Gavin Harrison – The illusionist





As many people, I discovered Gavin Harrison late, when I watched the video of the fabulous Porcupine Tree concert at the 2005 RockPallast Festival. It took me just the first two minutes of Blackest eyes to realize that the drumming world had a new prince, someone different with a wide, innovative toolbox. I watched the rest of the concert with a dead face and my mouth open. I hadn’t seen someone that gathered so much elegance and detail in his playing for many years.



I became instantly a Porcupine Tree fan for a number of reasons that would make this article too long. But they can be summarized in them being the heirs of a musical tradition that seemed lost, having managed to update and modernize it, achieving a mixture of styles that embraces from Pink Floyd to Death Metal and everything in between. Another important factor is that they’re simply the best Progressive Rock band in the world, especially now that Dream Theater seem devoted to repeat themselves and waste one of the best drummers in the Galaxy.

It is very interesting to follow Gavin Harrison’s steps. His career shouldn’t be surprising at all. At first sight, he seems no different than other professional drummers who simply work hard to be able to play all kind of styles so they can get more opportunities. Gavin Harrison is the son of a professional jazz trumpet player who also knew how to play drums. Being a child, he went to BBC sessions with his father and was used to see his father’s fellow musicians coming home. He sat next to the drums and soon got hooked. Some good teachers later, he ended up working in all kinds of musical situations, from full orchestras with a conductor in the pit of a theater to touring with Iggy Pop. As years went by, talent and effort led him to work with great Italian and British artists and bands, gaining a well deserved reputation as a sesionist. So far, quite normal.

What is not so usual is his role as a researcher. At the beginning, he was very impressed of how some drummers (Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, Stewart Copeland or his admired Steve Jansen) seemed to play apparently simple ideas but suddenly there was that magic moment in which they played something unexpected, something technically simple but tasteful. Nobody else seemed to have thought of these little amazing ideas that embellished the patterns with magic and beauty. He wondered how did these masters come up with those original, elegant ideas. Particularly, Steve Jansen was able to create rhythmic designs that nobody else seemed to think of, without having a great technique or any special ability. This led Gavin Harrison to realize that practicing rudiments to train his hands and feet was the wrong way to go. What he should be developing was his brain. He was very concerned about practicing common exercises as he was having less and less ideas when sitting on the drumset. So he started to think out of the box. He wondered how to create emotions with rhythm, how to get a “touching” effect. And he began to consider drums as if they were a melodic instrument, like a piano or a saxophone.

Gavin Harrison 1 - DrumsCult

On the other hand, he realized that changing the common location of some beats -for example, displacing the backbeat from the common 2 and 4- on a simple pattern could create singular rhythmic effects. Likewise, starting the same pattern a sixteenth earlier or later seeemed to make it much harder to play, even though it was the same simple pattern. These ideas created rhythmic illusions, as if the drummer had moved the downbeat or changed tempo. So Harrison started a researching process that led him to publish two important books about rhythmic manipulation, Rhythmic illusions and Rhythmic perspectives, and the DVD’s Rhythmic visions and Rhythmic horizons.

In 2001, he received a phone call from his friend, keyboard player Richard Barbieri. Chris Maitland, the former drummer of his band Porcupine Tree had left the band and they needed a session drummer for recording their new album. Gavin Harrison studied the music for a couple of weeks and then it tooked him five days to record the drums for In ansentia, one of the best albums of the last decade and a stunning job with the drums. Of course, some days later Steven Wilson called again and offered him to be a permanent member of the band. Obviously, Porcupine Tree’s music is very interesting for any drummer from a creative point of view, but Gavin Harrison took the chance to apply some of the concepts that he was investigating from long time ago. Since he entered the band, all albums contain brilliant rhythmic ideas and many delusive drum patterns. Gavin Harrison’s presence in Porcupine Tree has boosted the bands’s popularity as the quality of the songs has increased a lot.

Gavin Harrison 3 - DrumsCult

© Lilly M.

Gavin Harrison has a good reputation of being very serious about his job. He always studies the style and music of the artists he is going to play with. Although he considers himself more a jazz drummer than anything, he has been in all kinds of musical situations. Fame has come with Porcupine Tree, but his work with King Crimson and O5Ric shows how he always try to come up with a unique rhythmic design. He never plays a song the same exact way as the night before and he often searches for a detail or variation that produces a surprising effect that keeps the interest.

He is not an extreme drummer in any sense. Harrison doesn’t have any impossible abilities, but his performances are always astonishing. In a world that sometimes seems like a contest on who is the fastest with the feet, Gavin Harrison is such a rarity. While the so-called double pedal experts seem to know nothing but speed it up, he just throws little fills in unexpected places, as can be heard in Futile or the spectacular Anesthetize. He is able to turn a simple four on the floor pattern into a great experience having precise control of the ghost notes in the snare drum, hi-hat or any other instrument. He chooses a simple rudiment such as the flam-triplet and play all kinds of amazing licks with it. His specialization in displacements and metric modulations allows him to create all kinds of rhythmic illusions that are resolved amazingly. And wonder of wonders, he is able to make us dance to an odd time signature, as in the central part of Halo.

© Giuseppe Grondona

© Giuseppe Grondona

Not many people knows that Gavin Harrison owns a professional studio at his house in London since many years ago. He soon saw that one of the main problems drummers face is that our instrument is not easily portable, sometimes you need cymbals you left home and many other drawbacks. So he decided to build a studio in a big room with a very high roof, where he could have everything needed for drumming recording sessions. This way, Gavin Harrison can record anything he is asked for with no limitations of studio hours due to budgets, timetables or moving gear to another place, having all of his instruments available. In the Interviews Section you can read an interesting article from Sound on Sound magazine about this studio, or you can go to his official website for more information.

As we’ve seen in the last years, Gavin Harrison continues to explore new projects and opportunities with other artists. We’ve enjoyed him playing stunning covers from classics such as Miles Davis, big band adaptations from Porcupine Tree songs or funk tunes where he performs a surprising, impecable job. His three albums with O5Ric are a whole display of rhythmic lessons and original ideas. This drum magician never disappoints even with the simplest pattern and we can be sure he’ll surprises us again. We’ll keep wondering how did he come with that or what is he doing there. The same thing we do when seeing an illusionist. We suddenly open our mouth and say: wow, what was that?

This post is also available in Versión en Español.

Carles Goodvalley (200 Posts)

My name is Carles and I am from Barcelona. I play drums since I was 14 but no continuosly or as a professional. For several years, I have been trying to acquire knowledge not only about "how to play" but in various aspects of the drumming world such as materials, techniques, styles, influences, characters and important records, drummers that have left their mark and all kinds of data regarding our instrument. I've played with differents bands and styles, mainly Pop/Rock and Progressive Metal.


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