Billy Cobham

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Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham.jpg
Cobham performing at WOMAD, July 2005
Background information
Birth name William Emanuel Cobham, Jr.
Born (1944-05-16) May 16, 1944 (age 72)
Occupation(s) Musician, songwriter, bandleader, instructor
Instruments Drums, percussion, keyboards
Years active 1968–present
Labels Atlantic, Columbia, CTI, Elektra, GRP
Associated acts Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jack Bruce, New York Jazz Quartet, Jazz Is Dead, Bobby and the Midnites, Mark-Almond

William Emanuel "Billy" Cobham (born May 16, 1944) is a Panamanian American jazz drummer, composer and bandleader, who permanently relocated to Switzerland during the late 1970s.[1]

Cobham came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s with trumpeter Miles Davis and then with Mahavishnu Orchestra, and on countless CTI releases. According to AllMusic's reviewer, Cobham is "generally acclaimed as fusion's greatest drummer".[1] He has an influential style that combines explosive power and exacting precision. He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1987.[2]


Early life and career[edit]

Born in Panama, Cobham moved with his family to New York City during his early childhood. A drummer from his youth, Cobham attended New York's High School of Music and Art, graduating in 1962.[1]

He played in a U.S. Army Band from 1965 to 1968. Following his discharge, Cobham joined an ensemble led by pianist Horace Silver for about a year, also playing or recording with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, organist Shirley Scott, and guitarist George Benson.[1]

Jazz fusion work[edit]

Cobham branched out to jazz fusion, which blended elements of jazz, rock and funk, playing and recording with the Brecker Brothers (notably in their 1970-founded group Dreams), and guitarist John Abercrombie, before recording and touring extensively with trumpeter Miles Davis. Cobham's work with Davis appears on A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971), among other recordings.

Cobham is one of the first drummers to play open-handed lead: a drummer that plays on a right-handed set but leads with his left hand on the hi-hat instead of crossing over with his right (and also has his ride cymbal on the left side, instead of the traditional right). He typically plays with multiple toms and double bass drums and was well known in the 1970s for his large drum kits.

In 1970, Cobham worked on guitarist John McLaughlin's album My Goal's Beyond.[1] McLaughlin and Cobham co-founded Mahavishnu Orchestra, a definitive jazz fusion ensemble. Cobham toured extensively from 1971 to 1973 with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, who released two studio albums, The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973), and one live album, Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973). The original studio versions of tunes on the live album were later released as The Lost Trident Sessions in 1999.

In May 1973, while still with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cobham recorded his first solo album, Spectrum with keyboardist Jan Hammer, from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, guitarist Tommy Bolin, who later played with hard rock band Deep Purple, and bassist Lee Sklar.

Just before the Mahavishnu Orchestra's last touring leg in late 1973, Cobham played drums for guitarists Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin on the 10-city U.S. tour to promote the duo's Love Devotion Surrender 1973 recording featuring Coltrane covers and McLaughlin originals (Jan Hammer also played drums on the studio album), and a greatly expanded version of Taurian Matador from Cobham's Spectrum album. The entire near 3-hour Chicago show was an FM stereo simulcast.

As bandleader and composer, Cobham recorded a number of other ground-breaking fusion records during the '70s, Crosswinds (1974), Total Eclipse (1974) and A Funky Thide of Sings (1975). You can also hear his 1970s playing well represented on The Billy Cobham – George Duke Band: "Live" on Tour in Europe (1976). It was on this tour that Billy reported (in a Down Beat interview) experiencing astral projection during shows, wherein he found himself hovering above and in front of his drums, watching himself play in ways he'd never thought of or executed previously.

In the 1970s, Cobham recorded extensively for the fusion-oriented CTI Records, founded by producer Creed Taylor. One remarkable CTI production involved Cobham with Brazilian composer Eumir Deodato, with music arrangements like "Super Strut" , which were played in radio stations all over the world. Also during that period he was a member of the New York Jazz Quartet.[citation needed]

In 1976 Cobham played drums on the album To the Heart by Mark-Almond (Jon Mark, Johnny Almond).[citation needed]

1980s work and later[edit]

In 1980, he worked with Jack Bruce, in a band named Jack Bruce & Friends.

On October 30, 1980, he joined up with the Grateful Dead during the band's concert at Radio City Music Hall. He performed a long drum solo session with the band's two percussionists, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, also known as the Rhythm Devils.

In 1981, Billy Cobham's Glass Menagerie was formed, featuring Michael Urbaniak el violin & EWI, Gil Goldstein piano, Tim Landers bass, and Mike Stern guitar. Dean Brown replaced Stern when he left to play with Miles Davis. Glass Menagerie released two records for the Elektra Musician label.

In 1984 he played in the band Bobby and the Midnites (which was the primary side project for Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead) with among others Dave Garland, Bobby Cochran, Kenny Gradney (of Little Feat) and recorded the album Where the Beat Meets the Street (1984).[3]

In 1994, he joined an all-star cast at the Los Angeles Greek Theatre and the results appeared on Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton, Billy Cobham, Najee and Deron Johnson Live at the Greek. The concert was predominantly Clarke's music but all the musicians contributed material.

In 1998, he joined up with Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Frogwings, Widespread Panic), Alphonso Johnson (Weather Report), and T Lavitz (Dixie Dregs) to form the Grateful Dead cover band Jazz Is Dead.[citation needed]

A number of solo albums followed (as of July 2005, Cobham has released more than 30 recordings under his own name), and continues to record, perform and teach.

In 2006, Cobham released Drum'n'Voice 2. This was a return to the 1970s jazz-funk sound, with guests including Jan Hammer, Buddy Miles, John Patitucci, Jeff Berlin, Dominic Miller, Mike Lindup, Airto Moreira, Frank Gambale, Brian Auger, Guy Barker and the band Novecento. The CD was produced and arranged by Pino and Lino Nicolosi for Nicolosi Productions.[4][5]

Cobham was announced as a patron and visiting artist of top London drum college Drumtech in June 2008.[6]

Billy Cobham performing on Réunion in October 2006

Billy Cobham received the award "Bratislav Bata Anastasijevic" at Nisville jazz festival 2008.

In 2009, Cobham released Drum'n'Voice 3. Guests included Chaka Khan, Gino Vannelli, George Duke, Alex Acuna, Bob Mintzer, Brian Auger, John Scofield and Novecento. The CD was produced and arranged by Pino and Lino Nicolosi for Nicolosi productions.

Billy Cobham performed with John McLaughlin at the 44th Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland, on Friday, July 2, 2010, for the first time since the band split up.

As of March 2010, Cobham had begun working on a new project with acclaimed Jordanian guitarist Kamal Musallam.[7]

In August 2011 the album Rock the Tabla was released, featuring Cobham, A.R. Rahman, Hossam Ramzy, Omar Faruk Tekbilek & Manu Katché.[8]

In December 2011, Cobham began teaching drums online at the Billy Cobham School of Drums, a school within the ArtistWorks Drum Academy.



Billy Cobham endorses Tama Drums and regularly uses a Tama STAR bubinga kit[9] with the following sizes:

  • (2x) 18" x 24" bass drums
  • 7" x 8" rack tom
  • 8" x 10" rack tom
  • 9" x 12" rack tom
  • 10" x 13" rack tom
  • 11" x 14" rack tom
  • 12" x 15" rack tom
  • 16" x 16" floor tom
  • 16" x 18" floor tom
  • 6.5" x 14" snare drum
  • 5.5" x 12" snare drum

Over the years, Cobham has endorsed and used Fibes Drums, Mapex Drums and Yamaha Drums, even having his own Yamaha Billy Cobham signature snare drum.[10]


Billy Cobham endorses Sabian Cymbals and his current setup, as shown on Sabian's website, consists of:

  • 14" Vault Hats
  • 16" AAX El Sabor Picante Hand Crash
  • 16" Artisan Crash
  • 18" Artisan Crash
  • 20" Artisan Crash
  • 22" Artisan Medium Ride
  • 20" HHX Chinese

Before switching to Sabian, he previously played Zildjian cymbals.

Drum heads[edit]

  • Evans EMAD2 Clear (batter) and EMAD Reso on bass drums
  • Evans G2 Coated (top) and 200 (bottom) on snare drum
  • Evans EC2 (top) and G1 Clear (bottom) on toms

In the past, Cobham has endorsed Remo heads.


For many years, Cobham used Pro-Mark drumsticks,[11] but now uses his Vic Firth Billy Cobham Signature Model (SBC).[12]

Percussion and microphones[edit]

Cobham previously endorsed Latin Percussion[13] and Toca Percussion,[14] but now endorses Gon Bops percussion[15] and Shure microphones.[16]


  • 1973 – Spectrum
  • 1974 – Crosswinds
  • 1974 – Total Eclipse
  • 1975 – Shabazz
  • 1975 – A Funky Thide of Sings
  • 1976 – Life & Times
  • 1977 – Magic
  • 1978 – Inner Conflicts
  • 1979 - BC
  • 1980 – Flight Time
  • 1981 – Stratus
  • 1982 - Observations & Reflections
  • 1983 - Smokin'
  • 1985 – Warning
  • 1986 – Powerplay
  • 1987 – Picture This
  • 1992 – By Design
  • 1994 – The Traveler
  • 1996 – Nordic
  • 1998 – Focused
  • 1999 – Off Color
  • 2000 – North by Northwest
  • 2001 – Drum & Voice 1 (All That Groove)
  • 2002 – Culture Mix
  • 2003 – The Art of Three
  • 2006 – Art of Four
  • 2006 – Drum & Voice 2
  • 2007 – Fruit from the Loom
  • 2008 – De Cuba y Panama
  • 2009 – Drum & Voice 3
  • 2010 – Palindrome
  • 2014 – Tales From The Skeleton Coast
  • 2015 - Spectrum 40 Live


External links[edit]