The Complete Idiot's Guide to
Playing Drums
2nd Edition

Chapter 27
The Hardest-Working Drummer in Show Business:
Kenny Aronoff

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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 drummer!

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!) 

Drum Note
As befits a drummer of his stature, Kenny Aronoff is a top endorser for several different companies. He plays Tama drums and has several signature snare drums. His Trackmaster is a 5-inch x 14-inch brass-shelled drum with lots of crack and attack, similar to the old Ludwig Black Beauties. His Super Piccolo is a unique 4-inch x 15-inch brass-shelled drum, with an interesting balance of openness and control. Both drums feature black nickel shells with detailed hand engraving.

Kenny endorses Vic Firth drumsticks, and he also has his own signature stick. Kenny's Power Play stick has a unique set of grooves on the butt end to provide extra grip for the last three fingers of the hand and is ideal for heavy playing.

Kenny also has several instructional books and videos available for sale, including Laying It Down: Basics of Rock Drumming and the Power Workout series. These titles can be found at most music stores or can be ordered directly from Warner Bros. Publications.

The 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 talk to.

Mike Miller (MM): How did you get started playing?

Kenny 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 were.

MM: 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 Mellencamp?

KA: 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.

Drum Note
Mike Wanchic was the long-time guitarist in John Mellencamp's band. Mellencamp, like Kenny Aronoff, lives in Bloomington, Indiana--home of Indiana University.

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.

MM: 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?

KA: 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!"

Drum Note
Don Was has produced albums by the B-52s, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Paula Abdul, the Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Brian Wilson, Carly Simon, David Crosby, Iggy Pop, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, Jackson Browne, and many others. He has also produced a number of soundtrack albums, including the soundtracks to Thelma & Louise, Days of Thunder, Honeymoon in Vegas, Toy Story, Hope Floats, and George of the Jungle.

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 "the dude."

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.

MM: With all the playing you do, how do you keep yourself in the best physical shape for drumming?

KA: 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.

MM: 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?

KA: 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 pretty quickly.

MM: Have you ever had any major problems?

KA: 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.

MM: What do you do when that happens?

KA: 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.

MM: What protection do you take for your hearing?

KA: 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.

Drum Note
Hearing can be measured in terms of sensitivity at various frequencies. When Kenny says "3-4K" he's talking about the frequency range between 3,000 and 4,000 kilohertz--which contains the primary frequencies produced by crash and ride cymbals.

MM: You certainly do a lot of traveling. Whether you're at home or on the road, what kind of practice routine do you do?

KA: 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.

MM: Practice what you use.

KA: 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!

MM: How many hours a day do you practice, generally?

KA: 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 learn!

MM: When you're giving a clinic and talking to drummers, what kinds of typical mistakes do you see beginners making?

KA: 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)

MM: If you could give a word or two of advice to beginning drummers, what would you say to them?

KA: 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 of work.

MM: That's great advice. Is there anything else you want to get across to the readers of this book?

KA: 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 watching.

Don't ever expect that once you become great at something, you're set for life. It doesn't work that way.

MM: This is great stuff, Kenny. This is exactly how I wanted to end the book.

KA: Great!

Drum Note
You can catch up with Kenny's more recent activities at his Web site, located at www.kennyaronoff.com.

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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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Last modified: March 08, 2011