May 24, 2023
One studio drummer who's tearin' it up
I love doing what I do because I stumble across so many independently talented artists—like musician Justin Holder, for example. If you live up in or close to the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama, chances are you know who he is and not just because of his super funky hairdo.
Holder is the go-to drummer in North Alabama for studio work, and he’s also a live drummer. I first met him back in early 2022 when he sat in the drummer seat to accompany UNA Entertainment Industries Professor Dr. Charles Brooks on his Black History Month tribute to Jimi Hendrix, which was beyond badass and had everyone on their feet. In case you missed it, you can catch that show in its entirety HERE. For now, here’s a peek at Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” mixed with a bit of “Purple Haze.” Brace yourselves, though—it will melt your face off in every aspect from melody to groove to overall musical experience. Each of the musicians on that project put on one hell of an outstanding show.
Holder becomes another person when he sits in the captain’s chair, losing sight of everything but the drums and the groove. He plays masterfully with such professional intelligence and finesse that watching and listening to him sucks you right into the music to get lost in his rhythm. He’s always prepared to the nines, and he knows his shit. Don’t mistake anything about him, though; he’s a pro through and through. He studies hard the music he plays, and he keeps a notebook nearby full of meticulous notes so he doesn’t have to worry about what he’s going to hit; he can just be musical. He’s got an incredible ear and a gifted sense of awareness that allows him to play off the rest of the band. He’s able to mesh easily with other musicians, too.
“He's a consummate professional,” says Brooks, “the very definition of a hired gun who can walk into any situation and not just adapt to a style but emulate it in a way that’s authentic to the source of origin and fresh for the listener.”
I had to know more about this self-proclaimed drummer ho and go-to studio drummer (at least in the North Alabama area), so I sat down to rap with him about how he fell into studio drumming, what he loves most about everything he does, and what advice he has for up-and-coming drummers out there. Check out our conversation.
MaM: Justin, thank you so much for taking the time to rap with me about your groovy talent and occupations. Are you a Muscle Shoals-area native or a transplant? Tell us about yourself.
JH: Thank you for having me! I’m actually born, raised, and currently live in Florence, Alabama. I’m both a studio drummer and a live drummer. I started out as a live player and then converted over to studio work. I’ve wanted to do studio work my whole life. I grew up around it. I love it.
MaM: It’s our pleasure! First, let’s address this “Drummer Ho” thing, because inquiring minds want to know its origin. Please, the floor is all yours.
JH: (laughs) Well, I’m Justin Holder, and when JLo came out, my buddy started calling me “JHo” and it just stuck. I sign everything with that [moniker] and when I went to make an email, I just did DrummerHo because it fit. (laughs)
MaM: Dude, that is hilarious. And awesome. It fits you perfectly. Never, ever change it, please. So, drummer ho, what type of equipment do you use to drum shit up, and what are your favorite symbols and sticks?
JH: (laughs) I have a DW drum set and a 1969 Ludwig kit. But the current one I use is a Maple YAMAHA Custom kit. My preferred symbols are the companies. I'm sponsored with Sabian symbols and Vater drumsticks.
MaM: Has music always been a part of your life?
JH: From birth, my dad was a musician and he toured around my whole life. He had a studio, so I would grow up just doing homework at his studio and listening to him mix. And, you know, all the legendary musicians from our area were there in my house, but I didn't know who they were. They were just guys my dad recorded with. So, I've been around music my entire life ever since I was born.
MaM: What was your life like during middle school and high school? Were you playing any music then? If not, where were you headed after graduation?
JH: So, during middle school and high school, that's all I did. I mean, coaches gave me a hard time because they wanted me to play sports and I was like, ‘Nah, I'm just gonna play drums.’ (laughs) So, I did. We had a band called Salvatron and I was in a band called Prototype, and we played a bunch of churches and stuff like that. One was a punk band, hardcore. So, different kinds of music all through my high school and middle school days.
And I played at church, of course, with my dad. That's where I first got my start. I remember it was a Tuesday night and it was a worship night … he let me get up, and I was just terrified. And there were seven people in the auditorium or whatever. But, after graduation, nothing was really going on here. I graduated in 2001 and moved to North Carolina with a guy named Will McFarlane; we just wanted more opportunity in life.
MaM: When did you know you wanted to play drums?
JH: Oh, I knew from the first time I saw Animal from The Muppets. He was in a tree singing ‘Rockin’ Robin,’ and I saw his drum set and just went, ‘Whoa.’ And that was it. I remember just being a young kid, I had pots and pans I would beat on. And my dad, like I said, was in a band, so I saw all the drummers.
MaM: (laughs) Ah, Animal. He was the best. Do you remember your first live show as a drummer?
JH: Of course, I do. But my dad and Will McFarlane were the first two that gave me an early shot to play live. I think I was, gosh, maybe 13? And I can't remember which one of them it was, but one of them paid us 50 bucks and it was just like, ‘Wow, I can do this and make $50?!’ (laughs)
MaM: Haha. Hey, fifty bucks is fifty bucks, man! Do you ever get nervous at live gigs?
JH: I did, and I still do, to this day, get anxiety and nervous. [I could have a gig] in front of four people [and I’d} still get nervous. And I love that, because once those nerves are gone, you might as well give it up, start something else that makes you nervous, and get your blood flowing. But I always have a process, kind of, when I have to learn a lot of songs. I cram, cram, cram, cram. And I constantly question myself and think, ‘I'm never gonna remember all this. I'm not. I'm just not.’ So, I let it go. The night before [and] the next day, I wake up freaking out, [saying to myself], ‘You're never gonna remember all this.’ But as long as I do my due diligence and notate everything—I need to notate on a piece of paper or chart—I can make it through anything, and I've figured that out along the way.
And so, but I still get nervous for any show, really. When I'm setting up, once I hit that first note, I'm comfortable—maybe the first song, sometimes, depending on how much I'm feeling or how much I've drunk. But usually everything works out. The moment I hit that first note, I'm like, ‘Okay, you do remember this. You've practiced, you know what you're doing.’ So, yes, I do still get nervous at live gigs.
MaM: I can dig that, man. I know many people can. What does playing drums mean to you as an artist? What is drumming a source of for you?
JH: For me, it's a source of … that's a good question. My father was a musician, so for me, it's, it was important to be a musician like him. That was, to me, I guess being a man back then. As an artist, the drum is the groove you know because when we're in the studio and I'm listening to something and the guitar players listening to something, we're listening to totally different things. He's going to accomplish one thing, I'm going to accomplish another, but we're gonna tie them together.
So, you have a room full of guys that kind of know what they're doing and [know] what to look for, and, you know, I'm not hearing melodic changes a lot. I'm hearing rhythmic changes and timing, so as a drummer, I'm totally focused on the groove, the timing, what the tempo should be, and just how to make the song better. It's always about making the song better. That's why we check our egos at the door, first and foremost, because that could definitely get in the way. There's no ego involved. It's just whatever is best for the song.
MaM: What does your evolution as a drummer encompass from where you started versus where you are now?
JH: Wow, I'm only 40 years old, and I feel like lately I've kind of just been like, ‘You know what? This is easier than I thought it was.’ … But where I was to now, it's just experience, honestly. I mean, 10 years ago, I wouldn't have listened to what I know now, because I would think I'm not gonna have to do all that, like country and blah, blah, this, and this, and now it's like, ‘That's my job.’ So, knowing a lot of different types of music [and being able to] instantly relate to an artist [by being] aware of where they're coming from, that’s my job—to understand where people are coming from and to know what they mean by saying this, this, and this.
MaM: What do you love most about what you do?
JH: My dad was a musician, and all I ever wanted to do was play music because I saw him do it. He passed away 13 years ago, and I'm just continuing the legacy. Studio work is forever. Live gigs are in one ear out the other. But when you track a song, it's there forever. And that's what I love about the studio. I love the fact that it's an art in the studio. It's decisiveness. It's a gut feeling. It's gut reaction. But I love the excitement and not knowing what I'm getting into.
People always said, ‘You want me to sing any songs beforehand?’ Nope, I don't. I want to meet the artist the day of. They're gonna look at me all weird, I'm gonna look at them all weird, and then all of a sudden, with the first time we kick into a song, or they hear me do a drum check, they're like, ‘Okay, I feel good now; this guy's good.’ So, that's what I love about studio. It's forever, and there's an art form to it, and getting better at this art form is really fun.
MaM: That’s beautiful, man. Well, I know you're in a couple of bands, so tell us about them.
JH: So, one band I'm in is called Drumb and Drumber with a guy named Chad Berdine. I play guitar and sing and play some hand drums. It started because I needed to pay my utility bill and drums weren't paying me a lot. (laughs)
I didn't have a lot of work when i moved [back] here twelve years ago, and I didn't want to get a job, so I said, ‘You know what? I can play some covers,’ and I did it one night [and realized] I don't need to rely on anybody else anymore. I can do this all on my own. And then Chad came to me and said, ‘Let me play with you.’ Next thing you know, we called it Drumb and Drumber. We've opened McDonald's for corporate events, we've played at the National Predators Game nine times or something like that, and now he owns wedding venues. So primarily, we do a lot of weddings.
I’m also in another group called Fathers and Sons. We put this together just for us. It's a bunch of studio guys: Jamie McFarlane, Kelvin Holly, Will McFarlane, Janet McFarlane, and C Thurman and me. We play whenever we get booked, but we mainly play every Tuesday night at FloBama Restaurant in downtown Florence from 7-10 p.m. We kind of put that together just for us to get our rocks off … cut loose and play. We just wanted to put together a band and have fun and do some songs that we wanted to do.
I also play with a guy named Cole Nichols, but my other project is Gary Nichols. I've been playing with Gary for a long time, and he's a Grammy winner with The Steel Drivers who won Bluegrass Album of the Year. He and I just recorded his new record, and we're gonna be putting that out, hopefully see where that goes. I’m also currently playing with Dixie Mafia. So, a lot of exciting things on the horizon mixed in with also doing session work, you know?
MaM: When did you become a session drummer? How did you fall into that?
JH: My dad was a studio musician and [I grew] up around all The Swampers (aka The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) here in town. There's something special about recording. It really is special. I've grown up around it and I've seen the art form my whole life, so I wanted to do that. When I moved back from North Carolina to Muscle Shoals, I knew … there were session guys and they were getting the work, but, you know, they were all aging. And I hate to say it that way, because we had some greats: Bob Evans, Roger Clark, Milton Sledge, Roger Hawkins, and Mike Dylan, who's still around with us. But … there was a need for more drummers, I have to say it. So, I moved back and plugged myself in, and I got really close with the guys at Fame Studios, and they just started using me slowly but surely.
And next thing you know, twelve years later, I feel like I'm the go-to guy. I don't wanna call myself that, but I'd like to think that I am, you know? I'm still aspiring to be ‘that guy’ and get better at things. I've sacrificed a lot to be a session drummer. I probably could have been on the road playing with other people, but I knew that that session drumming is what I wanted to do. I wanted to get better at that. I could get better at being a live player and going out and networking and schmoozing my way up the ladder like anybody could do, you know, but I wanted to plug away at the studio … because it's forever. It's very special to me and my father all that kind of stuff.
MaM: Drop some big names you’ve played with over the years.
JH: Little Richard, Delbert McClinton, Kris Kristofferson, Foy Vance, Jason Isbell, John Paul White, Rick Hall, Jim Gaines, Jimmy Hall, Shenandoah, Donny Fritz, The Swampers, T. Graham Brown—I’m on his new record, which features Sammy Hagar, Billy Gibbons, and Daniel Tucker—but that hasn't come out yet. Those are just a few names. There’s many more.
MaM: Your life must be pretty busy. Given all that you do, how do you find a balance between working, playing, and home life?
JH: I'll be honest with you, I struggle at that a lot of times, because I'm a kind of guy who if I'm working from ten in the morning until ten at night, I'm gonna have time to myself in that night … I can't just come home and go to bed. I have to have my personal mental quiet time. I play Fortnight with my wife a lot. (laughs) I'm not a gamer, but something about that is very peaceful after I’ve been in the studio dissecting songs all day. It's not physically tiring on me; it's mentally draining. And that's tough.
I have a 14-year-old daughter and a wife. We find our ways to bond with each other. I still am challenged with finding a balance in everything. Right now, I'm in a season of just working as much as possible. And whenever somebody calls me, I go; I'm a yes man. … I don't get a lot of days off, and so when I do, I do nothing … absolutely nothing.
MaM: Any advice for those interested in maybe becoming a studio drummer?
JH: If you're interested in becoming a drummer, the first thing I could tell you to do that I wish somebody would have told me to do is to suck it up, nancy boy, and listen to every kind of music you don't like! If you wanna be a studio guy, you're gonna do a lot of shit that you don't wanna do. And it's not that you can't find the joy in it, it's just, ‘Wow, this isn’t really my cup of tea. I don't really listen to this.’ Well, you f**king need to listen to it because you're gonna need to know how to do this kind of stuff in the studio. And I've learned that along the way. I was stubborn and didn't want to do that. And guess what? [They’ll just get] somebody that can do it.
So, in my opinion, if you want to be an overall versatile player that gets called all the time, you gotta listen to so much crap you don't like and stuff you do like. If you want to be a Tik-Toker, you want to be a YouTuber, you wanna be a live drummer, go practice all the chops and the licks that you can do, get as fast as you want. But if you want to become a session studio drummer, nine times out of ten, you're not gonna get called for that. You know, they always say a bad drummer makes a good band sound bad, and a good drummer makes a bad band sound good. And that's very true. All an artist needs us to do is be the anchor and be the groove. So, I would say listen to every style of music there is [and] give yourself seven days out of the week. One day do jazz. Second day do country. Third day, do another genre. And just dissect how drumming is different in each one of those categories, because that's what you're gonna be using when you come into the studio.
Also, learn how to tune a f**king drum set. I probably get hired more because of my tuning than I do my playing. And learn fundamentals. I think the three basic rudiments to start off with are singles, doubles, paradiddles.
And there you have it, folks. Studio Drumming 411 from the studio drummer ho himself. To see Justin play live, you can catch him every Tuesday night at FloBama Downtown Restaurant and Music Venue in Florence, Alabama, from 7-10 p.m. Drumb and Drumber plays every other Thursday at the Marriott Inn in Florence from 5-7 p.m. at Swampers Lounge.
For more on Justin Holder, hop over to YouTube and search “Justin Holder Drummer” or “Justin Holder Fame” and peruse through the many videos of him in the studio and elsewhere. You can also find Justin on Facebook @JustinHolderDrummer.
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