Keith Knudsen and Chet McCracken

Takin’ It To The Doobies

The Doobie Brothers legend began in 1969 when percussionist John Hartman got together with singer/guitarist Tom Johnston and bassist Greg Murphy. At that time, the trio was called Pud and their first album was released in 1971 on Warner Brothers Records. By that time, Patrick Simmons had made the trio a quartet and the band had changed their name to the Doobie Brothers.
Keith Knudsen joined the band in October, 1973 when drummer Michael Hossack decided the rigors of touring were too demanding for him.Since that time, the band has undergone several personnel changes, but the high quality of their music and playing has never wavered. The most recent changes have involved John Hartman giving up the life on the road for the role of veterinarian and horse raiser. Chet McCracken has filled his vacant drummer’s seat.
The current line up includes Knudsen, vocals and drums; McCracken, percussion; Michael McDonald, keyboards and vocals; Tiran Porter, bass and backup vocals; John McFee, guitar; Cornelius Bumpus, keyboards and saxophone; and Patrick Simmons, guitar and vocals.
The story of how Chet was contacted for the gig has a certain amount of mystery attached to it. He explains, “Somebody called me up to tell me that Michael McDonald was thinking about me. In fact, I still don’t remember who it was who called me. I had just gotten home from the studio and the phone rang. A voice comes on the phone and says, ‘Hi, the Doobie Brothers are looking for a drummer. Mike McDonald’s thinking about you. Here’s the number.’ I called Mike up and here I am. I’ve got to find out who that was who turned me on to the gig.”
The vibes the Doobie Brothers convey to their audiences are ones of warmth combined with a commitment to their music. It is quite refreshing and rewarding to see such dedication in a field that is traditionally based more on feeling than on technique and skill. But, then, the Doobies’ music is much more than just middle of the road rock and roll. Their compositions and arrangements create a composite sound which reflects jazz, country and rhythm and blues as well as rock influences.
The drumming is understated but irresistable. Their music impresses the listener with smooth style.
This band takes its music seriously and their hard work shows in the tightness of their playing. The Doobie Brothers are truly a joy to see and hear.
SA: Keith, having played in a single drummer situation before joining the Doobies, how hard was it to play with another drummer?
KK: I got used to it right away. It didn’t seem that difficult. Actually, I had five days to learn all the stuff and then we went out on tour for six weeks. It was actually a help to have John (Hartman) there because I didn’t have to worry so much about it. I watched him like a hawk for a couple of weeks and that was it, the same kind of thing that we did with Chet. I’d cue him every second, even if I knew that he knew it was coming. I’d cue him all the time. Now I don’t have to. It took a little time to teach him. Then we started working out new things ourselves and it’s much better.
SA: Chet, how have you adapted to a two drummer situation after spending so many years as the only drummer in the band?
CM: I didn’t know at first how I would like it, but I love it now. It’s an incredible sense of power. When two guys can lock in on a groove, it’s just tremendous.
SA: How are your drumming styles different and how do you reconcile these differences?
CM: Keith has a loose style. It all sounds very tight, but it’s so relaxed and smooth. I’m tighter. I’m a tense drummer. I play more on top of it, whereas Keith plays on the other side of it. So, we both have to make adjustments, but it’s working out very well.
I have a natural tendency to be busier than Keith. Keith’s taught me a lot as far as the way you relate to a tune. He can sit and just groove down through a whole tune which is, surprisingly, a lot harder than trying to lay the groove down and play some drum fills and a solo. That’s what I like about his style, he’ll just cop a great groove, a real simple part. When I came into the band, I had to adapt to that style. I had come from a jazz/rock band where I was the only drummer and could play anything, whenever I wanted. I was given free reign. So, I came in and adapted to Keith’s style. It took a lot of concentration just to sit on a groove through one song.
SA: Just from watching you rehearse, it becomes obvious that the Doobie Brothers put a lot of effort into their playing.
CM: This is a very musical band. The music is first. I’ve been to a lot of rehearsals with bands that rehearse two and a half hours and that’s it. They’re tired and want to go home. These guys rehearse full tilt for five hours. So, being tight, especially from the drum section or rhythm section is most important.
SA: Keith, you were brought up in Iowa. What was your childhood background in drumming?
KK: I played in a marching band when I was in junior high and in high school. I just got together with friends in one of the little band rooms after school and put together a strange set of drums from all the old band equipment. I had a big marching snare drum, a big bass drum and a couple of cymbals.
SA: Have you ever played any other instruments?
KK: No, I just play the drums. I don’t know any music technically. I can’t read or write or play anything else.
SA: How much emphasis do you put on counting?
KK: I don’t count too much when I play. I’ll count spaces and holes, but I don’t count when I’m playing usually.
SA: What kind of bands did you play in before the Doobie Brothers came along?
KK: I played for Lee Michaels for about two and a half years. Most of the time it was just him and me, keyboards and drums. Toward the last six months I played for him, he had a three or four piece band.
Before that, I came out from Wisconsin with a group called Mandelbaum. I was the big singer/drummer for five or six years with that band.
SA: What kind of music did you play with that band?
KK: We started out doing blues and Beatles stuff. We used to do the whole Sgt. Pepper album and all that kind of stuff. We started writing our own material, so by the time we got here (California), we were doing a lot of our own material. It was kind of rock and roll, bluesbased stuff when we came to San Francisco ten years ago. Then we started being influenced more by the California bands. Eventually, we broke up and I went to work for Lee Michaels and then the Doobies.
SA: Chet, what inspired you to pick up the drums?
CM: It wasn’t until seventh grade that I really got into it. For some reason, I joined a junior high school band and it started to be this ambition.
SA: What about your musical background. What kind of bands did you play in?
CM: I played in lots of rock bands. Three years right before I joined the Doobies, I was working at the Baked Potato with the house band, Don Randi and Quest. Don owns the place as well as plays there four nights a week. It was basically a jazz/rock gig. Before I was at the Baked Potato, I was in a group called Rare Earth and they are just full-tilt rock and roll. When I used to get off stage with them, I was totally drenched in sweat.
SA: Did you enjoy playing in a small room and not having to mike your drums?
CM: Yes. It’s two different sound situations. I was using a set of North drums at the Baked Potato—a double-set—two bass drums, five tom toms. That particular type of drum set was perfect for that room. You could hear every little thing I did anywhere in that room, partly because the drums are so good and partly because of the way the room sounded. Playing with the Doobie Brothers is a pleasure, too, because I can get up on stage and stick my foot in the bass drum and it comes through the monitors. It sounds like the drum’s fifty feet big. But, then you get in the Baked Potato and you smack the North drums and hear the sound come back at you off the wall and it’s the same feeling.
SA: I take it that since you are not playing North Drums with the Doobies, that they did not work too well when you put them through the PA.
CM: Well, it was very interesting. I’m very proud of my North drums. First of all, they were handmade for me by Roger North and they’re worth their weight in gold. Plus, I think they sound incredible. I used them in the studio a few times and they just absolutely knocked me out. So, when I joined the Doobies, the equipment guys came up to me and asked ‘We’re going out on the road. What kind of equipment are you taking?’ I started rattling off about my North drum set but they explained to me that they stick the microphone up inside the drums to get the sound on stage. But the North drums also trap the sound of the band inside that bell. So, not only do you get the sound of the drum in that mike, but you also get this other noise that’s trapped inside the bell. As soon as they ran it down to me, I understood it perfectly and I wouldn’t want those drums up there either for that particular purpose.
Also, the drums project so much when you hit them, the sound will project into Patrick’s microphone. So, I just brought in a set of Ludwig’s that I was using in the studio and they sound incredible. The crew just took the drums apart and put new heads on them and put them back together.
SA: Keith, I notice that your kit is rather small by comparison with many drummers who seem to be turning to larger drums.
KK: Yes, I’ve been using a small set for five years now.
SA: What attracts you to the smaller size kit?
KK: I think it’s a better sound. I get the best sound in the studio on a small set of drums. They still make sense if you can get a better sound live and it’s a good contrast to the bigger set with the other drummer. John used to use a great big set and Chet uses a fairly good size set.
SA: You’re using a 20″ bass drum?
KK: Twenty inch. I designed my set four years ago, with two of our crew members. I’d been using Pearl drums and we designed a set of drums the first time I went to Japan, a little over four years ago.
SA: Was it difficult to get exactly what you wanted? Did you know before hand what you wanted or was it more of a cooperative idea between you and Pearl?
KK: We originally wanted a 13-ply set. We asked them how big they could make the ply and they said thirteen. We asked them to do that and they tried it, but the glue wouldn’t hold. That was the soft wood. They were making most of their drums out of that, so we asked, ‘How about an eight-ply, hardwood set?’ That’s what those are. They closed the factory down for three days and made two sets of drums. I gave one to Shep (Lonsdale, a former crew member for the Doobies who now plays with Charlie) and I kept the other one. They’re a double set, there’s a 22″ bass drum that goes with that as well as another rack tom, but I just use that set.
SA: What sizes are your drums?
KK: I have a 20″ bass drum, 11″, 16″ and 18″ tom toms. Pearl has a new line. They call it maplefibreglass and it’s that exact set only it’s not quite as thick. The hard wood has only three, four or five plys. Those are nice. You look inside the shells and they’re all perfect.
SA: Chet, what about your set up?
CM: I use a 22″ bass drum, 22″ x 14″. Right now, I’ve got a 6 1/2″ x 14″ snare. I’ve got 8″, 10″, 13″, 14″ mounted toms and a 16″ floor tom. They’re Ludwig except the two concert toms which are Pearl. They’re wood drums.
SA: Were you playing them with just the one head on them before you joined the Doobies?
CM: When I brought my drums in, they did have double heads because they were tuned for the studio. But, the equipment guys immediately took the bottom heads off.
SA: Do you like that better for the stage?
CM: It works. I like whatever works, and on stage that really works. When I hit that floor tom, the thing just blows. I think if they had them miked outside the drum, say on top of the head, it wouldn’t give that explosion.
SA: Keith, what do you think are the advantages for you to play on singleheaded drums as opposed to doubleheaded drums?
KK: For the kind of shows we’re doing, it’s good for the projection. The drums project more. In a studio or something, we use heads on the bottom, depending on what kind of sound we want. We’ll go until we get the sound we want, whatever it takes. It’s never the same thing every time.
SA: When playing with double heads, how do you tune the bottom head as opposed to the top head?
KK: That depends, too. I have a guy, Bob Hodis, who tunes the drums for me and he spends a lot of time everyday in the big halls. He tunes all the drums and he mixes them from the house. He spends most of the day changing drum heads and tuning through the hall, playing, listening to how it sounds in the hall. Both of us like completely different sounds, so he’s got to know each one of us and how to do that. He’s very good at it.
SA: What kind and size cymbals do you use?
KK: Zildjian. Twenty inch medium ride, 17″ crash and an 18″ crash and a 20″ turned out Chinese gong cymbal without the rivets. No rivets and no holes. When I went to the Zildjian factory, I picked out two or three sets and I was using two I7’s an 18 and a 20″ ride, but I just went to the one 17″. There was just too many cymbals. It’s like too many drums. I don’t like to have too many drums because then I ‘ l l try to play them all and I’m not that kind of drummer. I’m more subdued.
SA: A drum clinician once told me that he feels that small sets are good because they force drummers to concentrate more on their chops.
KK: Yes, I find that I like it better with fewer drums. For my style of drumming, it’s less tempting to play a lot of stuff that just gets in the way. Other people like Billy Cobham, it doesn’t seem to matter what they play, it’s great. But, for me, it’s not. I can’t do that.
SA: Chet, what’s your cymbal story?
CM: I use a 20″ ride, a 16″ crash, 20″ swish and 14″ hi-hats. I’m not really a cymbal buff. At one point, I was carried away with cymbals. I can remember playing with one band and going down to a hi-hat and a ride cymbal and forcing myself to pay attention to the drums rather than the cymbals.
I really like Paiste cymbals. I like the brilliance. They seem to have just a little more of an edge to them. Zildjians are beautiful sounding cymbals and I have nothing against them at all. For instance, Paiste hi-hats have more of that high end edge to them, more bite, especially if you’re on tape. That’s what I like. When you use that ride cymbal or even a crash cymbal, I like to hear the cymbal explode. But, I like that high pitched edge to it. I just prefer Paiste.
SA: You use the Sound Edge hi-hats?
CM: Yes, they are killers.
SA: I notice you’ve got that Chinese, too.
CM: That’s the only Zildjian I have, that swish.
SA: I see you’re using Syndrums.
CM: Yes. Syndrums are just outrageous. I’ve known Joe Pollard since 1970. We worked in the same beer bars out in the (San Fernando) Valley. He was working on those things back then. Everybody thought he was nuts.
About three years ago, Joe came out to the Baked Potato and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got something I want you to hear.’ That was it. As soon as I heard them, I said that was it. The Syndrums, I think, are leading the way as far as electronic drums. I think that Syndrums have been the best advancement in drums for the last 25 years. Joe has just opened a whole new world for drummers. There’s more to it than just playing the snare drum. The first time I heard them, I said, ‘I don’t care how much they are, give me a set of those things.’
SA:What kind of heads do you use on your drums’?
CM: Well, it depends on which drums I’m using and under which situation I’m playing. Right now, they put on some pinstripe heads. I think my concert toms have still got the one with the dot on them. For different situations I use different heads.
In the studio, let’s say it’s a rock session or a jazz/rock session, I like to go in with real thin heads without any dampening or any dots on them. For hard rock, I’ll go in and maybe use some heads with the little dot.
SA: Someone expressed to me not too long ago that they feel that these new heads are primarily made to cut down the overtone factor because a lot of drummers don’t know how to tune their drums. What do you think of that idea?
CM: Well, I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. There might be some validity in that. I will cop to being one of the drummers who doesn’t know how to tune their drums. I just sit there for 50 minutes trying to tune a tom tom and do absolutely nothing to it but screw it up. Sometimes I get lucky and get a good drum sound but I just don’t know all there is to know about things like overtones and not every drummer does. It’s hard to tune a drum. I’d much rather tune up a guitar than have to tune up a set of drums because at least with a guitar, you have a reference point.
SA: Do you tune your drums to a particular note or do you do it mostly by ear?
CM: Both sometimes. You can tune up a North drum so precise to the notes. They’re incredible drums. You can get them right on the note. For awhile at the Baked Potato, I was tuning them to a chord. I’d tune them to an E minor chord—E on top, B, low E and then lower than that. So low that I couldn’t tell. Basically, when I go around the drums, I like to hear them resolve themselves. You end up with something final. That’s the way I like it to sound when I get to the bottom of my set, like it resolved itself.
SA: Keith, I notice you are wearing a headset with a microphone for singing. I assume it’s easier than using an overhead mike. How does that work out?
KK: Well, this is the first time we’ve tried it. It seems to work real well. I like it. I don’t have to sing a lot, so I don’t have to be right in front of the microphone in one position all the time. My concern was that it was comfortable. I had the earpieces taken off because I don’t want it coming in my ear. I t comes out of my monitor on the front and it’s just my voice through the microphone. I like it, and getting used to it, my only concern was that the quality of the sound of the microphone was as good as the microphone I was using before. Our engineer says it is, so I think we’re going to try it out.
SA: On the subject of monitors, how do you have yours situated? I notice what appears to be a speaker in your drum throne.
KK: It’s a bass monitor. We use a ten inch speaker. It’s the bass guitar and we can hear it and feel it through our rearends. We’ve been doing that for a couple of years now. I’ve never seen anybody else do it. It’s really a smart efficient idea. We do it because we don’t have to have these huge bass monitors and it doesn’t leak into any of our mikes. We’ve got a lot of microphones, one on each cymbal and one on each drum and vocal mike. So, we do that to keep the bass from leaking through all our live mikes.
I have one other floor monitor with two 10″ or 12″ speakers, I don’t know which it is. In that I have my kit and my snare drum and my voice and a l i t t le bit of keyboards, both keyboards at both ends and the horn mike and both guitar players.
SA: I imagine that the feedback problems can be horrendous.
KK: Yes. It’s difficult with the big halls you play. It’s really hard to be able to hear anyway even with the really sophisticated monitoring system. Sometimes you get into these big halls and the sound just rolls. It comes out and rolls around and you never know where it’s coming from. We try not to play too loud on stage. Sometimes it’s hard to hear.
SA: Do you find yourself worrying about hearing loss due to the high-end of the cymbals crashing right into your ears?
KK: Well, certainly you must be a little bit, but the last time I had my ears cleaned and my hearing checked, it was okay. There was no big loss and I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m sure that there’s some percentage of loss of hearing over the last few years, but it seems to be normal.
SA: Speaking of loud noises, what do you think of the idea of double bass drums?
KK: I used to have double bass drums. I used to use them back in Wisconsin for a section of our set. We’d do one set and then for the second set, I’d put another bass drum on. This was when we were doing Cream material and stuff that I used a set of double bass drums, but I was never that effective with it. It’s been over ten years since I’ve used double bass drums.
SA: When listening to other drummers either in a live situation or on record, what do you listen for?
KK: I listen to how busy he is. I like to hear a fat backbeat. At least, that’s what I try to do. I don’t succeed all the time, but I listen for a nice solid, steady-as-a rock backbeat.
SA: Chet?
CM: I listen for a lot of things. I listen for their particular style. I listen for their sound. I listen for technique, not necessarily the way they express themselves, but just how they move around on their drums. Technical things. But, then the frosting on the cake for me is what they say. I could listen to the most technically schooled drummer, but if he doesn’t say anything to me, I stop listening.
A good example of a drummer that I like to hear express himself is Steve Gadd. He’s fortunate because he’s got the technical stuff down as well as the emotion. He knows how to say things with his drums rather than just do a perfect set of paradiddles across the toms. Basically, I just like to hear somebody say something, rather than just keep good time and not rush or not slow down and play a dynamite fill.
SA: There are a lot of players who are technically brilliant, but don’t seem to have much more to offer.
CM: I run into that problem a lot. The band will have a spot where I’m supposed to play a drum fill for two bars or something. Many times, especially in the studio, I find that the simplest thing says the most. I like to hear that from other drummers and bring that out myself too.
SA: Keith, what is your philosophy as far as playing style? How do you like to play in the band?
KK: I’m pretty basic. There are very few fills on our albums, if you’ll notice. Let the drums keep the rhythm pattern happening and let the guitars and the chordal instruments fill the holes. I like the real basic backbeat: snare drum, bass drum, hi-hat. I like that with maybe an occasional tom tom fill here and there
SA: Do you work out your fills, say at times you might trade off and at other times you both do the same fill at the same time?
KK: Oh, yeah. We have fills that we do at the same time. Sometimes they’re exactly the same. Sometimes they’re different, but they’re designed to fit together. Then there are spots where each of us plays where the one guy rides and the other guy does the fill. That’s just basically it.
SA: What advice would you give to young drummers looking to make a career of it?
KK: Good luck. No. Practice. I know many great part-time drummers. They’re working Holiday Inns and some of them don’t even work at all. I have a friend who does casual gigs, but he’s a great drummer. He manages a hotel. Then there are people who are terrible who are making millions. I’m probably one of them. No, I’m not making millions. I don’t consider myself a terrible drummer, but certainly there are a lot of excellent drummers. It holds true for almost anything: bands, keyboard players, guitar players. A lot of excellent musicians will never hit the big time, as they say.
SA: A lot of young drummers just go out and start playing without taking the time to learn anything about their instrument or how to play it. Do you think it’s important for people learning the instrument to learn the rudiments?
KK: Sure. It helps. I started out doing it. I would say so. Get the fundamentals as in football or baseball. That helps a person develop some kind of style of their own. I took a few lessons but I practiced on chairs to records in my bedroom. As a kid, I copped styles and licks from other drummers and then eventually just evolved into my own style.
SA: Chet, what advice would you pass on to aspiring drummers’?
CM: Keith’s answer was very good when he wished a lot of luck, but I think there’s a little more. Definitely luck is involved as far as becoming successful in the music business in terms of the Doobie Brothers. That type of success involves luck. I did a little bit of teaching the last couple of years, and I see students and I can tell by the look in their eyes. I can see kids who are just incensed with being a drummer. They can’t think of anything else, and that’s what it takes. It takes an incredible amount of dedication and you have to know inside you that no matter what happens, you’re going to keep going. Then you need the luck, but you just need an overwhelming amount of determination, an abnormal amount of determination, I think, in today’s music business. Then you just need to practice everyday. Keep practicing and don’t give up, that’s what I tell them. If you ever have any doubts about what you really want to do, sit down and figure it out before you go any further. Have a good talk with yourself. Make sure what you want to do.
SA: Did you enjoy teaching?
CM: I enjoy teaching only in certain situations. I don’t have time to make a kid learn how to play. I want a kid to come to me who is just dying to show me other ways to play paradiddles. That’s when I enjoy teaching. If a kid comes to me and says he wants to take lessons. I try to discourage him. mainly to find out how serious he is. I had one kid chase me for a week to give him lessons and I sat down and said to myself one day, ‘This kid really wants somebody to teach him. He must want to play.’ As it turns out, this kid is great. He’s going to be a really good drummer.
SA: Do you take beginners or students who are further along?
CM: I usually only take kids who have a little experience. Basically, I’m not a teacher. When I do it, I’m a very good teacher, but I ‘m just not into putting my head into that space.
SA: I can imagine that’s difficult what with students who don’t want to practice, etc.
CM: It’s very exhausting. If you give a kid an hour drum lesson, I feel like I’ve just come out of a three hour recording session. I like to see a kid come to my house with eyes this big, just ready to play. They are easy to teach.
SA: Keith, what are your personal future plans?
KK: I started a production company and currently I’m producing Alex Call. I want to keep playing, but I want to produce records. I don’t write, so producing gives me a chance to get that other side out.
SA: What about you, Chet? Do you plan to continue doing sessions?
CM: Yes, I’m in love with working in the studio. That really gets me off. It’s such an instant return of emotions and feelings because you can just play that tape back. It gives you immediate gratification or immediate depression, one of the two.
My plans are to continue my career as a studio drummer and stay in the Doobies as long as they want me and as long as I want to be there. I’m also put ting together my own album project. I want to do my own album, be a solo artist eventually. I think the Doobies came along at a great time to help me do that because that’s what I wanted to do be fore I joined the band. That’ll probably just make it that much easier for me to do.
SA: What kind of music will your album consist of?
CM: It’ll be very drum oriented. I want to cut hit records, but I would say some jazz/rock and some commercial.
SA: Do you write music?
CM: Yes. That’s why I picked up the vibes. My mom was, and still is, a piano teacher and I grew up with her understanding of keyboards. I would never practice long enough to really make my fingers move, but I knew that I could write. I knew I wanted to write. I knew I had it inside of me, so I got the vibes be cause they are a little closer to the drums. It’s easier for me to cue stuff out of my brain onto the keyboards through my wrists instead of my fingers.