Kenny Aronoff is one of the most in-demand drummers working today. He first gained prominence in the 1980s as the hard-hitting drummer for John Mellencamp, and he has developed an impressive resume built on both touring and recording. In addition to Mellencamp, Kenny has worked with a large roster of artists, including Jon Bon Jovi, Michelle Branch, Garth Brooks, Belinda Carlisle, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joe Cocker, Shawn Colvin, Neil Diamond, Celine Dion, Bob Dylan, Melissa Etheridge, John Fogerty, Elton John, Ricky Martin, Meatloaf, Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks, Michael Penn, Iggy Pop, the Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Smashing Pumpkins, and Rod Stewart.
Kenny has earned a reputation for
being one of the hardest-working drummers in the business and for playing
exactly the right beat for whatever song he's playing. His peers recognize his
talent; the readers of Modern Drummer magazine
named him number-one Pop/Rock Drummer for five consecutive years and the
number-one Studio Drummer for four consecutive years.
My Kenny Aronoff Story
I first heard Kenny Aronoff around
1977 in Bloomington, Indiana. I was attending the Indiana University music
school at the time, and Kenny was back in town after graduating a year or so
earlier. He was playing with some former bandmates of mine in a jazz fusion
group called Streamwinner, and he impressed the heck out of me with his blazing
fusion drumming technique. Imagine my surprise a few years later when I heard
that Kenny was going to be the new drummer for the artist then known as John
Cougar--after all, Cougar was a solid rock gig, and Kenny was a jazz fusion
Well, Kenny adapted his style to such
a degree that I couldn't tell that it was the same guy. His playing with Cougar/Mellencamp
was powerful and deceptively simple, just what the band and the songs needed.
Listening to Kenny's playing over the years reveals a drummer with incredible
musical intelligence, great ears, and a total lack of ego--he plays exactly
what's needed, even if he's using only a fraction of his total technique. It's
no wonder that Kenny Aronoff is so in demand among today's top artists.
For a sampling of the "best of
Aronoff," you can listen to Jon Bon Jovi's Destination Anywhere,
Garth Brooks' The Life of Chris Gaines, Belinda Carlisle's Heaven on
Earth, Mary Chapin Carpenter's Stones in the Road, Shawn Colvin's Cover
Girl, Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love, Melissa Etheridge's Your
Little Secret, John Fogerty's Premonition, Ricky Martin's Ricky
Martin, Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell 2/Back Into Hell, Michael Penn's March,
Iggy Pop's Brick by Brick, Bob Seger's The Fire Inside, Rod
Stewart's A Spanner in the Works, or any of John Mellencamp's earlier
albums, including American Fool, Uh-Huh, and Scarecrow. In
addition, Kenny was the uncredited drummer behind "The Wonders" (or
was that "The Oneders?") in the movie That
Thing You Do!, and he played on both Burning
for Buddy Buddy Rich tribute albums.
From the initial planning of this book, I wanted Kenny to somehow be a part of what I was writing. I liked the idea of including a fellow Hoosier drummer and I.U. grad, and I knew that Kenny would reinforce the main concepts I'd be writing about. (Besides that, all the drummers here in Indiana--including my publisher's husband!--know Kenny, and not including something from him might get me drummed out of the state!)
Kenny Aronoff Interview
I was fortunate to catch Kenny
Aronoff at his home in Bloomington during a short break between a Melissa
Etheridge tour and an upcoming tour with John Fogerty. As is typical, Kenny was
very helpful, very informative, and just about the nicest guy you could care to
Miller (MM): How did you get started playing?
Aronoff (KA): Well, when I was a kid I used to watch the marching bands come
to town, like on Memorial Day. I always got excited about the drums, the drum
line. I grew up in a little small town in New England, about 3,000 people, and I
got so excited. Then, in fourth grade they asked you what instrument you wanted,
and I said drums. I loved it, I thought that was the coolest instrument.
When I was about 11 years old, I saw A Hard Day's Night, and that turned my whole head around. I mean, I
just had never seen anything like that in my life. That was in '64. I was
devastated--I mean, there was nothing going on. We had, like, just three
black-and-white TV channels--with an antenna! There were no video games, and
there wasn't a lot of stimulation in the technology. Our only source of
entertainment was sports. When music came, with the Beatles, it was like the
most powerful thing I'd ever experienced in my life. So I formed a band,
immediately--the next week! (laughs) I wanted to be Ringo so bad, I wanted to be
in the band.
So I used to play in a band; we'd
play on the weekends, and it just kept expanding. Then I saw that some guy was
getting really good, in my hometown of Stockridge, Massachusetts. He was getting
really, really good, and I asked him, was he studying with somebody? And he said
it was this guy, Arthur Press, percussionist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In the summertime, the Boston Symphony Orchestra would come to a place called
Tanglewood--that's right where I grew up. So I studied with Press in the
summers, and he sort of directed me to become a music major.
I was kind of behind in my musical
background because I didn't have much to do with the high school music program.
I had a rock band! Why would I want to be playing in a symphony band when I
could be playing Zeppelin? (laughs) You know, I had my own band. Ironically,
that's obviously where I ended up in my career, really back to where my roots
When I first heard you, you were playing with Streamwinner, and I knew you as a
fusion drummer with some hot licks, lots of tom fills, and cymbals and stuff.
Then I heard you playing with Mellencamp, and I said, "This can't be the
same Kenny Aronoff!" How did you get from Streamwinner to playing with
Well, I had been with Streamwinner for three years, and I was getting close to
turning 27, and I thought, "Man, this isn't going anywhere." So I
thought, "I have to move on."
I thought I was going to move to New
York, but... I'd just gotten a call from a friend of mine go to L.A. to
audition, believe it or not, for Lou Rawls. That would've been a change! So I
got that L.A. audition but I didn't get the gig, thank God.
So, two weeks before I was going to
move to New York, I ran into somebody who mentioned to me that John Mellencamp
had just fired his drummer. So I went right to a phone booth and called up Mike
Wanchic, you know, just looking for another audition. I came home and I started
thinking, man, what am I, nuts? This Mellencamp thing is what I've always
wanted! I mean, the music was simple, much simpler, but the touring, and making
records, being on TV--my whole dream had always been this! I don't know why I
got so sidetracked. (laughs) So, I auditioned and got the gig.
I remember thinking how simple the
parts were and everything, but, man! It was really a huge adjustment. It took me
two years just to get comfortable with playing simple. It was a big adjustment.
But then, slowly but surely, it became what I was known for. You know, that
laying it down, straight ahead.
Obviously, Mellencamp was the gig that really got you noticed. How did you go
from there to all of the studio work and all the other touring you've done?
In '88, John decided to quit the music business, and that's exactly when I got
divorced. I was like, "How am I gonna make a living?"
I only knew so many people in L.A.,
but we were so hot that I could at least make phone calls and get through to
some people. I happened to be in L.A. doing a Jefferson Airplane reunion album--not
Starship, but the original Airplane--and there was this guy, Don Was, who was
the producer and he was also the main guy with Was (Not Was). Well, he wanted to
have a meeting with me. I was, like, "Cool!"
So I had the meeting, and he wanted
to know if I wanted to do an Iggy Pop record. I was flippin' out, you bet I do!
Then we became real good friends, and he started hiring me for everything--Elton
John, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Glenn Frey, you name it. That's how I met Bog Seger,
hence that's how I hooked up to go on tour with him. And I suddenly became
Then, in the early '90s, I went after
Nashville a little bit. So I was working in Nashville, in L.A., New York,
everywhere. It was really cool. That's how I sort of launched that second
career, and it's never stopped since.
With all the playing you do, how do you keep yourself in the best physical shape
One of the main things I have going for me is just genetics. I was lucky enough
to be born with a strong constitution and a lot of energy. But, beyond that, if
you have a race car and you don't take care of it, it'll fall apart. So diet is
a big part of it. Exercise is a big part.
I try to eat a certain kind of diet
low in sugar, low in processed foods. I eat proteins, I eat carbohydrates, and I
eat fats, but they're the right kinds. It's really tough on the road, but I do
the best I can, and I know what's good and what's bad. Most places you can get
vegetables, chicken or fish, and some form of grain. It's better to have, like,
brown rice, as opposed to fried bread or something. (laughs) You can get a
little bit of fruit somewhere and then drink lots of water. I take a lot of
supplements, make sure that my immune system stays strong.
I try to eat six meals a day, to keep
the blood sugar down. There's a lot of these new diets, you know, the protein
diet and all that stuff, but the main thing is to eat as much clean food as you
can. If you eat good foods and you keep your motor running, and as your motor's
running you're burning fuel, you're burning your food up. If you don't eat at
all, your whole metabolism slows down, and you do lose some weight, but you
actually start losing muscle, too. So the idea is to eat the right amount for
the kind of activity and the metabolism you have--and constantly, which keeps
your motor running, which will digest the food and the things you wanted to
digest, and not start eating your own muscle.
Then there's the exercise part,
cardio and muscle strengthening. Cardio I get from playing drums, or if I'm not
on tour and I need more cardio, I do things like the stair master. Then I lift
weights, for muscle strength. Plus, I stretch. I add that, like yoga--try to add
that in there, too.
Drumming, if you don't do it right, can be a physically hazardous profession--to
your hearing and to your hands and arms and all that. What steps can a drummer
take to protect himself or herself when they're playing?
Everything I've just mentioned does protect you, does help you to not hurt
yourself. Particularly stretching, as far as avoiding carpal tunnel problems and
stuff like that. That can be a major problem with a lot of drummers. It's just
basically if you're tight, not limbered up, you can hurt and strain the tendons
and muscles in your arms.
Not only that, but you have your
back. Drummers, sitting all the time, pounding a bass drum, you can get sciatic
problems. You can get back problems from sitting on a stool, playing like that,
slumping over. You can get neck problems, anything to do with the shoulders,
arms, hands, fingers.
You've got to really be aware of
what's going on. If you're starting to get problems, you've got to address it
Have you ever had any major problems?
Not major. Every so often you run into maybe a little numbness in your hand, or
you tighten up, or you feel strained. Like, I'll play real hard, and my hands'll
puff up. My forearms and tendons get strained and swollen, you know, inflamed a
little bit. I'm just pushing too much.
What do you do when that happens?
Well, the injuries I've had are where I've just overdone it, and my hands are
puffed up or I feel that tension and tightness in my ligaments. I do
self-massage on my arms, I know just where to go. If I have to, I'll take some
ibuprofen, for the inflammation. Icing helps a lot, and stretching. I do certain
stretches for all those areas.
What protection do you take for your hearing?
When I practice, I use headphones. When I play live, I wear ear monitors. The
problem with that is you can still turn the speakers up, you know.
There's no question that I've lost
some hearing. Let's just put it this way--I have good ears, considering what my
profession is. (laughs) But I have lost hearing in the 3-4K area.
You certainly do a lot of traveling. Whether you're at home or on the road, what
kind of practice routine do you do?
I have a certain technique that I use. Now, anytime that I play the drums, I
usually include all four limbs. I really believe in that. Even if I'm practicing
on a pad, I like to include my right foot and my left foot, with something.
Because when you play the drums, you always use all four limbs. So I try to do
that, try to incorporate everything.
Then I work on my single-stroke roll.
I work on some rudiments--not always, but they're there. I work on certain wrist
techniques with double, triple, and quadruple speed groupings.
I don't have a lot of time, so I try
to be very economical and efficient with my practicing. I try to practice the
techniques that are going to be useful for what I do.
I try to do all this on the drumset,
if I can. If I've gotta watch a football game or something on TV and I need to
practice, I put a pad in front of me--but I use feet and
hands. I do exactly what I would normally do on a set, but I do it on a pad.
Once I've done some of the technique
stuff, I start working on my philosophy of drumming, which is beat, time,
groove, and creativity. I sit down and I work on a beat that I might be working
on, and work it and work it and work it. I play it over and over again, and
whenever I hear anything that's not sounding right, I go back and work on it.
Then I focus on just the kick drum, just the snare drum, just the hi-hat; then I
mix it up. Then I start to stretch out and develop that beat.
I try to learn a beat, not just to
play it; I want to try to incorporate it into my playing so I can use
it when I do play. You know that feeling of practicing and practicing all this
stuff, and you never seem to be using any of it? Well, I got sick of that.
(laughs) I like to work things up so that I can use them.
Practice what you use.
Yeah--or use what I practice. And I try to integrate new ideas into the playing
that is already familiar to me. There is so much to work on!
How many hours a day do you practice, generally?
There are times when I don't practice at all because I'm touring. When I'm on
the road and I do a three-hour show, let's say with Melissa, I'd have like an
hour sound check--with her or without her, I'd do it--then I practice maybe 15
minutes before I go on stage. That'll be about four hours a day, maybe even
more, because maybe in the hotel I do something. That gets anywhere from four to
four-and-a-half hours a day there.
When I'm off the road, I like to get
two to three hours in, you know, and that's not enough. There's so much to
When you're giving a clinic and talking to drummers, what kinds of typical
mistakes do you see beginners making?
Well, beginners typically don't like to groove. They don't like to stay with one
beat. They don't value taking a beat and keeping it steady, making it feel good,
and being creative with that beat. You know, adding things to it, like
decorating a cake. They tend to want to do all the flashy stuff. They don't want
to build the cake and then put icing on it; they want just the icing. You can't
have icing without the cake, you know what I mean? (laughs)
If you could give a word or two of advice to beginning drummers, what would you
say to them?
You really want to have fun, but realize that it takes hard work for a long,
long period of time to be great. That's the advice I'd give to any kid about
anything. Have fun, have the best time in your life, but know that to really be
successful where you can support yourself and make a living and do great, it's
gonna take years and years and years and years of work. That's just the facts,
you know? You don't have to take it on as a profession, like I did, but you do
have to realize if you want to do it professionally that it's gonna take a lot
That's great advice. Is there anything else you want to get across to the
readers of this book?
I have a philosophy of success, that the key to success, in my mind, is hard
work. That's a given. It's like a vehicle, like a car that gets you somewhere,
an airplane that gets you somewhere. Hard work gets you somewhere.
Then, to fuel that hard work, is
passion. If you find something in life that you're passionate about, it's easier
to get on board and work your a** off. That's my key advice to people. Find a
passion for something, because hard work is a given, then work your a** off and
constantly educate yourself. Re-educate
yourself. Constantly keep learning and pushing it, learning and reading and
Don't ever expect that once you
become great at something, you're set for life. It doesn't work that way.
This is great stuff, Kenny. This is exactly how I wanted to end the book.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Drums, 2nd Edition, is available at bookstores everywhere, or you can order the book online by clicking the button to the right.
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