Photo by Paul La Raia

Vinnie Paul

Remembering the metal drumming icon, Pantera cofounder, and backbone of Hellyeah and Damageplan.

Vinnie Paul, who died this past June 22 at the age of fifty-four, possessed an unmistakable bass drum sound. But you never just heard Paul’s kick drum on a Pantera, Hellyeah, or Damageplan record—you felt it.

Whether he was engaging both feet to fire off rapid 16th notes or a complex pattern, or if he was simply laying down gargantuan quarter notes with his right foot, Paul’s kick sound was unmistakable—a clipping thud that packed so much attack it felt like his pedal’s beater was striking you square in the diaphragm.

Paul’s distinct sound should come as no surprise. The drummer, born Vincent Paul Abbott, took an active role in the production, mixing, and engineering of the classic metal records he made with Pantera and his subsequent bands Damageplan and Hellyeah. His inspiration to get involved in the nuts and bolts of recording was twofold. After hating the way his kit sounded on some of Pantera’s earliest sessions, Paul learned the studio craft so that he could take sonic matters into his own hands.

The recording bug was also in his blood; he caught it from his dad, a musician who owned a studio and had an inkling to steer his son away from the tuba and toward the tubs during his early years. “[My dad] said, ‘You’re never going to make a penny in this world playing a tuba,’” Paul told Modern Drummer in his August 1994 cover story. “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.”

With Paul on drums, and his brother Darrell Abbott (“Dimebag” Darrell) on guitar, Pantera ascended from the metal underground to crash into the mainstream in the ’90s with an unrelenting, grinding sound that drew from thrash, hardcore, hard rock, and heavy metal. They toured nonstop and released three classic metal albums in a four-year span: 1990’s Cowboys from Hell, 1992’s Vulgar Display of Power, and 1994’s Far Beyond Driven, which cemented the group’s rep among fans as masters of metal.

Pantera were outliers amid metal’s new breed, though. They checked all of the genre’s boxes: they were loud and heavy, singer Phil Anselmo was a screamer, and Paul could shred and play calf-burning double bass with the best of them, putting on a clinic in songs like “Primal Concrete Sledge” (Cowboys from Hell) and “Hellbound” (Reinventing the Steel). But he was a pocket player at heart, and his massive feel instilled in Pantera a sense of groove
and power that few of the band’s contemporaries possessed. It seemed like the slower the tempo and the simpler and further behind the beat Paul played, the more powerful and machine-like Pantera sounded.

“We want everything we do to have all three cylinders—bass, drums, guitar—to be punching together,” Paul told MD in that 1994 interview. “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…. 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.”

When that unit splintered in the early 2000s, Paul and his brother formed Damageplan, and the group went back to square one by touring clubs to establish their new project. Tragically, the bond the Abbott brothers shared was shattered in December 2004 when Dimebag was shot to death onstage by a deranged fan during a show in Columbus, Ohio.

In the ensuing years, Paul resisted the urge and lucrative offers to reform Pantera—often saying his late brother was Pantera—and the drummer instead focused his energies on a variety of projects, including Hellyeah, and released an album he and his brother had recorded with outlaw country legend David Allan Coe titled Rebel Meets Rebel. Outside of music, Paul was also a successful businessman as the co-owner of an adult nightclub and a sports bar.

In a more unofficial capacity, Paul served as a mentor to many rock musicians—and in particular drummers—hundreds of whom took to social media recently to pay tribute to him after he died from complications of dilated cardiomyopathy and coronary artery disease. And given Paul’s rep as a hard-partying, good-time guy, Mike Portnoy tried to find solace in his friend’s passing. “Heaven just got a little crazier with the Abbott brothers back together again,” Portnoy said in a statement. Indeed it did.

Patrick Berkery

Dominic Joseph “D.J.” Fontana

The sticksman accompanied Elvis Presley on his rise to the top.

In the 1950s, there weren’t many ways for drummers to prepare for backing up a performer such as Elvis Presley, a singer with a magnetic stage presence and a suggestive hip-swivel the likes of which the world—and especially television censors—had never seen.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, a sixteen-year-old from Shreveport, Louisiana, named Dominic Joseph Fontana was already honing his chops for the Presley gig while playing in a local strip club. Delivering carefully timed “ba-booms” and crashes behind the dancers would serve him well several years later when he had to follow Elvis’s every move for cues while performing for thousands in concert and millions on television.

Fontana recalled how his club days prepared him for working with Elvis in Max Weinberg’s 1984 book, The Big Beat, explaining that he had to “play with the crashes and the bumps and grinds…. You had to catch everything, or [the dancers] would get mad at you,” the drummer said. “I guess that’s where I learned it. With Elvis, there was no definite pattern to play. A lot of the things I played came about because he’d jump around and cue with his hands or kick his legs. If he’d want a ‘boom’ accent on the bass drum, he’d let you know where he wanted it.”

Fontana, who died this past June 13 at the age of eighty-seven, was more than just an onstage foil for Presley. He helped turn the King’s blend of country, blues, and pop into rock ’n’ roll with swinging grooves that are as slamming and vibrant today as they were when they were cut sixty years ago. Fontana’s dynamic shuffling on “I Got a Woman” and the rattling snare licks he uses to kick off the jump blues of “My Baby Left Me” would sound right at home on the latest records from roots revivalists like Jack White or Dan Auerbach, or from something recent by Bob Dylan, who caught the rock ’n’ roll bug as a teen after hearing the sides Presley cut with Fontana.

D. J. anchored the band Elvis used while recording for RCA Records in the late ’50s and early ’60s—a period many consider to be Presley’s golden age. With guitarist Scotty Moore’s feisty twang and the rhythmic slap of Bill Black’s upright bass being driven by Fontana’s powerful backbeat on iconic songs like “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “All Shook Up,” that unit would influence how countless rock combos subsequently approached their craft.

Fontana was the “new guy” in Presley’s group, signing on after the drummer-less trio of Elvis, Moore, and Black was hired for several appearances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, where D. J. served as the house drummer. For a time, he was the highest-paid member of the group, pulling down $100 a week, a nice bump over his $15-per-night wage on Hayride. Fontana would remain with Elvis until the late ’60s, appearing in Singer Presents…Elvis [commonly referred to as the ’68 Comeback Special] on NBC, where he famously played the back of a guitar case with a stick and a brush.

Fontana also appeared in many of the movies Elvis made during the ’60s, a part of the gig the drummer wasn’t terribly fond of. “It began to be a job,” D. J. told Modern Drummer in a 1985 feature. “It was, ‘Get up at 5 in the morning, go through the gate at 7, do makeup, put on uniforms or whatever, stand around until noon, take an hour lunch break, stand around until 4:30, film thirty seconds, and go home.’ That was every day. But you had to be there, and that got old. We’d have to be gone eight, ten, or fifteen weeks at a time. We finally told Elvis that we would just come out and do the tracks. ‘You’re the actor; we’re not actors. We’re uncomfortable. Let us go home.’ He said, ‘Fine, as long as you guys come out and do the tracks, I’m happy.’”

After leaving Presley’s band in the late ’60s, Fontana played on a number of sessions, including recordings with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, while performing at many Elvis-related events and on tribute records like 1997’s All the King’s Men. Though Fontana kept busy, he said to MD in 1985 that everything “was kind of downhill” after playing with one of the most influential singers of all time. “We had fun—the people, and the sessions. It all kind of ties in together and flows after a while. There are no highlights, because everything was a highlight with Elvis.”

Patrick Berkery

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Photo by Rachel Demy

Richard Swift

A multifaceted solo talent, gone too soon.

Given his singer, songwriter, producer, engineer, and multi-instrumentalist skillset, it’s no wonder that Richard Swift, who passed away on July 3 at the age of forty-one due to complications from alcohol addiction, played the drums like someone with a keen understanding of how each piece of a musical puzzle should fit. You can hear his approach throughout his handful of mostly one-man-band solo efforts—in the way he subdivides the 6/8 feel of “Already Gone” from 2009’s The Atlantic Ocean, for instance, or how he sinks into the sweet McCartney-like groove of “The Songs of National Freedom” from 2007’s Dressed Up for the Letdown.

Richard Swift’s final album, The Hex, was released posthumously on September 21 in digital formats and will be available physically on December 14.

There’s also his kit work on the Pretenders’ 2016 album, Alone. Standing in for the legendary Martin Chambers is no small feat, but Swift proved a more than capable sub, with a feel that swings, fills that play like hooks, and a sublime drum sound.

Drumming is one of many things that Swift did extremely well. As a touring bassist with the Black Keys and a keyboardist with the Shins, Swift helped those bands up their sonic game as they matriculated to bigger stages. In the studio, Swift served as a producer, engineer, and/or multi-instrumentalist on dozens of records by artists including Dan Auerbach, the Arcs, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Ray LaMontagne, Guster, Marco Benevento, and Foxygen.

Swift leaves behind a body of work as a solo artist, producer/engineer, and drummer that will serve as an inspiration to musicians for decades to come.

Patrick Berkery