It is November 1985. Steve Winwood’s new album, Back In The High Life, is almost finished. Inside Unique recording studios in Manhattan, producer Russ Titelman is sitting behind the board, and John “J.R.” Robinson is behind his drumset in the middle of the studio. Titelman tells the engineer to roll the tape, an introductory click is heard, and the tune “Split Decision ” comes through the speakers in the control room. The track was originally put together with a drum machine, but that part has been turned off, and the drums I’m hearing now are being played live by J.R. Steve Winwood strolls into the control room midway through the take, listens for a moment, and then nods approvingly at Titelman.
When the take is completed, Titelman and Winwood listen to a couple of spots, and then Titelman tells Robinson, “We’ll keep that, but let’s do another one. ” The tune comes over the speakers again, and Robinson virtually reproduces what he did before—fills and all. But when the take is finished, everyone is nodding at everyone else and agreeing that this is the one to use.
At this point, Winwood suggests that perhaps the bass drum could play a more steady pattern in a certain section. Titelman conveys that to J.R., and the engineer cues up the spot on the tape so that they can try it once. Robinson plays a couple of bars, and it is agreed that the new part is better.While the engineer prepares the tape for a punch-in, Titelman asks Robinson if he wants to practice the section first, but Robinson replies, “Nah, let’s go for it. ” The tape starts up a couple of bars before the section that they need to punch in, and J.R. plays along, again duplicating what he did before, but with the altered bass drum part. They go a few bars past the section and stop the tape. Everyone seems happy except Titelman, who asks the engineer to run the tape back; he thought he heard a glitch at the end of the punch-in. No one else heard it, but everybody takes Titelman’s word for it, so they run the tape back and J.R. plays the section again. This time, Titelman is happy. He and Winwood want to listen to the whole song now, from the top. Robinson comes into the control room to listen, but when he sees me sitting there, he invites me into the studio to check out a couple of snare drums that he brought from L.A. While we’re looking at the drums, Titelman’s voice comes over the speaker, “Okay, John. We’ve got it. ” The whole thing took about half an hour.
By the following August, Back In The High Life is climbing the charts, and the first single from the album, “Higher Love, “has given Winwood his first-ever number-one hit. Robinson, meanwhile, is on the road with John Fogerty, whose new album, Eye Of The Zombie, is about to be released. For Robinson, it’s an opportunity to do some live playing instead of the studio work that’s been his bread and butter for the last few years. But as J.R. is quick to point out, “I always was a live player, and then I got totally turned around in 1978 by Rufus and Quincy Jones. ” It was Rufus who discovered J.R. playing in a show band. He invited Robinson to play on the Rufus / Chaka Khan album Masterjam, which was produced by Quincy Jones, and that was the start of J.R.’s studio career. A list of the people he has recorded with since then could take up most of this article, but highlights include the Pointer Sisters, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and the “We Are The World” session. Often, J.R. will appear on only one or two tracks of an album, but those tracks will end up being the hit singles.
At a Fogerty soundcheck, I listen to J.R. do live what he is called upon to do in the studio: provide basic, take-care-of-business drumming that is short on flash but long on feel. As a colleague once remarked, “J.R. knows how to make records. “He can quickly come up with just the right groove for a tune, and then he’ll make that groove feel good, whether it’s the first take or the 50th.
RM: You seem to be known for your memory. People have often told me stories about how you’ll listen to something a couple of times and then be ready to go for a take. Often, you’ll get it on the first pass, but if it has to be done again for whatever reason, you will be able to duplicate exactly what you played the first time.
JR: To me, that’s a big key to any contemporary drummer today: You have to have a retention span. You have to be able to hear a phrase once and memorize it. If you’re fortunate enough to be given a chart to read, then you can concentrate more on some of the other things that are important. But if you want to be one of those drummers who does a jingle at 10:00, a record date in the afternoon, and then a band thing at night, you’ve got to have that ability. And it’s not just me; all of the good session players in L.A. can hear something once, look at the chart, interpret it, and play it as a unit without even talking about it. The first take will have the best feeling of all the takes.
A lot of people don’t understand how we do that, and sometimes I don’t understand it myself, because it just comes out. I think it’s the intensity, but it’s also something that comes from experience—doing it and doing it and doing it. Once you’ve done it enough, you know what to look for. Of course, now and then something will surprise you, and that’s when you have to do another take or an intercut.
RM: Obviously, your ability to remember what you just played is especially important when you’re just going to patch a few notes in. Is this a skill that you worked to develop?
JR: Not really. When I was learning piano as a kid, I could always learn melodies quickly. I didn’t have to keep practicing it. I was like that in music, science, and mathematics. I don’t know why, but I was very fortunate in that respect.
RM: What is the relationship between what I’ll call short-term memory and long-term memory? In other words, six months from now, will you be able to remember what you played on a song today?
JR: Probably. That happens with Quincy [Jones]. Every four years or so, he gets the notion to put his big band back together. I find that I can always remember how I interpreted the charts before. So if I were to play with someone whose record I did— let’s say I were to sit in with Winwood somewhere. I’ve never heard his live show, but I’ll bet that I could nail “Higher Love” and we would be burning, just from what I remember from doing the record. So I think that the long-term memory is also there.
RM: To me, that says that what you are playing isn’t an accident. You’re not just coming up with random patterns that happen to fit; rather, you are hearing something in each piece of music that triggers a specific response.
JR: Even when I’m just listening to something that I’m not playing on, I’ll automatically be beating on my legs or tapping on the table. Usually it will be different than what the drummer on the record played, but that’s the magic—the individual style. I mean, listen to something like Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”; the drumming on that is great. I couldn’t have said it better. A lot of times, you hear your peers play and you say, “Man, that was exactly right.”
RM: On situations where you are not given a chart, do you ever make one for yourself?
JR: It depends on how difficult the song is. On R&B songs, for example, most artists won’t have a chart. Lionel [Richie] never has charts. That situation can sometimes be tedious, because even if the first take was right, Lionel or James Anthony Carmichael may hear something that sounds unsettled to them, and you spend another hour and a half getting the track. I use the reasoning that they’re so used to hearing the Linn—they’re so used to sterility—that when they hear some human deviation they freak out. I’ve seen that happen hundreds of times in the studio. I’ll add a moving hi-hat part, but they’re so used to the machines that it takes them a while to get used to it. If they’re the right producers, they’ll say, “Yeah, I really like what you did, because it didn’t feel right with what I had.” But then you get the producers who say, “Can you play it like the machine?” I say, “No.”
Getting back to charts, I like to have a lead sheet or a piano part rather than a drum part. With a piano part, you see the whole song in front of you, and then it’s much easier to inter pret on drums. You can see the motion of the melody. How many charts have you seen where the drum part is just quarter notes? You don’t know where to go. So I really prefer reading a piano part. That makes it easier.
RM: That helps you put your playing in context. I think the problem that a lot of drummers have with drum charts is that they concentrate too much on the chart itself, instead of listening to what is actually being played by the other musicians.
JR: Yeah, it’s hard to get that across. I’ve been in some teach ing situations where that subject came up. All I can say is that it takes a lot of experience doing the same thing over and over until you really understand the formula. It’s not that difficult once you understand it.
RM: It took me a while to understand the difference between merely hearing something and really listening.
JR: It’s funny. I’ve been in situations with musicians who have picked up on a certain phrase or pattern while they’re sitting in the room with you, but then when they go out to play, they draw a blank. Why is that? In other words, the connection between what they’ve heard and what they’re trying to get out isn’t making it.
RM: Another thing on the subject of listening: How many times have you heard a club drummer who is playing exactly what was on the record, but it isn’t working because the rest of the band is not playing exactly what was on the record?
JR: Yeah, you’ve got to change with your surroundings. That’s very true. On this tour, we’ve stayed in a lot of hotels that had house bands, and we’ve gone down and listened to them. Sometimes it’s not too good. But we were in Miami a couple of weeks ago, and we heard a club band that was actually very good. They were a cover band, and the drummer had a Simmons kit. He had everything nailed, but he was also changing things—doing things his way. If you’re going to do those kinds of gigs, you have to do that. Every time I did a Top 40 gig, my rule of thumb was, “Change things, but make it right.”
RM: You’ve got to find that balance between having freedom to change things and keeping the characteristics that make that song what it is.
JR: Exactly. It’s something you can’t teach. You can tell people, but they’re not going to understand it until they’ve experienced it through their own playing.
RM: Let’s talk about studio work. Years ago, the entire band would record together. Then multiple tracks came along, and instruments would be added one at a time, with drums often being the first instrument to be recorded. Now, with drum machines, the drummer is often the last musician to be added, as you were on the Steve Winwood album. You’ve been in all of those situations. Can you discuss the advantages and disadvantages of those different approaches?
JR: There are advantages to being the last person to go in. Let’s take the Steve Winwood situation. Steve took a couple of years out of his life and wrote new material. Everything was composed using a drum machine, and I think Jimmy Bralower helped him with that. Then Russ Titelman, the producer, organized the events and helped define a concept for each song. At some point, they put my name on a list to come in, and patch in or completely overdub on X amount of songs. Originally, I think, I was supposed to do three or four, but I ended up doing five of them.
Anyway, they flew me to New York, I brought all of my stuff and set it up, and then I started listening to the songs. What was nice about recording that way was that, with the drum machine program that Steve and Bralower had done, it was easier for me to come in because the form was already clear-cut. The only exception was the tune ”Higher Love,” where we redesigned the whole intro. I used a little Latin rimshot technique, and I think it’s one of the best drum intros I’ve ever played. I love it so much that I put it on my answering machine at home, [laughs] The tune spoke for itself, and all I did was reinterpret the drum machine part. We did a lot of hi-hat overdubbing, except for the tune “Split Decision,” which I cut totally live with a lot of room sound. We used two different hi-hats on the tune “Higher Love.” On some of the bass drum patterns, I had to match the synth bass exactly, so there was some punching in and out on that.
So to answer your question, the advantage of coming in at the end is that you can hear the complete song. Whereas if you come in earlier, and maybe there’s no vocal because the singer doesn’t know the song yet—which happens a lot—then you don’t know exactly what you can do. If you play a fill in a certain spot, you might be stepping on the vocal, but if you don’t play a fill, it might leave a hole.
RM: In a situation like the Winwood record, where you are replacing a part that was originally done on a drum machine, are you hearing the drum machine part while you are recording your drums?
JR: If there’s a click track, I’ll just want to hear the click. But sometimes they use the drum machine part as the click track, so in that case, I’ll tell the engineer to turn down the bass drum and snare drum in my headphone mix, so that the only thing I’m hearing from the machine is the hi-hat. But eight out of ten times, I won’t hear any machine at all.
If they’ve programmed percussion sounds on the machine that they want me to play along with—like claps, or cabassa, or something—then I’ll leave them in my headphone mix, but I’ll turn them down so that they’re just audible. Then I’ll go for a take, and I’ll do my best to nail it the first time so that it feels fresh. Sometimes, when I listen to the playback, maybe something doesn’t feel right, and then it might be necessary for them to turn up one of the parts that I wasn’t hearing. It could be something from the drum machine or it could be a guitar part that wasn’t in the mix. That usually gives me the concept, and then I’ll usually say, “Okay, since I didn’t totally nail it, let’s give it one more shot from the top.” Nine times out of ten, I’ll nail it somewhere between the second and fourth take.
At that point, maybe everything is fine, but the producer will say, “That felt great, and I don’t want to touch it. But it would have been nice if you had played quarter notes on the bass drum in the bridge.” I’ll say, “You’re right. Here are the options: We could do another complete pass, we could punch in the full kit at that point, or we could just punch in the bass drum part alone.” The best way is usually to just punch in the bass drum part, because when you punch in with the full kit, it’s hard to get back out without a glitch in the tape. So you have to be able to split your limbs—just go out, play with one limb, and make it fit.
RM: There are still people who would call that cheating.
JR: I don’t consider that cheating, because you have all of these tools in the studio that enable you to make that record correct. I’ve had drummers who couldn’t do it put me down fo piecing a song together, like “Ain’t Nobody” by Rufus. I played the snare and the kick by themselves, then I overdubbed the hi-hat part, and then I overdubbed the toms. I did it because that was what the producer wanted. There was no leakage between the hi-hat and anything else, and we didn’t have any vibration noise between the snare and the toms. I’ve done that a lot. I overdubbed all of the tom fills on “Higher Love.” It’s something you have to be able to do. I’ve done a lot of hi-hat overdubbing. A lot of times, they’ll use the drum machine, but they’ll bring me in just to replace the hi-hat part. Even though the snare and kick are extremely sterile, having a moving hi-hat part can give it some groove and make it feel more human.
RM: Do you ever find it difficult to isolate your limbs like that?
JR: I often find myself keeping time with my right hand. When you’re just punching in backbeats, it’s easy to be behind the time a little bit, and that’s very noticeable. An overdubbed part that isn’t in sync is some of the worst shit I’ve ever heard.
RM: How was the John Fogerty Eye Of The Zombie album done?
JR: That was the exact opposite of the Winwood situation. Let me give you the background. I had put a band together with Neil Stubenhaus, Marty Walsh, and Alan Pasqua. Then, Lenny Waronker—the president of Warner Bros.—called me and I told him about the band. We were doing dates. So Lenny said, “I’ve got a great singer for your band, man.” I said, “Who is it?” He said, “John Fogerty.” I said, “Come on, it can’t be John Fogerty.” But he said, “Yeah, yeah.” So Neil and I went down and jammed with John at Leeds one night. We played tunes from Centerfield and did some blues stuff. So we decided to go in and do a record. John, like Steve Winwood, had been writing tunes for a year. He had about 14 tunes written.
We booked the Lighthouse studio in L.A. and went in about three weeks later. John wanted to rehearse for two weeks before we went in, but Neil and I said, “Let’s not rehearse, man. Why don’t we just go in and cut, and use the spontaneity.” So that’s what we did. John, Neil, and I cut live as a trio, and we were getting takes every day that we cut. That’s really the most fun, because it makes you feel like a band. It’s not overdubbing. The only overdubbing I did was one night about six months later, when I did some percussion stuff on five or six tunes. But that’s the really pure way to make a record.
Another example of that is the Bob Seger record, Like A Rock. They had cut all of that stuff with another drummer, but they only ended up keeping two of the songs. I heard the tracks, and I could have just overdubbed new drum parts. But Bob said, “Hey, we’re going to start all over again and do it.” So we recut everything with a live band—no overdubbing.
RM: Haven’t you also been in situations where you were asked to program a part rather than play it?
JR: Right; that’s another way to do it. Here’s an example: I recently did four tunes for Michael Jackson’s new album. Michael has written about 25 new songs. Quincy gave me tapes of five of them, and I took them home—where I have my own studio— and programmed them, with my E-mu SP-12. That’s what they wanted me to do. They’ve got a new 32-track digital Mitsubishi, a Synclavier, and the whole nine yards. So I went home and spent 12 hours a day programming four of the songs. I couldn’t do the fifth song, because there weren’t any vocals on it. Michael had this strange drum part, and I didn’t want to mess with it. I’ll do that later.
I took a few liberties. One song was very funky, and I put this 32nd-note fill on it. When Quincy heard it, he stopped and looked up at me. I know he’s going to take that fill off the record, but it’s the best fill I’ve ever programmed. I’ll have to remember it; as Quincy would say, “Save it for your own record.” So anyway, I laid the drum part down, and now they’ll piece it together from the beginning. I think that the next thing they added was Louis Johnson on bass. At some point, I’ll go back. In fact, by the time this interview comes out, I will have probably played live on a lot of the tunes. I’m going to take all my stuff—my live setup as well as my Yamaha electronic system. With 32 tracks and Bruce Swedien engineering, I can probably do a full acoustic pattern, then do a full electronic pattern, and then they can use some of this and some of that.
RM: How do you feel about piecing records together that way?
JR: It’s just a different school of making records. I don’t necessarily believe in that way. I’ve been producing now for a little while, and I don’t like to make records that way. I like to go in and make them raw, unless it’s for a specific concept and I know that the drummer would prefer to come in at the end. On a lot of records that I do, I come in at the end, because they’ve got something great but it needs a little magic. I have to create a magical element that’s going to take that record over the top.
RM: A lot of people feel that records have become a producer’s medium rather than a musician’s medium. How do you feel about that, having seen it from both sides?
JR: That’s a good question. I’m starting to see a return to the old way of doing it—like Fogerty and Seger. I think that most of the L.A. players—and it’s probably the same in New York—would rather go in and play raw. I prefer to do that as long as the tune is completed. But if the tune isn’t totally written, then you get those vibes from each player, like, “If I make up my own melody, do I get part writer’s royalty?” You shouldn’t think that way, but anyway I see a trend back to the old days. It’s a slow trend, though. It’s kind of like saying, “Big bands are back.” They never left, as far as I’m concerned. They just kind of got overshadowed by all of this other bullshit.
Of the producers I know in L.A., eight out of ten are musicians. Some of them aren’t, or they were frustrated musicians so they locked into their own little niches. But with someone like David Foster—who’s one of my all-time favorite producers— you walk in and David says, “Okay cats, here’s what it is.” He starts playing, and we start playing with him. Pretty soon the tape is rolling, and it’s done. That’s fun.
But then there’s the other type of producer. There’s this one guy in particular—whose name I won’t mention, but he’s associated with a prominent singing group. Back in the old days, he would bring in a live band, and we would record the whole thing right on the spot with the singers and everything. That was great. But now this guy buys a songwriter’s demo that was done on a 24-track tape with machines, he maybe brings in a synth player to put a little frosting on it, then he brings in the singers to redo the vocals, and that’s the record. That upsets me, because he broke up a good team that was making hit records. I guess he feels that he has to stay innovative by using all the new technology. But you can still use a live rhythm section. Don’t use all of this machine shit.
RM: From that last statement, one could infer that you are against machines. But I happen to know that you own quite a few of them.
JR: I have a house full of machines. I have eight synths, five drum machines, two Macintoshes, the new Yamaha Electronic Percussion System, and all this different stuff. I use them as tools to write with. I have produced a record using all machines, but that was because the guy who was funding it didn’t have much money. I had X amount of dollars to make the record with, and I did it.
RM: In addition to all of that stuff you have at home, you have quite an elaborate setup out on the road. The audience is seeing a guy playing an acoustic drumset, but they’re hearing a lot more than that. You’re triggering a Yamaha electronic setup as well as a couple of Simmons brains, an SP-12, and various effects racks. The question is, does today’s drummer need all of that stuff?
JR: Probably not. The reason I have all of that stuff is because I had the urge to do it. I like to play real hard, and I like to have a lot of power. For example, my monitor system is over 2,000 watts—just for me. I want to have a sound that no one else has. So by experimenting with different triggering systems—I’m now using Marc triggers—I can trigger all of the electronic stuff, blend it with my acoustical sound, and create a huge, fat, dominant sound. I don’t have to play as hard, but I can sustain the power and excitement that today’s shows deserve. That’s really why I have all of that stuff.
Plus, it’s fun. I have a Yamaha 2404 mixing board right next to me so that I can control all of my sends. I can be my own engineer, which is exciting. I can remember throwing drumsticks at monitor mixers, because all I was getting from my monitor was “OMMMMMMMMM.” This way, I can control all of that myself. It’s easier for the monitor mixer; it’s easier for the house system; it’s easier for me. It makes sense to have that stuff at your disposal.
On some of the songs in John’s show, I’ll pull the Simmons completely out, and have the rest of the electronics down to a third or less. On one tune, called “Sail Away,” it’s mostly acoustic. The only thing I’m doing is triggering a cross-stick sound from the SP-12 that I mix with the acoustic cross-stick sound. It’s like a stereo cross stick, which gives me a unique sound. Other than that, I’ve just got a little bit of high-end bass drum mixed in from the Yamaha TX816. Even though I’m not always using a lot of the electronics, it’s nice to have so many options available.
RM: Do you use a setup like that in the studio, too?
JR: So far, most of my records have been done acoustically or with a little bit of Simmons. I was not one of the first drummers to jump on a rack. I held out. But a keyboard player I used to work with a lot kept telling me, “You’ve got to get this electronic stuff. Everybody’s got it, and if you don’t, you’ll lose work.” So I thought about it and decided that I probably should get into it. I got a Simmons kit, and I did get work because I had it. Then I gradually started getting other things and learning how to use them. I started with an Oberheim system, and then I got a Roland sequencer and learned that. Next I got a Yamaha QX1, and then I learned the Macintosh. I don’t regret a minute of the time I spent learning all of that stuff, because it helped me to have what I wanted: a total grasp on the situation.
The new Yamaha system intrigued me, because it has something that nothing else has: FM digital synthesis. These are alpha rhythms, and you can blend them with acoustic sounds and sampled sounds to create a whole new element. When Alex Acuna and I demoed the system at the NAMM show, we were playing melodies. I composed a tune with steel drum sounds, and I could play scales on the pads, which meant that I could improvise freely. I even had a pitch-bend pedal. It’s great. I had keyboard players coming up and saying, “You drummers shouldn’t be allowed to have this stuff.” [laughs]
RM: Look at all of the keyboard players who have drum machines in their setups.
JR: That’s right, and this is still in its infancy. Can you imagine what a drummer like Jack DeJohnette or Alan Dawson could do with this stuff? Those guys are so melodically inclined that they could create unbelievable things. I don’t know if traditionalists like them would want to get involved with something like this, but the possibilities intrigue me, and that’s why I’ve gotten so involved with it.
I’ve had this system in the studio recently, and it worked out great. I just did three songs for Bryan Ferry, and he was totally amazed. The stuff we got on tape is absolutely unlike regular fat drums. It’s totally different, and it may create a whole new direction. I also did some things for the Commodores’ new record where I played real drums first, and then I did another whole pass on the electronic drums, exactly in the same time frame. We mixed them together and got a new element.
That’s the thing—to set the pace and be innovative without stepping on anybody else. When you go into the studio now, everybody wants to hear something new and fresh, because everyone’s spoiled. So drummers are going to have to take the time to learn about this stuff. Of course, the other side of it is that drummers who have invested in all of this technology—myself included—are having to raise their rental price, because you have to get something back for it. So that’s another aspect of the business. Some producers might want to pass on it rather than spend the extra time and money. At one point on the Commodores session, the engineer said, “We could spend a week in here,” because I had so many variables. It takes a lot of time to weed out what you want for each song.
RM: As fascinating as the new technology is, you mentioned a few moments ago that most of your work has still been with acoustic drums. And I know how fond you are of traditional instruments. When I visited you at the Winwood session, you couldn’t wait to show me a couple of the classic snare drums that you had brought from L.A. to use on that record.
JR: Right. I used a 1930 7 x 15 Ludwig on “Split Decision” and a Black Beauty on “Higher Love.” I collect Ludwig brass snare drums from the ’20s and ’30s. I’ve been talking to Scotty at Jack’s Drum Shop in Boston, and he has a 1925 5 1/2 Black Beauty. You can print that, because I plan to have it by the time this comes out. I really want that drum. I played it, and it was so bright. I used a Black Beauty on the David Lee Roth tunes “California Girls” and “Just A Gigolo.” I had it wide open and tuned as high as I could get it.
I also have a DW brass snare drum that I’ve used a few times and a Yamaha prototype. Yamaha has a new 8″ brass snare drum that sounds great. I’m going to start using that live. I’ve been using a Black Beauty live, but I’m going to switch to this new Yamaha.
Whenever I put up a wood snare drum, it’s usually a Noble & Cooley. I’m very fond of that company, because it’s making a Radio King type of shell. When I first played one, I thought, “Man, listen to the brightness yet the depth coming from that wood drum.” That was a 7″ drum, which I ended up buying, and then I bought a 4″ piccolo drum that is absolutely incredible. It’s got so much top end, but it doesn’t sound choked. Then Noble & Cooley made a 9″ drum for me, and I’ve used that one on a lot of sessions—probably 30 so far. I used that on the Seger record, because Bob wanted a really fat and beefy snare drum sound. I also used that drum on Lionel’s songs “Say You Say Me,” “Love Will Conquer All,” and “Dancing On The Ceiling.”
The other snare drum I should mention is a Radio King from around 1930 that I bought from some lady for $7.00. I had it reconditioned, and it looks great. It would be perfect for a bop gig, because it’s so dry. As a matter of fact, Bear—my tech—just bought an old Leedy drumkit for a couple of hundred bucks. This snare drum would be perfect with that kit.
RM: I think that covers snare drums. What about the rest of your kit?
JR: Well, for the Fogerty tour, I’m using a Yamaha Power Recording Custom set with a 26″ bass drum on my right and a 24″ bass drum on my left. A lot of people freak when they hear that I’m using that big a bass drum on my right. A lot of 26″ bass drums would be real boomy, but the Yamaha is not like that. It has a real nice point. I could record with that drum any day of the week.
For the past eight years, I’ve used a Caroline bass drum pedal. I use a square wooden beater on it, and that gives me pinpoint definition. I tune my bass drums pretty low. If I release the beater off the head and play flatfooted, it gives me more power. Ed Soph helped me develop that style when I was a teenager. On my left bass drum, I’ve been using a Yamaha Tour series pedal. It feels good because I play toe method with my left foot—hi-hat technique. And while we’re talking about pedals, I use a DW electronic pedal with the Yamaha electronic drum setup. In fact, in the Yamaha demos, Alex Acuna and I are both triggering the eighth input in the PMC1 from a DW electronic pedal.
Getting back to my acoustic kit, my toms are all double headed. I’ve got 12″ and 14″ rack toms, and 16″ and 18″ floor toms. I like to have my toms open, with no muffling whatsoever. Muffling tends to detract from the purpose of the drum. I only muffle the bass drums a little bit on the bottom of the shell with a packing blanket. On my snare drum, I’ve been using a head that Remo made for me. It’s a coated Emperor with a coated dot on it. That way, I can play the drum wide open with no muffling.
In the studio, I usually use the Yamaha kit I got in 1981, which has a 24″ bass drum, and 12″, 13″, and 16″ toms. That kit reminds me a lot of my old Gretsch kit. I have a 9″ Yamaha snare drum with that kit, which the Japanese made specially for me, and that’s what I used on “We Are The World.”
RM: What about cymbals?
JR: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a love affair with cymbals. I was always intrigued with the different sounds, but there was no place to buy them in the town I’m from in Iowa, so I’d have to drive to Des Moines to get cymbals. Finally, I went to Boston and met Lennie DiMuzio at Zildjian, and I actually learned about cymbal selection.
I’m still partial to As because of the variety. They tend to be able to cut any situation. I also have a couple of old Ks, and I’m using a 19″ K China Boy. I use bigger hi-hats than most people—15″ Quick Beats. I find that I can cover all of the bases with those, whether it’s a light jazz thing or real hard, bashing rock ‘n’ roll. On my left, I use a 20″ thin A crash, and it cuts through the band. For ride cymbals, I have a 22″ A heavy ping ride and a fantastic 22″ K that has great stick definition. I also have two 22″ swishes and another 20″ thin crash with a different pitch. Then I have an 18″ thin A, which cuts like a 16″. I’ve also got a pair of 13″ K hi-hats locked together on my right side, which gives me a higher-pitched hi-hat sound. And finally I have a 20″ Zildjian gong.
RM: Is this the live setup you always use, or is this specifically for the Fogerty tour?
JR: This is the Fogerty setup, although I’m gradually locking into a similar setup, especially with the drums.
RM: Regarding cymbals, then, what are some of the considerations for choosing cymbals for a specific situation?
JR: That’s a good question. I have drummers call me up and say, “I’m looking for a new cymbal,” and they haven’t even experienced an 18″ thin crash. When I was first learning about cymbals, I got a 16″ thin and an 18″ thin, and those were the perfect crash cymbals for the gigs I was doing at that time. When I got into heavier playing, I found that I had to go to 18″ and 20″ thins, with the same pitch difference. A lot of times, even on the lightest of gigs, I can still get away with that 20″. But if I feel that it is too heavy for a particular situation, then I’ll go back to a 16″ and 18″. I always carry an array of cymbals. Even on the road, a different hall can require different cymbals.
RM: I was looking through some old cymbal setup books recently, and I noticed that a lot of the older drummers have pretty much stuck with the same cymbals for most of their careers. Younger drummers, however, seem to have a variety of cymbals that they use in different situations. Has music changed to where a drummer needs more variety, or are today’s drummers simply more aware of the nuances of sound?
JR: A lot of us who went through the Top 40 club scene for a long time learned that you have to play all these different styles of music during a five-sets-a-night gig. You start your first set, there are only a few people there having dinner, and you can only play light things with brushes. So you need tasty cymbals for that. On the next set, you start to play a little more George Benson type of music, with more groove. Then the singer comes in for the third set, and so on. By the end of the night, you’re doing some full-out bashing. It’s kind of like that with the music today. You have to have the variety covered with your cymbals.
If you’re doing a jazz gig, like something Elvin or Tony would do, then you can pretty much stick with what you’ve been successful with. Of course, even if you set up heavy As for Elvin, I’m sure that he would still burn on them.
RM: By the same token, I’ve heard other people play on Elvin’s Ks, and they don’t make them sound the way Elvin makes them sound, which proves that it’s not just the cymbal.
JR: Oh, absolutely. He pulls that sound out of them. That’s why this electronic stuff will never replace cymbals. A few months ago, Lennie DiMuzio asked me if I was using electronic cymbals. I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I may experiment with electronics, but I’d never use something to replace a cymbal, because nothing could. It’s not even the same if you sampled a cymbal and played it with a pad, because the interaction between your arm, the stick release, and the cymbal is irreplaceable.
Using cymbals instead of drums can create magic. I think of cymbals like a bridge. A lot of times on a ballad when there’s a little interlude between verses, instead of doing something with the hi-hat and a cross stick, I’ll play a soft 8th-note or 16th-note pattern between the hi-hat, my left crash, and my ride cymbal. That allows it to breathe. When it gets to the chorus and you add a beefy snare, it’s very special. Cymbals set that up.
RM: You’re obviously very interested in the sound of your instruments. In the studio, how much control do you have over your own sound?
JR: Quite a bit. On a typical studio date, I’ll show up an hour early. I’ve got a tech who sets things up, but I can’t expect him to tune it the way I hear it. So I come in and change heads, make sure the pedals are working properly, and basically adjust the kit to the room. Maybe a particular room has a ring to it that causes the snares to rattle if I hit the tom, so I have to tune one of them up or down. By the time the other cats arrive, the engineer and I will have the drum sound. Depending on the room and the engineer, that can take from five minutes to half an hour. With most engineers, I can get it pretty fast.
I’ve heard horror stories about drummers who haven’t had much experience going into the studio and the engineer say ing, “You’ve got to really muffle your snare drum and put a big pillow in your bass drum.” I hate that more than anything, because it gets rid of your sound. If you’re intimidated by the engineer, all it does is create tension on the session. You don’t want that. You want to have a clearcut relationship with the engineer. You want to be able to make suggestions, like, “Hey man, let’s try an SM-57 on the snare.”
RM: What if the engineer says, “You play the drums; I’ll get the sounds”?
JR: Then you grab your biggest mallet…[laughs] No, if the engineer does say that, then you say, “Hey, I’m just making a suggestion. What do you think?” If the engineer is still flustered by that, then chances are you’re not working with a good engineer.
RM: Obviously, if you’re going to make suggestions to an engineer, you better know what you’re talking about.
JR: Yeah, well you wouldn’t want to make a statement unless you knew what you were talking about. But then sometimes, an artist is looking for something specific. When I did the Seger record, he wouldn’t let me use anything high-pitched—nothing. I brought in a couple of my beautiful brass snare drums, and he wouldn’t let me use them—even if I tuned them way down. So I used the Noble & Cooley wood drum the whole time. Winwood was the exact opposite: He wanted high-pitched brass snares, which I really love. That was great.
You really have to have enough experience to know all of the variables in all of the different rooms. You’ve also got to know when to say something. Let’s say that you’ve done five takes in a row, the snare drum is losing its tonality, but the producer wants to keep cutting. You have to stop the date and say, “I need a few minutes to change this head and get it back in tune.” Producers who are hip will let you do it, because they know that then they’ll get another five great takes.
RM: With all of your years in the business, I’m sure that producers and engineers respect you enough to listen to your suggestions. But what if you’re new to all of this? Should you maybe keep your mouth shut on your first few dates, until you know what’s going on?
JR: If you’re going into a date for the first time and you don’t know anybody, that can be very intimidating. But I never kept my mouth shut. I would never smart off, but I never kept quiet. If I had gone to dates and kept silent, they would have never known who I was. If it’s your first date, you should be cautious, but at the same time, you should be dominant because that’s a drummer’s nature. You can’t be passive and do what I do. You have to be dominant—without being obnoxious. The drummer runs the band, man.