Epic Drumming, Dynamics, and Dance
Striding into a New York City hotel, Ronnie Vannucci resembles a dangerous character out of a movie about the Gold Rush or the Civil War. With his jet-black hair, chiseled features, and penetrating gaze, the six-foot-one drummer could easily play a character like Wyatt Earp— or Jesse James. Seeing how Vannucci and his band hail from Las Vegas, perhaps the last remnant of what once was America’s Old West, and how the drummer’s playing is as epic as a classic Hollywood western, the profile he cuts in person seems absolutely appropriate.
Storming his drums on such Killers hits as “When You Were Young,” “The World We Live In,” and “Human,” among many others, Vannucci brings true rock ’n’ roll grit to songs often based on dreams gone wrong or memories of better times. An American original, Vannucci has rethought the drumkit for rock, further enabling his ability to infuse the Killers’ music with hard-charging rolls, goliath fills, tom-thumping war cries, and 2-and-4 backbeats that suggest an unusual combination of John Bonham and Levon Helm—a ferocious punch of a pocket that can reach titanic heights and as quickly fall back to a pure and simple pulse.
Battle Born, the Killers’ fourth album and finest effort to date, finds Vannucci with guns a-blazing. Produced by a handful of the best minds in the music business, the recording focuses excellent songwriting by Vannucci and bandmates Brandon Flowers (vocals), Dave Keuning (guitar), and Mark Stoermer (bass), on such gems as “Flesh and Bone,” “Heart of a Girl,” “A Matter of Time,” “Here With Me,” “Miss Atomic Bomb,” and first single “Runaways.” These songs run high on emotion, fueled by Vannucci’s simple drum setup and gargantuan cymbals. Ronnie’s approach is all about power and skill, blood and guts, and playing for the music.
MD: Your drumming with the Killers epitomizes the qualities mentioned in the title of this story. You perform those cathartic “Born to Run” moments so well, and then you easily switch gears to more intimate dance beats or ballad moods. The work you do with your own band, Big Talk, represents yet another dynamic. What’s the key to successfully performing these different vibes?
Ronnie: The key is listening and figuring out what best serves the song. We worked with a lot of different producers for Battle Born. I love experimenting and working with people to achieve a sound. I’m not talking specifically about drum sounds. It’s nice to be able to look at different dynamics, and perhaps that’s why you hear the different levels in different parts of the song. I just want to serve the song as best I can.
MD: You’re very studio savvy. For Day & Age you recorded the drums in your own studio. How did the ability to do that change your perspective?
Ronnie: It definitely made me more conscious of what the microphones were picking up. I play a certain way, and that’s what I want to hear. Whether I’m playing drags on the snare drum or riding the floor tom, I play at a dynamic level that matches the song. If the song is very delicate, I’m going to play lighter, and if it’s harder I’ll do that. I don’t want to go in after the fact and do snare drum rides on the console. I want the engineer to stick a microphone in there and capture the performance. I will do that until I am blue in the face.
MD: You have an unusual cymbal setup, where you use crashes for hi-hats along with some very large crash cymbals.
Ronnie: I use ride cymbals for crashes. My main ride is a 24″ Light ride, and all the other cymbals are 22″. It’s great—you can dig right into them, dance on them, throw your arm into them…. They’ve got a huge dynamic range.
Obviously, I would play differently on a different set of cymbals. Even when playing guitar, I adjust to what I think that sound should be. In other words, if I’m playing a Les Paul compared to a Rickenbacker, they are totally different sounds, and you’ll have a different sensitivity to whatever instrument you’re playing. Whether it’s bigger hi-hats, smaller hi-hats, or a deeper snare, you’re going to play differently. Give me a nice tight snare and a bunch of smaller toms, and I’ll probably try to do my best imitation of gospel chops. A lot of threes!
MD: Why do you like such large cymbals for hi-hats?
Ronnie: I don’t really enjoy a glassy-sounding cymbal. Some 14″ hi-hats sound glassy. They may not sound like that by themselves, but once you add a layer of guitars and bass, the only frequency that really comes out of those cymbals is a frequency that I find annoying. I have this beautiful pair of early-’50s A Zildjian 15″ hi-hats, one of my favorite pairs. I recorded all of Sam’s Town with those hi-hats. But at the end of the day, we were only able to bring out a specific frequency. I still hated the sound. So I overdubbed all the hi-hats with my voice. I want that “chick, chick, chick.” I spent a few hours doing it.
But when it came time to do this stuff live, I thought, How am I going to get that sound? I tried 16″, 17″, and 18″ cymbals, including this beautiful 18″ Zildjian ride from the 1940s. I put that on the bottom and a K Constantinople crash on top. That was all over this record. I switch off between that and a 17″ K Constantinople suspended cymbal, which is a heavier model, on the bottom, and a 17″ K Constantinople crash on top. That’s what I’ve been playing the last couple shows.
MD: You play a pulsing 16th-note hi-hat pattern on “A Matter of Time.” When you’re using such large hi-hats, do you consciously play lighter because they’re so much larger than what’s typical?
Ronnie: I don’t think so. A lot of times they sit better with the complexion of the drumset, at least with my cymbals. If I had a normal pair of hats I would have to select a really dark, muted sound. In some ways the large hats are actually quieter, because they don’t take up what I think is an annoying frequency range. I get a nice big “chick” out of these hi-hats. Sometimes you get that air-pocket thing, and it cancels out all the chick. But normally I get a nice, pronounced chick sound.
MD: In the “Bones” video you’re playing various dynamic snare rolls. Do you ever play buzz rolls?
Ronnie: I tend to prefer open rolls. I like to do doubles, and I used to swing everything. A lot of what I do is triplet based, even in 4/4-type scenarios. It just makes things a little more graceful and classy. So if I’m playing a 4/4 pattern, I might play triplet patterns over the top of that.
MD: In your drumming you can really hear that rocking 2-and-4 motion, like Bonham meets DJ Fontana meets Hal Blaine.
Ronnie: When I was a kid, my family didn’t have enough money for a babysitter, so the record player became my babysitter. They would slap a pair of cans on me and say, “Listen to these records.” So I grew up listening to older records: Paul Simon with Steve Gadd, Steely Dan, the Beatles, Hendrix, the Who. Mitch Mitchell was my favorite. Then I had private lessons and majored in music at UNLV, where I studied orchestral percussion and played snare in marching band for two years.
But Mitch and Bonham and Keith Moon and all these guys, they were sort of lead drummers, and I liked that. I was naturally predisposed to the idea of the lead drummer. Mitch had such a dynamic style, being able to play heavy and light at the same time. He had that finesse that it seems not a lot of drummers have anymore. Ginger Baker is another one.
MD: I interviewed Ginger Baker once for MD and implied that Mitch Mitchell was more of a true jazz drummer. He said, “What? I am the jazz drummer!”
Ronnie: Ginger, stop being a dick and let Mitch have it!
MD: The Killers are all about the songs, so the concept of lead drumming doesn’t apply so obviously.
Ronnie: Yes, I’ve definitely become more of a fan of “the song” over the years. Non drummers aren’t going to identify with way-out drum fills. A hundred years from now people are going to be concerned with the song, and I’d rather be a component and a proponent of that.
MD: There is some lead drumming, a long fill, on “A Matter of Time.” It’s complex and goes over the barline.
Ronnie: [sings fill] Yes, there’s some flam stuff in there. There are a few moments where that song has a big break and it needs a little fire. There’s a couple like that, like “Heart of a Girl,” which is a slower song and was recorded entirely live. It’s simpler. It’s almost harder to play simple drumming than something that other drummers are going to jack off to later.
MD: On the self-titled album by Big Talk, a couple of the songs sound like Jim Gordon drumming with Harry Nilsson, like on Son of Schmilsson—that big, fat, warm drum sound. Is that the same set you play on Killers records?
Ronnie: Yes. That’s the Johnny Craviotto kit, a prototype set that Johnny let me keep, because I wouldn’t give it back. The shells are three-ply maple/poplar/ maple, with the “baseball bat” bearing edges. It was my idea to make the edges as round as the edge of a Louisville Slugger, so the head is making more contact with the shell. Most of these 45- to 60-degree bearing edges, you basically hear the head as the striking point; the shell becomes just the resonator. I wanted to make sure the head and the shell shared more of a relationship.
I played old Slingerlands on the Big Talk record, and those edges are inconsistent, but they’re almost flat. There’s so much shell touching the head, and that really lends itself to that sound. These shells feel better to play into. The drum is a membrane; the drum is part of the membranophone family. A little college kicking in there! [laughs] These bearing edges allow me to dig in, and it makes me play better.
MD: Does that give you more rebound?
Ronnie: Not necessarily. But I do feel like I’m sharing more of a relationship with the instrument. Generally Craviotto employs the 45-degree bearing edge, like most shells are. Some shells have a 60-degree bearing edge, which is a very thin, very resonant edge. But I don’t find resonance a problem with any bearing edge. It’s more what you want your shell to do. Do you want it to resonate, or do you want to hear the wood? Craviotto is steam-bending single plies of walnut and mahogany and poplar and ash. Don’t you want to hear the characteristics of the wood? So make that relationship more visible—that was my thinking.
MD: What is your relationship with the click on the new album?
Ronnie: Depends on the song. Some songs are more rigid, where you follow the bouncing ball. But naturally I am more behind the click. It’s so annoying when somebody is on top of the beat—you couldn’t get more white. I like for a song to sound like it’s not recorded to a click. Sometimes, in order to sell a certain part of the song—for instance if it’s a bass line—if it’s super on top of the beat, it won’t sound as groovy. So you have to leave it to an approximation sometimes. The big rolls in “Runaways,” for instance, might be behind the beat. I wanted it to sound like we were marching into battle. And I didn’t want it to be a lazy battle, so it’s more driving.
MD: Did you do any tempo mapping?
Ronnie: No, and you can tell—everything is all over the place! I’d much rather listen to a drummer that has a couple “whoop-dedos” if it’s right for the song, rather than make all the beats perfect.
MD: Some younger drummers use the click in every setting. They think of it as their friend.
Ronnie: But what about playing to the other people in your band? [laughs] What about your bass player? It all comes down to what kind of player you are. If you only hear the click and the subdivisions of the click and that’s all you play to, you’re going to be sterile. You’re going to play perfectly, but you’re not going to have any heart. Live, I will use the click as an approximation when counting off songs, and then I’ll look over to my drum tech and give him the signal to kill it. “I got it—kill it!”
MD: What kind of click did you use in the studio?
Ronnie: [Producer] Brendan O’Brien favors the Tenori-on, an electronic device. It produces rhythms that are more musical and comforting to play to than a mechanical click, where you feel like a lab monkey. We programmed it to hit the accent points of the song.
MD: One of your trademark grooves consists of accenting the “&” after 2, then striking 4, often in a bridge or chorus. You do it on “Flesh and Bone” and “Miss Atomic Bomb.”
Ronnie: My drum part isn’t finished until the vocal is finished. I’m holding it down, but I look at the drumset as a multitude of players, not just one player. l focus on vocal phrases that will give me an opportunity to back up, reiterate, or set up the phrase. It’s important for the drums and the vocals to share a relationship to get the message across.
MD: Also on “Flesh and Bone,” there’s a section with a straight-four bass drum and 8ths on the floor tom. When does riding the floor tom work better than a 2-and-4 pocket groove?
Ronnie: It’s about what space you want to take up. And it’s also a feeling. There’s something more carnal-feeling about driving the floor toms. The song is about flesh and bone; what are you made of? It’s not a sweet little la-di-da song—I’m playing the deepest, baddest, roundest, fleshiest sound I have in my set.
MD: Do you tend to develop drum parts quickly?
Ronnie: Pretty quickly. We usually do a demo, then we’ll adjust the motifs. I’m not just listening for the drums. I’ll listen to guitars and melody or vocal lines. Sometimes I’ll overdub the drums at the end of the tracking session, over the first drum pass. I did that on “Bones” and “The World We Live In.”
MD: Will you record a follow-up to Big Talk?
Ronnie: I would like to. That happened during a two-year band break. I wanted to decompress after eight years of touring. Two weeks in I found myself going crazy, so I wrote some songs and recorded them. I wanted to make a record that you can pull off live and still sound good, but be blind drunk doing it! But my skill set on guitars and bass and vocals only goes so far.
MD: What do you practice now?
Ronnie: I like to practice very simple grooves and record myself with videotape.
I’ll hit record and listen to myself and watch my hands to see exactly what I’m doing right and wrong. If I’m feeling comfortable, it usually looks comfortable. Play and forget you’re recording. Then look at it and review it. Some drummers really destroy their drumheads; some play off center on the head. There are different nodal points. I’m usually dead center on the snare drum and slightly off center on the floor toms. If you strike the floor toms dead center, you won’t get as much tone as when you hit them off center. And sometimes I’ll play all over the snare drum, to make it bark a little more.
MD: You’ve created a unique voice on the set. Was finding that as much about the musicians you play with as the drumming itself?
Ronnie: That can be a simple question or a complex question. You can’t find your voice unless you’re speaking. What you have to say is based around the people you’re playing with. What are you saying musically? What’s the message? What’s the purpose of your speaking? The best way to become the best musician you can be is to listen. And listen not just to yourself but to what’s happening around you, and be mindful of it. It will get you into rooms you’ve never played in before. You’ll develop your style and the way you play just by listening. You’ll find your voice by listening to where the music is going.
MD: So don’t isolate yourself musically.
Ronnie: You can’t. Drummers are butt naked out there. We have our tricks where we can play it cool, but at the end of the day it’s four moving parts, five if you count your head. That’s why I have the gong, just in case I want to do a head butt! The drums are such a physical instrument, and it’s hard to control your cool level. A guitarist can put his foot on the monitor and look at the cute blonde in the front row. But we are up there exposed, and it’s a great thing because you can’t cover up what’s inside. It’s hard to disguise your personality on the drums, even if you’re stoic like Charlie Watts; that’s his musical way. That’s why the layman loves the drums, and he doesn’t even know why.
- 6 1/2×14 snare
- 9×13 tom
- 16×16 floor tom
- 16×18 floor tom
- 15×24 bass drum
Sticks: Zildjian Ronnie Vannucci signature model
- 18″ hi-hats (Constantinople crash top, 1940s A Zildjian bottom)
- 22″ Constantinople Light ride Low with rivets
- 24″ K Light ride
- 22″ K Constantinople Renaissance ride
- 22″ A Swish Knocker
- 40″ gong
Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream (Jimmy Chamberlin) /// The Who Live at Leeds (Keith Moon) /// Fiona Apple When the Pawn… (Matt Chamberlain, Jim Keltner) /// The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland (Mitch Mitchell, Buddy Miles) /// The Beatles White Album (Ringo Starr) /// Ben Folds Five Whatever and Ever Amen (Darren Jessee) /// Soul Coughing Irresistible Bliss (Yuval Gabay) /// The Police Live! (Stewart Copeland) /// Van Halen 1984 (Alex Van Halen) /// Led Zeppelin Complete (John Bonham)
The Killers Hot Fuss, Sam’s Town, Day & Age, Battle Born /// Big Talk Big Talk