Joe Vitale is a drummer, because, he laughed, “I’m Italian and my mom has pots and pans at home. That’s why most drummers are Italian. You ever notice that? I would say 75% of the drummers are Italian and the other 25% should be,” Vitale teased, in what was his first display of his typical good sense of humor. “Guys like Carmine (Appice) and Rick Marotta are all drummers because their moms had hundreds of pots and pans and wooden spoons.”
Along a more serious vein, Vitale explained that his father was a big-band musician. When Joe was only eleven, he was playing in a jazz trio with his father on piano and his brother on bass.
“Being from the old school, my father encouraged me to pursue an education. In other words, even if it’s music, get a degree so you can always teach. But as a youngster, my father saw that I was not just messing around and that there was something about the drums that I was really drawn to. I got my first Ludwig kit when I was six, and they were good little drums. I wish I had those drums today.”
From ages six to twelve, Vitale had three different local teachers who stressed different aspects. One taught theory, one taught rudiments and one was for actual playing and application.
“Each was really a fine teacher in his particular field. The rudiment teacher wasn’t necessarily a good trap-set drummer, but he sure was good for teaching coordination and the basic foundations of drumming, which you don’t have to know, but I’m glad I learned it because it has helped numerous times. I’ve done a bunch of soundtracks and just knowing that theory really comes in handy when people throw charts at you. You don’t have to be able to read charts, but the more you know, the better your chances are in the gigs you get.
“When I was about twelve or thirteen. I won a contest and the winner got five or six question and answer type lessons, theory and playing, with Joe Morello. I learned so much in so short a time. He really is good. He can teach you things that you can’t get somewhere else. Things like exercises, the way to exercise coordination, independence with your four limbs—and it was remarkable. Nobody can learn something real fancy or technical overnight—you’ve got to practice—but his genius is that he can teach you to teach yourself.”
Vitale took private lessons until he was about fourteen, having begun to play in local rock and roll bands, breaking out of the jazz scene in which he had been involved with his family.
“In 1964, I was heavily into playing drums and that’s when everybody saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. The chemistry was unreal because I was at that age, fourteen, playing drums in a little band, and I just said, ‘I want to do that.'”
About Ringo, he said, “For the time, he did parts that now, in the last decade, we’re all learning to do. In the ’60s, for some reason, everybody was trying to be real flashy, with a lot of crazy and fast drum parts. What I admire most about Ringo is that he already knew to play a nice fat backbeat, simple, and play to the song instead of trying to play ‘lead drums.’ The drum parts he played throughout the Beatles could work in any of today’s music. He was a great drummer.
“I can only think of a few idols back then that really stick out in my mind. John Bonham and Keith Moon, who we’ve unfortunately lost, and Dino Danelli (of the Rascals). I always remember him because I loved him.”
In fact, his first band, the Echos, was a group much influenced by the Young Rascals “of course, because of Dino Danelli. I mean, if I was in the band, we had to do some Young Rascals’ material. So we did that, some Beach Boys and Beatles stuff, but mostly the American music. My evolution was probably the same as everybody’s back then, from one band to the next.”
Between 1962 and 1970, Vitale did nothing but play in local bands, and once in high school, he became interested in the keyboards and flute as well, becoming involved in classical music. He worked with some instructors at Oberlin, a school of music in Ohio, and “I started losing my mind. I wanted to know it all. That’s great incentive and great aggression, but you can’t do everything, so you have to pick the things you really love. I love playing flute, only because it’s so different from drums. If you play saxophone, maybe you take up flute, but drums and flute is crazy. That was appealing and intriguing to me, not just because it was tickling my fancy, but also because I could use it.”
And Vitale does indeed use it all. He is proficient enough on keyboards to have played with some of the major groups, such as the Eagles on their Long Run tour and Joe Walsh’s recent tour, in which he alternates between the two instruments on stage.
As a songwriter also, he feels musical expansion is essential. “I think drummers should investigate either keyboards or guitar, just on the side, because you don’t want to spread yourself too thin. A lot of drummers have great ideas for songs because they think in rhythm, which is music. I play piano like I play drums almost. It’s very rhythmic, and so my songs tend to reflect that sometimes, and I like that. If drummers care to write songs, and they should care to write music because they have a lot to give instead of just being the backbeat, one of the most important things they should do is take up some other instruments. Just enough to be able to sit down and tinker on the piano and write some songs.
“Going from drums to keyboard was a bit of an adjustment because it’s a whole other world. You’ve got to learn notes. That’s why I think it’s really important for drummers to at least check it out. I don’t even care to be a keyboard player, but I’ve had so many years of study and practice, that I’m playing keyboards in some bands, which is fun. I’d much rather be playing the drums, because I’m more comfortable. But after so many years, I’ve gotten pretty relaxed with the keyboards. It’s very advantageous in the studio, because when I write songs, there’s a certain feel I get out of the keyboard, having been a drummer. You can take the best keyboard player and he’ll learn the part in a second, but he doesn’t have that certain feel which comes from playing drums. You can’t teach that to somebody unless somebody is already a natural and can cop that feel. Drummers have a big advantage because they understand rhythm; they understand a pocket or a groove. When you take that and apply it, that’s what we try to get out of the rhythm guitar players and bass players. I think all guitar players and piano players should study a little bit of drums also, to understand what that instrument does and the linkup between all instruments. I feel real blessed that I was able to have that discipline and the initiative to do that when I was in high school. Now, as I’m getting older and losing some of that discipline, it would be difficult to start something new. I don’t think I would do it now.”
He also mastered classical percussion and tympani, so much so. that he was offered a job at age nineteen to play with the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the most prestigious symphonies in the world. Because he had come in first place in solo and ensemble work in various contests, he was recommended for the audition by both Ohio and Kent State. “The audition was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. They want sight reading and accuracy with speed.
“I was very flattered when the offer came up, but it was just not what I wanted to do. I wanted to play rock and roll, although I didn’t want to just limit myself to learning how to play that either. But just knowing that I had the knowledge stashed away to have done that was enough for me. My father thought I was out of my mind, but that’s how fathers are. When an offer like that comes up it’s so conservative and so right,” he says, with emphasis on the last word. “I looked at it very intelligently, I thought. I saw it as flattering that they felt I had enough ability to do that, and I think later on in life. I would like to do that. That would be an ideal situation when I no longer want to tour. I also got a bunch of scholarship offers, but I wanted to pursue rock and roll.”
After two years of college, he did just that. His first major gig was with Ted Nugent. Of which he says, “I sure lost a lot of weight and got a lot of chops doing that. We were mega-rock. It was great to work with him, though. I needed that. I had been playing club dates and stuff like that, so I did that for a year and then Joe Walsh called. Our association goes back to 1967. We both lived in Kent, Ohio, and were in local bands in the area. Anyway, Ted knew this. I had told him that someday, maybe, I’d have to leave because Joe and I had talked about being in a group together. So he did call one day and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ That was ’72 and I went to Colorado. We put Barnstorm together and, from that point to now, there’s a lot that went on.”
Recording didn’t really enter into his career until Walsh decided to disband Barnstorm and begin recording a couple of albums as a solo artist. Since then, Vitale has done an abundance of recording with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, collectively and separately. Rick Deringer, Edgar Winter, Michael Stanley and Boz Scaggs. Currently, his duties consist of 50% live performing and 50% recording. He has toured with such artists as Peter Frampton in 1977 and 1978, and Stephen Stills for six months, culminating in the historic “Havana Jam” in Cuba. He is perhaps best known for his role in the Eagles’ Long Run tour.
“I couldn’t possibly figure out how I could play in the Eagles. When they called, I said, ‘What do you need me for?’ I mean, Henley can hold his own. He’s a fine drummer and an incredible singer and to do both, impresses the hell out of me. That’s hard to do. But they said that about half the tunes needed keyboard parts and percussion stuff, and on some of the rock and roll tunes, they’d love double drums. Henley was great to play with. He plays the same as he did before I was in the Eagles—the same parts and everything. I kind of supported that by playing some stuff that was overdubbed on their albums; some extra percussion stuff or drum parts. Sometimes, he did all the drum stuff and I just played congas or something. But the double drum stuff, in this case, was to fatten it up a little and it worked out really good. We did a couple of things where we’d play off of each other and we did a few songs where we played the same.”
On Joe Walsh’s most recent tour, Vitale had the opportunity to play double drums with Russ Kunkel, an experience he enjoyed immensely. “It was the greatest thing in my whole career as a drummer,” he exclaimed. “I think it’s because we’ve played in the same bands together. The first time I played with Russ Kunkel was on a Joe Walsh song called “In the City.” The Eagles did that, but the original version of “In the City” was for a movie called The Warriors, and Kunkel and I played double drums on that song. When we did that, we said, ‘Hey, this is fun!’ We’ve played together in different situations, like some Crosby, Stills and Nash stuff, where Russell would play drums and I would play keyboards or I’d play drums and he’d play percussion. But from that ‘In the City’ session, we said, ‘We’ve got to do this someday.’ Walsh loves Russell and I’d been Joe’s drummer, so he kind of asked me if I’d mind if we used double drummers this tour with Russell. I said, ‘You’re kidding!’ And Joe said, ‘Well, we don’t have to if you think that’s putting you on the spot.’ And I said, ‘Will you please put me on the spot and do that?’ So he called Russell and the two of us were like little kids—so excited.
“It’s great because we think alike. We interpret songs alike. We have different styles, but because of that, it works. Not all drummers can pair up and play together. I kind of play like him on some songs and he kind of plays like me on some songs, and then again, we play totally different on some things. It’s magical and it works. It can either work or it doesn’t; it can either be very great or it can be chaotic.
“There are more ways to use double drummers than to just work out every little beat and fill the same. To me, that’s no fun. It looks great and it’s dramatic and theatrical, but you only have to throw a couple of those in a night. If you really intelligently use two drummers, you can sound like one drummer, doing things which one person cannot do. It’s not that we’re so cool, it’s just that when you’ve got four hands and four feet, there are things you can do that one drummer can’t do unless you overdub stuff. That’s what we go for. We’ve worked out some stuff where each of us is playing extremely simple, but when you put those two parts together, it’s unbelievable. So that’s the fun we’re having and the way we envisioned it. It is in no way limiting. We could be real fancy and real crazy and overplay, but we’re just intelligently putting our talents together to be creative. He is so easy to play with. His tempo and his time are just unbelievable.”
Up until recently, Vitale generally used double bass drums, although not while working with another drummer. While in Japan recently, he was approached by Yamaha, who told him he should be playing their drums. He agreed wholeheartedly. Currently endorsing them, he says, “I would have bought those drums if they had been available in the U.S.”
His set is the 9000 Series, and consists of a 22″ bass drum, 8″, 10″, 12″ and 13″ mounted toms, and 14″ and 16″ floor toms. His set-up also includes 26″ and 29″ Ludwig Professional tympani (a holdover from his classical days), as well as, four Syndrums and two Synares.
“Everybody likes different tension on drums, but I like to pick drum sizes to parallel the depth. If you want a tom to have a high pitch, get a small drum. It’s really bad to take a 12″ tom and tune the head real low to get it to sound fat. If that’s what you want, don’t get a 12″ drum. When I put heads on, the first thing I do is put them on real tight and let them set for about an hour so they stretch a little. Then I back down on the tension. It’s the same principle as you use for guitar strings. I have a wrench that I use for tuning a drum, and for some reason, it works. That tunes the head just above wrinkling and that’s how I like it; they’re not too loose. By wrinkling, I mean where you’ve got too much play around the edges: around the rim. Then I let the drum do the rest. Of course, I tune the top and bottom heads the same pitch. That’s the only way they work. If not, you’re going to be fighting with the drum, tightening it and loosening it. So I like them a little bit above wrinkling. If I want high toms, I go out and buy a couple of high toms and use them instead of the big ones. I like the 12″, 13″, 14″ and 16″ because when you’ve got a 22″ bass drum, if you use an 18″ floor tom, it’s so low that the kicks start to not sound so deep. That’s why I love that little 14″ floor tom. For some reason, way back when they were designing these sets, they used to put 12″, 13″ and 16″ with the 22″ and it seemed that the jump between the 13″ and 16″ is very odd. The 14” is the best tom sound I have.
“As for muffling, I don’t like foam rubber, which some people do like. In the old days, you used to put your wallet on the snare drum, but I don’t like using Kleenex and all of that because there’s not enough substance. I’ve found two things to muffle and just take the edge off the overtones on toms. One is Gibson Guitar cloths, used to wax a guitar neck, which work really well because they fold up real nice and you can put them up on one end of the drum, out of your way. The other thing is baby diapers. The material has substance, and they’re soft, and there’s something different about that, being more absorbent. Now Pampers won’t work, folks,” he joked, “But you take a baby diaper which is about 18″ x 18″ and cut it in half and then fold those halves so you get a piece maybe 2″ x 5”. If you don’t have a child or can’t get hold of any diapers, those guitar cloth rags are really good.
“I use Remo clear Ambassadors on the top and Diplomats on the bottom, which is a formula Russ Kunkel uses. I love the way his drums sound, so I asked him why his drums sound like that and mine don’t. It’s a warm, round sound on the toms; warm, but loud. It’s not dead—it’s a rich tom sound, which to me, is a very pure tom-tom sound.”
He uses six cymbals: a 17″ Paiste crash, a 19″ Zildjian crash, a 16″ Paiste crash, a 16″ Zildjian crash, a 22″ Paiste ride, and an 18″ Zildjian Pang. He also has a 30″ Paiste gong, and 14″ Zildjian hi-hats.
“One thing I do that I’ve been really enjoying is in between my 13″ tom and my first floor tom, there is a space there, and in that space. I have another set of hi-hat cymbals. They don’t open and close; I just set the tension so it’s either a tight or a washy sound. It depends on how tight you set the tension. What’s really nice is that when you’re playing a real nice simple pattern and you want to use a floor tom with the snare on the backbeat, you don’t have to keep taking your hand from your hi-hat all the way over to your floor tom. Your right hand gets to stay on the right side of your body, which is where your deep toms are anyway. Kunkel is using it now too. We swap ideas all the time. It’s funny—it’s different with drummers. Guitar players sometimes find these sounds and they don’t want anybody to know. Drummers know how to share. When you watch a drummer play, you’re looking at it. There’s nothing in between, like with the guitar cord and all the gizmos plugged in. You’re looking at it.”
He uses the same set-up in the studio and also has an identical set at home for practice purposes. “It’s set up in the exact way as it is on the road and I think that’s real important. Sometimes drummers can’t afford to get two sets of drums, but you can find beat-up drums that are cheap, just so they’re set the same. It doesn’t matter if the cymbal at home has a crack in it or the heads are worn to nothing. For me, when I sit down to those drums, it’s the same setup as on the road, with the same amount of drums placed in the same place. When you work things out, your set-up, the tension, and everything should be the same.
“Practice for me is not defined as just playing. Playing your instrument isn’t necessarily practice. You have to develop. Playing is jamming and jamming is cool, but to me, practicing is taking something and pursuing it and having a goal. It’s trying something new—a new rhythm pattern or a new piano exercise—because that’s training your mind. We can all play, we can all jam. But you’ve got to work things out at home and then take them on stage. It’s training your mind to be coordinated: to have independence.”
To Vitale, a good drummer is judged by “how he reads a song. What I mean by that is, how his part is an intricate element to the song. I don’t look at how fast he can play or how fancy or complicated he plays, unless the song calls for it. You just can’t play to show off and be fancy while playing with James Taylor. Secondly is how his drums sound, how his time is, if the right fills are put in, which goes back to the song. If I want to look at technical drummers, if I want to get off, I’ll look at Billy Cobham and people like that. I love that too, but Porcaro is an excellent example of someone who really reads a song. To me, he’s being fancy and complicated just because he’s playing simple. A lot of drummers, including myself, hate it when we get a great pattern in the studio, and the writer says, ‘Ya know…,’ and you know what’s coming. He’s going to say, ‘Why don’t you put half your drums back in the cases’—and he’s right! I’m a songwriter and I understand it, although I don’t like it sometimes. On my songs, the hardest thing to do is be objective as to how I should play on my songs. A lot of people would say that because I was doing a solo album, people would want to hear some drumming. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be drumming on my record, but I’m going to be playing drums to these songs I wrote as if somebody else wrote them.’ It was hard not to get too carried away.”
Vitale’s solo project. Plantation Harbor, came about as a result of having written for the past ten years, some of the material having been covered by other artists. It also resulted from his association with producer Bill Szymczyk on numerous albums, the Eagles and Joe Walsh, included.
“Bill has heard my songs for years because of other people I’ve worked with. Also, I kind of write in the studio, as far as coming up with ideas and suggestions on the spot. He saw that there was ability there to write songs, so he called me up one time and said, ‘Hey, you got any tunes?’ I played him a few things and he asked if I wanted to make a record, and I did. I wouldn’t want to make it with anyone else. I must have made thirty or forty albums with that guy, so it was obvious that he was the guy, aside from being my friend. I mean, we watch football together real good,” he laughed. “We’re very compatible, musically and personally. It took two and a half years because we had other things going on too. I was scared to death that it was taking so long because of the rapid changes in music, but I think the material survives the times.”
All drums, percussion, keyboards, synthesizers and lead vocals are supplied by Vitale, as well as, all the writing, with the exception of one tune on which he collaborated with Bill Szymczyk and Stephen Stills. On one track, “Theme from Cabin Weirdos,” however, he gives vocal credit to “Harry the Cardinal” and the drum echo credit to Mount Mitchell, from what proved to be an interesting recording experience for Vitale.
“I really like the tune because it’s one of those mood pieces, always intended to be an instrumental, Szymczyk really liked it and we decided we wanted to do it a little different. We went up to his cabin to do some overdubs and had a little remote studio with twenty-four tracks. I used a Rhythm Ace to start with because I intended to overdub the drums on it. I started with a Fender Rhodes part and did everything on that track, except we overdubbed twenty-six strings later on. So it was time for the drums and they were in his cabin. He has this great big porch that overlooks the mountains into a big valley and it has that gunshot ricochet echo. It was Szymczyk’s idea to bring the drums out on the back porch. He miked them normally, tight miking, and then said, ‘Give me about a half hour.’ Whatever he says, you go with because you know it’s going to be good. So he took two mic’s, and from where I was sitting on my kit, it goes out for about ten or twenty miles and then you hit Mt. Mitchell, which is the highest peak east of the Mississippi in North Carolina. There are these two big mountains on either side, so there’s this valley, which progressively went lower. He took two microphones, stretched two cables, 100 yards out and 100 yards apart, a left and a right, and put those on two separate tracks. He was catching the natural echo of the drum; that rich sound. It didn’t have to be processed. I want to make all my records in that canyon now.
“Then this little bird flew in while we were cutting this track. He was so far away from the drums, themselves, that they didn’t scare him away. I’m not one to get real deep, but that bird pops up in perfect holes in that song. He’d do one of his ‘tweets’ in tune and right in a nice hole. I didn’t know it while it was happening, though, because I couldn’t hear it, but Szymczyk heard it in the truck. Right before we were about to do this overdub, he said to me in the phones. ‘We’ve got to go now. Let’s go all the way through it and don’t make any mistakes.’ Pressure now, and he’s not like that, but I figured something was up his sleeve. So I was real cautious and did it, not that it was that spectacular of a feat. The song wasn’t that difficult and I knew it really well. But because I only heard my drums from the close mic’s, I never heard that bird. And then the bird split before I could give him a W-4 form. Some of the local people confirmed that he was a Cardinal, so we named him Harry. I want to go down there and record all my drums there and overdub the rest,” he said, explaining that his future plans include writing music and making records. “I would like to make records at Elektra/Asylum forever, because I like this company. They are totally supportive of me. I’m new as a solo artist, and with that in mind, they are treating me like somebody who has been here for five albums’ worth. I have absolutely no complaints.”
Since completing his own album, he has spent the last several months working on the road with Dan Fogelberg, and is looking forward to working on record projects with Eric Carmen and Kenny Loggins. This summer he will be reunited with Crosby, Stills & Nash, on tour, and will be working with Joe Walsh in a duo album, featuring their joint and individual compositional talents, “When there’s time,” he laughs, realizing the absurdity of that statement.