Jim Keltner, Hal Blaine, Shelly Manne,

Craig Krampf, Vinnie Colaiuta


L.A. Studio Roundtable

Times have certainly changed. Circa 1964, the exposure of the Beatles altered the lives of most would-be musicians of that era. For those who fancied playing instruments, the dream seemed to come together in the image of four lads playing in a self-contained unit. For drummers everywhere, Ringo Starr became the one to emulate and his situation became the one to covet. In previous decades, drummers like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson had provided that kind of inspiration, and now Ringo Starr became the idol of the ’60s generation. It was staggering at the time to find out that another drummer played the’ first Beatles’ recording session. Who was this Andy White person who played drums on “Love Me Do”? A “studio drummer?” What was that?

For a long time, a shroud of mystery covered the fact that our favorite groups on vinyl were not always the same individuals we saw in concert. Certainly the records never revealed anything to the contrary. But as the facts began to unravel, a new hero emerged: the studio drummer. In recent years, the desire to play in a group has been, in many cases, replaced by the goal of session work. And yet, interestingly enough, many of the top recording players never set out to be session players, and even now, are interested in returning to the basics of ensemble effort. (Cases in point, Jeff Porcaro with Toto, Rick Marotta with Ronin, Yogi Horton with Chew and Larrie Londin with his new Nashville group.) Is it simply a case of’ “the grass is always greener, ” or do they know something we don’t know?

In an attempt to answer that question and others relating to the studios, MD asked a number of L.A. studio drummers to get together and talk about what they do. Because of tight schedules, two separate meetings were held. The first was with Hal Blaine, Shelly Marine, Jim Keltner, Craig Krampf and Vinnie Colaiuta. At the second meeting, Jim, Craig and Vinnie were joined by Jeff Porcaro and Rick Marotta. It was obvious throughout these discussions that everyone enjoyed the contact with their fellow musicians, and the opportunity to bounce ideas off their peers. Anybody who still believes the myth that all studio players dislike each other and stab one another in the back to get gigs need only read the following discussion to see the warmth, affection and respect which each of these musicians holds for the others.

RF: A lot of drummers are asking how to get into the studio.

Hal: You get into the studios through a series of evolvements—one band to another—which might lead eventually to a band that records, or demos, or whatever, and you start getting studio experience. Once you get a taste of that, a lot of values change and you say, “Who needs this? I’d like to work in the studios.”

Shelly: I came into the studio in a strange way. When I came out here, jazz musicians weren’t being hired to do studio work. I was pigeonholed—”He played with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman; he’s going to play too loud. He’s a jazz musician, he can’t read and we’d better not use him.” But then a drummer was needed to do a picture called Rear Window with Jimmy Stewart. I was hired for a jazz-oriented segment.

Craig: What time was this?

Shelly: 5/4.

Craig: I meant what year? [laughter]

Shelly: It was 1952. I went in, read the part well and made a hero out of the contractor. From then on, he knew I could cover other areas because it wasn’t just jazz on the date, so he started hiring me all the time. When the time comes for you to get your break—you have to be in the right place at the right time and a lot of luck is involved— you have to be able to do the job. If you can produce what’s needed when that moment comes, your future is pretty secure after that. Vinnie: It’s still pretty new to me, but the same thing happened. I was playing in clubs and stuff, but it was, “Can we use him on a rhythm track?” Finally some bass player will stick his neck out on a chopping block for you and hire you. But I’m finding out that it’s still kind of a struggle. I wonder sometimes if some of these cats can really hear. You make a hero out of the contractor, but I don’t think some of them can tell.

RF: How important is reading?

Shelly: I think it’s very important in studio work to be able to read.

Craig: There are various types of studio work too. There are different crews that run together—the film crew, the commercial crew, and basically where the majority of my work is, rock ‘n’ roll albums. At 18 and 19, I could sight read anything. In the last ten years, I think I’ve seen five legitimate, what we would call “real” drum charts. In rock they deal with chord charts a lot. I got a call for a movie about two years ago and they passed out music. I was scared to death, but that’s my fault for letting that slip a little bit.

Shelly: But it’s not only just reading; it’s being able to see it and hear it at the same time.

RF: Is the emphasis on feel or reading in the studio?

Jim: It’s on both of them.

Shelly: Feel isn’t that important in the studio. If you’re playing drums, you’re supposed to have some kind of feeling, but half the time when I go to a studio call, it’s with click tracks. So the time thing is already set up for you. Now within that time thing, yes, it’s up to you to get a good feel. If you do a movie with Jerry Goldsmith, there’s no feel involved whatsoever; you’re following a conductor. But if you go in having to play a bossa nova or rock, the way I play it, you have to try to get some kind of a feel, but your ears give you the feel.

RF: Basically, are drummers like you guys called upon in the studio to contribute your own sound?

Jim: I say yes and no on that. Like Shelly said, when you do certain movie dates and things like that, you’re not called for your style. You’re called because the contractor knows you can handle it.

Shelly: You used to be called for your style more. I should clarify that, though. In a rock-oriented studio call, I would say you’d be called for your style.

Jim: In the rock thing, that’s generally true.

Shelly: But all studio dates are not rock oriented. In the case Jim is talking about, style doesn’t enter into it. Whether you can read it and make the parts is what’s important. When I started out in the studios, you were taken more for your style. They knew that you could give something creatively to what the music was supposed to be. They would hire you because they knew you would be creative and could add a sound.

Jim: Like when you did Man With A Golden Arm.

Shelly: Exactly. Even more so, another one was A Walk On The Wild Side. My drum part on that was blank and so Elmer Bernstein, the composer, said, “I want some sound here to start it off with. Maybe it should be metal or something that sounds like metal.” So I grabbed a triangle and held it in my hand. It was no big deal, but I opened it and closed it, and he said, “That’s it.” Imagination, in that kind of studio work, is 75% of the game. You have to use your imagination, not only in studio work, but in playing music too. In fact it’s in everything. Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge.

Vinnie: It’s like drums. You go to a drum clinic and people watch you play. They come up to you and want to know how you did this and that. What they don’t realize is that what you’re doing is because of the context of the music, your imagination and your creativity, not because you’re physically doing this or that.

Hal: Almost everything we’ve talked about so far runs the entire gamut. Some people want you to do nothing but what is written; some people want you to do everything on your own; and you’ll get everything in between. The musicians who have had the experience, who have been fortunate enough to have gotten into it slowly and then got busy, busy, busy, where they have finally done everything, are the musicians the contractors call because they know they don’t have to wait. They know you’re reliable, you’re going to be on time, you’re going to be sober, and you are prepared for anything.

RF: Have you ever gone into the studio and had someone say, “I want you to sound like the guy who did the drums on … “?

Shelly: I did a date with Jimmy Bowen, “Fever.” I had never worked with Jim, but I had made the original record of “Fever,” and it said on my part, “play like Shelly Manne.” So I played it just like I played it originally. The guy came out and said I wasn’t doing it right. When I told him I was Shelly Manne, he turned around and went back in the booth.

RF: What are some of the difficulties of studio work?

Hal: An engineer who is just starting.

RF: In his recent MD interview, Steve Gadd said you shouldn’t get bugged with the engineers. You should just be happy that you were hired.

Jim: I really liked when he said that because that’s the truth. That’s where I hope I’ve matured. I don’t want to fight anymore.

Shelly: You have to have that attitude.

Jim: You have to if you’re going to do studio work. If you don’t want to do studio work, you can just say, “Forget them all” and not do it.

Shelly: It used to be that the engineers, the microphones and everything in the studio were there to serve the music and the musician. It’s turned totally around now. The musician, especially the drummer, is supposed to be servicing the engineer, and that’s bullshit. If you get a certain sound on your instrument, you get your own sound. They’re trying to make you sound like somebody else who they particularly dig and who is particularly easy to record. You can’t be concerned with that. They lock you in a closet. I heard some records the other day recorded years ago, and I’m not trying to say “Give me the good old days,” because I like a lot of the music I hear now, but they used three mic’s hanging up on the ceiling and the orchestra sounded great. In the orchestras nowadays, there are 12 mic’s on the drums alone.

Hal: Those kids are trying to make a name for themselves.

Craig: It takes a while for engineers and producers to have confidence in you. So when you get a call with an engineer or producer who hasn’t worked with you, sometimes they’re not aware that your set is going to be alright and you go through havoc. Then attitude comes in. I’ve let engineers try all sorts of things. You keep your patience because you can come off cocky or egotistical otherwise, but you let them do their thing when, in your own mind, you know that if they try this mic’ on your kick drum, it will work.

Hal: All you have to say is, “Sure, okay, yeah, right.”

Shelly: How about when you go into a date where the drums sound rotten and about two hours later, all of a sudden, they sound good. All of a sudden, the engineer has found it at the end of the date.

Jim: There are great engineers, mediocre engineers, engineers with no ears and some with great ears. To me, an engineer is a person who has substance and loves music as well, or should. Ideally, an engineer should be a musician.

Hal: An engineer who comes out of the booth and turns the mic’ a 16th of an inch is becoming a hero because the producer is sitting there. You talk about misconceptions. These producers don’t really know absolutely everything, so they get an engineer who might have worked on a hit record. The engineer says, “Don’t worry. No matter how bad this band sounds, I’m going to make you a hit.” That’s a joke.

Shelly: It’s been like that for a long time. On one of my first record dates, in 1939, the big thing was, “The bass drum is too loud.” So I took the pedal off the bass drum. We made a test pressing and the guy said, “The bass drum is still too loud.” I held up the pedal and said, “I didn’t have one.” But why should everybody sound the same anyway?

Another inequity is, I’m not a rock drummer, but a lot of times I have to play rock things. I’ll see the part and say, “I need a week to psyche this part out, between the bass drum, the left hand and the hi-hat.” Then I find out the composer heard a record on the radio driving to work one day and the drummer took three weeks to lay down a bass drum track, a hi-hat track, etc., and this composer wants it all coming out all at once. Mercy, that’s one of the problems with technology. You never know how anything is done anymore.

RF: Has state-of-the-art technology made recording more tedious and difficult?

Jim: It comes down to the engineer and the producer again, and what their ideas are. The records nowadays are made differently.

Craig: Every artist and every record is different, and there is no right way or wrong way—whatever works for that particular artist or the producer. There was a great quote from Gary Chester. He said, “As far as drummers, you’re only as great or as good as you make the producer and artist look great and good.” Every situation is different.

Jim: And that comes back to attitude. When I first started getting into the studios, that was the main thing people would talk about: “Check Hal out sometime. He’s always the guy who’s there to the very last and always up,” while some guitar or keyboard player would be bitching.

Craig: People who are like that usually do get weeded out. Usually life catches up to people and I think attitude is a big part of the studio.

Hal: I personally have gotten along by being funny. I know that’s how it is with

Shelly too. When there are certain tensions that you can feel, if you can make people laugh, that will break the tension. I think a lot of people hire us for that reason.

Craig: I think the drummer has to be in control in most situations. It does start with us and if that’s not happening, the track is not going to happen.

Jim: This guy here [indicating Craig] gives more . . . I have heard a lot of people talking about you, and also, just by watching you play sometimes on TV and such, I can tell that you’re giving every ounce of everything you’ve got. That’s what’s happening.

Craig: You’ve got to give 110% or 120%. Otherwise, what are you doing?

Jim: That’ll make the record happen. You can’t go in and expect that your drums are going to be featured. If you’re going to be there, you have to cooperate and that’s all there is to it. Save your own sounds for your own thing. That’s what I’m doing. Right now, I’m messing with sounds of my own and I have a bass and snare drum sound I really love. Instead of complaining about it all the time I’m just going to have to use it on something of my own. I’ll create a project for it.

Craig: I recently did a project where the producer didn’t want to get into any new sounds or experimental sounds. I have a bunch of them saved and someday it will be right where someone wants more out of me sonically.

Vinnie: I want to ask something. Giving 120% because you really believe in the music, or enjoy what you’re doing, or because you’re trying to fulfill what you were hired to do is one thing. But say you’re on a date, you’re playing a track and you are personally really into this for whatever reason. You start a tune and about four bars later the producer says, “Okay, stop and let’s try it again. Okay, go.” Then four bars later, the producer says, “Okay, just bass and drums. No hi-hat.” After about 26 times of that, doesn’t it start irking you? It becomes a real chore.

Jim: Right there is the point we’ve been making: attitude.

Vinnie: I’m not talking about showing your attitude, but dealing with it in your mind.

Jim: We all can understand that.

Craig: Whenever that happens to me, I run the statement through my mind: “Records are forever.” And that will usually help me get through any situation. That’s what fascinates me about records; whatever I play at this given moment, time and space will remain forever and I can’t live with myself if it isn’t a good performance. It’s hard sometimes, though, when you have certain producers who say they like a live situation, but to get it live, they have to run through things for 12 hours, and that take after 12 hours has to be as inspirational as take # l .

RF: You mentioned that, in rock drumming, you may be called to perform your own style. How did you develop your style, and how do you know how to incorporate it in a session?

Jim: That’s like asking how you talk the way you talk.

Hal: It’s just a natural evolvement.

Jim: Even physically, the way you’re built has something to do with the way you play. Recently, I was looking at some pictures of Buddy and he’s not a big man, but his arms are big. He has no wrists; the arms just come down to these big mitts. Shelly has the same kind of hand, but Shelly is a big man. I’m kind of a big guy but I have these little tiny wrists and relatively small hands. I know that has got something to do with the way I play. I’m not sure what, but I know it has something to do with it. This guy here [indicating Vinnie] really epitomizes it. You’ve got real long arms, and the way you play, you look like your arms are extra long. They’re like whips.

Vinnie: I often wonder how drummers get a real big sound playing little skinny sticks. I can’t because my hands are real big and my arms are real skinny.

Craig: And for younger drummers, I think this is an important point. I had a friend who “became” John Bonham. He could do anything Bonham did, but had no style of his own. I think we’re each here to work with who we are. Hal is here to be the best Hal Blaine there ever was, Jim is supposed to be the best Jim Keltner there ever was, and I’m trying to be the best Craig Krampf there is. You take from all these influences throughout music in every form of music, try to absorb it, and how that winds up being you, I don’t know. That’s fascinating.

Shelly: It’s not a compliment when somebody says, “Man, you play just like Buddy Rich.” It’s a compliment technically, probably, but not entirely.

RF: Even sitting enters into it. You, Vinnie, happen to sit real low. And everyone wants to know how high or low you should sit.

Jim: I try to copy every drummer I know. I take everything I see. Certain people you can’t copy. I would never try to copy Vinnie. The guy is ridiculous. [Vinnie pretends to shoot Jim.] I’ve always tried to copy something, whether it be subconscious or conscious. As for how to sit, I’ve checked that out a lot. When I was actually working opposite sets with Shelly Manne, eventually my seat would be where Shelly’s was in order for me to be able to see, but it doesn’t always work out.

Vinnie: I was watching Tony Williams play one time. This cat is really strong and I remember hearing stories that he could barely reach the pedals as a kid. Now he’s a very little guy who sits up so high that he’s almost standing. He’s playing flat-footed and I can’t understand it. I try to sit that high and I have no leverage at all.

Jim: What I think he does is change things around on purpose. He’s a master on the instrument, like Miles. Once you can play things so easily and beautifully, you just have the tendency to want to go onto some other thing. You have to constantly explore and make yourself do things physically to make yourself change.

Shelly: Look at time signatures; that’s a perfect example. Up to how many years ago, nobody played 3/4, 5/4, 7/4, 7/8 or whatever. They played 4/4 or 2/4. All of a sudden, there are new time signatures and what do you do? You have to struggle through it, and suddenly it will come to you. You always have to reach further than you think you’re capable of. That’s the only way you keep growing and improving.

Hal: Oftentimes you are called upon to do things and you say, “Oh my God. I could never do that.” But somehow you do it and that gives you a little more confidence for the next time you get into that situation.

Shelly: Well, Vince played with Frank Zappa. I was called on a date to do an album called Lumpy Gravy with him. Man, all of a sudden, I saw these parts that Zappa wrote and they were frightening. I just looked at it awhile and I got by the best way I could. That experience opened it up for me, so the next time I played it, I was not as fearful of it. Finally, in my own band, I was having things written in 7/8.

RF: Should a person go into music with the idea of becoming a studio player?

Shelly: Jim, I know that you started to play drums because you wanted to play drums and you dug the music. I don’t think it came into your mind that “I’m going to be a studio great.” When I decided I wanted to be a jazz drummer in New York City, I decided that that was what I wanted to do and people said, “You can only make $3.50 a night.” I said, “I don’t care, that’s what I have to do.” You become a musician for the same reason painters paint, writers write and dancers dance. It’s the same in all the arts. Now, from the accumulation—if you’re good at it and if you have talent, which is a very abstract word anyway—a word-of-mouth thing happens, from one musician to another. I don’t know Vinnie personally, but I know who he is because I hear other people talk about him. Hal was the pioneer of rock drumming out here and on the West Coast, and if Hal wasn’t available, he’d have a set available because they wanted Hal’s set. They’d even pay Hal to use his set for another drummer to play on.

Jim: That’s how important the Hal Blaine sound was.

Craig: I played on his set many times myself.

Shelly: Studio playing is a craft and you have to be a good craftsman to do it.

Hal: We all start off trying to get attention, I think. We’re show-offs. It goes from there to become art and craft.

Shelly: You’re trying to find an answer to how drummers get into the studio?

RF: No, I’m trying to find the answer to what they should expect; what they are going to come in contact with.

Shelly: They shouldn’t expect anything; they should just go to the studio and play.

Hal: When I was a kid, a studio musician was a god because he could read anything and there was nothing he couldn’t play. But in those days, this was closer to the truth than it is today, because nowadays, how many people know how to play a polka?

Shelly: That goes back to using your ears, Hal. You can’t lock yourself in a little tunnel, listen to one kind of music and understand one kind of music. If you’re a musician, you should understand all kinds of music. When I’m home, I don’t play jazz records; I don’t play rock; I play classical music most of the time. From classical music, whether I know it or not, subconsciously I am absorbing form. Your ears have to be prepared, so if you see the music and hear what is going on, you should be able to adjust. And that’s attitude again.

Jim: What you said a minute ago is really true. All the years I have known you, you have said the same thing, and I know that in your own playing life, you are a man of high integrity when it comes to that. It’s a love of playing to you. You would never give up jazz and, in fact, you used to always tell me I should play jazz more. You have got to love music and if you do, chances are you will love every kind of music. I used to say to people, “I love every kind of music but Hawaiian.” I don’t know why I said that. I guess I had to feel that I didn’t like something, but now I even love Hawaiian music. It is some of the most beautiful music ever played—beautiful feeling stuff. The chords are lovely and the voices are exquisite. I love every form of music and I’m still looking for some form I haven’t heard yet—some Borneo music or something.

Craig: Vinnie is younger than we are, but when the rest of us started, they never gave studio players credit. I was completely unaware that such a beast existed, and it’s only recently that, all of sudden, young drummers have awareness of a “studio drummer.” I don’t think any of us started out to do that. If it hadn’t been for that series on the history of rock where we could finally find out who played on what, we might not know. I was dying for years to know that stuff.

Shelly: If you went to every studio musician alive, people who you would call “studio musicians,” none of them started out to be studio musicians. The violin players and cellists all wanted to be in symphonies.

Hal: All I know is, the average person who goes into the studio gets a taste of it and it’s like a drug. You love hearing yourself; you love being a part of creating the music. I still cry on dates.

Jim: I played on a track for a movie once where I was actually crying while I was playing. I had never had such an experience.

RF: What track was that?

Jim: It was the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid movie. It was where Slim Pickens was dying. He was lying by the river, his wife was crying and Bob Dylan was singing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” We were doing everything live and the voices were all singing together—”knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.” He’s dying, I’m playing and I started crying.

Shelly: You’re very affected by it. Saying how much you like Hawaiian music now, you probably see palm trees, and the beach, and all of that.

Jim: Oh, yeah.

Shelly: So all the images come to you. If you had done that song without the movie, you may not have cried.

Hal: I see things all the time. I really listen to lyrics and the story really means a lot to me.