Want to get a little closer to being able to play drums like Travis Barker?
Here’s our deep-dive into Travis Barker’s playing style, skills, drum setup, drumheads, and exactly why he’s influenced a generation of drummers around the world.
As one of the most influential drummers of the last 25 years, Travis Barker has become synonymous with modern punk rock drumming.
Over his career he has beaten the skins for The Aquabats, Box Car Racer, +44, The Transplants, and of course most famously, Blink-182.
In recent years, he has also collaborated with numerous famous hip-hop acts and produced his own solo records.
He’s the subject of many divisive discussions online about his ability and technique, yet he remains one of the most famous and instantly recognizable drummers in the world – in terms of both sound and appearance.
But what is it that sets Travis Barker apart from his punk rock peers?
Today we’ll to take a look at different elements of his background, style, technique and gear, in a bid to pinpoint what qualifies the inked sticksman as a generational punk rock drumming god.
Travis Barker: Marching Chops on the Drum Kit
Let’s start from his beginning: While Travis attended Fontana High School in California as a kid, he not only played drum kit in the school jazz ensemble, but also snare drum in the marching band.
This should come as no surprise to drummers who are familiar with Barker’s playing, as there is evidence of this all over his work.
Drummers who play in marching bands tend to have an excellent foundation in rudiments, and Travis Barker is undoubtedly one of those. However, it’s the way that he has applied those marching rudiments to the full drum kit which is so impressive and distinctive.
Playing marching rudiments with unusual accents on the snare drum has almost become the Blink-182 signature bridge.
Listen to ‘Going Away To College’, ‘All The Small Things’ and ‘Bored To Death’ for standout examples of this.
If the snare is too aggressive and he’s looking for something a little lighter, another Travisism is to move these patterns to the ride cymbal. Take the beginning of the pre-chorus in ‘The Party Song’ or the intro and bridge in ‘What’s My Age Again?’ These are rudimental snare patterns used tastefully on the ride cymbal in a punk rock setting.
However, perhaps the coolest way Travis uses these chops is in his grooves: It’s why so many of his 4/4 hi-hat beats sound so distinctive.
The 2011 album ‘Neighborhoods’ provides a particularly subtle version of this. Listen to the first beat in ‘After Midnight’ where he adds double strokes on 1 and 2 to add texture to the verse, and removes them during the bridge to produce a more spacious feel, allowing the vocals to breath.
He seemed to explore this idea in depth on the album ‘When Your Heart Stops Beating’ with side project +44 in 2005. The beat he plays throughout the whole song ‘155’ demonstrates a really interesting hi-hat pattern…
…as does the chorus in the title track and the outro to closer ‘Make You Smile’.
It’s not necessarily what you’d expect from punk rock drumming, and yet it sounds so punk rock. Any aspiring rock drummer questioning the importance of mastering marching rudiments should look to Travis Barker for the answers.
Travis Barker: Playing Hard All The Time
One of the most common criticisms of Barker’s playing is that he only knows one volume and lacks dynamics.
It’s true that Travis sticks to the punk rock tradition of always playing really loud and fast, but you could easily argue that this is one of the main reasons he has such a distinctive style.
Most people’s idea of drum set dynamics is simply playing hard and soft, but Travis approaches the concept in a different way. Barker expresses his dynamics in the instruments he chooses, rather than how hard he plays them.
Listen to the drop in the chorus on ‘Feeling This’ for a great example of what I’m talking about.
He doesn’t play any quieter here, instead closing the hi hat and replacing some of the snares with a cowbell. This gives the illusion of playing quieter, and creates a catchy hook.
A similar technique is used in the intro and first verse of ‘Always’ by playing the rim of the snare instead of the hi-hats.
This not only sounds great, but also gives the second verse a life of its own on the hats. The song becomes far less formulaic as a result, and ultimately gives it much more character and a feeling of progression.
But what about when Barker plays slower or more emotional songs? Surely he plays more traditional dynamics in those drum parts?
Let’s take a look at one of Blink-182’s most famous ‘slower’ songs to find out.
‘Adam’s Song’ is an emotional punk rock ballad, complete with sullen verses and a big chorus. And it’s in those verses that you can see Barker at his best. He plays a loopy tom part accented by splashes, crashes and choked hi-hats that no one else would think to play. When he eventually gets to the huge open chorus on the crash/ride, it still packs the necessary punch, and this is due to Barker’s expert composition, rather than playing in a reserved manner previous to it.
Travis Barker: Half Time, Normal Time, Double Time, Punk Time
One thing is for sure, Travis Barker is no Neal Peart or Mike Portnoy. By that, I mean odd time signatures are not really his thing.
99% of his playing is in 4/4, which is why it’s so impressive that he has developed such a unique style.
One major contributor to this style is Barker’s ability to seamlessly move between half time (snare on every second ‘1’), normal time (snare on every ‘3’), double time (snare on ‘2’ and ‘4’) and punk time (snare on every ‘and’). There are too many examples of this across his back catalogue to mention, but let me highlight the point by using ‘Dumpweed’, which was our introduction to Travis Barker’s drumming in Blink as the opening track on 1999’s ‘Enema of the State’.
From Dumpweed’s verse through the pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge, he flows beautifully between all these timings on numerous occasions. It really does elevate the song beyond ‘just another punk rock song’ and adds so much to the riff in each part.
It feels at times like Travis is songwriting from behind the kit, turning generic 4/4 riffs into unique and fresh parts.
Further excellent examples of this can be found in ‘Every Time I Look For You’…
…and ‘The Party Song’.
Travis Barker: Drum Kits, Drumheads & Cymbals
Travis Barker’s Drum kits
Like most punk rockers before him, Travis Barker usually plays a minimal drum kit. As you can imagine, he has played numerous kits over the years, so let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
Around 2005, Barker was playing an Orange County Drums Type 4 Glowstick Green Acrylic, with:
- 6.5″x14″ Modern Classic Snare
- 5″x10″ Side Snare
- 10″x12″ Tom
- 14″x16″ Floor Tom
- 22″x24″ Bass Drum
In 2013 Barker used another OCDP acrylic kit, this time with black-white-black banding:
- 6.5″x14″ Bell Brass Snare
- 7″x10″ Side Snare
- 6″x12″ Tom
- 14″x16″ Floor Tom
- 22″x22″ Bass Drum
As well as acrylic kits, Barker has also used maple OCDP kits, all with similar drums and drum sizes to those listed above.
For hardware, Travis Barker typically uses DW 9000 and 5000 series gear. His bass drum usually features a DW5000 turbo bass drum pedal (which we actually chose as the best mid-range pedal!).
Travis Barker’s Drumheads
As you can imagine, Barker has also experimented with countless drumheads, particularly in the studio, so let’s take a look at his 2013 Tour Kit as an example set-up:
- Toms: Remo Emperor Coated (Top), Ambassador Coated (Bottom)
- Main Snare: Remo Emperor X Coated (Top), Remo Ambassador Snare Side (Bottom)
- Side Snare: Emperor Coated (Top), Remo Ambassador Hazy Snare Side (Bottom)
- Bass Drum: Remo Powerstroke Pro (Batter), Remo Powerstroke P3 (Front)
Other kits have featured fairly similar drumhead combinations, although sometimes with smooth white heads, clear resonant heads (Remo Ambassadors), or Remo Starfire resonant tom and bass drumheads. Travis Barker’s 2019 tour kit featured Remo Colortone drumheads, as shown in the image below:
When it comes to Travis Barker’s drumheads, there is no doubt that his tour set-up is built to last. The Emperor X Coated snare head is truly one of the most durable in the world, which really suits Travis and his hard-hitting style. Along with a thick two-ply construction, the head also has a 5mm reverse black dot which creates more consistent snare strokes (i.e. less overtones) and a warmer snare tone.
With coated Remo Emperors and Ambassadors on either side of each tom, it’s definitely the case that these drumheads are chosen to cope under the strain of one of the hardest hitting drummers in the world, rather than for the intricacies of sounds the heads produce.
However, Travis Barker still manages to create dynamic signature snare sounds by incorporating a side snare into much of his playing.
The verses in ‘Stay Together for The Kids’ are a great example of this, as he leaves space for the main snare to stand out in the powerful chorus. This is a great example of how drumheads can really affect your sound: Travis uses a side snare with a relatively thinner drumhead for more intricate snare work, then moves to the main snare with an extra-thick Emperor X for the really hard hitting.
Other than the side snare, it’s pretty much the minimum number of drums you’d expect a professional drummer to be using. Barker’s ability to be incredibly creative with so few drums is admirable, but it’s how he incorporates cymbals which is really interesting.
Travis Barker’s Cymbals
In the studio, Travis Barker has used a plethora of Zildjian cymbals, too many to name. But a typical live set-up would look something like this:
- Zildjian 14″ A Quick Beat Brilliant Hi Hats
- Zildjian 18″ A Custom Projection Crash
- Zildjian 19″ A Custom Crash
- Zildjian 18” Oriental China
- Zildjian 21” Sweet Ride
- Zildjian 10″ A Custom EFX Splash
Once again, this set-up is far from gospel when it comes to what Travis likes to play. What he includes is very much dependent on the project he’s working on, and quite frankly the way he is feeling.
Obsessing over gear is not really his thing, but there are certain cymbals Travis Barker is clearly drawn to. The 21” sweet ride for example, is a mainstay of his kit. It produces that really defined ‘ping’ which is great for playing fast punk songs like in ‘The Rock Show’, allowing you to hear every cymbal stroke crystal clearly.
He is also a big fan of large crash cymbals, and has no problem using ride cymbals in that role. His cymbals almost always have a ‘brilliant’ finish too, providing a really bright sound, synonymous with the pop-punk genre he has helped to define.
Travis Barker: Cymbals as an Extension of the Drums
As we’ve learned from looking at his drum kit set-up, there is a far greater variety of cymbals than there are drums.
Many drummers are taught to view cymbals as a way of keeping time, emphasizing the start of a phrase, or accenting a particular note or two. Travis Barker however, also views them as an extension of his drums, incorporating them in profoundly creative ways in grooves and fills.
I’ve already pointed out the loopy tom beat in ‘Adam’s Song’ above: it’s a great example. Accompanying the simple 4 chord riff, he plays a groove on the floor tom which includes open hi hats, splashes, crashes and a ride bell.
This signature style can also be heard in the verse of ‘Anthem Part 2’.
Let’s take the song ‘Always’ (shown earlier in this article) to further illustrate this point. The most standout example here is the use of the china and crash cymbals during the first post-chorus part. They aren’t used to emphasize a particular guitar part as you might expect. Instead, they are making the beat feel more like a riff in itself, and it sounds really cool. Barker does a similar thing in the second pre-chorus where he chokes crashes and hi-hats to produce a unique and creative beat which makes the song infinitely more interesting than it would be otherwise.
It’s also something that is present across the side project ‘Box Car Racer’. Listen to the unorthodox use of splashes and hi-hats in the verses of ‘Watch the World’.
It adds so much texture and life to an otherwise pretty standard part. These types of cymbal flicks and tricks are certainly partly responsible for bringing such distinction to Travis Barker’s drumming.
Travis Barker: Hard and Fast Single Strokes
‘He only plays RLRLRLRL!’ is a comment you will always find written under Travis Barker videos on Youtube, and it’s true to say that single strokes are an oft-used weapon in his arsenal.
So why is it awesome? Well, first of all, his single strokes are incredibly hard and fast, which is both great to watch and extremely punk-rock. However, there is more to it than that.
Let’s take a great example from the outro of ‘Bored to Death’.
Here, Travis essentially plays bar after bar of single strokes and it sounds really cool. Why? Because of accents.
Bringing it back to the marching chops, Travis has phenomenal control of accents (despite playing with such power). He drops them all over the kit almost at random, but it brings so much character to the part and it is really impressive to listen to.
They’re broken up a little bit in the final bridge on ‘Ghost on the Dance Floor’ but the principal is the same.
Rapid single strokes, with lots of aggressive accents, provide a controlled chaos we have come to associate with Travis Barker. With single strokes being so fundamental to drumming in general, it’s extra impressive if you can make them sound unique, and Travis certainly manages that.
Travis Barker: Play Til You Bleed
Despite being criticized regularly by some corners of the rock drumming community, Travis Barker has been influencing aspiring drummers for over 20 years in the same way that ‘Animal’ from The Muppets influenced him as a kid.
With such a striking style and sound, Travis Barker truly re-imagined what it meant to be a punk rock drummer and as a result, he has become iconic.
While critics may still get hung up on stiff technique or ‘overplaying’, his fans will insist that he plays with such passion and flair in order to speak to the music he is creating, as well as the audience who are listening.
He has transcended his genre by being a trendsetting unique craftsman, who is famous for working so hard that his hands bleed… literally.