A security officer wasn’t doing their job. As it turns out, that was lucky for drumming history. “Nobody stopped us,” David Garibaldi recalls. “There was nobody there. We walked right up to the front of the stage and watched the band rehearsing.”

It was 1965 at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. The eighteen-year-old drummer and some friends had come to see a James Brown concert and chanced upon an unexpected treat: basking in the presence of the band heard on the classic Live at the Apollo album. “It was unbelievable,” Garibaldi says, “a big moment. I realized, Wow—I want to do this! I was really connected to the vibe, the beats.”

Within five years, the teen would be making his own indelible impact as a member of the famed brass-fueled funk-rock unit Tower of Power, where he would become one of the most influential drummers of the past five decades.

Born in Oakland on November 4, 1946, John David Garibaldi gigged with a local big band as well as R&B and rock acts since his mid teens. After serving in the 724th Air Force Band, he returned home in 1969 to a wildly exploding Bay Area music scene.

“It was a very fertile, creative scene,” Garibaldi recalls, “and you couldn’t help but do your own thing. The wide variety of music and bands fostered a more individualized approach to playing. It was common to have big band influences but also to be influenced by rock, funk, and Latin players. That was me: I enjoyed anything that was rhythmic. My quest throughout my playing life has been to make one drummer out of all the music I liked.”

Garibaldi hung out and shared ideas with fellow Bay Area funk innovators such as Mike Clark, Greg Errico, and Gaylord Birch. When Emilio Castillo, the saxophonist/leader of Tower of Power, sat in at a club where Garibaldi was subbing, he promptly recruited the groover to be TOP’s new drummer, kicking off with their debut disc, 1970’s East Bay Grease. “Emilio encouraged me to experiment, and I was never told what to play,” Garibaldi insists. TOP became the drummer’s ideal laboratory for creating his catalog of progressive grooves. Indeed, Mike Clark once called him a beat-making “mad scientist.”

Garibaldi’s funk concepts and symbiotic beat-building with bassist Francis Rocco Prestia became central to TOP’s sound, feel, compositions, and arrangements. His detailed patterns were thoroughly part-oriented and song-specific. Even fills were often precomposed to fit a composition’s character.

The innovator plumbed influences from previous funk pioneers including Zigaboo Modeliste, Bernard Purdie, and, most notably, the great James Brown drummers, especially Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield. “Clyde’s playing on ‘I Got the Feelin’’ was like some drumming from the future,” says David. “And it still is!”

Building upon the JB legacy, the Tower helmsman expanded the vocabulary of beat-displacement groove patterns, serving up ultra-syncopated 16th-note beats peppered with shifting accented notes placed far beyond the typical 2 and 4, all threaded seamlessly with ghost notes. He applied the patterns in a “linear” concept, emphasizing contiguous snare, hi-hat, and bass drum notes distributed largely within their own spaces as opposed to being “stacked.” The effect was a less thick yet powerful percolation of exceptional clarity, executed with a laser-sharp staccato accuracy.

And while many previous soul drummers favored a “behind the beat” snare, Garibaldi urged the groove with an “on top” yet swinging placement, lending the continuum an irresistible forward momentum in tandem with Prestia’s crisp, pumping bass lines.

Another crucial keystone of the Garibaldi groove was his stunning dynamic control, which navigated the hills and valleys between accents and ghost notes—as well as drumset voices—that made his sound and groove so personal and electrifying.

Garibaldi also cites as an inspiration the driving energy of Sonny Payne’s work with Count Basie. As a large, horn-fronted band, TOP provided an ideal forum for Garibaldi to synthesize his influences. While other linear drumming stylists were primarily locking their patterns to a rhythm section, Garibaldi did this and more. Channeling big band drummers, he also outlined ensemble parts in his patterns, mirroring everything from guitar comps to the stabbing brass lines and funky baritone pickups.

The funkster’s explorative pattern permutations exuded a dizzying sense of endless possibilities. Most importantly, the complex grooves ultimately served to make a body move. Some fans came to marvel at the musicianship while others came to dance. TOP remained one of the rare bands that managed to crack the charts while simultaneously creating buzz with rock, soul, and jazz musicians alike.

Praising the innovator in his February 2016 MD cover story, Adam Deitch noted, “His ghost-note concept, the three levels of snare drum height [volume]—tiny accents, mid-accents, and rimshots—his incorporation of paradiddles and paradiddle combinations with grooves and moving the snare drum accents around…Garibaldi is a genius with that stuff.”

In TOP’s first defining decade, Garibaldi’s distinct groove identity began crystalizing with their sophomore release, Bump City (1972), then solidified with Tower of Power (1973), and found a pinnacle in the essential-for-drummers classic, Back to Oakland (1974), followed by the equally ambitious In the Slot (1975).

Among the many enlightening columns Garibaldi contributed to MD was “Classic Tower Beats” (February, 1991), featuring transcriptions of iconic grooves he cites as favorites from his early canon, including “The Oakland Stroke,” “Soul Vaccination,” “Vuelo per Noche,” “On the Serious Side,” and “Man from the Past.” Certainly other titles belong in this list, including “Down to the Nightclub,” the jazz-tinged instrumental “Squib Cakes,” which included his ultra-classic killer intro, and TOP’s hit signature song, the Garibaldi co-write “What Is Hip?” And a testament to his ability to drive soloists, improvise, and kick a band to ecstatic heights can be heard on the sweat-drenched 23-minute live version of “Knock Yourself Out” from Live and in Living Color (1976).

Although the 16th-note funk groove was Garibaldi’s signature ticket to fame, he was equally commanding on a wide variety of grooves. He also played in a more minimal style when appropriate, as heard on charting singles such as the R&B ballad “You’re Still a Young Man” and the solid backbeat-driven “So Very Hard to Go.”

In 1977, Garibaldi took a brief leave from TOP to pursue studio work in Los Angeles, and in 1980 he took what he thought would be his final departure. In the hiatus years, he performed and/or recorded with notables such as Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, Boz Scaggs, Gino Vannelli, and Roy Buchanan, and was a member of the fusion group Wishful Thinking.

The restless artist eventually became disenchanted with the L.A. scene, however, feeling it favored stylistic trend-acclimation over individualism. A year or so after returning to Oakland in 1989, he formed the percussion super-trio Talking Drums with Michael Spiro and Jesús Diaz. The intermittently ongoing unit allowed the kit master to experiment with melding funk and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. And in 1996 and 1997, he collaborated with other percussion masters as a member of Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum.

As if fated, the drummer casually dropped by to reconnect with TOP at a 1998 Fillmore West show. The band’s current drummer would soon be leaving, and Garibaldi was quickly enlisted to cover what he thought would be a brief Japan tour. He never left, though, and TOP’s tireless touring continues today. As he told MD, “After a few shows, we all realized that I belonged here—I feel like I’m at home.”

Returning in top form, Garibaldi created more dazzling TOP grooves with Oakland Zone (2003) and Soul Side of Town (2018), a release celebrating the band’s fiftieth anniversary. This year is Garibaldi’s own fiftieth celebration since joining his famed band. And for these past five decades, drummers have continued to reverently study this master’s legacy and credit his influence on their own musical lives.

David Garibaldi plays Yamaha drums and Sabian cymbals. He uses Remo heads and Vic Firth sticks.

Classic Tower Beats continued below.



Classic Tower Beats

By David Garibaldi

Here are some of my favorite grooves from the Tower of Power recordings that I played on. I enjoyed making those records very much, and the selection of what to write here was easy. Over the course of many performances, my patterns evolved to the point where the live versions were somewhat diff erent from the recorded ones. These are, to my best recollection, the original parts I played. (By the way, my personal favorite is the vamp out on “Man From the Past.”)

During the early years with Tower I used a layered coordination concept that is more dense sonically than the linear style. As my playing has grown over the years I have become quite a bit more linear in my coordination concept. I have found that combining the two coordination styles is very useful in building grooves.

“Drop It in the Slot” (bridge section), Drop It in the Slot.“Soul Vaccination” (intro), Tower of Power.

“Soul Vaccination” (instrumental bridge before second intro)“Soul Vaccination” (main groove)

“Man From the Past” (vamp out), Back to Oakland.

“The Oakland Stroke,” Back to Oakland. (The first bass drum note within parentheses indicates that this note is played the first time only and omitted when the pattern is repeated.)“On the Serious Side” (main groove), Drop It in the Slot.

“Vuela Per Noche” (main groove), Drop It in the Slot.This sidebar originally appeared in the February 1991 issue of Modern Drummer.