Sometimes, a person becomes noted for something which is merely a by-product of what the person was actually going for. Steve Gadd’s primary concern has always been to play for the music. He has never been preoccupied with trying to establish his own sound or style. Instead, he has concentrated on trying to satisfy the musical needs of whoever is hiring him, and on doing his best at all times.
And yet, in the process of doing that, Gadd has established a personal identity so strong that scores of “Steve Gadd clones” have appeared — some consciously trying to achieve success by imitating Steve, others forced into the role by conservative producers and artists who are afraid to try anything other than that which has already been proven successful. So for whatever reasons, quite a few drummers are modeling themselves after Gadd — from those who memorize his patterns and solos, to those who actually effect curly hair and beards, and purchase black Yamaha drumsets just like the one Steve uses. In fact, judging by the letters that come into the MD office, a few people are downright obsessed with Gadd. We get letters from people demanding to know why they saw a photo of Steve using a different cymbal set-up than the one which was described in the last article they read about him. (Gadd: “I use different cymbals, depending on what the music calls for.”) And if anyone from Yamaha is reading this, I wish you would make your Steve Gadd model drumsticks available in America, so we can stop having to explain to people that those black sticks that Steve uses are only available in Japan.
And then there are the rumors, ranging from the ridiculous (a Japanese music magazine recently reported: ”It is believed that he played a single paradiddle when he was only three years old.”) to the trivial (“When Steve was young, did he and Cubby really do a drum battle on the Mickey Mouse Club show?” No, Cubby played drums while Steve tap danced.) to the grim (Phone calls from people who are hysterical because they just heard that Steve was killed, or Steve is dying, or Steve is sick, etc.). And that’s just what we get here at the magazine. Carol Gadd told me some amazing stories about people she has encountered outside of the building they live in — people who camp out on the sidewalk for hours, just hoping to maybe see Steve drive up in a limousine.
Well, don’t be looking for a limo. If people want to think of him as a superstar, that’s up to them. But Steve doesn’t think of himself like that. He drives himself. A nice car, but nothing you’d pay particular attention to if he passed you on the street. In fact, when I showed up outside a New York recording studio to do this interview, I didn’t even notice Steve sitting in his car right in front of the entrance. As I climbed into the back seat, his first words were, “Hi. Want some peas?” whereupon he passed me a sack of fresh, raw peas, purchased that morning from a vegetable stand. (“We’ve been stopping by that stand for weeks, waiting for these to be in season.”) As we drove through the rain in midtown Manhattan (Carol had some errands to run and Steve was driving her from place to place), we discussed and agreed that we both preferred fresh, crisp vegetables to cooked, mushy ones. Not the kind of conversation one might fantasize about having with the living drum legend himself.
But a legend is a ”thing,” and Steve is a person. And like many people, he doesn’t especially enjoy spending his free time — of which there is very little—talking about his work. There’s an old saying that “The people who talk about it the most, do it the least.” Although that statement is usually applied to a subject other than drumming, perhaps the same principle applies. Steve Gadd doesn’t need to spend his time talking about drumming, analyzing it, reading about it or dreaming about it because he’s totally involved in doing it. And no amount of talking about drumming can match the actual playing. So when he’s not working, Steve, like any ordinary person, has ordinary interests (he likes horses) and does ordinary things (watches TV when he’s home).
He’s not particularly interested in keeping statistics on himself, either. Gadd does not maintain a notebook listing all the sessions he’s been on, and when I spoke to him on the day of the Grammy awards, he really didn’t know how many of the nominated records he had played on. He knew that he was on a few of them, but the tone of his voice indicated that he wasn’t overly concerned about his own personal glory. Again, the important thing to him is the playing itself.
As a result, Gadd has maintained a fairly low profile over the years. He has shied away from doing a lot of interviews, and it is perhaps the lack of direct information that has given rise to the stories, rumours and myths. And because so much of his work is done in the studio, opportunities for people to hear Steve live are relatively infrequent.
In the last year, however, he has suddenly become more visible. He recently completed a video tape, recorded his first solo album (with Ralph MacDonald), and has appeared at such events as the Percussive Arts Society convention in Dallas, the Drum Corps International championships in Florida, and Zildjian Day in Los Angeles. He even agreed to do this interview! Is this increased visibility the result of a conscious deci sion? “Yes, ” says Gadd. “There are a lot of people that I haven’t been able to keep in contact with, that I’d like to say ‘hello’ to, and also let people know what it is I’m doing.”
While doing this interview, Steve pondered each question for a moment before he answered it. When the answers came, they tended to be short and to the point. A couple of times, in an attempt to get more words out of him, I would ask a series of very similar questions about the same subject. Steve chided me about that: “Kids get confused because everyone is always trying to complicate everything. We should be trying to simplify things in this interview. “
RM: A lot of drummers dream of establishing an identity for themselves in the studio, as you have done. But they complain that whenever they go in to do a session, they are often asked to imitate something that you did. When you were getting started, were you ever asked to sound like someone else?
SG: Yeah, they did the same thing back then. They’d want the tune that they were producing at a certain time to be in the current style. Remember when Russ Kunkel first started playing with James [Taylor] and there were those spacy tom-tom fills? They liked stuff like that. In other words, they would ask you to sound like something else; to fall into a category. They still do that sometimes. When you go in they’ll play something and say, “We want it to feel like this.”
RM: A lot of musicians get frustrated by that because they want to develop their own style, but they feel that no one is giving them a chance.
SG: I guess when you first start out there’s a little anxiety, and it’s a little frustrating. But after you’ve been in the studios for a while and start knowing the producers, it gets beyond that stage.
RM: They start trusting you?
SG: Yeah. It’s just like anything else; it takes a while. When you get in a band, other players have to get to know you musically, and producers have to do the same thing. I’ve gone to sessions where they didn’t want me to use any of my equipment at all—my cymbals or anything—and I just did it, if that’s what” they wanted. I was trying to get into the recording business, and you just have to weather your way through that stuff. It gets beyond that after a while, but when you start out, it’s the same for everybody. It doesn’t make any difference who you are. It was the same way for me.
RM: So those are some of the dues of the studio?
SG: I wouldn’t call it the dues of the studio; it’s just the process of getting to know people in the business musically. After different musicians and producers get to know a player musically, then that player can be called to do anything. They will know what the player is capable of coming up with himself, creatively. But it doesn’t happen on the first date. It takes a while.
It’s just like being in a band. If you took someone’s place in a band, the first thing you’d probably do is try to play the music on the level of the last drummer who was playing it. After you understand it that way and get comfortable with everyone, then you start injecting more of your own things. But not until the music and everything makes more sense. So I think it’s just part of the business. It just takes time to get to know people—personally and musically.
And then I’m sure that trying to do the job the best that you can for the person who hired you would have a lot to do with them calling you again. Just your attitude, you understand what I’m saying? It’s more than just the playing. It’s understanding what the whole job is and wanting to do it. There’s a lot of money put into recording. There’s a time limit there and the product is the most important thing. And then some people don’t verbalize what they want real clear, and they can be taken the wrong way and you can get an attitude. But if you look beyond that stuff and just try to get the job done in the amount of time you have to do it in, then it works out good. Then they’ll hire you again and get a chance to know you a little more. Maybe one day they’ll hire you and say, “Listen, we want you because we want it to feel like this and we know you can do it.” But it doesn’t start out like that. I think for me, too, it’ll probably always be that way, where people will produce records based on an inspiration they heard from something else that was done.
RM: So even with you, people don’t always hire you to do something new. They might be hiring you because they liked something you did before, and they want you to do it again.
SG: Yeah, I guess. I don’t really know why they hire you. It’s probably because they know you can play, and because they know you can apply your ability to any situation with out getting an attitude. I think how easy you are to work with has a lot to do with it too. There are a lot of things in the studio that affect the music besides the playing. There’s your attitude, and your willingness to try and understand what it is that they’re really going for, no matter how they ask you. There are a thousand ways to say the same thing, and if you take it the wrong way… Maybe you should check out a few other ways it could be meant. In other words, instead of letting something like that frustrate you at the beginning of a date, which could get in the way of the whole thing, just try and let yourself go beyond that, because it happens to everybody.
So that’s just one of the things that happens when you first start recording, and it still happens to me. If a new thing comes out that’s real big and different, people are going to want to do things in that style. I don’t feel it takes away from my creativity. It can help give a direction for what you are doing at that moment.
RM: That’s certainly a positive way of looking at it.
SG: Yeah, it’s real important when playing music to keep your attitude positive, whether it’s a producer asking you to do something that someone else did, or whether it’s a live performance and the monitors are not exactly what you want. You can spend the whole time on stage thinking about how they’re not what you want, or you can put that attitude out of your head, concentrate on what’s good, and go on from there. There are always going to be certain things that are going to give you an excuse to piss and moan. People don’t need that. You have to get beyond that stuff.
RM: I’ve heard a lot of drummers complain about things such as an engineer taking hours to get a drum sound, so that the player feels burned out by the time they are actually ready to record.
SG: Well, that’s what it’s like; that’s the studio. It can be that way or it can be real quick. I guess after you’ve been doing it long enough, you can be in a position where you don’t have to take the jobs where it takes so much time to get the drum sound that you feel you can’t do anything. Or, you can be experienced enough in the studio to know how to pace yourself, so you don’t go in there ready to hit it at the start of the session, and then get messed up if you don’t get to run down the tune for two hours. If you know that in front, you can prepare yourself. But that’s just the way it is. It’s not just you in there. There’s an engineer, who’s got to get things comfortable for the producer or it’s not going to be a record after that. And that’s just the business. So maybe it’s not as glamorous and exciting as it appears on the outside. It might have a certain appearance on the outside, but when you get involved in it, it can be very tedious and time consuming. But rewarding, too.
RM: Let’s talk about some of the people you’ve worked with, in terms of how they work in the studio. Steely Dan.
SG: I’ve done tracks with them different ways, like we did “Aja” live in the studio with the full rhythm section. But then on other tracks on other albums, I’ve gone in and I was the only musician in there. I’d be playing drums along with a rough keyboard track, or something they’d put down just to let me know what the tune was. They would explain to me the feel they wanted and the fills that they wanted. So I’ve worked with them both ways, where it’s been spontaneous, and also where it’s been very thought out.
RM: Paul Simon.
SG: Paul Simon spends a lot of time on every composition, making sure that everything that goes down on the recording is perfect for what he wants. A lot of it’s experimenting with different things. There have been some tunes that we’ve cut two or three different ways before it got on the record. They’d all be different and they’d all feel good, too. But it’s just that he’s very particular, so that’s the way he works.
RM: Chick Corea.
SG: Chick is very organized. The compositions are all written out; he knows, in front, what he wants, to a point where he can really explain it and get the most out of you. And he writes the music very clearly; he can write a good drum part, but if there’s something vague about the drum part then I’ll take a piano score or something with a little more information on it. Most of the albums I did with Chick, like Leprechaun and Spanish Heart, were all live, with strings and horns.
RM: You did two albums in Japan with Steps.
SG: We recorded live with Steps, and also did a studio album. There was not too much preparation. On the studio album we went in and there were some new tunes, so we ran them down in the studio and recorded them.
RM: Did you have a lot of input into that group? Wasn’t it a cooperative band?
SG: Well, when we first started out, it was just a bunch of guys who enjoyed playing together, and then it became Steps. The reasons why I left didn’t have anything to do with the music; I loved the music, I just didn’t have the amount of time right then that everyone was going to put into that band. So it was a good band, and is a good band.
RM: Paul McCartney.
SG: Paul is a great musician. He has the tune worked out and has certain ideas as to what he wants, but he’s very open and very objective about it, and it can go another way. Things just flow with him. He’s very serious about it, but it’s not a heavy thing—he’s got a sense of humor about it. He’s excellent; really enjoyable to work with.
RM: Al DiMeola.
SG: We rehearse in the studio and spend a lot of time on each song. When you’re playing rock ‘n’ roll and stuff like that, a lot of times the sound gets into everything because there’s not a lot of separation, so that can make it take longer.
RM: George Benson.
SG: I enjoy playing with George; he’s great. An album with George is like . . . he’s got a producer who’s got certain ideas. So what the musicians see is a lot of the relationship between the producer and George, so they agree first. There has to be that kind of agreement before any kind of information can be given to the rhythm section so they’ll know what to do. So that’s the way that goes, but you don’t spend a lot of time on tracks with George. You can get two or three tracks a day with him.
RM: Jim Hall.
SG: Jim Hall was great to work with. He’s not only a real great musician, but he was a real gentleman. He wrote me a letter thanking me for my efforts oh an album \ did with him. I thought that was real nice.
RM: Is that kind of thing rare?
SG: Yeah, it’s rare for me to get letters like that from people. A thank you is always nice to get. But people that you work with a lot of times don’t have the time to say thanks. They get involved . . . you know, it’s a fast pace, this business, and you just go from one thing to the next. I’m not complaining; it’s just nice to have it happen.
RM: Carly Simon.
SG: All of these people are very, very particular about the tracks, but they each work differently with the producers. She’s real enjoyable to work with. She’s real open and she really depends on the people in the band for input and for feedback, and she likes that; she likes to feel involvement from the people in the band. We try different things—her ideas and the producer’s ideas. And then again, she and the producer have to come to a decision, and that makes it easier to go for the track.
RM: Do you enjoy sessions like that— where the artist wants your input—more than a situation where the artist doesn’t?
SG: I always have something to give, like a suggestion. People don’t always ask for it. Sometimes, things like that can just confuse things. It has to be the right time. So if I can give a suggestion at the right time that’s going to cause a positive effect, then that’s good. It’s not going to be good if I give it at the wrong time though.
RM: Is there anyone in particular that you especially like to work with?
SG: There are a lot of people I like to work with. I mean, I enjoy my work. I’m lucky enough to play with a lot of good people, and everybody is good in different ways. So I’m just open to trying to enjoy all the stuff.
RM: Most people are only aware of your playing from your work with the types of artists we have just talked about. But don’t you also do a lot of jingles and things that don’t call for much creativity?
SG: Yeah, I still do jingles. But the sessions I get booked on, I feel real good about musically. I don’t feel stifled at all. I may not be asked to come up with a “50 Ways” part all of the time, but just because it isn’t a drum-oriented piece of music doesn’t mean that it doesn’t call for your creativity. Your creativity in the part you play is part of every session, whether your part is out front, or whether it’s more of a background thing. I mean, creativity isn’t just coming up with a tricky drum part. Creativity is creating music with a bunch of people that you’re playing with. It’s not a real personal thing; you’re part of a unit, creating a product that’s going to be sold, for an artist who’s written the stuff. You have to work together to come out with music.
RM: I suppose a lot of people just look at a session in terms of their own part.
SG: The job isn’t just a drum thing. It’s more than that. If I don’t get a chance to play a drum fill on a session, to me, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good session.
RM: That brings up something you said in your previous MD interview (Oct. ’78). You were talking about your early days, and that you sometimes tended to overplay. You said, “It may have been good drumming, but it wasn’t good music.”
SG: After getting out of school, and getting out of the Army, I guess I had a lot of energy stored up inside me, and it was that, along with just the style of the music. When I played, it was with a different attitude than the attitude I learned in the studios. I was much more aggressive, and it was a more personal thing when I played— just me and the drums. But then, after I started getting into the studios, I saw the challenge of a simpler way of playing. I’m not saying I threw that other way of playing out the window. That’s still valid and that approach might be good in certain situations. But there are other, more laidback approaches, that are just as good too. You can take the opposite end—playing the simplest, littlest amount you can play—and find that challenge. It’s just two different approaches.
I think it’s real natural for young players, when they first get into the studio, to want to do something to be noticed. It’s not always what you do on the drums that’s noticed. It’s what you don’t do, a lot of times, that’s noticed. When you’re first starting out, and you’ve got a space to play, you might be confused about what is going to impress people. Even though you’ve got a space there, where you can play some drums and really razzle-dazzle them technically, sometimes that will be less impressive than if you sort of let that space go by and play a real simple little thing. It’s better for the music. I think that a good rule is to always think in terms of music first, and let that determine how complicated the fill is or how loud it is.
RM: Jim Chapin quoted you as saying that coming from a jazz background, you tended to put an edge on the time, and you had to learn to lay back.
SG: Yeah, it had a lot to do with that energy level that I was talking about. It was just that feeling of aggression—that personal thing between me and the drums—and the way I projected that into the music. And then eventually I was able to channel that energy into an enthusiasm for the music, and sort of separate myself from the drums, personally. I was able to channel it and start playing less.
You start realizing that when you put that much energy into it, you might be on the upper side of the time. You just have to think about the other way to do it.
RM: How did you eventually learn to lay back? Did you sit down with a metronome and work at it?
SG: It’s not that complicated. It was just something I realized I was doing, and when I was aware of it—when I understood it— then I could see how it could be different. It’s just an awareness of something you have to look at inside yourself, and all you have to do is listen to yourself. I did it by being in a situation where I was recording, and then when I heard things back, it was like, “It felt one way when I was playing it, but now it doesn’t feel the same way.” So you have to realize that as comfortable as it felt at the time, this is what it sounds like.
I think the only way to find out about playing on top is to put a click on, and then play loud and soft with it. If you can understand that it’s real natural to get on top when you’re playing loud, then you can start to understand it.
Time is a funny subject. It really is. It’s a little bit different every time. And it gets confusing when you start talking about “playing on top” and “laying back” because those phrases are used in so many different situations. One person can say it and mean one thing and another person could say the same thing and mean something else.
RM: I remember the first time I heard one of those terms, years ago. I was playing with a group, and things were really feeling good that night. Afterwards, a guy came forup and said, “I really like the way you lay back when you play.” I was thinking, “Oh really? I lay back?”
SG: But it felt natural when you were doing it?
SG: That’s what I’m saying. Someone came up and said, “It felt good because you were laying back,” and you didn’t even know what the hell he was talking about. That’s how vague it is. So the thing is, when they tell you it was happening because you were laying back, it might make as little sense to you as when they ask you to lay back.
RM: Judging by the letters we get, people are hearing these terms and getting confused about what they mean.
SG: There are a lot of confusing things that don’t need to be that confusing. I think it will finally make sense to them when they finally play with people who make sense musically. Then they’ll understand.
RM: Do you ever feel that people get too hung up with trying to analyze everything?
SG: I don’t really know what everyone’s doing, but personally, I don’t like that approach. As far as music, I think the playing speaks a lot louder than the words.
RM: You’ve had success in different areas: jingles, jazz, rock, funk, and so on. Does one thing lead to another, or did you have to pursue each area separately?
SG: I started out playing jingles, not intentionally, but I came to New York with a band, trying to get a record deal, and one of the members was the bass player Tony Levin. He had been in New York for a couple of years and made friends and met people who were in the recording business, and he was recording, and recommended me. That led to my first jingle, my first record date, and then to my second jingle and my second record date. After a while, the thing that leads to the next thing is how well you did on whatever it was that you just finished.
RM: Would the fact that you were successful on a jingle necessarily lead to something like, say, a Chick Corea date?
SG: When you say that I’ve been successful, what do you mean by that? RM: You have done the job you were hired to do well enough, and enough times, that people have no hesitation in calling you again.
SG: So success is doing the job.
RM: That’s the type of success I was referring to, yes.
SG: So, you have to do the job in one area, and then you have to do it in another area. There’s no secret; you just do the job. Your next job is based on what you did on the last one. In this business, it’s word of mouth. You don’t have managers and you’re not going out hiring P.R. people to help you. It’s honest. You get called for something, and if you do it, you might get called for something else. But you’ve got to do what you get called for. Let’s not forget that you’ve got to do that before you get called for the next thing.
As far as whatever different styles I played, I love those kinds of music, so I did go after playing those kinds of music honestly and heartfully, with a lot of love, because that’s the way I feel about those kinds of music. I didn’t try to play all those different kinds of music because of jobs that were coming in. I just took jobs as they came in, no matter what they were. I didn’t know what they were, and I still don’t know what they’re going to be. I just take them and play them. You’ve got to love the music first. I didn’t try to play a certain style because of jobs that I thought I was going to get called for. The playing came first, and then the work came second.
RM: Do you ever miss being in a full-time band?
SG: Yeah, you miss the relationship of the band just like you miss the relationship of the people involved. It’s the music, and it’s also everybody’s friendship and devotion towards the thing. It’s a real group effort. It’s a nice situation, especially if it’s a cooperative thing where everybody’s putting in 100%, and they’re all sharing. Just the relationship itself is nice. Even outside of music situations—just take a man and a woman; if they’re giving 100% and sharing everything, that makes a good relationship. It’s a nice thing to be part of.
RM: You were with Stuff for a while, and then with Steps. Do you plan on being in a situation like that again?
SG: I don’t plan on anything. But I would like to be in something like that, with the right combination of people—personally and musically. If I were going to be in a band, I would definitely want it to be a cooperative thing with friends, but where the business stuff is real together too. Where it’s real organized, not just from the musicians’ point of view, but from the whole thing—from the conception to things like how many years you want to be together. Taking your time and working hard at something you’re going to be sharing with the rest of the guys in the band. That would be a nice thing.
RM: Do you get any of that type of relationship in the studio with the people you work with a lot?
SG: Oh yeah. Not necessarily because you’ve done it with them a lot, but just because they’re players who listen and their attitude is the right thing. And those kind of people have the type of attitude of a person that you’d probably want to be in a band with; that you’d want to commit to. So you meet those people in the studio.
RM: That brings up a prejudice that I’ve never understood. Bands made up of studio players are often not taken seriously.
SG: You mean because they don’t feel that people who are studio players will get out and back up the band live?
RM: Maybe that’s what it’s based on. I don’t know.
SG: That sounds like what it is. I don’t know what else it could be. I can understand how record companies might feel that way when they’re going to sign a group of “studio players” who want to form a band and go out and play live. The record company is aware of what people can make in the studios, and aware of the fact that people don’t have to go out and travel and be on the road. It’s not easy out there. So I can understand how they might be, not prejudiced, but a little bit concerned over their investment. But all of that stuff is worked out beforehand, or should be. And as far as any kind of prejudice with the public, I haven’t felt any with any band that I’ve played live with.
RM: I’ve never sensed it from the public. It seems to be the kind of thing you read about. For example, critics often dismiss Toto because they’re studio musicians. I don’t know where that type of attitude comes from.
SG: It comes from bullshit, that’s where it comes from. Because, obviously, Toto completely proves that wrong. Right now, they’re number one, and there are a lot of lesser known situations that could also prove it wrong. So obviously it’s a bunch of bullshit. As far as the critics, I don’t really know what they think. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve got a whole other way of thinking anyway.
RM: Let’s talk about some of your recent activities. You recently made a video.
SG: I’m proud of it. Drummers Collective approached me to do it and I think it’s real informative. It was set up where I sat at a set of drums and Rob Wallis sat next to me and asked questions. I would verbally answer them, and on a lot of occasions, I would also demonstrate, and there are three or four short solos. I was real happy with the way it came out.
RM: I understand that you and Ralph MacDonald have been doing an album together.
SG: It’s my first solo project, and something that Ralph and I have talked about doing, off and on, over the past three or four years. But it’s just been in the last few months that we both were in a situation where we could take advantage of the time to do it. And it was real enjoyable. We started out the tracks with just drums and percussion, and got good sounds on the drums acoustically. Then we listened to the tracks and let the overtones of the drums sort of dictate the harmonic sections—different tonic chords—and we built songs that way.
RM: What could you do here that you haven’t been able to do on all the sessions you’ve done in the past?
SG: Well, I have a lot more to say about what the final product is on this than I’ve ever been in a situation to do. I didn’t have as much creative control on other projects, so this feels good. I have to make a lot more decisions. But I don’t have anything I feel I’ve never been able to do before. I didn’t go into it with that in mind. I just feel that it’s making music, and Ralph and I are doing it for ourselves. We’re still working with other people and stuff like that, but it’s just a different mood musically and businesswise.
RM: What styles of music did you choose to do on your own project?
SG: I think you should just wait to hear it. It’s hard to put music into words; I don’t like to do that. It started out with drums, so obviously it’s got a percussive/rhythmic approach, but I can’t really categorize it.
RM: You must think highly of Ralph MacDonald to share your first solo project with him.
SG: Yeah, I like the way he plays percussion, I like his time, I like his musical ideas, and I like the fact that he listens to other people while he’s playing, so we can fit. It’s easy to make parts fit together with a player like Ralph.
RM: Are the two of you pretty much able to play together without having to spend a lot of time working it out beforehand?
SG: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of real natural ability there, and yeah, it’s real effortless. We do work some things out, but usually that’s just frosting on the cake, because it’s real comfortable before things have been worked out. We’ll work out little breaks and stuff like that, but the feels are real nice. We each have an understanding about drums and percussion and that helps keep us from getting in each other’s way.
RM: Have you ever done any percussion playing yourself?
SG: In college I played marimba and xylophone, and things that are considered percussion in an orchestra. But not too much percussion playing on record dates, because usually when they want percussionists, they want people who can play congas and the hand drums, and people who have developed technique as far as getting the right sounds on those drums. I like to play congas, and on our album I do play some of the hand drums, but not in a way that the sound is that authentic conga sound. With the kind of playing I was doing, the sound wasn’t as important as just the feel I was going for. So I do play percussion, but not in the normal way.
RM: You’ve done some things, such as the Simon & Garfunkel Concert in Central Park, where there have been two drumset players. What’s different about playing drumset with another drumset, as opposed to playing drumset with a percussionist?
SG: When you’re working with a percussionist, you don’t play as much because there’s another person playing a rhythmic instrument that’s in the same family as the instrument that you’re playing, so you have to leave more space. You have to lake that idea another step further when you have a whole other set of drums, which is exactly the same instruments as you have. You have to allow enough space for him to do something and stay out of his way, and he’s got to do the same thing for you. And when you’re both playing at the same time, then you both have to really listen so you’re together. It requires a lot of concentration and you have to listen carefully. You’d have to do that with anybody you’re playing with, but when it’s the same instrument that you’re playing, you just have to take everything a step further.
RM: You mentioned a moment ago that you had more control on your album than you’ve had in other situations. That brings up something I hear drummers complain about a lot. Some people get very offended if an engineer asks them to remove their bottom heads, or use tape, or change their tuning or whatever. Do people ever alter your drums?
SG: Yeah. They always have. When I first went into the studios, I didn’t know any thing, so I just learned it that way. And that’s one of the things you come up against—people want to change your drums around. I don’t know what all these guys are getting so bugged about. Why don’t they be thankful that somebody hired them for a date? You know what I mean?
RM: They want success so bad…
SG: They don’t want to work for it.
RM: They want the success that you’ve had, and a lot of people have the idea that you are in total control of your sound, and that you would never let an engineer touch your drums or tell you how to tune them.
SG: No, I’m not like that. People shouldn’t have preconceived ideas. One of the worst things that can happen is before you go into a date, to have preconceptions about the music before you’ve heard it. That’s going to hurt you; it ain’t going to help you, I think. And you know, there are some unpleasant things that happen in the studio. You’ve got to work with the engineer. If he likes one-headed tom-toms, you’ve got to take the bottom heads off your drums. You’ve got to work together, man. It’s just part of the thing.
RM: I’ve heard drummers complain, “Yeah, but if I do whatever the engineer wants, how will I ever get known for my sound?”
SG: I never tried to get known for my sound. I’ve never tried to do that. I don’t really have a sound. I mean, a lot of the CTI dates I played on Rudy Van Gelder’s Gretsch drums. To me, I don’t have a sound. I try to adjust the sound for whatever the date is. It’s different all the time.
RM: Philly Joe Jones always contends that: “You should be able to sit down behind any set of drums and sound like yourself.”
SG: Well, maybe that’s what I did then. Maybe I do have a sound, but it’s not just the drums. It’s the way you hit the drums.
RM: A lot of drummers want to be Steve Gadd. What does that really mean?
SG: I don’t know what it means to them. It’s a lot of work. I don’t know what people think it is, but to me it’s music; playing music the best you can.
RM: Do you ever find that people have preconceived ideas about you before they’ve met you?
SG: Sure, that happens a lot. People have heard stories about things that have happened in the studios before, and they’re like a little standoffish. And then they get to know you and they see that you’re a regular person, like anyone else. You can go crazy at times, you can have a sense of humor, you can laugh, you can be annoyed, and you can let people know the way you feel when you feel those things.
RM: Some artists read amazing things about themselves and then feel pressured to live up to their own image.
SG: Yeah, things get blown way out. People look at things differently or they’ll take a situation I was in and it’ll just look differ ent to them. But I just do the best I can, you know? I try not to get caught up. I can see how you could get caught up, but I try not to. You just do the best you can. Play the music the best that you can play it, and don’t accept jobs that you know are going to piss you off. Once you’ve been in the business long enough, you know there are going to be certain things that you’re not going to want to do. So why do it if you’re going to get bugged?
And the “Steve Gadd” that did any of the things that people are talking about is me, and what I did then was do the best I could. And that’s what I do now—the best I can. I try not to get caught up in trying to live up to something that isn’t real; that isn’t worth the time to think about. I have to live up to my own expectations. I can’t fulfill and live up to what other people’s expectations might be because of stories they’ve heard. I treat people the way I want to be treated—be respectful and demand respect. And I want to use my time more wisely now. Time is all we’ve got. After that, we’re dead.
RM: [after a long pause] I hope we’re not going to end with that’.
SG: No, it’s just…sometimes questions frustrate me. They really do. There are so many ways to answer, and they make you look at yourself in ways that you don’t normally look at yourself. I don’t study myself, and I don’t like to talk about my self. So when people ask me questions, it’s like I’ve got to go back in the past to try and figure out the answer. I don’t even know if it’s the right answer, because it’s stuff I don’t spend time thinking about. It’s hard to believe that I could be important to so many people.
RM: You are aware that some people call you “Steve God”?
SG: Well, I’ve heard that, yeah.
RM: We get calls every now and then from people who are hysterical because they’ve heard that you died.
SG: Do you get a lot of those calls?
RM: We get one every few months.
SG: [to his wife] You got a call like that once.
Carol Gadd: We get lots of calls like that.
SG: I wish I could come up with something that lived up to these stories, you know? I sort of feel boring. I’ve gone through real crazy times in my life, and probably a lot of the preconceptions we were talking about are the result of stories about differ ent periods of your life. It would be so difficult to put those things in perspective because of all the circumstances; because of everything that was involved. You’ve got to go back and figure out what was happening in your personal life…I mean, all of that stuff plays a part in it, and to go back and try to weed through all that stuff—it’s hard to make sense out of it.
RM: So who’s Steve Gadd?
SG: Steve Gadd is a real hard worker. I’m real dedicated…
CG: He’s very professional when it comes to anything that has to do with work, whether it’s the way he feels it should go or not. They’re hiring him for a reason, and if they make a request, he’ll go through the change even if it’s just to find out whether or not something works.
SG: That’s what you have to do. You have to allow people the chance to hear what it is they’re talking about. Let them hear how stupid they are, or, let you learn something. One way or the other, it works out. The thing is as long as it works out, then the job is taken care of, no matter which way it works out. I’m not there to prove a point; I’d like to learn, if I could. I’ve just got to let myself.
RM: It all goes back to attitude.
SG: I think it does. I think your attitude is real important, not just in the studios, but in getting through life. There’s always something you can be bugged about, but there’s just as much stuff to be happy about. And happiness is a real nice thing.
RM: You strike me as being happy.
SG: Yeah, I think I’m real lucky. I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s a business, but it’s a combination of business, love and enjoyment. The longer you do it, I think, the more it becomes, in terms of how many things enter into it. I think at the beginning it’s pretty pure. You know, you’re a kid and you’re inspired to play just because of something that sounds good—that’s a real pure thing. The longer you do it, life enters into it also. You have to sort of put every thing into perspective and try to keep your head above water. But it’s love.
A Steve Gadd Clinic
“My solos depend on what happens before them. If the band plays the ‘head’ of the song prior to my drum solo, then I think of the song while soloing—my phrases will be the same length as the phrases of the song. If my solo comes after a vamp, I think in fouror eight-bar phrases. I don’t just think one bar at a time.”
“Reading improves just from doing it. It wasn’t easy for me, but thanks to the encouragement of my teacher, John Beck, I stuck with it and it has been very useful. The more you do something, the more familiar it becomes and the easier it gets.
“When sight reading music, first look at the whole piece to figure out what the ‘road map’ is. See how many bars are in the intro, look for section letters, see how many bars are in each section, and look for repeat signs, D.S., D.C. and coda signs.
“If you can keep your place, even if you are unable to make any of the figures, you are still ahead of the game. You can get the figures the next time, or after everyone else does. Keep your place and listen to the music; after you hear the run-down it will make a lot more sense. Don’t try to see what it sounds like.
“Listen while you look and soon you will be playing the figures the first time through. You will find that the same figure can be written out several different ways—some more complicated than others. Familiarize yourself with all the ways. You’ll find that the simplest ways are more commonly used.”
“Practice with a rhythm machine or a metronome. Set a tempo and play a feel along with it. When you feel locked in with the tempo, stop and think of another feel. Play that until it feels comfortable, then stop. Give yourself a two-bar count off, then play the first feel for 16 bars, with a fill at bars 8 and 16. After the second fill, go to the second feel for 16 bars. Just notice what happens. It can show you places where you might be rushing or dragging. Repeat this exercise using different dynamics for each section.”
“Sometimes you get everything sounding good, except that the snares rattle when you hit the toms. On the snare drum, try loosening the four bottom lugs on each side of the snares. If that doesn’t work, try slightly changing the pitch of the toms. If that doesn’t work, try slightly muffling the toms. If that doesn’t work…”