On The Cover
This is one of life’s simple truths: The more you learn, the more you realize how much more you have to learn. Here is another simple truth: Kenny Aronoff understands this better than almost anybody. It’s a key reason he’s one of the most valued drummers that history has ever known.
Story by Billy Amendola
Photos by Alex Solca
Kenny Aronoff does not know what the word relax means. The day of this interview he was in the midst of a tour with John Fogerty, and on his days off he was either on stage with the BoDeans or dashing home to do some recording at his studio and prepare for a Neil Diamond tribute show.
Meanwhile, he’s been active with the Supersonic Blues Machine, a project featuring Lance Lopez, Fabrizio Grossi, Walter Trout, Billy Gibbons, Eric Gale, Robben Ford, Steve Lukather, and Warren Haynes. The group has an album out called West of Flushing, South of Frisco and recently toured Holland, Norway, Abu Dhabi, and India.
Aronoff also has tons of press promo scheduled, including speaking and clinic engagements, in support of his new autobiography, Sex, Drums, Rock ’n’ Roll! You can even catch him on the big screen, double drumming with former Billy Joel band member Liberty DeVitto in the music doc-umentary Hired Gun.
So, relax? No, that’s basically a foreign term to Kenny Aronoff.
Actually, the drummer doesn’t even seem to recognize the word sleep, something he probably should have been doing rather than speaking with MD, since he’d managed only two hours the night before while flying home. “My dad never slept,” Kenny’s son, Nik, says. “He was just always immersed in music. I think that had something to do with the competitive nature of the business. But I remember him always being like that, since I was a little kid. It’s certainly one of his most admirable qualities. I mean, look what he’s accomplished—who can touch him?”
While the competitive nature of the music business may explain Aronoff’s work regimen, it’s only part of the story. To this day, Kenny still does his best to get in three hours of practice every day. That’s not just about paying the bills; it’s about dedication and a fierce determination to be the best he can possibly be. And it’s about the realization that when he’s at his best, he’s helping the artists he plays with be their best. For thirty-plus years the superstars of the music world have been going to Aronoff first. From an artistic perspective, at least, his way is clearly the right way.
Aronoff was born and raised in a small town in New England, and as a teenager he traveled far down a path toward a career in classical music, including studies with the famed timpanist Vic Firth. In the mid-’70s he focused on rock and jazz performance, eventually kick-starting his career in Indiana with John Mellencamp in the early ’80s. By the ’90s, the singer-songwriter would be recognized as merely the first major name on a remarkably long list of artists who have sold more than 300 million records featuring Aronoff. Though the two haven’t worked together for several years, Mellencamp praises Kenny in Sex, Drums, Rock ’n’ Roll! In fact, to this day just about anyone the drummer has ever worked with—keep in mind that his résumé takes up twenty-three pages in the book—is quick to offer nothing but glowing comments about him. That includes Rush drummer Neil Peart, who wrote the foreword.
Of course, mountains of love have also come from the readers of this magazine, who’ve put Kenny at the top of various categories of our Readers Poll numerous times. This will be the fourth time he has graced the cover of Modern Drummer, representing a remarkable, growing legacy that shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Just like Kenny himself.
MD: So, why a book now?
Kenny: Good question. I was first asked to write a book in the late ’90s, but I said no because I didn’t think I had enough to say at that time. Then, when I was being interviewed for the Joe Satriani book [Strange Beautiful Music], after I subbed for Chad Smith on the Chickenfoot tour, I was asked again, but then I didn’t have the time. And honestly, I really didn’t want to only talk about drumming. I wanted to talk about life and what I’ve learned from being a musician. So I eventually started writing a journal, and every day I jotted things down about what I’d learned and how I made it in this business.
MD: Did you gain any insight into yourself in the process?
Kenny: Absolutely! It turned into a whole other thing. I found these calendars with all my sessions, tours, gigs, and personal life experiences. It wasn’t easy to find the time. I was writing in between my days off from touring and sessions, sometimes up to sixteen hours a day. Then it turned into 800 pages, which had to be edited down to 300. I didn’t think it would happen. My book publisher, Hal Leonard, pushed me to continue with an editor, and we got it down to 350 pages.
So it became this life story that then taught me. And I started to ask myself the big question: Why me? How did this happen? I started putting down what I thought were the ways and means a person can be successful in life—and stay successful. My life has taught me lessons I would never have figured out if I didn’t write the book. It got me to do some serious reflecting. I think the beautiful thing is that it’s out while I’m still heavily busy in my career. It’s not a memoir. This is what I’ve done, and this is what I’m continuing to do. And these life lessons are teaching me how to do what I do better. The book really became this huge therapy session. I was just doing what I do. Now I know how to do it even better.
MD: Who were some of your drumming heroes as a kid?
Kenny: At first most of my heroes were jazz drummers, because that was the music playing on my parents’ turntable. I was hearing Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Gene Krupa, Philly Joe Jones, Joe Morello, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Cobb, any drummer playing with Miles Davis—Kind of Blue was always on. Then, when I saw Ringo and the Beatles, I started getting more into rock drummers. The drummer who blew me away most was Mitch Mitchell. He was my favorite because he was a true jazz musician. I liked Ringo, but at the time I didn’t appreciate him the way I did later on. I thought he didn’t have much technique and was playing so simply.
The other guys who caught my attention were Keith Moon, another drummer who I didn’t appreciate until later on, because I thought he was sloppy and reckless. John Bonham is a big influence. Ginger Baker was so melodic. The thing I liked about Moon, Mitch, Ginger, and Bonham was that they were really jazz and blues guys playing rock—Bonham swung more toward R&B. But all these guys could really swing.
For the Jimi Hendrix movie starring André 3000 that I did [Jimi: All Is by My Side], I had to play like both Ginger and Mitch. And there was a big difference in the way Mitch swung and the way Ginger did. I really prepared, like I always do, for those drum parts. Getting the phrasing and the touch right for Mitch was way harder than I imagined. He played very lightly, so I even used a 7A stick and tried to play like that. I put my head into what it was like to be an actor, trying to really copy him to play the part right. His swing was a very specific feel—in my opinion, much closer to traditional jazz. Whereas Ginger seemed more of a rock drummer who was influenced by jazz. Ginger was a bit more heavy-handed—but not bombastic. A bit more locked and tribal sounding.
MD: Can swing be learned, or do you think it’s a natural feel you’re born with?
Kenny: I do think it can be learned, if you put in the time. Everyone is born with a certain natural thing, but I think for certain players it comes from what they were listening to and the environment they grew up in, which for those guys was when jazz was huge.
It was always in me. I always found it very challenging to play stiff and with no feel—robotically—which many times I was asked to do. They wanted it like a machine. And you do it, if that’s what the artist or producer asks for. But I grew up listening to jazz and playing shuffles, which swing. So for me it was more natural. But, like I said, you can learn any feel if you put in the hours.
MD: What drummers are you digging these days?
Kenny: That’s a hard question, because I’m not hearing too many up-and-coming drummers, mostly because I’m working so much and don’t have the time to sit down and listen like I did when I was growing up. But the drummers that I’m a fan of are the great rock drummers that play for the song. I like Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Josh Freese, Chad Smith—they all have great feel. And I’m always going to like Vinnie Colaiuta and Ringo.
MD: Speaking of Ringo, how was it to play with him for The Beatles: A Grammy Salute?
Kenny: Amazing! Playing with Ringo at the Grammys, and playing Ringo parts for Sir Paul McCartney at the Kennedy Honors, that’s when I really had to emulate his playing and feel.
I grew up seeing Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, and Gene Krupa, so with Ringo it was a young way to think; we all thought he didn’t have the technique. “He’s just a simple drummer with long hair.” It wasn’t until I wrote a three-part series on Ringo for Modern Drummer in the late ’80s that I really started digging in and transcribing his parts. And I realized what a badass he was. It was really difficult. He had a certain style and came up with brilliant parts that I would have never come up with. His playing was very different and so musical. It was clever and perfect for their music. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Playing next to Ringo, I watched him the whole time. I made sure I always honored him. I tried to stay out of the way of his hi-hat. Charlie Watts has that same thing. Mick Jagger once told me as we were playing, “Mate, stay out of the way of Charlie’s hi-hat.” That’s because they’re both so musical. And I realized what he meant, because I was playing like a session guy, perfectly in time, playing accented 8th notes. Both Charlie and Ringo have a lot of swing in their hi-hat.
I’ll ask people: What do you think is the most important part of the drumkit? And most will say kick and snare. I did too at one point. But it’s really the hi-hat or ride cymbal. That’s what’s keeping the time; that’s the metronome. The kick and snare have to lock up with that. And that’s what locks with the rest of the band. If you have your hi-hat or ride locked with a really good rhythm guitar player, like, say, when I play with Joe Satriani, who has impeccable time—oh, man! I just line up my hi-hat with Joe’s guitar and then the whole band. And that was another way of looking at drumming that I didn’t when I was younger. You essentially lock with him and then the bass follows you—that’s the groove. That’s the bottom line.
When I play R&B and country, I play the hi-hat soft. John Fogerty once said to me, when working on a song, “The hi-hat is too heavy-handed.” And I knew exactly what he was looking for, so I lightened up on the hats and I swung it a bit, as if it was a country track. And he turned around and looked at me like, That’s it!
I was talking to Dave Grohl about all this when I played the first Kennedy Honors show, because he never really thought about it. He’s so good, one of my favorite drummers. His way of playing is his way, no matter what. I was telling him about when I played the Who segment and then I played the George Jones segment. There were seven artists honoring the Who, all with different singers, and then the George Jones segment was with traditional country artists. I said to Dave, “Watch how I completely change my style of drumming.”
MD: What did you do differently?
Kenny: In the George Jones segment I didn’t bury my bass drum beater into the bass drum head. I pulled it right off. I wanted to feature more of the tonality of the traditional stand-up bass. And I didn’t play as hard. I played the hi-hat very soft—just enough for the band to hear it as a metronome. No bashing at all. I didn’t hit the snare rim at all, only in the center of the drum or just a little bit back. But for Keith Moon, I hit everything bombastically—on the edge of the beat, reckless, every snare hit a rimshot, beating and crashing the crap out of my cymbals…. And I’d slam the beater into the bass drum head.
MD: So when you’re playing with so many different artists and it’s one song into another, are you thinking about all this?
Kenny: I’m aware of it before, and then as I’m doing it I’m making sure, like a method actor playing a part, that I make my adjustments. I basically step out of my body and observe myself. Once I get going and I’ve got the technical thing going, I’m very quickly stepping out of my body and listening to myself as if I’m in the audience. Or I look at it like I’m the producer of whoever I’m playing with. Then I go back into my body for technical things to make sure I execute that properly, then back out of my body and listen to make sure it’s sounding the way I would want it if I was the producer of that band or artist.
It’s not about me. It’s so much about the artist and the band. When I became a session drummer I had to learn so many styles of music and make it all sound authentic. If I was recording with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, or Kris Kristofferson, I played differently from the way I would with a contemporary country artist, who might rock harder. When I recorded with B.B. King, I wouldn’t play the same way I record with Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath.
My advice is to specialize in one style of music but keep learning everything else. And I got teased a lot for that. “Oh, Kenny wants to play every style.” Everyone thought I was selling out. I took heat for it, but in the end it paid off.
I have to say, I was lucky in that I happened to live at the right time. Added to that, I’m a workaholic, and I never said no to a gig—I would fly anywhere, anytime. I went after it. I saw the Beatles when I was eleven; I played with two of them fifty years later. I always say, “Dreams do come true, but they don’t come by accident.” I made my dreams come true. I took action. You have to work your ass off; otherwise, when you get the opportunity, you won’t be able to keep it. You need to put in so much time and dedication, and you need to recognize problems as they’re happening and resolve them quickly.
You find shortcuts after clocking in thousands and thousands of hours. The thing I was able to recognize was, sure, there are people who are more talented than me and who can play faster, but they haven’t put in the time or had that experience. They won’t know how to solve a problem. It could be a live situation or a recording—either way, you have to know everything about everything.
MD: Do you play much differently in the studio from the way you play live?
Kenny: My overall concept is that when I record, I want it to have that magical feel that only happens in a live situation. And live I play so that it’s good enough that they could make a record from that performance. There’s less of a difference these days.
MD: How so?
Kenny: In the last ten years or so, it’s been shows like the Kennedy Center Honors, the Obama inauguration, or a tribute show where I might be playing for a bunch of different artists. It’s live, but it’s all being recorded and filmed forever!
MD: Can you recall any specific challenges with any of those shows?
Kenny: Well, for the Kennedy Honors I was playing with Steven Tyler and doing that famous Ringo solo from “The End” on Abbey Road. Man, you have to pound it and nail it, because everyone knows it. You can’t speed up or slow down one millisecond; it’ll be out there on the internet for the rest of your life.
MD: How do you handle the pressure of such high-profile gigs?
Kenny: My brain is like a complete pie. Over the years it becomes more and more slivers. As a kid I had twenty slivers, and now, probably a billion. [laughs] And my brain will go to every single slice when I’m playing a million miles an hour. I’m thinking time, feel, elbow, finger, knee, foot, drum, singer, tuning, mics, anything I can see or think about. I’m thinking nonstop as I’m playing.
MD: And this doesn’t distract you from playing?
Kenny: The weird thing is, the more stuff that’s going on, the more calm I am. I think that’s why I’m able to multitask as I do. I have about twenty projects in the works as we speak. And then there’s general life stuff on top of all that. I’m wired that way, so it feels normal to me. You can call that an advantage gained from experience, or it’s just the way I was born. I can take on a lot. I have energy and desire that my brain can handle. And it’s probably why I’ve been so successful and able to sustain a career all these years.
I didn’t get hired to play all these different shows because I can play great; you already have to have that. It’s because I can handle last-minute changes on the spot. If Sting, or anyone for that matter, walks up to me fifteen minutes before the performance or two hours before the show, I can make those changes quickly—tempo, feel, count-offs, you name it. And it happens. And I’m comfortable with all of it. And then there’s sixteen cameras shooting and recording the performance. And you can’t make a huge mistake, or you will not be asked back. I know, every year, something big is bound to go wrong. And I know I have to be the one to react and help resolve that on the spot.
MD: Do you remember any specific situations you saved?
Kenny: Yes. I won’t name any names [laughs], but one year, one of the singers was supposed to hold a note for six beats, and I was bringing the band in. Well, he didn’t hold the note. For a second it threw me off. I turn and look at the MD, and he’s holding his hand out as if the guy was holding it. And all of a sudden, the band was left in the air and it was a split-second decision: Okay, I’m bringing the band in now. And I went for it, and it worked.
My muscle memory for that period was six beats, but it was the feel. The MD that night told me I saved the show. I didn’t rely on anyone else. I relied on myself. I’m like a Navy SEAL. I take orders. But at any given moment, the soldier knows he might have to become the general and make the decision if no one is there to give the order. You have to be both. And that’s the position I’m in many times. And if you do make a mistake—another massive challenge—bury it, right away! Get rid of it and don’t let it distract you for a second. You cannot focus on it. And that’s very difficult for me, because I’m a perfectionist.
Remember those slices in my brain I was talking about? If all of a sudden I start focusing on the mistake, then 25 percent of the pie, out of 10,000 slices, is being used up in my brain on what I just did. And then you lose it because you’re not putting in 100 percent. So give it up immediately!
MD: What has being a drummer taught you?
Kenny: It’s taught me all about myself. Drumming has taught me about life. It’s taught me to be honest and humble, and how to be a team player and work with people. I know I was born, but now I know why. The best I can figure, I have 1,300 gold and platinum records. So when I do a record with someone who’s one of the most famous artists in the world, I’ve played on more records than they have. Let’s say a new artist comes to my studio. They come because I have way more experience. But the bottom line is, I work for them. And I act like that.
I’m not saying I know everything. There are still things I can learn. Recently I worked with an eleven-year-old kid. I may be coming from a place of experience, but he can be bringing out something that’s new. And the producer was impressed with the way that I could talk to that kid and get what he was saying. It’s because, even though I played with the greatest artists in the world on some great records, I treated that kid and listened as if he was the greatest and just like any of them. I wanted to hear what he wanted and give it to him the best I could.
We as drummers have to always remember, we have to listen and learn and lead, but in most cases we are not the bosses. Unless you’re the star doing your own thing, or it’s your band, you have to surrender in a way.
MD: Most people don’t know how schooled you are. Do you feel you have to dummy down a bit to play on some sessions?
Kenny: That’s complex. There are a few ways to look at that. Every style of drumming can be perfected to the max. And every style, done right, is just as difficult as the other. Let’s face it, not everyone can play like Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Dave Weckl, or Vinnie Colaiuta. But I’ve found that simple playing is just as difficult to perfect as complex playing. It’s like looking through a telescope is one world, and looking through a microscope is another world, and both views are valid.
I have a saying: I’ll never be as great as I want to be, but I’m willing to spend the rest of my life being as great as I can be. Every night when I’m playing with Fogerty or the BoDeans and I’m laying down simple grooves—or a session that calls for that—to really do it right is very difficult. Anything done perfectly is difficult. As humans, we’re not perfect. Some people have better timing or better grooves than others, but all I know is I’m always striving to be as good as what I hear in my head. I’m not that way 100 percent of the time—but I get very close. And to do that I have to concentrate and focus. It doesn’t just happen by accident.
MD: So did you learn to adapt to simpler playing as you got older and more experienced?
Kenny: Definitely! When I first started playing with Mellencamp, I was trying to be Billy Cobham. I was playing lots and lots of notes. And when I first got in the band, I can clearly see now why I didn’t get to play on the record. I played percussion on it. Tom Knowles played on the first hit, “I Need a Lover,” and session greats Ed Greene and Rick Shlosser played on the album Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did. And that had two hits in the Top 40.
At that time, I didn’t have a reputation for being the guy playing for songs to be on the radio. And that taught me that I had to put in the thousands of hours playing simple pop-groove backbeats. Up until then, I’d been putting in all those hours to be Billy Cobham and anything that was complex with lots of notes. So it was that simple. If someone is doing one style of music for all those hours, then that’s what you’ll be better at. And you shouldn’t compete with anyone, because you can waste time practicing things that can make you a not-so-good drummer. You have to be conscious and go after the right things, like groove and time.
When I was a little kid I was strictly self-taught. No one was teaching rock ’n’ roll in the little town where I grew up. But then I took lessons from the band teacher, and then at eleven years old I got my little rock band together. So I didn’t have much to do with the junior high school band, and I didn’t march or anything. Then later someone suggested I take lessons from Arthur Press from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At the end of my sophomore year in high school I went to Boston and started studying mallets, reading, timpani, orchestral snare drum…. And the summer before I went to college, I was practicing eight hours a day.
MD: What would you work on?
Kenny: Technique. I started playing bebop and big band. When I was younger I would play along to records and songs on the radio. At that time they didn’t teach drumset at the University of Massachusetts or Indiana University, though they do now. After I graduated, I started studying with Alan Dawson and Gary Chester. So when it came time for having the vocabulary and the depth to come up with parts for John’s music, I was lacking in that realm. That’s because I hadn’t been doing pop music on a regular basis. And then I actually became the drummer I used to make fun of. [laughs] It was a lesson in life. And I have no regrets at all.
MD: One last question. Do you ever think of retiring?
Kenny: Never. It’s not even in my vocabulary.
Tools of the Trade
In his home studio, where the photos in this piece were taken, Aronoff plays a Tama Starclassic Maple kit in green sparkle finish. The kit, which previously accompanied Kenny on tours with John Fogerty, Michelle Branch, and Melissa Etheridge, features a 10×12 tom, 16×16 and 16×18 floor toms, and a 16×24 bass drum. The main snare is a 5×14 Kenny Aronoff signature Trackmaster model; his auxiliary snare is a 5×12 piccolo. His Evans heads include a Heavyweight snare batter and Hazy 300 snare-side on his 5×14, G12 batters and G1 resonants on the toms, and an EQ4 bass drum batter.
Aronoff’s Zildjian cymbals include 15″ New Beat hi-hats, two 18″ Armand Medium Thin crashes, a 21″ A Custom Projection ride, and a 20″ China. His cowbell is an 8″ Meinl Kenny Aronoff signature model. His sticks are Vic Firth Signature 5Bs.
Kenny also employs Yamaha DTX drums. “I started using electronics around 1986,” he says. “I had one of the first ddrum brains. The late session great Larrie Londin turned me on to those. I was using triggers on my drums with the sounds from the Mellencamp record, because that drum sound was so popular on the radio; I had to sound like that live.
“In 1996,” Kenny continues, “I did sessions and toured with Bob Seger. I used triggers on my snare drum for songs like ‘Like a Rock,’ with that big, gushy snare drum. Then forward to the 2000s, with Melissa Etheridge, I would create all these loops, sort of percussion-type parts. I had this hybrid kit, with pedals that would trigger them, and I’d hit pads for the intro, the chorus…and I would switch back and forth from the acoustic and digital drums for certain parts of the song.
“Now with John Fogerty I have the Yamaha DTX pads, and I have handclaps and sometimes a sampled bass drum—just for me to hear in my ears. I use electronics often, sometimes two kits, side by side, intertwined with both acoustic and electronic drums, sometimes just a few pads and triggers.”
Kenny also endorses Humes & Berg cases, Shure mics, and British Audio Engineering.