Drummer | Producer | Composer | Clinician | Professor
Ralph’s signature groove has made him studio and live drummer of choice for artists, producers and composers worldwide and he has performed or recorded with Paul McCartney, Bjork, George Martin, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Madonna, Dionne Warwick, Quincy Jones, Diana Ross, Jeff Beck, Tori Amos, Burt Bacharach, Alison Krauss, Gary Moore, Alanis Morissette, Tom Jones, Mike Oldfield, Nik Kershaw, Ronnie Wood, The Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, Keith Emerson, and many more. Ralph toured the world in Van Morrison’s band from 1995-1999 and 2005-6, recording four albums with him. He has played on the soundtracks to over 180 movies, including Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Askhaban, Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Evita, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Gosford Park, Johnny English, Judy, King Arthur, The Last King of Scotland, Moulin Rouge and Lord of The Rings: Return Of The King. Ralph joined celtic rockers The Waterboys in 2011 and continues to record and tour internationally with the band. In a lifetime commitment to education, Ralph was first invited to teach at The Royal College of Music 29 years ago and he hasn’t stopped. He has been at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama for 10 years. Ralph shares his studio, The Bunker, with Haydn Bendall where they work together and independently on many and varied projects. He has a lifelong passion for recording and is recognised for his expertise in recording drums in particular. He has been nominated four times for the British Jazz Awards, regularly ranked top ten in Rhythm Magazine Readers Polls and won the 2003 Reader’s Poll Studio Category at mikedolbear.com. He was winner of the best drummer category at the British Jazz awards in 2006 and 2007.
Why did you take up the drums and how old were you?
I was 12 years old and I wanted to play the drums because I had very much enjoyed watching drummers play in bands. I also had a pal at school, Rob Wilson from Foote’s, who was into drums and he was a catalyst in firing up my interest in playing drums.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
My first teacher was Brian Booth, a legend amongst teachers who taught many percussionists and drummers including Mick Doran, Tony Lucas and Paul Clarvis amongst others. I started lessons in London and soon was sitting in with Brian’s rehearsal big band in Islington, London.
What instruments/resources did you have?
I started with a Maxwin by Pearl snare drum and when I showed some interest, my parents bought me a kit in the same line...red crepe covering and some Krut hi-hats and a cymbal that were truly shocking. I also had a Limpet rubber practice pad.
Do you have any advice for young drummers during this stage of education?
Find the best teacher you can. Stay inspired and enjoy playing by perhaps playing along with your favourite records. Look for as many performing opportunities as you can.
With your knowledge and experience, what performance opportunities would you suggest young drummers to engage with?
I would say go and play with everyone you can find.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
It was suggested to me by Brian, my teacher, that I could perhaps consider taking it seriously when I was about 15 years old. I was lucky enough to get my first professional gig when I was 16 and...I never stopped!
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I went to The Guildhall and studied with David Corkhill, David Johnson, David Arnold and Terry Emery. I also took a few one-off drum lessons from various teachers over the years.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
It was The Ken Mackintosh Band, a working function band. It was an amazing learning experience and Ken was very kind to me and taught me so much about keeping time and making a good sound. We were playing two to three gigs a week and it was very tiring doing that and going to school. I got the gig when Ken heard me play in a pub near my home in South Norwood, London. We were playing jazz and some funky music and it was a lovely band that had some great up and coming players in it such as Andrew Panayi.
What happened next?
I played with a few different bands of various styles around the London area and met some long-time friends such as bassist Phil Mulford and guitarist Morris Michael. My favourite early band was a funk outfit called Push based in Slough. It was the time of Jazz Funk and Off The Wall by Michael Jackson and we used to play originals and some covers from that record plus some Grover Washington. We were playing fair sized gigs (sometimes 1000+) and supported a few bands including Shalamar. After that I started paying with some guys from the London gospel scene: Junior Edwards the incredible and sorely missed bass player and his wonderful brothers Karlos and Phil. Karlos is still trailblazing in the scene and is one of the funkiest percussionists in the planet. On guitar was Ronny Jordan…he went on to become a smooth jazz star in the states. Gorgeous guys and fantastic players.
You have performed with artists such as Paul McCartney, Bjork, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Madonna, James Brown and Lady Gaga amongst many more (!), what do you enjoy about this aspect of your career and do you have any highlights?
I enjoy all of it and feel so lucky to have done some nice things. I have had to pinch myself when playing with heroes such as The Count Basie Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, Burt Bacharach, Van Morrison with Bono sitting in with the band... I also enjoy being in the studio and playing on scores for people like Hans Zimmer or Alexandre Desplat is a real buzz because they are so incredible. I often get to play with my old friend Hamish Stuart who is one of the greatest artists in the world. That’s a privilege.
You are the drummer for the Waterboys, recording and touring internationally, and were previously the drummer for Van Morrison's band. What is this like and does being a member of a band differ from your other playing?
Being in a band is a different thing to being a sideman. Both these gigs are deeply satisfying musically for different reasons. Van taught me so much about the value of a spontaneous performance onstage or in the studio and just being myself and bringing my own personality and ideas to the music. Mike Scott from The Waterboys is a consummate bandleader and is an incredible artist to work with. He gives 110% and expects it every night. He has a metronomic sense of timing and I really had to up my game when I joined the band. He also has an amazing memory for detail and can remember every moment in the show and knows what everyone should be playing at any given moment! My playing doesn’t differ in these band settings but the feel of being with a group of friends (both band and crew) who spend their lives together on the road is a marvellous experience despite the toughness of touring schedules.
You have recorded for the soundtracks of over 180 films, such as Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox, and Johnny English. How do recording sessions differ from playing live and what do you enjoy about this challenge?
Recording is more “under the microscope” than live playing and there is an opportunity to get into some detail in the music to make something happen. I do like the studio because playing in that setting is creative and one can achieve a lot with small tweaks of sound or performance. I enjoy the challenge of working with composers or producers in the studio and giving them what they are looking for...even if they don’t know what that is at the time!
You acted as a consultant for the 2012 London Olympic Opening Ceremony, co-ordinating and performing with 1,000 drummers to an audience of over 1 billion. What was the process behind the scenes and how did it feel during that incredible performance?
The Olympics were a very long process of around nine months of preparation and rehearsal. The call came from the Music Supervisor for the Ceremonies, my friend Martin Koch, who is a phenomenal musician, arranger and conductor. He asked me to help with auditioning volunteers to get the final 1,000 drummers and that’s how I started. Then I met Rick Smith from Underworld who composed the music for the opening ceremony. The task was gargantuan and I had already asked Mike Dolbear to help out with the process and Rick was already working with Paul Clarvis so we all came together and got the thing into shape. The whole segment had to be memorised and needed to be flexible in terms of length. It was a challenge to teach rhythms to the volunteers but Paul Clarvis is an amazing educator and he came up with mnemonics such as “Play The Drum So Your Mum Can See You On TV” so people could remember the rhythms. It worked brilliantly. We had twenty “Drum Captains”- a selection of friends and mainly former students of mine - who each were responsible for fifty volunteers. They did an incredible job and the producers and Danny Boyle were delighted with the whole drum segment of the ceremony. It was amazing to interface with Danny and he told us that we needed to make it a life-changing and positive experience for all the volunteers and if we didn’t do that, we would have failed. That was humbling and Danny was at many of the rehearsals high-fiving the drummers. The segment with the nurses was so moving and seeing them all backstage getting involved was wonderful and I felt very proud. The ceremony felt immensely exciting and special. It was a once in a lifetime event and to be involved was a huge privilege. I’m proud of what we all did together but it was all Danny Boyle’s ideas and I think he is a genius!
You have also performed with almost every British Orchestra, does playing as part of an orchestra differ from playing in a band?
Yes it does because most symphony orchestras play classical music, of course, and when drums fit into that it forces a different approach and dynamics. The music is often very quiet and one needs to be mindful of the flexibility in time and try to relax behind or be in front of the time to blend with the feel of the orchestra.
You are also a celebrated jazz drummer, having performed with artists such as The Count Basie Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis and Gene Harris. Where did your love of jazz start?
That’s very kind of you…! I would call myself a “working drummer” but anyhow...I always liked jazz and Brian Booth my first teacher introduced me to jazz at a young age. When I got to play in his rehearsal band, we were playing charts from Basie, Ellington etc so it was natural that I got into it. As I left Guildhall, I was lucky enough to meet some great British jazz artists such as John Etheridge and Brian Dee and they booked me on plenty of sideman gigs and introduced me to lots of musicians. I enjoyed all of it and still do.
What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a drummer?
I love the change of musical settings and people. This is stimulating and I do enjoy seeing friends and colleagues old and new.
Do you have a favourite area of work?
Not really but I am passionate about teaching.
You're also a composer, having composed, amongst many other things, music for the Trinity College London Drum Kit Syllabus. When and how did you start composing?
I have only done a bit of composing but it is something that I have enjoyed doing. I probably didn’t write anything until I was in my thirties. I write mainly library music now and it’s fun and challenging to do.
You also have a recording studio, The Bunker, where you record and act as a Producer. How did you get started with this and what do you enjoy about this side of your career?
I was always interested in recording and when I started doing sessions, I got a small recording set up together. One thing led to another and now I have a proper studio. I am very much into the recording process and so having a studio seemed the natural thing to do.
Are there any challenges?
Getting a great sound and playing a great performance are always a challenge!
Have you got any recording tips and tricks for us?
Make a good sound on your instrument and think about sound. Practice playing with a metronome so it becomes second nature. Listen to lots of inspiring music and musicians and learn from them!
You are a drum kit Professor at the Royal College of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, what is this like?
Teaching at these fine establishments is very satisfying but it can sometimes be challenging to find the time to get the hours done. All of my students are tremendously good and highly-motivated so it is fun to teach them. I often teach at home in my studio so students can get a recording experience and this is very helpful for hearing oneself and learning from that. The standard of students these days is extremely high so they keep me on my toes.
When and why did you start teaching?
I started teaching when I was at school because my music teacher asked me to teach a some younger students who wanted to learn drums. After college, I continued the process because Kevin Hathway, who was running the percussion department at RCM, asked me to come in for a master class. After this the students wanted me in again so I returned and soon after I was coming in regularly. When David Hockings took over, he wanted to make drums part of the course for all students and so I wrote a drum syllabus for them. Guildhall started as a result of students requesting me as a teacher. I have been at the RCM for 29 years now and Guildhall for 10.
What is your career highlight so far?
Oh goodness, that’s hard to say…there have been so many that have been super fun. Many concerts with Van Morrison were special and now with The Waterboys we have played some great shows. Working with David Hood from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was definitely a highlight, both musically and personally and I feel privileged to call him a friend now. Recording for John Williams for Harry Potter and Howard Shore for Lord of The Rings springs to mind too!
What is the best thing about being a musician?
Making music with incredible musicians along with the friendship and camaraderie we have. Seeing the world for free is a bonus!
Do you have any other strings to your bow?
I’m good at sleeping.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young musician thinking about a career in music?
1. Follow your heart and go for it!
2. Get the best teachers you can and work hard to improve…your whole life.
3. Stay inspired.
Any last thoughts?
Can I have a cup of tea now? :-)
If you would like to find out more about Ralph, check out his website:
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