Note: the grip and high action
The holding of the sticks was unusual, but not unique, with the end being fully within the hand ie the "correct" positioning is the stick extending through the hand to some degree. The snare was also positioned relatively low with Baker seated high. More unusual was the positioning of the top toms, which were flat rather than angled. This was all related to the grip it allowed Baker to apply great but economic power in his stroke through a combination of gravity, shoulder/forearm muscle and wrist while remaining very flexible and loose and retaining subtle finger control. It also allowed for rim shots (rim and batter hit simultaneously) on the toms but the downside was occasional rim miss-hit sounds. This produced an explosive sound which caused considerable problems in studio recordings but was extremely effective live.
Competition bicycle riding as a teenager gave Ginger Baker two invaluable assets: stamina and powerful legs. He used those legs to great effect in the Toad climax "with the locomotive-like sixteenth note hammering on his twin bass drums"[Cianci]. It is not readily obvious but Baker often alternated his foot between hi-hat and left bass to create even more complex patterns.
Ginger makes no claims to any technical brilliance in his drumming as it is built "on the rudiments". His approach is much like that of Art Blakey in that it is an unsophisticated driving style. Though, like Blakey, Baker is fully schooled in all those rudiments: flams, ruffs, paradiddles etc. His signature device is the flam triplet using multiple drums. He skillfully uses those devices over his full kit and in combination, with the result that it becomes transparent. Phil Seaman tutoring was critical in developing this mastery of the fundamentals - the "Traintime" pattern is based on a Phil Seaman exercise
The extended rhythmic patterns on the toms are profoundly African influenced. In reality his drumming evolved into an African approach as he distilled his jazz technique to the power rock technique involving clearly defined rhythmic patterns in the high volume environment of Cream. After Cream his drumming readily fitted into an African percussion context.
The cymbal work is less subtle, relying on the array for variety rather than playing technique (this statement does not apply these days). Never the less his use of cymbals was far more subtle than any other in the pop/rock world at the time - "Tales of Brave Ulysses". However his hi-hat playing is of the highest order (the Max Roach influence). Listen closely to the body and jam of "White Room" which is all hi-hat except for a few crashes. Also "Doing that Scrapyard Thing" where he uses one of his favourite devices hi-hat between the beats. His use of brushes is now rare in rock. Considering the high volume environment its use acompanying Eric on "Stepping Out" was very adventurous and also stunningly effective. It has never been matched in Rock music and nothing like it exists in Jazz.
Baker is not a fast drummer, relying on the complex interaction of all his limbs. But without doubt he can play fast as shown on the live "Sitting on Top of the World" where he opens with a tight buzz roll and then unleashes a lightening tom run. Neither is he a busy drummer preferring to fill holes and accentuate rather than play lots of notes with "Politician" (studio and live) being the best example: ride cymbal holding the beat, selected placing of snare beats between the riff notes while the bass drums, selectively, reinforce the riff.
The solos, by Jazz standards, were uncomplicated as they largely stayed in 16th-note divisions. He can, and occasionally did, play more complexly. This limited way of playing was effective because it allowed the rock audience to come to terms with the concept of a drum solo. Baker kept it simple so that the audience could follow the logical development much the same as Clapton's pentatonic scales were easier to listen to. Straight jazz playing would not have worked and would not have gotten Baker the standing ovations he received. This upset many jazz drummers - Buddy Rich in particular who even parodied Toad at a concert in England. But now, with hindsight, Baker's playing was much closer to jazz, and more interesting, than the solos of other Rock Drummers. He helped many to expand their musical horizons and discover jazz.
Ginger Bakers Cream drum kit(s)
has one of the most recognisable sounds in Rock music. The American drum manufacturers
were still in their golden age with their stockpiles of aged wood. Zildjian was also still
manufacturing their cymbals in the traditional style. This was all to change in the
70s but thats not relevant to this story.
Note: Ludwig Fittings
The production approach of the time was inconsistent resulting in kits that were bad sounding, good sounding and great sounding. A master drummer knew what a great kit sounded like and Baker assembled one. Baker had what is now defined as a "classic" kit which, by todays standards is virtually a custom made kit.It is notable that Ludwig provided a new kit for the final tour. This kit included Ludwig fittings and the snare was also a Ludwig (a 5" Supra-phonic). However the snare was customised with a very unusual raised batter, presumably to give a fuller sound closer to the Leedy's 6 1/2" and to enable almost continuous rimming. The cymbal array remained unchanged.
The new kit (Blind Faith): note the chrome snare with raised
Baker always played with all heads attached, even in the studio. This gives his drums, by todays standards, a unique sound. These days the bass drums are invariable miked without the head or through a hole in it (including Baker in the post Airforce era). Typical studio miking of the day was bass drum and one overhead for the rest of the kit. Baker was comprehensively miked for the time (Disraeli Gears and on) which gave his drums a great sound: bass drums separate, snare separate and a left right spread on toms and cymbals. These days such miking is considered minimal though such a minimalist approach has seen some revival.
In Live performances Baker played unmiked. The only reinforcement was what was picked up via his announcement mike and the vocals mikes through the PA. On the Final tour of the USA some very rudimentary miking was used with a single omni-directional mike between the bass drums. This lack of miking was the norm for all drummers. This changed in 1969 when Baker was comprehensively miked on the Blind Faith tour.
Bakers physical power and the volume of his Ludwig Kit allowed him to cut through the volume of the dual stacks. This is evidenced on the audience bootlegs but what is also in evidence is that the stacks often overwhelmed the drums. The subtlety of his playing was often drowned, which most other players avoided by not being subtle at all. However the sound of the drums is a hi-lite of the remastered releases. The remastering from the original tapes has clarified the drums, however the cymbals are strangely recessed with a decided lack of sizzle (a case of heavy handed filtering?).
The key to the Baker sound is the combination of a balanced, tuned kit and a superbly balanced playing technique. Among all drummers there is none better than Bakers balanced quadrapedal playing, again due to Seaman's teaching - "he told me to do everything left handed including undoing my fly". Each limb contributes equally to his sound and thus is one of the few, to this day, that can make maximum use of the double kit. It is notable that The Grateful Dead and the Allman Bros Band" used two drummers to provide a percussive drive no greater than that that Baker alone achieved with Cream.
A superb portrait by the late Linda Eastman ne McCartney
"Baker...is the baddest-looking English cat I have ever seen,
reminsiscent of one of Dickens' innumerable low-life villains" (Heineman and top quote)
Pt1 Pt2 Pt3
© Graeme Pattingale, 1999.
Updated Jan 28, 2001, © Graeme Pattingale, 2001
Principal Sources: John Platt, "Disraeli Gears", Chris Welch, "Cream: Strange Brew", Alan Heineman "Impressions of Cream" 'Downbeat' June 1968, various Ginger Baker interviews, the Hot Licks video "Ginger Baker: Master Drum Technique" and Chip Stern (producer of Ginger's 'Going Back Home' CD).
Ginger Baker's Contemporaries: Jon Hiseman, Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon, John Bonham