Vinnie Paul: The King of Thrash-Metal Drumming
Story by Teri Saccone
Photos by Ebet Roberts
To honor of the life and career of Vinnie Paul, who died this past Friday, June 22, 2018, we present his Modern Drummer cover story from the August, 1994, issue.
Like his band, Pantera, drummer Vinnie Paul thrives on extremes. His double bass technique—a driving, relentless exhibition of sheer power—is also a study in precision. As much attention as his bionic feet deservedly garner, Paul also scores high in his overall approach to drumming. His deep grooves crunch and churn, creating a heavy bottom end, all the while being more creative than the usual fare. Major-label releases Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power introduced Pantera fans to Paul’s force-of-nature drumming. The Texas-based band’s latest, Far Beyond Driven, thrusts Vinnie’s speed, technique, groove, and uncompromising style into another dimension.
MD: First of all, what’s it like to be in a band with your brother, Dimebag Darrell?
Vinnie: It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I know a lot of people who have brothers and sisters and they don’t do anything together, they don’t have anything in common. My brother is my best friend. As for the band, I think it’s the best thing in the world, and the only thing I think it may be like is the relationship between Alex and Eddie Van Halen. As a matter of fact, they are two of our biggest influences. Dime and I rarely ever have any problems. We’re always there together, just kickin’.
MD: If the band disagrees on a point, do you two always stick together?
Vinnie: The four of us are very different, and there are musical disagreements, but there’s always common ground and we find our way through it. There’s never been so much friction that it was down to anyone siding with someone. Everybody is very honest and straight to the point about how they feel about things, and it’s always worked for us. Advertisement
This is a band situation, with four partners. Darrell, Rex [Brown, bass], and I have been together since 1983 as Pantera, so that’s eleven years between the three of us. Philip [Anselmo, vocals] joined in ’86, so he’s been with us a good eight years. So between all of us, we’ve been together a long time. For any kind of relationship to last that long—no matter what kind it is—there’s got to be give and take.
MD: When Pantera first got going, you were nearly a glam band, weren’t you?
Vinnie: The way we looked at it, we weren’t actually a “glam band,” but we did do cover tunes. So we kind of fell into the mold of what cover bands did back then, which was spandex, spiked hair…. Hey, that’s what we did for a living.
At that point Darrell was fifteen and I was seventeen, so we were really young and naive. As we went along we realized who we were, what we wanted to do with the music, and how we really wanted to present ourselves. None of us are ashamed of anything we did back then. If you look at the bands that were around in 1983, most of them looked that way. That’s just the way we started out. Advertisement
MD: Speaking of starting out, how did you choose drums as your focus?
Vinnie: My dad’s a musician, and he wanted me to join the school band when I was a kid. Back then they decided what instrument you’d play, so I was sent home with a tuba—and I was thrilled. I thought, “Hell, yeah. I’m gonna be a tuba player!”
I was sitting in the living room, trying to play this tuba, when my dad came in and said, “What in the hell are you doing with that thing?” I said, “This is what I’m gonna do.” He said, “You’re never going to make a penny in this world playing a tuba,” and then he took me right back to school. I was totally heartbroken. But he said, “Look, you’re going to play drums. You can do really well with them.” I still wanted the tuba, but the next thing I knew I was trying out the drums, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
MD: Did you have an immediate affinity for the drums?
Vinnie: I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I thought they were cool. A day or two after I started playing drums I realized that they were a whole lot cooler than the tuba. [laughs]
MD: How did your father know that you would be well suited to the drums?
Vinnie: Believe it or not, this is also like the Eddie and Alex story: When I got the drums, my brother started playing drums, too. I got better than he did, and I started to hog the drumkit. So he got mad and made my dad go out and buy him a guitar. He wanted to try that because I would never let him get on the drums. He used to put Ace Frehley makeup on and stand in front of the mirror, posing with the guitar. I would say, “Jeez, you have to learn how to play that thing someday.” Advertisement
About six or seven weeks rolled by and I didn’t see much of him because he was off in his room. Then he came in one day and said, “Do you wanna jam?” And I said, “Do you know how to play that thing?” We ended up playing “Smoke on the Water,” which was the first jam we ever did. We probably played that song for two hours straight, over and over. We both got better.
MD: You mentioned that you hooked up with Rex when you played in a high school jazz band.
Vinnie: That’s where I met him. He was the bass player in the jazz band. Neither one of us was really crazy about the jazz stuff. We’d get there early and play “2112” by Rush, and we got thrown out a few times because we’d be playing while the band director would be talking.
MD: At least you benefited from the exposure to jazz.
Vinnie: I can’t say there’s a lot of things from a jazz drumming aspect that I use in rock ’n’ roll. But there are a lot of things from a snare drum or marching drum perspective that I do use. The rudiments that I learned from marching band definitely apply to what I do. Drum corps was my favorite when I was in high school. We had one of the best drum lines around, and we were corps-style, not military-style. Man, I was into it. Advertisement
It was cool. We won all of our competitions—that drum line smoked. The only bad thing I can say about it is that all of those guys ended up being car salesmen instead of playing drums for a living. I’m the only one who made drumming my source of income.
MD: How did you get signed to your record deal?
Vinnie: We did a lot of showcases in New York and L.A. A lot of the record companies were aware of the band and a lot of them had passed on us, but we were very persistent about it.
This is really a story of being in the right place at the right time. There was an A&R guy from Atco Records on a layover in Dallas. He was supposed to go to North Carolina to see a band there that night. Then Hurricane Hugo hit and he was stuck in Dallas. He called his office and asked if there were any bands in town that he should check out. His boss told him about us and to see if we were any good. The A&R guy called me and asked if he could come to a rehearsal studio to see us. I said, “Dude, tell you what. We’re playing a birthday party tonight.” This girl had asked us to play a party at this Mexican disco in Fort Worth. We didn’t have a gig that week and we were broke, so the five hundred bucks sounded good. There were eighty people there, people were throwing birthday cake, and we were just jamming, having a blast—and this A&R guy was there. About a week later we were signed.
MD: Let’s talk about your drumming. Your feet have become legendary in respect to your double bass technique. Did your style come about naturally over time, or did you make a concerted effort to master double bass drumming? Advertisement
Vinnie: When I started out I played single bass, but in ’83 I started buying records by Mötley Crüe and Ozzy Osbourne. Tommy Lee’s double bass playing on “Live Wire” just blew me away, and I knew I couldn’t do that with one bass drum. Then Tommy Aldridge made me flip when I heard him with Pat Travers—he played all of these cool fills with two bass drums.
There are so many cool things you can do with your feet, cooler than doing them with any other drums on the drumset. So I really became obsessed about how to do all this, and my dad got me a second bass drum. I started playing and developing it from there.
As the band developed, the guys started asking me to play things that I didn’t know how to do, but I learned how to do them. A lot of my playing is power playing, and if I can’t do something with a lot of power, I’ll find a way to develop that power. The way I went about getting that power into my playing was to use my feet more. That’s how and why it developed. Advertisement
MD: Do you favor leading with one foot more than the other?
Vinnie: I lead with my left foot because it just feels more natural to me. When I played single bass, to make the timing right and to get all of the off beats on my right foot, I would keep time with my left foot—just straight 8th notes. So when I started playing double bass I just moved my left foot to the second drum and continued to play the 8ths with my left and the other notes with my right.
I would sit down and play 16th notes for hours, starting off slowly just like when I first learned to play snare drum. I’d go slow until it started hurting, and that’s how you develop the stamina. When I first started playing double bass I found that my left foot was a lot weaker than my right and I had to really work on bringing it up. At the same time, I started doing double notes on the right foot. So while I was developing my left foot, I was also working on new stuff with my right foot, which helped lead to the patterns I play now.
MD: On “Psycho Holiday” from Cowboys from Hell, you do a tricky double bass gallop. How did you throw that one together?
Vinnie: Actually, Dime came up with the guitar riff first, and I didn’t really want to double him on the kick drums because it almost sounded hokey—it was too much. I was messing around with it, and I was thinking of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” which is a shuffle on the bass drums. I thought to myself, “What if we took that and turned it into half time?” I started doing that, he played the riff, and we looked at each other and went, “Wow.” That’s how that came about. Advertisement
MD: Do you have any trade secrets that you’d like to share concerning your foot technique?
Vinnie: For one thing, felt beaters are too easy to play with, so I’d recommend using wooden beaters. Since the wood ones are heavy, you have to play harder. They swing harder, you get more impact on the drum, plus they build up the strength in your legs. It’s like using a larger drumstick.
It’s better to practice with something that’s heavier than 7As. You’re not going to develop any kind of power with those. Just like a baseball player who goes out on deck—he doesn’t swing a regular bat, he swings a warm-up bat with a donut on it—more weight to get him loose. That’s the way I feel about bass drum beaters.
Also, I would advise the double bass beginner to start off slow with 16th notes and just do that until your feet and legs start hurting. When you play double kicks, you use a lot more of your leg than you do your ankle and your foot. It’s more of a leg motion and it’s almost like you’re running when you’re playing. I recommend trying to lift your feet up a little bit more than you would if you were doing a complicated pattern with one foot. Start off slowly until it hurts, just push it to that level, and then stop. Then the next day, start a little bit faster. That’s what I did. Advertisement
Once you learn to play 16th notes comfortably with your feet, try playing triplets and different patterns and start leaving notes out here and there to make your own patterns. You just have to do this stuff yourself and remember that anything that you can do with your hands, you can do with your feet.
MD: You tend to play off the guitar more than anything else, accenting Darrell’s parts. “Cowboys from Hell” is a good example of that. Does that stem from playing with your brother for so long?
Vinnie: I definitely play off the guitar more than anything else, and that comes not only from playing with my brother, but from the way we approach the writing of the music. We want everything we do to have all three cylinders—bass, drums, guitar—to all be punching together. In a lot of bands the drummer will go off and do a fill in the middle of nowhere, and that doesn’t have any power. We always wanted our stuff to be powerful, and the way to make it powerful is to make it like a machine. One of us would come up with a kick part or guitar part and work it into the other part.
I think that’s what makes us different from a lot of other bands: We structure our songs making each person’s part work within the song. That’s the way I play drums: I play as part of the entire song, not as a separate part. I don’t do my own separate thing in this band. We all work together as a unit. Advertisement
MD: You also tend to structure your drum parts with the elements of surprise and variation. On a track like “Cemetary Gates” from Cowboys from Hell, you don’t repeat any fill from verse to verse. It’s hard to anticipate what you’ll play. There seems to be a lot of time and effort put into the structuring.
Vinnie: A lot of songs are developed out of a drum pattern I come up with. “Primal Concrete Sledge” [from Cowboys] was strictly a drum groove. Then I hummed the guitar part and Dime came up with it. That’s my all-time favorite song.
A lot of times the songs will start out as a guitar riff, and I’ll have to mess around with two or three different grooves until I find the right part to go with it. We’ll come up with the basic idea of what will be the verse and what will be the chorus, then we’ll figure out how to tie the two together. That’s where the little tricky parts will come from. We don’t want to just rush from this to that, we want to tie it all together so that it connects and makes sense, like a song should. Advertisement
MD: You mentioned “Primal Concrete Sledge.” I wanted to ask you if those amazing triplets on that track are played live or if they are programmed or triggered.
Vinnie: They’re totally live, no drum machine—period. There’s a thing on the new record that’s the same pattern but twice as fast, and I know everybody’s gonna say, “He’s using triggers,” but I’m not. How can you use a trigger for that? I’m doing it all myself.
MD: Those things are flawless on record. Some drummers spend months getting parts on tape. But can you honestly tell me how many takes it requires to come up with that kind of precision?
Vinnie: I know that some drummers go into the studio and do many different takes and then splice them together. I do one take, and if it’s good up until verse two, for example, then Terry will just punch me in right there. Sometimes I’ll get into a song and go all the way through, love it, but then find a spot where something’s not right. So I’ll splice that one part. But I’d say 90% of it is live—and we’ll do it straight through.
There’s not a lot of punching in or splicing. We recorded in Nashville, and we went down to Dallas to mix it. The engineer at Dallas Sound Lab was looking at the tape and said, “Wow, there are only two splices in all the reels of tape. What’s the deal?” That’s just the way we work. Advertisement
A lot of things with Pantera are better a little rough around the edges, because it sounds more like us live. We don’t want our stuff to be totally polished and beautiful sounding.
MD: You also don’t always get totally into the intricacy thing. Sometimes you play things straight, just emphasizing the power.
Vinnie: Exactly. I’ll tell you the way we approach it: We try to make it listenable to the non-musicians in the audience, yet intricate enough for the musicians out there to be interested in what we’re doing. A lot of musicians really get wrapped up in being a musician and trying to fit as many notes as possible into one hole. The way we approach it is putting all our efforts into the song.
MD: Your drum sound is very penetrating and yet still resonant, live and on record. Do you have any recording, miking, or tuning tips that you can share?
Vinnie: I use Remo drums, which I think have a very different sound from standard wood drums. They’re made out of this material called Acousticon, which gives them a little more attack than a regular drum. I don’t muffle any of the drums, with the exception of the bass drums, which have Remo Muff’ls in them.
I think the way I record is different from the way a lot of other people do, because I like a lot of attack and a lot of low end. Plus, I don’t use any triggers. To get the same amount of attack for the toms as I get for the bass drums, I have to do some really strange miking techniques. For instance, if you put a mic’ on a tom and put a lot of high end into it to give it the same attack as on a bass drum, you’ll have a real bad problem with cymbal leakage, giving you a hissing noise. If you gate it, it’s really bad. You never can get enough high end on the toms, so what I do is use Sennheiser 421s mounted inside the toms, and I use 409s on top. With the inside mic’s I add a lot of high end, and since the mic’s are inside the drums, the cymbal noise is blocked out. The mic’ on top of the drum picks up the body and the resonance of the drum. It’s a perfect combination. Advertisement
For our new record, Far Beyond Driven, we also used some PZMs on the back wall, which totally opened up the entire drum sound. This record has a little bit more room to it than our earlier ones, which I like a lot. It really sounds good.
MD: Since we’re on the subject, with respect to live miking, do you do anything different from what you do in the studio?
Vinnie: The only thing that’s different is that I don’t use the 409s on top of the toms. For some reason there’s plenty of body with the inside mic’s through the P.A. system. The kicks and snare are all the same. Now that we’re playing more arenas, I’m using the ddrum sample on the kick drum for the low end because in the bigger places, trying to gate it all and get enough low end in the sound is hard. You might notice that at a lot of concerts, the low end is really “boomy” and washed out—it just doesn’t have any punch. Since I started using the real mic’ for the high end of the bass drum and the ddrum for the low end, the punch is killer, especially in a big place. That’s the only difference.
MD: Despite the loudness, it’s easy to hear the tonal differences in your drums.
Vinnie: With the drums playing such an important part in our music, I make sure they come through. All the instruments are important with us. A lot of engineers think that you have to give up something to get a lot of everything in the mix. The way we approach it is that we’re not gonna give up anything. We’re gonna find a way to fit all four of us onto this piece of tape. It just takes a little bit of time and effort. A lot of drummers get their stuff lost in the wash because they really don’t have that much input into what they’re doing. Advertisement
MD: From what I’ve heard of the new album, you obviously worked hard on blending the instruments. You must be really pumped with the results.
Vinnie: We feel like this is the best record we’ve ever made; it’s the most aggressive. This album represents what I would call an extreme form of music. A lot of people think that when you become successful, you become complacent. We wanted to prove to everyone with the new record that we’ve still got lots of fire and that we’re hitting hard. We didn’t want to do anything that was safe. We wanted to take it to the next step. I think we’ve done that.
MD: What prompted you to cover Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan?”
Vinnie: Originally we’d been asked to contribute a Sabbath track for a tribute album, and instead of picking a song like “Paranoid” or “Iron Man,” we wanted to choose something a little less well known. Due to record company politics, we ended up not being involved with the project. So when it came to making our new record, we decided to cover “Planet Caravan” anyway. I basically followed what Bill Ward had done on the original because it was so appropriate to the track.
MD: Pantera reinvents the meaning of the phrase “road dogs” every time you tour. You must do over two hundred dates each year.
Vinnie: We did two hundred eighty shows last year. When you spend twenty-three hours a day waiting around for this one hour or ninety minutes on stage, you take all that anxiety and energy to the stage and you exhaust it. Advertisement
MD: Has all that touring spilled over into your drum performance?
Vinnie: I’d say Far Beyond Driven was the best I’ve ever played on record. Terry especially felt that my drumming had improved from playing so much live
MD: What aspects improved?
Vinnie: My time is a lot more solid. Creatively, there’s a little more there. Plus there’s just more confidence because I’ve done it so many times.
The reason we tour so much is because we love playing live, we love the rush, we love meeting all the people and doing all the fun things. We can’t count on MTV or radio to sell us, and the only way we can promote ourselves is to play live and for people to come see us and tell their friends. That’s how we went from playing two hundred–seat nightclubs to eight thousand–seat arenas on our own.
We’re a street-level band, and that’s how we approach it. If we do get on the radio or if MTV plays us a lot on Headbanger’s Ball, then that’s great. But for us to become bigger every time, we’ve got to continue to tour like hell.
MD: Does all that time on the road wreak havoc with your personal life?
Vinnie: What personal life? [laughs] I had a girlfriend for eight years, and what ultimately broke that up was me being gone all the time. But what are my priorities here? This is my career. This is what’s going to lead me to what I want to do in the future and what I want to eventually have. Being able to do what you love and make a living at it—that’s definitely where it’s at. I feel very fortunate to be in that position, and I never forget it. Advertisement
Vinnie and Production
Vinnie Paul has made an impact on Pantera not only as a drummer, but as a producer as well. While other musicians speculate about eventually producing, Vinnie has already co-produced the last three Pantera albums, Cowboys from Hell, Vulgar Display of Power, and Far Beyond Driven, with Terry Date. He’s also been receiving several requests by other bands to produce their records.
MD: What exactly is your role as co-producer within Pantera?
Vinnie: I do a lot of the engineering. I recorded all the demos that the band originally did, and I did a lot of the engineering on our first record. That’s why on the last two records I wanted the credit. Terry and I obviously work well together. It’s definitely a co-production.
For example, I’ll sit in the studio and produce and engineer certain guitar tracks, and Terry will be sitting in the corner and will hear something that sounds wrong and say, “Hey, let’s do that again.” Sometimes he’ll be doing the engineering and producing and I’ll be sitting in the corner and suggest fixing or changing things. So it works both ways. I thought about producing Driven on my own, and the rest of the band was totally gung-ho on the idea, but then we decided that Terry is kind of like our fifth member and it’s good to have him around. Advertisement
MD: When you have a major difference of opinion when it comes to production, how do you work it out?
Vinnie: It’s strange, but we hardly ever disagree. I’m a pretty flexible kind of person and Terry’s the same way. Neither of us is saying, “Here’s how it is and this is how it’s gonna be.” That’s the reason we liked Terry when he came in for our first record: He let us make a record that we wanted to make, not one that he or the record company wanted. The other guys in the band also have total input. We’re all working towards the same goal.
MD: Why did Far Beyond Driven take so much longer to complete than your two previous albums?
Vinnie: We wrote everything in the studio this time, which, as far as total studio time, took longer than previous records. But in the past we’d write everything, demo it out, and get it to the point where we knew what we were going to do before we got to the studio. If you include the entire process, those records actually took a little bit longer. With Driven we wanted to catch the original vibe that we put on tape. With the earlier records, sometimes we felt like we lost some of the original vibe of the songs between the demo and what actually ended up on the record. Sometimes the demo had the proper feel—I had the right vibe and was in the right mood when I played the drums. We found ourselves trying to “beat” the demo. This time we said the hell with all that and brought Terry down from the start. We spent two weeks getting sounds and then we recorded the songs as we wrote them.
MD: That’s an interesting way of recording, but it also sounds costly. Does your record company give you carte blanche to take your time in the studio?
Vinnie: We’ve proven ourselves in terms of success. That’s given the label the confidence to leave us alone and let us have our creative freedom. There’s no A&R guy down here telling us what to do. It’s more like, “Go make a Pantera record, and when you’re done, give it to us.” Advertisement
MD: How did you originally become involved with the production side of Pantera?
Vinnie: The first couple times we ever recorded as a band, the only thing I knew about was drums. When I went in the studio and heard my drums, I hated the way they sounded. Nobody understood what I wanted them to sound like.
My dad owned a recording studio, and one day I thought, “I’m going to go in there and fiddle around with the equipment to see what I can come up with.” I started messing with it and started liking what I was hearing. The more I messed with it, the more I learned.
I also did research: Every time I’d go to a live show, I’d pick the engineer’s brain, especially the ones I really respected, like Big Nick from Metallica. Every time I’d see them I’d try to learn as much as I could. I also went out to nightclubs and ran sound for bands just to see how good I could do it, and I got pretty good at it. I was always interested in the sound, and being a drummer, not being able to get the drum sound that I wanted was the main thing that led me to becoming very interested in production. Production has almost become as important to me as playing drums, because it’s a total challenge. Advertisement