It’s tough to know where the fan ends and the musician begins with Guns n’ Roses’ drummer—who, some might be surprised to learn, has been happily perched atop the band’s drum riser for a decade now.
MD got the chance to climb right up there with him during GNR’s current world tour, and immediately understood why he’s the perfect man for the job
Story by Jamie Blaine
Photos by Leslie Tubberville
It’s 98 degrees at Music City’s Titan Stadium, and Modern Drummer has been invited on stage to sit behind the kit of the world’s most dangerous band, the reunited, unrepentant group of misfits known officially as Guns n’ Roses.
“Let me get your picture, my man,” drummer Frank “Thunderchucker” Ferrer says, snapping iPhone shots from Slash’s station on stage.
Ferrer’s lighthearted attitude is a bit surprising. Here’s the guy keeping time for one of the most legendary American rock acts ever, and he’s laughing and letting a relative stranger goof around on his drumset. Apparently, the Not in This Lifetime tour is a far cry from the pressure-cooker situation that GNR was rumored to be in the Chinese Democracy days.
“A couple more!” the Thunderchucker says, handing over a set of his signature Vater Power 5Bs.
Ferrer’s laid-back and gracious vibe just goes to show that he hasn’t forgotten his modest roots growing up in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Since those days he’s served as a member of the Psychedelic Furs and Love Spit Love and worked with a long list of other top acts. We begin our conversation looking back at those early days in New York City, and Ferrer’s first kit….
Frank: It was this old put-together thing my father found somewhere. Multicolored, made from spare pieces. I remember it had a red-sparkle tom, a Ludwig bass drum, cracked cymbals…. I might have had a rack tom as a floor. I worked that thing over until I finally got my first real kit. I was in a band called the Beautiful, and we got signed to Warner Bros., so I was able to buy a GMS set, which I had for over twenty years before I started using Pork Pie.
MD: You played that same GMS kit through all those bands?
Frank: All those years. It had a 24″ bass drum and 8″, 10″, and 12″ toms, and I kept my old Slingerland 14″ tom. I did Love Spit Love, Psychedelic Furs, Robi Rosa, Frank Black. I toured and recorded with that same set until I started working with Guns about ten years ago.
MD: What got you started in music?
Frank: My father was a Latin percussionist, so we always had drums in the house. I joined the New York City Youth Chorus and couldn’t sing a lick, so the director, Mr. Gomez, had me play percussion. That’s when I was ten. And the next year my father took me to see Kiss.
MD: Latin was a big influence for Peter Criss as well.
Frank: Really? I didn’t realize that. I was so naïve about rock music that I thought the opening band and Kiss used the same drumset. So the lights go out, the crowd goes nuts—and I got scared! I had no idea what was going on. And Kiss literally explodes onto the stage. Me and my buddy sat in our seats totally freaked out. My mind couldn’t process it. I remember thinking, I don’t know what they’re doing—but that’s what I want to do!
MD: Did you experience the show as a drummer or just a fan?
Frank: Believe it or not, drums were the last thing on my mind. I couldn’t take my eyes off [guitarist] Ace Frehley. The way he was all wobbly and slow, it’s like he was in slow motion while everything else was going regular speed. I just loved Ace, man. So at first I played guitar. Drums were the last thing on my mind.
MD: Obviously there was some epiphany along the way.
Frank: Eventually, yeah, but it was a few years down the road. My parents bought me this crappy little electric guitar, and my friends and I put a band together. We were working up songs, and as it turns out, I was always having to show the drummer what beats to play. Finally I sat down at the set and didn’t get back up. So somewhere around fourteen I fell in love with the drums and realized they were my thing.
MD: Who were your earliest drumming influences?
Frank: Peter Criss, of course. Peter rocks, man. I mean, listen to “Strutter.” John Bonham, sure. He was probably the greatest lead drummer ever. I spent a lot of those early days grooving to “Kashmir.” But you know, I’ve been thinking more lately that the sign of a great drummer is if you don’t even think about the drums when you hear them. When you hear an AC/DC song or the Stones, you’re not focused on the drums. Kiss is the same thing. There’s a foundation you can stand on and enjoy the rest of the song. You can listen to the melody. You’re not necessarily thinking, What a great drum fill. You’re thinking, What a great song.
MD: Like Ringo?
Frank: Exactly! I had someone ask, “Don’t you think Zak Starkey is a better drummer than Ringo Starr?” It’s impossible! Ringo played on immortal songs, and part of the reason they’re so great is that his style and restraint let the music shine. There are a lot of incredible drummers who can’t pull that off. So I like to think I come from more of a song approach. The Motown guys, Charley Drayton, Charlie Watts, Bun E. Carlos, Phil Rudd—those are the guys I listened to. But not only drummers. Keith Richards, Malcolm Young—even Celia Cruz with her percussive phrasing—they were a big influence on my drum style too.
MD: Hey, doesn’t your lead singer also play in Phil and Malcolm’s old band?
Frank: I know! How cool is that, right? I play with the lead singer of Guns n’ Roses and the lead singer of AC/DC. I’m playing a show the other night and I look down and there’s Angus Young and Slash. It’s like the Mount Rushmore of guitarists, and I’m jamming “Whole Lotta Rosie” with them. It’s insane, dude.
MD: You mentioned listening to AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd.
Frank: When I was a kid, I got to see Phil play Madison Square Garden on the For Those About to Rock tour, and that was a huge education for me. He had a simple kit—one rack, two floors, a ride cymbal…. Phil Rudd, man. Just find that groove and sit there. Roger Taylor from Queen is another guy I saw perform live about that same time. Amazing drummer that never comes up much in conversation. He’s a musician. He played the song. Roger Frickin’ Taylor, bro. Mighty. And we’ve been playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” in the shows, and Nick Mason, he’s another underrated guy. He’s tasteful. A drummer shouldn’t be selfish. The music comes first. You have to serve the song.
MD: What’s your advice to young drummers in terms of serving the song?
Frank: First, if you’re playing in a band with a singer, figure out where his or her vocal tempo lies, where they breathe or sing full power. Some singers can’t think fast and others can’t think slow, so the place for you as a drummer is to sit with your click and find where you fit comfortably so the singer can best sing the song. Second, find the hook and make it the meatiest, baddest part of the tune. Drums are important. We lay the foundation. But the most important thing is the song. So keep that in mind.
MD: Did growing up in New York City give you a musical advantage?
Frank: For sure. Great shows, daily. I could walk to the Limelight, to CBGB or SNAFU. Also, all my local heroes, like Steve Jordan and Zack Alford and Sterling Campbell—who played with Bowie and Springsteen and Duran Duran—those guys were my mates, and I got to know them personally. So I was mad lucky growing up in New York.
MD: Was it rock first, then punk? Or Latin first?
Frank: I rebelled against the Latin influence at first. Every kid goes through that. So it was hard rock and punk, and then later in the ’80s hip-hop. Punk was CBGB on a Sunday afternoon. Leeway…the Cro-Mags with Mackie, another local guy who also played with Bad Brains…the Ramones—Marky’s hi-hat, crazy. My neighborhood was poor and Latino, and of course all the punk rockers and artists move into the poor Latino neighborhoods.
MD: How did hip-hop influence your drumming?
Frank: We only had one record player, and my older sister was into Funkadelic, so that music was always in the background too. Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow—all those great records with the pocket groove. The Beastie Boys of course started as a hardcore band and then went hip-hop. Anthrax and Public Enemy. Public Enemy was as punk as any punk band. Everything falls into a groove. That’s the soundtrack of New York City, punk rock on one side, hip-hop on the other. And Latin uptown? That’s me.
MD: What current drummers do you like?
Frank: Abe Cunningham from Deftones, Danny Carey from Tool, Mike Miley from Rival Sons—slamming band, man. Steve Kiely from Monster Truck. They’ve got that good, classic-rock drum feeling. And Ilan Rubin from Nine Inch Nails—love that guy.
MD: Steven Adler came out last night and played with the band for the first time in twenty-six years. As GNR’s drummer for over a decade now, how do you feel about that?
Frank: Loved it. I’m a Guns fan from the start, so it was very, very cool. We took an extended musical break after “Better” and set up my drums for Steven, and he slid right in and did his thing on “Out Ta Get Me” and “My Michelle.” The fans went ape, and it was so great to see him up there. Nothing but love from me, man.
MD: What was your take on Adler’s playing from Appetite for Destruction, as opposed to Matt Sorum’s on the Use Your Illusion albums?
Frank: See, Guns were already hot in New York from that Ritz show, right? I remember buying Appetite as a kid for $4.95, and the first song I fell in love with was “It’s So Easy.” It sounded like a New York City punk song, like the Dolls or the Dictators. The funky bits off Appetite were super-funky, the punky bits were super-punky, and the rock parts rocked. I was like, This guy is playing every genre of music I love to a T. With Sorum, I liked his steadiness and sense of tempo and pace.
MD: Two very different styles.
Frank: Totally, yeah. To me, Guns was almost like two different bands. “You Could Be Mine” is a slamming hard rock song, and “It’s So Easy” is a slamming, sleazy punk-rock tune. Two different drummers, two different feels. It’s opposites. When they were looking for someone to replace Adler, they found a more steady and straight-ahead kind of drummer. You know how sports teams will have a loud, screaming coach and then the next one will be really quiet? Adler is more off the rails, unpredictable, and Matt is a professional player, a technician.
MD: Do you think about that when you’re playing those songs?
Frank: Always. I like to think I’m in between the two. A lot of that was [previous Guns drummer] Brain’s influence. He has that steady, professional thing but can also give you off-the-rails. So I’ll make “Mr. Brownstone” as funky as possible and “It’s So Easy” as if I’m Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, while making “You Could Be Mine” as professional sounding as Matt Sorum.
MD: You were killing that the other night. It was obvious that you were having a good time.
Frank: That’s actually my favorite song to play live. It’s like driving a car, shifting through all those gears and constantly moving. It’s pretty dope.
MD: What’s the advantage of using a smaller kit for rock?
Frank: I went through that period when you had two bass drums, two racks, two floors. Every drummer goes through that. I find that if I have more drums, I play more drums. My whole life now is between kick, snare, and hi-hat. I can live there forever. If I ever got in a situation where I couldn’t play toms I’d be like, Thank God. Songs like “Jungle” or “Brownstone” don’t need a ton of drums. Why would you need any more drums than what it takes to play the song? Guns n’ Roses is sleazy and rock and punk and street—you don’t need a lot of drums to do that.
MD: That brash hi-hat flavor on early GNR is classic. You’ve put your own signature on it.
Frank: Funny you say that. I was using 14s before, but when we got into rehearsal, Slash and Duff [McKagan] wanted more of that big swashy feel. I switched to Sabian 15s at first and was getting more swash without actually having to lift my foot off the pedal, so I thought let’s just go 16s. Slash and Duff like to hear a lot of hi-hat, a lot of quarters and 8ths, like on “Paradise City” when I play those big fat quarters. It really cuts through in the arena settings.
MD: How have things changed musically with Duff and Slash back in the band?
Frank: It’s a lot more of that Adler feel. Much more dangerous. Playing in the Chinese Democracy version of Guns n’ Roses was more of a professional band setting with an effort to make sure the songs flowed and sounded crisp. I don’t want to say this version is sloppy—because Guns is not a sloppy band—but now it’s more of that punk-attitude, club-feel Guns.
MD: What’s the rhythm section like with Duff?
Frank: From the very first time we played together, we knew we were cut from the same cloth. In Duff’s heart of hearts he considers himself a punk rocker, and I do too.
MD: Duff said that “Rocket Queen” came from jamming to Cameo’s “Word Up.”
Frank: It did, man! Crazy, right? That rock-funk stuff in Guns kinda reminds me of what the Stones were doing in the ’80s. We play “Rocket Queen” for like twenty minutes now. Duff and I sit in the pocket, and Slash does his talk-box thing, and it’s a lot of fun, man. I love that funky groove of “Mr. Brownstone” too. For a drummer, it doesn’t get much better than that. In a rock band, you gotta play stuff girls can dance to.
MD: How did you create your parts for Chinese Democracy?
Frank: I did a few tracks with Brain and he told me to just make the songs my own. It wasn’t so much conscious writing as focusing on how the music made me feel and not overthinking it. And then on the song “Chinese Democracy”—which was written by drummer Josh Freese—I play that whole track by myself. But the rest of the record is me and Brain. We already had Josh’s arrangements and there was a lot going on, but I found room to express myself.
MD: Axl’s scrutinizing all this?
Frank: Yeah, yeah. There were a couple things he loved, like in the middle section of “Better,” Brain was crashing on the hi-hat, and I played it more on the crash cymbal to keep the neck-breaking down to the hi-hat. If Axl pointed something out I would definitely keep doing it every night.
MD: Do you think you’ll be on the next Guns record?
Frank: Man, I’m just hoping that if Guns continues in whatever form, I’ll be part of that recording process as well.
MD: What sorts of changes have you made for the stadiums and larger venues of the reunion shows?
Frank: I just got a new drum tech, Imy James, and he’s got me sounding better than ever before. Imy worked with Prince, man! Plus Tommy Aldridge, Thin Lizzy, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Faith No More… He tunes my kit to the song now and weighs all my sticks.
MD: So you tune to the song instead of the room?
Frank: Right. Everybody likes a different feel. Some like their heads more spongy, and others like them really tight so there’s a lot of response in the progressive stuff. Most of the Guns songs are in E-flat, so we work with the sound guy to find notes that work best with the set list. Back in the day you would never do that. What felt good sounded good. But now we’ve got the technology to go beyond that, and the only thing that changes is the venue; the toms sound the same pretty much every day.
MD: Explain why you weigh the sticks.
Frank: There might be a difference in weight from stick to stick, say 40 to 60 grams. You’ll notice the difference. So Imy will weigh each stick and write the weight on the butt, and I’ll only use sticks in the same spectrum. It’s more comfortable. It might be in the middle of the show before I notice it, or maybe on a high-paced song the stick will break if it’s too light. I always start with heavier sticks and work lighter towards the end.
MD: What are your thoughts on using a click?
Frank: I love click tracks. My biggest concern as a drummer is tempo and making sure that the pocket is as deep as possible. Once you’ve got the tempo locked, you’re free. There’s a lot going on live, so we play the newer songs to a click. But I’m in and out. I use some clicks for groove, to get into the song, to get out, even the middle.
MD: You’ve been playing professionally for more than twenty-five years. How do you stay healthy and loose?
Frank: Lately I’ve been battling arthritic stuff in my wrists and ankles. More my hi-hat foot than my kick. Practicing keeps everything well oiled. I don’t get much practice in on the road, but I have a drum room in my basement at home and I get down there every day. I try to play live two or three times a week, and I play drums daily. Playing actually relieves the stiffness and pain. We soundcheck every single show now, and I really enjoy that. You can play with a practice pad in your hotel room, but it’s not the same. I get a good half hour to forty-five minutes of warm-up in before the show. I need to play as much as possible and hit as hard as I usually hit.
MD: What’s your practice and warm-up routine?
Frank: My all-time favorite groove is Bonham’s version of the Purdie shuffle, so I might play along to “Fool in the Rain” three times in a row. Or maybe I’ll find some crazy Dennis Chambers video on YouTube and go with that. As far as basic rudiments go, everything I do is rooted in the paradiddle. So I might work around that between the hands and feet. But I’m not a super-technical drummer, and I try hard not to overplay.
MD: Thanks for your time, Frank. A lot of us have been looking forward to these shows for a long, long time.
Frank: Me too, and I’ve got a front-row seat, man! Seriously, I’m thankful every day. I get to do what I love. How many people can truly say that?
Drums: DW Jazz series in custom silver sparkle finish with satin chrome lugs and hardware
A. 6.5×14 Collector’s Metal series Knurled Bronze snare
B. 9×13 tom (on 9399 snare mount)
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 16×18 floor tom
E. 14×26 bass drum
Hardware: DW 9000 series
Heads: Remo Coated Emperor X snare batter, Coated or Clear Emperor tom batters, and Powerstroke P3 bass drum batter
1. 16″ AAX X-Plosion hi-hats
2. 20″ HHX X-Plosion
3. 22″ AA Rock ride
4. 20″ AAX X-Plosion
5. 21″ AAX X-Treme Chinese
Not shown: 19″ HHX X-Plosion (above hi-hats)
Accessories: ButtKicker Concert series
Sticks: Vater Signature Power 5B
Percussion: LP Rock Ridge Rider cowbell and tambourines