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Published: Sep 18, 2007 10:41 AM
Modified: Sep 18, 2007 10:40 AM

Can't beat that with a stick

Eric Okamata holds the title of "world's fastest drummer" in a number of different drumming categories.
Staff photo by Grant Halverson
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Can't beat that with a stick
In an average minute, your heart beats 72 times, you blink 20 times, you take about 14 breaths.

In that same minute, Eric Okamoto can hit 1,620 double drum strokes, his hands fluttering like hummingbirds above his practice drum pad.

“It’s economy of motion,” Okamoto said, explaining his hard-won technique.

Okamoto, a percussion teacher at Burt’s Music in Cary, has claim to being one of the fastest drummers in the world. This year the Garner native won first place in two categories at the NAMM, The International Music Products Association, show in Austin, Texas — closed double strokes and paradiddles (a four-note pattern).

Next year he plans to break two more world records, he said.

Holding a pair of custom Eric Okamoto drumsticks, embossed with his looping signature, he began demonstrating paradiddles with almost childlike rapture.

The key to really fast drumming is staying relaxed, Okamoto said. Most drummers will begin to tense up about 30 seconds into a set, but that’s the kiss of death, he explained.

“Really, you’ve got to be even looser,” he said.

He’s been teaching here since the mid-’90s, instructing more than 70 students a week on a scuffed black Roland practice pad. Inside the tiny studio is a magazine rack with practice books like “Advanced Funk,” “Drum Superstar Series: Led Zeppelin” and “The Logical Approach to Snare Drum.” One wall is unpainted, and tiny multiplication equations are written in pencil directly on the drywall — evidence of Okamoto trying to figure out variables for his metronome.

Math is big with Okamoto — drumming is all about patterns and divisions.

“A lot of musicians are computer geeks,” Okamoto said — they think with the same sort of sequential logic.

Okamoto has always been interested in percussion. As a kid he used empty fruitcake tins as snare drums, later working as a bagger at Winn-Dixie to save up for his first drum kit.

He studied percussion at East Carolina University, where he met his wife, Judith, a French horn major. She’s now the head of the music department at St. Michaels School and the couple has two daughters. He tried to teach them drums, he said, but they were more interested in baton twirling and martial arts.

“It’s stereotypically a guy thing,” he said, shrugging.

The NAMM competition was born in a spirit of stereotypically masculine braggadocio — drummers have always like to claim being the fastest in the world.

And until 1999, they could tell big fish stories as much as they wanted, but it was hard to prove.

That all changed that year with the invention of the Drumo-meter, a device capable of measuring drum strokes.

Okamoto had always been fast, but he hadn’t thought about it too much until a student tipped him off to the NAMM competition in 2003.

He entered and won World Speed Drumming Grand Champion, surprising himself and everyone else.

Now, he practices up to two hours a day before competitions, doing drumrolls for 15 to 20 minutes at a time to gain endurance; he also jogs for stamina.

He has to keep himself from practicing too long, he said, or he can get lost in concentration.

“Time can go by just like that,” he said.

Contact Emily Matchar at 460-2607 or ematchar@nando.com
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