Story by Billy Amendola
Photos by Paul La Raia
The modern-day hit-making machine has all the chops you’d want, grooves like a feel-good metronome, and programs drum parts that make you think, Are those real drums…or is it programmed? Most of the time, it’s both.
Steven Wolf—simply Wolf to many of his friends and associates—has played on countless hit records, including three of the biggest chart-toppers of the past decade: “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry, “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne, and “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus. In recent years he’s largely made his contributions behind the scenes, but over the course of his twenty-five-plus-year career, the Berklee-trained drummer has made a huge impact on the musical landscape, playing, programming, producing, and writing for a wide range of acts, from the pop and soul singers Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Joss Stone, and Britney Spears to the jazz and fusion artists Screaming Headless Torsos, Tribal Tech, Larry Coryell, Lenny Pickett, Patti Austin, Alex Bugnon, and Grover Washington Jr. “I loved playing with Grover,” says Wolf, who worked with Washington until the saxophonist’s passing in 1999. “I learned a lot from him. We stretched out, and there were drum solos, but that gig was always about the groove.”
It’s no surprise that Wolf embraced Washington’s rhythmic side so fully; according to his mother, Steven was already drumming when still in her womb. (“She told me that when she was pregnant with me, whenever music was playing I’d start kicking repetitively.”) Growing up, music was always in the air at home—on the radio, on the stereo, and during jam sessions led by Wolf’s father, who played piano and trumpet. It was the perfect environment for a budding musician. These days Wolf is still kicking—often, and with great success. In this, his first Modern Drummer feature, he shares his honest assessment of the difficult new reality of studio drumming but offers plenty of tips and encouragement for those who believe they have what it takes to break in.
MD: What’s a typical day in the studio for you today?
Steven: It’s always different. It all depends on who I’m working with, the type of material, and what they need from me. Most producers I work with know I play drums and program, and they have me do both. But there are producers who only use me as a drummer and other producers who only use me as a programmer. Usually—and more and more—it’s a pretty even mixture; people are hiring me to drum and program on the same tracks.
I do a lot of programming work from home. On Beyoncé’s 2014 self-titled album, I did numerous sessions. I think she recorded at least thirty songs and then narrowed it down to whatever ended up on the album. On some songs they gave me minimal direction and let me go wild, while on others they had very specific grooves in mind. I mostly played live drums on those sessions, but I ended up doing a little programming on one of the tracks.
The only consistent aspect of all the sessions I do is the approach to the sounds. On pop records especially, the drum sounds are just as integral to the recording as the drum parts. Recording is a very different headspace. You’re under the microscope. You’re taking part in the creation of a piece of art for mass consumption. Granted, many people wouldn’t necessarily consider a Britney Spears record a work of art, but it very much is.
MD: How did you get into session work in the first place?
Steven: I was always interested in recording, and when I was a kid I’d do makeshift multitrack recording at home with two boom boxes, bouncing tracks back and forth. My first recording sessions in real studios were when I was in high school, with friends. That was the first time I ever played with a click. When I was at Berklee I did more sessions at school and around Boston.
Sessions didn’t start to become a priority for me until the mid-’90s. The first hit record I played on was on Celine Dion’s album Falling Into You. I basically got the call because Steve Ferrone wasn’t in town. I was on the road with Annie Lennox at the time, but I was off that week and happened to be home. Anyway, there were charts, and it was a full band but no singer. I didn’t even know who the artist was. Then the album came out and it went multiplatinum and won two Grammys, including Album of the Year. I’d played on a platinum record prior to that, with the Bee Gees. But the Celine Dion album was massive [it eventually achieved diamond status for selling more than 10 million domestic copies], and it really put me on the map as an “official” session drummer.
MD: Let’s go back to the beginning. You’ve said that you were immediately drawn to the drums.
Steven: When I was five my parents wanted me to take piano lessons, and I did, but my heart wasn’t in it. So they finally agreed to get me drum lessons at a local music store. They got me a practice pad and said that if I stuck with it, they’d eventually get me a real kit. Eventually I began taking lessons with Elaine Hoffman-Watts, who’s a highly respected teacher in the Philly area. I still have my copy of Jim Chapin’s book Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer with her notes in it. She’s still teaching today. One of her first students was Gerry Brown, and I remember her telling me about him. Knowing that one of her students was a successful pro drummer was very inspiring to me. Gerry was one of my first drum heroes.
Toward the end of high school I began taking lessons with Carl Mottola, the house drummer in popular Atlantic City casinos. Any major act that came through A.C. hired Carl. He subbed on the road with Elvis and Sinatra. Carl was a really great guy and a monster drummer. Sadly, he passed a few years ago.
MD: Who were some of your earliest drumming influences?
Steven: My earliest favorite records were my father’s—the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Meet the Beatles, the Jackson 5’s Third Album. Those are the records I remember holding in my hands. I picked up a lot of Ringo’s drumming subconsciously, just from listening to so much Beatles. But I never really focused on him back then; my appreciation for his drumming genius would come later. Ringo is the most important influence on me in terms of being a session musician on pop records. He wrote the book on creating simple but effective drum parts that completely support and uplift the song. John Bonham also had a huge influence on me later, as did Phil Collins—Phil is so underrated as a drummer. I didn’t realize just how important he was until I started making records for a living.
MD: Who was your first “Wow!” drummer?
Steven: The first drummer I got into strictly as a drummer was Keith Moon. When I was about ten I became a Who fanatic. The next drummer who caught my attention was Steve Jordan. I didn’t know his name at the time; my dad took me to see him play live with the Blues Brothers. It felt so good, and it had a feel I hadn’t really heard before. Then a friend of mine, Andy Kravitz [now an L.A. session drummer and producer], turned me on to Steve Gadd. Around that time I also saw my first drum clinic, with Simon Phillips. I’d never heard a drummer play that way. I wanted to know about Simon’s influences, so I checked out Billy Cobham, and when I heard Billy, that was it.
Then I started appreciating all the top session guys, listening to the records they played on. Bernard Purdie is one of my all-time favorite drummers. The guy’s feel is untouchable. I also love Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, Al Jackson Jr., Benny Benjamin, Roger Hawkins, Greg Errico, Carlton Barrett, and Zigaboo Modeliste. I listened to all the jazz legends coming up as well, and I focused on all the chops guys. But now I really prefer listening to guys like Jimmy Cobb and Art Blakey. My jazz playing got way better when I stopped trying to emulate my heroes and just focused on grooving.
MD: Did you play along to records when you were coming up?
Steven: Yes, I’d get a Billy Cobham or Tony Williams record and put my hand on the vinyl to slow it down, and then learn the parts. I also began attending local drum clinics whenever possible.
MD: What was your practice routine besides listening to records and playing along?
Steven: If I wanted to fine-tune something, I’d isolate it. To get my double kick chops up, for instance, I’d put a metronome on and just play rudiments with my feet. To work on my hands I’d do a lot of pad work, sometimes focusing on particular exercises. After seeing Billy Cobham in person for the first time, I spent a lot of time working on finger control. Two books that really helped were Stick Control and especially Accents and Rebounds [both by George Lawrence Stone]—the conditioning my hands got from that book made it easier for me to play all kinds of subtle ghost notes.
MD: Did you play in local bands?
Steven: Yes, I did that throughout high school, until I left for Berklee, where I studied with Tommy Campbell, Skip Hadden, Joe Hunt, and Ed Uribe, who recently passed. I was very honored, by the way, to write the tribute to Ed in Modern Drummer’s May 2016 issue.
MD: How did you get involved in programming?
Steven: I was born during what I consider the golden age of music, the late ’60s. My adolescence coincided with the birth of hip-hop, and the sound of drum machines—and soon after, samplers—resonated with me. I wanted to be able to create those sounds and grooves in addition to playing acoustic drums. The first time I heard “Sucker M.C.’s” by Run D.M.C. and “P.S.K.” by Schoolly D, I was hypnotized by the programmed drums. The first time I heard “I Know You Got Soul” by Eric B. & Rakim, I was hypnotized by the whole production, which was a combination of programmed drums and samples. The first time I heard “777-9311” by the Time, it was like hearing a different language. I thought the band’s drummer, Jellybean Johnson, was playing what I was hearing, so I took it upon myself to transcribe the groove and play it on the kit. Then I realized it was a LinnDrum machine. On a side note, years later I met Jellybean and [Time leader] Morris Day, and they told me that David Garibaldi had done the programming on that beat!
So after that, when I was still in high school, I bought my first drum machine; it was a Yamaha RX-something—basically a poor man’s Linn. My next drum machine was a Roland R-8, and I got every sound card they made for it. Then I got an Akai MPC60 from Hiram Bullock, and then I bought my first of three MPC3000s, and that was my programming workhorse for years. I had three because I was so busy that I needed one at my home studio, one to take to sessions at other studios, and one as a backup, because I usually had one in the repair shop.
I’ve always been into electronics. In high school I saved up and bought the first self-contained Simmons pad, the SDS1—it could only play one sound, so I loaded mine with the “Prince sound,” which was a detuned LinnDrum side-stick.
Later, when I was still at Berklee, I got my first name touring gig with Hiram Bullock, who was signed with Atlantic Jazz at the time. I got an advance on my pay and I bought a drumKAT, a sampler, some Dauz pads, and shell-mount triggers, so my live setup was a full acoustic kit plus the sampler, a drum machine, and multiple pads, plus triggers on my kick and snare drums. This was in the late ’80s.
MD: You’ve gone from being a touring and recording drummer on instrumental albums to playing on the biggest pop records of the day. What words of wisdom do you have for drummers who want to follow in your footsteps?
Steven: My advice is to practice and listen to everything. Play with people as good as or better than you, and spend time with drummer friends and shed together. Also, take care of your body. If you want to play your whole life, the better care you take of your body, the longer you’ll be able to play. Pain can be an indication that your technique is off, so make sure your technique is okay, and if you’re not sure, find a good teacher. Also, make sure that you’re setting your kit up so that it’s ergonomically practical for you. Take care of your overall health—not only your body, but your psychological health too. The life of a professional musician is full of ups and downs, and many well-known musicians have suffered from depression, anxiety, and more.
If you’re interested in making a career out of session drumming, go into it with the understanding that the era of the studio musician is effectively over. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t get work. It just means there’s much less of it to go around. So you have to be exceptional, and you have to have the appropriate skill set for the times. I was lucky to catch the tail end of the era of the studio musician, but I basically watched the entire recording industry change around me.
And remember that your primary role is to groove. Having a great pocket will never go out of style. If you have a great feel and you’re musical, people will always love working with you. Chops are impressive, but a deep groove will give people an emotional reaction, and that’s what will leave a bigger impression, especially when it comes to getting work.
I’d also recommend to anyone wanting to do session work that they should not only know how to program but also have some grasp of modern record production. Pro Tools is the industry standard, so you should know your way around it.
Know your sounds and feels from every era, and stay current. If you want to work on records in the pop world, then be prepared for producers and artists to reference certain things, from a particular snare sound to a specific fill or groove. One of the reasons I get work is because I know my sounds and I know how to achieve them. It really helps if you have a working knowledge of engineering as well, so that you can communicate with the engineer.
Back in the day I’d sit in every situation possible. I would take any and all gigs that came my way. The more people who are aware of you and dig what you do, the more work it’ll lead to. Word of mouth is everything in this business. Social media didn’t exist back in the day. Now there are multiple ways to make people aware of you, so definitely have some sort of Web presence.
And finally, be reliable, and be someone who people like working and hanging with. If you’re difficult, eventually no one will want to hire you, no matter how great you are.
Beyoncé Beyoncé /// Pink The Truth About Love, I’m Not Dead /// Sugababes Change /// Kelly Clarkson Stronger /// Katy Perry One of the Boys, Prism /// Avril Lavigne The Best Damn Thing /// Natalie Imbruglia Male /// Annie Lennox Medusa…Live in Central Park /// Cher It’s a Man’s World /// Celine Dion Falling Into You, These Are Special Times /// Leona Lewis Spirit // Bee Gees Still Waters /// Daniel Merriweather Love & War /// Rufus Wainwright Want One, Want Two /// Jennifer Hudson I Remember Me /// Daryl Hall Can’t Stop Dreaming /// The Veronicas The Secret Life Of… /// Will Young Keep On /// Hiram Bullock Way Kool, Too Funky 2 Ignore /// Oz Noy Who Gives a Funk /// Stevie Salas Colorcode Be What It Is /// Grover Washington Jr. Soulful Strut, Grover Live, Breath of Heaven /// Holly Cole Holly Cole /// Toninho Horta Foot on the Road /// Bo Bice The Real Thing
Drums: vintage Ludwig
A. 5×14 Acrolite snare
B. 9×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 14×22 bass drum
Alternate sizes not in photo: 6.5×14 Acrolite snare, 8×12 tom, 14×20 and 14×24 bass drums
1. 16″ K Constantinople hi-hats (crash top, Suspended bottom)
2. 20″ K Constantinople extra-thin crash (prototype)
3. 22″ K Constantinople Overhammered Thin ride
4. 20″ K Constantinople extra-
thin crash with three rivets (prototype)
Heads: Evans G1Coated snare and tom batters, EQ4 Coated bass drum batter and EQ3 Coated front head
Hardware: Gibraltar single bass drum pedal, hi-hat stand, throne, snare stands, and cymbal stands
Percussion: Rhythm Tech tambourine, Eggz, and Studio shakers
Sticks: Promark (various models)
Accessories: Humes & Berg cases, Sennheiser headphones, Mytek Private Q headphone mixer