Ryan Brown: Pure Genius

By David Barsalou and Shawn Meehan



50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants – The Cease & Desist Tour - The Academy of Music - Northampton, Massachusetts  8/4/2017

Ryan Brown in no uncertain terms is a truly amazing and one of a kind musician…His chops are…Otherworldly. I've seen and heard a lot of great drummers in my life. Ryan is extraordinary, as are all of the players in Dweezil Zappa’s band. They are all off the charts brilliant. In my humble opinion, I witnessed seven musical geniuses onstage that night. It really took me quite some time to decompress from what was a truly awe-inspiring experience…WOW !! Ryan was in overdrive pushing the band to its absolute limit, literally doing five different things at once, all night long. Witnessing his hands and feet working independently coupled with his vocals was surreal.

The band ran through a non-stop repertoire of over 30 tunes with an audience of hard–core Zappa fans eating it all up. Frank would have been proud to see how faithfully his son Dweezil has carried on his legacy. There were lots of familiar Zappa tunes as evidenced by the numerous audience members singing along.

Ryan + Shawn.jpg

Shawn Meehan on Ryan Brown

Playing the music of Frank Zappa is an immense undertaking. It involves a deep relationship with the repertoire and dedication to mastery. Zappa was a notorious taskmaster who demanded the most of his musicians. It appears that Dweezil is no different. He and his carefully selected musicians demonstrate a disciplined, yet fun and creative approach to preserving the legacy of FZ.

 Prerequisites for playing this music include control over odd meter, odd groupings, metric modulation, uptempo, slow tempo and everything in between. That’s only the beginning. A drummer must be able to pull all this off night after night no matter the conditions of the venue or how much sleep you got on the bus ride the night before. Not to mention, one must have the ability to play this music with all the subtlety, nuance, and often sheer power that is required.

Ryan Brown’s gift is in his undying passion for all things Zappa. He has been a fan of the music from his earliest formative years behind the drum set. It is obvious upon hearing him perform that he has dedicated many hours to learning the Zappa repertoire. Dweezil’s band draws from all eras of Zappa, from Freak Out through Roxy and Elsewhere and One Size Fits All, up to Zappa’s later material in the 80’s. They even stop off at some 200 Motels along the way. The repertoire is constantly being expanded with new material for every tour. The exuberance of diving deep into the Zappa vault is seen in Ryan’s face when he performs classic and somewhat obscure numbers such as Holiday in Berlin and Rollo. These are tunes for the hardcore fans, of which he is perhaps the biggest.

Another striking aspect of Ryan’s playing is his ability to capture the vibe of each Zappa era. Consider that Zappa albums number over 100 with almost twenty different drummers. Ryan manages to evoke many of these drummers while still retaining his own voice within the ensemble. For some of the darker moodier pieces on Freak Out his touch and sensibility adapts and the listener is right back there in 1966. If you close your eyes during some of the tom runs on Echidna’s Arf of You from the Roxy sessions, for example, you’d swear it was Chester Thompson with all the power and depth of sound. You can hear Dave Logeman and Vinnie Colaiuta with some of the more linear and roto-tom infused grooves. The power and double bass drum skills of Terry Bozzio are there too!

 Ryan owns it all and he’s worked hard to get there. The twists and turns of a piece such as Inca Roads are easily navigated with Ryan Brown at the helm. He has spent countless hours transcribing and perfecting such daunting and statistically dense pieces as The Black Page #1 and #2, Sinister Footwear and The Evil Prince only to have them filed away after one or two tours, all in a continuation of the evolution of the Zappa Universe.

Ryan Brown Biography

Ryan Brown is a professional drummer and percussionist in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his gig as the drummer for Dweezil Zappa, he plays with Los Angeles-based bands The Young Royals, Black Belt Karate, SexTapes, AM/FM, The Fuxedos and Madras, and in the bands of artists Arrica Rose, Karem Malicki-Sanchez, Colin Armstrong, Josh Canova, Space Oddity and rapper J Naugh-T.

He has toured with Taiwanese pop star Chyi-Chin and L.A. bands OWL and Ultraviolet, performed on “Last Call with Carson Daly” with Ingrid Michaelson and played the Bern Jazz Festival in Switzerland with R&B artist Niki Haris. He has recorded tracks and albums with producers Marti Frederiksen, Mark Hudson, Mikal Reid, Russ Irwin, Rob Seals, Glen Laughlin, Rob Shrock, Brian Dobbs, Klaus Derendorf, Brian Paturalski, Billy Morrison, Larry Crane and David Weisberg, including the hit single “The Real Thing” from Bo Bice.

Ryan can also be heard on releases by Foreigner, Circus Diablo, Hannah Montana, Clay Aiken, Cassie Davis, Nick Lachey, Jesse McCartney, Heather Graham, Suzie McNeil (Rock Star INXS) and Stephanie McIntosh, as well as on the movie soundtracks for Ice Age: Continental Drift (Adam Schlesinger), Kung Fu Panda (Hans Zimmer and John Powell) and The Dark Knight (Hans Zimmer). He’s performed on recordings with Alex Lifeson, Earl Slick, Elliot Easton and Rudy Sarzo.

Ryan has also appeared as a sideline musician in numerous TV shows and movies, including Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End, Desperate Housewives, Jag and Samantha Who?. He plays all styles of music, including rock, R&B, jazz, ska, funk, blues, folk and country. He is on the drum faculty at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California, and teaches private lessons as well. A native of Denver, Colorado, he has played drums and percussion since he was 11 years old. Ryan graduated from Indiana University with a degree in jazz studies and percussion.


Buddy Rich: From Muppets To Master

By Ryan Brown (from the NSMD archives)

"As a kid, I remember seeing Buddy Rich for the first time on The Muppet Show, in a drum battle with Animal (drummer Ronnie Verrell). At that point in time, I had a little Sears toy drum set and was playing rags and Dixieland music with my mom, who is a fantastic pianist. I didn’t have any real drummer references; I was only 4 years old.

In the time before YouTube and VHS/DVD concert and instructional videos, it was very difficult to find any music to watch. If you couldn’t go see concerts, there were only a handful of TV shows that had bands, especially during the daytime when kids could watch. The Muppet Show with Buddy was the first real chance I had to watch a drummer and to understand how it is possible to make the sounds you hear on a record. This was monumental at that age—Buddy on The Muppet Show basically connected the dots for me about how to potentially achieve these sounds from hitting drums and what it LOOKED like to play drums.

As I grew older, I remember seeing a rerun of Buddy sitting in on The Tonight Show, in a drum battle with Ed Shaughnessy. It was incredible. You couldn’t record these shows yet. You had to watch them when they aired, and you had to soak it all in during those few minutes. It wasn’t possible to rewind it to analyze exactly what was happening. I also remember during this time waiting all day for certain videos to show on MTV. If the one you wanted to see was on while you ran to the bathroom, you missed it!

I realize now how lucky I am that BUDDY RICH was the first drummer I ever saw on TV—he helped me see what drumming really is. He was so fluid; everything seemed so effortless. There always seemed to be this constant “churning” feeling under everything he was playing—him soloing with what seemed like an endless snare roll underneath everything. Speed. SPEED! He could play so fast it didn’t seem possible. It seemed like he never got tired, and he also never seemed to run out of ideas. And his dynamics! He had the ability to grab your attention by dropping way down in volume and building his solos back up. He would also slow down and speed up during his solos, to create an amazing dramatic effect. One thing that has always stuck in my head was his posture. That sort of hunched-over, leaning-to-one-side, looking-out-of-the-corner-of-his-eyes vibe. THAT was what it looked like to be a badass drummer! He also had so many amazing tricks; he was a true showman.

The first time I heard his West Side Story Medley drum solo I was floored. It was so smooth and fluid. No one else played like that. I would listen to that solo over and over trying to figure out what was going on. Rich Versus Roach was another recording I couldn’t get enough of. Buddy died when I was 10, and I never got to see him live. When I was in high school I was fortunate enough to attend the Mile High Jazz Camp in Boulder, Colorado for a few summers. The drum teacher at the camp was Butch Miles. Butch is amazing and was the first professional big band drummer I actually got to see in person. Being able to sit next to Butch and watch him play in that style, and talk to him about Buddy, was an incredible experience. He helped me decipher what Buddy was doing; he helped me break it down so it was possible to practice it, and hopefully someday attain. Butch is an incredible drummer and teacher, and he was a HUGE influence on me as well (in addition to helping me learn Buddy licks).

Armed with this new knowledge, coupled with listening to lots of Buddy, I began trying to apply these patterns to my big band playing. As always with drumming, I know some of this has crept into all styles I play to this day. Because Buddy was the first drum soloist I’d ever heard, and the first drummer I ever saw play, he set the bar for me at the highest of heights. At first, he was a guy I didn’t know playing with Muppets; I soon realized he was the Master."

Shelly Manne said...                                                     

"The ride beat is the easiest and the most difficult thing a drummer will ever play".

I love this Shelly Manne quote. As you get older you begin to realize that the seemingly simple things are the most difficult to do. Drumming is all about keeping time and making the music groove and feel good. Any particular pattern may seem easy at first, but to make it groove and feel good is something else entirely.

When I play, I'm constantly thinking about the space between the notes. I'm always subdividing in my head to make sure every hit lands where I want it to. For the jazz beat, I hear constant rolling triplets in my head. For rock and Latin beats, I hear straight 8th notes. 

At faster tempos, the jazz ride pattern may seem easy to play. There is less space between the notes, which makes it easier. At slow tempos, there is MORE space between the notes, which makes it WAY more difficult. Subdividing at slow tempos, and keeping the groove, is one of the most difficult things we as drummers do. Playing at slow tempos is hard and takes a lifetime of practice to get good at. Mel Lewis used to talk about how difficult ballads are to play perfectly. Mel once commented, “I never played a perfect ballad”. The analogy I like to use is shooting pool. If the cue ball is 6 inches from the ball you are trying to hit, it's not that hard. You have a very high chance of hitting the ball you are aiming at. If the cue ball is 5 feet away, it is MUCH harder! The probability of you hitting the ball you are aiming at goes down considerably and takes lots of concentration. This is the same as playing the jazz ride pattern or any other beat. Faster tempos: less distance between the notes; not as difficult. Slower tempos: more distance; more difficult.

Shelly's quote is proof that as you get older and gain more experience you learn that making grooves feel good at all tempos is a lifelong challenge. A beat that you've played your entire life may be the one you still need to practice the most. 

Ryan Brown lives in Los Angeles, where he’s been playing drums professionally for nearly 20 years. He tours with Dweezil Zappa, records and performs with numerous other artists, and teaches as well. He earned a Bachelor of Music Degree from Indiana University in Jazz Studies and Percussion, where he was a student of famed rock drummer Kenny Aronoff and earned the prestigious Performer’s Certificate. Ryan can be heard on Dweezil’s latest solo record, Via Zammata’.


The Dweezil Zappa Choice Cuts! World Tour begins on February 20, 2018