Playin’ For The Music
Listen to the music in any fairly hip restaurant, you know, the warm, quilt-like security offered for diners in most of the places in Greenwich Village, or some of the musician hangouts on the upper westside of Manhattan. More than likely you’ll hear a heady sampling of Carly Simon, Carol King, Patti Austin, Phoebe Snow, Paul Simon, the latest Chuck Mangione sweetness, Nancy Wilson crying some, or even Chick Corea, Joe Farrell, and of course George Benson. What do you find most striking besides the artist? The rhythm section, right? It is Steve Gadd’s distinct, sensitive, percussive style backing these leading artists, making him among the busiest drummers in New York, the United States, perhaps the world.
Because of the man’s frenetic schedule, any kind of interview has proven difficult to obtain. I cornered Steve during a series of recording sessions for a Japanese keyboardist who specified “Steve Gadd” on all contract sheets. I sat through two or three sessions, taking photos when I could, and trying my utmost to be unobtrusive. On the way from one of those sessions to the Local 802 office, Steve realized I was walking a few steps behind and we decided to cab it to his loft housed in the fur district of downtown New York City. His place is large and completely fixtured. His studio neatly tucked away in, what was formerly, the safe. The massive door and combination lock remains intact.
During the two hour plus interview, Steve asked me to look at a videotape he had made in Rochester. In a few short minutes the taped Gadd had run down the entire book of drumming. His solos were a course in Latin, rock, changing tempo . . . and he wasn’t taking it all in his stride either. The man works when he plays, concentrating as he flails. And he does it all almost perfectly.
Suppose we start out by back tracking a bit, to your youth and your formative days with drums and music.
My uncle Eddie fostered my interest in drums. He gave me a pair of sticks and showed me how to handle them. We’d sit together and play along with records on a piece of wood. My late father, Kendall Gadd, would take me to clubs in Rochester. I got a chance to hear a lot of great bands that passed through town.
My family was always very close. They were always behind my brother and I in whatever we did. My brother Eddie is a very talented musician and he’s also an expert horseman.
What kind of formal training did you have?
I had private lessons from Bill and Stanley Street. They were two very well known drummers in Rochester. Later, I enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music in New York. After two years I transferred over to Eastman School of Music back in Rochester. I never consciously made a decision to be a professional musician; it was just something that happened.
You spend a great deal of time playing with Stuff. How do you feel about this band?
The band has a really unique sound. The music is very relaxed. We don’t force the music to get tense, it just gains momentum by itself. And everybody gets a chance to play.
Does the fact that the band uses two drummers ever get in your way or cause any problems musically?
Well, I wouldn’t want to play with two drummers all the time, but sometimes it’s fun. When we do it for a long time, you have to make some changes. You can’t play all the things you’d like to play. You can do it during a solo, but other than that, you really have to lock in with the other drummer. At first it was awkward, but we’re used to it and comfortable with it now. We knew how it felt when the band had one drummer, but after playing with two for awhile, we just couldn’t do it with one.
Did you and Chris (Parker) initially work out who would play solos and who would play rhythm?
No. We trade solos. Sometimes I’ll play light time and Chris solos, or he’ll play time and I’ll solo. We listen, and try not to get in anybody’s way. The band sounds like a very simple combination, but that simplicity is one of the hardest things to accomplish. To leave out unnecessary notes and still build a good foundation.
How did the whole thing start?
Well, the band was working at a club called “Mikells” in New York. I was living upstate in Woodstock at the time, but I was in town three days a week and I would stop by. The band wasn’t even known as Stuff back then; it was just some guys getting together and playing. Chris was playing steady with the band and one night I asked Chris and Gordon if I could play. From then on Chris and I started alternating nights. The band started to become well-known even before we had a record deal. It wasn’t planned . . . it just happened.
Stuff obviously isn’t a living for you. Your living is made in the studios, is it not?
It’s a combination of all the things I’m doing. In order for one thing to be a living, it has to be set up right, business wise. That’s being worked on now.
There’s a myriad of people out there who make a living recording and playing tours. Do you think that could happen for Stuff?
Yes, I do. I think the band has a great potential. I think it has a future in concerts, along with a lot of other possibilities. We performed in Japan recently and did very well.
Do you think the addition of a lead singer would make the band even more
I think the band has gone over well by itself and behind other people. They’re all guys who have experience in the studio and they know when not to overplay.
Do you want to stay in studio work? Do you ever get the desire to go out on the road and play?
Actually I get a chance to do a little bit of both right now. I’m doing dates, live playing and record promotion tours. I’ve done some things with Mike Manieri and David Spinozza. David opens for Carly Simon and right there are two very different types of playing.
Some of the best playing I heard you do was with Steve Kahn’s band when you opened for Maynard Ferguson.
When you’re in the studio as much as I am, you don’t often get a chance to do that kind of thing. A lot of people don’t get a chance to hear you. Not every situation gives you the same opportunity to stretch out. The music was good and the whole thing was well put together. I can have fun laying back and playing too, as long as the music makes sense.
When you do a show for people like Paul Simon, Carly Simon or Stuff, do you ever find yourself thinking you have to be more structured as opposed to when you’re playing with someone like Steve Kahn, who lets you stretch out more?
On Paul’s tour, some of the things we did were tunes he’d recorded before with other people. I played on his new album and when we did it, everybody put their heads together and Paul kind of guided it. Everybody contributed to the things we did in the studio, so I didn’t have to go in and copy someone else. With Steve, the concert was structured like some of the things we had done on the album. Naturally, some people allow you more freedom than others. Certain things can be looser than others, and it’s something you always have to be aware of. I can have a good time with either one. There’s always a way to find a part that really fits. There were some things with Steve’s music where we kind of knew how it was going to change. We had music, so it wasn’t completely loose — it was pretty structured. It’s just another way of playing.
How often do you actually run into drum parts?
A lot of Steve’s music is written out. I’ll read a lead sheet many times on Carly’s things. The important thing is to know where the tune is going and how it phrases. My approach is to never have any preconceptions. I just try to be in the situation for the moment, the best I can. I try to play the music without putting my own initials on it. I approach everything by listening first and finding something to play without going in thinking that I’m going to play something before I get there. The music guides you. You can’t put your eyes before your ears. The key thing that tells you what’s happening, is listening. It’s hearing. If someone writes a drum part that doesn’t fit, it doesn’t make any sense to play it. You have to find something that feels comfortable.
Let’s talk specifically about drums for a moment. What equipment are you using?
At the moment I’m using a Gretsch bass drum with four Pearl concert toms. I use a 10″ and 12″ mounted on the bass, and a 13″ and 14″ on the floor. They’re relatively small tom-toms compared to some of the guys in the studio. I don’t really believe large drums are the answer anyway. When you tighten a large drum there is a tendency to choke it. With smaller sizes you can keep the heads loose and still get a nice, naturally high pitched drum.
What about cymbals?
I use a combination of K and A Zildjian. One ride and one crash. I have a high pitched A with the big bell that blends very well. It’s good for recording — very clean. I vary my cymbals depending on the date. It’s a matter of what the tune is supposed to sound like and the style of the artist I’m playing for. For an R & B date, I’d probably use both. Sometimes I’ll use a sizzle. Paul Simon occasionally likes that sizzle quality. Of course, the sound changes over a period of time. As cymbals get dirty, they take on a personality all their own.
Do you have any particular preferences regarding the drum heads you use?
I prefer plastic heads. I haven’t used calf in years. Not many guys are any longer. The temperature and the humidity effects the pitch drastically. I use Evans Hydraulic heads on the bass drum and on the tops of all my toms. I like the clear, Remo Ambassador heads on the bottoms. My snare drum has an Ambassador coated on the batter side, and a clear Diplomat on the snare side.
You have some interesting opinions on muffling and tuning. Can you elaborate?
First, I prefer bottom heads on all the drums for greater control over the tone. Second, I don’t believe in internal muffling. All muffling should be done externally. Those internal devices press up against the head and go against the natural movement of the head. I like using both heads because it offers the playing surface tension I prefer, without having to sacrifice pitch. When you want depth with a single head drum you really have to loosen up on the head. You lose the advantages of a firm batter surface. With the bottom head loose, you can still tighten the batter, and retain the desired pitch.
For the bass drum, I use just a little padding inside and I put a weight on top so the padding fits real tight against the bottom part of the head. For the snare and tom toms I use a little tape and tissue paper close to the rim. That’s where all those overtones you don’t want come from. When you hit the drum and put your hand over different spots on the head, you can tell where the overtones are coming from.
Electronics and multiple drum setups seem to be gaining in popularity with many drummers. Are you inclined towards either?
Well, the Syndrums sound good. They’re especially effective when you play one of them and a regular tom at the same time and use it to reinforce or obtain a different tone color. I think multiple drum set-ups would probably be a lot of fun to do, but I’m not in a situation where I have to do it. Perhaps as a leader I would, but there’s not much call for it in the studio.
Is there a certain stick you use regularly?
I’m using a Gretsch-Jo Jones model wood stick. They come in a couple of different sizes and they’re very good for most of the things I do. I think I’m going to start using a longer stick. When you play loud you have a tendency to move back on the stick. If you play loud and you keep moving back, the stick becomes hard to hang on to.
With your schedule, do you ever find the time or feel the need to practice?
I don’t have much time so I’ll just keep the drums set up and available. Sometimes I feel like playing for an hour, and other times I play for five minutes. Once in awhile I’ll use the Gladstone pad, or I might take out a pair of sticks and play on the arm of the couch. If I haven’t things to loosen up. Singles, paradiddles, or double stroke rolls, either on the pad, or a closed hi-hat, or a chair. If I’m really tight I never warm up by playing everything fast. You strain when you do that, especially if you haven’t played for a while. You should ease into it, not over exert.
Have you learned from other drummers?
I’ve learned from all of them. Buddy and Elvin, for instance, play two very different styles, but both of them are great players. You can’t help being influenced by people like Tony Williams. Sometimes I’ll go into the studio and try to sound like somebody else because I know how good it will sound.
You mention Buddy and Elvin. Do you find any noticeable difference between the playing of black drummers and white drummers?
I think at one time there was somewhat of a noticeable difference, but not anymore. The main difference was with the time. Today, everybody is time conscious and I don’t think it’s a significant factor.
How about the time concept of someone like Tony Williams?
When Tony was with Miles and Herbie, he wasn’t stating the time because he actually played over the bar line. But the time was still there. His solo concept is very free. His whole concept sounded great behind soloists. Back then, you hardly ever played one. It was the “an” of one, or the “an” of four — anything but one. Now people play one again. But Tony was still playing the time. It might have been complicated for a non-musician to follow, but he knew where he was all the time.
There are a lot of young drummers who would love the opportunity to study with you. Do you have any plans to teach?
No, not until I have the time. Teaching requires just as much time and effort as playing. There are a thousand ways to ask one question and a thousand ways to answer it. You’ve got to have the time to understand your students problems and convey your ideas to really offer something. For now, I’d rather play. Maybe someday, but I don’t think it would be fair right now.
Have you ever thought how you might approach a teaching situation?
I would approach each student as an individual. I don’t believe there’s one method. I’d have to see where each person was at and go from there. I wouldn’t try to change anybody. How to approach the music is the key thing. You might come up with a way to play something somebody else played, with completely different sticking. You might try to duplicate it, but it’s not necessary to duplicate it technically. It could open your head up to a whole new thing, based on another person’s idea.
You’re going to be an influence on drummers coming up the same as Tony and Buddy and Elvin are influencing drummers today. How do you feel about that? Do you feel any special responsibility to young drummers?
I never really thought about i t . If I am an influence, I hope I’m a good one. I don’t play to be an influence on anyone. I feel a responsibility to the music I play. Let’s say, being responsible to the music is the first step in accepting responsibility for people coming up. Sure, you play the drums, but the main thing is to play the drums for the music, with the people in that particular situation. You can’t go for yourself. There’s some good music out there that can really open you up. And playing good time is very important, whether it’s slow time, or hardly playing anything sometimes and leaving space. Put the bass drum on the back beat and on the money for five or ten minutes and try to keep it steady.
Have you been influenced by many other musicians?
You have to allow yourself to be influenced by everyone you play with. If you don’t put yourself in that frame of mind, you could end up on the bandstand with that person, but not actually play with him. You can’t go up there and play for yourself. You have to be ready to be with those people. For me, finding a way to make it flow helps musically. Some rhythm sections might be into laying back more than others, so I can play more on top. You’ve got to be able to go either way or it ends up straining. I’m influenced by everyone I play with in terms of where I keep myself musically.
Do you structure your drum solos in advance?
My solos are influenced by what occurs just before the solo. If I’m in a band that really sets up a groove, I’ll never play a free-style solo, I’ll play in phrases. With Steve Kahn’s music, it gets very free, no tempo. It depends on the band. It also depends on what the solo is following and what it’s supposed to set up. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to play, but I’ll know where I want to go with it. Sometimes I’ll play over the tune. But if the solo comes after a vamp, which doesn’t adhere to the changes of the tune, then I’ll just play phrases. There’s no rule as long as you play the music.
Sometimes I’ll go into the studio and there will be a beautiful tune. One of the most musical approaches is to say, “I don’t really hear any drums on it. It’s pretty the way it is.” Not playing sometimes could mean you came up with a really good part, a very wise musical decision. It’s not a matter of all you can get in. Sometimes it’s better not to have drums. It’s important to bend with the situation.
People separate drums from other instruments. Drummers themselves are as much a cause of that as anybody else. There’s a lot of good players out there, but there’s a difference between someone who’s a good player, and a guy who’s a good player and a good musician. If you get too involved in the playing of the instrument itself, you forget that the whole purpose of what you’re doing is to add to the music. It doesn’t necessarily have to focus the attention on the drums. Many times, I’ll purposely spend time thinking about doing something that won’t bring attention to the drums. There’s more to music than having control over the instrument. If all you think about is you and the instrument, that’s not being a good musician. If you listen, you’ll be motivated by the people you’re playing with. The music is the motivation. The instrument merely gives you a way to express your feelings.
There’s a difference between keeping your chops in shape, and being able to play the music. I could be playing for a month and never run into anything that requires a lot of technique. It might require that I play very simply. If you’ve got a lot of chops and you get bugged because the music doesn’t require great chops, it’s difficult to be open minded about the music. You have to get beyond that wall you set up for yourself.
It’s been said that the studio scene, though lucrative, can be a stifling environment for the creative musician. You’ve been quoted however as saying, “I get off on a good session no matter what or who it is.” What makes the difference for Steve Gadd?
I love the studios. I’ve learned a lot because I get an opportunity to listen to myself so much. When I first came to New York I was heavily into Tony and Elvin and tried to play that way to the point where I would almost force it. I was in great shape technically. I had played with Chick Corea and Chuck Mangione in some good bands with some good people. I felt good about my ability but approached playing like it was the last time I would ever play. The studios gave me an opportunity to hear that in a lot of different musical situations. I’d hear that stuff back and realize how totally out of context it was. It may have been good drumming, but it certainly wasn’t good music. It’s hard to do that kind of thing at the right time and in the right place. You have to see the truth in the simpler ways of playing. That was a real challenge to me. I realized that technique doesn’t mean a shit if you can’t play a back beat in a place that fits, and lock it in. I had never thought about that before, mainly because I didn’t grow up playing rock. I grew up playing bop. I heard kids who didn’t have my technique but they could lay down a backbeat that would kick ass. I started practicing playing uncomplicated things and solid time. To play as simply and as unnoticed as I could became as challenging as playing at a high energy level. They’re still both equally challenging to me.