The Bill Bruford Simmons Kit Project

My 10 piece, Simmons SDS 9 electronic drum kit was actually inspired by drummer Bill Bruford's Simmons SDS 7 kit, and the music of his 1987 groups; Earthworks, David Torn's Cloud About Mercury and Kazumi Watanabe. Following his forward thinking and Rototom driven solo group, Bruford burst back onto the scene with the Simmons electronic drums in 1981 with the reincarnated King Crimson, using the brand new Simmons SDS 5 kit and pads. After the success of that tour, Bruford would receive the new SDS 7 kit, and put them to good use during subsequent tours with King Crimson and others, before moving on to the ill-fated Simmons SDX.

I was fortunate to see Bruford's original Earthworks group, featuring Iain Ballamy, Django Bates and Mick Hutton at least 4 times; in Boston, two shows in NYC and in Washington DC. Seeing me outside of D.C.'s Bayou nightclub, and wearing a new Earthworks t-shirt; (I got it from one of Robert Fripp's guitar students-turned drum tech), Bruford asked me how I got that shirt. I told him I'd seen him at all of the aforementioned shows; he laughed and told me I deserved the "Bruford medal of valour". I thanked him and said "This is how I spend my summer vacation. It was then that he said m to me, "You look remarkably like Billy Cobham..." After the show, I was allowed onto the stage an watch the disassembly of the kit Bruford dubbed, "The Beast"...

Bruford would tour again with David Torn's "Cloud About Mercury" group, featuring the late Mick Karn and Michael White; I was lucky to catch them right after moving to L.A... His shows with Kazumi Watanabe were seen only in Japan. These were the last performances using that particular drum set-up before Bruford would move back into the world of King Crimson again and duo performances with Patrick Moraz using the Simmons SDS 9.

Needless to say they all blew my mind, and Bruford's use of those all-black Simmons drums were nothing short of amazing. Back in those days, I was also working quite a bit with my friend Stephen Bray and Madonna. Bray had several electronic kits lying around; Yamaha, Roland, Simmons, and Madonna's keyboard player/producer Patrick Leonard even had a Dynacord Rhythm Stick I could play around with. The fast moving world of electronic percussion eventually saw Bray moving away from the Simmons and into the world of the Linn Drum and programming, so the "old" SDS 9 kit gathering dust in the studio ultimately became mine.

Bruford came to NAMM that year, demonstrating the new Simmons SDX with drummer Chester Thompson, and made a few in store appearances at Guitar Center in L.A... As fate would have it; I did some side work for Guitar Center, and got my hands on 5 of those "in store" Simmons SDS 9 pads; bought some extra Ultimate Support Drum Rack extensions and my 1988 "Bruford" kit was nearly complete.

I couldn't afford the outrageously over priced SDS 7 brain, or the DX 21 Bruford used, however Roland was already well on the way to putting Simmons out of business with their user friendly and quite affordable brain: The Roland PM-16 MIDI interface! 16 inputs, layering, multiple MIDI channels per pad, and I was good to go. I added an assortment Alesis D4 and DMPro drum modules, an Akai S9000 sampler, and with some great programming by my chum Seth Elgart, a Yamaha TX-7 module I got from Bray to duplicate Bruford's Yamaha DX-21 sounds. After seeing Bruford and the videos of his performances, I taught my self how to play many of his tunes using that kit; patterns rhythmic figures and the like.

That came in handy and for the next few years, I put the kit to good use in a variety of settings, recordings and performances; in Boston with my group "Feat of Clay" (which covered some of the music of Cloud About Mercury), in Dallas and NY with Steve Ellison's "Bangtime"; my duo "K2" with Seth Elgart; in DC with the Zappa tribute band "The Other People", my first incarnation of the "Unidentified Flying Quartet", and later "The Madmen", with Drummstick bandmates Jack Wright and Neil Mezebish.

By 1995, I'd begun to build what would become my original, digital MIDI drum controller, "The Drummstick". That took a life of it's own and set me on the path I still tread today. As time wore on, I loved not having to cart the "Beast" or any other  kit around! In 2007, bought my first Zendrum, and in 2013, bought the very first "Zendrum EXP", made to be played more vertically, (just like the Drummstick) and was honored to be featured with it in digitalDrummer magazine.

Still seems like yesterday, but 20 years have passed since those halcyon days. Technology in the world of digital percussion has far surpassed the 1980s, even so, after Bruford's infamous SDX equipment meltdown during the Yes re-Union tour, he refused to use the Simmons or any other electronic drum equipment, heralding the era of the all-acoustic Earthworks and his subsequent retirement from public performance in 2008. Bruford told me that "Everything is designed to go bad..."

Nevertheless, the electronic drum world continues to grow; Yamaha and Roland still dominate the market; Ddrum, Alesis and even Simmons has made something of a comeback. That being said, I never cared for the look of the modern electronic drum pads. Call it nostalgia, but nothing compared to the iconic hexagonal look of the Simmons; even they have abandoned their iconic hexagonal look in favor of the circular style.

Recently, I've been working on a variety of projects that re-visit the classic, fusion music of the 1970s, like pieces by the Mahavishnu Orchestra with composer Steve McQuarry, using my Billy Cobham inspired kit. Then the thought occurred to me;  "Why not revisit some of the music of Bruford with the Simmons kit?"

A quick visit to the Simmons online museum, gave me all the info I needed for refurbishing my old pads (with Kiwi Express shoe polish!), and links to ebay to replace a few of the pads and tom holders that were on their last legs. I'd taken very good care storing the kit over the years, which saved my bacon, and my friend Jim Lang gave me a bunch of old, black, Ultimate Support tubes to update my drum rack. Since I've been using the Zendrums, I've gotten a variety of MacBooks and software over the years; BFD2, GarageBand, iDrum, Logic Pro, etc. I've still got a bunch of Roland PM-16s lying around, but I couldn't bring my self to use it's 1986 technology anymore, so I've updated it with an Alesis DM10 and a MacBook Air for all of his sounds and samples. The latency issues with the PM-16 were gone, and before I knew it, the Bruford Simmons kit was reborn!


I've also outfitted it with an old Viking 14" x 6.5" snare, with a Pintech trigger mounted inside and a Hart Dynamic Magnum mesh head. I've got my pair of Mackie SRM 450 watt monitors, or my 500 watt Barbetta SE 41 for live performances and my Raxxess rack with a Mackie 1602 Mixer, Alesis NanoVerb, PreSonus AudioBox and the old Alesis D4 for those classic '80s sounds if I need them. Don't get me wrong, these pads aren't anywhere near as responsive as mesh heads or the newer technology, but I use the ProMark "HotRods", another thing I learned from Bruford playing on the often unforgiving surfaces.

It is interesting to note that like Bruford, I also use an acoustic snare and cymbals, (mine however are all Zildjians, not Paiste), and the percussion stand that duplicated the one Bruford used in his Earthworks/David Torn kit, (he used a remote hi-hat with Kazumi Watanabe), with cowbells and wood blocks. I'll be recording and performing with this kit in 2016, alongside fellow Feat of Clay bandmate, trumpeter Eric Dahlman, and with FutureJazz founder, guitarist Peter McKibben, (McKibben's group ironically featured one of the newer Simmons kits!).

Bruford would return with the aforementioned SDX kit with his second Earthworks line-up for the "Dig?" tour, ("Every time I'd get used to playing and learning on one kit, Simmons would take it away and give me the new one..."), however by the time he returned with the 1990s "All Heaven Broke Loose" Earthworks tour, the kit more resembled his hybrid acoustic/electric kit with Patrick Moraz. The days of the all-Simmons kits were gone; the "wall of pads" he used with King Crimson and Yes were no more, and when the $10,000.00 SDX and it's back up died during a solo with Alan White at Madison Square Garden, his relationship with Simmons had finally come to an end.  For those of us that were lucky enough to have caught Bruford in that brief window in time, witnessed the birth of electronic drumming that had never been seen before; "chordal drumming", melodies, tuned sounds and samples that gave rise to the world of electronic percussion we live in now. I'll be forever grateful.