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Published: Aug 8, 2005
Modified: Aug 8, 2005 5:51 AM
Drummer sets new pace
Clayton man is world's fastest

Eric Okamoto, right, does an exercise with percussion student Evan Morris at Burt's School of Music in Cary.
Staff Photo by Juli Leonard

Right, right. Left, left. Right, right. Left, left...

Duplicate that at a rate of 1,559 drumstrokes a minute, and you might stand a chance of besting speed-drummer Eric Okamoto of Clayton.

What hummingbirds are to birds or Twista is to rappers, Okamoto is to drummers.

Okamoto, a third-generation Japanese-American who grew up in Garner, set a record for the double roll at the World's Fastest Drummer competition in Indianapolis last month. By blistering through nearly 26 strokes a second for a minute, he got to hoist a championship belt that would make a professional wrestler jealous.

"It was elation and relief," he said. "The minute I did it, I jumped out of my seat and yelled."

Okamoto, who teaches percussion at Burt's School of Music in Cary, got his first drum set at age 5. Speed became his signature at Garner High, and the blur of his sticks made jaws drop when he auditioned at East Carolina University's College of Music.

But Okamoto says he never knew how fast he really was until a student told him about "extreme sport drumming," which sprang up after the invention of the Drumometer in 1999. The machine can discern beats too fast for the human ear to count.

Since 2000, more than 10,000 drummers have vied for the title of World's Fastest Drummer, says Boo McAfee, Drumometer co-inventor. Competitions are held twice a year at conventions of the International Music Products Association, and winners get in the book of Guinness World Records.

Okamoto is one of only 21 drummers to break into the exclusive "1,000 Club" by playing more than 1,000 single strokes a minute. He holds the sixth all-time highest single-stroke record (1,085) from a competition he won in 2003.

Champions are barred from competing in the same category again, so Okamoto set his sights on a new record: double-strokes. With double strokes, a drummer bounces his sticks "right-right-left-left" instead of "right-left-right-left."

The World's Fastest Drummer contest is a tongue-in-cheek parody of World Wrestling Entertainment. Scantily clad "WFD girls" award drummers with kisses and massive championship belts. There are separate "Battle of the Hands" and "Battle of the Feet" categories.

Competitors take the sport very seriously.

"It takes strict discipline," said Wake Forest resident Scott LaBorde, a former Okamoto student and fellow speed drummer. "You have to train continuously and can't slack off. It's like Lance Armstrong says: It's attention to detail."

If you're not watching your hands, fingers, and wrists, you could click your sticks together and lose 20 strokes, LaBorde said.

Okamoto spent months training for this summer's competition. He sought advice from track coaches and swimmers and traded tips with LaBorde. To build his endurance, he ran and practiced pumping his sticks for up to two minutes at a time.

"You have to train your whole body," he said. "At 50 seconds, your arms start to go."

Some have scoffed at speed drumming competitions, calling them a frivolous waste of time. Speed can help build a climax at rock concerts or a drummer's jazz solo, but it can't take the place of musicality.

"Drummers tend to overemphasize speed and loudness," said Richard Motylinski, principal percussionist of the N.C. Symphony. Motylinski, who doesn't bash the contests, prefers the richness of rhythm.

But Okamoto strives to follow greats, such as Buddy Rich, who showed drummers could combine speed and musicality. Okamoto's versatility between rock, jazz, country and even cocktail party music is as evident as his finesse with teaching. After graduating from ECU about 20 years ago, Okamoto began giving private lessons and writing music books. He trains about 70 students a week.

Ironically, Okamoto often makes his students play slowly.

"He drills in the basics," said 7-year-student Evan Morris, 17, of Raleigh. "He makes me play slow to make sure [I] can keep in time."

But Okamoto's quest for speed seems never-ending. Speed drumming is addictive -- like a video game, where players strive for ever higher scores. Next for Okamoto: triple strokes.

Staff writer Peggy Lim can be reached at 836-5799 or plim@newsobserver.com.

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