Carter McLean is an all-round musician. He plays guitar, piano, bass, and of course, drums, most regularly in the long-running Broadway hit musical, The Lion King.
Following his fascinating performance at The UK Drum Show 2022, Carter shared some of his drumming experiences with Andy Hughes.
Carter, you are known of course for your many projects, including your interactive teaching, but your highest profile gig has to be as drummer for The Lion King. Did you have any experience of this type of playing before you joined the show?
I had never actually even seen a Broadway show before I got this gig. I’ll tell you the story of how this all happened. I was about seventeen when I got asked to go to a NAMM Show to demonstrate some hand drums. I was playing there, and (late New York Drumming legend) Freddie Gruber came over and started having a chat, and then the President of DW came over and offered me a deal on the spot, anything I wanted. While we were chatting, I mentioned I was looking to move to New York, and I was given the number of the guy who was playing drums on The Lion King shows. I moved in 2001, and I didn’t actually call him right off, but I got a gig playing for an Off-Broadway show called Raise The Roof and we were in rehearsals when 911 happened, and everything shut down. So, I called drummer from The Lion King to ask him if the money was right for what I was doing, I was not sure what the rates were for an Off-Broadway show, and he said it was fine, no problem, and did I want to think about subbing for him? I saw the show, and I sat and watching him play through all the various styles in the two-and-a-half-hour show. I realised I could do it, but I’d need a month go learn everything!
It must be intense playing at that level, what was different about it from your previous experience?
The way theatre shows work, and this goes double for Broadway shows, is the way they approach things, the incredible level of detail they go into over everything everyone plays. It has to be absolutely the same every single time, no deviation, no improvising, no adding bits in and taking bits out. You learn the score, and that’s it, that is what you play, and that takes serious levels of concentration to maintain. You are working on eighteen tunes, in all styles, with a twenty-eight piece orchestra, you have to be on the top of your game all the time.
I subbed on the show for ten years, playing three or four shows every week, it was a wonderful learning experience. Then the player left in 2011, and I was invited to take over.
Clearly the disciplines involved were something very different from what you were used to.
Oh absolutely. I was playing a lot with soul and funk bands, very interactive, all about feel and following the groove as it moves and changes, playing off the other musicians. That was my ‘day job’, and then at night I had the complete opposite, playing a rigid format with no interaction and no changes whatsoever, it was such a pleasure to have that contrast. People who worked with me during the day would absolutely not recognise my playing in the theatre, it’s that different.
Has your career always taken you in a funk and jazz direction as a player?
Well, most of my favourite music these days is classical, or jazz from Keith Jarrett or Miles Davis. But I was obsessed with Led Zeppelin as a kid growing up. I listened to John Bonham, and I thought, I can play the notes, but why can’t I make it sound like he does? And that’s when I first came across the concept of ‘feel’ and what it means, and what it can do for your playing, and your experience as a musician. I found that as a drummer, I could listen to a Guns ‘N’ Roses album, and pick up the drum parts pretty quickly, but I think a lot of drummers explore jazz and funk to see if they like it or not, and I absolutely loved it.
What was your first drum kit?
I remember my first kit really clearly, it was a toy kit made by Noble And Cooley who made a range of toy kits for children. My dad bought me this kit when I was about four, it was called the ‘Black Diamond Rock Kit’ which sounded really cool. It had paper drum heads and a little wood block with it, and after about three hits, the head had a hole through it! That was the end of my interest in drums until I was about ten. Then I got an old concert Pearl kit with no brand on it, and it had blue hydraulic heads on the snare and the rack tom. I had a Pearl Export for a long time, and then I got my deal with DW, and now I am a Ludwig player.
What made you change to Ludwig?
Well, I felt I needed a change, and choosing drums should always be about what feels right for you as a player. Of course, Ludwig has a massive reputation and history behind it as a company, but the kit felt right to me and that was what made my choice. It’s pointless choosing drums because of a ‘name’, you choose drums because they feel and sound the best for you, and you enjoy playing them. Nothing else should make your decision.
One of the aspects you teach through your website is ‘groove’ do you think you can teach someone a concept like that?
I do think you can teach it, and some people do have groove in them naturally. I usually start by asking a student to play something funky, and they play ‘Doo-dah, doo-doo-dah, doo-dah …’ and I say, that’s not funky. Then I ask them to sing something funky, and often people can do that. Then it’s simply a matter of teaching them how to translate what they can hear, and sing, into their hands and feet so they can play it on the drums.
Have you ever had to tell a student that they simply don’t have what it takes?
All the time. I have told students to drop out of music school because they will never be professional musicians. I don’t BS people. You are wasting your parents’ $300,000 on something that is never going to work out for you.
I asked a student what his ambition was, and he said – to be the best jazz drummer in New York. So I said, you want to be up against people like Bill Stewart, Brian Blade, people like that, some of the best people ever to play drums? And I asked him to play me a single-stroke roll, and he went bash-bash… bash-bash-bash… and I said, at this stage you should be much further on than you are, and your ambition should be reachable, and that’s not being the best jazz drummer in New York, it’s to be a proficient musician. Some of these people cannot play drums. I guess their parents say to them that they are great, but they are biased, obviously, and I tell them the truth about the reality of what they are doing. A guy like that would be eaten alive at any audition anywhere in New York City.
What were your early experiences of jazz gigs in New York?
I was working at Manny’s Music Store, I was supposed to be tuning drums, but I was actually practising. Donald Edwards came in, great jazz drummer, and he told me he was going to a gig that evening, and I should come along and sit in. I told him I’d come and hang out. So, there was the band, and Jeff Watts was drumming. This was my first few weeks in New York, a month earlier I had been watching videos of Jeff Watts thinking what a genius he is, and now they want me to sit in on his gig!
I figured they couldn’t pay me enough to sit in with these guys, but I did, and then the keyboard player went off and a new young guy sat down at the piano. He mumbled something I didn’t catch, he counted in, and off he went really fast. I don’t have any problem playing fast, but I didn’t know what tune we were playing!
Anyway, we finished the set and I went over the keyboard guy and said I didn’t catch his name, and he said he was Eric Lewis and he played with Elvin Jones. So I went home, and now, years later, I know if any of my students had tried to sit in, they would have been told to leave the stage right now. The fact is, you don’t need a diploma to tell you that you are a jazz musician. A lot of these music schools are just taking money under false pretences.
What’s the most popular skill you teach to drummers?
It’s feel and touch. Again, it’s something that people have or they don’t, and in some cases, you can develop it if it’s there, and find it if it’s not immediately obvious. It’s difficult finding the ingredients that you need to be a good drummer, but they are there, and you can find them, and find a way of getting the concepts over to students, and that’s what I try to do.
Who are your influences as a drummer?
Oh, so many, too many to name, for sure! Jim Keltner and Jack Dejohnette stand out to me a lot as people I have admired for a long time. I went through a lot of phases when I was growing up and learning to play. For a long time, I listened to Rush constantly, and yet now I don’t really like them any more at all. Tastes change. The wonder of the Internet is that you can find so many great players and explore what they do.
Do you think mastering the basics at the beginning is important?
It’s the most important thing. So many students come to me, and they want to rush off right away and learn how to play the songs their favourite drummers play. That’s fine when you are starting out, but when you are actually beginning to learn how to play, then the fundamentals have to be mastered, or you will never progress at all.
I did a virtual class during the pandemic, with fifteen students, and I told them they were going to master single stroke rolls, and the way they were going to do that was playing them for four hours a day, every day for three weeks. People were calling me up freaking out, and I told them they were not getting their money back. You learn what I teach you, the way I teach you, that’s the deal.
Have you got any practice routines?
Not now, at this stage of my career. I sit down every morning and I play what is in my head, I just go with what I think and feel at the time. I think now, if I tried to do rigid exercises, I would just be bored, but I have done that phase, I didn’t skip it, I did it, and I moved on from there.
Do you have any advice for our subscribers?
Absolutely. Follow your ideas, and don’t get distracted by the fashions and trends that you see on social media. You must always remain true to what moves you as a musician, the music that gives you real pleasure to play. If you are following something that you think is going to be ‘the next big thing’, then you are never going to be happy as a drummer. Follow what you love, and if it’s not the ‘big thing’ now, it may be, and you are in on the ground floor to exploit that. And if not, you are a happy musician, and that’s really what this is all about.
What about for new players?
Find a couple of records that you really like, and learn to play along with them. That will help you to develop your own style and feel, which is essential if you are going to progress with your instrument. Have fun, that’s what got all of us started playing drums, because we figured it would be fun, and we found out that it was. It doesn’t matter how good you are, it matters that you are having fun playing drums.