The first-call R&B and pop drummer has climbed the ladder methodically, and with no small amount of flair. With a couple insider’s-view projects on the horizon, it’s a good time to check in with him about the skills he puts to use with Lady Gaga, Camila Cabello, and other superstars.
When you’re the first-call drummer with Lady Gaga, Camila Cabello, and Rihanna, you learn a thing or two about gauging grooves and handling expectations.
Los Angeles–born Chris Johnson is one of the most humble and talented drummers on the global pop scene. His years of working on the road, first as a gospel drummer, and then with Madonna, Anastacia, Heather Headley, Darius Rucker, Stevie Wonder, Mya, Donnie McClurkin, Frankie Beverly and Maze, and the aforementioned queens of pop, have given him a rare view into the demands of stardom.
Johnson manages the grooves necessary to satisfy artist and fans alike. He’s recorded dozens of gospel records, recently tracked the soundtrack to A Star Is Born with Lady Gaga and Snoop Dogg Presents Bible of Love, and he’s driven the bands for various late-night shows including Late Night with Seth Meyers.
A remarkably fluid open-handed drummer, the forty-year-old Johnson plays with an effortlessness that gives his grooves incredible grease and flow, and with enough power, beat awareness, and triggering skills to launch a small army.
Currently developing his own video series, Music Industry Xclusive (Patreon), Chris has also penned an instructional book, Pop, R&B and Gospel Drumming, where he shares transcriptions and tips on triggering, groove development, working with music directors, and keeping the talent happy.
MD: You’re a natural open-handed drummer. Your playing seems effortless, and you have great sound, time, and feel. Many drummers do left-hand lead, but not as fluently as you do. Being left-handed must help.
Chris: Yes, thank you. When I began playing kick, snare, and hi-hat open-handed in church as a kid, whatever I crashed was either in front of me or to my left. I wouldn’t even play the toms because it just felt weird to cross over with my right hand. After a while I learned how to lead with my right hand, and that helped my overall approach. And that’s how I came up with some cool combinations. Even on my tom work now, my strong hand is my left hand, so I can play doubles around the set and come back to the snare drum without having to cross over.
MD: Do you lead tom fills with your left or right hand?
Chris: Generally I lead with my left, because the fills I play aren’t complex to the point where they need to be choreographed in a certain way. I lead with my left and try to even out the snare strokes between my two hands so I can lead with either. In the early years I wouldn’t set up anything to the right side of the kit other than two toms, a ride, and a crash. It took time to incorporate my right side. But it does feel easier to move around the kit open-handed.
MD: You get a tremendous right-hand whack on the snare drum. Do you weight-train, and if so, does that affect your drumming, strength, and power?
Chris: I stay active and work out. This gig with Lady Gaga is high-energy. There are no down moments. The drums have to be super heavy and felt. It’s like a rock show.
Gaga to Cabello
MD: You’re playing with Lady Gaga and Camila Cabello simultaneously. Is that overlapping of gigs standard?
Chris: I’m grateful for every opportunity. My gigs with Stevie Wonder and Rihanna overlapped. When that happens I’m up front with both parties, and if we can work it out, that’s cool, and if we can’t work it out, then
I’ll choose the gig with the most work. Stevie Wonder was the greatest musical experience of my entire life. I had an opportunity to finish out a tour with Rihanna, and the Rihanna dates were longer than the Stevie dates. But I wanted to play with Stevie. I have a family to support, so I gotta do what I gotta do. Rihanna’s people were cool—“Just let us know when you’re done.” If you’re open and honest with all parties, it makes it much easier, versus double booking yourself and ruining your chances with both gigs.
MD: Your setups with both Gaga and Cabello look big. How do you configure your set differently for each of those artists?
Chris: The first things I pay attention to are the snare drums. So obviously, if you’re playing a particular record or series of records, and they want certain tones—high tones, low tones, and mid tones—it’s safe to have all three snare drums there just in case, and then you’ll be more versatile versus playing one snare drum through a whole show. My Camila Cabello setup is 10″ and 12″ toms, a 16″ floor tom, and a 22″ kick. Gaga is 10″, 12″, and 13″ toms, 16″ and 18″ floor toms, and a 24″ kick drum.
MD: How do you arrive at the fee you charge artists?
Chris: There’s usually a figure circulating, especially with the [higher] caliber gigs. I negotiate my own salary. They’ll offer a figure, and I’ll counteroffer. As soon as everyone is comfortable, we’re set. They’ll send out a deal memo confirming everything.
MD: Do Gaga or Cabello or Rihanna come to rehearsals?
Chris: Oh, yeah, of course. These are regular people, man. Everybody that I’ve worked with has been super cool and super respectful, because that’s what I try to exude. The contract has been discussed; I know how much I’m getting paid; I’m comfortable. Now it’s about the music. Everyone feels that way.
MD: It seems there’s a circle of twelve drummers who do all the major pop gigs.
Chris: There are a few musical directors that circulate in the industry. I came up with Rickey Minor. Now it’s Adam Blackstone, Ray Chew, Michael Bearden. They know one another, and they all use the same drummers. There are a select few on every instrument. Once you’re in there, you’re in.
MD: Tough auditions? Tough MDs?
Chris: Frankie Beverly of Maze was the toughest. He likes to challenge people, so he’ll tell you to play a certain tempo and later he’ll speed it up and look at you like, “Why are you playing it that slow?” That was challenging to the ego, questioning if I can really play or not. It was mind-game-driven. But it also helped teach me that you can’t second-guess your ability and skill level when it comes to somebody else’s standards. But he was testing my character, testing to see if I was on form. I was used to it because they speed up songs all the time in church. All my lessons in church apply out here in the pop world, the R&B world as well.
MD: Do you read charts?
Chris: I haven’t had any formal training. I’ve learned how to read bars. And if we play through a song in rehearsal and I recognize what the figures are, I’ll be able to play them again. My church background helps with that. My mother was the choir director. She was really strict when it came to what music was supposed to sound like. So if you hear something on the album, that’s what you play. If I don’t hear it, I’m not going to play it. If I have a rehearsal, great; if not, then I have to be quick on my feet. I can reference the record or the chart, so I get through it like that. I did a Nelly Furtado gig with no rehearsal. I learned her songs on the plane to Dubai, then played the gig.
MD: You learned grooves by popular gospel artists playing in church?
Chris: Exactly, all those years playing at City of Refuge Church in Gardena, California. As a kid I could only listen to gospel music because my dad was a pastor. I moved out when I was eighteen, then I learned generations of songs. Teddy Campbell recommended me for the Stevie Wonder gig, so I downloaded a whole bunch of music. I worked my way up to the ’80s and ’90s.
MD: How did you evolve stylistically on the drums?
Chris: I played what I felt. And then if there was something specific, I just mimicked it. As soon as I started playing with Rickey Minor, they started playing Motown. I had to learn that verbatim. At that point in my career I didn’t lead with my right hand, so I had to figure it all out leading with my left. I just mimicked what I heard and played what I felt.
I also played marching band in high school, and that helped strengthen my right hand. When you play certain things in marching band, like paradiddles, whatever you play on your left hand you mirror on your right hand. That really helped me develop evenness between hands.
MD: Is it a given that you’re always triggering snare and tom sounds?
Chris: Mainly snares and kicks. It’s hard trying to interpret Lady Gaga’s music; she has many albums, and she’s been through different sounds and sonics. The MD will ask for drum sounds that will work for the songs. You have to pick and choose. There’s a lot of big, shotgun-sounding snares I can trigger off my big-body snare using the Yamaha trigger and brain. I incorporate the acoustic drums with the electronics; it’s electronics heavy, but we get the freedom to trigger and duplicate those sounds ourselves with the acoustic set.
Pop, R&B and Gospel Drumming
MD: What’s the format of your book?
Chris: It includes notation and audio. Videos will be available from the publisher’s website and on social media. The notation will cover the drumming in the videos, and audio will be available as free downloads. The church-based guys I work with came up with gospel music for the book. And there’s music from Legally Blind, my band with players from the bands of Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson, and Stevie Wonder. We also have a couple records out. There will be transcriptions of my drumming on Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Cabello’s “Havana,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”
MD: Let’s run over some chapters. What’s in “Technical Development”?
Chris: That covers making the drumset comfortable enough for you to reach everything, developing a type of response so that when you see any set of drums—not necessarily the one that you’ve dialed in to be perfect—they’ll be easier to play. It’s also about hitting the drums and cymbals in a way to get a consistent sound.
MD: “Stylistic/Genre Awareness.”
Chris: That’s about paying attention to sounds. The drum sounds with Gaga will be different from the ones with Camila, because the demand is different. The Gaga music is heavy. It’s more electronic and bordering on metal at times. Camila’s music is more pop-oriented and more live—even though it’s with tracks. Rihanna’s music was a mix between bubblegum pop and hiphop, to more emo, like sleepy music.
MD: “Groove Development.”
Chris: How many drummers are in Los Angeles? Maybe 10,000? 20,000? And how many of those 20,000 drummers will sound alike—19,000, right? The way I approach groove development is like going up a ramp. A lot of drummers approach songs like they’re already on 10. You need to understand dynamic levels, intensity levels, knowing the song, keeping good time. And giving the song a little at a time. Just give it enough to breathe, and if you play something, don’t let it get in the way of the music. If it’s not distracting, then you’re probably doing okay.
MD: “Improvisation and Soloing.”
Chris: Some artists will give me space to solo over changes. It depends on the artist. I’ve never been a solo guy, but when I do solo, I try to paint a picture. We can’t put all the paint on the canvas at one time. So take your time and pick the colors. The safest thing to do is turn off the snares and play the snare and the toms, high to low, then turn the snares back on, or whatever it is. But the basis of it is still good time and knowing the form. It all falls back on the trifecta: kick, snare, and hat, and establishing a pulse in which you can stay in time and keep hitting the 1.
MD: “Working with Backing Tracks, Sequencers, Electronics, and Programmed Parts.”
Chris: Electronics are not drums. If you play a ghost note on a triggered snare, for example, it’s going to sound like whatever [is dialed in], like a snap or a clap or whatever. So you can’t really play ghost notes. All of these seemingly small things will change your approach and the way you play with triggers. I get deeper into that within the chapter.
MD: “Technical Exercises and Groove Builders.”
Chris: For example, start with a groove at a chosen tempo until you feel comfortable. Now slow it down, because it’s going to feel different when you slow it down. And get comfortable at the slower tempo. Once you get comfortable that way, speed it back up. And then pick another groove and repeat.
MD: What are your long-term goals as a musician?
Chris: I want to help as many people as I can. Sometimes when drummers do clinics and master classes, the material isn’t tangible enough for people to take home. I want to give people something more than complex material.
I love my job. I would be doing this even if I didn’t make money, because it makes me happy and fulfills me. And if I feel happy and fulfilled in life, I’ll be less mean to other people. I’ll be more tolerant and compassionate to my neighbor. And maybe they’ll be more tolerant and compassionate as well. If you’re not happy with what you do, and if it’s not fulfilling you now, then let’s figure out how to get to what it is that will make you happy.
Be grateful. There are millions of people around the world who’d give their left arm to be where we’re at, just to play music— and not even playing at the level of arenas and stadiums. So use your instrument as a vehicle to actually serve your purpose in life.
Drums: Yamaha Black Live Custom and Oak Custom kit
A. 7×14 Blue Sparkle Loud Series Oak snare
B. 6.5×14 Manu Katché Aluminum snare
C. 8×12 Live Custom tom
D. 7×10 Live Custom tom
E. 8×13 Live Custom tom
F. 6.5×13 Brass snare
G. 18×18 Oak Custom floor tom
H. 16×16 Live Custom floor tom
I. 18×24 Oak Custom bass drum
1. 22″ Artisan Light ride
2. 17″ hi-hats (prototype)
3. 20″ X-Plosion crash
4. 22″ HHX X-Treme crash
5. 22″ Legacy Heavy ride
6. 22″ O-Zone crash (prototype)
7. 20″ Artisan crash
8. 13″ Artisan X-Hats
9. 19″ Legacy crash
Sticks: Vater Power 3As
Heads: Remo, including Coated P77 14″ snare batters and Ambassador snare sides; Controlled Sound Coated 13″ snare batter and Hazy snare side; Emperor Vintage Clear tom batters and Ambassador resonants (Emperor Clear 18″ resonant); Powerstroke P3 Clear bass drum batter and standard all black Yamaha logo resonant
aa. Yamaha DTX-MULTI 12 pads
bb. Yamaha DTX trigger pads
cc. Roland KT-10 kick trigger pedal
Drum Rack: LADS Custom Designs (Chris Achzet)