He’s got the CV, the kit, and the talent that drummers all over the world wish for. Billy Cobham is the embodiment of percussive-genius, and we are honoured to have him within our fellowship ranks.

If you pay attention to the world of jazz, you will most likely have come across the wonderful Billy Cobham before. If you pay attention to the world of drums, it is without a doubt that you will already know him, love him, and probably wish to be able to play like him too (his skills are unmatched!).

Often dubbed as “fusion’s greatest drummer of all time”, Billy has played with the most unbelievable array of musicians throughout his career, including but not limited to: Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, George Benson, James Brown, Peter Gabriel and Quincy Jones. A line-up of legends, to say the least.

Billy has been playing since the tender age of 4, but things started to take off when he left after three years of playing with the U.S. Army band, and joined forces with Horace Silver in his quintet. He also landed a great gig being the house drummer for none other than Atlantic Records! Arguably, Cobham really became a prominent figure in the jazz-fusion world when he toured with Miles Davis in the late 60’s and early 70’s, recording two albums during this time; Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Another key to Cobham’s success in those days was his band Mahavishnu Orchestra, who were a huge success.

Kit, Kit and More Kit!

Perhaps it was his experimentation with drum equipment that first drew your attention to Billy Cobham. It was in 1974 on the Crosswinds album that Cobham used a custom-built fiberglass-shell snare alongside Al Duffy’s chain-drive kick drum pedal. But it was really in the mid 70’s where his kit-configuration was taken to new heights...

Brace yourselves (drum nerds, we’re looking at you!), for this set-up was absolutely massive. We’ve got: two Fibes kick drums, a custom Duffy/Ocheltree snare, two flared-shell rack toms, four Fibes rack toms, two Fibes floor toms, two Duffy/Ocheltree gong drums, a hi-hat, five Zildjian cymbals and one hanging, 36-inch gong! Not your average kit for not your average player.

Billy Cobham & Nippy Noya"Billy Cobham & Nippy Noya" by Yarin Asanth is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Drum Technique Mastery

And that brings us onto his technique, and why he deserves a spot in our Grade 8 Drums syllabus. Cobham was able to perfectly marry the high energy complexities of jazz with the power of rock & roll. His debut album Spectrum was a place for Billy to completely set free his creativity, letting the drums take centre stage and lead the album to success – which he did, by the way. The album surprised everyone when it hit the number one spot in the Billboard Jazz Album chart.

We’ve chosen the track “Red Baron” to feature in our Drums Grade 8 syllabus and you’ll only need to listen through once to understand why. Whilst the overall feel of the track is somewhat laid back and chilled, the technique required to play it is extremely high level. There are some key moments throughout the piece that really showcase what can be done with the kit, so this is one to get stuck into and enjoy.

We are BEYOND privileged that the incredible Billy Cobham accepted our Honourary Fellowship back in June 2019. Billy has spent time working with us here at RSL, as an advisor with the aim of inspiring drummers around the world to develop their talents and pursue education. We are so proud to have worked with such an icon.

We hope you enjoyed this week’s Artists in Focus blog. Be sure to come back next Tuesday for the next instalment, and in the meantime, catch up on our previous posts about Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.