By: David Weiss
From Drum Magazine August 2003
It’s time to bust out your checkbook, because whether you know it or not, you’re indebted to the Allman Brothers Band.
Hailed as revolutionaries when they first arrived on the music scene in 1969, their countrified blend of blues, jazz and, of course, rock has been a crucial influence on multiple generations of musicians.
Originally pioneers of live jamming onstage, today the Allman Brothers are the masters. Every year they hold court over a sold-out series of concerts at New York City’s storied Beacon Theater, and a visit to their 2003 run shows that it’s as successful as ever, as they play to an impassioned audience of old devotees, young recruits and everyone in between. The vocals are smoky, the guitars ring true, and with two legendary drummers and a gifted percussionist, the grooves never let go. Song-bending and chop-challenging improvisation comes in wave after wave, and the crowd urges the band on like a group of Olympic athletes.
The Allman Brothers are a lot of things to a lot of people, and when it comes to rhythm, it turns out this band is everything a drummer could ever ask for, starting with their groundbreaking self-titled debut record in 1969, to the classic albums Idlewild South, At Fillmore East, Eat a Peach, and all the way through to their 2003 release, Hittin’ the Note. For the founding members Jaimoe Johanny Johanson (or just plain Jaimoe) and Butch Trucks, along with their percussive partner of 12 years, Marc Quiñones, being in the Allman Brothers is about being three parts of one very distinctive whole of a drumming personality.
To shed more light on the rhythmic engine that makes the Allman Brothers go, the group’s three drummers agreed to sit down together one sunny afternoon before another packed evening at the Beacon. “You’ve got my straight, white ass,” Trucks explains, “playing as straight as I can play. Then we’ve got Mr. Salsa [Quiñones] playing as crooked and loud as he can play, and he gets so damned crooked I have no idea where he’s coming from. And then we have Mr. Jazz Man [Jaimoe] trying to make sure he hits nothing on a downbeat. You put it all together and it comes out to a white/Latin/black personality that does what it does, which is pretty damn powerful – and I can say that without fear of contradiction.”
Actually, Trucks can say almost anything without fear of contradiction. Walking with the confidence that comes with being a rock legend for 34 years and counting, he projects a strong, boisterous presence that’s the perfect complement to his solid blues-rock drumming style. In contrast, Jaimoe, his partner of three-plus decades, speaks in the low tones of a southern gentleman and a life-long student (and now professor) of jazz. Quiñones? Not surprisingly, his upbeat manner puts him right in the middle, exactly where you’d expect a conga expert who bridges rock with jazz to be.
Messing with the drumming formula that had already helped keep the band alive from the ’60s to the ’90s might have been a risk, but with the addition of Quiñones in 1991, Jaimoe and Trucks discovered a liberating feeling that they’d been craving for a long time. “Marc gives me freedom,” Jaimoe says. “When I used to play percussion, I would sit completely on the side of the stage. Because I couldn’t hear the instruments, however, my hands used to get bloody just making sure they could be heard, and listening back on tape you still couldn’t hear the stuff, so I stopped playing it.
“Butch always wanted someone playing on congas or timbales over the years. It wasn’t like we were looking for a percussionist, but then when Butch heard Marc he was like, ‘There he is.’ With Marc there, it gave me a chance to hear all kinds of stuff like I’d heard with Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie’s band – that’s the freedom I’m talking about. All kinds of things I’d heard over the years. My playing is triggered by what I hear, and if I don’t hear it, I don’t force the issue.”
Quiñones was a young percussionist on the fast track in the salsa, jazz, and rock world when Trucks first heard him, with credits ranging from David Byrne to Spyro Gyra and beyond. “What we were looking for was a percussionist with musicality and power,” Trucks says. “Then I saw this guy playing with Spyro Gyra live in Tallahassee, Florida, and he played louder than the whole band – he blew them off the stage. I said, ‘Man, I’m stealing your ass.'”
Trucks came backstage, sauntered up to Quiñones, declared that he was about to become his new employer, and left. Quiñones, for his part, was not as blown away by this sudden stroke of luck as most other working musicians might have been. “I said, ‘Who the hell is Butch Trucks, and who are the Allman Brothers?'” he recalls, laughing. “I had no idea who they were! You don’t get too much rock and roll in the South Bronx. I had no idea what the music was, but they say that it was a good thing, because I came in with no preconceived notions of what to play. Every time we’d have a rehearsal, they’d look at me and I’d just sit back and see where I could fit.”
Twelve years later, it’s apparent that Quiñones fits, and the result is a three-man drumming unit with a very firm grasp of how to jam. “I come from the salsa school of music – I’m used to working with other percussionists, having other drums going on,” says Quiñones. “We’ll all start with a base, and you have to listen to what’s going on, you can’t just play. I’ll throw a lick into an opening. I’ll hear Jaimoe play something interesting and I’ll answer him. There really is no structure. We just take it as it comes along.
“A lot of drummers can’t do it [jam] because they don’t listen. It’s all about listening and being open to the fact that you’re not the only drummer in the band. If you’re the only drummer in the band everything relies on you. [But if I’m there], I can free you up to play things you hear that you couldn’t otherwise play, because you’d have to jump off of percussion and limit himself on drum set. When you’re the sole drummer, you can’t do all of that.”
Jaimoe is quietly nodding his head in agreement, and then extends a thought. “Not only that,” he says, “but when you’re a single drummer you have to think about how musicians think in a band, how they react to certain things. The first thing I’d do if Butch weren’t there is tune my drums down, because the way my drums are tuned are as a percussion kit, not a drum-set kit. If this were the only drum set, people would think it sounds funny. So you have to think about what makes this band sound much fuller.”
“My quinto is tuned really high,” Quiñones adds. “People ask me why, but when they hear it with the two other drummers, they realize that if I were to tune my drums really low, they would get lost. Butch has four toms, you’ve got the congas, two snares – there’s a lot of things going on, so when you hear the sound coming out it’s more like a drum set.”
Once they’d figured out how to separate their tunings, the three had to separate their mindsets. At first, fitting in seemed daunting to Quiñones, but as they say, the family that plays together stays together. “It was tough for me at first with two drum set players,” he admits. “There’s a whole lot going on, and I was thinking, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ They invited me to play with them, but I wasn’t supposed to be here for 12 years. They’ve extended my visa!
“Our interaction seems to be second nature now, where we don’t have to think about it. Either I hear it or I don’t, and if I don’t, I won’t play. To me, less is more. If I hear slow blues, I won’t play tambourine just because I’m a percussionist. I’ll sit out – not because I want to take a break, but because I just don’t hear anything. When we play ‘It’s Not My Cross to Bear,’ I play congas and tambourine, because that’s what I hear.”
Taste is all well and good, but what makes the experience of a jamming band so uplifting is when the group gets fearless, taking risks with their music and the audience’s ears in hopes of unearthing a shining sonic discovery. “When it comes to taking chances, you have to think that if you’re going to screw it up, make it strong and wrong – don’t be afraid,” Quiñones urges. “If you’re going to be timid, you’re in the wrong business, especially in live situations. Strong and wrong!”
“I don’t take chances when him and Butch are playing 6/8s and 12/8s …” Jaimoe begins.
“He’s lying!” Quiñones interrupts, laughing.
“I’m used to playing by melodies,” Jaimoe continues, unruffled. “I don’t play by time signatures. If you start crossing a lot of things like that, it’s easy to get your ass lost and start screwing everybody up.”
“Taking a chance is improvisation,” Quiñones says. “Just ask Miles Davis, you’ve got to take chances. In order to come up with something brilliant, you’ve got to take chances. I don’t think any kind of artist can really sit and calculate what they’re going to do, because then they’re not really being a true creative artist.”
If something truly high quality emerges in an Allman Brothers jam, it just might be eligible for a permanent place in the arrangement. “Something may come back,” says Quiñones. “It may fall into place and we say, ‘Damn, that’s what that needed.’ I’ve done a lot of sessions and people will say, ‘I just transcribed the solo you did on Song X,’ and I’ll say, ‘How did you do that? I don’t know what I played.’ A solo is spur-of-the-moment – you just play it as it comes. So sometimes you play something, and the only way you’ll remember what you played is if you heard a tape of it, because the next night you might not get it, or else you’re reacting to something someone else played, and they won’t play it in the same spot.”
“We’ll lock into a groove, and it doesn’t happen all the time,” Jaimoe says. “You can’t force it, if the vibration is not there.”
“Out of 20 songs per night,” Quiñones adds, “we’ll always find something interesting going on. This being an improv band, something is bound to happen.”
With so many other expert musicians in the group, including Greg Allman vocals/keys, guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, plus bassist Oteil Burbridge, the drummers have more than just rhythmic concepts to bounce off. As a unit within the band, Jaimoe, Quiñones, and Butch Trucks have come into their own as a distinct whole.
“The reviews will say, ‘The three drummers were playing as one,’ and I think it being a three-drummer situation makes it a voice of its own in this band,” Quiñones points out. “Greg’s is a voice, as well as the twin guitars of the Allman Brothers. The bass is a third guitar, but he’s almost like me, playing a foundation, but he’s really interacting with the guitars. Me, I try to play a groove, but I’m interacting with the three drums. The rarity is that this is a shared spotlight, but we’re all considered one. It really is inexplicable for me.”
“It’s amazing,” Jaimoe says. “Neither one of us compromises a whole lot of things, and within each of us there’s that voice, and it sounds like one.”
“Jaimoe put it best when he said, ‘I can live my jazz through this rock and roll band and still feed my family,'” says Quiñones. “He can feel this whole other dimension and still retain this rock and roll groove and sound with two other guys. Oteil is playing quote-unquote rock and roll bass, but he’s scatting, popping, playing funk – he’s got all these different hats. Nobody’s really compromising in this band. It’s labeled Southern rock and roll, but it really isn’t. It should be called a Southern improvisational band.”
As warm and fuzzy as it all sounds, it’s true that not everything they try ends up working. “Marc would be playing some stuff on this song, ‘Dreams,’ a 6/8 feel. It was grooving, but we finally stopped it,” Jaimoe remembers with a laugh, “because I could see Greg’s head going in circles, going, ‘What the hell are they doing to my song?'”
While mad playing skills are definitely a prerequisite for being onstage or in the studio with the Allman Brothers, the ability to nail a groove is far and away the key to what makes these drummers work. “It’s always about the groove,” Quiñones confirms. “It doesn’t matter what kind of music you play, all the chops you have mean nothing. You can be a master technician, but if you can’t groove, forget about it. That’s the most important thing for me. I’ll hear guys who play all their chops, and when it comes time for the solo, they can’t say anything, because you’ve heard it all.
“One of the reasons this band is working right now is because everybody is really communicating, sort of telepathically. Everyone is open to suggestions; everyone is open to the music we can play, and listening. Because everyone’s open onstage, the conversations are really interesting. It’s been like this, but not so much as it is right now. Everybody’s vibration onstage is so out there, and it seems like everybody is wearing it on their sleeves and we’re able to interact even more. I don’t think this band could have made the music they have in the past years without this constant communication onstage.”
Along with other legends like the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers are the unintentional forefathers of today’s thriving jam band scene. From where they sit, some of these groups truly do credit to the genre, and others don’t belong there at all. “I don’t want to name names,” Quiñones says, “but you can put that if bands are true to themselves and the music, they would understand the term ‘jam.’ Jam means to expand, expound, and create.”
“For instance, you have [band that shall remain nameless],” Jaimoe notes. “They don’t jam. He’s a songwriter. How can they be called ‘jam’ if they don’t get into improvisation? They’re considered a jam band, but they don’t jam. They have great musicians, but if you separate them – watch it now. They can’t do it. You have Phish, Widespread Panic; those are jam bands. They’ll get out there and play a song for 15 minutes. Some other people that are in that category need to check themselves. They need to have a song. A lot of those bands don’t even have a song. I’m sorry! The song or the talent.”
They have both the songs and the talent, but one element that puts the Allman Brothers over the top into jam band legend status is their deep experience playing together, knowing when to push each other’s buttons and when they’re truly locked in. “Derek has a way of building a solo that I’ve come to learn,” Trucks offers up as an example. “I know when he starts a solo to lay back, because it’s just got to get quiet almost to get him to start playing and let him get open and take it where he wants to go. Once you figure out what direction he’s going, you go, but you have to wait for him to start going that way. With Warren, you can be more assertive and push him. Warren is more, I would say, predictable, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. There’s at least a little bit of insecurity, most of the time you’re not 100-percent sure that you’re all right there.”
Now pay attention, because what Trucks says next may be the best description yet of what makes a great groove. “Every once in a while, however, it gets to where you’re so goddamn sure that you’re all right there together that you can pour everything into it, with no fear whatsoever. The other night it was like this: The essence there is that surety of knowing we’re in the same place. We can cut loose because I know we’re not separated from each other.”
“If you don’t listen,” Quiñones adds, “you’ll be off there, doing what you do. We’re all up there listening to each other all the time. Some nights it will be great, and sometimes it’s just another drum solo. It’s always evolving. Sometimes I think I’m playing more than I should, other times they’ll sit back and let me play, or they’ll lay down an interaction. Right now Derek is young, he’s experimenting, you never know where he’s going to go, and if you don’t wait, it won’t get there. You’ve got to wait for him to let you know, ‘Hey, we’re going this way.’ Once you know, you can really take off and push him.”
To write their new songs, as they did for the excellent and earthy new release, Hittin’ the Note, the Allman Brothers will come up with the framework in rehearsal, then start honing them as soon as possible before live audiences, with a warning that they’re still in the early stages. At that point, their crowd decides if a song is worth recording. “The people will let you know if a song is working,” says Jaimoe. “The people I came up with, like Otis Redding, they knew how to hit audiences, what to hit them with, and when to let them rest.”
Well known for playing long past the point when other bands would be calling it a night and collecting their paychecks, the Allman Brothers believe their crowd likes to leave their concerts feeling tired and happy. “I think the audience would welcome being worn out – that’s what they’re there for,” Quiñones says. “This band, in my opinion, is the only band that will play two-and-a-half to three hours and give people more than their money’s worth. You have bands that will play an hour and a half and charge 100 bucks for a ticket. We have to pace ourselves to play all the music that we play. At the Beacon, we play 20 songs a night, and with the energy and intensity, it’s difficult sometimes not to wear yourself out.”
Ultimately, the drummers of the Allman Brothers, two of whom have been honing the art of improvisational rock together since the Summer of Love, recognize the jam above all as a fluid process where the point is to simply go with the flow. “One reason it works is that we don’t think about it,” Trucks states. “You can’t get up there and do what we do, play as fast as we play, move from one segment to another, and have to think about it. It’s not possible. We play together, but other than being conscious of what the other is saying, there’s a lot of spontaneity. We don’t tell each other, ‘Play this or play that.’ Never. We just play.”
Drums: DW Collector’s Birch Lacquer
1. 22″ x 18″ Bass Drum
2. 14″ x 5 1/2″ Snare
3. 13″ x 10″ Tom
4. 12″ x 9″ Tom
5. 16″ x 13″ Floor Tom
6. 18″ x 14″ Floor Tom
7. 26″ Timpani
8. 29″ Timpani
A. 15″ New Beat Hi-Hats
B. 18″ A Medium Thin Crash
C. 17″ K Medium Thin Crash
D. 22″ A Medium Ride
Butch Trucks also uses Zildjian Butch Trucks model sticks, Remo heads, Tama Rhythm Watch, DW 9000 Series hardware, and an Axis bass drum pedal.
Jaimoe’s Jam Kit
1. 18″ x 18″ Bass Drum
2. 14″ x 5″ Snare
3. 12″ x 10″ Tom
4. 10″ x 9″ Tom
5. 8″ x 8″ Tom
6. 15″ x 14″ Floor Tom
A. 16″ field cymbal with bell up and 2 rivets (bottom), K Hi-Hats (top)
B. 18″ A Medium Thin Crash Brilliant
C. 16″ K Thin Crash Brilliant
D. 22″ K Heavy Ride
E. 19″ K Thin Crash
Jaimoe also uses Yamaha and Pearl hardware, Pearl Eliminator bass pedal and hi-hat, Remo and Evans heads, Vic Firth Jaimoe model sticks.
1. 11 3/4″ Elite Wood Conga
2. 12 1/2″ Elite Wood Tumba
3. Elite Wood Bongos
4. 15″ Elite Brass Timbale
5. 14″ Elite Brass Timbale
A. 20″ China Cymbal
B. 32″ Gong
C. Tambourine (nylon frame)
D. Tambourine (wood frame)
F. Agogo Bells
I. High Pitch Cowbell
J. Medium Pitch Cowbell
K. Rock Cowbell
M. Cowbell mounted on pedal
Marc Quiñones also uses Remo heads, Zildjian sticks and mallets, and a Gibraltar rack.