Terry Bozzio's Massive, Tuned Drum Kit Will Blow Your Mind

Terry Bozzio inside his 100-piece drum kit
Terry Bozzio inside his 100-piece drum kit
Courtesy of the artist

Drummer Terry Bozzio has been a notable fixture in the drum and rock music worlds for four decades. After years of classical percussion training, including time at the College of Marin north of San Francisco, Bozzio began picking up Bay Area jazz and studio work, which brought him to the attention of players in Frank Zappa's band, including the late keyboardist George Duke. When Zappa needed a new drummer in 1974, Duke and trumpeter Eddie Henderson recommended Bozzio. Auditioning against 50 other drummers, he got the gig.

Bozzio's manic performances behind the drum kit for Zappa continued for the next four years, including an appearance in Zappa's feature-length documentary film Baby Snakes, which forever linked Bozzio with the semi-pornographic song “Punky's Whips,” on which he sang lead vocals. When Frank's son Dweezil began Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006, their first tour was highlighted by performances from Frank Zappa alumni including guitarist Steve Vai and Bozzio, who reprised “Punky's.”

At the end of his stint with Frank Zappa, Bozzio teamed with wife and vocalist Dale Bozzio and guitarist Warren Cuccurullo (later of Duran Duran) to form Missing Persons, which rapidly became an L.A. and early MTV favorite in the 1980s. After a successful first record that produced hits including “Words,” “Destination Unknown” and “Walking in L.A.,” two later albums weren't as successful, and both the band and the Bozzios' marriage split in 1986.

During his stints with Zappa and Missing Persons, Bozzio began developing some of the first electronic drums, using more than $50,000 of his own money in the process. "The first electronic drums and cymbals were just sheets of plywood wrapped in plastic with a tuned piezo pickup," he explains. "If you hit it in the center, it would produce the tone intended, but if the hit was off-center, you couldn't always control what you'd get.” Electronic drums were completely unseen before that time, so “we used to cover them with a parachute while the opening act played, and then did a reveal for effect when our set would start.” (You can see Bozzio's electronic drums in action in the 1984 video for Missing Persons' "Give.")

While Bozzio received several patents for electronic drums and helped to kick-start their development, he found acoustic drums and percussion offered far more subtlety, tonality and reliability. After the breakup of Missing Persons, Bozzio began playing at drum clinics around the world, along with occasional stints with the progressive rock band U.K., Jeff Beck, the Brecker Brothers and others. Teaming with the Oxnard-based drum manufacturer DW (Drum Workshop), Bozzio began assembling a drum kit that gave him the ability to create full musical expressions, melodies and songs, beyond merely focusing on rhythm.

Upcoming Events

Bozzio's current “big kit,” which he's bringing to Hollywood's Catalina Jazz Club on Saturday, Aug. 22, includes more than 100 tuned drums, cymbals, and percussion instruments, some of which are his own inventions. Different areas of the kit are tuned to different scales, giving Bozzio the ability to express himself melodically as well as rhythmically. “I know some people come for the circus act element of there being so many drums onstage, but I want people to know I don't think of that way," Bozzio says. "They are there for a reason — for me to create music.”

The show is a warm-up for Bozzio's upcoming fall tours of Europe and Japan, which coincide with the release of a new Japanese multi-CD/DVD box set of his original music that will also feature Bozzio's paintings, something he began decades ago with the prompting of frequent Frank Zappa cohort Don Van Vliet (known otherwise as Captain Beefheart).

Bozzio's drum setup is now so large that he keeps separate kits in Europe and Japan, with plans to add a fourth kit he can play in South America. Each kit takes hours for a specially trained drum tech to assemble and tear down, plus Bozzio's notorious insistence on tuning even the smallest pieces to be exactly as he wants them. His main kit usually resides at a DW warehouse in Oxnard, which is also home to the studios for the online DrumChannel, where Bozzio is artist in residence.

As for what fans can expect from "Terry Bozzio — An Evening of Solo Drum Music," he says, “About 80 percent of what I play on a solo show is improvised on the spot, with the remainder being basic patterns and melodies I begin with and expand from. I hope the people that come get a chance to get sucked into my world and thoughts for a few hours. Rhythm is everything — it's a metaphor for everything in the universe. Everything has its own frequency, and frequency is rhythm — it's all 'Cosmik Debris.'”

Terry Bozzio plays Catalina Bar & Grill on Saturday, Aug. 22.


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