Sure, he can floor you with chops. And his lightning-fast ability to understand and play exactly what the song needs is legendary. But it’s his heart and soul that always seal the deal.
It’s no secret that the music industry has changed immensely over the past several years. The reality that full-time musicians face now is tighter budgets, less work, and a market saturated with players. Despite this, there is still a select group of people who have persevered through the changes and remain the most sought-after players around. Among this group of seasoned veterans is Gregg Bissonette.
You’ve been hearing Bissonette’s work for years, whether you know it or not. TV shows like Friends, Mad About You, and King of the Hill, and feature films including The Muppets, Superbad, The Devil Wears Prada, and The Bucket List—Gregg’s musical fingerprint is there. The depth of his catalog and experience, combined with his passion for educating drummers all over the world, makes him an invaluable resource for the drumming community. In fact, Bissonette is as skilled at sharing his knowledge and wisdom as he is at playing drums, a fact born out by his regular appearances on the international clinic stage and on DrumChannel.com.
Bissonette got his start as a pro in the early ’80s with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s band—though he might argue that his introduction to the drumming world really came when he was in fifth grade, subbing in his father’s jazz group. After establishing his rock credentials in the mid-’80s with former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, with whom he recorded and toured for years, Bissonette became an L.A. ringer, playing with greats like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, David Garfield, Andy Summers, and Steve Lukather. He can even be heard on Robert Downey Jr.’s 2004 solo album, The Futurist.
In 2000, Bissonette hit a career high when he won a Best Pop Instrumental Grammy for his work on Santana’s Supernatural album. Since then he’s remained consistently busy, including more than six years of touring with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. And late last year he released his third solo album, Warning Will Robinson! Besides serving as a powerful document of Bissonette’s multifaceted musical vision, it’s a practical extension of his passion for education, employing a play-along disc featuring a mix with the drums removed.
When Modern Drummer asked Ringo what it’s like to have Bissonette in his band, the former Beatle replied, “As I say on stage at every show when I introduce him: ‘Gregg Bissonette, holding us all together.’” It’s a theme that, one way or another, has accompanied Bissonette throughout his career.
MD: You’ve thrived as a touring and recording drummer for more than thirty years. What do you attribute your longevity to, and what advice would you give an aspiring drummer in terms of what it takes to succeed in this industry?
Gregg: It’s a whole different time from when I first started playing. When I was at the University of North Texas, I played gigs that were five or six nights a week. There aren’t too many gigs like that anymore. That’s how I learned to transcribe. When I do clinics or camps for college-age drummers today, if they can play any drum lick I show them, I say, “Here’s a Sharpie. You get two or three times to listen to a track, and you have to know exactly what the drum loop is playing. You have to know where the fills are and whether you’re playing a hi-hat that’s slightly open, crashing on a ride, or riding on a crash. You have to be able to exactly replace the fake drums with your real ones.”
That’s what I learned to do by playing five or six nights a week in Texas. I was playing in R&B, country, and rock bands in Dallas, and I put myself through school by playing at night. But for me to give advice for people to do the same thing now is not realistic. New drummers don’t have as many opportunities to play fi ve or six nights a week to cut their teeth.
MD: What challenges do you face today?
Gregg: One of the big challenges for me right now is super-fast speed-metal double bass. I’ve done a few sessions where they show me the chart and tempo, and it’s like this [mimics the sound of blistering double bass]. I’ll have no idea if I can even play it. So first I pray, and then I remember that I have my pals Thomas Lang and Virgil Donati on speed dial. [laughs] I don’t have their feet, but I’m working on it.
If you’re willing to work on your weaknesses, then you can be in a constant state of growth as a drummer. Try to embrace and appreciate all styles of music. A lot of people say that they just want to play one genre of music for a living, but all you’re doing is limiting yourself. It’s already really hard to make a living as a drummer in 2014, and the last thing you need to do is decrease your opportunities to work.
It’s also really important to remember that this is a people business. If you’re somebody that has an ego or that brings everyone down around you, nobody is going to want you in their band. You can be the most incredible drummer on the planet, but if you can’t sit on the tour bus for hours on end with a bunch of other people and lift them up, you’re not going to get the gig. Abe Laboriel Jr. is one of the best examples of this in the industry. Not only can he play and groove like a monster—he lifts people up and makes them feel good about themselves.
MD: What was your musical upbringing?
Gregg: I grew up in a super-musical family in Detroit. My dad was a drummer. My mother was a vibes player in his band. My brother, Matt, who now plays with Elton John, is a bass player. And my sister, Kathy, plays violin.
I started playing in my dad’s band at a very young age. He thought that the Buddy Bissonette Band was too long of a name, so he called it the Buddy Blair Band. I would sit in with his band from about the fifth grade on. My brother would play too, and it was just a really great experience growing up. Eventually my brother and I started a band called Grand Circus Park. We played Chicago tunes mostly, but we also played music by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith and R&B dance songs.
After I graduated high school I made one of the biggest decisions of my life, to leave Detroit. I remember being eighteen years old and driving my red Starsky and Hutch 1972 Grand Torino with a white stripe and chrome mags all the way to the University of North Texas; it was called North Texas State back then. There were well over a hundred drumset players there, and you just learned so much from the teachers and all the other students. Sitting in practice rooms and sharing ideas with tons of other drummers was just incredible. Also, playing in the One O’Clock Lab Band at North Texas really helped prepare me for my career after school. I played in the Buster Brown Band in Dallas, and we did originals and tunes by Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire, and all kinds of soul music.
MD: What led you to move to L.A.?
Gregg: One time we did a gig with a band that Alex Acuña was in, and I was telling him that I felt kind of stuck with my playing and that I really wanted to grow more musically. Alex told me, “If you really want to grow musically, move out to L.A., and three nights a week go hear my favorite drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, play at the Flying Jib.” So I quit my band, moved out to L.A., and fell in love with Vinnie’s playing and so many other drummers in the area, like Jeff Porcaro and Carlos Vega. Right after I moved to L.A. my brother was playing bass for the Maynard Ferguson band, and he got me the job playing drums. It was my first touring band. We went all over the world and did a cool live album called Live From San Francisco.
After I played with the Maynard Ferguson band, David Lee Roth left Van Halen and started his own group, and by the grace of God I got that gig. In the beginning it was Steve Vai on guitar and Billy Sheehan on bass. Billy eventually left, and my brother came on board to play bass. I ended up recording and touring for seven years with Dave, and it was just a blast. After that my brother and I went on to play with Joe Satriani for a while, and I also got to fill in for Simon Phillips and go on tour with Toto. A fun career moment for me after that was the time that I got booked to play an Andrea Bocelli concert in Tuscany one night and then play with Spinal Tap in front of 80,000 people the next day at Live Earth.
One of the coolest sessions I’ve ever done was getting to play a song with Santana on Supernatural. The album went fifteen times platinum in the U.S. and won nine Grammy awards, including Best Pop Instrumental for the track I played on, “El Farol.” Vinnie Colaiuta was originally asked to play, but he wasn’t available, and I was honored that he recommended me for the gig. Every time I see Vinnie I thank him for recommending me for that fun two-day session. [laughs]
MD: When did you begin working with Ringo?
Gregg: I got the call to work with his band Ringo and the Roundheads in 2003. We promoted his album on late-night television and on talk shows, and we ended up filming a live DVD as well. Then in 2008 I got the call from Ringo to be in his All-Starr Band. Since then I’ve had the most amazing gig I’ve ever had, playing double drums beside my favorite drummer in the world.
MD: What’s one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had with Ringo?
Gregg: One of my favorite Ringo moments was when Paul McCartney came out to our show at Radio City Music Hall and we surprised Ringo for his seventieth birthday by having Paul come on stage and play “Birthday” by the Beatles. I was crying tears of joy while we were playing, and thanking God for that moment. Paul came and rehearsed with us during a secret soundcheck that day, and Ringo had no idea that it was going to happen. For me to look over and be double drumming with Ringo five feet to my right and Paul up front—the two remaining Beatles—was an unreal experience.
MD: You recently began endorsing Dixon drums and hardware. Why the change?
Gregg: Well, I’m a huge fan of great-sounding maple drums, and I discovered that Dixon makes just that, great-sounding maple drums. Also, Dixon is a company that supports my dream to educate drummers all over the world. I’ve got several Dixon kits from the Artisan series here in L.A. and on tour with Ringo. I’ve got an Ultra Maple kit that I keep at a local studio, then I have a Maple/Bubinga kit at the DrumChannel.com facilities that I use for my online drum school. And last but not least, I have a prototype kit that I use on tour with Ringo. I’m also heading over to the factory soon to work with the Dixon team to develop my own signature drums.
I’ve always had a love for drum gear. With Dixon I have the rare opportunity to be fully engaged not just as an artist but also as a member of the development team. I really believe in what they’re doing, and I’m excited to represent Dixon’s full line of drums and hardware.
MD: We recently went back and watched some footage from your performance with the Buddy Rich Big Band. Your drum solo on “Time Check” had elements of jazz, fusion, rock, and metal. What influenced you over the years to become such an eclectic player?
Gregg: It all started when I was about twelve years old. I was practicing drums in my basement, and my uncle Larry was over. He came downstairs and listened to me play what was probably a fifteen-minute solo. Now, he wasn’t a musician at all. He was an electrician in the air force and also worked on computers. I thought he was going to compliment me and say I was so great for a twelve-year-old, but instead his comment afterwards was something that I have thought about every time I’ve sat down to play a solo since then. He clapped and then said, “That was great, and I really liked it. But you know what would be really interesting for me?” “What, Uncle Larry?” “Well, it would be really interesting for me if you changed it up and played different kinds of beats. Or if you just took it to different places. You know, there are lots of different kinds of music. What if you just switched gears from one to the other sometimes?”
I thought that was a great suggestion, and from that day on I got really big into learning different styles and studying guys like Buddy Rich, Danny Seraphine from Chicago, Ringo, Bobby Colomby from Blood, Sweat, and Tears…. I also studied guys like Bill Bruford from Yes, especially albums like Fragile. And when Billy Cobham hit the scene, my mouth was on the floor.
Then another heavy hitter came on the scene in the mid-’70s and turned everything upside down for all of us. He sounded kind of like my heroes David Garibaldi and Billy Cobham, but also kind of like another hero, Tony Williams. He could play funky, and he totally rewrote the book on soloing. It was Steve Gadd. He was one of those guys that changed the way people played drums. There have been several people who really changed the way people play—John Bonham, Ringo, Tony Williams, Terry Bozzio, Stewart Copeland, Elvin Jones, Billy Cobham, Vinnie Colaiuta….
MD: You studied for a while with Tony Williams, correct?
Gregg: I got to study with him for a year before he passed away. I saw a dinky little ad in the back of Bay Area Music magazine that said, “Tony Williams, now accepting a limited number of students.” I immediately called and left a message, and the next day I came home and had a message on my answering machine that said, “Hey, Gregg, this is Tony Williams. I’m all filled up with my quota for students, but my wife said you were a good guy because she knows a friend of yours, Mark Craney. He told her what a good guy you were, so I thought I’d make a spot for you.” Mark Craney was a great friend; we used to play in the Woodland Hills Drum Club together, along with our amazing pals Myron Grombacher, Doane Perry, Steve Smith, and many others.
So every two weeks I would fly from L.A. to San Francisco and study with Tony. One time I’d been working on an album for Joe Satriani in that area, so I had a few drumkits close by. I kept bugging him and saying, “Man, can we play double drums sometime?” He finally gave in and said, “Go get your kit.” So he went inside and smoked a cigar while I set up my drums. Then we played together for over an hour, and afterwards he said, “Man, that was fun. I haven’t played double drums since the ’60s, when I played with Max Roach.” I almost fell on the floor! Getting to sit with him and ask him questions, it was just so cool.
MD: In a broad sense, how have all these great players influenced you?
Gregg: To me, one word that sums it all up is vocabulary. If you’re talking about grooving, fills, or soloing, it’s all about having a vocabulary.
MD: Can you elaborate on that?
Gregg: If you only have ten words in your vocabulary and you’re trying to give a speech, it’s going to be pretty hard. But we as drummers have thousands of “words” at our disposal. We have thousands of grooves, fills, styles, and ideas that we can add to our drumming vocabulary.
I remember one of the first times I gave a clinic. It was at PASIC in 1986. A bunch of drummers came pouring into the room, and I was freaking out, thinking, What am I going to play? So I got a piece of paper and wrote down a bunch of different styles of music that I knew how to play. Then as soon as I started running out of ideas during my solo I would look over at my sheet of paper and think, Oh, samba! And then I’d transition into a samba groove. Then I’d look over again and see “reggae” or “fast bebop,” or any number of grooves that I knew. It was a really big help.
MD: Today when you’re in the studio playing with an artist for the first time, what kinds of cues are you looking for to help you craft your drum parts?
Gregg: Well, you have to remember that sometimes new artists have been saving up for a year just to have enough money to hire musicians for their project. That’s a lot of work, and that’s a lot of money. By the time they see me they’ve probably already got what I call “plastic drums,” which is an artificial drum track. That’s there to show you what the artist was thinking when they wrote the song. A lot of drummers don’t realize that a songwriter’s demo is really special to them. They’ve lived with it, and there is such a thing as demo love. Even though they want to replace the plastic drums with you, they’re still used to what they’ve had.
Now, I say all that to emphasize that the first thing I do is take a black Sharpie and transcribe what the plastic drums are doing in the demo. Then I’ll go and play that, with a human feel, for my first take. Afterwards I’ll sit with the artist and listen through that first take. Naturally they’ll begin to say things like, “Feel free to add a little something here” or any number of suggestions, like going to the bell of the cymbal on a certain part, putting my own fills in on certain parts, etc.
So with a different color Sharpie I’ll add notes to my transcription from that conversation with the artist, and that will be my second take. Then for my third take I always go in and do a “wild take.” What I mean by that is not going wild behind the drums, but simply playing more off -the-cuff fills and grooves. You may even change the feel of the song entirely. The point of all three takes is that it gives the artist and the producer three takes to chop up and use what they want. It’s also important to remember to respect the song and respect the artist. It’s really an honor every time someone asks you to play on their project.
MD: Do you react or respond to some instruments more than others?
Gregg: Yes! Bass guitar, without a doubt. My foot and the bass player’s fingers are my top priority, always. And it doesn’t hurt that I grew up with my favorite bass player—my brother, Matt. After that it really depends on the style of music. For rock, funk, and any kind of heavy music, I listen in to the electric guitar a lot too. And for Latin and jazz stuff I’m listening in to the piano.
Ever since I started playing with Ringo, though, I’ve been listening in to the lyrics and vocals more, and now I always ask for a lyric sheet. I used to turn vocalists down a lot in my headphone mix. Sometimes they’d be on top of the beat or behind the beat, and I just thought it would be better to have the click, bass, guitar, and piano in my mix instead. But now more than ever I’m listening to the phrasing of the vocalists.
Ringo taught me something. He said, “When John, Paul, or George was singing a part, I never wanted to get in the way of the vocals. Their vocals and the melody are what the song is about, and if you’re playing over that, you’re doing the song a disservice.”
MD: What else have you learned from Ringo over the years?
Gregg: Ringo has taught me so much about drumming. He taught me that fills should help the band transition from one section to another. You can communicate so much with your fills. No one has as much control as the drummer does over the dynamics, tempo, and groove of a song. Without anyone even knowing, you can bring the band up and bring them back down. That’s why lyric sheets are crucial when you’re playing, so you know what to play and when to play it.
MD: In addition to touring and recording, you’ve been an active educator for years. What kinds of projects are you currently involved with?
Gregg: I’ve got a couple big things going on right now. The first is my drum school on DrumChannel.com. It’s all about playing musically, building vocabulary, and playing all styles of music. We work on beats, fills, soloing, and grooving in every style, from blues to funk to big band to rock to jazz…. I’m also doing clinics all over the world. Dixon and a lot of my cosponsors, like Zildjian, Remo, Vic Firth, DW pedals, Latin Percussion, and Gator Cases, sponsor me to go all over the world to do clinics. I’m actually getting ready to start an Asian clinic tour in a couple weeks, and then I have a U.S. clinic tour planned for later in the year.
In my clinics, one of the main themes that I try to communicate is that if you want to make a living playing drums, you need to be stylistically diverse, and you need to have the biggest vocabulary possible. Another theme I try to get across is the personal side of the business. To me, all clinics should have a few important elements. The first is great playing demonstrations, so that people can hear how drums and song drumming should sound. The second thing is talking, both in terms of the clinician educating people about what they do and the audience being allowed to ask anything they want. The last thing is that clinics are a time when I can explain why I play the gear that I play. It’s a chance to show people that these are really great products and to give them an in-depth look at why I chose them.
MD: Another side of your career is doing voiceovers. It’s been said that when we hear the voice of Winnie the Pooh in films today, we’re in fact listening to Gregg Bissonette. Is there any truth to this?
Gregg: Yeah, man! It started back in the early 2000s. I was playing a version of “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” with my brother for a remake of Finding Nemo for some other countries. The chart we had really wasn’t working, so I yelled to my brother in the bass booth, loud enough that the room mics picked me up, “Hey, Matt, that letter B doesn’t have a DS sign, and where’s the coda? I don’t see a coda!” All of a sudden from the talk-back mic I hear, “Gregg, come to the control room, please.”
I remember thinking, Why do they want me in the control room—are they going to bust my chops for not finding the DS sign? I’ll bring my chart! When I walked in, though, Rick Dempsey, the senior vice president of character voices for Disney, introduced himself and said, “I overheard you from the control room, and you’ve got that rasp in your voice that’s kind of rare. It reminds me of Sterling Holloway, who did the original voice of Winnie the Pooh.” He continued to tell me how Jim Cummings, who’s also a drummer, had been doing the voice for Winnie the Pooh ever since Sterling passed away, but that they needed a sub for when Jim wasn’t available. I learned that the voiceover AFTRA scale was actually about seven times more than the AFM musicians union scale. Count me in!
MD: So how did you approach it?
Gregg: I worked really hard to get as close as I could to the original voice of Winnie the Pooh. It was a lot like transcribing drums. I would watch DVDs and write out the words, and then I’d write out accents and dynamics by each word to help me get the phrasing just right. I worked for months and months on it. My kids helped me a lot. I remember finally going in and doing a reading, and Rick brought a lot of people from Disney in. They gave me a few things to work on and told me to come back. The next thing I knew I was subbing for Jim Cummings.
I would do a lot of [voiceovers for] toys, laptops, and video games. Then eventually through that I started working with a voiceover agency called CESD Talent Agency. Through them I’ve had lots of cool guest experiences too. One time I got to do a voiceover with a group of people for The Simpsons. Another time I got to do a voiceover for Mad TV that was a spoof of Finding Nemo and the movie Taken, with Liam Neeson. It was called Taking Nemo, and I played the role of Nemo’s dad, the clown fish.
MD: In the midst of looking for Nemo, you released your solo album Warning Will Robinson!
Gregg: That was my brother’s idea. He said, “I’ll be the label, fund the album, write all the songs, engineer it, produce it, play bass, and sing background vocals, and you can play drums and sing lead vocals.” Then we got a couple of friends of ours from our old band the Mustard Seeds, Doug Bossi and George Bernhardt, on guitar, along with some other great musicians. We wanted a kind of tuned-down, heavy Beatles vibe with a mixture of Skrillex-type dubstep, and of course drum solos on every song. It’s a double album; the first disc is the record, and the second has all the songs with the drums removed so that you can be the drummer.
MD: Looking back at your career, are there any consistent obstacles that you’ve faced?
Gregg: Well, first I’d like to say that the biggest blessing of my life is being a father to my two amazing children, Noah and Mary, sixteen and thirteen, who are both really good drummers. The joy I get from them can get me through any of life’s obstacles.
I think the most difficult goals are trying to always groove, pick the right tempo for every song, and keep the tempo steady. It sounds easy, but it is not. I remember Jeff Porcaro telling me once that he was always working on his time—and he had the best time ever!
A lot of young drummers will sit in with more experienced players and throw in all their college chops and get nothing but dirty looks from the other players. Musical taste is so important.
Remember that anyone can work on their double paradiddles at warp speed. Get out of your practice room and play with other musicians. Play in a band. Make people dance! Without playing with other musicians, it’s hard to really know what kind of musical challenges you will face.
Gregg’s Ringo Tour Setup
Drums: Dixon Artisan Ultra Maple in sea foam green lacquer sparkle, featuring 4-ply, 4 mm North American maple shells and 2.3 mm triple-flange hoops
A. 6.5×14 snare
B. 10×12 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 18×24 bass drum
1. 14″ A Mastersound hi-hats
2. 18″ K Medium Dark crash
3. 21″ A Sweet ride
4. 18″ A Medium crash
Hardware: Dixon K series stands and throne, DW Gregg Bissonette signature Tambourine Pedal and 5002 series double pedal
Sticks: Vic Firth Gregg Bissonette signature Backbeat model
Heads: Remo, including Coated Ambassador snare batter with white coated dot, Coated Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
Percussion: LP Salsa Bell, DW 5002 pedal connected to LP Gajate Bracket holding LP Rock Ridge Rider cowbell, and LP 14″ and 15″ Tito Puente timbales
Accessories: LT Lug Locks on snare, Gregg Bissonette signature Seat Stick Bag, Gator cases
Drum tech: Jeff Chonis
The Beatles Help (Ringo Starr) /// Buddy Rich Big Band Big Swing Face (Buddy Rich) /// Chicago V (Danny Seraphine) /// Billy Cobham Spectrum (Billy Cobham) /// Miles Davis Four & More (Tony Williams) /// Chick Corea Friends (Steve Gadd) /// The Police Zenyattà Mondatta (Stewart Copeland) /// Gino Vannelli Brother to Brother (Mark Craney)
Gregg Bissonette Warning Will Robinson!, Submarine, Gregg Bissonette /// Maynard Ferguson Live From San Francisco /// David Lee Roth Eat ’Em and Smile /// Andy Summers The Last Dance of Mr. X /// Electric Light Orchestra Zoom Tour Live (DVD) /// Ringo Starr Live at Soundstage