Whether listening to Jeff Porcaro on vinyl or watching him in the studio or on a live gig, a multitude of adjectives come to mind. First and foremost is finesse: an artful delicacy of performance, a tastefulness and subtlety. And then there’s his impeccable time, which he is quick to dispute with a ludicrous utterance such as “My time sucks,” however spoken in earnest. “Jim Gordon, Bernard Purdie, and Jim Keltner all have unbelievable time.”
He is serious about even the most simplistic of studio gigs and conscientious and concerned about the outcome, always. He totally immerses himself in the music and his definition of a good track is the coming together of the tune where his part must be totally complementary.
“Nothing has been too ridiculous a demand, except for hours spent on mediocrity. That’s ridiculous. When something is ass backwards, everybody knows it, and yet somebody keeps you there, working for endless hours, and it’s not happening. There are times when you have to record six tunes in three hours and do it perfect, or there are times when you only have one tune to do and you have all day to do it and it’s a big party. It depends on who the artist is. But the ultimate is that you’ve got to leave there knowing you’ve done your best. There’s not one record that I can listen to all the way through that I’ve done without getting bugged at how I played. That’s going to be there forever. Sometimes I’m unhappy about time, feel—certain things bug me; just things I’ve let bug me. In all honesty, I would have to say the Steely Dan tracks I’ve done are the most challenging as far as perfection goes, so I would say they’re my personal favorite performances.”
Jeff has played a varied spectrum, from Steely Dan to Barbra Streisand, and he is one of the integral forces of Toto. But then, according to Jeff, there have been an awful lot of non-successes in his book. So why do people hire Jeff Porcaro?
“If I asked myself that question, I’d be staring at the walls, all nervous and freaked out right now because I’ve tried to figure that out before,” he laughs. “Seriously, if I looked at it seriously, half of it would be political reasons, a la, a name. No matter how ridiculous that sounds, I have definitely been hired by people who could have hired somebody else who would have done a lot better job, been more right for the music, and who maybe was starving a little more to do a better job. But they hired me because I’ve done other records. It’s prestigious to have a name player on your first album, or something like that. That’s one way of looking at it and that’s real honest. In some instances, I know that for a fact, and I guess the others, well, maybe they just dig the way I play,” he laughs.
It should be apparent by now that the adjective “perfectionist” cannot be overlooked, and when it is suggested that we are our own worst critics, he responds, “No, because I’m not. I hate most of what I’ve done, seriously. I say this to people sometimes and nobody takes me seriously, but I enjoy listening and being a critic more than I do playing. As far as myself, I’ll be the first to say if I did something cool. I have done a couple of cool things. I think most of the stuff I’ve done with Steely has been cool. I have no regrets about any of that stuff. That, and the stuff with Boz Scaggs, but see, now here’s the thing: I listen to ‘Silk Degrees’ and I cringe, and anybody would if I pointed out one particular thing. As soon as people said, ‘Oh yeah,’ they would start hearing that thing all over the place and it would start bugging them too. But it was good for its time,” he concedes.
Adjectives “quiet” and “shy” are accurate and “modest” is an understatement, yet, Jeff is personally assertive. He is the first to admit that studio work is not easy and one must roll with the punches. Yet, he has been known to stand up for himself as a human being on more than one occasion.
“In this business, you have to put up with temperaments sometimes, but you should never have to put up with abuse. I say that not from having an attitude, but as a person, you should be treated as one. You also have to put up with rumors and people talking, but you can’t let those kinds of things get to you. You can’t worry about what people think.
“I’ve seen situations where it’s a guy’s first session, and a producer or artist destroys him in front of a lot of well-known musicians, who the guy was very excited about being there with. And I’ve seen guys cry in the studio. People can get affected that way, but you can’t let someone do that to you. They’re just people, and you’ve got to put everybody in perspective.”
And he does. He is unpretentious and attempts to maintain a healthy perspective on his profession, not allowing it to be an all-consuming lifestyle.
“I think more people should have a balance. I think it came on pretty naturally for me because of other interests outside of music, like art and landscaping. I wanted to be a gardener and loved making money working in people’s yards. I could dig interior decorating also. I think the balance for me is that I don’t have any drums at my house, so when I’m not working with anybody, I’m not around drums. I think even if I weren’t successful at music—if I’m supposedly ‘successful’—music and drumming wouldn’t take up any more time than it does now, because if I weren’t successful at drumming, I’d have a job being some sort of an artist. That’s a job I’m more comfortable at than trying to get gigs or letting people know I’m a drummer. I’ve never had the moxie to call somebody to say I’m available. I’m too shy a person to come on like that.”
He had that attitude even on his very first gigs, even though one would think an aggressive attitude would have been paramount to a kid starting out. “It’s hard for me to say. Maybe it would have been paramount if I had been older and had a wife and kids, but I left high school doing a gig. Imagine some 18-year-old kid in 1972 who listens to Jimi Hendrix and then gets a gig with Sonny & Cher. I kind of approached it like a circus more than a serious gig.”
Jeff might have actually gone off to art school had he not gone to Leon Russell’s house one night, where David Hungate happened to be. About eight months later, Hungate, who was playing with Sonny & Cher, suggested they audition the 17-year-old Porcaro, and in May, 1972, right before his high school graduation, Jeff left school to go on the road with them.
“When you’re 18 and you’re away from home, as I was on the road with Sonny & Cher, you’re sitting there going, ‘Well, what am I going to do with my life? Is it always going to be a party like this or what?’ I dug art, but the reality of getting into art is real ugly. So it was the kind of thing where I said, like with Sonny & Cher, if I played my cards right, it was a steady gig, plus they did a TV show which I did for their last two seasons. So I figured if I stayed legitimate here, at least I’d know there’s some security if I kept my head together and did the gig right. And I could put some money away if I played Mr. Straight for a while.
Actually, all the Porcaro boys started out on drums, due to the influence of their father, Joe. Jeff can recall watching his dad give lessons in a drum shop in Connecticut at an early age. It just so happened that Mike, who Jeff says was much better on the drums than he was, switched to bass and Steve took up piano prior to their move to California in 1966. Jeff stuck with the drums and his dad taught him from age eight to eleven, and aside from a couple of private instructors and those in school, Jeff taught himself, either by playing with records or playing with bands.
“I used to practice in junior high and every day, after school, I’d go into the den, put on headphones and play to ‘Boogaloo Down Broadway.’ The drums were cool on that and I used to dig that feel. I used to play with all the Beatle records, all the Hendrix records and that’s where I think I got a lot of the versatility as far as being able to play authentically one kind of music as opposed to the complete opposite. It’s copying what every other drummer did on records. If a drummer takes something Bernard Purdie played on and sits for two weeks with the ‘phones so he can still hear Bernard but he’s also playing along where he doesn’t hear himself flamming with him or rushing—just grooving with the tune—the next time he goes to play a tune that’s similar, he might start playing that feel. I can’t tell you how many tunes I’ve played where I’ve ripped off the same thing Jim Gordon used on ‘Charlie Freak’ on Pretzel Logic. The beat I used on ‘Lido Shuffle’ is the same thing Gordon did except at twice the tempo. There’s no originality there. I think it’s bad to clone yourself after someone, although, I actually cloned myself after Jim Keltner when I was 17 and 18. I even thought it was cool to wear a vest and I copied his style. A drummer’s own style comes from eventually being on his own, but I copied Gordon and Keltner and all these guys I dug. I remember realizing this, but after a while, the accumulation of all the guys you copy becomes your own thing, hopefully.
“In high school, there would be some of these little stage bands and then right across the street from Grant High School was Valley Jr. College. Sometimes I would cut school and go over there where they had the bands that would sight read charts. When you’re dealing with 8th notes and reading figures that you would do just hand-to-hand on a practice pad, it’s pretty much the same as reading a chart. The figures are there; you know what they are and it’s just applying the fact that you’re playing time and then you want to kick a figure or play a figure. I’m really not an incredible, incredible reader, but I can read well enough to do what I’ve done so far. But you just get to know it. It’s like reading words. You’ll see two bars playing a groove, and eight bars ahead on the paper you see this figure coming up and you don’t even have to read it. All of a sudden, the figures look like a word; you know what it says just by the way it looks.
“I’m not a career drummer. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m a percussionist and if I’m going to call myself one, I should be as good at it as I can.’ Everybody’s situation is different. I’m just comfortable with the way I do it and it suits the way I live. And then there are things I can’t do. Zappa’s called me at least once a year for five years to do something. I’ve always said ‘No’ because I just know what his charts are like and I know I couldn’t sight read one of his things. Guys like Vinnie [Colaiuta] and Terry Bozzio are unbelievable with Zappa’s work. It’s too hard for me. Once in a while there’s a musical idea that my mind says, ‘Go, do it.’ But I don’t have the facilities to do it because with some things, you need to sit and woodshed and work out before you can do them. But that takes time, and so I say, ‘Right now, at this point in my life, I can’t sit and take that time off.’ Maybe there will be a time where something will force me to, but that’s a decision that everybody has to make on his own.
“I wish I took piano. Talk about a guy who, right now, would have the prime opportunity to do tons more writing and to really cash in on a certain situation. But I can’t do that, and for me, personally, there’s not that kind of incentive. But if I had done it when I was 15, I’d be shakin’ right now! So sure, in retrospect, I wish I had more training, but this is where those judgments come along. I say, ‘Yeah, I wish I had more training,’ but I can also say if I hadn’t tripped off into the hills to Leon Russell’s house one night, I would never have met Dave Hungate for him to say to Sonny Bono, ‘Why don’t you call this kid up to audition?’ Now, also, if I hadn’t played at Dantes one night with this guy I couldn’t stand, Fagen and Becker [Steely Dan] would never have seen me play when they happened to walk into that club that night to get a drink. Those two nights, for me, are what I could say started my whole career.”
It was the end of 1973, when, while still with Sonny & Cher and doing an occasional stint with Seals & Crofts, Porcaro was playing at Dantes, a small L.A. club. He had just turned 19 and was earning $1,500 a week. But he quit Sonny & Cher without a moment’s hesitation when Steely Dan offered him only $400.
“When I went with Steely Dan, that was my first taste of being in what I thought was a so-called hip, cult rock ‘n’ roll band. It was my first taste of being on the road with a band that I thought was cool. I was totally in love with the fact that I was playing with those guys.” Although he admits that recording with Steely Dan is a grueling experience, it is a creative environment in which Porcaro thrives.
“Two years ago with Steely on Caucho, I went to New York to cut the tune ‘The Gaucho.’ It was Steve Khan, Anthony Jackson on bass, Rob Mounsey on keyboards and Fagen, and I think that was all who were there. The plan was to rehearse the tune in the studio because Fagen and these guys are meticulous. You rehearse from 2:00 to 6:00, take a dinner break, and at 7:00 you come back to the studio, start the tape rolling and start doing takes. Well, this stuff is rehearsed so heavy that some of the spontaneity is gone maybe. They demand perfect time and it’s too nerve wracking. Yet, I love it, and I guess there are some of us who love it. That kind of pressure with those guys is cool because from my point of view, their music is the most prestigious music that’s ever existed and it’s great to hear, no matter what. Some people can’t stand the perfection, though. So we started doing ‘The Gaucho’ and they went through every musician’s part so it was perfect. All they were going to keep at the end was the drum track, but most of the other musicians didn’t know that. I just knew it from experience. Their idea is to get everybody else in the band and put them through all the shit in the world to make sure they play perfect, just to get the perfect drum track. And these guys are sweating—beads of sweat rolling down their foreheads—nerves, shaking while they’re playing and they don’t know what they’re playing is never going to be used. We went to 3:00 in the morning and I don’t know how many takes we did. Fagen walked out in the studio and it was something like, ‘Guys, does everybody know what this tune is supposed to sound like?’ We’re all looking at each other going, ‘Yeah!’ He says, ‘Good. You guys know what it should sound like, I know what it’s supposed to sound like, then that’s all that matters. We’re done.’ And he splits. So we’re all sitting there in the studio like, ‘What?’ So we all got pissed and said, ‘Screw it, we’re going to work on this track and get it!’ So just Gary Katz [Steely’s producer] was there and we continued to do five or six more takes. The final product on that album came from those takes. That’s the kind of shit where most people would have packed up and split, but we just sat there feeling we had to get it, and we did.”
After the first tour with Steely Dan and recording the Katy Lied album, doors began to open for Porcaro, who, along with a cast of characters, were considered to be quite revolutionary.
“Paich, Hungate, myself and a few other guys like David Foster and Jay Winding, all started getting into the studio thing at the same time. At that time—I’m talking about ’72, ’73 and ’74—there was a real echelon of older guys like your Gordons, Keltners and even Hal Blaine. The other pressure was always being the youngest guys being studio players in this town, doing sessions. We were real radical. I mean, I know myself, we hated contractors. I just remember a time observing studio sessions when nobody said anything. You didn’t speak your mind; it was ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ and you just did your stuff. We weren’t brought up to be studio musicians. We were guys who played in power trios; rock ‘n’ rollers who happened to read and play Barbra Streisand dates too, so we were a bit radical and outrageous for the times. People didn’t know how to take 19-year-old cats speaking musical sense. I was never meant to be a legitimate studio drummer and I get irked when people say ‘studio drummer.’ Hey, I just walked in and played and had fun playing. But I always hated the politics and how you’re supposed to perform and act as a studio person. I don’t have a book and I don’t go to the phone and call my answering service and say, ‘What’s next?’ ”
Still, he loves his work—and hates it. The ultimate positive session for him is leaving a gig knowing he’s pleased the writer/artist. It’s the consistent obstacles that seem to be the nature of the beast that Porcaro abhors.
“I think the statistics of how many musicians in the world are allowed to do studio gigs and why, says it all in itself. It’s a real pro gig. Ask any artist or producer or engineer who uses studio musicians why they’re using studio musicians and not their bar band or the guys in their local town. Why do studio musicians exist? Sure, there are different levels of music you hear performed by studio musicians, but they’re not in control of what music they’re playing.
“The only time I’m ever bothered when I leave is one of these situations where the artist is a groove, you love him, but you can’t stand the producer. All artists who don’t have a lot of control over the situation are nervous as hell until the album is done, hoping that they will get what they really want, even though they can’t speak their mind most of the time because of a certain producer. So when you leave knowing that they got what you have, in spite of their producer, then I feel good. But when I leave a session and know I could have done a lot better, it bugs me. It’s like wasted money.
“Some of the tracks have been done on the first takes and those are the magical moments. I did a Jimmy Webb album not too long ago where almost every track we did was a first take. And there are those times when the rhythm section guys are tuned in really great and it happens. When I was really into the studio stuff—before Toto started happening—one morning I would do Archies cartoons and in the afternoon I’d do a Helen Reddy album and that night I’d do a Tommy Bolin album. So there are those three spectrums. What’s great about studio stuff is that you can walk in and do, say, a Streisand date where maybe I’d use a different drumset because there are live strings and it’s all done live. At night with Bolin, maybe there would be a headband and deerskin boots and a completely different attitude and approach, which I always thought was like an acting gig. It’s fun to change attitudes because your environment is always changing. It’s like getting yourself psyched up; you’re still the same person, but if I’m playing with Dolly Parton, I’m going to have a completely different attitude in my energy and in my playing than if I’m doing an R&B thing or something else. That’s not something you can learn, but you can get a collection together of records of different styles that you can force yourself to learn, and if you sincerely enjoy any kind of music, you know what that attitude is. But say it’s your first gig; you’re starting out and nobody knows who the hell you are. A contractor hires you for that artist or that producer and he’s your boss. If you screw up, he doesn’t ever hire you again because his gig is on the line, and that’s the whole political bullshit about the studio system. Plus, there’s the pressure once you’re there and you have your first opportunity to play. Number one, you feel you want to be sure you have the kind of energy you want to give them. You want to give them your all and try to impress them, which usually ends up backfiring if you go in with that attitude. Your whole basic thing is just to keep time. I have fun helping with arrangements of tunes or suggesting song structures and knowing songs, instead of, like some guys I meet, no matter what instrument, still to this day have no idea about a song or tune structure. You should have a real good sense of a tune or the song—verse, chorus, bridge, dynamics and stuff like that. Just keep trying to keep the best time and be as simple as possible.
“A helpful hint for anybody who is doing sessions, really the number one rule is, don’t even be thinking about what you’re going to do, or how people in the studio are going to look over and dig that you’re doing a good job. Try to be completely aware of the song; try to hear the song as many times as possible and play for the song— not for yourself or for the contractor or for whomever else. Show up early, work with the engineer to tune your drums and, if you can, look at the stuff ahead of time in case it’s something that’s too hard for you to do so you can woodshed. Be polite and don’t stay on the phone too long. Don’t do any dope, not because dope is bad, but I know where certain drugs affect some people’s time or their concentration or their attitude. The most damaging thing of all, to me, is the monetary strain it can put on people, which has bad psychological effects as well. If you’re a musician, that’s not too steady a gig. Don’t think because you’re into dope that’s going to make you hip or will get you into certain crowds or cliques. People would not believe how many people are not into dope, more so than people who are into it as far as working goes. I can’t tell you how many drummers got too messed up on coke, where their attitude or something became a problem, or how many gigs I’ve gotten because the guy they used before me was showing up late or his head was in another space and people were paying $150 an hour for the studio time. People aren’t going to buy that bullshit.”
Approaching a new musical situation, Porcaro immediately tries to establish a mutual comfort between himself and the artist, “because it’s the first time they’re using you and they feel uncomfortable too. I’ve run into situations where I’d walk in and meet the artist for the first time and they’d be nervous about meeting me too because it’s their first album and they think I’m some sort of big studio drummer. They expect to see some tall guy who is 250 pounds or something and I hate that. I hate anybody thinking they have to bend over backwards for me. I think, ‘Why?’ I’d rather split and not exist if I think people have to change their ways or something because of me. There’s no reason for it. Usually I think just my general personality doesn’t threaten anybody though.”
Toto was a dream realized a few years ago, but even before the Sonny & Cher gig, he and David Paich, introduced through their musical fathers, would talk about it.
“We knew so much about the realities of being in a group. That’s why we did all the studio stuff. There was a point where, for two years, I did everything I could, even if I didn’t feel like playing, just to save up money so I could take two years off and give the group a try.”
Interestingly enough, however, the fact that Jeff, along with co-members, are in demand studio musicians seems to be the main criticism of the press. According to critics, studio players are supposedly too polished and too rigid to create excitement necessary to stir an audience. Porcaro disagrees: “Every studio musician I know can go on stage and play. Nothing happens to you when you’re in front of people. My God, the pressure of playing in front of an audience is nothing like the pressure of a chart with Paul McCartney in front of you and you’ve got to do something right. What is that? You think the people who write about you and the people in this town are going to make you uptight and nervous compared to what we face in the studio? No way. Because the people who write this shit about the studio thing don’t have the faintest damn idea of what they’re writing about.
“While I’m in Toto, it’s a fact that I will work every breathing minute of my day. If Toto isn’t doing anything—we’re not on the road, we’re not in the studio, we’re not getting together to write—I will stay busy. I feel sorry for people who don’t. I can’t see being a musician and just being in a band. If you’re in a band, you only get to do one album a year, maybe two. At the most, you’re talking about twenty songs a year and maybe a couple from previous albums when you go on tour. So these great bands—these genius bands—go out and play twenty tunes. Now I personally love playing. I get up early in the morning on days I have free and somebody will call and ask if I’ll play. I’ll play and I’ll play for free for somebody. I’ll play anytime anybody calls me to play because I like playing. At least I know that at the end of the year I can say, ‘God, even if only I know, I’ve accomplished a lot of shit. I’ve played a lot of music and I’ve used my full potential. Whatever gift God gave me for whatever reasons, I’ve used it to its full potential.’ And people call and ask if I’ll play on their album. Even when I’m tired or sick, if they say, ‘Will you please play? We’d love you to play,’ then it would be my privilege to play.”
But Toto definitely remains the prime love and commitment. “I think anybody would be happy to be given the privilege to have a group that’s yours, and you get to go into the studio. Money is given to you to make the kind of music you want to make, you’re the boss and it’s your baby. That’s incredible. I think that’s anybody’s ultimate goal if they’re into doing their own thing, themselves or with five other comrades.
“It’s an emotional investment when you get six guys together and from the beginning, you have a dream. I wish I could control Toto the way I see it, but so does everybody else in the band. That’s individually. We all keep it to ourselves though. When we work together, nobody comes on stronger than another person. We all pretty much think the same because we’ve gotten very used to compromising. What usually happens is that it comes out kind of the way we want it individually.”
Having been on the road for six months out of every year since he was 18 and up to the beginning of Toto, Porcaro enjoys even the simple elements involved in the travelling—such as just sitting on the bus looking out the window or sketching in his hotel room—aside from the pleasure he derives from playing live.
“A good touring drummer differs a little bit from a good studio drummer, but it’s primarily the same thing. You can’t be busy and tripping off because in a band like Boz’s or even Steely, the bands are so big you basically have to keep time. And you have to stay healthy so you can show up the next night.
“Physically it takes its toll. My hands are small and they’re not meant to do what I do to them. Actually, though, I’m a lot stronger than I ever was before, drumming-wise. My hand used to go into spasms where all my fingers would come into the center of my palm and my tendons would stretch my skin. The pain was unbelievable. You could not physically pull the fingers from the palm of my hand. It happened starting at age 15—every other week during my playing—and what I did to change that was sand the lacquer off the end of my stick. What would happen was I’d be playing and unconsciously hold the stick tighter and I’d cramp up. So it hasn’t happened in a couple of years. I also think it has to do with playing and relaxing, even though it may not look like I’m relaxing. You’ve got to stay loose. Nerves are the worst thing for a drummer.
“I don’t warm up before a gig, but I should. But before a gig, my mind is on so many other things that I forget to warm up. I do think it’s a good idea to do, though, so you’re loose and stuff. There have been so many times where the first tune is a big burner and I didn’t warm up and maybe I hadn’t played in two days and everything was tight.
“I hate solos,” Porcaro continues. “I don’t have the chops to play a solo anyhow. Seriously, I’ve always hated drum solos. The only ones I ever liked were Elvin Jones’ stuff—jazz players—because they played 12-bar phrases and they were real musical. But I never came across a musical composition that I played on that was worthy of a drum solo, aside from some obnoxious ‘show-off-your-shit’ kind of things.”
Porcaro has always been reluctant to discuss his equipment since it has changed so frequently, but before this past tour, Jeff began endorsing Pearl Drums. What does he look for in a set? Replying, he laughs, “I don’t know jackshit what I’m talking about, just what feels right. Most all drums feel good to me, sincerely. Drums are drums, depending on the kind of head and how you tune them. Some times just the look of one will make me partial to that one for two weeks; just because it looks different and it’s new. I always set up differently. Sometimes there’ll be a lot of tom-toms, sometimes just two, depending on what I’m doing. Or some times I’ll go into something where usually I’d have a bigger kit and the music kind of demands it, yet I’ll go in with completely the opposite, which is kind of interesting. In the studio, my set changes for every tune. Every tune on this current Toto album has a different set or different components. It depended on the tune. If we were dong a real heavy tune, pretty broad rock ‘n’ roll type thing, I used a Gretsch 24” bass drum and a 14 x 10 or 14 x 12 (I’m not really sure of the size) mounted tom and a 16 x 16 floor tom and maybe two crash cymbals and that’s it. On some tunes I may have used a larger set with more toms. It just varied, depending on the type of tune and what the tune required from me musically or from the drums. You play differently when you set up differently and that’s interesting too.
“Last year when Toto went to Japan, I went to Yamaha, not for an endorsement, but because I loved the drums. I was real shy and all embarrassed and asked if they could make me a custom set. I mean, I was ready to pay for it, and two days later, they came with four drumsets. One was a custom color and there’s no other color like it. So it’s not that I really endorse them; they just gave me the stuff. But I’ve never signed anything.”
He is endorsing Pearl however, and his current tour set-up is a 22 x 18 bass drum, with toms in the sizes of 10″, 12″, 13″ and 16″, extended shells. All his drums are double-headed, and he uses Remo Ambassadors, top and bottom, although sometimes a Diplomat on the bottom.
“You’re asking the wrong guy about tuning tips,” Jeff laughs, although he manages to describe his instinctive method: “I just wish we had one of my drums from any drumset to take a picture of. You put it on a flat table and look at it and you’ll see maybe one of the top rims at an angle. When I put a new head on, I do not evenly tune the drum around. I’ve never in my life hit every lug to see if it’s right. I guess it’s all feel. I can tune a drum to hear a pitch, and I can just tell by the feel of the key on the screw that goes to the lug, and how loose or tight that feels, where that drum is at.
“Every engineer is as different as every drummer and engineers will drive you up the wall. With some engineers, you’ll walk in and never hear the words, ‘Let me hear the snare drum.’ I know engineers who don’t need you to get a drum sound; they know how to mike you so they’re getting the sound your ears are hearing out there. Some guys have everything closed miked and they’ve got to do it their way. All studios are different, all boards are different and some guys take two hours for the drum sound. It bugs you when you’ve just left one studio and never heard your drums sound better and people are raving. And then you take that same set to another studio and you’ve never heard it sound worse and people are getting on your case. You just have to smile.”
He laughs at the mention of his extensive snare drum collection. “I do have a lot of snare drums, but I only use one,” he laughs. “I’ve got it down now, but it all changes. Four years ago, you could not walk into the studio without somebody saying, ‘How come you don’t have a deep drum? I want that low sound.’ And now, most of the rock ‘n’ roll dates I’ve been doing, I’ve got your regular Ludwig 5 1/4″ chrome snare, both heads tuned as humanly tight as possible. They sound like timbales with the snares loose; no muffling on it whatsoever and ringier than all hell. It all changes. Everybody has his own way. That’s why I always used to have lots of different snare drums. Now I basically use three of four I have with me. One is a deep wood, an old Radio King, and I have a lot of old antique drums that sound great. I really don’t collect anything just to look at.”
He bought the very first snare drum that Paul Jamieson made, explaining, “It’s all a matter of who you are if you want to buy a custom drum or not. It’s just like looking at a painting and asking yourself if it’s worth a thousand bucks or not. You may not if you don’t like it, but if in your eyes it’s a great painting, you’ll pay for it. Now, if you really want to get down to it, you go try to find a 1934 Radio King shell—forget about any hardware on it or anything, just the shell itself—you’ll have to go to Evansville, Indiana, to some old hardware store to find it. Monetarily, those drums are worth some money, just for how old they are and the wood. If I had the money, I’d buy one. As far as wood drums, the old shells are better and the rims and hoops are too. If you buy a new wood drum, you can’t get too live with it. It’s hard to explain, but with the old Radio King shells that are real thick, I have the insides veneered and they’re real live. In the studio, I generally use the metal snare. On the road I always use an old Radio King, and it’s just as live as any metal drum, yet a lot more musical.”
Also before this tour, he began using RIMS because, “the tom-tom stays floating; there’s nothing going into the shell, so you’re getting the most out of the drums.”
He is endorsing Paiste Cymbals, using two 21″2002 crashes, a 20″2002 crash, a 19″ 2002 crash, a 22″ 2002 ride, a 22″ 2002 China, an 8″ 2002 bell and 14″ 2002 heavy hi-hats.
He also uses a drum rack invented a couple of Toto tours ago (1980).” I usually work on the stage set-up for Toto and I like to keep everything clean on stage. So when it got down to the drums, I wanted the drums mounted on something that would be real easy to set up and real sturdy when I play and that would be great for a roadie to change if anything happened during the show, like my breaking a bass drum head. So Paul Jamieson and I got together and designed this three-sided rail which has sleeves where all my cymbal stands and tom-tom mounts go in, plus, all the microphones and booms clip onto the outside and go over the drums. There’s a banana cable that runs on the inside for all the mic’s, done by our monitor mixer, Shep Lonsdale, and this way, nothing ever moves. Plus, when you look at the set, there are no floor stands or mic’ stands of any kind, so the only thing that is not on the rail itself is my bass drum, floor toms, snare drum, hi-hat and stool. That way, say I broke a bass drum head. The guys in the crew would just have to go in front, slide the bass drum right off without moving one tom-tom or anything, and slide in another bass drum, which can be done in two bars. Plus, it’s real sturdy and durable.”
And for those who missed the Feb-March, 1981 issue of Modern Drummer, Porcaro also works with the Linn LM-1 drum machine with a set of Synares working from the bass drum pedal, interfaced with the Linn Machine.
“The machine is fascinating. It’s real drum sounds recorded on digital chips. Usually you program a beat by hitting buttons. The way I have it set up, I can sit down with all four limbs and play spontaneously. Instead of hitting buttons, there’s a Synare pad that I hit and it’s the same sound as the button. I’ve got a little Roland foot switch so when my foot is down on it, it’s a closed hi-hat sound and when I lift my foot up, its open. Then there’s a bass drum, snare drum and tom-toms. So it can keep repeating or you can do a five minute tune where every beat is different. I just think that the future for that is incredible. Obviously, in two years, the sounds will get better, it will be a lot cheaper and believe it or not, instead of going to Miami to work for the Bee Gees, all I would have to do, in theory, is have them call me at my home. They’d put a time code of a demo of the tune they wanted me to play on, it would come over the phone lines and the time code would go into my machine. It’s just like what everybody does with computers and telephones. You have a computer in your hotel, you call the main office, you put your phone down and all the computer information stores into your home office. It’s the same thing. The time code will come in and go into my Linn machine, so now I know the tempo and the tune. I sit there at home in the morning and play my idea and that registers in the Linn Machine. I call them up, send my time code to them and the Bee Gees have automatic arms with real drum sticks and real drums that, through a synthesizer or computer, will go down and whack when you hit something. So my idea will go into their Linn machine, and from the outputs it will go to the automated arms and they can hear my idea for their tune that I heard, exactly, except it will be in perfect time. That’s a whole other thing. With perfect time, there’s no emotion involved, which is the drawback, but the potential is great, especially for drummers. Just imagine getting up and doing three dates within a two-hour period of time from your home and having the rest of the day just to play. Everybody’s whole purpose in doing this is so they can make money and eventually they can retire and enjoy music. Realistically, you want to hear a drummer who enjoys it, but you also want to buy that computer thing that costs money and you aren’t going to get it playing some club. So you’ve got to do jive-ass sessions and people call you a funky person and everything for ten or twenty years while you do that.”
Still, all in all, Porcaro enjoys what he does and makes the best of it when he doesn’t. “No one individual session sticks out in my mind. They’ve all been learning experiences and growing experiences. Probably there were some that stuck out at the time they happened, but knowing me, I’d sit here for three days trying to remember one. For me, at least, I think every day has been a learning experience. Every day there’s something, whether you make a discovery about yourself, or a discovery about other musicians, or the way people play together, or producers, or groups, or a studio, or engineer—just everything. There’s always a new discovery whether it be bad or good, especially because there’s such a variety of the things I run into every day. Of course, there are sessions where the music is unbelievable. If you work for Fagen or Becker, it’ll stick in your mind forever. And then there’s also the opposite end of the spectrum where you do something that is so stupid and horrible and you can’t understand why it exists and why people are spending $150 an hour in the studio with this person. You don’t have to accept it, but if that’s your way of making your living, then you say, ‘Yeah.’ And it’s a great way to make a living.
“In closing, the best thing for drummers is to have fun. Even if you’re falling apart inside, you have a great outlet to express your emotions, whether you realize it or not.”
How I Did It by Jeff Porcaro
One of the questions I’m frequently asked is how I come up with certain patterns or grooves on various songs. Let’s take the song “Rosanna” as an example. When I first heard David Paich play the tune, the Bo Diddley groove was very obvious.
Because the tune was a shuffle feel, I felt that the half-time shuffle thing would feel the best. The tune also reminded me of the New Orleans type second-line drumming.
So the first listening of the tune brought forth all the old haunts from drummers to groups of that era that I had tapped from and stored away for this very moment. Shit, this work ain’t so hard!
The following exercise will help you understand the inside snare drum thing. It was played to keep the 16th triplet groove going. Play this exercise with the right hand on the hi-hat and the left hand on the snare drum. The snare drum should be a softer dynamic to attain the “lope.”
Once you feel comfortable with the exercise above, add the snare drum back beats on “2” and “4.” The you will have ripped off the same beats from Bernard Purdie and John Bonham that I ripped off five years ago.
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