It was like Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July rolled into one drum kit. As soon as Thomas Pridgen saw those glorious, gleaming drums, he knew they were meant for him.
Preternaturally self-confident at only 9 years old, Pridgen entered the Guitar Center Drum-Off, and round after round he blew away drummers who were two and three times his age. "I told everybody I knew that I was going to win," Pridgen says. "They asked me, 'What if you don't win?' But it was like seeing a bright, shiny red bike. I knew I had to have that drum set."
Without a trace of nerves, he tore through his five-minute solo, easily winning the Drum-Off finals and making it clear that a new drumming phenomenon had just bounded into the spotlight.
Sixteen years later, Pridgen, now the drummer for the prog-metal band Mars Volta, will be judging the contenders at the 20th annual Drum-Off grand finals Saturday at the Music Box at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood. The festivities also feature performances, including one from the band Papa Roach.
But it's the competition that counts, and the stakes are high. Along with Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, Danny Carey of Tool, Alan White of Yes and seven to 10 other drummers (possibly including Tommy Lee), the judges will pick a winner from among six finalists who have collectively beaten nearly 5,000 competitors.
Winning can be a step- pingstone to a pro career. Previous winner Eric Moore (2003) is the drummer for Suicidal Tendencies, and Cora "C.C." Dunham (2002) drums for Prince. Last year's winner, Donnie Marple of Keyser, W. Va., has moved to Nashville and is pursuing a career under the wing of his idol, Thomas Lang.
The judges rate the contestants on five criteria: originality, technique, style, stage presence and overall performance. Winning isn't all about triple ratamacues, single-stroke rolls and precise paradiddles.
"All of the finalists are beyond good as far as being able to display an array of chops," says No Doubt drummer Adrian Young, another judge. "But some guys forget to lay down a really good groove because they're trying to jam in as many fancy things and fast notes as possible. On top of that, are they playing with style? Are they fun to watch? Both are necessary."
Drum-Off grand finals
Where: Music Box at the Henry Fonda Theater, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday