Drummer shares his expertise of 27 albums with Frank Zappa


What: Victoria Drum Fest
When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (doors 12:15 p.m.)
Where: Victoria Marriott Inner Harbour Hotel, 728 Humboldt St.
Tickets: $40 advance, $50 door (at Long & McQuade, Tom Lee Music)


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The drummer, usually situated behind the band, can be easy to overlook.

Yet the importance of the stick-man (or woman) cannot be overemphasized says Chad Wackerman, a drummer who played on 27 of Frank Zappa’s albums. After all, it’s the percussion who will determine a song’s tempo, energy level … even the mood.

“The drummer in the band actually has more power to change the music than anyone else,” the California musician said this week.

“You’re kind of like a conductor, as a drummer. I think a lot of people don’t realize that.”

Wackerman and his Roland V kit will be at Victoria Drum Fest on Sunday. During this educational performance, he’ll discuss his storied career and show aspiring drummers a trick or two.

The name might not ring a bell. However, among the cognoscenti, Wackerman is an admired figure. As well as playing with the late Zappa for seven years, the 57-year-old recorded and toured with such notables as James Taylor, Steve Vai, Barbra Streisand and Men at Work.

Wackerman just completed a tour of Australia and New Zealand with Taylor. He subbed in for the legendary Steve Gadd, the singer-songwriter’s regular drummer.

“James is a fabulous guitar player. He’s a super-nice guy, a great person. He’s kind of like how you’d expect him to be through hit songs. He’s really sincere, really honest.”

Phoning from his Long Beach home, Wackerman said he learned much during his tenure with Zappa, who was renowned for the complexity of his music, ranging from rock, jazz, doo-wop and avant-garde classical.

Zappa demanded much of his players, imposing rigid discipline and high musical standards. Wackerman recalled his former boss liked to “shift gears” on stage — instantly changing the arrangement and styles of his songs. Zappa would manage this through split-second visual prompts.

“If you learned a tune as a heavy-metal tune, he would give you a certain visual cue and it would turn the song into reggae. And you’d have to figure out how to do that,” he said.

“The whole band got very good at it. It was like performance art.”

Wackerman comes from a family of percussionists. His father is Chuck Wackerman, a drummer and long-time educator who still teaches at the age of 86. Wackerman’s drummer brother Brooks played with Bad Religion and is now with heavy-metal band Avenged Sevenfold.

Another drumming brother, John, has performed with Lindsay Buckingham and Brian Auger. Meanwhile, bassist Bob Wackerman runs a production company that records music for such companies as Disney and Universal studios.

Some of Chad Wackerman’s most challenging musical experiences were with British guitarist and composer Allan Holdsworth. Holdsworth, who died last month, was a guitarist’s guitar player admired by such guitar heroes as Zappa, George Benson, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and John McLaughlin.

Holdsworth, one of Wackerman’s best friends, performed with the drummer regularly in the 1980s and ’90s. The guitarist was revered for his idiosyncratic way of improvising, employing a lyrical style more like that of a saxophonist or a violinist, Wackerman said.

Like Zappa, gigging with Holdsworth demanded great concentration from his bandmates. Wackerman says it made him aware of the importance of contemplating “the big picture” while playing, rather than focussing solely on one’s own contribution.

“The best drummers think in a big-picture way. They make everyone else sound better. That’s the key,” he said.

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