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Steve Gadd has been one of the world’s top session drummers since hitting the New York studio scene in the 1970s. He has worked with top names in the music industry inside and outside of the studio, becoming one of the most influential drummers of all time with his simple and very professional attitude – always serve the music to the best of his abilities, and play for the groove.
Stephen “Steve” Kendall Gadd was born April 9 of 1945 in Irondequoit, Rochester, New York. He got interested in drumming at a very young age, influenced by parades he saw from his grandparent’s house and by uncle Eddie, his father’s brother, who was a drummer for the army. With these influences it didn’t take long for a 3 years old Steve Gadd to start emulating drummers by using knives and forks as drumsticks. Seeing this, his uncle gave him a pair of drumsticks and a practice pad, which was actually a round piece of wood, and taught him how to hold the sticks. Steve Gadd and his uncle would play along to music in the radio, especially marches from John Phillip Sousa. His uncle furthered Steve’s interest in drumming and music by giving him an old snare drum and some records.
“He also liked jazz. I remember he bought me an Art Blakey album early on and later gave me records by Max Roach and Oscar Peterson. He was a real music lover and constantly wanted me to listen to these different albums.” – Steve Gadd on his uncle Eddie, in Milkowski, Bill “The Ultimate Groove.” Traps Magazine Winter 2009.
In 1952, a 7 years old Steve Gadd was given his first drum set by his grandfather. In that same year, Steve began having formal drum lessons with Elmer Frolig at Levis’ Music in Rochester, a music store located right across the street from The Eastman School Of Music. Steve’s family were always very supportive of his drumming. His parents allowed him to set his drum set in the living room and his grandparents made sure to take him to each drum lesson. Steve and his trumpet-playing brother Eddie enjoyed tap dancing. They even came up with tap dance routines to entertain people staying in nursing homes and hospitals in Rochester. Tap dancing would actually influence the way Steve played his bass drum pedal.
In 1954, Steve Gadd’s father took him to meet one of his favorite drummers, Gene Krupa, who was appearing at a club in Rochester called Ridgecrest Inn. After winning a local talent contest in 1956, Steve Gadd was flown to Hollywood to partake in The Mickey Mouse Club, his first televised performance. Steve was given the chance to play a drum solo and to tap dance with “Mousketeer” Carl “Cubby” O’Brien supporting him on the drum set. Around this time, Steve Gadd’s parents began taking him and Eddie to local clubs in Rochester to enjoy live performances from some of the jazz greats, like Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, Kai Winding, Carmen McCrae, and Ray Bryant, among others.
During his years in elementary school, Steve Gadd played with the Rochester Crusaders Drum & Bugle Corps, rehearsing with them on Sundays. After the rehearsals, Steve would go out with his family to afternoon matinees taking place at the Ridgecrest Inn. There, Gadd had the unique opportunity to sit in with jazz trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie and with a lot of other great jazz musicians. Ever so often, these matinees featured organ groups with master organists like Richard “Groove” Holmes, Hank Marr, Jack McDuff, and Gene Ludwig, where shuffle playing and R&B ruled the Inn. Steve Gadd was fortunate enough to sit in with some of these gentlemen. Back then, he was mostly used to jazz and big band playing, which was way more technical than what the drummers for the “Hammond B3” masters were playing. However, those players were really strong “time” players, having a very good feel behind the drum set. They ended by influencing Steve quite a bit.
Steve continued his studies on the drum set with William and Stanley Street, performers in the Rochester Philharmonic. In 1959, Gadd took his studies even further by hooking up with John Beck, principal percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic. John would became one of Steve Gadd’s most influential teachers. While attending the Eastridge High School, Steve uphold his position as snare drummer in the Crusaders, with who he won various awards. He also played for two bands in high school – the school band and a dance band called The Men of Note.
“I loved it. My best friends were also in the drum corps, so it was a lot of fun. But we were also serious about the drumline. We weren’t screwing around. We wrote our own parts – some really hip four-part things – and we practiced hard. We really listened to each other and really tried to play like one person. And the thing that made it inviting to me was the power of the team together.” – Steve Gadd in Milkowski, Bill “The Ultimate Groove.” Traps Magazine Winter 2009.
In 1961, Steve Gadd was one of seventy-two American high school students to be selected to play in the School Band Of America. The band went on a four-week European tour, playing on a total of twelve different cities over six countries – England, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, and France. Steve played for the two groups that were part of the band – the big concert band and a smaller dance band.
After graduating from Eastridge High School, Steve Gadd enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music. However, he ended up going back to Rochester to attend the Eastman School of Music, having John Beck as his teacher. In early 1965, Steve was hired by trumpeter Chuck Mangione to play in his quintet, featuring a young unknown pianist named “Chick” Corea. During this time, Steve Gadd played frequently in a trio with pianist Gaspare “Gap” Mangione, brother to Chuck Mangione, and an upright bassist named Tony Levin. The trio had a five-nights-a-week gig at The Other Side Of The Tracks supper club in Rochester.
Gadd’s senior recital took place on February 16th of 1968 at Kilbourn Hall. After graduating from college, Steve got his first New York city recording session, playing with Gap’s trio on Gap’s first album Diana in the Autumn Wind. Shortly after Gap Mangione’s recording, Steve decided to enlist in the army. During both peacetime and periods of conflict, men were drafted to fill vacancies in the armed forces that could not be filled through voluntary means. This meant that if drafted, a man could be sent anywhere where he was needed, which included the war front on Vietnam. Thus, instead of waiting to be drafted, Steve did the next best thing, he enlisted and auditioned for the United States Army’s Stage Band during his last year in college. He was accepted and thus, from 1968 onwards Steve Gadd started spending most of his time in Washington, D.C.
Steve was discharged from the military in late 1971 returning to Rochester immediately so he could resume his life. He began playing in big bands while also performing around town and occasionally in New York city in a trio that encompassed bassist Tony Levin and pianist Mike Holmes. While Steve was in the army, Tony had been in New York city working on getting in the studio scene. When Steve was discharged Tony tried to get Steve to do session work in New York city also. Steve Gadd was a bit reluctant to leave the Rochester music scene at first, since he had his wife and two kids there. Nevertheless, Gadd started traveling often to New York city to do some sessions, invariably staying at Levin’s house. Tony Levin took this chance to introduce Steve around to some of his connections in the session circuit like Mike Mainieri.
Back then, Mike had a company that produced jingles, so he started hiring Steve Gadd very frequently for recording drums for his jingles. This was how Steve first made his way into the world of session drumming. It was also through Mike that Steve Gadd got involved with the band White Elephant, a experimental ensemble with some of the great young players on the session scene at the time. They released a self-titled album in 1972 that further help establish Gadd as a magnificent player with an incredible feel and good taste. It did not take long until word spread around New York about this new phenom from Rochester that was taking over.
Steve Gadd’s has had many influences throughout his life as a musician. Big band drummers like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Louie Belson; jazz musicians like Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Jack Franklin, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jimmy Cobb, Jack DeJohnette and Chick Corea, all have had a big influence in the way Steve plays the drum set and feels music.
The 1970s would be the decade where Steve would record some of his most significant drum tracks. In 1975, Steve Gadd played on his first #1 hit – Van McCoy’s disco anthem “The Hustle”. In that same year he recorded drums for Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. The album won a Grammy for best album of the year in 1976, in particular because of the song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, which picked at #1 on the United States charts. He also worked with Chick Corea on their first of many albums. The album was The Leprechaun and went on to win two Grammys in 1977 – Best Jazz Instrumental Performance and Best Arrangement of an Instrumental Recording for the song “The Leprechaun”. In 1977, Steve Gadd was one of many high profile drummers to play on Steely Dan’s classic album Aja. The album was the band’s first to attain platinum certification, winning a Grammy in 1978 for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording.
After recording two more albums with Chick Corea – My Spanish Heart (1976) and Mad Hatter (1978) – Steve took part in the album Friends (1978), which earned a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance. In the early 1980s, Gadd went on a very successful worldwide tour with former Return To Forever guitarist Al Di Meola, documented on the CD Tour De Force – Live (1982). Another great live experience for Steve Gadd came earlier in 1981 when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel performed together on a reunion concert in New York’s Central Park. The concert was free, so an astonishing attendance of more than 500,000 was registered for that day.
In 1997, Steve began his longtime musical relationship with Eric Clapton, first on a tour and then on Eric’s 1998 album Pilgrim. In 2000, Steve worked on a collaboration album between Eric Clapton and B.B. King called Riding With The King, it has been certified as double-platinum and went on to win a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. In 2007, another album from Chick – The Ultimate Adventure – with Steve Gadd on drums won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance.
In addition to these big name musicians, Steve Gadd has worked with other notable artists such as Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Paul McCartney, James Brown, Luiz Bonfa, Bette Midler, Aretha Franklin, Michel Petrucciani, Chet Baker, Maynard Ferguson, Joe Cocker, Weather Report, Quincy Jones, Gladys Knight, Barbara Streisand, The Bee Gees, James Taylor, Luciano Pavarotti, Ray Charles, Peter Gabriel, and Tracy Chapman, among many others. For more details on albums, artists, songs, or projects featuring Steve, check this thorough compilation of his discography. Besides being a very successful studio drummer, Steve has developed his own projects over the years. The first one started shortly after White Elephant disbanded.
Some members of the White Elephant rhythm section – Tony Levin (bass guitar), Mike Mainieri (vibraphone), Warren Bernhardt (pianist), and Steve Gadd – began playing together as L’Image. At the time, Mike and Warren were living in Woodstock, New York, so Steve and Tony moved there to start writing music with the remaining members. The band rehearsed and wrote music in Mike’s barn for the next six months.
They soon started gigging in Woodstock, Rochester and New York, being frequently joined by David Spinozza on guitar. However, the project started taking its toll on Steve Gadd. Because of the time he dedicated to the band he wasn’t spending enough time in sessions in New York, and so he wasn’t making as much money as he needed to. Steve decided to leave the band to focus more on his session work, and the band ultimately disbanded due to other commitments from the remaining members. In 2009, L’Image reunited to record and release their first official album 2.0. Steve Gadd’s next project however, wouldn’t take almost 30 years to get an album out.
In the mid-1970s, Steve Gadd was a regular at Mikell’s, a jazz club in New York where the city’s top studio and session musicians would turn up for jam sessions with major soul, funk, and jazz artists visiting the city. After spending his day working around town doing session work, he would stop by to sit in with a crew of funky session musicians – Eric Gale (guitar), Cornell Dupree (guitar), Richard Tee (piano), and Chris Parker (drums) – known as the Encyclopedia Of Soul. That group would eventually change its name to Stuff.
Gadd began by sitting in and occasionally subbing for Chris Parker. Every now and then both would play together each with his own set of drums. Individually and collectively the members of Stuff became some of the most sought after session musicians of that era, playing with a stellar array of artists from Aretha Franklin to John Lennon to Paul Simon, for instance. They backed Joe Cocker during his world tour to promote his Stingray album and performed with him on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. The band released three studio albums – Stuff (1976), More Stuff (1977), Stuff It (1978) – and two live albums – Live Stuff (1978) and Live in New York (1980) – all of which went gold, while their first album went platinum in Japan. More Stuff even got nominated for a Grammy. After the band disbanded, a best album entitled Best Stuff (1981) was released, as well as a DVD and CD titled Live at Montreux 1976 (2007) featuring the band’s live performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976.
In 1983, Steve Gadd released his first instructional video – In Session – and in 1984 his first recording as band leader – Gadd About. The following year, this project of his was baptized as The Gadd Gang releasing three records in the subsequent years – Here & Now (1988), Live at the Bottom Line (1988), and The Gadd Gang (1991).
In the 1990s, Steve Gadd would release two more instructional products. The first one, called Up Close (1992), featured Gadd explaining some of his most famous drum parts and concepts, like using rudiments for coming up with all kinds of different fills and beats. Two years later a companion book/CD combo with the same name was released. In 1997, Steve made an appearance for the Modern Drummer Festival playing along Giovanni Hidalgo. Their performance can be watched on the Modern Drummer Festival 1997 DVD.
In 2002, Steve Gadd performed on the Drummer’s Collective 25th anniversary concert along side The Gadd Gang. this event can be found on the DVD Drummer’s Collective 25th Anniversary (2003). In 2003, the Zildjian Company sponsored the second American Drummers Achievement Awards at a sold-out Berklee Performance Center in Boston, Massachusetts, honoring the life and drumming of Steve Gadd.
In 2004, the K Custom Session line of cymbals was introduced, a collaboration between Zildjian and Steve to capture his definitive cymbal sound. Zildjian has also released the Steve Gadd Signature Cymbal Bag. In 2005, Steve was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the Berklee College Of Music. That was the year Zildjian’s Mission From Gadd was born, a clinic tour featuring Steve Gadd. The tour has been held in the United States – twice in 2005 and once in 2006 – and in European ground in 2010. One of the clinics in the 2006 tour was later released as the DVD Steve Gadd Master Series (2008).
In 2006, Yamaha Drums released the Steve Gadd Signature Drum Set, a limited edition replica of his own Yamaha custom kit, to celebrate his 30 year anniversary endorsement with Yamaha Drums. Steve Gadd has developed three signature snare drums for Yamaha, each with a different type of shell material – copper, maple, and birch. His signature drumstick and wire brush were made with the help of Vic Firth.
In 2010 Steve Gadd & Friends launched their first album – Live at Voce – recorded live on Voce’s Lounge in Scottsdale, Arizona. In 2011, The Gaddabouts, another one of Steve Gadd’s brain child, saw its first self-titled album being released.
Steve Gadd is one of the top examples of what any drummer should strive to be, regardless of musical preferences and influences. Putting it simple, the main thing we can learn from Steve Gadd is how to use the drum set to create music at its fullest potential. It’s not a question of how many notes you can play or how many technique you can display; Steve Gadd lives and breaths for servicing the music and the vision of the artists with who he works.
“My goal is to give something to the artist that’s going to be meaningful to them. If you give them something that helps take their music where they want it to be, that’s a good energy to share. That’s what I try to do when I’m on the bandstand, is to try and be the most supportive that I can be – figure out what’s going on and what I can do to sort of pull it together. And then when it’s time to solo, have some fun.” – Steve Gadd in Milkowski, Bill “The Ultimate Groove.” Traps Magazine Winter 2009.
Steve rose to eminence because of his remarkable feel in a lot of different musical settings. Whether Latin, jazz, blues, rock, funk, fusion…Steve can do it all with such an intense groove that he can even make the simplest of drum parts sound like the most incredible thing you’ve ever heard. Learning a new beat can be a challenging task at times, but with time and commitment you’ll get it under your belt. However, grooving with it, making it feel tight with what the rest of the musicians are playing is a whole different ball game. Coupling that with his very good taste in coming up with drum parts is what separates him and a few select drummers from all the rest. Now, how is it possible to work on groove and musical taste?
“His playing was so simple it had everybody going completely crazy! It was about the groove, that sense of swing, which was and is so profound in Steve’s playing.” David Sanborn in Milkowski, Bill “The Ultimate Groove.” Traps Magazine Winter 2009.
Playing along to albums is always a great option for working on groove. If you want to groove like the best funk drummers for instance, you have to listen to their recordings, you have to hear the music, to play along to them and to really enjoy it (this goes for any style of music).Taking enjoyment out of the music you play will make you groove that much harder with the remaining musicians, simply because you’ll be feeling it with a greater level of intensity with your performance being a direct reaction to just that. The more you do it, the more you’ll start developing your pocket playing. Every style has it’s own language and feel, so by playing along to numerous styles of music and by learning the language and feels, you’ll start grooving like nobody’s business, or in other words like Steve Gadd. However, when it comes to developing your own musical taste, your own voice on the drum set, there are numerous factors that can come into play.
What music do you listen to? What bands and drummers do you pay attention to? These are very important factors, since what you listen to will have a deciding factor in what you’ll ultimately be playing on the drum set. For instance, if you’ve been listening to jazz all your life, you’ll obviously have a very swing based approach when playing the drum set. When Steve Gadd began playing drums he listened to swing and shuffle based music, like jazz, blues and big band, as well as to drum corps. So things like funk playing, which can sometimes be more straight ahead, were a bit far from his comfort zone. With this initial factor comes two other very important ones, the desire to keep pushing yourself by learning new stuff, and listening to a lot of different styles of music.
“…And the thing was, Steve couldn’t play funk that well at the time. He had all of the mechanics in terms of all the drum corps stuff and swing that he had come up playing. And that was why he wanted to play with Stuff so much, to really refine his approach to funk drumming and incorporate that into his arsenal.” Mike Mainieri in Milkowski, Bill “The Ultimate Groove.” Traps Magazine Winter 2009.
“…And someone who really helped me get it together was a friend of mine, the great drummer Rick Marotta. Rick’s got a great pocket. I love the way he plays, and I learned a lot about playing funk from him.” Steve Gadd in Milkowski, Bill “The Ultimate Groove.” Traps Magazine Winter 2009.
Steve’s desire to learn lead him to new heights with his drumming. Funk was a new territory for him to explore, but one he was willing to conquer by learning the ins and outs of the style, which he did with great success. Now, to show you how listening and learning about different styles of music can make a difference in your creative output, let’s take a look at some of Gadd’s greatest staples.
“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” from Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years is a prime example of going really outside of the box in a pop context. The main beat you listen to in the song is a good example of how Steve’s drum corps background really served him right. In the song he plays a very cool drum corps type of cadence between the snare drum, bass drum, and the hi-hats that really help made this music the success it was at the time.
“Steve Gadd’s drumming on “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, for instance, is the archetypal example of a drummer halfway selling a song before the singer has even started” – Bill Bruford.
“Aja” from Steely Dan’s album Aja is another great example of Steve’s use of his drum corps background. In the instrumental part Steve unleashes a very busy sequence of drum rolls on the toms, with some of the patterns being based on rudimental patterns known as ratamacues but spread between his right foot and arms. He finishes the song with some cool sounding paradiddle based grooves played between the snare and ride cymbal.
With the song “Late in the Evening” from Paul Simon’s One Tricky Pony, Steve once again revolutionized the way drumming in pop music was made. He played the main pattern in that song with two sticks on each hand, to give the impression of having more percussionists playing the pattern. Other than that, the beat he plays is a variation of a pattern played by percussionists in the Afro-Cuban style of music known as mozambique. Steve’s use of Latin based patterns can also be heard on Chick Corea’s album Friends with the songs “Samba Song”, “Sicily”, and “Friends”, which have a very Brazilian flavor to them. So as you can see, in these four examples you have Steve coming up with such different things as Afro-Cuban and Brazilian based rhythms to apply to different styles like pop and fusion music.
If Latin and cadences aren’t enough for you, check out Steve’s playing with his previous funk band – Stuff – to get acquainted with some of the funkiest playing you’ll ever hear in your life. His work with Eric Clapton and in the song “Chuck E’s in Love” from Rickie Lee Jones are a great showing of his mastery of shuffle playing as well. Aaron Spears has even called Steve Gadd the king of shuffle playing. When you listen to these recordings you’ll understand why. Steve’s jazz chops are showcased with great finesse and beauty on Chick Corea’s Friends with tunes like “The One Step” and “Waltse for Dave”.
To be a great musician you must not be afraid to experiment, and take in as much music and information as you can. Knowing how to play a bossa nova beat, for instance, will not only be useful in a bossa nova gig but also in triggering all sorts of different ideas for the music you play most of the time. Look at what all Gadd’s influences have brought him regarding originality and musicality, and think what it could do for you.