Most of the times you won’t even need the fanciest of tricks to do so, just your own enjoyment.