Toto’s Shannon Forrest
Story by Michael Dawson
Photos by Chad Crawford
The twenty-five-year Nashville session vet has spent his entire professional life in pursuit of total excellence. So when he was offered the chance to man the throne with the pop/rock icons Toto, a position previously held by some of the greatest drummers of all time, he was already at the ready.
Shannon Forrest has won the Academy of Country Music’s award for Drummer of the Year seven times in the past decade, has played on thousands of sessions since arriving in Music City in 1991, and has provided the rhythmic bedrock for dozens of number-one hits by country music’s most successful artists, including Martina McBride, Tim McGraw, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Darius Rucker, Rascal Flatts, and many others. But the focus for this session ace, who has also spent the past two-plus years stepping outside the studio to tour the world with the legendary pop/rock band Toto, has never been on building an impressive résumé.“When I’m on a session, I’m not done until I feel like you could start over with my drum track and the vocal and still have a hit record,” says the forty-three-year-old drummer from his commercial-quality home studio outside of Nashville. “Whether it’s for a demo, a new artist, or someone I’ve wanted to work with for a long time, the motivation is the same.”
As did all the session greats before him, including top influences like Bernard Purdie, Steve Gadd, and the late Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, Forrest enters the studio with one objective in mind: to provide excellence. And in an era when some drummers and producers are content to allow lesser performances to slide through and be “fixed in the mix” later due to advancements in editing technology, Shannon’s determination to always serve the music in the most complete, compelling, and compassionate way possible is what makes him a hot commodity among those who understand that there’s more to producing a successful song than writing a catchy chorus.
“I believe that the reason the music industry is struggling has much less to do with piracy and much more to do with apathy,” says Forrest. “If you’re not working hard enough to develop your skillset to the point where you don’t need that safety net of technology behind you, or you’re willing to accept being edited, then how much are you really giving up of yourself? And what do you think you should expect in return?”
Those are poignant questions, and if you’re really honest with yourself, the answers could be tough to swallow. But if you have aspirations to do what Forrest is doing, whether it’s recording on major-label records or touring the world with icons like Toto, Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald, and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (the drummer supported the latter three from 2010 to 2012 on Dukes of September tours), then maybe it’s time to reevaluate your own efforts versus expectations. For Forrest, success has not come via crafty marketing ploys or leveraging one gig to get to another. Rather, it’s been a direct result of a relentless inner drive toward excellence that permeates every note he plays when he sits down at the drumset.
We begin our conversation with Shannon by discussing how he ended up stepping outside Nashville’s sphere of influence to take over the drum seat in one of most revered bands of the past forty years.
MD: How did a top Nashville session musician end up drumming in Toto?
Shannon: You have to have something in your résumé that will reach their ears; you can’t be completely out of context. I’d worked my way into being a session musician in Nashville because I wanted to play on records. That’s a separate thing from being a broader musician outside of that community. So I started turning down sessions in ’98, and in 2000 I started a rock band. That became this energy of pursuing my own voice. It was music that reflected me.
But really the thing that led to the next thing was when I met Mike McDonald. I was recording with my band at his studio, and he heard what we were doing and asked me to stay set up to record something the next day for an artist he was producing. I ended up staying set up there for seven years.
Through Mike, I started to build something that was more relevant to somebody like Toto. He was working with Boz Scaggs, so through Mike’s management I got introduced to Boz. And earlier in my session career, when I was nineteen, I’d met David Hungate, the original bassist in Toto. That put me on Toto’s radar much earlier than what we’re talking about now, which gives you an idea of how long it takes for things to transpire.
But through working on my own music and working with Mike, I established myself in a different form of music, and I was no longer dealing with being known as just a country musician.
MD: You had an opportunity to play with Toto for an awards ceremony a few years back, right?
Shannon: Yeah. In 2010, Toto was being inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame, and David asked that I “sit in” for Jeff. That was the first time I played with those guys. I knew [Toto guitarist Steve] Lukather from several years before, but we hadn’t played music together.
But it was a limited thing—we only played four of the hits. There are a lot of other things they do that are more complex, so even though I played with them, I hadn’t really qualified myself as being up to the task. Then, through Mike McDonald’s management, I ended up recording with Boz Scaggs, and he brought in David Paich, the keyboard player in Toto, to record at my studio. After that, we had a much deeper knowledge of each other.
MD: You also mentioned that your appearance at the 2010 Modern Drummer Festival played a role in your branching out beyond country music.
Shannon: Right. After I did the record with Boz, he called up [Steely Dan frontman] Donald Fagen to get me on the Dukes of September tour, which was Boz, Mike [McDonald], Donald, and most of the Steely Dan rhythm section. Donald went to YouTube to check me out. The only things that came up were clips from the festival, and I was playing specific things like the half-time shuffle. I’d never done a drum clinic before, so I was really insecure about doing it. But there was something in me that said: You need to do this. So listening to myself and deciding to do things that were uncomfortable ended up opening doors.
Another thing that led me to Toto was producing a record for Mike McDonald. We brought in David Paich to play B3 [organ]. I spent a couple days at his studio in L.A., so he heard me on a bunch of those tracks, which gave him additional context to put to my name.
MD: What do you think Paich heard in your playing that ultimately led to him suggesting you for that first tour with Toto?
Shannon: When I was sending tracks back and forth to him, it was the grungier rock stuff that my band was doing that lit him up the most. I think that was because he was hearing me in a sound that was unique to me, and he could recognize something about that more easily than when I was playing in a context that was more reminiscent of Jeff [Porcaro] and the things they were doing with Toto. I think having something musically of your own goes much further to open other doors than playing 3,000 sessions. The session thing feeds a different goal, and it bears fruit there but not really outside of that.
MD: Were there any surprises when you sat in the drum chair with Toto for the first time?
Shannon: The biggest thing is that they all have incredible time. From playing in the studio with different rhythm sections, I learned how to dictate the time to hold everything together when guys would rush or pull back. With Toto, that’s not necessary. I’ve played for so long being malleable and compensating that it was a bit of a challenge to turn that off. The adjustment was to let go of my role as caretaker of the time and just ride along. It’s a very positive change, but I had to get used to not falling into old patterns. Everybody in Toto listens acutely, so the reaction time is quick and effortless. We had a technical issue with monitoring one night and a phrase moved by about a quarter note, and everybody turned the phrase back around before a measure went by. That’s how dialed in and focused everyone is.
Learning as a session musician how to negotiate the best-feeling groove ultimately ended up compromising my own time. I was constantly changing things to make the track tighter, like reaching out through a transition and bringing the acoustic guitar player back into the pocket. With Toto there’s none of that, which gave me more subconscious space to reach for other things in my own playing.
MD: When you’re talking about adjusting the time in the studio, is this with click tracks or without?
Shannon: Both. Luckily I did a lot of recording in my youth without click tracks, so I had to be able to keep good time and not speed up. When I started playing with clicks, it was off-putting, because I could already do what the click was trying to do. And the click would have an adverse effect on other people’s time.
When I started playing on records, it was a few years before we started using audio editors like Pro Tools. So what was getting me work was that producers were noticing that the same rhythm section that would get loose and sloppy at times wasn’t getting loose and sloppy when I was playing drums.
MD: Why do you think that was the case?
Shannon: Like I said, I learned to play time in a way that I could make fluid adjustments without anyone feeling it change. That kept the band tighter. For example, when you play a fill going into a chorus, some people sense that energy and start rushing. As a result, the first backbeat is flammed. To keep that from happening, I subconsciously took on an approach where if I wanted to lean on top of the beat for a fill going into the chorus, I would pull back a little bit over the course of the two measures before the fill to free up some space. You’re not going to hear those two measures slowing down. I’m just trying to buy myself ten milliseconds to give me enough room to play the fill with some energy and still land right on the click when we get to the chorus. I also pick a click sound that’s short enough to be defined but not so short that it exposes every little flam.
MD: Is it a shaker?
Shannon: Yeah, it’s a Roland shaker sample that I’ve used since ’91, and I roll off the high frequencies so it’s a little duller sounding. As things have evolved with Pro Tools, I’ll just play to whatever is in there, like Cowbell 1, and put on a low-pass filter at 3 kHz. It’s a horribly nonmusical thing to play to, but it’s better than some of the other things people use that sound like your spinal cord is being assaulted with a rubber mallet. [laughs]
MD: With the tendency for people to grid everything in Pro Tools, are you still focusing on these nuanced adjustments to the time?
Shannon: It depends on who I’m working for. I’m also an engineer and producer, so I’m always evaluating things from that perspective. How tight does it need to be? What does it need to feel like? You have to get beyond five milliseconds to actually hear separation between the parts. That’s pretty damned tight in most instances.
But the implementation of audio editors has marginalized everything. The great thing about playing on a recording is being able to hear yourself back. But the second it’s manipulated, it’s not you anymore. The clock in Pro Tools is so infinite that it feels inhuman. When I hear quantized music from a computer, I immediately know it. It hits something in my psyche that feels wrong. Human beings don’t make those sounds, and I think that has had a massive impact on the human spirit in music.
MD: How so?
Shannon: The way I approach playing a track is to create something that’s a hook, even if it’s within the groove. There should be something in it that’s beyond just squared-up 8ths and backbeats on 2 and 4. You should be able to find something to make yourself sound unique. When things get manipulated, that’s taken away.
The thing that makes a musician or artist great is their commitment to their own excellence, and I’m not talking about technical precision. You can be a sloppier player, but you have to refine that style to a point of excellence. Bob Dylan is in complete control of his approach, even though it’s a looser style. And the level of precision on Steely Dan records is massively appealing because that’s them being a hundred percent true to who they are. That’s their form of expression.
I think the same thing that makes guys work toward a level of excellence in execution also makes them great at interpreting someone’s songs and coming up with great parts. When musicians are content with—or dependent on—being corrected by a machine, that’s a telltale sign of something being flawed. You’re not taking ownership, and I can’t relate to that.
As drummers, we tend to focus on time relative to a click track. If you’re willing to look at your time honestly and work to improve it, then that’s also the thing that gets you to the level where you’re listening much more reverently to evaluate what the song needs. Maybe I’d like to be playing something more complicated, but the song needs something else. It’s that kind of humility that leads to the refining process. You can’t just say, “The computer is going to fix my time.” If you’re willing to make that exception, you’re probably not going to go deep enough with the music to find the things to help express the song in the best way possible.
MD: I find it impressive how you’re able to throw in some more adventurous fills and groove variations without them sounding out of context, even on huge hit records. Is it because you have such control of your time that you’re able to play a bit more freely?
Shannon: For every level of nuance and dynamics you want to introduce into a phrase, there’s another muscle memory that needs to be developed. So it’s good to work on everything at every volume. Play something loud, and then see if you can play it soft. The things I love about someone’s playing are the dynamics. Think about a great orator who speaks passionately. There’s always a lot of up and down to the volume of the phrases. It’s a point of emphasis, and that should be part of our playing.
The drummers that I tried to emulate early on had a similar thing. Jeff Porcaro had infinite control of the inner dynamics, and that’s why he sounds so expressive. The reason his half-time shuffle sounds so great is because there’s a lot of distance in volume between the accents and the in-between strokes. And for every one of those nuances, there’s a neural path that you have to develop. That was always my point of emphasis. I wasn’t sitting around blasting rudiments and odd time signatures, even though I do now as a practicing tool. What I was spending my time on was being able to have control of the tempo so I could introduce some snaky little thing between the hi-hat and snare and it wouldn’t feel like the time shifted. I want it to feel fluid, like it’s breathing and moving in the same wave as the rest of the groove.
Jeff’s playing was always so wrought with control of those things. The inner dynamics of his fills is what gave them attitude. It’s expression on a much deeper level than blasting an even series of notes really fast and loud. But when you add those inner dynamics, all of a sudden it’s a lot harder to keep the time together. The half-time shuffle can sound like a rudiment gone wrong if you don’t play with the right dynamics. What makes it sound fantastic is when you have infinite range within the sticking without breaking the time.
I’ve seen many YouTube posts of guys playing things that I’d have to work really hard at to play. What usually puts me off is that every note is at the same dynamic. But when someone like Vinnie Colaiuta plays relentlessly like that, he’s able to feather in dynamics. That’s why he’s Vinnie. He knows it’s about expression and communicating emotions.
MD: How do you maintain a session career when you’re touring most of the year?
Shannon: The first thing you’re supposed to do is call everyone and let them know when you’re coming back. But I’ve never called anybody for work, so I just come home and word spreads. It’s been slower lately, so thankfully I’m doing enough other things. If I were solely dependent on sessions, I would have to make those calls. The people that really want me to play are going to call whether I’m home or not, and those are the people I want to work with anyway. But the biggest thing you can do to combat losing work is make sure you’re still moving forward as a player. That way they notice what they were missing while you were out.
MD: Does playing live affect how you approach sessions?
Shannon: I think it’s really important to play live, because in the studio everything is at such a fast pace that there’s no time to be creative. You have to bring creativity with you. You’re going to play the same type of songs a thousand times, and you might only play it down four or five times, so it’s hard to steer the ship toward anything new. Playing live gives you the chance to discover new approaches that you can then bring to the studio to keep things from becoming stagnant.
MD: How much of your session work is transferring over to your studio?
Shannon: As budgets are different, everybody thinks they can fix whatever’s wrong with things in the computer later. And to some extent you can—you can use Steven Slate Drums or retrigger anything to bring in different room sounds. But any time somebody looks to book a session, and it’s not at Ocean Way or Blackbird, I try to get them to come to me, because I feel that my room sounds better than any other room in town.
MD: Do you have one kit that’s always set up, or do you build it from scratch per song?
Shannon: When I’m at home, it’s song-specific. But that’s not conceptually the work flow in Nashville. The pace is so fast that there’s no time to change out drums. So what happens is guys put up something general that gives them a clean and up-the-middle sound. I usually set up four toms, and then I pull down whatever I’m not playing on that song. I use a 22″ bass drum most of the time. I’ve gravitated to the drums I use because they can cover the most ground. That’s why I used Gretsch for so long, because I can tune them high or low and they sound great. And I can make my 22″ Brady sound like a 26″ with the right heads and tuning.
MD: How do you pick your snare?
Shannon: If you reduce it down, it’s the snare, kick, and hi-hat that set the feeling of the groove of the song. Lower tunings give the snare a longer note. So at faster tempos, lower-pitched drums can feel like they weigh it down. In certain styles, that’s a really cool thing. But typically I’m feeling the tempo and thinking about how much weight I want the backbeat to have. That weight is created from your placement, the length of the note, and the balance of the overtones to the center pitch. That’s why I have a lot of drums with me; I want to have as many options as possible.
MD: What would be your snare palette if you couldn’t take all of your drums with you?
Shannon: I’m not looking for a drum that does just one thing; I want it to be able to cover everything. Can I tune it low in an Al Green kind of way? Will it tune in the midrange? A deeper shell gives you more resonance, which supports lower tunings, but it doesn’t drop the basic pitch that the head can make. So a 14″ drum should be able to tune up as high as a piccolo, but that extra depth might make it too thick or choked sounding.
Chris Brady made a baritone snare that can sound like a wood or metal drum. It’s the one drum that I feel can do everything with no compromise. But you can always take a 6.5×14 Ludwig Black Beauty to a date and be able to pull off just about everything. And one of my favorite drums is a 5×14 chrome-over-steel Ludwig from the late ’60s. I prefer it to the Supraphonic because it’s a little more centered in the overtones. You can tune it low and it gets really grippy with the snares for that Stax type of thing. It’s a Swiss Army knife–type drum. I’m also really enjoying some new snares by Angel Drums. But if I can take something that’s 6.5″ deep and something that’s 5″ deep, I’m pretty confident I can get whatever we’re going after.
MD: Do you have a starting point for tuning the snare, or does it change from drum to drum?
Shannon: I always have the bottom head cranked, even when the top is pitched low. Then I look for a spot where the drum produces the most resonant note with the fullest fundamental and the best balance of overtones. If I’m looking for a certain pitch or length of decay, I pick a drum based on where that center point is. I try not to make a drum do anything outside that range. And I like to use Coated Ambassador heads because I like to let the drum be wide open and then find ways to get rid of certain frequencies with tuning. Heads with a dot knock down some of the high-frequency response, so it’s not as crisp and bright. But I like to keep that brightness, because the more you can get that at the drum, the less high frequency you have to add at the microphone, which means less hi-hat bleed.
MD: Is your tuning different live versus in the studio?
Shannon: The snare is tuned the same, but I’ll swap drums a few times throughout the show, because the snare sound really changes the emotion of the song. When I was playing the song “Hey Nineteen” with Dukes of September, I used a lower-tuned drum that’s closer to the original, because I was trying to make it feel like the record. I tune the toms a little higher to get my fills to articulate a little better in bigger rooms.
MD: How much higher?
Shannon: It’s probably a major second, so it’s not that much. I just tighten the heads so the in-between notes speak faster.
MD: What are you practicing these days?
Shannon: I spend a lot of time on muscle development. I found that I had started playing the bass drum a little flatter, so I wasn’t able to articulate certain things like I wanted. I’m working on getting up on the ball of my foot and sliding more. The muscle groups change dramatically when you make that adjustment, so I’m doing things to address those muscles while keeping the other ones in shape so they don’t atrophy. I also started messing around with double bass a couple years ago because I want to get a better command of it.
I’ve found that the things I really want to improve—time, groove, and articulation—are getting much better when I’m working on things that aren’t specifically related to them. You really can’t work your muscles hard enough to develop a high level of control of nuances by just playing grooves and fills. So I practice a lot of things I’m probably not going to implement, like speed metal, just for the impact they have on other things. I’m practicing more now than I ever did in my youth.
MD: What inspires you to practice? Is it something that arises on the gig, or is it a result of your own curiosity?
Shannon: It’s a combination of both. My point of emphasis has never been drum aerobics. But what I’ve found as I’ve spent more time with the drums on my own is that the opportunities that have come up have looked significantly different. I still prefer playing songs and grooving behind a vocalist, but as I’ve dug deeper into the instrument I’ve realized that that is what has put the energy out there to get me on the radar for these other things. It’s been a reawakening. You have to make the effort first. Find something that feels sincere and genuine to you, and go toward it. It will bear out well.
“I first heard about Shannon through our original bass player, David Hungate,” Toto guitarist/songwriter Steve Lukather says. “David also helped [original Toto drummer] Jeff Porcaro get his career started when he was seventeen on the Sonny and Cher gig. So when Hungate talked, we listened. He said, ‘There’s this guy in Nashville, Shannon Forrest, and he’s the closest thing to Jeff I have played with since Jeff’s passing.’ Those are some heavy words. Hungate would never say that unless he felt it was something real.
“The first time we all played together, it just clicked in a huge way. Shannon had studied Jeff, and it is very clear to hear—but he has his own thing as well. He knows all our songs better than I do! He kills it every night, and his time, groove, and taste are world class. It’s no accident that he’s top call in Nashville. We’re honored to have him with us.”
Toto IV, Kingdom of Desire (Jeff Porcaro) /// Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy (John Bonham) /// Steely Dan The Royal Scam (Rick Marotta, Bernard Purdie) /// Sting Ten Summoner’s Tales (Vinnie Colaiuta)
Brooks & Dunn Steers & Stripes /// Tim McGraw Two Lanes of Freedom /// Michael McDonald and Robben Ford Unfinished Business /// Mindy Smith One Moment More
A. 6.5×14 or 5×14 Hybrid Exotic cast-aluminum snare
B. 8×10 tom
C. 8×12 tom
D. 9×13 tom
E. 16×16 floor tom
F. 16×18 floor tom
G. 16×22 or 14×24 bass drum
1. 15″ hi-hats
2. 18″ crash
3. 19″ crash
4. 22″ ride
5. 20″ crash
6. 22″ China
Sticks: Innovative Percussion 8A, nylon brushes, and various mallets
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador snare batter and Clear Ambassador snare-side, Coated or Clear Ambassador tom batters and Clear Ambassador or Diplomat resonants, and Coated or Smooth White Ambassador bass drum batter and Ebony Ambassador front head
Hardware: Pearl, including Redline pedals