Few things about his career have been predictable—so few, in fact, that during the most intense times of his life, it’s made him truly struggle with deciding on the way forward. Yet today he’s among the most in-demand musicians in one of the most competitive music markets in the world, and in retrospect his path to success makes perfect, poetic sense.
“I got to tell you, buddy, this is my life right now,” jokes Nir “Z” Zidkyahu as he Skypes in to us from his private studio in Franklin, Tennessee. Nir’s trying to get a handle on his next week of work, which includes recording sessions with pop singer/songwriter Colbie Caillat’s new band Gone West, the progressive band Rayburn, and an anonymous French Canadian artist. Also on his schedule: a video date for Sonor to demonstrate the versatility of the Vintage series, and a handful of out-of-town gigs with rising star Caroline Jones, who’s currently the opening act on Kenny Chesney’s Songs for the Saints tour. “If they hadn’t sent me these Colbie files, I would have totally forgotten we had a session.”
Such is the life when you’re one of the most in-demand musicians on the planet. And being busy isn’t something the fifty-one-year-old drummer takes for granted. “I truly believe that if you want something to happen, you have to be there,” he says. Back in 1993, Nir knew it was time to make a move, leaving behind a successful playing career in Tel Aviv, Israel, to see how well his poignant, ultraprecise, and endlessly creative drumming gelled with the vibrant pop and alternative rock scenes that were thriving in New York City at that time.
How did he do, you ask? Well, despite the fact that Nir is adamant to dispel any notion that he should be considered the “ultimate session guy,” his track record speaks for itself. First off, he is one of only two drummers not named Collins to play in the studio with prog-rock-turned-pop legends Genesis since 1971. (The band’s 1997 album, Calling All Stations, features Nir and Nick D’Virgilio on drums, with Nir taking over full-time duties with the band thereafter.) A few years later, Nir’s crystalline touch and cracking backbeat were being pumped into every corner of the planet thanks to the string of megahits he played on John Mayer’s debut record, Room for Squares. Other chart-toppers followed, including teenage sensation Joss Stone’s sophomore album, Mind, Body & Soul, and acoustic pop singer/songwriter Jason Mraz’s Mr. A–Z. Nir also got to flex his more alt-rock-leaning muscles on grunge-rock pioneer Chris Cornell’s sophomore album, Carry On.
Things began to change around the turn of the century, however, as many of the major recording studios around New York City started shutting down. Rather than cry foul, Nir rented a commercial space in Brooklyn so he could build his own studio to continue doing session work. He also dove headfirst into the cutting-edge drum sample industry, producing multiple libraries for Toontrack’s seminal Superior Drummer and EZdrummer plug-in software. Then Nir dusted off his touring boots to hit the road with arena-rock legend Billy Squier for two tours.
By 2011, it was time to make another major move. All signs were pointing to Nashville, the last remaining hub for live recording artists, so Nir packed up his drums and relocated his family to his current residence a few miles south of Music City, in Franklin, Tennessee. While Nashville may seem like an unusual landing spot for an Israeli New Yorker, it didn’t take long for Nir’s diamond-sharp chops and passionate artistry to start capturing the attention of many of the country music scene’s top producers, engineers, songwriters, and artists, ultimately scoring major recording credits with Florida Georgia Line, the Judds, Hunter Hayes, Love and Theft, Lee Brice, Dan + Shay, Blake Shelton, and more. Nir even won an “all-star musician” award from the Nashville-based industry publication MusicRow in 2018 and 2019.
When viewing Nir’s twenty-five-plus-year career from a macro perspective, it could be easy to conclude that the drummer has been on a steady upward climb since landing his first major gig in Israel at age twenty with superstar singer/songwriter Yehuda Poliker. But when we dug deeper into his story, we discovered that there were plenty of hard lessons learned along the way. So let’s take it from the top, shall we?
MD: How did you get started on drums?
Nir: My parents say that when I was around five years old, we walked past a music store in Jerusalem that had a blue sparkle Premier drumkit in the window, and I just stood there for like twenty minutes. But I honestly never had to think about what I wanted to do when I grew up. My father had a love for drumming, and he was pretty good on the dumbek. That was my first instrument. I used to put three of them around me to create a drumset, and then I would play to the radio.
MD: What were you listening to?
Nir: My mom loved Elvis, Paul Anka, and the disco band Boney M. I used to play along to those records. Then when I was around nine, I took classical lessons from an American teacher named Pamela Jones. That was when I got my first practice pad and started learning the rudiments. She was very precise and rules-oriented. But dumbek was really my main instrument.
MD: Were you learning traditional music on it?
Nir: I never really studied it. I’m familiar with the authentic rhythms, but I don’t have all those chops. Middle Eastern grooves are a big part of my musical culture, because every time we went to a party or something, that music would be in the background.
MD: Does Middle Eastern music still influence you?
Nir: Definitely. There’s always been a big connection back to Africa. That’s why reggae and Latin-flavored music feel very natural to me. It’s all related, just with different accents. Lately, I’ve been getting calls to do percussion overdubs on some reggae-inspired songs. There are better percussionists than me in town, but I guess they want something with a more authentic feel, and that ballroom reggae rhythm is pretty much the same as what is played on dumbek. So that influence is always there, for good or bad.
MD: How could that be bad?
Nir: It’s a different kind of thing. The first time someone told me that I was swinging things too much was when I got to Nashville. For example, it’s almost impossible for me to play a train beat without swinging it a little bit. I could play it straight, but I would have to think about it, and that’s a bummer. [laughs]
MD: When did you get your first drumset?
Nir: Around the time of my bar mitzvah, we moved to Tel Aviv, which culturally is like moving from Memphis to New York City. When we got there, my father got me a cheap acrylic drumset, and the first vinyl I bought was “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. I started playing along to that and any other records I could get my hands on.
MD: Do you think it’s important for drummers to play along to records?
Nir: Absolutely. We used to have to listen to records and come up with our own interpretations of how to play something, versus going on YouTube and getting all the information. That’s the biggest difference between having influences and copying somebody. You lose many opportunities to discover things that are hidden inside of you when you get trapped in worshipping heroes.
MD: Did you start taking drumset lessons in Tel Aviv?
Nir: Yes. I started studying at a conservatory there with a teacher who had me listen to Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, and Max Roach records. That was a tremendous journey.
Three years later, I started studying with David Rich, who was a student of Joe Morello. I was learning Joe’s concepts through David, like playing the two-stroke roll and paradiddles as triplets. My goal was to be a jazz drummer, but I was also playing more commercial music and rock with my friends.
Then at eighteen, it was army time, which was a completely shocking experience. I turned into a very angry kid. I was living music 24/7, and then all of a sudden I was in a uniform and learning how to shoot guns. I carried that anger with me for many years afterwards.
But when I was around twenty, I got recommended to play with one of the biggest artists in Israel, Yehuda Poliker. From there, I started getting calls to do a lot of sessions.
MD: So why leave Israel for New York City?
Nir: New York City was a place I always knew I was going to move to. The only connection I had there was with the bassist Yossi Fine. Yossi produced a record in Israel, and he hired me to play. He told me I needed to go to New York. Then when he came back to town for some gigs, he had Steven Wolf on drums. I met Steve, and we became great friends.
I moved to New York in 1993. The city was booming with music at that time, and I started playing in every scenario possible. Then Wolf recommended me for a band called Hidden Persuaders, which eventually became Splender. I felt like I began to create my own identity with that band. We got a publishing deal with Hit & Run Music, which was owned by Tony Smith, the manager for Genesis. Tony came to a show and loved my performance, so he took some recordings of me back to England to play for [Genesis’s guitarist/bassist and keyboardist] Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks. Next thing you know, I got a call to fly to England to audition for the band. This was a complete shock. I went from living a broke musician life to flying first-class to play with Genesis.
MD: That had to have been a weird experience.
Nir: Weird is an understatement. [laughs] They didn’t send me any material, and they didn’t want me to prepare anything. We just played. I had no clue what I was getting into, but they were making Calling All Stations. After I got back to New York, I got a call from Tony Smith telling me that they wanted me to do the tour. From that moment, my life changed. I was making a lot of money, and I didn’t need to worry about anything. That was the good side of it….
MD: What was the bad side?
Nir: I was practicing a lot, so I was in great shape, but I was under tremendous pressure. It took me some time to understand that when you’re taking over such a big gig as Genesis, there’s no way you’ll be able to please everyone. That was very difficult for me to deal with. But they chose me, so all I could do was just go out and do my thing.
MD: Do you know why they hired you?
Nir: Mike Rutherford told me that I had the exact combination of things they were looking for, and I brought some of that New York energy.
MD: Did you know that the Genesis gig was going to be just one tour?
Nir: No. The plan was to keep going. We had a great tour in Europe, but they cancelled the tour in the States because it didn’t sell enough. Then after about a year they decided they weren’t going to continue. It was very difficult, but I went back to New York and started doing sessions. I had some buzz, which was how I started working with producer/engineer Neil Dorfsman and the singer Alana Davis.
MD: How did you end up on John Mayer’s first album, Room for Squares?
Nir: There were a lot of A&R guys going around the clubs in New York. One guy from Epic Records became a friend, so he recommended me to John’s producer, John Alagfa. I knew right away that John Mayer was going to be big, but I still had a scar from the Genesis experience. So I couldn’t see myself touring in a van or whatever. And I wasn’t easy to deal with. I had a very short fuse. I don’t think enough people talk about it, but if you have issues with depression or anger, it doesn’t matter how good you are— it’s going to affect your career.
MD: How did it impact your career?
Nir: Even though I believe that I always brought something fresh to the table, I had this energy that I wasn’t going to take shit from anyone. People could just feel it, and I wish I wouldn’t have waited so long to take care of it. Thankfully my wife made me realize that I had to before I killed someone.
MD: How old were you at that time?
Nir: I was about thirty-five. It took me a long time to accept that I had reasons to be angry. I didn’t want to go into the army, but I was forced to do that. And I did the best job I possibly could with Genesis, but it wasn’t up to me. The problem is that if you’re not taking care of these things, you’re going to run into a lot of people in this business that will trigger you. So the biggest tip I can give to any young musician out there who wants to do what I do is this: don’t be afraid or ashamed if you have a mental issue. Go to a professional. At the end of the day, nobody cares if you had to serve in the army or whatever.
MD: All that matters is if you can do the gig and not be a jerk.
Nir: That’s exactly it. And I guess when you look at my story you could say that I’ve been pretty successful, especially considering where everything started. But at the same time, it wasn’t as consistent as it could have been if I had taken care of this stuff at an earlier stage. That said, especially in the music business, you’re always going to face a lot of assholes, and I’m not the type of guy who can deal with that easily. I admire musicians who can treat it as a business so they will get the call for the next session. But I care too much not to call bullshit.
MD: But part of your appeal is that you bring a bit of that edge to the gig.
Nir: Yes, and that worked for some people, like Mike and Tony with Genesis and Billy Squier, who got me to do two tours with him.
MD: Why did you move from New York City to Nashville?
Nir: I have to thank John Mayer’s Room for Squares. The producers Wally Wilson and Paul Worley really liked what I did on that, so they brought me down to make a record. It was my first time in Nashville, and I was lucky to play on that album with some of the best session guys in town. Glen Worf was the bass player, and he started spreading the word. So did the bass player Michael Rhodes. Those sessions led me to some great producers in Nashville, like Brent Maher, who started flying me down from New York to make records. So when I finally moved to Nashville, I already had a lot of contacts.
MD: When I think of your drumming, I think of it as being super precise yet super free at the same time. What did you do to develop precision?
Nir: First, the way I want to hear the drumkit requires me to play like that.
MD: Does that come from your influences?
Nir: Yes. Steve Gadd is one of my heroes, and he plays very precisely. And I used to listen to a lot of Bill Bruford, who’s also very precise. Those records he did with Allan Holdsworth were big influences on me. That’s something I wanted to hear, so I taught myself to play like that.
MD: How would you describe that sound?
Nir: I want to hear and feel everything evenly. When the balance between the kick, hi-hat, and snare is mixed in an extreme way, it makes me uncomfortable. You can practice balance by playing a really simple beat with the hi-hat, snare, and kick at a low dynamic, and then play one of the limbs very loudly while keeping the others quiet. It requires a different kind of coordination and concentration to be able to focus on one part without affecting the others.
MD: What skills are being developed by doing that?
Nir: This type of thing helps you learn to differentiate between how something really sounds versus how you think it sounds. It also helps you learn to focus your attention on the other musicians’ parts.
MD: I’m surprised by how freely you’re able to play in the studio.
Nir: That’s what I do, for good or bad. There are guys who prefer you to drive safe and stay in the right lane. But then there are some producers that know that they’ll gain more by letting the musicians be themselves, even if they just take eight bars of that and put it into a more conservative take.
MD: Does that make sessions take a bit longer?
Nir: On some projects they want to take the time, which is great. I’d rather get through two or three songs a day than five or six and have them all sound the same. It’s a mental thing. When a producer comes up to you and says, “We’ve gotta get five songs,” automatically you go into a safe mode and play things you know will work. I don’t enjoy those types of sessions. I want to hear the singer and the lyrics, and I want to get to a point where I’m not looking at a chart.
MD: And you can’t really do that in two takes.
Nir: Sometimes it can happen. But nowadays you not only have the producer in there, but there are also the songwriters and the artist. So in a way, you’re facing four different producers, which can be a challenge.
MD: That would put me into a safety mode automatically, just to get through the session.
Nir: Yeah, one of them might want to hear it with closed hi-hat and another one wants it open. There are other guys who are much better at dealing with that type of thing than me. This is why I’m not what you would typically define as an “ultimate session player.” There’s a limit of how much I can take being told what to do.
MD: What happens? Do you shut down creatively, or do you get outspoken about it?
Nir: I’m very outspoken about it. You don’t necessarily want to get into a confrontation, but I also don’t want to play a song twenty-five times to the point where I don’t want to hear it anymore. There are some guys who can be good soldiers and stay passive about it, and that’s okay. But I’m not one of them. I want to make the song the best I can possibly make it. But when there’s something that you know isn’t right, like if the tempo is too fast or slow, you’ll spend much longer talking about it versus just playing it and listening back.
MD: When I was tracking a song at your Brooklyn studio years ago, you said, “I can hear you thinking.” What did you mean by that?
Nir: Sometimes people talk too much about the songs, so when you sit behind the drumkit you’re thinking so much that you lose all the magic. You have so many words running through your mind that your thoughts are blocking you from responding to what you’re hearing in real time.
I’m at a point now where I can memorize the notes I get from the producers, but I won’t let them take over my entire mental space so that I can still respond to the music. There have been many times when I was asked to play a certain pattern, but I didn’t end up playing it exactly that way because it didn’t come out naturally. I want what I play to be pure. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t listen and try to do what you’re asked. But it’s a fine line.
MD: What are you trusting?
Nir: My instincts.
MD: So you can tell emotionally when something is right or wrong?
Nir: With every vein in my body.
MD: How do you approach songs that are presented to you as full productions with programmed drums?
Nir: That’s a whole other challenge. When songwriters program virtual drums, the velocities are usually maxed out, and they don’t understand why the track doesn’t feel the same when a human being is playing the parts. So I’ve had to train myself to play more evenly. I’ll scroll through the top ten singles on iTunes and play along. Most of them will have drum programming.
I practice to those songs for two reasons. First, some young producer in a session next week is probably going to use one of those singles as a reference. Second, it helps me get more familiar with the beats and production styles that are popular.
MD: Do you feel like you need to be more of a chameleon these days?
Nir: For sure. We live in a very interesting time of having to be constantly adapting. Think about someone like Hal Blaine. Not only did he play pretty much the same way on everything, but he also had the same drumkit set up all the time. How many snares do you think he had? He didn’t have to deal with the stuff we’re going through today. It was all about the song. There was something very pure and naive about the way they made music back then, which led to some beautiful records.
MD: You said that you like to focus on the vocals. How does the vocal affect what you do?
Nir: I’m listening to the phrasing, so I can get into every nuance of the vocal. If I don’t hear the vocalist, I can’t really play a song. That carries over to when we go into the control room to listen back. A lot of times the engineer will lower the vocal into the background, but I’m like, “What are we listening to? I hear that it’s grooving and it sounds good, but where’s the song?”
That relates to how I respond when people request something specific on the drums. I always ask, “Who’s carrying this song?” If it’s a twenty-five-year-old girl with a sweet voice, you can’t expect me to smash the crash as if it was Chris Cornell singing. Maybe that ends up being what I do during a four-bar instrumental section. But when there’s a voice and lyrics, how can you avoid them?
MD: How do you think about drum fills?
Nir: When it comes to fills, I try to come up with a theme so that when I introduce a fill into the first chorus, I’ll play something with the same vibe going into the second chorus. Then maybe during the bridge I’ll do something different to accent that scene change. But you have to listen to the phrasing of the vocals and the other instruments, especially the way they lead into new sections. You want to produce yourself in real time so that you can respond to things in ways that make sense with what’s going on around you.
MD: If someone asks you to interact more with the vocal, how do you avoid sounding too busy?
Nir: Sometimes it happens quickly, and it’s magical. And sometimes part of the process is to try different things, maybe to where you’re overplaying, so that you can get to a point where you know where the magical moments are. You have to be objective. Even if you think you played something great, you have to be honest enough to say, “That’s cool, but it takes away too much attention from the song.”
But then some people want you to overplay. I was shocked when I toured with Little Steven—he loves drum fills. When I started rehearsing with him, he said, “I can tell you’re a studio man. You have a lot of finesse and I love it, but when you play with this fifteen-piece band, you’ve got to really play.” So it’s an endless learning process with endless challenges.
MD: What’s the biggest difference between playing live versus the studio?
Nir: You can get away with a lot more stuff live, but I don’t think you can develop a sense of balance and awareness of your environment if you only play live. There’s a big difference in the way I play in my studio versus the way I play in Ocean Way or Blackbird. My body responds differently to the environment. I’m not sure if most live guys are thinking like that, especially now that almost everyone is using in-ears. They usually just go up there and hit it.
MD: What do you feel are the strengths that make people want to hire you?
Nir: I would say it’s my passion for music and my desire to play truly from my heart. I treat every session like it’s my record. And I’ll probably be the first one to tell you when something sucks. That’s something you can pay the price for, but sometimes you gain more respect. But let’s face it, I was born in Israel and lived in New York City for eighteen years. Nine years in Nashville won’t change that. [laughs]
Nir’s Studio Setup
Drums: Sonor Vintage Series with black finish (alternates: SQ1 and SQ2 series)
A. 5.75×14 snare
B. 9×13 tom
C. 15×16 floor tom
D. 16×18 floor tom
E. 14×24 bass drum
1. 15″ Artisan hi-hats
2. 19″ Artisan crash
3. 22″ Artisan Light ride
4. 18″ Artisan crash
5. 20″ HHX Legacy O-Zone ride
Heads: Evans UV1 snare and tom batters, 300 Hazy snare bottom, G1 Clear tom resonants, EQ4 Clear bass drum batter and Calftone front
Hardware: Sonor, including a Perfect Balance bass drum pedal
Sticks: Innovative Percussion NZ-1 signature model
Caroline Jones Bare Feet /// Florida Georgia Line Can’t Say I Ain’t Country /// Michael Ray Amos /// Chris Cornell Carry On /// Carrie Underwood Cry Pretty /// Dan + Shay Dan + Shay, Obsessed /// Blake Shelton Texoma Shore, If I’m Honest, Bringing Back the Sunshine /// Lee Brice Lee Brice, I Don’t Dance /// Jake Owen American Love /// John Oates Good Road to Follow /// Genesis R-Kive, Live in Poland, Calling All Stations /// Andy Grammer Andy Grammer /// John Mayer Room for Squares /// Jason Mraz Mr. A–Z /// Joss Stone Mind, Body & Soul
Nir’s Musical Warm-Ups
Here are some exercises that Nir uses to warm up his hands and to get his creative juices flowing.
The first one involves playing different accents within paradiddles.
To give those patterns musical context, try putting the right hand on the floor tom and the left hand on the rack tom.
Nir also likes to create warm-ups based on melodic rhythmic phrases like those found in Ted Reed’s Syncopation and Gary Chester’s The New Breed. To begin, select a simple two-bar rhythm like the following.
Now play those rhythms as alternating flams within steady 16th notes. Each flam should be followed with continuous strokes using the same hand.
To create a sense of melody with those figures, move the right hand to the floor tom, and flatten out the flams so that both hands hit at the same time.