Orlando Drummer Blog

What I Learned from Judging the Guitar Center Drum Off

By January 23, 2016 April 30th, 2021 No Comments

What I Learned From Judging The Drum Off.

2015 was an interesting year for the Guitar Center Drum Off (GCDO). It appeared to me that there were more questions, concerns, and even complaints about this event then ever before. Given that the GCDO is the largest drum solo competition in the world, I think some of these things are worth discussing.

For the past several years I have been a participant in the GCDO, but as a player and not a judge. I’ve experienced what it feels like to be “knocked out” immediately, and I’ve also had my solos carry me much farther than I expected to go in the competition. In a previous competing year, I was even part of a “tie-breaker”; a circumstance most musicians would never find themselves in… ever. Lol.

After the 2014 Drum Off, I decided that I would not participate in the 2015 Drum Off. My theory was that participating in the Drum Off puts me in direct competition with other drummers. (Duh.) However, as an educator, I consistently preach the opposite of this. “Don’t compare yourself to other drummers” is something I’ve told dozens and dozens of students. And though I know the GCDO is in a category of it’s own, I couldn’t help but feel that maybe I just didn’t belong in any competition.

Well, it was about 6 months later that I was offered the opportunity to judge the Drum Off at the largest Orlando Guitar Center. I ran into one of the former judges at a restaurant here in Orlando, and he said he would drop my name if I was interested in judging the event. A few weeks later, I’m sitting at a round table with some papers in front of me, sizing up a team of talented young drummers.

I had the privilege of judging the first 4 rounds of the competition. The first 3 rounds are all the same; 6 to 8 drummers competing to win 1 of the 2 slots available that day. Because each of these first 3 rounds has 2 winners, the 4th round faces off these 6 total winners from the first 3 dates. Now these first 3 preliminary rounds are a bit different than others, because literally anyone can compete, so long as they are over the age of 16. What I found interesting were the amount of people who showed up, but clearly didn’t plan on winning. I found this incredibly inspiring! Though at a competition, drummers were participating for a variety of reasons. Many were there to network, while others were there just to “break the ice” and finally play drums in front of a large crowd of people. Regardless, the vibe at these preliminary dates was better than I had seen in my previous years as a competitor. Each day I judged, I was more than happy to oversee the playing of some positive and outgoing local drummers. These dudes really did “make” the experience for me.

So now that you know how this all came to be, let’s return to the purpose of this blog, which is to enlighten you on some things that I took with me from this year’s Guitar Center Drum Off.

1. It’s not about winning.

Well, not exclusively. If you’re entering the GCDO with every intention to win, you should know what you’re up against. There are drummers who spend years preparing solos for this competition. I’ve spoken with some drummers who have placed their careers in the hands of the Drum Off, only to be shut down in the later rounds by someone who was simply more prepared. You see, there is only ONE winner every year. Statistically, you aren’t going to win. As a realist, I find it helpful to maintain this perspective if you’ve never entered the GCDO before. Now, I’m not telling you to walk in with your head hung, expecting to lose right away. But I will be the first to tell you that if you’re entering the GCDO because “YOU ARE GOING TO F*CKING WIN THIS YEAR”… perhaps you’re missing a few things that this event can offer you, in addition to the possibility of winning.

When I say the GCDO is not about winning, I do mean that. I believe that there are a number of reasons why you should enter the GCDO, none of which have anything to do with taking home that $25,000. If you can wrap your head around this idea, lets continue. =)

2. Networking

Remind me again, about that other annual event in the drum industry where all the local drummers get together at a music store? Ahhhh, that’s right! There isn’t one.

The GCDO is a golden opportunity to expand your network. You’ll find more drummers in the Drum Department of a Guitar Center during a Drum Off, than you will any other time of the year. Take this opportunity to shake hands, collect phone numbers, and organize future meet-ups. I even saw drummers trading licks on the practice kits before the competition. Seriously, how cool is that?!

In addition to meeting other drummers, you’ll also find that the GCDO is a magnet for guitarists and bassists seeking a drummer. I learned years ago that projects and bands are formed at the GCDO all the time. Remember that your solo may in fact be an audition. Keeping your eyes on that $25,000 is great, but remember there are far more people watching you that just those 3 judges at the table.

3. Setup

Here’s one that seemed to be an issue for some drummers, and a total non-issue for others. When you participate in the GCDO as a soloist, you’re given the option to bring a few things with you. You may bring your own snare, throne, pedals, and sticks. You can also make modifications to the drum set within reason; 4 piece kit, 5 piece kit, cymbal heights, drum angles, etc. As a previous competitor, I’m familiar with the stress of attempting to make a configuration “perfect” in 5 minutes or less. The whole room is watching you, and it feels like you have about 20 seconds, not 5 minutes. But with that said, I saw that many drummers approach this part of the competition differently.

As a judge, I took notice to people’s various setups and configuration choices. I watched every drummer approach the kit after a previous drummer, and begin to make alterations to the kit. Some drummers would make only a few minor changes. Swap a snare, move the hats closer, tilt the ride… boom! Ready to go.

But about half the drummers did the complete opposite. They began with an immediate “deconstruction” of the kit; as if they began with the assumption that everything is already wrong on the drum set. I couldn’t help but find myself a little bit frustrated when that 5 minutes had passed, and the drummer is staring at toms on the floor, and cymbal stands scattered across the room. I asked myself questions like “Is he this picky at a gig?” or “Where is the hustle in a room full of people staring at you?” Now I know that you are entitled to every second of that 5 minute window. However, it was the drummers who could not seem to finish in that 5 minutes who may have hurt themselves in the competition. Not only does the audience grow anxious from standing around in between solos, but we also want to see some confidence. Sit down and play the drums. Though not officially categorized as a “skill”, showing up and playing with a more carefree attitude seems to go a long way. Though I can’t say it impacted the scores, I did find it personally impressive when a drummer walked up, sat down, made 2 or 3 adjustments, and then tore the kit to pieces. If anything, this demonstrates a confidence and a flexibility that any drummer should strive to have. Long story short, The Drum Off may not be the best place to let that OCD get the best of you.

4. Showmanship and Points

As you likely know, there are 5 categories on which you are judged for the GCDO. (Skills/Technique, Groove, Originality, Overall Performance, and Showmanship.) Of these 5 categories, there is one that seems to be the forgotten step-child of the bunch; Showmanship.

Let’s lay this out by the numbers. You’re playing a drum solo, and you can be rated anywhere from 0 to 50. Each of the 5 categories is worth 10 points, so the only way to get a perfect score would be to maximize every category. A perfect score in any category would require… well, perfection. In my eyes, a 10/10 in the Groove category means you’re grooving like Benny Greb, Chris Coleman, or Jost Nickel. I’m listening for deep, flawless, emotionally-moving pocket. If a 10 out of 10 is absolute perfection, be prepared to be compared to the best in the world, at least in the mind of this judge. Anything short of perfection, would receive a score of 9 or less. In my time judging the GCDO, no one scored higher than a 7, in any category. I can say with confidence that I personally wouldn’t expect a score of anything higher than a 7 or 8 if I competed. Why? Because to label anything I play as “perfection” would sound silly to me. Perhaps this is a perspective to keep in mind. Perhaps not. Your call.

Now, it would be wise to spend some time focusing on each category individually to get as close to that perfect score as possible. You could dedicate a full month to each category in the months preceding the GCDO if you really wanted to. But what I saw, was drummer after drummer chasing a high score in one or two categories, and abandoning the other categories. Let’s do some math here. A 10/10 score in 3/5 categories still only equals 30 points. It is in fact easier to increase your score by focusing your attention on all categories equally. Getting a score of 6 in each category would be FAR easier than getting a score of 10, in 3 categories. (And both have the same total of 30 points.)

After the competitions, I spoke with many drummers whom were unhappy with the outcome of their round; feeling they should have beaten drummers who they were clearly “better” than. But you see, something interesting happens when you apply these categories to the competition. It is entirely possible for drummers to get a score of 0 in a single category, and that’s exactly what happened. Specifically, drummers scored significantly lower in Showmanship than any other category; many drummers receiving scores of 1, 2, or 3 in that category. Now let’s return to this crazy idea of a “10” being perfection. A perfect score in Showmanship requires some serious thought and planning. I can’t tell you how many drummers placed all their eggs in one basket for this category. Doing one thing to demonstrate showmanship does not equal a perfect score.

What I saw most was the typical “make the audience clap” trick. But I often struggle to understand how I’m supposed to give you points in the “Originality” category, when you’re using the same tactic that hundreds of other drummers have used to get crowd engagement for the Showmanship category. Making the audience clap with you is far from original. In fact, I would call that a borrowed idea at this point, and this trick usually only earned drummers an additional 1 or 2 points. Don’t rely on one recycled gimmick to carry the 10 point category of Showmanship. Be creative, and apply showmanship throughout your performance. You’ll pick up all the spare points that many other competitors leave on the ground. Scoring higher in Showmanship also gives you some wiggle room in other categories.

Example: A score of 5, 6, 6, 6, 5 (evenly distributed points) is higher than a score of 10, 9, 3, 3, 2 (the score of a drummer who focused on their strongest categories, and ignored the others.) Don’t be the second guy.

5. The Octapad

Ohhhhh the Octapad. Let me start by making it clear that I am not a big fan of the Octapad. I actually purchased a Roland Octapad in 2014, with the intention of practicing with it for the Drum Off. In learning the functions of the Octapad, I quickly realized that this is a product that is technologically just below what a professional environment would call for. In other words, the Octapad is essentially a really badass toy. It’s very fun, and has all sorts of entertaining modes, sounds, and features. However, Guitar Center has limited the use of the Octapad in the Drum Off. There are no repeating loops allowed, and you cannot bring your own samples. (Two of the coolest features of the Octapad, by far!)

I always found this strange, because its clear that the inclusion of the Octapad in the GCDO is merely to promote the product. If Roland is trying to sell the Octapad via the Drum Off, it would seem that limiting its features to the players during their demonstrations is a very poor way to do this. For this reason, Guitar Center now does not require contestants to use the Octapad in their solos. However, I’ve yet to see a winning solo that does not incorporate the Octapad. I do hope one day that the Octapad is removed from the competition entirely, though this may be inevitable as technology progresses and the Octapad is replaced. Until then, my recommendation would be to study what previous competitors have done. Specifically, Juan Carlito Mendoza’s solo includes some of the best uses of the Octapad I’ve seen. He also offers a Masterclass on the Octapad from his website, which I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to use this piece of gear, personally or professionally. You can check it out here – http://carlitomendoza.com/downloads/octapad-tutorial/

6. What it’s all about, sort of.

I think its important to remind ourselves what this is all about. The Guitar Center Drum off is about promotion. In fact, Guitar Center stands to benefit far more than you do from this competition. There’s a reason why GCDO is the longest running single event in Guitar Center’s history; it sells drums! Packing your drum department out with drummers will always be a good idea from Guitar Center’s perspective. Now with this knowledge, there’s no need to get all punk-rock about it. Guitar Center is still creating a platform for any drummer to showcase their skills to the world, and strengthening the drumming community in great strides. But you should remember that this is an annual corporate endeavor to promote sales in the drum industry; not a place for you too goof off. Act professional. Dress appropriately. Be respectful. Though you may be at your first drum competition, they’ve been doing this a long time. Respect what they’ve created and enjoy this wonderful opportunity we have to get together and celebrate drums. Guitar Center has done an incredible thing for the industry by maintaining the Drum Off over all these years. Be grateful and take advantage of all the benefits that the Guitar Center Drum Off can offer you!

And most importantly, HAVE FUN! (You thought I wasn’t going to say that?)