Drummer & Percussionist

Charlie Ashby

Charlie is a Drummer & Percussionist based in Manchester (UK). He has been working as a professional musician for over 25 years and has enjoyed working in many diverse settings from Orchestral, Latin, Jazz to Pop. Charlie has worked with artists such as Branford Marsalis, Tim Garland, Django Bates, Burt Bacharach, Marc Almond (Soft Cell), Damon Gough (Badly Drawn Boy), Beverley Knight, Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie, The Bee Gees, Rick Astley, Jon Lord (Deep Purple) & Snarky Puppy to name a few. He has worked with many of the major orchestras around the North, these include: BBC Philharmonic, Hallé Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Opera North, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, CBSO etc.

Charlie has taught at numerous Schools, Colleges and Universities giving classes on Drum Kit, Latin Percussion & Orchestral Percussion. These have included Manchester Grammar School, Manchester University, RNCM & Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

Why did you take up the drums and how old were you?


I always had an interest in drumming, I don't know why. I remember playing along to Phil Colins using stools, chairs and long paint brushes. When I was 6 years old I got a toy drum set for Christmas, unfortunately we had a party that evening and my uncle attempted to show me how it was done and put his foot through the Bass Drum. I remember asking at school if I could have lessons but to no avail. We moved to Bradford years later, my dad intervened and spoke to the head master personally and finally I received the drum lessons I had always wanted.

 

Who was your first teacher and where did you start?


My first teacher was called Roy Turner, he was the local peripatetic in the Bradford area and was quite a character. He started me off on the Buddy Rich (snare drum book) for a whole year, I did nothing but snare drum reading, exercises, rudiments etc. Looking back on it this was great for my reading, I'm not sure how students would deal with that these days. He also recommended I went to the Saturday morning music centre at Beckfoot School in Bingley. I went there every Saturday and we'd play through percussion ensemble pieces – marches etc again this was all great for developing my reading. I got the opportunity to play drum kit with concert bands, wind bands, guitar ensembles, brass ensembles and this helped develop my listening skills even though at that age I was not really aware of these things. I even got to conduct the concert band on several occasions during concerts and rehearse them. Looking back it was such an amazing opportunity allowing me to develop as a young player.

What instruments/resources did you have?


I had one of the old black rubber practise pads to start with. I saved up and bought a second hand kit a Premier Beverly for £80. The kit needed some serious TLC, fortunately my dad has an engineering background and made a tom tom mount for my bass drum. The skins were beaten into submission, I couldn't buy new ones as they were the old sizes. The cymbals were 5 star Hi-Hats and an Ajax Ride. It's amazing because it was a pretty rough kit but I played every where on it and it serve me well.

Do you have any advice for young drummers/percussionists during this stage of education? 

Try and get involved with as much music making as possible, say yes to everything. Don't dismiss any style or type of music, try it first as you may be surprised with how much you enjoy the experience. Also playing many different styles of music really helps develop your versatility and will make you more employable long term. Regarding practise – slow things down, use plenty of repetition and use a metronome if possible. Don't getting distracted by just playing – playing is not practising, they are two very different things. Do both, play at the end of the practise session to reward yourself and have fun. Regarding grades, I didn't do any grades when I was at school, this was mainly due to my teacher not taking me down that path. I do teach grades to some of my students, I don't have anything against them personally. I think they're a useful way for parents to judge their child's progress, especially when younger.

 

With your knowledge and experience, what performance opportunities would you suggest young percussionists to engage with?

Everything! Looking back on the amount of playing I did as a youth, I was playing in a local brass band 2 nights a
week. I also played for a dance band full of old retired players which was my first experience playing swing music, again great for my reading and learnt from all the old guys. We rehearsed with the school band one night a week, we had an enthusiastic music teacher called Chris Cook. He was into his R 'n' B and jazz, he'd play Loose Tubes albums, do Blues Brothers arrangements – “Cell block number 9”, “Going back to Miami” we also played Weather Report tunes like “Birdland” great tunes to be exposed to as a young player. On Fridays I did Bradford Youth Orchestral run by Norman Wells, this was my first taste of orchestral repertoire. Saturdays were dedicated to the music centre. I also rehearsed with a rock band made up of older students 6th formers from my school once a week. So I was out almost every night of the week, my poor parents – my dad was my taxi driver.

At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?


I didn't actually decide like that. I was getting close to the final year of my GCSEs and wondering what on earth I could do. Everyone was telling me that I had to choose something I enjoyed doing as a career choice. The only thing I really enjoyed was playing the drumming, which was my absolute passion so my parents and I started to talk to people to find out if it would be possible to go down that route.

 

After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?


I left school at 16 and went to Huddersfield Technical College to study a preparatory course in music. I had to do 3 years as I couldn't read music. I could read drum notation / rhythm but I didn't know where middle C was on a treble clef so they insisted I do 3 years to catch up with things. While I was there I met Chris Bradley from Opera North, he started me on my orchestral percussion journey learning - timpani, tuned percussion etc. At the same time I started having theory lessons, piano lessons, jazz improvisation lessons, history, Bach harmony classes etc. When I was in my final year at Huddersfield I won a music prize which included drum kit tuition for a year from a teacher of my choice. Chris suggested Dave Hassell would be the guy to go to and Dave very kindly agreed to teach me every 2 weeks at his home in Manchester. My dad drove me over every 2 weeks for a 2 hour lesson with him. By the end of that year I had a 2 inch thick pad of A4 sheets from Dave that I'd studied, I still have them – it was a very intense time but incredible. At the end of my time at Huddersfield I moved to Manchester to study percussion at the RNCM.


Why did you decide this pathway?


It was by chance that I auditioned for any of the Royal Colleges. My history teacher at Huddersfield Tech was a Mr Alan Jenkins, he mentioned applying for a Royal College at a careers evening, I didn't actually know these places existed. He said what have you got to lose? Audition for one down south, one in the middle and one up north and see how you get on. I picked Guildhall School of Music, Birmingham Conservatoire and the Royal Northern College of Music. I got offered a place straight away after my audition at Birmingham, was offered an unconditional place at the Guildhall and was also accepted at the RNCM. This was a complete shock as no one expected me to get in anywhere. I'm convinced their decisions were all based on my potential as I had only been reading music and playing tuned / orchestral percussion for 3 years at that point. The Guildhall told me that it was purely an orchestral course and that they would not allow me to continue my studies on drum kit or learn any latin percussion. So, I went to the RNCM as at the time they were the most open minded of all the colleges.
 

What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?


I was 14 years old and it was for Eldwick Dramatic Society – Pantomime. I was booked to play the drums, I got £25 for a 4 day run. The Musical Director was Mr Brian Cryer, his daughter used to play the cello in the Bradford Youth Orchestra and at the saturday morning music centre so I guess he knew me through her, all about contacts, even then.

What happened next?


I left college slightly early to fly out to Monte Carlo for a summer season, this was my first taste of a proper gig and a long term contract. I was very inexperienced and too young to fully appreciate it for what it was. We had headliners coming in at the weekends and I remember meeting Elton John's band (Charlie Morgan), we were sitting on the steps watching the guys perform. I remember Elton sitting with us drinking a coffee, like you do. Sting came over for a gig (with Vinnie on drums), I met Ed Thigpen for the first time, Rod Stewart's Band, Super Tramp, Harry Connick Junior joined us with his funk band. I remember all his band came down to our staff canteen area after they played and we arranged a jam session – great times, so many amazing artists. I guessed that was how life was going to be, I was so naive. I came back to England after the gig and things were slow but bit by bit I started to get booked as a freelancer. Eventually people started to call me when they realised I was back in the country. I started to get booked to play with the orchestras, along side my peers Ian Wright and Graham Johns. I ended up doing a few tours, working with great musicians. I got a bit of reputation of being 'Mr Versatile' and as a result was asked to play with many different ensembles, shows, bands, jazz gigs etc so many different styles, this was good but challenging to keep on top of every different discipline. I would get booked to play with an orchestra and I remember one concert for example being asked to play all the drum kit charts, double on orchestral percussion, play latin perc and then going down to the front of the stage to play darabuka on a solo harp feature – it was a busy time.

You have performed with many orchestras, ensembles and theatre productions, what do you enjoy about the portfolio career of a percussionist?

I never set out to play with lots of different people, the early years I wasn't really aware who I was playing with, I just got on with it. It wasn't until things slowed down a little and people started to ask for my C.V that I was like, ok I guess I need a C.V now. A lot of those early years I don't remember who the artists were, their names etc. I guess having learned Latin Percussion, Drum Kit and Orchestral Percussion gave me more opportunities than some. People would often say to me don't you want to have a full time job and to be secure and safe? For me there was never a job available that would allow me to perform on so many different disciplines playing so many different styles of music so why would I limit myself by going into a full time post? It's difficult to explain but some nights I would be doing a jazz gig until 3am then the next day I'd be playing an 1812 recording with a full symphony orchestra, then the next day I'd be doing a big band project then I'd driving over to France to do a festival playing afro-cuban hand percussion, then the next day I'd be back teaching at a school then in with the BBC the day after. It's not like that now, these were the golden years for sure. It was so intense but so amazing and rewarding. It was a different time, you get to see and experience things that most people would never believe, the stories and memories I have are priceless.

 

You have played with artists such as Snarky Puppy, Lionel Richie, Burt Bacharach and The Heritage Orchestra, how does this differ from your other performing work and do you have any highlights?


It does differ from my normal work. I'm not out doing big gigs every day and touring, this is not how it works for me. I teach at some schools, a bit at the RBC, I teach privately and guest at a few places from time to time. I do like to teach – I've done this for nearly 28 years and have a wealth of material to cover all areas - it's my way of giving something back. Performance wise every so often you get asked to do something nice, it may be a festival, Albert Hall proms, TV session / film, working with an artist etc these are all great and things to be cherished. Sometimes however the highlights can be the small gigs, financially not great but the ones that have great music and fantastic musicians and friends. The Lionel Richie thing was definitely a highlight for me, it was in Hyde Park London. The Snarky Puppy thing was purely by chance we were doing a festival in Norway and we knew they were playing. On the flight over we were talking about trying to see them on one of their gigs, little did we know that evening they would all turn up to ours. They turned up on our first night and then for the next 3 nights and jammed with us on stage every night, we had a great time, it was unreal, the place was going nuts. Michael League said you have to come and play with us on our gig, we just thought he was joking, the next night we were on stage with the guys rocking it out – wow another highlight.

 

You have a remote recording studio. How did you get started with this and what do you enjoy about this side of your career?


Well, this just started out of necessity really. I'm a drummer, I need a place to practise and play. I did have a studio lockup for several years but it was in an old mill and sometimes I'd get back and the lift wasn't working, I'd have to carry the drums up six floors. Eventually I thought I just need to buy a bigger place. It didn't just happen, I had to build it myself as I had limited funds. I built a room within a room down stairs in my double garage. It started off as a practise space and I eventually introduced recording equipment as I learned more about it. It was back in the day when the one to one sessions had just started with Apple and they were offering lessons on logic software, I did this for 4 years every week just to learn a more about recording.

Are there any challenges?


Yes, there are many challenges. I love playing the drums, it's what I do, it's part of who I am. If it was just drumming life would be so easy but unfortunately it's not that simple. You have to learn how to dealing with people, politics, egos etc. You have to learn diplomacy and ways of talking to people that don't point the finger of blame. Some people will unfortunately just go out of their way to make things difficult for you, you can't do anything about that, the music business is a very competitive industry.
 

Have you got any recording tips and tricks for us?


Yes – always sub-contract the project to a really good player (only joking). I think a big one for drummers / percussionists is headphone choice, find a set of headphones that don't give a lot of spillage / self isolating ones. Get the levels right before you record, you should have a musical mix so you can hear yourself, the click and track comfortably. Listen to the music and identify the genre, use this as a basic starting point and if you don't have any music write out a guide chart, this will save time in the long run. Also remember the studio is a different environment to a live gig, you can do things in a studio that would not be appropriate in a live performance setting. Think outside the box to solve problems and always listen back to what you've just recorded and be honest, if you're not happy with it the client won't be either.

 

What is your career highlight so far?


I really can't say, I have been very fortunate to have some amazing experiences playing music, with wonderful people. It's more the memories, I remember my first time in New York, seeing the number plates in Monte Carlo - 'HIS' and 'HERS', the ceilings in Vienna, touring Switzerland with a broken leg, talking to Rick Astley about drummers – Jeff Pocarro and Vinnie playing on his records, meeting Changuito in Cuba, playing with Burt Bacharach with Jim Keltner on Drums, sleeping on the floor with 30 other musicians at Luxey festival in France, being invited to Robert Stigwoods house on the Isle of Wight (manager for Cream, Bee Gees etc). You don't get these experiences doing a 9 to 5 job.
 

What is the best thing about being a musician?


Being your own boss, working with like minded people, being able to travel, experience different cultures, creativity, expression, freedom and getting lost in the moment. If everyone experienced the life of a gigging musician there would be no hatred in the world. I have been met with such love and affection from complete strangers everywhere. Don't get me wrong there will be times when you want to give up through injuries, bad health or lack of work. It's at times like these when you need friends and the support of your family to pull you through. Don't be too hard on yourself, you can always put things down and come back to them when you're in a better place.

What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?


1. Work hard, you need to be the best you can possibly be as the music business is extremely competitive.
2. Believe in yourself and your abilities, you can do it.
3. Remember every person you meet could be a future employer directly or indirectly.

Any last thoughts?


Enjoy your journey and go for it!

Thanks Charlie! 

If you would like to find out more about Charlie, check out his website:

www.charliethedrummer.com

'The Drum Club' https://www.charliethedrummer.com/thedrumclub

The Drum Club was set up during lockdown, first edition May 2020.The idea was to give my students & players a platform to keep them engaged and passionate about drumming. Apart from my personal drum videos I do not own any of the material presented, it's all been sourced from free sites. youtube etc online. You can find all this information for free on the internet all I have done is take what I consider to be really useful content and put it all in one place for you to utilize. I've made the decision to use links to access all the articles & video content, I know it's not as visually pleasing but it does avoid any potential copyright issues that embedding video content may have. I've tried to include something for everyone of all levels as my students are currently age 7 to 24+ (beginners to degree level). I've included a video drum lesson for more advanced players showing them how to develop concepts and ideas. I've included articles, drum tuning tips, what to do with old drum skins (don't throw them away), video studio tours, recording tips, gear suggestions, drum shop links (Manchester, UK only i'm afraid), ensemble opportunities and much more. I hope this helps keep you all positive and passionate about drumming during this strange time. The Drum Club is FREE, no strings attached.

 Just sign up and enjoy!