Drummer Tony Williams: “Good Musicians Copy”

~ 09 April 2009 ~

Tony Williams

Tony Williams, NYC 1965. Photograph by Francis Wolff.

Tony Williams, arguably one of the most influential and revolutionary drummers of the 20th century, clearly understood a concept that I tried to demystify, and probably fell short of demystifying, nearly 6 years ago. Published in June 2003, “Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal” was an attempt to describe the idea of becoming a better designer by dissecting, analyzing, and “copying” the works of other designers. (Sorry, you’ll have to Google that article — it’s painful to link up at this point given its age…)

It was during our recent flight to Rome that I stumbled on the following, nestled toward the end of a very thorough article by John Ephland for Traps magazine (Spring 2009 issue). The text is formed from an interview with Tony Williams in October 1988. Check out how Tony explains it:

If you’re going to pick just one style of playing and you can only play that way, that’s what you want to do … I don’t discourage that. But I think that drumming is more important than style. When I’ve given lessons or clinics, I try to emphasize that learning how to play the drums is more important than having your own style. Really knowing what the drums can do and the scope and range of the instrument is more important.

He continues, explaining how he “set about religiously” to play other drummers’ style in an attempt to understand the scope and range of his instrument:

You know the reason I play the way I do is because, when I first started playing, all I ever wanted to do was to sound like Max Roach, was to sound like Art Blakey, was to sound like Philly Joe Jones, was to sound like Louis Hayes, was to sound like Jimmy Cobb, was to sound like Roy Haynes. I really wanted to figure out why they sounded the way they did. I wasn’t interested in my own style. So I set about playing like these guys religiously, and playing their style because it was just such a wonderful, magical experience. It was just a marvelous, wonderful feeling that I got when I heard these people and then I developed a way to sound like them, and to go about it. I mean, it was exciting to me to figure out how he did that.

Tony beat me to it by 15 years, but that’s precisely the point I was hoping to make in my original article — you become a good designer by familiarizing yourself with the methods and techniques used by those who are already good designers. Such is the advice Tony would give to emerging drummers:

I get guys coming up to me — they just got a drum set; they’ve been playing maybe four years — and they want their own style. They want to be expressive. I say, ‘Well, then, if you want to be expressive, you’ve got to find out what the instrument will do. And to do that, you’ve got to go back and find out and get an idea of what’s already been done.’

And to cap it all off, Tony’s remarks conclude with this appropriate summary:

That’s what the instrument’s all about. It’s the instrument that’s more important. The quality and magic of the instrument are more important than you are.

That’s what design is all about. It’s the instrument of design that’s more important. The quality and magic of what design can do are more important than you are.

Tony Williams died in 1997. I owe him a posthumous thank you for saying something far better than I could.



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1   josh ~ 09 April 2009

Even more amazing is that he probably figured this out at 18 yo as he had his own distinct style and voice by that age. One of my favorite musicians of all time.

Nice piece!

2   Brian Artka ~ 09 April 2009

Excellent reiteration on your original theory Cameron. This is a great find.

3   scott wade ~ 09 April 2009

great GREAT post… this is my first time to post here but couldn’t resist after reading this.

Thanks for the insight into Tony Williams and how it applies to our world!

4   Gareth ~ 09 April 2009

Great post, thanks for sharing.

5   Thomas ~ 09 April 2009

That reminds me of something I observed a while ago when an exhibition of Picasso’s early work came through boston.

His early work is essentially photorealistic, which I hadn’t realized. When I saw that it hit me that before he could move into his later more abstract work he needed a solid foundation of realism to work from.

To paint photo-realistically one needs complete control over the medium and materials. Had he gone straight into non-realistic work, (as many art students do today), he’d have been painting to his weaknesses. Having mastered the medium he could pain however he liked.

I think that’s essentially true of everyone regardless of the art form.

6   Brent Spore ~ 09 April 2009

I couldn’t agree more. Excellent post sir. Thank you!

7   Terri Stone ~ 09 April 2009

Thanks for giving me fodder for an article I’m considering about the line between studying others and copyright violation. Your post is an excellent example of why it’s good to study work that you respect.

8   PJ McCormick ~ 09 April 2009

Cameron, as a design student who has spent God-knows-how-many hours going through the code of just about every web site of yours that I can find, I can testify to what you—and Tony—are saying here. Its absolutely, 100 % true. I have spent my years in college just trying to figure out how designers I respect do the things they do. Along the way I’ve developed a personal style, but that was completely inadvertent, and, honestly, incidental.

I graduate officially in about three weeks, but I’ve been interviewing at local design firms here in Memphis. I was offered a job this morning, and I took it. I’m one of those lucky design students who will have a professional job waiting for them when they graduate. I’m proud of the portfolio that helped me get the job, but the work in it isn’t strong because of come mystical, self-derived personal “style.” It’s because I’ve spent my time as a student studying other people’s styles, just trying to learn as much as I could about the art from those I consider masters.

9   patrick campbell ~ 09 April 2009

Miles Davis’ Filles de Kilimanjaro = my favorite Tony Williams performance. Five stars.

Oh yeah, and that other stuff he said was good too.

Thanks for sharing and contextualizing so nicely.

10   Esteban ~ 09 April 2009

I remember reading your first post about this topic long time ago, great follow up.

11   Paulo ~ 11 April 2009

Great followup after six years, Cameron. Truly inspirational stuff from a truly inspiration drummer which you have contextualized in the design realm so well.

I know I often feel kind of guilty looking about for ideas I can use. Sometimes, I stupidly feel that mighty concept we designate “inspiration” should be carrying me all along and that if I’m not 100% original, then I’m simply not worthy and deem myself a copycat… Am I the only one thinking like this? I’m afraid not.

If we copy the outcome, then that nightmare is certainly true. If we copy the inspiration, then we’re doing that noble thing which is standing on the shoulders of giants.

Thanks for enlightening me, Cameron.

12   Roger ~ 12 April 2009

Thanks for the wisdom bro!!

13   Quest ~ 13 April 2009


Great post! This wisdom has truly blessed me and I realize I am definitely on the right track. Thanks for sharing.

14   Yang Yang ~ 14 April 2009

This would be a good interpretation of why creations are just rearrangements.

15   Jesse Wallace ~ 15 April 2009

“The quality and magic of the instrument are more important than you are.” - That is so true, I guess that is why you never see a rock star with a 200.00 guitar. Thanks for the article.


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