Ronald Bruner Jr.

THE GRAMMY WINNER TALKS TAMA, ZILDJIAN AND PLAYING THE SONG

Ronald Bruner Jr. loves a great story. And he hopes his own story will be one of honesty, passion and a sense of fun. He’s spent the vast majority of his life performing and recording professionally, having worked with artists such as Suicidal Tendencies, Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke. His work on The Stanley Clarke Band earned the young drummer a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2011, and Bruner’s current efforts join him with jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington.

Ronald Bruner Jr. loves a great story. And he hopes his own story will be one of honesty, passion and a sense of fun. He’s spent the vast majority of his life performing and recording professionally, having worked with artists such as Suicidal Tendencies, Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke. His work on The Stanley Clarke Band earned the young drummer a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2011, and Bruner’s current efforts join him with jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington.

“My first really, like, professional gig [was] with my dad and my uncle Gerald,” says Bruner. “My dad had to sub out a gig, he had to do something else, and he told my uncle, ‘Well, just use Ron Jr.,’ and I think I was 7 or 8. And I went and I played for a wedding reception, and we’re playing, you know, Kool & the Gang … I mean, you’ve got this 8-year-old with, like, a 25-piece kit,” he laughs, “… it was a beautiful moment. I think I got $75 or something like that, and I took that and immediately went to the drum store and bought sticks … I was at school, you know, with all the candy in my pocket … third-grader, I was killing it. I was killing it in third grade.”

Since that first gig, Bruner has only ever worked as a professional drummer—as he admits, “Never worked a job, don’t even know what it feels like to press a computer key … so I don’t even know what the struggle’s like,” he laughs, “I’m really not this arrogant, I’m not this cocky, I’m just [acting] cocky.” Having grown up in an entrenched musical family, music has always been, not just an option for Bruner, but the only way of life. “I don’t know anything but music, man. Music, for me, is like drinking water, it’s in my nature, so it didn’t really change me, I changed with it … it just happened, my whole family’s like that,” he says. “It’s like jumping into the ocean when I play music, I just kind of engulf myself in whatever’s happening musically. And I’m a very sensitive person, a very emotional person, so that kind of pushes what I say on the instrument … it feels good, man.”

Bruner cites his father, an acclaimed drummer who has performed with Diana Ross, The Temptations and Gladys Knight, as his continued source of motivation. “It started with my father, and my father still inspires me because my father is a person that has an incredible drive. And that’s one thing I appreciate [about] him, he is determined to [continue to move] forward. Progression. And that’s one thing I was taught as a child, and I really appreciate that. And having a father who was present and always around, it also kept the negative thing of the ’hood, kind of kept it out—’cause I was more scared of my dad than I was of my homeboys.” He adds, “… to me, the only two types of music are good and bad. And it’s all based on your opinion, you know what I mean? So, I’m inspired by good music, and now, I’m inspired by progression.”

On the topic of progression, Bruner’s selection of gear has been an ongoing progression throughout his professional career. “In a drum set, I do have a sound that I like to go for. That’s why I like TAMA because I can achieve that … I like my sound to be super present … I want it to be in your face … I like aggressive-sounding drums, that’s why I like TAMA so much,” says Bruner. “The first drum set I ever got from this company was a Starclassic Maple. Forever, I’ll live by the maple drums. The maple drums that TAMA makes are unbelievably, number one, sturdy, [they’re] consistent, like, I love the maple drums. I’ll never get away from that … I like the bubinga too though, actually.

Bubinga has a little darker bite, a little more [warmth]. And then, the new STAR drums, because the shells are thinner, they project a little louder, and [actually have a] little more bass tone.”

Bruner discusses the new flagship STAR series from TAMA, available by special order through Guitar Center. “The STAR drums, man, are some of the greatest drums ever made. And I mean that because [they have] thinner shells, but they can go anywhere, tonally. They can go anywhere. I mean, you can literally make them sound like a ’60s Beatles drum set to a 1994 jazz/fusion record … beautiful colors, beautiful finishes, great hardware … they’re magnificent pieces of work. The artwork, the craftsmanship, the inner shell with the inlay in it, I mean, you got the reinforcement hoops, [they’re] really, really great drums.”

Adorning his TAMA drums are Suede Emperor heads from Remo, a model Bruner has trusted for years. “I like the [Suede] Emperor because it kind of gives me a cool balance between a jazz tone and a progressive jazz/fusion tone … for me, they’re easy to manipulate. And I like the texture. Because it’s smooth, it doesn’t have that gritty Coated Emperor thing, the stick response sounds different … so it presents a couple different colors to me.” Bruner typically pairs his Suede Emperor tom heads with an X14 on his snare. “I love the X14. You can beat it to hell. It’s cool. I love Remo forever, like, Remo was the first endorsement I ever got. Remo Belli signed me with a red crayon when I was 2 years old. I don’t know any other sound.”

To complement his setup, Bruner chooses Zildjian cymbals for a variety of versatile tones. “The thing about Zildjian that I dig is that you can really find your sound. You can find amazing cymbals in their regular stock that can completely be yours. A lot of companies now create cymbals to sound a certain way … Zildjian, if you have the time and you sit down with a bunch of Zildjians, and you sit there and you go through ’em, man, you can really stumble into something that nobody else [has]. It can say ‘K whatever,’ but doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. And that’s the individuality I like about Zildjian.”

As Bruner’s relationship with Zildjian progressed, one of the things he was most passionate about was designing a signature stick. “I had to have a signature stick. I had to do it … it’s part of the legacy. Like, Tony Williams, me? It’s gotta happen like that, you know? That’s a pretty cool comparison,” he says. Bruner’s signature stick has grown to become Guitar Center’s best-selling Zildjian signature model. “I was really looking for [a stick that’s] a little bit thicker than a 5A, with a short taper [and] a small tip. And so, we came up with this idea, and at first, they were just regular natural white … and I said, ‘Look man, I want to create a color that when people see that color, it’s me … I wanted to pick something that really stuck out. And we came up with this crazy traffic cone orange … and I was like, ‘Man, you know what? That’s me … my stick is just me. I feel like I can actually get planes to go the right way, you know what I’m saying? You will not not see me.”

Most recently, Bruner worked on Kamasi Washington’s critically acclaimed debut album, The Epic. “Kamasi is my best friend. I mean, I’ve known Kamasi since I was born,” he says. “We [are] kindred spirits, musically. We’re connected. Our two fathers played the same instruments just like we do and they were playing in a band together in the ’70s … when I first met him, I went to his birthday party and whooped his [behind] on drums when I was like 2. That’s why he plays sax,” he jokes. “So when we did the record, it was just second nature. A lot of the stuff we had been playing at this club in Hollywood, that was like a hub for a lot of us to get together at one time and just freely explore music together … Kamasi, that’s my dude forever. We connected that way, just through life. We were supposed to meet up like that.”

And though his skills behind the kit are undeniable, the scope of Bruner’s talents extends beyond drums and percussion into the realm of composition, production, and as he puts it, ‘framing.’ “I’m a person that puts a beautiful painting in a frame … I can take their artwork and frame it, put beautiful parameters around it. And I’m like that with my music.” He adds, “The role of a drummer, man, is to make a song sound good, no matter what it is. I could have said the average corny-dude-who-doesn’t-have-chops line, and that’s, ‘I play the pocket.’ Whatever. It’s about being a musician. All these guys that have these different facets of their careers where they do this, then one guy does this, one guy does [that]—all that’s malarkey to me. You just play the music … and this is coming from a guy who spent one thousand years vomiting on everybody’s music to get to where I am now, where I say, ‘You know what? Let’s get to the song,’ … it’s the song. I enjoy hearing the song. I don’t have to tell you the job of a drummer is to play a groove—I’ll let some dude who can’t play like me say that. It’s corny … cornball. Play the song. The song rules. The song always wins. You’ll never fail by playing the song amazing. Never. No matter what it entails.”

Written by Brian Ruppenkamp / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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