Drumschool Belfast started in 1995 when drummer and percussionist Alan Sykes began receiving calls from drummers who had heard of his training, experience and ability. From a few students this has grown over the years to where he now tutors in local schools and privately, covering all ages and stages of ability from beginners to advanced.
Early Days – Alan Sykes began playing drums at the age of 9 and by age 14 was as busy as any other semi-pro, playing for theatre musicals, shows and doing occasional session work. He studied classical percussion under the guidance of Ulster Orchestra members for 5 years at the Belfast School of Music. Gaining an early reputation as a competent percussionist, he played for the various internal groups, and later, still as a teenager, for the Studio Symphony Orchestra. He was also beginning to be known as an accomplished young kit player in the local Belfast scene.
In the late 70’s, at the tender age of 16, he got the drum chair for the two-month original professional London Theatre production of Grease at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, whose cast included actors straight from London’s West End.
A year later he, along with other band members Rod Wallace and Andy White, formed ‘Arcturus’, Ireland’s only Jazz-Rock outfit at the time. The young band supported Maria Muldaur (‘Midnight at the Oasis’ 1974 Grammy nominee) at the RDS in Dublin and at the Whitla Hall, Queen’s University.
“If I have a claim to fame it is that Maria’s drummer, Rick Alegria, a Ludwig Drum endorsee, flew all the way from the States and ended up playing my beat-up Hayman drum kit!” (Long story, but true.)
To be just 16, playing to a packed RDS and working alongside serious session players, who as well as performing with Maria would also have worked with artists like the Pointer sisters, was an incredible experience.
Arcturus was then given the opportunity to play a prestigious, headlining jazz gig in the trės cool surroundings of the modern art gallery in the Ulster Museum, Belfast. This gig was a phenomenal success with Chris Harbinson of the Belfast Telegraph giving the young outfit a rave review, concluding that, “their music was a true collective effort held together by Alan Sykes’ flexible drumming” (Belfast Telegraph 24 July, 1980).
In the mid 80’s Alan got the call to play full-time in England working and recording with many of the best known contemporary Gospel artists, including multi-million-seller songwriter Graham Kendrick, as well as Dave Pope, Chris Eaton (singer-songwriter for Cliff Richard and Amy Grant), legendary slide guitarist Bryn Haworth and many more. He recorded on several albums with worldwide distribution at Nigel Pegrum’s Pace Studios. As well as being an in-demand studio engineer, Nigel was also Steeleye Span’s original drummer and while recording there Alan got the opportunity to do dep for him on a gig one night. “It was a great gig but then we all got lost on the way home in the maze that was Milton Keynes. We must have driven past those blinkin’ concrete cows a dozen times that night…!”
Throughout his three-year stint in England he played most of the main concert venues, including Wembley Arena, Preston Guild hall and Leicester’s De Montfort Hall, playing for live radio and TV broadcasts, and all the while gaining valuable experience including a one-off gig with Sir Cliff Richard. “However, I much prefer reminiscing about sharing the stage and having a cup of coffee with Amy Grant – she’s much better looking… sorry, Cliff…!”
The 90’s were a truly mixed bag of musical experiences for Alan, now based back home in Belfast. He enjoyed working regularly with great blues guitar player Barry Bynum from Texas in the studio and playing live. Playing with Barry included a series of memorable gigs with Terry Clarke – another great US based artist who performed a few dates in Ireland.
Also, he played and recorded with the New Irish Orchestra (featuring Michelle John-Douglas, Channel 4 Gospel Singer of the Year in 1999). Regular gigs also included playing with the famous Big Band Connection, The Bluezmobile and ZZ TOO (‘The best ZZ Top tribute this side of the Rio Grande’) plus occasional gigs with some of our local jazz musicians.
The later 2000’s saw Alan enjoying working alongside big brother Norman on bass (tightest rhythm section in Ireland we reckon…!) sessioning for local bluesman Lee Hedley for gigs that included the Belfast City Blues and City of Derry Jazz festival plus numerous other blues and blues-rock gigs.
Summer 2012 saw Alan’s new band ‘Vinyl Tap’ (Belfast) unleashed on the public playing the ‘vinyl rock classics’ of the 70’s & 80’s…!’ Again, along with brother Norman on bass, the legend that is ‘Skatz’ Kirkpatrick on keys and the incredible Marty Rowland on guitar. Vinyl Tap had a great reception from the gig-going public, culminating in them headlining the Saturday night at the Hilden Beer & Music festival in 2013. You can check out this show on YouTube.
Back again with the Lee Hedley Blues Band during the mid 2000’s among many other regular gigs and residencies he enjoyed playing at the Derry and Cork Jazz festivals from 2016. Then the band was truly honoured to open for the legendary blues guitarist Robert Cray (‘the keeper of the flame…’– Eric Clapton) at his sold-out show in the main Marquee at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in April 2017.
Also, at this time he was privileged to be asked to play for the fabulous local jazz singer, Ruth Jennings, whose husband, Andrew was musical director on the sell-out ‘Swing Christmas’ big-band shows at Belfast’s iconic Black Box theatre. The next step was then to record an album of the music from these shows which was done at Einstein Studios, Antrim in the summer of 2017 using the finest of local jazz players.
Current musical ventures include continuing regular gigs with the Lee Hedley Blues Band and on occasions with ‘Tonight’s the Night – Ireland’s finest Rod Stewart Tribute’, the Rod Patterson Big Band (4 years in a row playing percussion at the Travel & Tourism awards is just the best craic ever..!) and occasionally depping for local function bands also keeps him busy.
When time permits Alan continues his own personal drumming studies. Over the years this has included lessons with Paul Wertico (from Chicago, famous as Pat Metheny’s drummer) at the fantastic Sligo Jazz Project, plus our very own Steve Davis and the ‘other’ Steve Davis from the USA, a leading jazz drummer, at the famous Jazzwise Summer School held in London.
Also, he has had private lessons with Bernie Dresel (Brian Setzer Orchestra) and Walfredo Reyes Jr. (of Santana, Steve Winwood, Jackson Browne, Carl Verheyen and Chicago fame to name a few!) who in 2007 dropped into Drumschool Belfast HQ just hours before playing a sell-out gig with Carl Verheyen in Belfast that night – what a great guy and a fabulous drummer (Rhythm Magazine even ran an article on it!).
Alan now, using his classical training, 40 years of wide playing experience, and 25 years of teaching experience is a respected tutor offering professionally structured drum-kit and orchestral percussion tuition, including graded exam entrants from his home studio and in local schools.