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Kenny Aronoff: Part I

Interview by Sean Mitchell // September 04 2013
Kenny Aronoff: Part I

In any field, time and practise gives you wisdom.

Being a busy drummer in this day and age is no small task, however, crossing genres as a session drummer calls for an even bigger skill set. Kenny Aronoff has traversed many a musical landscape playing with everyone from John Mellancamp and Bob Seger to the Smashing Pumpkins and Avril Lavigne.

As if this weren't enough, Kenny has not only bridged generational gaps with the swift crack of his famous 2 and 4, but he now embarks on a journey that takes him to the outer reaches of an instrument that has yet to embrace the electronic age completely. At 60 years young, Kenny Aronoff is now a proud endorser of Yamaha's DTX series drum kits. And although the man behind Jack and Diane has dabbled in the electronic realm since the early 80's it is his incredible dedication to his craft and that positions him as one of this century's most prolific players.


Kenny, I found out something about you that I’ve never known—I didn’t that you’re a twin. You have a twin brother who’s a doctor. 

Did you see my [Facebook post]? So, how do you go up to people when you meet them and say “Hey, by the way, I have an identical twin in case you meet him”? You don’t say that. So Johnny, my brother, came out to give some research paper he was doing. I had this picture of us in my kitchen and I said, “I’m going to post this on social media.” People who’ve know me for twenty or thirty years didn’t know I had a twin—freaked people out all over the world!

You’re identical twins. So he’s a doctor of sports medicine?

No, he’s a psychologist, but he’s a life coach and he’s got certificates for coaching sports teams. He played heavy, heavy soccer until he was fifty and then he had a knee replacement. Now at sixty, he just played in a tournament and they won. You can’t shoot us; you can’t kill us.  He’s as intense as me. At one point he was thirty pounds bigger than me—now he’s trimmed down. There’s a reality show there, like Dr. Phil meets Dr. Oz, or something like that.

You grew up in Indiana, right?

No, I was born in Albany, New York and I grew up an hour south from there on the border of the New York State and Massachusetts in a beautiful New England town called Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Stockbridge was like a really artsy little town—sculptors, painters, actors; the Boston Symphony Orchestra was four miles away in the summer. Norman Rockwell, the American illustrator, I used to go to his house and steal his cigarettes when I was in second grade.

Growing up, you studied with Vic Firth.

Yeah, I used to go to his house and he took a wood burner and carved his name in his sticks. He only had three sticks—the General, the Bolero and another stick that had a smaller tip. Then he had the timpani mallets—the General and Staccato. He was amazing, one of the coolest guys, but a very, very strict teacher. He didn’t yell at you but very impatient and he didn’t want to waste his time on people who weren’t perfection.

When I started studying timpani with him, I used to practice five hours a day because he commanded respect. His thing was you went and played out of his book and if you made a mistake, he’d say, “Nope, try this.” If you didn’t get it, he’d say, “You don’t know it … next week.” He’d just move on. You either got it or you don’t. He wasn’t dealing with beginners; he was dealing with people who already had their stuff.

When I auditioned for Tanglewood, which is the best student orchestra in the country, it took me four years to get in. He’d do a thing where he’d say, “Tune that timpani to G,” then he’d say, “Tune that timpani—I want you to bring that G up to a C; now bring it down to an F-sharp; now bring it up to a D; now bring it down to an A; bring it to a B flat; now bring it here—and this is the note that you should have now.”  And he would hum the note and expect you to be on. 

You’re background is intense—jazz; you’re an accomplished marimba player. Kenny’s an endorser of DTX Yamaha Drums. I find this curious—a guy with obviously your sensitivity, your ear, your appreciation for dynamics, how do you translate that and then sit on a rubber set of silicone pads?

My preference, of course, is acoustic drums because of that sensitivity. I am known as the hardest hitting guy, but dude, I can play so soft. The keyboard player from Aerosmith (he has a solo record, Russ Irwin) just hired me to play his live gig in LA and he said, “I picked you because you have so many dynamics and people don’t know that about you.” And it’s true. Of course I play hard when I’m playing rock ’n’ roll—and that’s where I made my name—but I can play so soft. I have so much control and it is all about the hands. I can play so soft that as I’m playing, you can talk over it easy. But people don’t know me as that because I don’t do that very often.

When you’re trained, like I was—five years of hardcore conservatory training in one of the top three classical music schools in the USA (which is Indiana University)—you’re playing in operas, and you’re playing in many, many ensembles and dynamics are super required. On Friday and Saturday nights when everyone was out partying I’d practice till midnight because with all the academic load I had plus the music load, during the week it was hard; you’d get an hour here an hour there and you’re learning pieces for orchestra, for percussion ensemble, for your music lessons for your small ensembles and anything else anybody wants you to do. Once they find out that you’re into being a drummer the guys in jazz want you so they can practice their changes. I mean, you’re just working your ass off!

So on a Friday and Saturday night was a chance for me to really catch up on my stuff. You know I didn’t have a problem with it. I’ll never forget one girl that wanted me to date her. Her name was Sherry Lake; she was beautiful. She came off the elevator and looked at me like, “Aren’t you going to ask me out?” It’s Friday night, Sherry; I’m here to get a degree in music and be the baddest mofo I can be—maybe let’s get together at 1 a.m. She’s probably married and has ten kids right now but I was not wired that way. I was a workaholic. But anyway, that background gave me all that knowledge.

Now to go to the DTX kit, it’s a challenge. You cannot get the same dynamics as you get on an acoustic kit. This kit’s amazing! That’s the reason I endorse it because I have never played pads that felt so good. It’s not the mesh pads that give you that trampoline effect. These pads are made of some sort of silicone—it’s not rubber. The snare head’s tougher, a little bit more tight like a real snare head; the toms are a little bit softer, they may have more air in it. The feel is incredible and they have a sensitivity switch on it and they have a pitch thing on it—alright, it’s not the same as a real kit. I’m motivated to try to work the dynamics off the kit. [Tonight at the clinic] if you noticed, I was doing that Buddy Rich thing and there’s a part in the song where the bass is doing a solo and what I would do on a real kit is you put your heel down and you play the bass drum—you feather. I was on cross stick on the hi-hat and on a real kit I would feather the head so lightly to just support the bass. On the DTX the way I had it set up, if I did that it would give me too much of a volume. What I did in that case was I just put my foot off of it and hit the floor.

What a great tool though. You talked a lot about that, especially in regard to recording tracks and being able to email them back and forth.

You know, I have not done the midi thing yet. Oh man, I’ve got so many things going on! One of the things is I’ve done a deal with Platinum Samples—or whatever they’re called—basically I am going to do twenty-five grooves and it will be all midi. I will do it off of the DTX. What it is is the DTX electronic drums will send midi information into a computer. The thing about midi information is if anyone gets Kenny Aronoff’s grooves in midi format, they can speed it up, slow it down and the pitches won’t change. It’s really good for people who are songwriting. That’s the world I have not entered. When I originally got this DTX kit that was one of the reasons I wanted to use it is for sessions for people who don’t have Pro Tools and they are working in the midi format, this works perfect for that. But what I do use it for … I didn’t expect I’d be practicing on it so much.

I have a house in Studio City and I can’t put real drums in it, unless I want to take over my whole garage and muffle it down so I have the DTX kit there. I have a studio that’s six miles away and that’s basically thirty minutes of driving and Kenny Aronoff has got so much shit going on that thirty minutes is a waste of time and then thirty minutes back—in that hour I could be doing so many other things. So I’ve got this DTX kit set up just like my regular kit—two hi-hats; reversed tom; twelve, ten, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen; same cymbals—and I work out all kinds of stuff for sessions, for live gigs on that kit. It’s not the same as a real kit. The biggest difference is the kick drum. On the DTX kit the actual beater will hit the pad here, but on a real kick drum there’s a little bit more distance. So if I go from that to a live gig without warming up, it’s a little bit like … whoa!

But what a great tool! It’s got a click track in it so you can practice technique and work out all kinds of stuff with metronome. If you wanted to play along with some songs, they’ve got some songs. You can work out fills at all different tempos and sections and practice all your technique that you want. And live I use it. I’ve always triggered my kick drum, since 1986, and I’ll go from the trigger to the DTX multi-pad. It’s a twelve pad thing. It’s holding a sample and that goes into a mixer behind me and I have a mixer that has the sample, the sound (the analog sound you get from the microphone that’s in the bass drum) and that same trigger goes to an amplifier that then triggers a thing that’s in my drum throne that gives me a kick. I use the pad for hand claps for a Fogerty song “Center Field.” Man, I’ve used those pads for loops and all kinds of things.

So, you’ve been interfacing electric and acoustic for years?

Yeah, since ’86—approaching twenty years almost. That’s crazy. The reason why I integrated was I got famous for the sound, the drum sound I had on the Scarecrow record I did with Mellencamp, and somebody told me you can sample those things and then you can trigger them; and I went, “What the heck are you talking about?” I had no idea—I was Mr. Acoustic! They turned me on to this company called D Drum, which is made in Sweden. They had this incredible system. I sent them the samples and they made these physical cartridges that you stick into the D Drum. The D Drum had incredible sensitivity and yeah, I had my sounds from the John Mellencamp record being triggered live.

You started off with John (Mellencamp) but the bulk of your career you’ve played with everyone—Rolling Stone, Smashing Pumpkins. You’ve run the gamut, even styles.

If you say live and studio, it’s like Eric Clapton, Sting, Steven Tyler, Elton John, Santana, BB King, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, The Highway Men. Then you go to Alanis Morissette, Rod Stewart (two new singles), John Fogerty, Dave Grohl about ten times, Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, Rob Thomas, James Taylor, Brad Paisley, Garth Brooks, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncè, Josh Groban, and Sheryl Crow many times, Mary J. Blige—it’s like everywhere.

So, do you have the record yet for the most artists played with?

No, I don’t think so. I was lucky; I came in at the last third where you had to have a drummer, but what about guys like Hal Blaine where they didn’t even have drum machines—so if you needed anything to do with percussion or drums you had to hire somebody? I know Hal Blaine was on forty-three singles; I’m on like about nine. The big ones I can remember—“Heaven on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle from The Go –Go’s; “I’ll Do Anything for Love but I Won’t Do That” by Meatloaf; Mellencamp “Hurts so Good,” “Jack & Diane. There was a whole bunch of other ones that were close to number one. “Blaze of Glory” Bon Jovi … yeah, right, he was a number one hit.

You talked today in the clinic about watching [Joe Satriani] playing and said that guitar players tend to rush. I think it was a very important message that, as a drummer, you’re listening to the players and doing what a drummer should be doing in that you need to rein this guy in ‘cause he’s out there, but you still have to groove with another player who is on. What advice can you give as to some of the techniques you use to identify and rein that player in?

In our world, we live in “everybody’s trying to become greatness now.” My prof at Indiana University said something to my mom once that sort of answers some of what you’re asking. My mom is all concerned and asking, “Is Kenny going to make it? Is he really talented?” She wanted some sense of security. My teacher replied, “Mrs. Aronoff, ask me that question in ten years.” What he’s saying is “I don’t know … you don’t make it at age ten. You can’t possibly understand everything that I know only because I’ve lived a billion years more.”

So my advice to people is as you’re practicing all your technique, do not forget about listening to everybody, whether you’re playing with musicians live or you’re playing with recorded music. Don’t just focus on yourself; listen to everything that’s happening including yourself because that will influence you on how you play. You have to go through this whole development and growth and figure out what you think is the best way to play the drums when you’re playing music with other people. Obviously the things you have to focus on are play the right beat for the song, think about time, think about groove, making it all feel good, don’t just play from your neck up—you feel everything. Even when you are practicing technique, there is so much to learn and so much to know, so much to think about that you can’t learn it in one year. You’ve got to be willing to commit.

In ten years if you’re even more gung-ho, then I would say that you are really on your way. You can’t speed it up but it’s good to have the advice of experience. In any field, time and practice gives you wisdom. So the advice is, focus on everything that you’re being told to focus on by your teacher. In my world, I suggest you focus on the beat you’re playing, time, groove (which is feel), and creative ideas that you add to that beat you’re playing without disturbing the beat, time and groove. And then listen to what everybody is doing. Take that idea, and as you go on playing through your years of playing, those things are going to become more and more important—especially the “listen” part.

Read part two of Kenny's interview by following this link - http://www.theblackpage.net/interviews/kenny-aronoff-part-2



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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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