By SCOTT AUST
When Bruce Ulrich was in seventh grade, his classmates gave him the nickname Mr. Hand.
"I couldn't stop moving my hands," he said. "I was drumming everywhere. It's always been that way."
Today, the 45-year-old exhibits that same passion and child-like glee every time he gets on stage and sets up behind his drum set.
On Friday night, Ulrich performed at the Tumbleweed Festival with two bands, Collective Faith and The Fog.
"I love it. It's so much fun," he said. "I've had a lot of gigs, but I still get up there and grin like a little kid."
Ulrich, a Garden City native who grew up on a farm, got his first snare drum at age 6, setting the course for his lifelong love of music and drumming.
Ulrich participated in band in middle school and high school but didn't go to college or enroll in any advanced musical training. He said the school's band program taught him the basics of things like reading music and understanding time signatures, but post-high school his training was mostly observation and loads of practice.
"That's one thing about being a musician, or anything else: If you want to be proficient at it, you have to constantly practice," he said.
Ulrich credits two local musicians, Tim Routon and Mike Blake, for taking him under their wings right out of high school and showing him the ropes. Ulrich considers both to be mentors who saw some potential and helped nurture it.
"When you're 18, 19, you think you can conquer the world. They really instilled the passion in me and the dedication to music. They really opened my eyes to the music world. The main thing they instilled in me was humility, and I really needed that at that age," Ulrich said.
But Ulrich's on-the-job education really kicked off when he got out of Garden City. Unlike today, with instant access to information via the Internet, the only thing available to learn about music back in the late 1980s were books or VHS tapes.
Ulrich recalls thinking pretty highly of his talent when he left for Lawrence at age 22. That changed when he saw just how good other musicians were who toured Kansas City, Memphis and other venues as Ulrich and his band did.
"I got schooled real quick," Ulrich said.
During much of the 1990s, Ulrich was part of the Chris Blake Band, a three-piece blues/rock band whose members were all from Garden City.
"We learned the business, and the hard times, and it was a great, exciting time for a twenty-something. I'll tell ya that," he said.
In the late 90s, Ulrich returned to Garden City and played with Los Hermanos Ortiz y Amigos, a Tex-Mex band, for a couple of years before joining the Chebon Tiger Band in 1999 and relocating to Oklahoma and then Seattle, where the band played the casino circuit and summer festivals.
After a death in the family, Ulrich took a break from music in 2006 and moved back home to be closer to his mother. Blake and Routon, his two mentors, eventually convinced him to take up the drums again around 2009.
"I owe a lot to them," he said.
Mike Blake, who played with Ulrich many times over the years, said Ulrich and his son, Chris, were part of a pretty successful trio.
"In the process, he probably learned to be the best drummer around," Mike Blake said. "He really understands all the intricacies of pushing a band out front. He's a lot more complete now, of course. He constantly studied, constantly practiced, and as a result, you get better. He's one determined fella."
Ulrich's musical influences include a heavy dash of blues greats such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins and Albert King, and Led Zeppelin's John Bonham for drumming inspiration.
"John Bonham was a huge influence on me in my playing style and how I approach the drum set. There's so many good drummers out there, but if I narrow it down to the one who affected me the most, it's John Bonham," Ulrich said.
Drumming fits Ulrich's personality perfectly. He considers himself generally shy, so he likes hiding behind the drum set, where his aggressive, extroverted side comes through as he wails away on the skins.
One thing non-musicians may not know about drummers, and something Ulrich says other musicians may scoff at, is most drummers are very intelligent.
"They are smart. They don't just hit things," Ulrich said. "And there's a lot to being a good drummer. It's holding time and laying down a solid groove that everybody can communicate with and be at their best."
Ulrich's day job is working at True Value hardware store in Garden City. At the moment, he is involved in four bands, including The Fog, a rock band he started a few years ago with men who are around his age and have been tagged as, The 5-0 guys; Los Hermanos Ortiz; a praise band at Bible Christian Church; and Collective Faith, a band he sits in with from time to time.
"I keep busy," he said. "I have a variety of tastes. That's why you see me in so many different bands. I don't have just one style I listen to. I love music, period."
Playing rock and blues, country and Tex-Mex, religious music and even music from the '30s, '40s and '50s when playing at the Senior Center of Finney County all serve to keep things fresh and interesting.
Ulrich no longer looks to make it big like he might have said when he was younger, but it's not quite accurate to call his playing now a "hobby."
"It's a passion, not a hobby. It's part of me, part of my life. It's something I will always do," he said. "Those days of trying to make it big, you learn real quick that the odds of that are really, really hard, so you go out and play for the love of music. If you make money, good. If you don't, that's the way it is."