Feb. 20 2007
Kenny Aronoff

Kenny Aronoff

John Fogerty / Sessions

TAMA :When did you start playing drums, and what first attracted you to the instrument?

Kenny : I started playing drums at 10 years old. The thing that really got me fired up to play drums was watching a marching band come to town. I grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts, a town of 3,000 people. Every Memorial Day they'd have a marching band come and I was always excited about the drum line. And then very shortly after that, when the Beatles came out with their first record, that got me very excited about rock n'roll, because I'd been listening to mostly jazz and classical music, and whatever my parents were playing. Then when I saw "A Hard Day's Night", the first Beatles movie, that's when I started a band. That was at eleven years old.

TAMA : What sort of things did you work on to develop your skills and versatility on the kit?

Kenny : I just played. I took lessons, but nobody was teaching drumset lessons. The people I studied with, it was just how to read. It was more orchestral, traditional, classical type of playing. There was nobody to teach drumset where I grew up, so I just did it on my own. I used to put records on, and played to them.

The summer after my senior year in high school, I was practicing 8-9 hours a day, and playing five nights a week in a jazz trio. I got really hardcore suddenly. And at that point, I was studying classical music... you know, timpani, mallets, snare drum. I just transferred all the knowledge I was learning from the orchestral instruments into the drumset.

TAMA : As you mentioned, you were heavily involved in classical and orchestral percussion, and went on to study at both the University of Massachusetts and the University of Indiana. Did you ever consider going that route professionally?

Kenny : Oh, absolutely. That's why I spent five years training heavily for it. I always played drumset, and that was really my biggest passion, but I was open to everything. I enjoyed playing Sibelius 2nd Symphony, and I loved playing Bartok, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I was open to anything that was great. Music is music. I was offered a job in Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. I was offered a job in Quito Symphony Orchestra, in Venezuela. And both places I turned down because I just didn't want to be out of the country. But yeah, I was heavily trained. Vic Firth was my teacher for a couple of years, and I was on my way. But ultimately, I ended up where I should be.

TAMA : As a top studio drummer, you've played on literally hundreds of records. Can you name a few albums that you feel best represent your drumming, or that you are particularly proud of?

Kenny : Oh, man... that's tough. Well, there's obviously stuff with John Mellencamp, like the song "Jack & Diane," even though it was very early in my career. I had to compose that drum solo on the fly. It was like I was really being tested. They wanted a solo, and they wanted it now. And that was like a musical composition. I didn't have time to work it out, so I went note by note, measure by measure, very methodically. That was a big thing. There are other songs too, like "The Authority Song," and "Pink Houses." These are Mellencamp songs that are not gonna blow you away with licks and flash and technique, it's more about playing musically.

Let me think...the stuff I did with Tony Iommi, I kinda like that. He has an album I did called "Fuse," that shows power, some technique, and yet it's all geared toward the music. Avril Lavigne's "My Happy Ending," that's me once again serving the music. That song was me overdubbing to an acoustic guitar, a vocal track, and a click track, and then them building the whole song around me. Let's see... something from Melissa Etheridge called "This Moment" off the "Lucky" album. So much stuff... Bon Jovi, I guess "Blaze of Glory." That was a musical composition. That wasn't just drumming, it was really serving the music.

Recording with the Buddy Rich Big Band, on "Straight, No Chaser," off the "Burning for Buddy" CD, produced by Neil Peart. I don't consider myself an expert jazz drummer, but I played a lot of jazz when I was a kid. That definitely shows a side of me that a lot of people don't usually see.

TAMA : What would you say are the most essential traits to being a good session drummer?

Kenny : You have to be very musical. You have to understand music. You have to always be thinking in terms of what's right for the music, but you have to be adaptable. You have to be able to solve problems, on the fly, immediately... everything from tuning, to feel, to execution, time, and picking the right equipment. Also getting along, and being able to serve the music, the producer, and the artist.

TAMA : When you're in the studio, do you write out charts for your drum parts?

Kenny : Most of the time I do.

TAMA : Can you describe your process?

Kenny : Well, the first thing I do is decide whether I'm going to write a very detailed chart or not. If the music I'm hearing is extremely programmed... if somebody really programmed and sequenced very integral drum parts, and it's obvious that everybody played to that, then I will write note for note, very detailed, what was programmed, and then add my flavor to it.

Other times, I will just write out something that's more basic. I'll always write down the basic beat, and then I start writing out intro, verse, pre-chorus... the structure of the song... and start filling in whatever is important. As we start playing the song, as people say things, I start adding more. In Nashville, they do the number charts, so it's a whole different system. A lot of times, the demos are really good, so I have to move very fast, because you only get to hear the song twice. I have to be able to fill in the blanks really fast. But as I'm playing the song, and reading the chart, I always leave room to add my own thing.

TAMA : What is the most challenging musical situation you have faced in your career?

Kenny : Playing percussion under the conductors Leonard Bernstein and Seigi Ozawa. They're some of the greatest conductors ever to have lived. Being challenged that way. Playing with the Buddy Rich Big Band. Also, I won concerto competition on marimba. I spent a year working on the piece. It was a violin solo that Itzhak Perlman, our violinist, used to use as their encore. And I learned it on marimba. I spent at least two hours a day for a whole year learning it. It was one of the more challenging moments in my life.

TAMA : Has your playing and/or overall approach to drumming changed much over the years?

Kenny : Well, I think everything's just gotten better. I think because of Pro Tools and overdubbing drums nowadays, my time is better and my ability to work with sequences and multiple instruments has just gotten better. I pay attention, and I always take every situation seriously, even if it's a demo. I'm never as good as I want to be, and I'm always just trying to be better. I've improved different things, like focusing on my right foot more. When I was playing with Mellencamp, I was mostly playing eighth notes and quarter notes, so I could bury the beater into the head. The more I got out of that and into sixteenth notes with other types of music, I had to readjust my technique to adapt to playing busier drum parts. It's an always evolving thing. The more I know, the more I realize I don't know, so I'm just constantly trying to improve. The problem with me is that I don't have much time to practice anymore.

TAMA : How long have you been playing Tama drums, and what first drew you to the brand?

Kenny : I've been playing Tama drums for 25 years. When they came out, I was just blown away by what they had to offer. I thought they were very innovative and cutting edge. They had really started the macho hardware. And I was turned on because Billy Cobham, Stewart Copeland, Elvin Jones, and Lenny White, to name a few, were playing the product. I liked that they were very unique and cutting edge. And, of course, the sound. The hardware is unbelievable, and the product stands on its own.

TAMA : Can you walk us through your typical studio kit?

Kenny : My typical studio kit is I start with an 18x22 kick drum, or a 16x24 kick drum, depending upon what the session is. My first rack tom is a 12", then a 10" tom, then a 14" and a 16" tom. And nowadays, I like using 14" and 16" floor toms, instead of the hanging toms. I've gone to that because I like the way the drums sound. They make drums better now, so it doesn't muffle the drum as much, but yet it does muffle it a little, which is kinda cool. 95% of my hi-hat work is on my right side, with a cable hat, so where you normally put your hi-hat stand, I put the cable pedal. I put the hi-hats on my right side, between the 10" tom and the first floor tom. And then I have the ride cymbal.

TAMA : Is that because you don't like crossing over?

Kenny : Yeah, I got sick of smacking my nose with a stick.

TAMA : Aside from the hi-hat, you have an unconventional setup in that your smaller rack tom is on the right. Why is that?

Kenny : Basically, I used four toms in the studio, but John Mellencamp wanted me to have a one up, one down type of look. I did that, but I snuck another floor tom behind the first floor tom, so he couldn't see it from the stage. He wanted it to look like a traditional 4-piece kit. What happened is that I just was missing the pitch. I eventually convinced him I could put the other tom back up, but the 12" tom was the most important one, so I liked it being right in front of the snare drum. So instead of putting the 10" there, and instead of going 12", 13", I just decided to go 12", 10". It just became my thing.

TAMA : Can you describe your process?

Kenny : Yeah, absolutely.

TAMA : You currently have 3 Tama signature snares. Can you describe the differences in sound and function for these snares?

Kenny : The 5x14, you can tune that thing in four different places. I usually carry 4 of them with me. Basically, I tried to model these snare drums off of heavy vintage brass snares. That's always been my sound, and I was extremely happy to see Tama recreate that. They did such an incredible job, these snares actually sound better, they're more consistent.

The 5x14 is a general, all-purpose snare drum. That thing sounds great tuned way low, with an Emperor head and some muffling on it. That can sound really fat and deep. Then you tune it normal, medium, traditional, with an Ambassador head on it, and that sounds amazing. Then I'll tune it up high, right before you choke it, and that's what I used to do with Mellencamp. And the last way to tune it up is when you choke it, and it sounds kind of like a Stewart Copeland type sound. A great drum can sound great tuned at all kinds of places.

The 6.5x14, I'll probably start with that or the 5x14 on every session. The 6.5x14 is more like a John Bonham/Led Zeppelin type sound... meatier, deeper, with a little more sustain. And then the 4x15, I'll use that tuned way up, or I'll have it tuned way, way down. I'll put an Emperor head on it, and tune it way down. And it can be a big, fat, deep snare drum. I'll put some muffling on it, and some more snare strands, and that thing is amazing. It's open, yet it's not so deep, so you get a lot of crack, but you still get the deepness out of it.

TAMA : What are some of the projects that you have been involved with lately?

Kenny : Avril Lavigne's new record, Rod Stewart's new record, Meat Loaf's new record, John Fogerty's new record, and the new Philip Sayce record. A ton of new artists too, like new alternative type of music. Let's see... some country, all over the map. All kinds of stuff. What else... oh, Travis Tritt. Recently I was on tour with Fogerty, and I did a clinic tour through Asia, Russia, Germany, and Australia last year. Also, in December, I performed three Buddy Rich Big Band tunes with a Symphony Orchestra, including "Straight No Chaser," "Big Swing Face," and "Channel One Suite."

TAMA : Do you have any advice for drummers out there looking to break into session work?

Kenny : Oh man, the advice is good luck, because it's just not what it used to be. It's just really dead. It's really tough. A lot of people are using Pro Tools, and there aren't the budgets there used to be. It used to be seven days a week type of thing. It's just not what it was. So, breaking into session work, you've got to go to a city like L.A., and give yourself 5-7 years.