- 27 Jan 22
Happy 71st Birthday, Brian Downey! To celebrate, we're revisiting Peter Murphy's classic interview with Thin Lizzy's legendary drummer – originally published in Hot Press in 2011.
One of the most admired hard rock drummers of all time, Dubliner Brian Downey is renowned for his versatility. Delicate and light-fingered on ballads like 'Still In Love With You' and 'The Sun Goes Down', economic and precise on 'Waiting For An Alibi' and 'Jailbreak', he's also one of the few players of his ilk who possesses an exquisite swing, tossing deft, almost jazzy fills into tunes like 'The Boys Are Back In Town'. And of course, set pieces like 'Emerald' and 'Sha-La-La' display ferocious power. Downey is currently on Thin Lizzy reformation tour, which features Ricky Warwick deputising for the late Phil Lynott. Does he remember his first drum kit?
“I do indeed,” he says. “I was pestering my parents for about a year after I heard Elvis Presley, Billy Fury, Cliff Richard, The Shadows, Hank Williams, stuff like that. My father was a drummer himself. He was playing in the Harold's Cross Pipe Band before he got married and had me. There were always snare drums and bass drums around the house for me to bash on. I woke up one Christmas morning at the age of 10 or 11. There was a sparkling new kit in my sitting room, an Olympic kit which consisted of bass drum, snare, and a sixteen inch cymbal, bought from this hire purchase company, Cavendish's on Grafton Street. I had been for some lessons with the Fintan Lawlor Pipe Band, so I had a couple of years' tuition behind me.”
Tough question, but who's his favourite drummer?
“I love Elvin Jones and Max Roach. And you have to include Buddy Rich. In the rock thing Billy Cobham and Vinnie Colaiuta. I just saw Vinnie playing with Jeff Beck at Ronnie Scott's on the TV. He did a great version of a Billy Cobham track, 'Spectrum'. And Neal Peart from Rush is a superb drummer, unbelievable.”
Working as part of the Lizzy rhythm section with Phil Lynott, Downey says, required a minimalist's discipline.
“When Phil was singing and playing it was nearly impossible for it to become complicated,” he recalls. “Phil wouldn't be over enthusiastic about playing bass solos, though he did lots of runs, and that suited me down to the ground. He had a huge drive in his bass playing, a technique that people have obviously copied over the years, I hear it a lot now, this very straightforward eight-beats-to-the-bar rhythm. He used a pick and his internal timing was very good, his right hand was very strict. Not blowing my own trumpet here, but I thought the rhythm section in Lizzy was second to none."
Does he have a favourite Lizzy song to play live?
"'Bad Reputation' has that weird time signature, and I like playing 'Emerald', and obviously the solo in 'Sha-La-La'. 'Sha-La-La' was in straight 4/4 but when I improvised over it I could change into four or five new patterns after eight or sixteen bars, so it was never set in stone. If I was on form I'd extend it, or if I was tired I'd cut it short. It all depends how you feel on the night. I keep telling the guys, 'Keep an eye on me, don't be wandering offstage!' Nowadays nobody can smoke around the stage, so that's cool, they can't walk off and have a smoke!"
What drum set-up is he using at the moment?
“I'm using a Tama Starclassic kit. It consists of eight by eight, ten by ten and twelve by twelve inch hanging toms, fourteen and sixteen inch floor toms, two twenty-two by eighteen inch bass drums, a fourteen by five-and-a-half inch snare, thirteen inch Zildjian K hi-hats, two sixteen inch crashes, two eighteen inch crashes, a twenty-two inch China, a twenty-two inch K ride and a ten inch splash in there somewhere as well. It's a lot of hardware, but I get around it. As regards sticks, I'm using my own version of a 5B, which I got designed for me by Wincent, a new Swedish company. They came over to Dublin and I tried them out and was impressed with the wood. It didn't splinter or break up, so I did an endorsement deal. I'm very pleased with them.”
Downey admits that when it came to recording, his sound was always contingent upon the quality of the studio equipment, not to mention the personnel engineers.
“I always listened to the producer and engineer's ideas for drum sounds,” he says. “Sometimes you get an engineer who's a bit difficult and might want you to tape up certain tom-toms, whereas I like a ring. It all depended on what quality studio we were using. Tony Visconti was a stickler for a good drum sound – we all were – but he had a great set-up at his studio, Good Earth in London, perspex screens around the kit which would reflect the sound like a live hall. Sometimes you'd have a great studio but the mics might be on the way out. You'd have a perfect take and next thing the mic would be crackling – so frustrating. But nowadays mics have improved and everything's done digitally, so you don't have that problem as much.
“I dabbled on congas on some of the albums, and I really got into the timpani. They're weird things to play, you can only use them in the studio. Anytime I had the opportunity I'd try to master the technique of that long single stroke roll on the timpani, which is completely different than any other drum.”
Finally, any tips for aspiring drummers?
“A drummer should learn your basic rudiments. The single stroke roll is a must, and the Mama-dada roll, which is the long roll, double paradiddles, triple paradiddles, triplets generally, ratamacues. They are essential, just to get your basic technique up and running. I was lucky that I got into the rudiments at an early age. In the pipe bands you have to know the six or eight rudiments, but there's lots to learn off by heart – 28. I should have studied them even more. I didn't delve into the more difficult ones, and I'm kind of sorry because they improve your technique no end.
“But it all depends on the person. I know guys who are really into rudiments and can't really play a proper song with a band, and other guys who don't know anything about rudiments and play perfectly well. When I started playing you'd find one book of Scottish pipe band drumming in a library and that was about it, but nowadays you have tutorials on rock drumming, and I think it's essential to buy a couple of those to get the basics right."