Full-time professional musician since 1978, Hal Smith, or Junior as he's sometimes nicknamed, has played on countless albums in his career in various style like swing, traditional jazz, Rockabilly, Western Swing and Country and Western. You can find him playing a swingin' brush pattern in Carl Leyland's Trio or in his own band Hal's Angels, laying down a typical Cash rhythm in the Cash Kings, a rockabilly beat in The Hayriders or a country groove in Big Rig Deluxe. And these are just a few exemples of his talents. And he plays washboard too. Yoiu can also check his website.
Covering so many different styles with so much talent and good taste, an interview with Hal was an obvious choice for this section.
By Fred "Virgil" Turgis

  Let’s start with an essential question : why drums?
I took up drums when I had braces on my teeth! (Previously I was playing trombone).

When did you start to play?
I started playing in 1963.

Are you self-taught or did you learn with a teacher?
I taught myself to play by drumming along with records, and with the family's player piano. In 1983 I took lessons from Jake Hanna (to learn more about Jake Hanna visit
this site).

Did a drummer have a specific impact on you?
There were several drummers I heard in person who influenced my playing: Ben Pollack, Fred Higuera, Nick Fatool, Wayne Jones were my biggest inspirations besides the drummers I have listened to on recordings.

You play in various bands from rockabilly to traditional jazz via western swing. Of course each style is different musically but what about the instrumentation?
I mean in what measure playing with an electric bass rather than a double bass or playing with a rhythm guitar changes the way you play?

In the swing bands I work with, the rhythm section includes acoustic guitar, acoustic bass and piano. I like Jo Jones' approach to that instrumentation; lots of hi-hat and brushes. I also play ride and Chinese cymbals, but I'm thinking about Sid Catlett and Dave Tough as I vary the pattern from the standard ding-ding-da-ding.
The Hayriders have piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, acoustic bass. In this case, the acoustic guitar is strumming patterns a lot of the time, rather than playing a straight, unaccented 4/4 like Freddie Green. The bass is played with more of a percussive feel--closer to New Orleans Jazz than swing. The electric guitar and piano trade off with vocals as the lead instrument.
With the Hayriders I play more back beats on the snare, more cymbal and more fills. I also use a lot of different beats that I don't play in swing music: rock 'n' roll with "straight eight" on the cymbal; "surf beat" and "Train Beat" on the snare; "Cajun" beat on the snare (working together with the bass drum) and a Western Swing/Country & Western two-beat, with back beats on the snare and closed hi-hat.

Playing “roots music”, do you use animal heads (calfskin)? Did you try the new kind of heads like Remo’s Fiberskyn or Aquarian’s Modern Vintage?
Right now on my main kit I use a regular Remo Ambassador head on the snare; a Diplomat on the front of the bass drum; Ambassador on the rear and the original Weather King heads on the two toms. Kit #2 has an Aquarian "Vintage" head on the snare and Fiberskyns--front and rear on the bass and top and bottom on the toms.

Who are your favourite drummers and what do you like in their styles?
Regarding jazz drummers:
-Big Sid Catlett...Perfect taste, no matter what type of music he played. Wonderful solos with dynamics and open space.
-Jo Jones...Master of the hi-hat and the brushes; his solos always sounded like tap dancing.
-Dave Tough...Had a fantastic touch on all the drums; driving, but not overbearing; always drew marvelous sounds from cymbals.
-Zutty Singleton...Pulsating bass drum; great snare drummer; melodic solos.
-Vic Berton...Imaginative, inventive; able to drive a whole band with just a cymbal. The greatest of all choke cymbal players.
-Andrew Hilaire...The perfect drummer for Jelly Roll Morton. Time, taste, technique--all superb.
-Jimmy Bertrand...Polished, technically accomplished and very rhythmic. A huge influence on Sid Catlett.
-Nick Fatool...Great sense of time; inventive turnarounds and fills; played the best four-bar tags ever!
-Ben Pollack...Hot Chicago Style drummer. Interesting patterns on the ride cymbal; propulsive 4/4 bass drum; great breaks.
-Harry Dial, Wally Bishop, Johnny Wells...Swinging, subtle and tasteful.
-Minor Hall...Afterbeat rimshots behind Kid Ory; swishing hi-hats; syncopated ride cymbal; a wide range of dynamics.
-George Wettling...Propulsive, swinging sound; hot ride cymbal; hot fills, hot solos, hot four-bar tags. What a great drummer!
-Gene Krupa...Though he continued to update his style into the '50s, he never strayed too far from the Chicago Style of the '20s.
-I also admire J.M. Van Eaton and Buddy Harman. Their recordings with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley (respectively) have influenced my Rockabilly drumming. I use a lot of their licks with the Hayriders.
-For Western Swing, I listen to Bob Wills' drummers: Smokey Dacus, Monty Mountjoy, Johnny Cuviello.
-Blues drummers I like: Fred Below, S.P. Leary, Odie Payne, Jump Jackson, Francis Clay, Sam Carr, Richard Innes, Stephen Hodges, Paul Kimbarow.

You play drums in The Cash Kings a Johnny Cash tribute band. What is your approach? Do you try to recreate “Fluke” Holland’s parts or is this more a question of feeling?
I do try to recreate Fluke Holland's sound as much as possible. On the numbers we play where the original recordings did not have drums, I try to capture the "boom-chicka-boom" sound that Cash and the Tennessee Two made (with the dollar bill stuffed between the acoustic guitar strings--the resulting sound was like scrubbing a washboard).

How did you meet Carl Sonny Leyland?
I met him when he was a guest at the San Diego Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival back in 2000. We played a couple of sessions together, then he started calling me for gigs. The Carl Sonny Leyland Trio (with Marty Eggers on bass) was organized in to play a swing dance in San Francisco in 2003. The combination clicked, and we have been working together ever since. Sonny also plays in my "Hal's Angels" and "Blue Voo" groups and I work with Marty in the Yerba Buena Stompers, where he plays ragtime piano.

Do you collect drums?
I don't collect them for the sake of collecting, though I have more snare drums than I can use at the moment!

Could you tell us about your main drumkit (size, cymbals etc.)
My main kit is a 1960 Slingerland, with 20" bass, 9x13" and 14x14" toms. It was a gift from an ex-drummer and those odd sizes were his choice. I generally use a Pearl "Chad Smith" chrome snare drum with the set. That's a good, versatile snare that I can play with New Orleans, Chicago, swing, Rockabilly, Country & Western, Western Swing or blues bands. Sometimes I also use a 1960 Slingerland snare (not a Radio King) or a 1967 Ludwig Supraphonic chrome-over-brass snare.
Kit #2 is a 22" Slingerland bass drum (1980) and 8x12" and 16x16" toms (both from 1978).
On both bass drums I use a DW 5000 pedal--very fast and easy to play--with a wool beater, to get a nice "BOOM" out of the bass.
Cymbals: I use 13" thin Sabian hi-hats. For jazz and swing I use an 18" Sabian HH "Sound Control" ride, an 18" Sabian Chinese and alternate between a 16" Sabian HH Sound Control crash and a 15" Sabian Evolution crash. Sometimes I add a 1954 10" Zilco splash to this lineup. For Rockabilly, Country & Western and blues I use a 20" Sabian AA Stage Ride and an 18" Sabian Evolution crash.
My sticks are the Vater "New Orleans Jazz" model. I also use Vater "Wire Tap" brushes.

I believe you play washboard too, a word about that?
I started playing washboard before I took up the drums. I got serious about it when I heard Bob Raggio with the South Frisco Jazz Band, and recordings of Raggio with the El Dorado Jazz Band. Next I heard recordings from the '20s with Jimmy Bertrand and Baby Dodds on washboard and I was hooked! I play washboard occasionally with Sonny's Trio and when I sub for Chris Tyle with the Titanic Jazz Band. I will be playing it exclusively in the "El Dorado Jazz Band Tribute" group that I am organizing with multi-instrumentalist Clint Baker (he will be on cornet this time). Washboard can be a musical instrument or an instrument of terror. I hope that in my hands it sounds like the former--not the latter!

A last word or an advice for young drummers?
Listen to all types of music. Learn to play as many different idioms as you can, but concentrate on the style, or styles that you feel most comfortable with.
Get a good instructor if you can find one.
Practice rudiments, technique and don't let your left hand go to waste!!!
Take time to learn how to play brushes. Always be sure that your playing is appropriate for your musical surroundings.
In a rhythm section, work with the other rhythm instruments to create what Count Basie's guitarist Freddie Green described as a "rhythm wave."
Internalize your time. You should be able to play with just a snare and hi-hat, a snare and cymbal, or just a snare!
Finally, listen to recordings of the masters. You will always hear something new that you can use in your own drumming!