Jazz fans lucky enough to be in New York City this past November had the opportunity to see three great masters pour out their hearts, extend their technique, and recapture past glories. Pianist Chick Corea, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Steve Gadd, accompanied by tenor saxophonist Ben Solomon, performed practically the full song cycles from two epic ’70s-era Corea masterpieces, Three Quartets and The Leprechaun, downtown at the Blue Note.

Joining friends on a whim, we found ourselves sitting directly behind maestro Gadd and his Yamaha Recording Custom drumset, positioned at the side of the stage. The buzz generated by Gadd’s rig, even when he wasn’t sitting behind it, was palpable. The pure piano-black drums. The heavily taped Zildjian cymbals. The music-stand-turned-stick-holder. The low-slung toms and floor tom. You could practically hear the history of contemporary drumming just staring at the kit.

Soon the electricity between the musicians was flying fast and furious. Reading charts for the bulk of the night, Gadd nailed every change, grooved hard as only he can, and swung ferociously through the music’s complex passageways and extremely demanding arrangements.

Three Quartets and The Leprechaun, along with My Spanish Heart, Friends, and The Mad Hatter, constitute some of the most complex, inspired, and exciting music of both Corea’s and Gadd’s career. In 1996, Universal Records released Return to the 7th Galaxy: The Anthology, a collection of recordings from 1972 to 1975 that included Corea’s original fusion outfit, Return to Forever, performing its debut, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, with Gadd on drums—pre–Lenny White, who appeared on the official release. Hearing Gadd’s funky cowbell beat-downs, Afro-Cuban meltdowns, and joyous solo assaults in that primal fusion setting was a revelation.

Steve Gadd’s entire career has been a revelation—of musical innovation, genre-expanding groove mastery, and epic session-musician perfection. Those old enough to remember how Gadd overturned the music industry during the 1970s know how truly mind-boggling were his now-legendary performances and recordings. Long before Dave Weckl or Vinnie Colaiuta, practically eons before Dennis Chambers, Omar Hakim, or (fill in the blank), Gadd brought a level of precision to studio drumming and an impossibly deep groove signature to his live drumming that was unequaled and incredibly inspiring.

In the early to mid ’70s, Gadd reinvented jazz and pop drumming as we knew it: the crunching solo and Afro-Cuban-tinged outro of Steely Dan’s “Aja,” the rudimental finesse and inspired innovation in Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” the exploding cannons of Rickie Lee Jones’ “We Belong Together,” and the relentless grooving on recordings by Hubert Laws, Steps Ahead, Chet Baker, Stevie Wonder, White Elephant, the Brecker Brothers, Paul McCartney, Weather Report, and so many more.

Still performing and touring the globe with Eric Clapton, James Taylor, and his own groups, Gadd has no intention of slowing down. Recent projects include new recordings with Corea and a tour to follow, further gigging with Clapton and Taylor, and new music from the Steve Gadd Band, which released the DVD Way Back Home: Live From Rochester last September. So even if you’re too young to have experienced Gadd’s overwhelming artistry back in the day, you’ve still got ample opportunity to witness the master in action. Steve recently took time out to discuss some of his groundbreaking early work and make the connections that keep him relevant with so many of us to this day.

MD: There’s a video where you’re playing “Bye Bye Blackbird” on only a snare drum with brushes. It’s powerful and simple. It almost has an aspect of prayer. The “Prayer for Peace” page on your website contains quotes from scholars, sages, wise men—is that part of your attitude toward life?

Steve: Yes. I feel it’s important for people to connect and to unite and not be separate. Separation isn’t good. My wife is a very spiritual person, and I share those beliefs with her. We chose quotes that represent the way we both feel in terms of spirituality and trying to be nice to people. That’s how we feel about people and what we do.

MD: That’s part of your success—you know how to work with people and be sincere.

Steve: Well, you have to give everything. And also, being forgiven is important in terms of how to get on with life—giving [forgiveness] and being forgiven, all those things.

MD: Playing Three Quartets with Chick Corea at the Blue Note, you read all the music. Are you still often required to read charts?

Steve: No, but it definitely helps. If I’m going on tour with someone I haven’t played with or haven’t played with in a long time, I will listen to the music and make notes. Most of the artists don’t have charts. But reading helps me organize those things. And I was sure glad I could read Three Quartets instead of only playing that music from memory. But I don’t read as often as I used to. I don’t live in L.A. or New York, where that work happens, or where I would get called for last-minute gigs for movies or things that require heavy reading. That work is still out there, but you have to live where that work is.

MD: Do you still enjoy traveling the world?

Steve: I love to play, and it’s great having friends and fans who like what you do and are accepting of what you do. But the traveling is not easy. If you travel today, security is a nightmare. But nothing is ever perfect. Thank God I do something I love for a living. Unfortunately, that’s the easy part of what I do. Getting to where I do it is more work. That’s just the way it is in the business.

MD: At the Blue Note gig your cymbals were heavily taped, to where there was no ring whatsoever. Why did you do that?

Steve: Because we weren’t using a lot [of music] in the monitors, and the cymbals were too loud for me to hear what was going on. Taping the cymbals to that degree made it possible for me to play more comfortably and still be able to hear what was going on from the other musicians.

MD: You don’t use in-ear monitors?

Steve: I’ve never really gotten used to them. The cymbal sound in those things is odd. I miss some air and some top end with in-ears. I have to try harder to get to like those.

MD: What did you have in your monitor mix at the Blue Note?

Steve: I had Chick’s piano and Eddie’s bass, a little bit of the horn, and a little bit of my bass drum.

Steve’s Double Pedal

MD: I also noticed you were using a double pedal, which was surprising. You only used it in specific areas of certain songs. How long have you had a double pedal?

Steve: I’ve been using it for a while. I use it sparsely. There’s a few things where I feel comfortable enough incorporating that. But it’s not like I’m “a double bass drum player.” I dabble with it. I’m still learning.

MD: Does the double pedal give you more power when incorporating it with tom fills?

Steve: Yes, and sometimes I’m using it to give a little more clarity to faster bass drum parts. Or to be able to do a triplet thing rather than purely doubles. I’m more comfortable doing certain parts with the double pedal rather than trying to play them really loud with the single pedal.

MD: And you use two different types of beaters with the double pedal?

Steve: There was a felt beater for the right pedal and a wooden beater for the left pedal. I didn’t use it as much with Chick as I do in other situations. But I’ve been doing it for so many years now, it’s just up as part of the kit whether I use it or not.

MD: It must come into play on more groove-heavy gigs.

Steve: Yeah, it helps if you’re playing really big endings and you’ve got to fill up some space. It gives you more power in the bass drum. And there are certain fills, little technical things you can do in solos, that feel good with the double pedal. The more it’s there, the more I try things and the more I learn about it.

MD: Do you lead with either pedal depending on the phrase?

Steve: I try to. There are certain things I try to be able to do with either foot. I experiment with different things like that. I’m always looking for the way that’s the most comfortable. If I get that together and then work on it from the other side, to get it equally comfortable using either the left or right pedal, that’s my goal.

MD: Are you actively expanding your playing, even after all these years? Are you still searching?

Steve: I am. When I sit down and practice, I’m still trying to expand. I just do what I always did, just trying different things.

Practice Like Steve

MD: What do you practice now?

Steve: I’ll sit down and see how the kit feels. Inevitably I’ll start out, whether I’m sitting at the kit or standing at the practice pad, playing some rudiments. I’ll play single-stroke rolls, double-stroke rolls, or combinations of rolls; single strokes, paradiddles, and ratamacues and flamacues—things to help warm up. Exercises that get the blood going so that when playing more technical ideas I don’t strain a muscle. I just start slow and work into it and then see where it leads. One thing I always try to do is, if I play a four-note pattern, for instance, I’ll start it on different parts of the beat. So 1 is in different places within the pattern I’m playing. In terms of where the bar is, 1 always stays the same. So you’re changing the 1 of the pattern while maintaining the time.

Let’s say you were doing Swiss flam paradiddles. You would play four of them, starting with the flam on 1. Then start the pattern on the second 8th note of the bar. It’s the same thing; it just starts on a different part of the bar. So you don’t have to relearn a thing technically. But when you start it on a different part of the beat, your whole body has to make an adjustment. It’s another type of independence, being able to know where the time is and always knowing where the big 1 is in terms of playing in a four-bar phrase and being able to subdivide it and knowing where you always are.

MD: One thing that’s marked all of your recordings, epitomized on tracks like Chuck Mangione’s “High Heel Sneakers” and Steely Dan’s “Aja,” is that every note is played with complete conviction. That’s the kind of conviction I might only have when I’m angry. But you always play with that intensity.

Steve: I don’t know where that conviction comes from. Probably from wanting the music to feel as good as it can feel. That’s the motivation when I play—to make it as good as it can be with the people I’m involved with at that time.

MD: Steve Jordan once told me that the session drummers in New York were so busy during the ’70s that you had your own work line, Radio Registry, where you’d call in for your next session. When there was so much work in the city, how did you maintain that level of conviction and consistency in your drumming from session to session?

Steve: You get in a zone. I was in the right place at the right time. I was going through a lot of things in my life that weren’t happy. It was painful.

The music was the one thing that gave me purpose, happiness, and joy with other people. There were parts of my life that were not working out then, and it was really painful. From my dad dying to splitting up with my first wife—and we had two kids. All those things are part of the emotion of playing music. It all comes out. But music made me happy. And I sure needed that at that time.

MD: It’s easy to find clips of you playing from every decade of your career. There’s one from around 1970—one of the oldest—where you’re playing “Cissy Strut” with the U.S. Army Big Band. The groove is rock solid, and you’re playing very hip ideas. But if you had to critique the young Steve Gadd in that video, what would you say?

Steve: Well, you can tell I was young and searching, but I was open to different kinds of things. I was doing the best I could.

Steve’s Yamaha Recording Custom Kit

MD: What were some of the things that you wanted to have addressed with your new Yamaha Recording Custom outfit?

Steve: I was interested in working on the bass drum sound. And that to me is a big step. I love the way it sounds. We also worked on changing how the hardware is mounted on the toms to create more resonance. I like drums that have a range, both pitch-wise and volume-wise. And these drums open up; they don’t choke. The bass drum sounds good. They’ve really made improvements on the snare drum too. I love how dedicated Yamaha is to their instrument, to the drums.

MD: How has the snare sound improved?

Steve: Here’s my thing. I like a Remo Diplomat head on the bottom. To me that makes a big difference. If you put a Diplomat head on the bottom of one of those drums, it opens it up. The drum doesn’t choke when you hit it loud. It just gets better. And it’s easier to get a sound on it. You can crank it up and it sounds good; you can loosen the top head and the snares and make it sound trashy—you’ve got a lot of different ways to go with it. Whereas if you leave the Ambassador head on it, you can get a good sound, but it’s good in one area and if you try to go away from it, it loses it. But the snare drum has a better dynamic range now.

MD: Do you want to hear different sounds from your drums than you did twenty years ago?

Steve: I’ve always liked different sounds. The music dictates what I’m going for. I love the sound of drums. I look for a similar thing, no matter what, in the purity of the tone. But I don’t know if they’d be the same notes from one session to another.

MD: Your drum sizes have stayed consistent.

Steve: Yes, I start with a 10″ and go to a 12″, then a 14″ or 16″ on the floor. Sometimes I’ll use a 12″ and 13″ on the bass drum and a 14″ or a 16″ on the floor.

MD: Your cymbals have been consistent as well?

Steve: Yeah.

MD: Do you ever use traditional grip anymore?

Steve: I do on Chick’s gig.

Whose Drums?

MD: On what might be considered your landmark recordings—Steely Dan’s Aja; Chick Corea’s Friends, Three Quartets, and The Leprechaun; Paul Simon’s OneTrick Pony; and records with Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Scott, Brecker Brothers, Steps Ahead, Bob James, Stuff, and Chuck Mangione—your drumming is easy to recognize. It’s so distinctive. Even listening to Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” on a transistor radio as a kid, I could hear the press rolls and the groove. It was so infectious and strong and identifiable as Steve Gadd. On all those huge records, were you playing your own drums or a studio kit?

Steve: I think it was half and half. Some of the stuff was rental gear, and some was my own drums. In those years a lot of the studios had drums. It’s hard to remember what I was playing. What year was Aja?

MD: Aja was 1977.

Steve: Those could have been my drums. It’s hard to say. But they probably were Yamaha drums. I was with Yamaha back then.

MD: Did you bring your own cymbals to every session?

Steve: Yes, I had my own cymbals. Back in those early days you’d use the studio’s bass drum and tom-toms. You’d bring a trap case with your foot pedals, a snare drum, and your seat, and a cymbal bag. You’d have a trap case with a chain and a lock on it, and a cartage guy. He’d bring the trap case to where you were going to play. He’d get there and you’d set up the hardware and the studio drums. If they were doing dates from like ten to one, two to five, seven to ten, the studio often had its own kit. Atlantic had their own kit, a set of Sonors. It changed as the ’70s went on; people started to book blocks of time for projects, and they’d want you to use your own gear.

Steve in Session

MD: You’re playing on the outer limits of creativity on many ’70s pop-oriented records: “Chuck E’s in Love,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Late in the Evening,” “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” “The Hustle.” You took a lot of chances. Did you feel you were pushing the envelope?

Steve: I felt like I was trying. I was looking for different types of fills. You’d get a lead sheet, and there were certain sections of the song, and at the end of one section going into another they’d want the drummer to play a fill. I would try to figure out as many different ways to do it that were interesting and still musical. That helped me to get through the many hours I spent in drum booths, waiting for someone to tell me something or waiting for the producer and the artist to listen to something. Then they’d come back and say what they wanted, whether it was the same thing or something different. While that was going on and I didn’t feel I needed to listen to the playback, I would stay in the drum room and practice. I would just think of different things to do with the hi-hat, just for my own sanity. Sometimes practicing would lead to creative things that I could use at another time on a session.

MD: I saw a video of you in session, and you listened to the song a couple times, then asked to hear a specific part, then cut it in one take. You were doing more listening than playing. In those situations, what were you listening for?

Steve: In general, if you go in the studio and people start describing the song and asking for specific things, their words will put thoughts into your head about music you haven’t heard yet. Often you’d have to erase those ideas, because the things that may happen in your head from this guy talking about music before you heard it had nothing to do with music. It’s always clearer if you listen to the piece before anyone says anything about the music. Either let them play it on the piano and sing it, or if there’s a demo listen to that. Look at the lead sheet while you’re listening. And listen a couple of times. So then, when they’re talking about it, you’ve got something to relate to. You look at the lead sheet, make sure letter A is where it should be. Then you’re not just talking at random. They can give you a letter or a dynamic, and you’ve got something to apply it to, to make it clearer.

MD: Describe a day in your life in 1970s New York.

Steve: You might do a jingle from ten to eleven. It could be a record date from ten to one and another one from two to five. And one from seven to ten. Often, after that we would go to Mikell’s uptown to play with Richard Tee and Cornell Dupree and Gordon Edwards. Mikell’s was the place to go, and we played some great music. The audience seemed to feel as good as we did playing. That’s when it becomes spiritual and it feels magic. And you didn’t want to say no to anything, because it was all so much fun. And it provided the opportunity to meet other people who were good musicians and who wanted to do the same things you were doing. The guys I met in those years are still my friends.

MD: I had heard that Rickie Lee Jones’ “Chuck E’s in Love” was a hard session and that she was hard to work with.

Steve: That wasn’t hard. There was a song on Pirates called “We Belong Together”….

MD: Yes, your drumming is incredible on that track! Explosive.

Steve: She had a problem with other people playing that track. I went in and was able to understand her, even though she was having a hard time explaining it to other people. She had trouble getting the music the way she wanted it. But we had no problems. We had a ball doing “Chuck E’s in Love” too.

MD: There are so many “Aja” stories. One is that you cut it on the first or second take. One goes that you were asleep and they poked you and instantly you awoke and played it perfectly, first take. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen once told me it was the second take and your playing was unbelievable.

Steve: I recall that it was another session where they’d recorded the song with different people. I’m sure the stuff was good, but it wasn’t whatever they wanted. It can be hard to say what you want verbally. Talking about music and trying to explain how you want someone who plays another instrument to play it, it becomes tricky. The band was still the same, but they were trying the song with different drummers. The music was there; the band had played it. My reading was good, and I think we got through it and they just made me understand that they wanted it crazy at the end. Crazy fills. In those days people were trying to keep it simple and make it groove, and part of the song was like that. So to go from that to insane, I just went for it, and it was what they wanted. And it was just one of those things. I did something, and it gave them what they wanted for that music.

MD: Was “Aja” cut live with the band?

Steve: Yes, but Wayne Shorter overdubbed his [sax] solo at the end.

MD: Do you remember the solo you played on Ben Sidran’s version of “Seven Steps to Heaven” from The Cat and the Hat?

Steve: I don’t remember what I played, but I remember doing that album. That was a fun session. We laughed a lot. I remember the solo. The only one who had done it before was Tony Williams, who was an idol of mine. How do you approach a song that only Tony Williams before you had soloed on? You have to come up with something completely different. Luckily I was able to do that.

MD: As far as drum solos, do you have favorites of yours?

Steve: I don’t know them well enough. One doesn’t come to mind. I’m still searching for the best solo and trying to play it.

Session Tools

MD: Your chart reading is legendary. What’s key to being a great reader and interpreter?

Steve: The key to being a good reader is you have to read. It’s like reading a book. If a kid doesn’t read for a while, he may have to read a word at a time, but the more he gets into it, the more he’s able to look at more words. It’s the same way with reading music. The more you do, the more you’re able to look at the whole chart and know how to section it off. And how to put letters A and B in, so you can mark the number of bars and phrases, things that you do to help you know where you are. The more you do it, the better it is. And I did it every day for years, and I felt really confident. But if I don’t do it for a while it takes a minute. It comes back. But the way to keep it consistent is to keep doing it.

MD: How do you keep that fire in the belly?

Steve: It comes from letting the music bring it out of me. Instead of trying to make it music, just allow it to be music. Then you’re becoming more a part of the whole thing and not egotistically trying to insert something.

MD: Once you recalled a session where the best thing to play for a certain track was nothing. Always purely about the music. The industry has changed so much since the ’70s, with studios closing and machines all over the music. How have these huge shifts in the music business affected you?

Steve: I don’t live in New York or L.A., so I’m not in a position strategically to be able to be in that recording thing where they call you the night before for the next day. Just not living in those scenes affects that. If I was living there, I’d have to keep my reading up, and I’m sure there would be some work, but there definitely isn’t the work there used to be. And the kind of work there is could be a lot of overdubs, things where you go in and play to a track. It would be different kinds of work.

MD: And you’re probably not interested in that.

Steve: I would never say I’m not interested. I’m a freelance musician. I don’t have the luxury to say I’m not interested. Staying interested in every kind of music is what allows you to keep working. Keeping an open mind is important.

On the Road Again

MD: You play more rock gigs now. Do you feel as challenged as you do with more jazz-oriented material?

Steve: The other gigs are challenging in other ways. Every gig has its own challenge.

MD: What’s the challenge of Eric Clapton and James Taylor? I would think you could do those gigs without breathing very hard.

Steve: No. James Taylor’s gig is total concentration every night, with a controlled amount of space. Eric’s thing is high energy where you’ve got to be not only in shape with the instrument, but you have to be in shape physically. All of those things are important. Different things are important for different gigs. And it would be very hard to keep yourself musically on a level where you would just be able to jump into either of those gigs and play them perfectly the first time. But if you keep yourself at a certain level health-wise, and with the instrument, then the few days you have to do those gigs allows you to make the music the best it can be in a short period of time, and to keep it there.

MD: Do you listen to music on the road between gigs?

Steve: I listen to the next gig I have to do. When I was in New York I recorded with a keyboard player from Japan, Ai Kuwabara. She’s really good. Will Lee and I did the album. When I wasn’t doing that I was listening to Three Quartets and The Leprechaun for the gig with Chick at the Blue Note. I was trying to get a head start. I also listened to a lot of this album with Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Ray Brown, and Herb Ellis that has no drums [Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio]. This is smoking. The grooves are so good. There are no drums, so I get a pair of brushes and play along on a pizza box. It’s so much fun. I have a ball. I just found that. I’d never heard it before, and the grooves make me smile. I’m playing that a lot.

MD: Do you keep up with drum magazines, the NAMM Show, and the drum industry in general?

Steve: My wife stays on top of that and points things out to me. I look at the pictures!

MD: Where does your interest in tattoos come from?

Steve: I don’t know. My wife and I have some of the same tattoos. That’s one connection. I just got into it. I like the tribal stuff. I was drawn toward that for some reason.

Master to Master, Brother to Brother

MD: What’s been the best thing about playing with so many musical masters?

Steve: They help you grow. They give so much of themselves, it helps you go to another level. I’ve had a great ride, and I’ve had the opportunity to make music and be hired by great musicians. I’ve given a hundred percent, and when you go through life that way, you give to people and they give back, and you take some of that with you. You might not even know exactly what it is. It could be the way you handle yourself in the studio while trying to make a musical point. When you hear people that are inspiring, what they do stays with you. And that’s what lives on. You know, we’re all in this together. I’m just playing stuff that I heard other guys play before me. Keep sharing.

Gadd’s Setup

Drums: Yamaha new Recording Custom in solid black finish
A. 5.5×14 Steve Gadd signature snare with steel shell
B. 7.5×10 tom
C. 8×12 tom
D. 13×14 floor tom
E. 16×20 bass drum (with lift)

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 14″ hi-hats (old Turkish K bottom cymbal on top and A Custom top cymbal on the bottom)
2. 20″ K Dark Thin crash
3. 20″ Classic Orchestral Medium Light ride
4. 20″ K Constantinople Medium

Heads: Remo

Sticks: Vic Firth Steve Gadd signature sticks and brushes

Hardware: Yamaha double pedal and cymbal stands, DW 5000 hi-hat stand

Percussion: LP cowbell

Accessories: Earthworks mics