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
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
By Fred "Virgil" Turgis
start with an essential question
: why drums?
I took up drums when I had braces
on my teeth! (Previously I was
When did you start to
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
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
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
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
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 Remos Fiberskyn or
Aquarians 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
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;
inventive; able to drive a whole
band with just a cymbal. The
greatest of all choke cymbal
-Andrew Hilaire...The perfect
drummer for Jelly Roll Morton.
Time, taste, technique--all
technically accomplished and very
rhythmic. A huge influence on Sid
-Nick Fatool...Great sense of
time; inventive turnarounds and
fills; played the best four-bar
-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
-Minor Hall...Afterbeat rimshots
behind Kid Ory; swishing hi-hats;
syncopated ride cymbal; a wide
range of dynamics.
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
-For Western Swing, I listen to
Bob Wills' drummers: Smokey
Dacus, Monty Mountjoy, Johnny
-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
Hollands 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
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
How did you meet Carl
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
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
Could you tell us about
your main drumkit (size, cymbals
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
Kit #2 is a 22" Slingerland
bass drum (1980) and 8x12"
and 16x16" toms (both from
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
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"
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
Get a good instructor if you can
Practice rudiments, technique and
don't let your left hand go to
Take time to learn how to play
brushes. Always be sure that your
playing is appropriate for your
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!