Since moving to London at twenty years old, Will has worked with a wide variety of influential musicians, including Roy Ayers, Baaba Maal, Duffy, Alex Wilson, Sola Akingbola, Eliane Correa, Snowboy, Roberto Pla, Ernesto Simpson, Giovanni Hidalgo, Eliel Lazo, Edwin Sanz, Nathan Haines, Jamiroquai Native Dancer, Archie Shepp, Ola Onabule and more. He has worked on West End shows and tours including Motown The Musical, The Lion King and Strictly Come Dancing - The Professionals. Will has performed in over thirty countries across six continents and taken lessons in Cuba, Brazil, Senegal and The USA with many of his favourite percussionists. Will regularly teaches and records from home in Peckham, South-East London. Recent home recording sessions include Sam Smith, Music of Maisha, Skinshape, Eliane Correa, Nicky Brown and more.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
A group called Red Zebra came to my school in Brighton when I was fourteen and led a brilliant junk percussion/samba workshop. I’d already been playing the violin and I remember that I took to drumming naturally. I was put to the front where I confidently led everyone else. Unfortunately, when it came to the pressure of the performance, I froze and forgot everything! I’d caused a train wreck but the teachers were supportive and still encouraged me to continue with percussion, assuring me I had a talent.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
Immediately after the workshop performance there was a local music shop, Adaptatrap Percussion, who had an outdoor stall for the day on the seafront. I spent hours with them, fascinated by all the different percussion instruments they had from around the world. Later I took lessons on Latin American percussion from Pat Power who worked there part time, as well as weekly lessons on tabla from Steve Morley. The next year I was also taking drum lessons at school, studying and switching to orchestral percussion in my local youth orchestra and going to weekly West-African and Brazilian drumming groups. I couldn’t get enough!
What instruments/resources did you have?
I was generously gifted a pair of congas by the owner of the music shop after doing my work experience there. I had a set of tabla, a present from family in India and I am lucky to have supportive parents who bought me a Djembe and later a drum kit and xylophone when things began to get serious.
Do you have any advice for young percussionists during this stage of education?
I played violin until grade 8 but I have no qualifications at all on percussion. That’s not something I’m proud of but I do believe that grades and exams are only part of the picture and I’ve always learned best through playing with other (better) musicians. Be open to all styles of music and discover what resonates with you. Don’t be scared to introduce yourself (online and in person) to other musicians. People will want to give you opportunities if they see you are passionate about the same things they are.
With your knowledge and experience now, what performance opportunities would you suggest for young percussionists to engage with?
Get involved in your local music scene. I think I must have been in more groups and bands when I was in my late teens than any other time in my life and through regular rehearsals, concerts and performance opportunities, I quickly got over my initial stage fright. You can also start your own groups. Get used to playing with a metronome as nothing improves your playing more than recording yourself, listening back, adjusting and repeating. You don’t need fancy mics to start, just make the most of whatever you have available to you.
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
I knew by the time that I’d begun sixth form college that this was what I was going to do. I was often hiding percussion instructional books inside my text books and listening to music in between classes. I was obsessed and regrettably came away with some disappointing A levels as a result.
After school, where did you continue your studies and who did you learn with?
I went to as many live gigs as possible, becoming a familiar face in the Brighton music scene. I was lucky that there were some world class musicians in Brighton and many more musicians regularly passing through on tour. Any time I saw a percussionist whose playing I liked, I would ask them if they had time to give me a lesson. It was always nerve racking, sneaking backstage and meeting those musicians but everyone said yes when they saw I was genuine and I formed lasting friendships with many of my favourite percussionists around the word.
I also began travelling up to London regularly to take lessons with Robin Jones and later Dave Pattman. On my third lesson, Dave told me he was no longer going to teach me, suggesting a better way for me to learn was for us to play gigs together. The next thing I knew, Dave had recommended me to Alex Wilson, who soon invited me to join his salsa orchestra when I was 19. Enthusiasm and potential often forgave my lack of experience.
I was still living at home several months later, spending my money travelling regularly to London when I met Son Veneno at a Salsa jam session. An Australian raised, multicultural group of virtuoso musicians, all a few years older than me. They had moved to London from Sydney to make a go of it and were looking for a percussionist. I auditioned and moved into their four bedroom flat in Whitechapel a few weeks later. Sharing with six or more musicians in London who liked the same music that I did, I couldn’t believe my luck!
Why did you decide this pathway?
Music college was the sensible route. There have been times when it would have been helpful to have a stronger classical grounding (not to mention a degree) but in many ways, the path I chose was not so different and both routes have their advantages. All the members of Son Veneno were disciplined, encouraging but not at all shy to tell me when I wasn’t up to the standard expected of me. Being amongst other musicians in my age range gave me the reality check I needed and a big push forward. We rehearsed most days for many hours, then came home and hustled for work, both for the group and for ourselves. In the downtime we took it in turns to play each other our favourite music from all over the world and I learned to be less blinkered in my musical tastes. We toured all over the UK and Europe and all the money we earned either separately or together went into the same pile to pay the bills.
What happened next?
The band had been together for many years before I joined and I had gotten used to having to learn their old and new repertoire very quickly. I soon had a set list of well over 100 songs that I was expected to know from memory. This skill served me in good stead and I began covering for many other percussionists when they were double booked. I continued to play with Alex Wilson and also performed for the first time with Snowboy, Roy Ayers, Pucho Brown, Nathan Haines, Marc De Clive Low and many more. It was a really creative and intense arrival onto the London music scene. I made lots of mistakes and figured most things out as I went along. After more than a year, the band missed their families and took me back with them to Sydney. We toured around Australia and New Zealand but after 7 months, we all needed a break and I moved back to London with the aim of becoming a session musician.
You specialise in Latin American percussion. How did you get into this and what would your advice be to young percussionists wanting to go down this route?
Percussion is such an all-encompassing word and percussionists are expected to be much more versatile these days. Through harvesting an interest in music from around the world, I found an affinity for Latin American percussion. My mum bought me a VHS of Anga Diaz’s excellent instructional video, when I was starting out, where Anga demonstrates his advanced techniques on five drums. I remember borrowing more drums from a friend and trying to run before I could walk. I was also inspired by Anga’s openness to playing his instrument in all styles of music. When that video wore out, a good friend lent me a copy of Giovanni Hidalgo’s instructional video, Conga Virtuoso. I bought my own copy on DVD and even invested in a portable DVD player so I could watch it on the bus/in the bath/whilst I was walking up the stairs to practice… there was always something new to learn from the same information. All of these videos are on YouTube now but it can be both a blessing and a curse to have that much information at your fingertips all the time. Once I saw Giovanni’s video, I focused only on that for a some time. Playing just one drum and listening to his every word, really helped sort my technique out. I joined a local salsa band on timbales but I also took my one conga on my back to jazz jams, funk, Brazilian gigs… I spent the daytimes alone, practicing and the evenings playing with people, anywhere they’d let me. The most important thing with any style of music is to get out there and get involved in the culture. Learn about the history of the musicians, go to the gigs, eat the food and have a good time. If you show respect and passion for the music, the people will welcome you with open arms. Educating yourself is key. If you have a song you like, find out who played on it. If you have a favourite musician, you can type their name into Discogs.com and see almost every track they’ve ever played on.
You have performed with many artists, theatre productions, major tv shows and film. What do you enjoy about the ‘portfolio career’ of a percussionist?
It’s healthy to play a wide variety of music and mix with lots of different kinds of people. It’s also a good idea to hedge your bets!
Are there any challenges?
Yes, every gig is different but they all require the same basic skill sets like being organised, turning up on time and doing your homework. I’ve definitely learned this lesson the hard way, having not given some gigs the respect that they deserve and then getting caught out. That’s a horrible feeling. It’s great to be over prepared, even if the best thing to do on the gig is to forget everything you’ve planned and be open to going in a new direction.
You were a percussionist for 3 years on the West End Show Motown the Musical, what was this like?
Shows and musicals vary greatly in their enjoyment depending on the music you’re playing and the people you’re playing with. Motown was an absolute joy from start to finish and I now have a deeper love and knowledge of that music. I learned a lot from playing with all of the members of the fifteen-piece band, especially Hugh Wilkinson and Justin Shaw on percussion and drums and the amazing deps who came in. I enjoyed changing my headphone mix frequently and finding something new to focus on. I recorded myself and listened back a lot, trying to play it a little better each time. I was sad when the show closed but it’s healthy to move on to something else. It can be helpful to have an easy life for a while and the chance to focus on some other things, like trying to get a mortgage, getting fit or even using the regular money to take time off and study. It’s easy to see how people can stay on a show for decades but you have to work hard not to lose motivation or develop bad habits.
As a freelancer, what is your advice on sustainability of work and your views on success?
Like most musicians I know, there are times when I feel happy and successful and times when I compare myself too much with others, worrying about the future or lack of security. Experience has taught me that things usually work out in the end. Being reliable, versatile and trying your best on each job is the tried and tested way to being asked to work again.
Do you have any other strings to your bow?
I’m not a bad cook.
What is your career highlight so far?
I can be a nervous traveller but I’ve never regretted saying yes to opportunities. I met and spoke with Baaba Maal after a gig where he was a guest singer. He was surprised that I knew the names of the percussionists in his own band and he generously invited me to his own music festival in his hometown of Podor, Senegal to meet and play with them. I got to see the most incredible musicians play, take lessons and perform and record with Baaba Maal and other great musicians. I also had the opportunity in 2019 to rehearse and perform with Giovani Hidalgo. He was the surprise guest of honour on a gig with Sola Akingbola. I can die happy.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
Playing music with people is one of the best feelings in the world and it opens the door to experiences and opportunities that no other profession provides. My chances of dying rich are slim but I will have plenty of good stories.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young percussionist thinking about a career in music?
1. Say yes to new challenges and opportunities, especially if they scare you.
2. Practice hard but remember that music is social and you should get out there and play with people.
3. Play every note with intention and care.
If you would like to find out more about Will, check out his website:
Gon Bops Percussion gonbops.com
Protection Racket Cases protectionracket.com
CRS Cymbal Resonance System crsnorway.com
Will's detailed sample pack:
Rattly and Raw rattlyandraw.com