When singer Jon Bon Jovi quit his cover band to front the New Jersey originals group the Rest, most who witnessed his passion and drive knew it wouldn’t take long for the charismatic frontman to put his own band together and set out to rule the music world.
Bon Jovi already had on board keyboardist David Bryan and bassist Alec John Such, veterans of the fertile New Jersey music scene. When Such told him that he knew “the baddest-ass drummer in the land,” it didn’t take long for Jon to convince the rock-solid drummer Tico Torres to give up his established career with the Jersey group Franke and the Knockouts—who had a top-ten hit in ’81 with “Sweetheart”—to join him in his new venture. Guitarist Richie Sambora joined shortly after, and the rest is history.
When Jon Bon Jovi told the band’s origin story during his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech this year, he said, “Tico took a shot, and I’ve been his singer ever since.” Sambora, for his part, had introduced the sticksman to the Hall of Fame audience by calling him “the best drummer in the world.”
Tico Torres was born on October 7, 1953, and began playing drums at a very young age. He had the full support of his mother, Emma, and his stepfather, Lenny, a jazz drummer who worked in the ’30s and ’40s, and who lent the budding musician his 1938 Slingerland drumkit, kick-starting his career. When Tico took that chance with Jon Bon Jovi in 1983, he went back to roughing it on the road—at least until 1986 with the explosion of Bon Jovi’s third album, Slippery When Wet, which featured the breakout hits “You Give Love a Bad Name,” “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Slippery When Wet spent eight weeks at the top of the Billboard album chart and was the top-selling release of 1987. Since then it’s sold more than 12 million copies, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time in the United States. In the ensuing years, Tico and the band have released ten consecutive top-ten studio albums, toured the world, and headlined sold-out shows in fifty-plus countries, playing to more than thirty-four million fans.
“Tico is the heart and the soul of this band,” Jon Bon Jovi tells Modern Drummer. “He once said to me, ‘You know I love you—I’ve had to stare at your ass for thirty-five years!’ [laughs] Seriously, though, Tico does more than provide a backbeat on stage. He gives the band its swing. He’s translating what my movements are trying to convey to our audience. I marvel at his talents.”
Bon Jovi’s current lineup consists of the singer/bandleader, Torres, founding keyboardist David Bryan, bassist Hugh McDonald (an early associate of the band who eventually replaced Such in 1994), and guitarist Phil X (who took Sambora’s place in 2013). Rounding out the live lineup are producer/guitarist John Shanks and percussionist Everett Bradley. “As a percussionist and singer,” Bradley tells MD, “I’ve played with a lot of great drummers behind various artists, but no one swings as hard as Tico. I’m not talking in an obvious way, but in a way where you really feel his Cuban roots. You feel the spice, the grease, and his sense of family, which is truly unique, especially in a rock band.
“Besides being a great drummer,” Everett continues, “Tico’s an awesome percussionist. The shaker, tambourine, and conga parts on the Bon Jovi records are all his. It’s been wonderful learning them first hand from the master, instead of trying to decipher them [from recordings]. These parts are not only based on instinct, but on the lyrics and the feelings he wants to convey. I generally have Tico’s hi-hat and kick drum turned up in my in-ear monitors; these two instruments give me all I need to lock in my percussion and vocal parts, and at the same time give me the freedom for nuance and improvisation—and the security to shake my ass!”
Hugh McDonald adds his own words of praise about Tico. “I can think of three words that cover it all,” he says. “First word: effortless. We’ve had simpatico musically and personally since we first played together in 1985. We’ve never had to plan anything out, like, ‘You play this, I’ll play that.’ It just works. Second word: grease. Being of Cuban/New York decent—he just has it. Third word: swing. Whatever the feel and whatever the song, his groove always swings.”
While he’s capable of playing complex techniques, Torres decided a long time ago to do only what a given song requires. “I just want to make our fans smile and be uplifted, and to feel good,” he insists. MD caught up with Tico as the band was wrapping up the first leg of their 2018 tour before heading out again in the fall.
MD: What’s your typical day on the road like?
Tico: We usually fly after the show to the next city. Most days I go to the gym to run and stretch to keep my muscles in shape. For indoor shows we go to the venue at 5 p.m. to do soundcheck, and then we have dinner. And then we do a session with our sports guy to stretch and get our heads on track. The set changes every day, so it keeps it moving and fresh. I keep a small pad in my road case, and I run through patterns to warm up my arms and hands before the show.
MD: What kind of warm-ups do you do?
Tico: First I use a portable massager called the Thumper; it loosens up the fascia [connective muscular tissue] from the night before. Then, on a practice pad, I start out with very slow and deliberate motions to stretch the wrists and forearms, the slower the better, until I feel I have full motion and I’m warmed up enough to do singles, paradiddles, triplets, press rolls, etc. If there’s no pad, I like to use a cushion to do slow single-stroke rolls—again, very calculated.
MD: How about before heading out on tour—what’s your prep routine?
Tico: I have a drum room at my house, and I’ll put in ear buds and play along with songs we’ve done live—as they always change from album to live show. It’s a refresher course for the most part. I do that for about two weeks prior to a tour. Mentally it’s about getting in the mindset of playing for an audience.
The show set changes from night to night; it’s a common question on how to get it up night after night. I try to live in the present and get into the crowd and play off them. Fifteen years ago I started doing cold laser therapy, which aligns your left and right brain for time and focus. It does wonders, especially when you’re under the weather and tired. And it reduces pain. It’s the best investment I’ve ever made.
MD: Are there any songs that you find particularly challenging to play live?
Tico: The most challenging aspect isn’t the songs themselves, but that we bundle three, four, and sometimes five songs end to end. That taxes me physically more now, at sixty-four years old. [laughs] I have a bottle of oxygen with a purge valve to push air into my lungs when I need it.
MD: Do you have favorite songs to play live?
Tico: “Wanted Dead or Alive” is fun. That song was recorded in one take after three failed attempts [at the Little Mountain Sound Studios] in Vancouver. We left the song, went for dinner and drinks, and when we all returned to studio around midnight, we banged it out in one take. And the song “[Keep the] Faith” is so rhythmic and fun to play—plus everyone solos on it live. And “Livin’ on a Prayer” is such a wonderful anthem for everyone. It’s magic!
MD: What goes on at soundcheck?
Tico: We go in and run down about five songs. Sometimes we pull out a song or two from the past and work it up—especially if we’re doing multiple days at one place.
MD: Why do you wear Ahead drum gloves when you play?
Tico: They help me grip the stick better. I’ll use them on heavy songs, but when I’m recording softer, more acoustic songs, I’ll use wood sticks without gloves, mainly for the ease and the sound of the wood tip on the cymbals. Live I never use wood sticks.
MD: Do you play differently when you’re playing live compared to when you’re recording? Do you hit harder?
Tico: I play much harder live, with constant pressure. It helps the band rock better. Recording is about sound and feel; there’s more room to play with dynamics in the studio.
MD: Do you play close to what’s on the record? Do you change up the fills for live?
Tico: When I record, I have no idea what I’ve laid to tape until after I hear the playback. It’s all completely in the moment and improvisational. When it’s time to get on the road and perform, especially the new songs, I have to learn what I played on the record. For the most part [I stick] pretty closely to the recording, but as time goes by and we’ve played the song so many times, I do change it up just about every day. That keeps it fresh for me.
MD: Do you use speakers or in-ear monitors?
Tico: In-ears are by far the best innovation for performing on stage. They’ll save your hearing. They’re much better than regular floor monitors. My ears no longer ring after a show. I even use them in the studio when recording. It completely seals your ears.
Live, my tech, John “JD” Douglas, makes my life so much easier by embellishing my personal monitor mix. In the past, to enhance the feel on a couple of songs, I’ve put all the percussion tracks from the recording on a loop. It’s much better now and more fun having Everett Bradley on percussion.
MD: What’s in your mix?
Tico: A nice stereo mix of drums, bass, guitars, keys, and lead and backing vocals. I have a 34-channel mixing board just for me, and JD will make certain moves to bring in solos and key vocal cues. It’s pretty much like playing to a great studio mix.
MD: Why do you prefer two bass drums as opposed to a double pedal?
Tico: I’ve used two bass drums live since 1969; they didn’t make double pedals at that time. In the studio and at home, though, I like using a double pedal. I find it easier to use, and you only need to mike up one bass drum. As far as warm-ups for my feet, I’ll do some stretching and some calf and foot rotations and exercises.
MD: Do you use any triggers on your kit for live shows?
Tico: No triggers! I tried them in the late ’80s, but I found that they were unresponsive to fast rolls and had no feel and dynamics.
MD: Who did you see live and learn from back when you were coming up?
Tico: Elvin Jones was my mentor. I would hang right next to him whenever he played the Vanguard in New York City. I would go and see all the drummers playing in New York—Tony Williams, Norman Connors, Lenny White, Art Blakey, Jon Hiseman, Cozy Powell, Billy Cobham…. I loved Mitch Mitchell and his feel. The list is endless. There really isn’t one drummer I’ve seen or heard live that I didn’t learn something from. But a long time ago I got away from being a drummer’s drummer. Instead, I would try to play what the song needed. No matter how simple the figure is, sometimes that’s what makes a song jump.
Drums: DW Collector’s series drums with maple shells, custom finish, and black nickel hardware
• 6.5×14 snare
• 9×12 and 10×13 toms
• 16×16 and 16×18 floor toms
• 18×22 bass drums
Cymbals: Paiste in custom translucent black finish
• 14″ Signature hi-hats
• 16″ (2), 18″ (2), and 20″ Signature crashes
• 10″ Signature splash
• 22″ Signature Power ride
• 20″ 2002 China
Hardware: DW, including 9000 series pedals; all stands in custom translucent black finish
Percussion: LP bar chimes in custom black finish, jam blocks (2), and mounted brass tambourines (2)
Heads: Remo, including Emperor X snare batter and Ambassador snare side, Emperor Vintage Coated tom batters and Ambassador Ebony resonants, Powerstroke 3 Clear bass drum batter
Sticks: Ahead Tico Torres signature model
Accessories: Ahead drum gloves, JH Audio Layla in-ear monitors, Clair Global Cohesion CP-118 subwoofer, Clark Synthesis Platinum Transducer mounted to throne
Mics: Shure BETA 91 and Sennheiser e 602-II on Kelly SHU mounts in bass drums, Sennheiser e 904 on snare top, Beyerdynamic M 201 under snare, Audix D4 on toms, AKG C451 on hi-hat and ride, Milab 96 overheads