Greyson Nekrutman: Play Hard, Work Harder

Greyson Nekrutman

Famously, the late Buddy Rich didn’t push practice. The hot-tempered genius of jazz drumming, who began his career as a child prodigy, liked to say he learned his craft by performing. Rich also trash-talked rock drummers, though he did tackle arrangements of rock songs in his popular big bands.

Which begs the question: What would Rich have made of Greyson Nekrutman? The 21-year-old drummer and clinician has been recognized as a torchbearer for Rich’s brand of jaw-dropping virtuosity. He’s also a member of metal titans Sepultura and a diehard advocate for hitting the practice room—hard.

“I always say that I was never born a talented musician,” Nekrutman tells Music & Arts’ Mark Gauthier in a new video interview. “I was never born a talented drummer. What I believe I’m talented at is working hard. In high school I wasn’t going out and partying, or hanging out and having girlfriends and this and that. That time was [spent] practicing. … It was used in the basement, where I would work on things that I just could not do.”

“There will never be a destination for me,” he adds. “If I didn’t allow myself to feel another challenge, I would just fall apart.”

Mark and Greyson

Nekrutman hails from a new generation of drum gods whose social-media skills work in tandem with their talent behind the kit, opening doors to real-world opportunities. In one of his most viral videos—13M (!) views on YouTube—he recreates the triumphant finale from the film Whiplash. In other popular clips, he deconstructs Rich’s techniques, matching the icon’s mastery lick by lick.

“I was never born a talented drummer. What I believe I’m talented at is working hard.”

Elsewhere on his socials, Nekrutman documents his thriving career outside the practice room, on club and festival stages. There are clips of his brief but memorable stint with Suicidal Tendencies—an institution in Southern California hardcore punk, and a graduate school for some of the finest drummers in rock, metal, and fusion. Another video finds him at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club, laying down hip-hop beats alongside bassist Brady Watt and one of the all-time-great producer-rappers, Havoc of Mobb Deep.

That blend of ability, versatility, and promo hustle has earned Nekrutman renown and respect in the drum community, including co-signs from very famous fans. On a podcast, when Stewart Copeland was asked about current drummers worth “keeping an eye on,” he thought for a moment. Then came his enthusiastic response: “That young Nekrutman fellow.”

As Nekrutman explains, there’s really only one way to attain his kind of success: practice. Non-stop. For years on end. What’s more, he thinks of hard work as a gateway to empowerment, or as a tool for breaking through the limitations that aspiring musicians impose on themselves. “At clinics and master classes,” he says, “I’ll do a crazy solo and then I’ll stop and tell everybody, ‘Yeah, you can play exactly what I just played.’”

Whether it was Rich or Carter Beauford or any of his drum idols, he was never intimidated by their technique; after all, if their hands and feet managed to make these extraordinary polyrhythms, why couldn’t his?

“I watched these YouTube videos where people claim things are impossible,” he says. “So when I was young I saw the Buddy Rich ‘Impossible Drum Solo.’ And all the comments underneath said, ‘The best, nobody will ever be as good, nobody could ever do this.’ There were so many ‘nevers,’ ‘impossibles,’ ‘unachievables,’ ‘too good.’ And for some reason, I don’t know why … those words got to me.”

That fortitude has allowed Nekrutman to continue developing as a musician at every stage of his life—even in the face of a devastating long-term illness.

Greyson Nekrutman playing the drums

Raised on Long Island, Nekrutman first picked up his sticks at age 4. Some of his earliest memories of the drums center on a notable family friend, the South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo, a veteran of Paul Simon’s Graceland sessions. Kumalo lived nearby and, as Nekrutman recalls, he “would show me the drums, but that wasn’t the seed.” Soon after, Nekrutman’s mother suggested the drums as a new hobby, and he began studying every Saturday with a local instructor named Justin Gallo. That mentorship became a profound influence, and lasted from the time Nekrutman was a kindergartener until he was in his mid-teens. “He played, and still does, a huge role in my life,” the drummer says.

When he was still in grade school, his life took a dramatic and unfortunate turn. “I got really, really ill,” Nekrutman says. “I was out of school from basically 10 to about 15, 16.” During those years, the drums became a kind of salvation. “I was at Justin’s every week, so he was my only interaction outside of hospitals and in my house. … [I’d] go over there with something to do, something to keep me happy. During the week, all I did was practice.” To supplement his lesson work, he immersed himself in drum books and YouTube. “I’d learn,” Nekrutman says. “I mean, that’s all I had.”

“I kind of made up the technique as I went, and found what works best for me.”

Nekrutman looks back on that challenging time with characteristic grit. “It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “I am honestly really thankful it happened, because it taught me a lot—about life, and about everything.”

While Nekrutman’s chops are the result of relentless practice over many years, he can point to certain moments or periods in his education that were truly revelatory. To start, he explains how Gallo introduced limb independence, which Nekrutman pursued obsessively. “I was still playing in my room, and the whole house would shake,” he says. “So poor Mom on that one, but I eventually got it.”

A second breakthrough: Nekrutman’s lightning-fast left-hand technique, which he developed by ignoring conventional wisdom and fusing elements of different drummers he admired. “I took a little bit from every person, put them together, and then realized there weren’t as many rules as we are told,” he says. “I kind of made up the technique as I went, and found what works best for me.”

That open-mindedness informs Nekrutman’s attitude as a clinician as well. When asked what guidance he’d offer to drum instructors, he responds, “Don’t be afraid to allow the students to be supported in whatever they like. You have to put your own personal music tastes aside for a minute. … [I]f all the kid wants to learn is this crazy, fast whatever it is, because that’s what kids want to learn … let them. Teach them.” At the same time, he suggests striking a balance that includes pursuing more foundational music. In fact, that idea is what helped him find his way to the pyrotechnics of big-band swing.

“I was bored to tears the first time I listened to Miles Davis,” he says. “My middle ground of learning jazz was big band, because it was exciting to me. It was fun.” Big-band drumming served to highlight Nekrutman’s gifts as a showman, as well as his wish to connect in a meaningful way with wide-ranging audiences. “People [would] go to see [drum great] Sonny Payne with Count Basie because it was entertaining,” he points out. “You’d bring your whole family to a little amphitheater.”

Further, big band allowed Nekrutman to find his unique voice behind the kit, by mastering decades-old skills—and tempos—that many modern drummers aren’t capable of. “I realized if I could take the things I learned from those old big-band videos and incorporate it into my other styles, it would allow me to be different than everybody else.” In making his own video content, he grew his chops through the intense study required to replicate his heroes; he also introduced younger, social-media-savvy generations to the thrills of classic American music.

Nekrutman’s later work in metal and hardcore has more in common with the flash-bang technique of swing drumming than you might expect. Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward, the godfather of metal drumming, was a devotee of big-band sticksmen, especially Gene Krupa. The intersection of jazz and metal that followed is a surprisingly rich legacy, and includes musicians like Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, Testament’s Alex Skolnick, and metalcore legends the Dillinger Escape Plan.

In his mid-teens, Nekrutman hosted Dillinger drummer Billy Rymer in his basement practice space, and absorbed an invaluable lesson in confidence. A fellow son of Long Island, Rymer sat down at the younger drummer’s thoughtfully arranged kit, then promptly overhauled it. After re-tuning the bass drum, “he ripped that thing harder than I’ve ever seen a drummer rip a drum set in my entire life, to this day,” Nekrutman recalls. “Just the fluidity, the speed, the power—everything was something that I had never witnessed. … And then he got up and walked away. He was in ripped jeans, beat-up Adidas. It was the vibe of [coolness].”

“Don’t be afraid to allow the students to be supported in whatever they like. You have to put your own personal music tastes aside for a minute.”

Nekrutman tells that story in his clinics, as an illustration of how equipment or even a kit’s setup is secondary to a musician’s will to improve. “That was probably the number-one thing I ever learned in drum or music education: You gotta put the responsibility on yourself to get better, and not the gear, and not everything else external,” he says.

As a result, Nekrutman is the kind of artist endorser who places equal importance on the quality of a company’s gear and the way they handle customer and artist service. His first kit—which he still owns—was a Pearl, and after cycling through a wide variety of gear, he joined the Pearl Drums family as an artist endorser. It’s all about the hardware, he argues. “The minute I started playing gigs, I realized, on top of the drums being sturdy and sounding great, the hardware from a company is what really separates it,” he says.

He goes on to discuss that essential human element beyond Pearl’s impressive craftsmanship. “Somebody who’s not an [artist endorser], you can call them and they will answer,” Nekrutman says. “You can call their Nashville office and they will talk to you for hours. … There’s a difference.”

When he’s representing Pearl as a clinician, Nekrutman pays that generosity forward. To wit: At a recent Nekrutman clinic held at Music & Arts’ Marietta, Georgia location, a fan and drummer from South Carolina got the VIP treatment and then some. He’d hit construction traffic on his long drive to the event and missed it entirely. Nekrutman held off on breaking down his equipment and made a point of showing this crestfallen fan some exercises. He even invited him along to his dinner with Pearl and Music & Arts staff. “Other than the traveling, playing-music thing,” Nekrutman says, “I just love meeting people from all over the world.”

“My grandparents never got the opportunity [to travel like I do],” he adds later. “But here I am, through just hitting things [with] wood sticks. Here I am across the world. … I want to keep doing this and see how many places I can go.”

Shop Pearl Drums and Meinl Cymbals at Music & Arts!

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