Touring With the World's Top Artists: An Interview With Acclaimed Percussionist Taku Hirano
An enlightening interview with acclaimed percussionist Taku Hirano, where we delve into the essential factors that shape a successful journey as a session musician.
If you ever dreamed of being a session musician, you should take the advice of master percussionist Taku Hirano. Taku has worked with many top artists including, Whitney Houston, Dr Dre, John Mayer, and Stevie Wonder. He also played percussion on Fleetwood Mac's most recent world tour.
I talked to Taku to see what factors were important when touring with top artists.
Magesh, Musicngear: You have toured with so many diverse artists. From Fleetwood Mac to John Mayer to LeAnn Rimes. Is there any equipment that you take on every tour regardless of the style of music you are playing?
For the most part, the main instruments that I have had the most training/time spent playing and what I am most comfortable expressing myself on are congas. So, for almost every major gig that I have done, my percussion rig has centered around three congas (quinto, conga, tumba), and often bongos. That being said, for LeAnn Rimes, Lindsey Buckingham, Josh Groban, and Les Nubians, my rig mainly centered around a cajón, with congas playing an auxiliary part of my set-up. This was because my main role for each of those gigs focused on covering more traditional drumset parts on hand percussion.
Does performing at stadiums change your setup as opposed to playing club gigs or theatres?
It isn’t necessarily the size of the venue that dictates my instrumentation, but the role I am playing on a gig. That being said, for artists playing larger venues such as arenas and stadiums, my percussion rig tends to be bigger because I have to cover more parts, including the use of electronic percussion to trigger samples.
Currently, with LeAnn Rimes, I am playing the role of both drummer and percussionist in a broken-down, semi-acoustic setting, so my rig is fairly small and the level of stage volume is considerably lower than an arena rock show like when I tour with Fleetwood Mac. For LeAnn (we are primarily playing theaters), I am sitting on a cajón, with a djembe, two congas (quinto and tumba), wind chimes, and a percussion table with handheld instruments to my right, and a kick, snare, Roland Octapad, and auxiliary PD8 pad (to trigger tom sounds), hi-hats, and cymbals to my left. This allows me to cover all grooves and colors within a low-volume threshold for her semi-acoustic show.
You recently performed at the Grammy Awards. Can you talk about the preparation that goes into a televised performance of this magnitude?
The Grammys came about this year as an offshoot of performing in the house band for the Grammys MusiCares “Person Of The Year” show (a separate annual music industry show that happens the night before the Grammys telecast), celebrating Smokey Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy, For that show, we learned around 20 Motown hits and rehearsed behind artists over the course of a week, ranging from John Legend to Sheryl Crow, to Stevie Wonder.
During rehearsals, we were told that the Grammy organizers wanted to pay homage to Smokey Robinson and that we were to back up Stevie Wonder and Smokey for a medley of Motown songs. Quite honestly, rehearsals weren’t too involved - we probably had an hour or two to learn the arrangement for the Grammys two days before and performed a 30-minute technical rehearsal/camera blocking with Stevie on the Grammys stage the afternoon before (which amounted to running through the song twice), and then we did the show.
Apart from time spent mastering your instrument, equal dedication must be put towards learning music holistically, becoming fluent in multiple genres of music, and being able to perform, improvise and interact within genres authentically
Can you talk about how you incorporate electronics like triggers and samples into your percussion setup?
I use Roland Electronics for my live percussion rigs. For larger percussion rigs, I use two Roland SPD-30 Octapad, with three Roland PD-8 V-Drum Stereo Rubber Pad and a Roland KT-10 Kick Trigger Pedal coming out of each. This allows me to have six 2-zone pads (center and rim) around my congas so that I can hit them with both sticks and bare hands, as well as two pedals to trigger sounds - even if I am standing in my rig.
For some specific rigs, I have used the Roland SPD-SX Sampling Pad to trigger specific samples (usually sounds lifted off the master recording session of the artist, and supplied to me by the musical director), as well as the Roland HPD-20 Handsonic Pad, if I need to trigger a lot of various small percussion sounds (bells, chimes, cabasa, finger snaps, claps) within a tight space.
Is there equipment like microphones, drums, or cymbals that you are endorsing?
What should young musicians know if they want to become a musician and tour at the highest level?
Practice is key, and spending time to become fluent on your instrument. This is particularly challenging as a percussionist since there are so many instruments to learn.
Apart from time spent mastering your instrument, equal dedication must be put towards learning music holistically, becoming fluent in multiple genres of music, and being able to perform, improvise and interact within genres authentically.
Apart from that, if one wants to be successful and receive lots of calls for work, professionalism is imperative. Having strong interpersonal people skills, good business acumen, being punctual, always being prepared, being flexible and open to last-minute changes, being willing to go above and beyond (and not just doing the bare minimum of a task), and having tenacity and follow-through.
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