For decades the journeyman drummer has had one rock ’n’ roll adventure after another, from Cyndi Lauper to Joan Jett to Pat Travers to Johnny Winter to the Monkees. Now he’s ready for another challenge—bringing his famous New York swagger to Nashville.
Staten Island’s own Sandy Gennaro has enjoyed a career spanning nearly forty years of rock ’n’ roll mayhem. His ability to play all styles, his signature backbeat, and his cymbal-wide smile have enlivened the bandstands of artists as diverse as Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and bluesrock guitarist Pat Travers.
The rock love affair began when Gennaro attended legendary shows at New York’s Fillmore East in the 1960s. By the age of sixteen he was touring the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania circuit. After a stint in California, he cut his first hit single, “Into the Night,” with the New York–based singer Benny Mardones. Around this time Gennaro recorded two albums with the rock quartet Blackjack, featuring Michael Bolton, future Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick, and future Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip; he also began his long association with torrid rocker Pat Travers and joined forces with a quirky singer named Cyndi Lauper, whose debut album, She’s So Unusual, became a triple-platinum monster. Lauper hired Gennaro for multiple global sold-out tours, where his big beat and trademark exuberance made him a star of every show. The concert video for the singer’s single “Money Changes Everything” brought Sandy’s smiling persona to the small screen, making a lasting impression.
In the late ’80s Gennaro began a twenty-year association with the Monkees and also found a home playing Joan Jett’s raunchy rock. In the ’90s and early 2000s he returned to his roots with seminal rock ’n’ roll showman Bo Diddley and with legendary blues guitarist Johnny Winter. Since the late ’80s he’s enjoyed a reputation as a fine instructor at Drummers Collective in Manhattan and has released two popular multimedia instructional packages. More recently, in addition to touring and recording with the reunited Pat Travers Band, he’s appeared several times at Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, performing and instructing students alongside Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, the Who’s Roger Daltrey, and Grand Funk’s Mark Farner.
One of the most insistent road dogs of all time, Gennaro has begged, borrowed, and (usually) stolen the room keys of every hotel he’s visited since he started touring. In fact, his collection—at 2,500 and counting—was on exhibit last year at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island, and the drummer plans to have it inhabit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Guinness Book of World Records when he retires.
Not content with resting on his laurels, Gennaro is still on the go. By the time this issue hits newsstands, he’ll be working the stages and recording studios of Nashville, Tennessee, no doubt making all kinds of new friends and alliances, initiated with his bearlike handshake and upbeat personality.
“I’m happy playing with the Pat Travers Band,” Sandy says, “but at this point in my life, with my experience and track record, it’s going to be fun meeting and playing with different musicians, reuniting with old friends, making new ones, and exploring the many opportunities that will undoubtedly present themselves in Nashville.”
MD: What essential qualities do you bring to every gig?
Sandy: Consistency, staying in the moment, staying within the song, and paying attention to detail. You want to fulfill your purpose within the music. And always be thankful for your gift. That opens the doors to more opportunities.
MD: Why do some drummers who play great disappear from the scene?
Sandy: It’s a combination of different things that allows you to sustain a career. You have to be a people person. While touring, besides the two hours on stage, you have to live with the band for another twenty-two hours—many of those on a tour bus or van—or spend ten or twelve hours a day in the studio. You’re only playing for a relatively small amount of the total time you spend with the band. You share living space. Have the ability to take direction with a smile, be considerate and flexible, and realize that it’s not all about you. Besides what you bring to the table musically, you have to be able to get along with people. That aspect is critical.
MD: I saw you at Drummers Collective in the early ’90s, and you were always upbeat and positive. How has that attitude figured into your success?
Sandy: It can be difficult to be upbeat all the time, but it’s the key to longevity in any career. You can’t live by talent alone; you also need to utilize that talent in a professional way. Does reading music help my longevity? You bet it does. Does playing with a click? Of course—but a lot of guys can read and play with a click. What is of utmost importance is your attitude as well as your technical ability, and musically knowing what not to play. The more mature I became, the less drums I needed to play to express myself. I didn’t need to legitimize my drumming by playing a lot of unnecessary stuff in a song. The number-one thing to remember is that you should play for and serve the song at all times.
MD: Why did you decide to strip down your drumming?
Sandy: I don’t need to play every chop I know to be credible as a drummer. It’s about having a quiet confidence. People say they can tell if it’s me from outside of a rehearsal room or venue, just from hearing my backbeat. How do you differentiate a 2-and-4 backbeat as your own? It’s that quiet confidence; you can’t be insecure about your playing, your timekeeping, your knowledge of the arrangement. You have to go in as prepared as possible so your attention is on the feel and overall sound and not on the arrangement or what beat to play.
MD: You’ve worked with some giant acts. What do they typically expect of the drummer?
Sandy: All the artists I’ve worked with want to hear their songs like they were recorded. When I play with an artist for the first time, I not only research the live recordings they give me for beginnings and endings of songs, I always refer to their original recordings. If the artist wants it faster or slower, or wants something different, I can do that, because I know the original recording and the original drum part. In preparation, once I know the song I put it at the correct tempo on my click, then play the song from memory, along with the click, humming the melody and playing the drum part exactly as it was recorded. If you can do that, it’s safe to say you know the tune.
MD: What was your introduction to the Joan Jett band like?
Sandy: When I began with Joan she was opening for Robert Plant on his Now and Zen tour in 1988. I took over the drum chair while she was on the road. I was sent the live recording, and I learned the songs. I auditioned on their day off after having a month to prepare. I learned all the tunes, got the exact bpms. Joan asked me what songs I knew, and I answered, “The whole set.” She said, “Fine, count it off.” I counted off “Bad Reputation,” and we ran through the first four songs of the set. Then Joan said, “Everything you played sounds like a hit record.”
MD: When did you discuss your fee?
Sandy: I didn’t talk money with her manager for a week. I wanted Joan, the band, and management to see what they were getting. They saw that I was easy to get along with, played consistently night to night, was on time for the lobby call, and didn’t get high when I performed. I never complained and always had a good attitude, and Joan saw that. Her manager called; we discussed money. The check was always on time.
MD: Has that been your approach, from the Monkees to Johnny Winter?
Sandy: Every situation is different on the business side. The Monkees was a ten-piece horn band and the salary was set, no negotiations. With Johnny everyone was paid differently based on your track record and experience.
MD: What was your toughest audition over the years?
Sandy: The toughest ever, which I didn’t get, was for Lenny Kravitz. This was after Zoro left and before Cindy Blackman joined. It was a cattle-call audition in the ’90s, fifty drummers in a hallway practicing on their pads. I go in and a cloud of smoke is surrounding Lenny. There’s a drumset, but with no carpet underneath, sitting on a linoleum floor. So I sit down and Lenny asks me, “Do you know ‘Fire’ by Hendrix?” I say, “Sure.” I was about to ask, “Where’s the carpet?” But Lenny says, “Count it off.” We start playing “Fire,” and by bar two the bass drum is two feet away from me! I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get the gig.
MD: Who has been the most demanding artist to work with?
Sandy: Cyndi Lauper wanted everything exactly like the record. My first day, she tells my roadie, “Lose the ride cymbal. The drummer in my band does not use a ride cymbal.” Her record was a mixture of drum machine and Anton Fig playing live drums. So I added an auxiliary hi-hat to my live kit to take the place of the ride. Pulling in the reins and keeping the clutch in was challenging but rewarding; I had to simulate a drum machine, playing simply but effectively just what the song needs and nothing more, concentrating on the feel.
MD: Johnny Winter has praised your shuffle. Why?
Sandy: For years I was intimidated by shuffles. I could only do a basic rock shuffle, what I respectfully call a Tommy Lee shuffle—quarter-note ride, 2-and-4 backbeat, with a syncopated bass drum part. I was inspired to finally do something about it. So I got a bunch of Little Walter, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy records, blocked out studio time at Drummers Collective, and listened to the drummers on those records.
I realized that for the most part they were shuffling from the top down, with both of their hands playing a shuffle and the bass drum playing quarter notes on 1 and 3. I put the metronome at 45 and played a straight shuffle with no crashes for five minutes, both hands shuffling and accenting 2 and 4—a Texas shuffle. No crashes, no fills, no nothing. I moved the metronome to 50 bpm, played for five more minutes, then to 55 bpm, etc. I repeated this until I reached a tempo where I could no longer play cleanly for five minutes. Now I felt confident that I could finally play an authentic shuffle.
Three weeks later the bassist in Johnny Winter’s band called me and asked me to audition. I get there, and Johnny starts a slow blues riff with a 12/8 feel, but he wanted a shuffle groove at this super-slow tempo. I was thanking God that three weeks earlier I had followed His inspiration and worked on that traditional shuffle. I got the gig.
MD: How have you dealt with the lean times that every musician faces?
Sandy: Don’t put all your eggs in one business. In 1987, when I was prepping for the Monkees tour at Drummers Collective, [co-owner] Rob Wallis asked me to teach. That started twenty-seven years at the Collective. I had to develop a teaching system. I taught myself how to read charts, and I started doing oldies gigs with Lou Christie and the Tokens. That work is all reading, all charts. You get paid that night, and often you never see the band again, though you may see the artist again. I was Lou Christie’s musical director in the early ’90s. What better way to deal with lean times than to teach your instrument—you make some dough while you sharpen your own skills!
MD: It’s important to maintain all your contacts.
Sandy: Never burn a bridge. Once I was trying to leave a club after a Pat Travers gig. This bass player asks me to listen to a cassette of his playing in order to recommend him for some gigs. I gave him my card and told him to send it to me. He called me eventually and said, “Why don’t you come out and hear this singer I’m managing?” I went down and played with her. It was Cyndi Lauper. Her career was just beginning. That became the next three years of my life. It would have been so easy to blow that guy off that night in New Haven. But you can never burn a bridge. “Nice” works. It takes strength to hold your tongue in some situations. Be true to yourself, speak your mind, but always be professional.
MD: What do you think is the biggest misconception about having a successful drumming career?
Sandy: That you have to have a ton of technique. If your motivation is to be the fastest, most technical drummer in your neighborhood, you will be a legend on your own block. Less is more.
MD: How do you keep the faith when you don’t have a gig and opportunity isn’t there?
Sandy: Always be ready—and keep networking! What’s the alternative? Being miserable? Whine, whine…nobody wants to be around somebody who complains. I’ve seen guys bounced from tour buses because of chronic complaining. They could be great players, but you can’t stand the other twenty-two and a half hours being around this guy. And my other advice? Shower at least once a week when you’re on a tour bus. And don’t leave your dirty, smelly socks in the aisle.
MD: What’s more important for you, feel or technique?
Sandy: Well, this whole idea of technique-driven drumming bothers me. It has its place in drum solos and drum contests, but you have to play what’s necessary for the song and, more importantly, leave out what’s not. [Producer/engineer] Tom Dowd told me early on to “Save the chops for your clinics.” When you have arguments like “Who’s the best drummer, Neil Peart or Ringo Starr…?” to me it’s just silly. You can’t compare. If Neil Peart auditions for the Beatles, I got news for you: Neil ain’t getting the gig. If Ringo auditions for Rush—sorry, Ringo. Each famous drummer became famous because of his association with his respective band and its music, and no other drummer can fill that role. You can like one drummer more than another, but to say he is better is ludicrous. There is nobody who can be the drummer in the Beatles other than Ringo, or Bonham with Zeppelin.
MD: What is your most valuable technique tip?
Sandy: To be comfortable playing basic variations of beat/simple fill combinations with a metronome in the widest tempo range possible. Be sure to do this in both the straight-8th and -16th rhythms as well as triplet-based rhythms—slow blues and shuffles. And always make playing along with recorded music part of your rehearsal. That is the skill set. That’s the bottom line, then you grow from there.
It surprised me to learn that all music as we know it came from swing and shuffles. The straight-8ths feel wasn’t played on any record until the early to-mid-’50s. Make friends with that shuffle! To be comfortable playing basic straight-8th and shuffle beats in a wide range of tempos with the metronome is much better than learning, say, dozens of 16th-note-triplet bass drum patterns or spending hours trying to play a paradiddle at 200 bpm. It’s all icing and no cake!
MD: Is your drumming an extension of your personality?
Sandy: My drumming is like my personality, straight ahead and in your face—but not when it doesn’t have to be. I know when to sit in the backseat and when to be the driver of the car. When to be a fly on the wall or the center of attention. The most important thing is to blend in and be part of the team. It’s not, “Look at me play my favorite Dave Weckl lick”; it’s about being part of an ensemble and supporting a vocalist. If the song don’t need it, don’t play it. Drummers were put on the planet to supply the heartbeat of the song, to be the engine of the car, and to be the backbone of the band.
Sandy Gennaro has seen more than his share of airports and hotel rooms, and he’s learned a thing or two about how to make touring not just bearable but enjoyable. Here he shares invaluable tips from decades of life on the road.
Do everything possible to book, reserve, and, most importantly, confirm all of your travel arrangements as far in advance as possible. If you don’t yet have a planning tool such as a Day-Timer, smartphone calendar, or “to-do list” app, get one and use it. As soon as your flight is confirmed, go online to choose your seat and, if applicable, enter your frequent flyer number. Check in for your flight online, within twenty-four hours of the departure time, and print out your boarding pass. If you’re driving to your destination, confirm your route and travel time the night before you leave. Program your GPS, or download MapQuest directions and a map and print them out. Confirm your hotel-room reservation prior to arrival, and ask them to have your key ready upon check-in.
When flying alone to another city, be sure you have the contact info for the person or company responsible for picking you up at the airport. As soon as the plane touches down and you’re permitted to use your electronic device, call the number and confirm your arrival and meeting place. Also let them know whether or not you have to retrieve checked luggage. This simple call can significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to get to your hotel or venue, not to mention the real possibility of them missing your pickup entirely—which has happened to me.
Whether you travel as an independent musician or as a band member, in most cases your transportation will be booked and paid for by someone other than you. Because these arrangements could be made using any airline or hotel chain, you need to join all of their frequent-traveler programs to get credit for the miles flown and hotel stays. It takes a bit of time, but it reaps dividends. I was able to accept a fairly high-paying gig on the West Coast where transportation was not provided, because I used my frequent-flyer miles for the flight. When you reach priority or premier status with an airline, where you fly a minimum number of miles in a year, you enjoy perks such as two checked bags for free and flying first class when there’s a seat available. And don’t forget hotel-chain award programs. You can designate your points to be credited as miles to an airline award program. One night’s stay is usually worth 500 miles!
Don’t over-pack. You can usually find washers and dryers in most budget and midline hotels and in venues like theaters, civic/convention centers, and arenas—though not in clubs. Pack about a week’s worth of stage and street clothes, if possible made of permanent-press fabric. And don’t pack to the max; it’s always a good idea to leave a little extra room in your suitcase for gig T-shirts and other souvenirs you acquire on the road. Better yet, pack a small carry-on bag to use on your return home. Be aware of the airline’s checked-baggage fees, though.
To lessen the possibility of leaving something behind in a hotel, refrain from putting anything in drawers or stashing valuables or money in unlikely places. Use the Do Not Disturb sign to keep the maid out, if desired. Do all your packing the night before, and when you’re about to leave the room for the last time, walk around it and visually check all surface areas including couch cushions, bathroom and shower, closet, desk, and nightstand. For additional security, when you temporarily leave your room during your stay at the hotel, put the Do Not Disturb sign on the door and leave the TV on with the volume up to make the room seem occupied. Settle up your hotel charges the night before checkout, and get a zero-balance receipt.
Drums: DW in broken glass finish
- 6.5×14 snare
- 6.5×14 bronze snare
- 9×13 tom
- 14×14 floor tom
- 14×16 floor tom
- 16×22 bass drum
Sandy’s usual rig features a 6.5×14 or 5×14 brass, bronze, or chrome main snare, with a 6.5×14 or 5×14 brass, bronze, or chrome auxiliary snare set up to the left of the hi-hat.
Sticks: Hot Sticks ArtiSticks signature series model SG003
Heads: Remo, including Coated CS snare batters and Hazy Diplomat bottoms, Clear Pinstripe tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and Pinstripe bass drum batter and Ebony Ambassador front head
- 14″ New Beat hi-hats
- 17″ A Custom Projection crash
- 19″ A Custom crash
- 22″ A Custom Projection ride
- 13″ K Custom Hybrid (or New Beat) hi-hats
- 18″ A Custom crash
The Beatles Meet the Beatles!, Revolver (Ringo Starr) /// The Dave Clark Five Glad All Over (Dave Clark) /// The Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet (Charlie Watts) /// The Young Rascals The Young Rascals (Dino Danelli) /// Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin (John Bonham) /// Vanilla Fudge Vanilla Fudge (Carmine Appice) /// Cream Disraeli Gears (Ginger Baker) /// The Jeff Beck Group Beck- Ola (Tony Newman, Micky Waller) /// The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland (Mitch Mitchell, Buddy Miles)
Benny Mardones “Into the Night” from Never Run, Never Hide /// Cyndi Lauper “Money Changes Everything” (live single version), “What a Thrill” from the soundtrack to the film The Goonies /// The Pat Travers Band “I La La La Love You” and “Amgwanna Kick Booty” from Black Pearl, “New Age Music” from Radio Active, “Armed & Dangerous” from Can Do /// Blackjack “Without Your Love” from Blackjack /// Joan Jett and the Blackhearts “Pretty Vacant” from The Hit List /// Jon Paris “The Boogie” from Blue Planet /// Craaft “You’re the Best Thing in My Life” from Craaft
Drum Basics Steps I and II book/CD/DVD (Alfred Music) /// Contemporary Rock Styles for the Drums book/CD (Hal Leonard)