Feb 1, 2014, 00:00 AM
Rhythm Scene Staff
Cover Photo by Justin Walpole
It’s the kind of opportunity musicians dream of: A major artist discovers you on YouTube, invites you to audition/jam, and you get the gig. For Hannah Ford Welton, that artist was Prince, and since the summer of 2012, she has been the drummer in Prince’s New Power Generation band. In addition, the nucleus of NPG—Welton, guitarist Donna Grantis, and bassist Ida Nielson—perform with Prince as 3rdEyeGirl.
Hannah began playing at age seven, and she was a member of the Louisville Leopard Percussionists while in elementary school. She attended the Chicago College of Performing Arts and studied with Paul Wertico, and in 2006 she won the Louis Bellson Heritage Days Drum Competition (the only woman to ever win). Over the next few years, she served as drummer and vocalist for the Hannah Ford Band, played with Milwaukee-based crossover Christian band Bellevue Suite, and performed around the country with her one-woman multi-media show, Peace, Love & Drums. Then she got a call from Prince…
VIDEO: Drum solo from Hannah Ford Welton’s 2011 “Peace, Love & Drums” clinic tour
Rhythm! Scene: It is said that success occurs when preparation meets opportunity. Describe the background that prepared you for the opportunity to drum with Prince.
Hannah Welton: One of the most important aspects of performing with Prince is to be able to go where the spirit of the music is taking the band. Two key points come to mind in enabling a musician to accomplish that freedom. One is versatility; I worked a lot on being able to play multiple styles and feels of music. It can be detrimental to your career to be close-minded and only focus on one area of music. Learn and study as much as you can about different genres and grooves from a variety of artists. It will expand your technique and playing immensely. The other key point to moving with the music is jamming frequently with other musicians. There is a certain unspoken dialogue that comes with music; the only way to learn how to speak that language is to be around it.
Photo by Cory Dewald
RS: Did you have any musical experiences or lessons in your youth that, at the time, you didn’t think were relevant to your goals, but later you realized that you had gained something important from that lesson or experience?
HW: When I was younger I used to get really annoyed when practicing to a click track. I thought it was boring and pointless. Now, I’m so thankful I did it! Being able to play to a click is very important if you want to be a working musician. So much recorded music these days is recorded to click tracks. If you can’t play to that, you could lose the gig.
However, I must say that being able to play without the click track is equally as important. Grooving is the most important aspect of a drummer’s role. If you can’t keep steady time and make the groove feel good, then the rest of the music is going to suffer. Establishing that groove is the first step to a successful career.
RS: Looking back, is there anything you wished you had spent more time developing or learning about?
HW: I wish I had focused a little bit more on my “pocket.” When I was growing up, I always heard that I had great time and meter, but I never heard the word “pocket.” It wasn’t until I started working with Prince that I really grasped and understood the meaning of pocket and being funky. Even though it’s something that I learned within the last couple of years, I wouldn’t change a thing about the process because I can confidently say that I now have the best teacher of funk there is!
VIDEO: Hannah Ford Welton performing with Prince and 3rdEyeGirl at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards
RS: When you were in elementary school, you were a member of the Louisville Leopard Percussionists, so besides playing drums, you also spent some time playing marimba, xylophone, and/or vibes. How has knowledge of such things as melody and harmony impacted your drumming?
HW: Being able to play marimba, vibraphone, etc. has really helped my ear musically. Understanding melodic structure, harmonies, and chord progressions enhances my ability to be a musical drummer. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many of those any more. People are so thrown by the fact that you hit the drums that they don’t realize you can hit them melodically instead of just as hard as you can.
In addition to drumming, I’m also a singer. I cannot even begin to explain how learning to play mallet percussion developed my ear as a vocalist. I am so beyond thankful to have had the education and ear training that I did at such an early age, all thanks to Diane Downs and the Louisville Leopards!
It is extremely important to train your ear musically—especially for a drummer. Most people don’t expect a drummer to be as well-trained musically as the other musicians simply because we don’t use the majority of the theory they do. Learning theory and training my ear has helped so much in the writing process, in learning new music, even in simply communicating with other musicians in rehearsals and shows. Just because you play the drums and you don’t play a “melodic” instrument is not an excuse to write off learning the theory behind the music. Learn it! It will only help you down the road!
RS: How important has music reading been in your career?
HW: In all honesty, reading music hasn’t been a necessity in most of my career up to this point. I played in an Off-Broadway musical entitled White Noise where I had to read charts, and I’m so thankful that I could! I think that it’s important to be able to read music because it only expands your knowledge and capabilities, but I wouldn’t say it will make or break your career.
RS: You have studied and played several styles of music. How do they inform each other?
HW: They all go hand in hand. Even though each style has its own particular feel or groove, they all require musicality and dynamics. There are also different techniques that are used in order to make each style sound authentic. I have realized that I often tend to apply the different techniques to different styles. For example, when playing jazz, you typically have lighter hands than when you’re playing heavy backbeat rock. But when I play rock, there are times when I will switch to a lighter approach for a different sound and feel. It also helps preserve energy for long shows! It’s so much fun to try out different approaches and techniques between genres! It’s even more fun to listen back to the shows and recordings and hear how it comes across in the music
RS: What can you tell us about upcoming tours and/or CD releases?
HW: Right now I can’t give any specifics on an album release or tour dates. But I can say that 2014 is going to be a very busy and exciting year of music, and we cannot wait to share all of the incredible music we’ve created over the last year and a half! These are super exciting times! I know fans have been waiting a while for new material; all I can say is, great things come to those who wait!