Gear Geek Questions Answered

I have had a lot of people ask me over the years about all the sticks, percussion and electronics that I use during a Robert Earl Keen show. I do use a lot of different types to create the right texture and sound for a particular song, as well as triggering loops and percussion tracks from the records. So, without further ado, here are a couple of pictures and descriptions of what is in them.IMG_0628


This first picture shows my stick bag and percussion tray. In the bag, starting from the left, are a bunch on Promark 5A sticks with a round wood tip – pretty standard, but I like the cymbal sound of the round wood tips. The blue tipped stick are Promark Matt Savage “practice sticks” that have a rubber tip. I use them to get loose before and during soundcheck. They are also great to use when tuning the drums. Next are the Promark Hot Rods and Regal Tip Fat Cat nylon brushes. Moving along are spare Broom Sticks, brushes and a pair of Thunder Rods (just beefed up Hot Rods). In front of those, are a pair of Promark SD7 – a stick/mallet hybrid, some older prototype Promark timpani mallets and a pair of “shaker sticks”.

In the tray, from right to left, I have “hand” mallets I made. They are updated from the originals that I made in the studio while tracking “Feeling Good Again”. I wanted a hand drum sound, but with more “cut” (and to save my hands). So with an old pair of Blastics and some duct tape, I created these for that song. Next are Promark Broom Sticks followed by a pair of Flix Rods. These are GREAT! I use them all the time live and in the studio. They are like a pair of Blastics, but they have a nylon stick tip in the middle. This allows you to get a cymbal sound and also get a nice attack when crashing a cymbal. I use all of these, as well as different combinations during the shows – example…. sometimes having a Flix in one hand and a stick in the other (“Gringo Honeymoon”) or a shaker stick in the right hand and a mallet in the left for the backbeat (“Lay Down My Brother”).

Also in the tray, I have a Promark Rattler to get a sizzle on the ride cymbal on certain “acoustic” tunes. Next is a Swan Percussion shaker. These offer SO many sounds from one shaker – an amazing product. I also keep a roll of that spongy, flesh colored first-aid tape in case I start getting a blister during the show. It is also great substitute for Moon Gell if you get in a pinch. Next is my HiHat Shaker that I made from 4 LP One Shot Shakers that I mounted on an old HiHat Tambourine frame. This is a great alternative sound source for the left foot, adding a different texture to the HiHat. Underneath is the tempo list that I refer to from time to time (especially if we haven’t played the song in about a year). I remember most of them, but having a backup is always good the older you get.

To finish up the percussion part, there are a few items I keep on my left side that you can see in picture #2. On the far left is a Meinl HiHat tambourine. I have come to use my left foot a lot to add a little “drive” on certain sections of some tunes and this just adds to the available color palette. Leaning against the case are 2 important items. The first is what I call the “Cymbaline” – another creation of mine. It is a cracked, old, beat up 10” Sabian China Splash to which I riveted Tambourine jingles. I place this on the rack tom and it is the “up beat” sound that I use on “I Gotta Go”.  Lastly, there is a used 12” Aquarian RSP2 that I place on the snare drum (upside down) on a few tunes. Doing this deepens the sound of the snare and when I strike it with a mallet, I get this huge, FAT snare sound.




Now to the monitor and electronics set up. I have been using in-ears for a LONG time now and they have saved my ears over the years. I can hear everything without having to crank up the volume. Also, they are essential for being able to hear and lock in to the loops that I run during Robert’s shows. The heart of this setup is a Mackie 1202VLZ mixer. The inputs: Ch#1 is a band/stage mix, Ch#2 is just REK’s guitar – allowing me control to turn it up when he starts a song “fingerpicking”. Ch#3 is my vocal and Ch#4 is a line from the Roland SPD-SX which triggers all the sounds, loops, etc. Ch#5 is the click. I have used the Tama Rhythm Watch for years. It’s easy, programable and very road worthy. Most of the time, I only use it for starting tempos, turning off the click within the first 8 bars of the song – once we are all “locked in”. This just makes the songs and the show more consistent from night to night. The only time I use a click throughout the song is if I am triggering a percussion loop on the chorus of a song so that I will be at the same tempo and locked in with the loop. Otherwise, we do not use a click throughout the songs while playing live – never have/never will. (more on that in a later blog)

Also in the picture are Shure E-315 ear buds, a Boss pedal for an on/off switch for the click, and of course, the Roland SPD-SX to store and trigger all the sounds, loops, percussion tracks, etc. Most of the loops and tracks that are used are the actual tracks off the records. A few are ones that I created in my studio as we “morph” and change up the tunes over the years (example – intro for “Dreadful Selfish Crime”) To Robert’s credit, he was one of the first Americana/Country artist to embrace using loops as far back as 2003 on “Farm Fresh Onions” (“Train Trek”) and I’ve been using the Roland SPD-S and SPD-SX live ever since.


I hope this answers some of your questions. If you have any other specific questions, email me through the “contact” page of my website.