Drum master Bill Ray shreds light on drums and drumming with MakingMusicMag and talks shop from a pro’s perspective.
BILL RA Y found his father’s drums at 15 months old and was immediately drawn to the power of a backbeat and how it made him feel.
He was four years-old when he discovered his dream and purpose: drums and drumming. The local “drum guru” George Lawrence (who is still a friend to this day) performed a drum solo at his parents’ photography studio in Jackson, Mississippi while taking band photos, and Bill was immediately hooked.
During his teen years, he hit the road with various bands throughout the South. They played blues,vrock, country and top-40 music. In 1989, Bill Ray left Mississippi for California and began taking any and all of the gigs that came his way. He went with a group to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE and Iraq in 1991 to perform for the troops “In-Theater.”
Drumming with Ike Turner
2001 was the year Ike Turner offered Ray the “chair of a lifetime,” and Turner has said many times since that, “Billy Ray is the drummer of his soul.” It was with Turner’s group that Bill Ray became involved with creating the 2006 Grammy Award-winning album “Risin’ With The Blues”.
“With Ike, we went ‘to the top of the mountain.’ It was an amazing ride,” Bill recalls.
Since 2004, Billy Ray has played drums on upwards of 150 albums by various artists in all styles of music from rock to jazz, country, R&B, funk, and eclectic “experimental” styles. In 2015, a move from San Diego to Seattle began a new chapter in Bill’s life. Currently he instructs at Seattle Drum School and also in his own private studio.
Drumming with Paul Gilbert
Ray is the drummer for Paul Gilbert, appearing on the 2018 release Behold Electric Guitar and a world tour of 34 countries and 60+ cities. In 2018, Bill Ray collaborated with Tobias Weber for a project called: “Codex Tempore.” He’s involved with The Odd Get Even– A ongoing online collaboration with keyboardist and composer Bill Cornish; and he stays steady with an online streaming practice and learning program.
Bill Ray shreds light on drums and drumming in this video.
Let’s chat about drums with Billy Ray:
Chuck Schiele/MakingMusicMag: Good to see you, Bill Ray. I’m glad that music keeps us in touch.
BILL RAY: It’s good see you, too, Chuck. Yeah, that’s one of the best parts about music. Thank you for having me be a part of Drum Month!
CS: We’re delighted to have you with us. Okay, let’s talk about drums and drumming. Uh, one, two, three, fo’ —All Bill Ray does is eat, sleep, think and play drums. Explain yourself.
BILL RAY: Well… It beats sitting around during this “Shelter In Place” moment in time! There has been a lot of free time and it’s best applied to honing the drumming skills. I routinely play the same set of tunes daily, so as to simulate being on tour or working in a band.
Speaking of tunes: Some of the artists with whom I’ve worked and whose music I truly love allow me to receive their music tracks minus the drums; and play them live on my stream. It showcases that artist; it gives me a bit of recognition; and it allows my drums and drumming to remain sharp.
CS: Wow. Can I send you something for that?
BILL RAY: Yeah!
CS: Cool. So, especially in this way—it seems you have achieved a great deal of musical freedom through your hard work and discipline.
BILL RAY: “Discipline.” What a funny word! I was raised pretty much “free range.” Discipline was something I had to focus on, as it was never really instilled in me. To make things more complex, both OCD and ADD are part of me. So, I can either do a whole lot of nothing or a lot of many things. It’s all in the planning of one’s day. It helps to try to not have too many “Jazz Days” in a row, where there’s no plan whatsoever. Staying on point takes an effort for me.
CS: The first thing I became aware of in your playing is how closely you listen to what the band is doing. And how you become part of that musical conversation. In the times I’ve played music with you, I had the sense you could see around the corners as we approached them. Instinctively.
BILL RAY: Well, listening doesn’t just involve the ears, but rather the full body experience. I “hear with my eyes” quite a bit. Not only do I listen in the traditional sense, but also I pay close attention to mannerisms of the artist. I use that as stimulus input to further enhance the music. Watching the bandleader also keeps you out of trouble and they can’t accuse you of not paying attention! I want a bandleader to feel me traipsing around in his brain!
CS: On the subject of being the real-deal and walking the walk: While skill and proficiency are paramount, there’s more to being a successful musician than just “chops.” What are your three best non-musical practices that positively affect you as a musician.
BILL RAY: Only three, huh? Well OK!
1: Congruence within the band, music, audience and room. Get that element dialed in and it’s gonna be a great time.
2: Being easy to work with will always get you the call back. Drummers are divas to begin with (yeah I said it). We have to remember sometimes to put “that persona” in the backseat and put a muzzle on them! Ego is the #1 destroyer of anything sacred.
When I was playing with Ike Turner, you went into rehearsal and it was akin to leaving your skin at the door. Ike would be in his chair with a bag of “verbal salt.” Ready to scald your visceral self if you did something not to his liking. It was all about surrendering yourself to the music and playing what was necessary. What I learned was if one gets out of their own way, it allows the song to play itself.
Oh yeah, 3: Becoming empathetic to the flow of the music. Often times I’ll play a tune without a click track in order to feel the “humanity” that a click track tends to cover up. I love to play to tunes that were recorded with no metronome, because it forces me to get deeper into the “rhythmic curves” of the piece. And by using the aforementioned points above, they make it easier to achieve that connection with the music.
CS: What are three musical practices that positively affect you as a person?
BILL RAY: 1: Being empathetic causes me to be a better listener and I tend to feel the mood of a room going in.
2: Playing drums every day is a great focusing element. It keeps me humble, as I can readily see all the things I don’t know how to play. It blows my mind that there’s so much to explore.
3: Mastery of a concept requires teaching it to someone else. So the ability for someone to benefit from my understanding builds bridges with others. It’s just good for everyone.
CS: Do you have a daily routine or habit that keeps you tip-top?
BILL RAY: Wake up every day and ask myself, “How are you gonna pull today off?” And I get down to the practice room and play drums. I collaborate on music, answer questions (like I’m doing right now), and focus myself on the art, because once society opens back up (from the COVID-19 era), I want to be ready and dialed in! [Read about Musicians Playing it Safe in the Covid-19 Era]
CS: Obviously you’ve embraced a bit of the future with your drumming online endeavors. How is that going?
BILL RAY: I think it’s awesome. There are so many talented people on this planet that don’t get nearly as much recognition as they ought to. Having this technology available makes it easier to find those people and do something musical with them. Granted, it’ll never replace the experience of playing live together. But it’s a doorway to something greater and larger.
It seems that record companies are largely focused on profits. I’m “art-centric” and want to create that. Art is pretty much the last bastion of honesty in our society that we have left. One cannot “lie” on their instrument. They’re either gonna “stand up in it” or they are not. There’s no faking it and I have no time for fakery.
CS: Number one drumming tip that comes to mind for Bill Ray is…?
BILL RAY: Realize that your drums are not “your instrument.” But rather your sticks are. If you can make a pair of sticks “talk” on anything from a garbage can to a kitchen sink to a finely tuned snare drum, then you’re on to something! A great player can make a pillow sound awesome.
When I rehearse with Paul Gilbert, I bring a pair of brushes and a cardboard box and that’s how we do things. His space won’t support a full drumkit (or even a quarter of one!). He’s so enamored with the box method that I can’t change now even if I wanted to. A cardboard box takes everything and gives nothing but a dull “thud”… so when I actually get to play the songs on a real kit, it’s like “the chains are gone, I’m free!”… Did I mention I love playing drums?
CS: Bill Ray loves drums and drumming. Thanks for shedding a little light on drums for us. It’s great to see you and it good catching up. It’s good to see you doing well.
BILL RAY: Thank you, Chuck. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you again, for including me in MakingMusicMag.com’s Drum Month.
Check out these clips of Bill Ray playing drums.
• Livestream from Iridium Nightclub in NYC w/ Paul Gilbert
• Smithsonian Channel’s “Sound Revolution”- Episode 1
• Ike Turner Live At Montreux- DVD/CD release
• Ike Turner North Sea Jazz Fest- DVD Release
Time Space RHythm
Available in digital download right now at billraydrums.com