Prince’s drummer talks peace, love and all things Gretsch
It’s no surprise that, for his 36th studio album, tentatively titled Plectrum Electrum, and his current international tour, Live Out Loud, Prince is bringing three immensely talented young women together to form 3rd Eye Girl, a band tasked with upholding high musical standards, bending to the artist’s musical whim, and having enviable fun along the way.
At the heart of 3rd Eye Girl is drummer Hannah Ford. Her versatility, which she says grew dramatically while enrolled at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, is equaled by her genuine feel for the music, honed by years of studying and performing dance.
“When you’re a little kid, you want to play the drums because they’re loud and they’re fun,” Ford says. “But there was always something that called to me whenever I played. I love making music and, maybe it’s because I was a dancer, I just love the rhythm. I love to dance and I love to make other people dance. Drumming and dancing, they go hand in hand. It’s an amazing form of expression.”
As the fourth of six talented children, Ford says she felt free to find things that brought joy to her life, and experienced tremendous support from her parents. That experience helped her develop “Peace, Love and Drums” while still in high school. The motivational program aims to give others the same courage she had to reach for their dreams.
“It’s all about inspiring and motivating people to follow their dreams and don’t give up,” says Ford. “Dedicate yourself and follow your heart. A lot of the times I go to schools and will host an assembly. I’ll perform for the kids and tie in motivational speaking to really encourage them, and let them know that the sky really is the limit.”
Upon her own graduation from high school, knowing what she wanted to do and where she wanted to pursue it as a career, she considered moving to Los Angeles. Ford says her drum instructor of two years, Paul Wertico, who also happened to be head of the jazz department at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, convinced her to attend school. Ford auditioned there and at Berklee College of Music, and received scholarship offers to both.
“I spent two years in college, and learned so much about the history of music. Paul is so smart when it comes to jazz history and music history. He actually taught the jazz history course at CCPA. I learned a lot about the history of jazz, classical music theory, classical piano, jazz music theory and jazz piano. I was in fusion combo, Brazilian combo, swing combo, hard bop combo, Latin ensemble and big band. It opened another world of music for me.
“Music is so vast that you’ll never know everything there is to know, but it was so important to just be a sponge and try to absorb as much as I could about everything. Versatility is important as a musician,” says Ford. “Sticking around those two years and going to school really opened up my mind and my playing to a bunch of different styles that I hadn’t really dug into before.”
In addition to lessons learned in the classroom, Ford says one of the most important was learning to develop a strong network and take a professional approach to building her career.
“Networking is the biggest part of this business. I’ve met so many amazing musicians that have a hard time getting their name out there, have a hard time getting that big break that we all hope for. Then I’ve met others, who maybe aren’t necessarily the most talented, that have amazing exposure and they know everybody and they’re playing all these awesome rooms and gigs,” Ford says.
“The music industry works a lot off of word of mouth and references, so it’s important to build strong relationships. You also have to make sure you remain humble and easy to work with. Nobody wants to work with a mean or arrogant person,” says Ford, “so it’s important to always stay graceful.”
As one of the fastest up-and-coming drummers in the country, and one with seemingly limitless potential, Ford could have simply jumped for the best endorsement deal. However, her love and enthusiasm for Gretsch drums came from a floor demo she experienced as a kid, not unlike one you might see at your local Guitar Center store.
“I was 12, walking around at PASIC (the Percussive Arts Society International Convention), checking out different drums and cymbals, sticks and all kinds of stuff. I sat down behind a bunch of different kits with an open mind. There was just something about Gretsch. When I sat down and hit those drums,” says Ford, “they spoke to me. Now I’m playing a USA custom kit on the [Prince] tour, and I’m in love with it. I love my Renown. I love my New Classic. I love my Catalina. They’re all so beautiful and they sound so good.”
Ford says her Gretsch USA Custom is outfitted with Evans drum heads: Black Chrome heads on the toms, and an HD Dry batter head on the snare.
“Evans heads are phenomenal. I usually play the EC2s on my toms, but I’m using the Black Chrome heads on my toms for the Prince tour. It’s the first time I’ve used those and they sound great,” Ford says.
For her cymbals, Ford says she often employs a variety of Zildjian bronze, sometimes making adjustments to best fit the sound of the band.“I’ve played Zildjian since I was 14,” says Ford, “and they’ve always been so supportive. Right now I’m using the Rezo series hi-hats, crashes and ride, with K Hybrid China cymbals. The Rezos are so versatile, and they really soar. I can use them for everything, and I do. They’re definitely my favorite cymbals right now.”
Ford says her stick preference shifted dramatically while in college, from 5B sticks to lighter, jazz model sticks.
“I was playing Vater 5Bs with purple wraps from age 13. Purple is my favorite color, so I wanted them. I’m not sure how I managed to play so long with those big sticks. At school I got some lighter sticks because I was a jazz major. I was in fusion combo, playing hard and the sticks were holding up. I realized I could just stick with those.”
A percussionist as versatile as Ford needs to have a wide-ranging arsenal at her disposal. Ford says Toca percussion offers reliable gear that delivers the authentic sound that the most demanding players are looking for.
“I love my Toca add-ons. I’m using the cowbells, timbales and congas. They all hold up so well on tour and they sound great.”
When Prince and Ford’s other bands are working with loops and samples, she says they’re all run through the Roland SPD-SX.
“With the Roland SPD-SX,” Ford says, “we put in a ton of loops and samples ahead of time, and then rehearse with all the different wacky sounds, handclaps and whatever else we can think of.”
Even while on tour with Prince, Ford is busy planning and writing for a number of side projects, including one with trained multi-instrumentalist and husband, Joshua Welton. Though the project is not ready for public release, Ford says it’s been fun and exciting to work with her husband.
“Joshua is a very talented singer/songwriter/dancer/musician. He plays sax and keys and we’ve been doing some writing and recording of our own. It’s still early in the process,” says Ford. “We have a couple of videos online, that people can check out if they just look up, I don’t know, they can search Hannah Ford and Joshua Welton and it might come up. But yeah, I’m telling you, it’s going to be crazy once it’s released.”