NEW DRUM-OFF CHAMPION TONY TAYLOR JR. TALKS ABOUT HIS HARD-HITTING VICTORY
EVERY AUGUST, DRUMMERS FROM ACROSS THE COUNTRY SIGN UP TO COMPETE IN THE GUITAR CENTER DRUM-OFF, AND OUT OF THE THOUSANDS OF HOPEFULS, FIVE TALENTED FINALISTS ARE SELECTED EACH YEAR TO BATTLE IT OUT IN LOS ANGELES FOR THE TITLE OF DRUM-OFF CHAMPION. AT STAKE THIS YEAR WAS A PRIZE PACKAGE INCLUDING STUDIO TIME, ENDORSEMENT DEALS, NEW GEAR AND CASH VALUED AT NEARLY $45,000—AND 18-YEAR-OLD ILLINOIS NATIVE TONY TAYLOR JR. TOOK IT ALL HOME.
“When I first really wanted to [compete], I wasn’t old enough at the time,” says Taylor, spending his morning in the Platinum Room at Guitar Center Sherman Oaks. “This is my third year doing it. The first two years, I was very frustrated … I got discouraged a little bit, and it was just like, ‘Is it really worth just my time again?’ But then [I thought to myself], ‘No, take it seriously, really just try to push.’ And this third year ended up being the year,” he laughs.
At the Grand Finals in January, an all-star panel of judges was on hand to critique the five finalists’ performances, including Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Matt Garstka (Animals as Leaders), George “Spanky” McCurdy (Lady Gaga), Ced Mitchell (Nick Jonas), Cora Dunham (Beyoncé), Glen Sobel (Alice Cooper), Mike Reid (Rihanna), Gerald Heyward (Chris Brown), Tony Royster Jr. (JAY Z), Jim Riley (Rascal Flatts), David Elitch (ANTEMASQUE) and Nisan Stewart (Dancing With the Stars).
“It was not easy. At all,” Taylor says about the process of crafting his winning performance. “I ended up making probably 10, 12 pads … just for the Drum-Off itself. Some I did use for the finals … quite honestly, I focused more so on the pad to have a start—because that’s actually very interesting, it’s always the hardest when you want to start. Like, how you want to start and how do you want to get the crowd into what you’re doing and let them know, ‘Oh, this guy’s serious,’ [and] separate yourself from everyone else … over time, I just tried to constantly push myself and get something set … I actually worked on the Drum-Off routine for the finals for two weeks before I came here.”
As this year’s winner, Taylor joins an esteemed group of talented drummers who have gone on to play for such artists as Prince, Beyoncé and JAY Z. On being crowned Drum-Off Champion, Taylor recalls, “This isn’t a dream anymore, this isn’t something that you constantly pray for, you definitely wished for—it’s reality. For me, I was lost for words. [It’s] still something [that] takes time to kick in, like, ‘This really just happened’ … it’s still, to this day, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this actually really just happened.’”
After 27 years of celebrating the country’s best drummers, Guitar Center’s Drum-Off has become one of the most beloved events in the drum world. At each year’s Grand Finals event, legendary musicians from the drumming community return to the event as performers, judges and guests. This year’s Grand Finals featured Greg Bissonette as host, along with performances by Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters), Mike Mangini (Dream Theater), Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown), Robert Sput Searight (Snarky Puppy) and Gil Sharone (Marilyn Manson). The night also honored Jim Keltner and Vic Firth with two very special inductions into the Guitar Center RockWalk, with Keltner’s induction presented by Don Lombardi (DW, Drum Channel) and Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Firth’s posthumous induction presented by Remo Belli to Craigie Zildjian on behalf of the Firth family.
“[The Drum-Off] gives musicians something to do, rather than just play for artists … rather than have to wait for that next big gig that you may or may not get a call for,” says Taylor.
“And it actually gives drummers that really are not known a chance to show what they really have, and really just branch out, show artists that ‘I can play,’ and it actually helps a lot of artists—drummer artists—push themselves out there. It’s actually a very great thing, because there are so many people that do this Drum-Off constantly, every year, and to be that one person out of four, five thousand people to come in and win, that’s a huge deal as a musician.”
As part of his grand prize package, Taylor was awarded endorsement deals from various brands. When he visited the 2016 NAMM Show in January, he met with many representatives from some of the top names in drum gear—SABIAN, a company whose cymbals Taylor’s been playing for nearly half his life, and legendary drum manufacturer DW.
“With SABIAN, I’ve been playing with their cymbals, and grown to know what I like from SABIAN, and it’s the specific sounds that they have that made me push toward SABIAN for so long … I’ve been playing SABIAN since I was probably 10. I’m 18 now,” Taylor says. “I just started going into their deeper-tone crashes, like their X-Tremes, their Fierce Crash … just hearing all the different cymbals that they have from friends of mine like Rex Hardy, Calvin Rodgers, just hearing them first hand … I’m really a trashy, very dark-sounding [player] … their O-Zones and stuff like that, Chopper … I’m really effects/stack-oriented, and I try to keep my variety open. With SABIAN, they really just blew my mind with what they came up with over the years.”
When it comes to his selection of drum shells, Taylor offers, “I have a PDP X7, and I play with their maple series a lot, so with DW, I know their sounds a little bit better than other companies. And it’s just something I’ve been able to get to, you know, be able to find my sound perfectly without having issues. Like, when I was at Drum Channel last night, [they had] a random DW kit sitting there, it didn’t take me no longer than five minutes to tune. Random heads on there, it sounded exactly how I would set it up.” He adds, “And then, the whole tour that [DW took us on], during the Drum-Off when they brought us all to the factory … how delicate they try to be with their wood, and much love they have and [how] family-oriented they are, just with the workers and with John [Good]—they’re real close, he knows every single person’s name … it showed me how really connected they are with how they want their drums to sound.”
No stranger to strong family ties, Taylor was introduced to music at a very young age by his father, who is also a percussionist. “He gave me some sticks [and] the rest was history,” says Taylor. “Whenever he had concerts or rehearsals, he would make sure that I was right behind him. And whenever I was there, I would always just sit there, I wouldn’t do anything—I wouldn’t pee, I wouldn’t cry—he would say I would literally just sit there and do nothing but watch him all day. And then as soon he [stopped], I would start crying …
I was constantly listening to music … and here I am today.”
For the past year, Taylor’s main focus has been playing for his church, the Living Word Christian Center, in Forest Park, Illinois. “I’ve been at the church for about six years, but I actually became their main drummer last year,” he says. “It’s a multi-national church … under Bill Winston Ministries … it’s a huge church, it’s an auditorium. I play there every Sunday, it’s always televised, millions of people all over the country watch.”
A big gospel music enthusiast, Taylor also plays for his mother’s group and his girlfriend’s group, in addition to some big gospel artists in the Chicago area, including The Soul Children of Chicago’s Walt Whitman. “One major artist, I just started playing for him, his name is Deitrick Haddon, he actually lives out here in L.A., he just [assembled a choir] for Chicago … [I’ve played for] Donald Lawrence, Todd Dulaney—these are all gospel groups—[gospel music is] really just my main focus.”
As a talented young musician and the winner of this year’s Drum-Off, many career possibilities and opportunities lie ahead for Taylor. But the real driving force behind what he does will always be his undying passion for the art of making music. “Music is really the one thing that I can say that really has kept me sane, and it’s brought peace whenever there’s chaos in my life,” he says. “And I really feel like God blessed me with this specifically, because He knew that, with the things I’d have to endeavor, music was going to continue to push me where I need to go in my life … I don’t have no other plan, rather than music … music is literally, just, life to me. I can’t do anything else. I don’t want to do anything else.”