“I recently attended one of Steve Gadd’s master classes at the Royal Academy in London”, says Martin France, “where he struck a very personal chord. He demonstrated so obviously that it’s not so much what you play, but more importantly how you play it, the musical intention behind everything you do.”
Like so many musicians, France has a musical pedigree. “My mother played classical piano – and still does – and my father as a youngster played fiddle in Scottish country dance bands.
France started his musical journey on a snare drum at the age of nine. “I was very fortunate to find an excellent local teacher by the name of Geoff Riley. He had just written a couple of tuition books published by the Premier Drum Company, the first of which was entitled Matchsticks in which he explained the ‘Matched’ grip. However, my drum heroes of the day all played traditional grip so I walked in and said “I want to learn this way, not matched” and he seemed completely unfazed by a nine-year-old walking in and saying this and off we went. He was a tough teacher, sometimes he’d send me back week after week if I didn’t get it right. I went to him every week for many years and then one day when I was 14 or so, we got to the end of a particular book and then he just got up and said ‘Right, that’s it, we’ve come to the end, that’s all I can teach you. Good Luck’. We then shook hands and I left.”
“My first kit was a Premier, with a Beverley Snare Drum which was their copy of the Ludwig Supraphonic. I then worked my way through all the American manufacturers, starting with Gretsch – and I’ve come full circle. With Gretsch you can pretty much cover everything, they just have a musical sound and I find I’m playing my old Gretsch more and more now. Their advertising slogan of the day used to say ‘There’s Gretsch . . . and then there’s everything else’ – and I think it’s true. They just record so well too.” France however, is less complimentary about drums that are, as he puts it “in the power depths”.
“The heads are too far apart and this generates strange harmonics because of the relationship between the two heads –the bottom head doesn’t resonate sympathetically with the top one in the same way as it would with a shallower drum. Particularly with bass drums, it’s difficult to dial out the ‘cannon effect’.”
Like most drummers, France owns a selection of snare drums for different situations. “I tend to use wood snares more often than not, but if it has to be a metal drum as I prefer the sound of the older brass Ludwigs. I have a couple of 1960s American Rogers wood ply snares which I really like, they’re very flat and dry with a dark tone. I also have a couple of solid wood shell snares, but personally don’t think that they sound superior to ply shell drums, it’s just a different sound, a little more cleaner and defined.”
When it comes to jazz cymbals, there’s no question which package France prefers. “The first time I heard Miles’ Four and More I became hooked not only on Tony Williams, but on the sound of the original K Zildjian cymbals from Istanbul. That was the sound I wanted, and still is. I use so many different cymbals depending on what I’m doing and what the situation requires, but the rides I usually like to play for jazz are my Zildjian K 20” Custom Dry Light rides. Some people say they’re too dry but I like to play ‘into’ a cymbal and it just gives so much definition and doesn’t swallow up too much of the sonic spectrum which cymbals by their very nature can do.”
“Sticks? I use Vic Firth SD11s. They’re made from Maple as opposed to Hickory. Maple seems lighter and feels less dense than Hickory. This means I can have a bigger stick in my hand which I like, but without the weight. They’re really nicely balanced too.” How about brushes? “I gotta’ tell you this,” starts France. “Years ago when I started travelling to London I spent some time studying with Kenny Clare. He was a marvellous brush player of course and one day he said ‘right, let’s play some brushes’. So I started to play and he said: ‘no, no, no’ . . . and then went on to describe where I was going wrong. My inspiration he said, should come from the physical movement of an admirably and robustly proportioned young woman as she swings her way down the street. ‘OK’ I answered, somewhat confused as I was expecting more of a technical suggestion or inside secret. But of course all these years later and after much study, I can confirm that his wisdom and advice was indeed correct.” France currently uses Zildjian non-retractable brushes because “they have a slightly longer handle and feel nice to play and the wire is not too rigid. So there’s a little more ‘give’, which allows you to play more dynamically.”
“But at the end of the day, it’s all in the touch”, says France. “The sound is in the drummer’s hands. After all, Buddy Rich didn’t care what drums he played, he would have played your old mum’s biscuit tins if you’d paid him enough.”
– David Gallant