After bursting onto the scene with pop/R&B superstar Usher during the artist’s Truth tour in 2004, Washington, D.C. native Aaron Spears has earned the admiration and respect of his peers and fans with a drumming style that is often described as “beastly.”
With his infectious energy, killer chops, and laser accuracy, Spears further cemented his place in the psyche of drummers the world over when he blazed the stage during the 2006 Modern Drummer Festival. First, he tore it up with his solo performance to Usher’s “Caught Up.” Later he shared the stage with a group of his dearest friends and mentors for what was dubbed an R&B and Gospel Summit, which featured Marvin McQuitty, Gerald Heyward, and Teddy Campbell, along with live beat production by drummer/producer Nisan Stewart. As McQuitty, Heyward, Campbell, and Spears traded fours to Stewart’s on-the-spot produced track, Aaron seemed to pick up steam with each turn, playing combinations and phrases with such speed and precision that it left viewers laughing in disbelief. After the others peeled off the stage one by one, Aaron was left with his kit and Stewart’s track, the subtle implication being, “We’ve brought it this far, and we’re turning it over to you.” It was a passing of the baton of sorts that Spears has clearly continued to run with, and he’s only gotten better with time.
Since then, Spears has achieved what most players can only dream about: performing with many of the biggest artists on the world’s greatest stages. Following his ten-plus years with Usher, Spears continued building a career, providing the backbeat on a diverse and extensive list of tours, shows, and recordings with Lady Gaga, Israel Houghton, Lil Wayne, Chaka Khan, American Idol Live!, the Backstreet Boys, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, and his current employer, Ariana Grande.
Spears recently began working for the Fox TV show The Masked Singer, where he executes the dual roles of the show’s music coordinator and the house band’s drummer. We caught up with him soon after he’d taken the gig.
MD: One of the things that has made you so popular among drummers is your aggressive approach. How did you develop your bold sound and the confidence to take liberties like playing fills across the barline when you first came on the scene?
Aaron: The way that I’m known for playing started in what’s called “the basement.” [laughs] The basement is really a space in my house. I had four drumkits set up in my basement, and every other Tuesday a group of us would get together. Guys like Paul “Buggy” Edwards, Tim Steele, JJ Williams, and I would get together and play. We were shedding, and it was like a training camp. Doing that helped build my confidence. It strengthened my timing, sense of tempo, and aggression, and it taught me to be mindful of the people I was playing with. The time I spent in the basement with those guys really prepared me to take that sense of musicality to the gig. When I got on the gig with Usher, there were times when I had to lay in the pocket and play the parts verbatim. Other times they gave me the liberty to play whatever I imagined, as long as it fit in the proper space.
MD: How was that liberty identified? Was it an explicit conversation, or more like you’d try something in rehearsal and if it worked, they’d let you keep it?
Aaron: It was a combination of those things. A lot of times it was based on feel, where the music dictated that something was needed. Other times we focused on transitions between song sections or from one song to another in a medley. That was something that came naturally from playing in church, and it worked well because the guys in that band came from the same background as I did. Sometimes I would play something and they’d say, “I like that, but it was too much,” or, “That was cool, but it needs to be more dramatic.” Sometimes they’d want me to really make a musical statement with an exclamation point and say it with my chest.
I was the new guy there, coming behind LaDell Abrams, Brian Frasier-Moore, and Mike Clemons, who’d all laid such an incredible blueprint with Usher. I was trying to follow what those guys did and make it my own. I wanted to have the precision and power of Big Mike. I wanted to have the imagination and fluidity of Brian Frasier-Moore. I wanted to take the precision that LaDell had—he played so cleanly, you had to ask, “Is he playing, or is that the track playing?” [laughs] I wanted to take all those components that those guys had brought to the table, and then bring the things that I’d worked on shedding with the guys in the basement and had been playing in church and with the Gideon Band. Usher gave me that freedom, and it was just a beautiful marriage of imagination and creativity on that gig.
MD: How did you land the American Idol tour?
Aaron: Mr. Rickey Minor was the music director for American Idol, and one night he came to see Usher’s show. We were kind of hanging out backstage after the concert, and I asked him straight up, “Mr. Minor, what did you think of the show?” He said, “I enjoyed it, and you did a good job tonight, man. But you need to get rid of those headphones and get yourself some in-ear monitors. You look like you’re directing planes at LAX.” He said that and walked away. [laughs] Later I switched to in-ears. But with the American Idol tour, I honestly think Teddy Campbell put in a word for me. I didn’t audition or anything for it. I just got the call.
MD: Did you ever take lessons coming up?
Aaron: I did, for about three weeks. I was about ten years old, and the teacher was taking me through the rudiments, but it was all stuff that I was already playing. I remember getting in the car after the first lesson and telling my mom I didn’t feel like I learned anything. She felt I needed to at least try a couple times before giving up. I went back the second week, and it was the same. After the third week, we stopped.
For a long time I was self-taught. I was blessed to learn in other ways, thanks to my experience growing up in church. I also got a lot of early experience thanks to my dad. My pops played percussion and is a very good singer. He was kind of the go-to person when people wanted live singing for their wedding or different special events. That was my first professional experience, holding it down on the kit as my dad’s sideman. It was a good time, though, and I was able to learn and improve from that.
Drums: Sonor ProLite with maple shells
A. Yamaha DTX-MULTI 12 pad
B. Yamaha XP120T pad (for high-pitched 808/marching snare sound)
C. 6×14 Zildjian/Noble & Cooley snare (tuned low)
D. 6.5×14 Sonor One of a Kind snare (maple/birch shell)
E. 7×10 tom
F. 8×12 tom
G. 14×16 floor tom
H. Yamaha XP120T pad (for hand-clap sound)
I. 18×22 bass drum
- 12″ Gen16 hi-hats with Spiral trash inside (on a remote stand)
- 19″ prototype
- 15″ K Custom Special Dry hi-hats
- 19″ K Custom Fast crash (prototype)
- 10″ EFX splash
- 10″ EFX stack
- 21″ Articulation ride (prototype)
- 20″ K Cluster crash
Heads: Remo, including Powerstroke P77 Coated snare batters, Colortone Smoke tom batters and Ambassador Coated resonants, Powerstroke P4 bass drum batter side and Powerstroke P3 front
Hardware: DW, including 9000 series bass drum pedals, hi-hat stands, and Airlift throne
Sticks: Zildjian Aaron Spears signature model
I didn’t start with lessons or anything formal again until middle school. To be in concert band you had to read, so I learned the basics of reading notation in middle school. In high school I was in concert band and marching band. But the real lessons I’ve had I got in the basement. That to me was a course that could be taught at Berklee. There were so many things that can be learned from sitting with someone and watching their approach, soloing ideas, and playing techniques. There are so many things I learned in the basement that have stayed with me and that I benefit from even to this day.
MD: How often do you get to do that these days?
Aaron: Jamal Moore and I get together when we can. Jamal and I also get a chance to sit with a group of guys we call the Nephews here in Maryland. The nephews include Brendan Mills, “Haze” Abraham, Rod Holcomb, and others. I’m proud of these guys because they’re already great players, and they get together usually once a week to shed at the home of a gentleman who has been instrumental in my life and the lives of many others, Milton Smith, affectionately known as “Uncle Milt.”
Back in the day, when I was working in retail and later as an IT rep, there was a time I started to get down on myself about drums. I’d gotten the call to do a couple things, but nothing had really panned out, and I was discouraged. Uncle Milt was the first one to say to me, “Aaron, what you do is special. There’s going to be a day when people are going to see what I see, and you’ll be doing what you dream of.” He was there for me even to the point of putting money in my pocket.
I go [to Uncle Milt’s] as often as I can, and we have some really intense musical conversations. I get to learn what they’re pushing to get, and I share things with them that I’ve learned or am currently working on. Sometimes the guys from New York will come down, like Devin Harris or Gerald Heyward when he can. We have a box setup with four kits, and it gets really intense in there. We play everything from funk to jazz to odd times, and it gets to be kind of crazy. It’s good for me, and I think it helps all of us, because we all push and learn and grow together. Iron sharpens iron.
MD: Can you walk us through the drumkits you’ve played through the years?
Aaron: The first kit I ever played and felt like was my kit was the Pearl Export that belonged to my church. Those were the drums I learned to play on, and I tried to take care of them as if they were my own. My first kit that I had at home as a kid was a Yamaha Recording Custom that my parents got me. Later I had a black Tama Swingstar that I played for years. I was playing the Tama kit up and down the East Coast with the Gideon Band. We were starting to gain notoriety, and I was working a lot.
Gerald Heyward helped me a lot with pursuing endorsements with Remo, Zildjian, and Vic Firth, and he recommended me to DW, even though at the time I wasn’t doing anything with any major artist. He just put the word out for me. When I got the gig with Usher, I actually sent a packet to DW and a packet to Yamaha. It’s funny because the guy who was the artist relations person at Yamaha at the time is currently my rep at Zildjian, and I tease him so much about this: back then, Marvin McQuitty recommended that I send my packet over to his guy at Yamaha. I also did what Gerald told me to do and sent my info to DW. To this day we laugh about it because Yamaha never got back to me! [laughs] When we’ve talked about it, he’s apologetic, like, “Aaron, I’m sorry, man, it must have just fallen through the cracks.” I tell him, “Man, it would’ve been cool to be with Yamaha, because my first kit was a Yamaha.”
DW actually hit me back, and was like, “What’s happening? What are you doing?” By then I was just starting out with Usher. I didn’t have the top-level endorsement arrangement at the time, and even though I bought that first kit at a discount, it was still expensive. But I was so hype, and that kit was massive. It was two kick drums, four snare drums, five toms, a double rack, like fourteen cymbals. [laughs] It was so much, man. Usher’s mom, who was managing him at the time, was kind enough to purchase it for me and allowed me to pay it back on a weekly basis until the balance was paid off. As my career continued and my relationship with DW grew, eventually I received a full endorsement and was able to get anything I needed, and that was great. There were several situations when I needed a particular type of drumset, and they were really supportive.
MD: So what led to your transition to Sonor after thirteen years with DW?
Aaron: There was a point when I began to feel like I’d exhausted the range of sounds and tones that I could get out of those drums. There’s no question that they’re quality drums. But I had kind of maxxed out what I could get from them, and I wanted to push for more. One thing that’s very important that I want to emphasize is that I didn’t leave because Sonor paid me. That simply is not true at all. But unfortunately, after the change I received calls from various people, including distributors overseas, saying that they’d heard I’d asked to be paid and left because I was told “no.” That’s completely untrue. I left because the drums couldn’t support the sound and tones I was going for. Sonor does.
MD: How did you land on Sonor?
Aaron: The first time I played the drums, I was with Chris Coleman at his spot, shedding. They sounded really good, but I wasn’t investigating them too deeply at the time for tone and tunability. In a shed with Chris Coleman, I’m focused on staying alive and still having my dignity when I walk out! [laughs] I connected with Sonor because of a friend of mine named John Janssen, who runs Adams Drumworld in Holland. John recommended that I look into Sonor and gave me the contact info for their rep, Thomas Barth, and I reached out. We had a good conversation on the phone.
This was around the time the NAMM show happens. Because things at NAMM are so busy, Thomas changed his travel schedule to stop over in D.C. on his way home so we could meet for dinner and talk, which was major. Thomas invited me to check out the drums and said I could go to their facility in Nashville, or come over to Germany. I said, if I’m going to make a change like this, I want to go see where the drums are made, meet the people that do the work, and check out the whole process. So I went to Germany to see the factory and really check out the drums, and I fell in love.
The guys at Sonor did what they said they were gonna do. I was comfortable and felt like I was with people who were being honest. There’s a sense of trust and transparency that I really appreciate in working with the team there. Everything they promised, they delivered, and the follow-through is on point. Their artist relations match the stellar quality of the drums.
I know people hate to hear this kind of thing, because any time someone switches to a new company it’s like, “These new drums are the best in the world!” But man, it’s true. The tones and the feel of these drums right out the gate are just incredible. And it’s not that I couldn’t get great tones from my DW drums, because I could, and I did. They’re great drums. But with Sonor, it doesn’t take as much effort to get to the tone that I want. It’s much quicker and much easier to get the sound I’m looking for, and the drums are more consistent. I played every kit they had set up in that factory and settled on the SQ2s. When I played those drums, I was blown away. With the heads just finger-tightened, they sounded incredible.
MD: Another noticeable change compared to when you first came on the scene with Usher is that you scaled your kit way down. What led to the change to the five-piece setup you’ve used for several years now?
Aaron: I had to challenge myself about why I wanted all that stuff up there. Some of it was just because I could and, you know, it’s every drummer’s dream to go crazy like that at least once. [laughs] But I challenged myself to simplify my setup, and my goal became, simple setup, complex ideas. I pushed myself to use that smaller setup because it’s enough to get the job done. It’s all about making sure I have enough to get the job done and the right tools. Usually that’s a five-piece kit, a side snare, and my electronics. That’s enough for the types of gigs I do.
MD: Does your side snare function for triggering?
Aaron: No, it’s actually a deeply tuned snare drum that I use for specific parts or for certain songs.
MD: From your earlier days to now, your sound has evolved quite a bit. Your 2019 Zildjian Live performance features some pretty sophisticated syncopation and phrasing. What’s behind this change in your sound in general, and how did you construct your parts for that performance?
Aaron: Thanks for that question. As far as my sound goes, I’m constantly trying to find new ways to express myself and come up with new ideas and be strategically clever. I don’t want my playing to be normal. I work out with my imagination and by practicing alone. It also comes from the time I spend with the fellas in the basement. I get a lot of inspiration from those sheds. That environment gives me an opportunity to bring out different things I’ve been working on and try them out to see how they feel.
That Zildjian Live experience was a lot of fun. In a way, the idea for that arrangement came from the basement back in the day. Years ago, we had Sput [Robert Searight, drummer with Snarky Puppy and MD, keyboardist, composer, and arranger for Zildjian Live] down to the basement, back when he was stompin’ all over the country with Kirk Franklin. He came to shed with a group of us, and at first it took a minute for him to get comfortable. But after a while he was right there feeding into the circle and challenging us to keep up. At some point, we flipped the feel to a shuffle and he started going in. He was bringing something different. To be honest, we all were cool playing a shuffle, but it was a bit of a challenge soloing and shedding over that feel, so it took a few of us a minute. He brought that challenge to the table and kind of made us take a deeper look at how to express ideas within that shuffle vibe. It was different for us.
Then when Sput and I were talking about ideas for the Zildjian Live performance and he asked me what I was thinking, I immediately was like, “It’s got to be a shuffle vibe and something with an odd time.” He was like, “Bet,” and went to work. It ended up being a great time and a cool way to have that personal throwback to that earlier moment. What I played kind of came naturally from listening to the track and making sure I knew where everything was. The way everything was set up, there wasn’t a whole lot of time for rehearsal or to do a bunch of takes. It was about learning the parts and then getting up there and having fun. I hope that came through.
MD: You worked on Zildjian Live again for 2020, but this time as host. What led to your new role?
Aaron: The 2019 event was a great time, but it was a long process. Mike Dolbear was hosting, and I kind of volunteered to help out. Throughout the day I’d check in with the audience and tried to help keep the energy up between performances and stuff like that. I just naturally stepped into it. Afterwards I told the folks at Zildjian that if they ever needed someone to do that kind of thing again, I’d be open to it. When they were planning to do it for 2020, they mentioned that idea to the folks that were recording, and that’s how I ended up being invited to do it this year. That was another full-circle moment for me because, coming up, I remember watching Zildjian Day with Dennis Chambers. He’s one of the heroes on the kit that I looked up to. To be back this year and hosting an event that he’s been featured on was a huge honor for me.
MD: What is the nature of your work for The Masked Singer?
Aaron: I have to give props to my friend and brother Johnny “Natural” Najera. He and I have worked together since I first started with Usher. He’s the music director for Ariana Grande and has worked with a ton of other artists. He’s also the MD for The Masked Singer this season and gave me the opportunity to come on as the music coordinator. As a musician, I still play drums for the show. As music coordinator, I’m responsible for setting up recordings and making sure we get exactly what’s needed for a particular moment or part of the show.
We have to make recordings for each piece of music that’s performed onstage. For example, if we have ninety seconds for a song that’s originally four minutes long, it’s my job to facilitate the recording of that arrangement. As MD, Johnny will make the arrangement and speak with the producer. I work to schedule those sessions and book the engineer. It’s my job to get whatever is needed for each particular recording. If it’s drums, I’ll record the drums. If it’s horns, guitars, background vocals, or whatever, then I’m responsible for hiring those musicians and facilitating other elements to make sure everything happens like it needs to and the music gets the proper treatment.
I’m also responsible for making sure we get proper invoices and submit those to accounting. If someone doesn’t get paid, they report back to me, and then I’ve got to run that payment down. It can be pretty fast-paced. We’ve cut twenty-five songs in a week and a half. It’s a cool experience.
MD: You recently embarked on a multicity clinic tour in Asia. How did that come together?
Aaron: I was contacted by some friends of mine in China that run 9 Beats music schools. They expressed an interest in having me come to Japan and China. As we were planning, the idea expanded since I hadn’t been on that side of the world in a while. We started having conversations with different promoters and companies in other countries in Asia to add other cities to the tour, and we ended up scheduling shows in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, plus Japan and China. I reached out to several of the local promoters and venues myself to try to put it together, and I appreciate my companies because they came on board to help sponsor this as well. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the China dates because of the travel ban due to the coronavirus situation. I hope to be able to go back and do those dates in the future.
MD: With your international clinics, is it ever difficult to explain certain ideas because of the differences in language?
Aaron: Not really. Usually there’s a translator in those times when there may be people who don’t speak English. The cool thing is that music and drums is a universal language that we can all appreciate and understand. If someone has a question or I’m explaining an idea, it might take a little longer because everything has to be translated in both directions. But it’s really not a big deal. I enjoy being able to connect with people all over the world through the music.
MD: When you present your clinics, do you go in with a set game plan each time?
Aaron: I’m always prepared to share certain information that I think is valuable and that I feel like I can offer a unique perspective on. Most of the time the first thing I do is play a little bit and then ask if anyone has questions. From there I let the audience kind of dictate how the clinic flows. If there are a lot of people that have questions, I’ll try to take the time to answer them.
Sometimes you can tell people don’t want to say something because they’re afraid it’s not a good question, so I’ll try to loosen things up. I might do that through humor or by showing my own vulnerability. I want everyone to be comfortable so that nobody leaves feeling like they missed something. If there’s a question on something very specific, like linear fills, then I’ll give a demonstration and break down my approach. Or if someone asks about odd time signatures, I’ll explain the way I count different meters to help make sense of those.
MD: What other ventures have you been working on?
Aaron: One thing I’m excited about is this project that I worked on with a friend of mine named Tim Buell. It’s a website where if someone wanted to check out transcriptions of things I’ve played, they go on there and get a book with a bunch of those transcriptions along with audio files. The website is aaronspearsnotation.com.
MD: How do you balance your work life with being a husband and father?
Aaron: You know, the thing that some people don’t get is that my family is the most important thing in the world to me. More than music. More than drums. More than any of that other stuff. I’m blessed to have a beautiful wife named Jessica. We’ve been married since 2012, and we have an amazing son named August Preston. Those are my babies, man. That’s my heart.
When I’m home, I try as much as possible to spend my time at home. Thankfully, when I’m away we have technology that has made it easier than it used to be to stay connected. I do my best to check in every day with my wife and talk to my son, even with the time difference when I’m in other parts of the world. Because he’s small, he’s still in the process of understanding what I do and why I have to be away so much. That’s the hardest part, being away. We’ll talk and he might ask, “How many sleeps until you’re home again?” And I’ll tell him, “It’ll be twelve sleeps” or “five sleeps” or whatever the number of nights it is.