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At the age of two, Steve Elliot Smith could already be found playing a drum set. His parents were the main culprits behind this hobby of his since the idea of getting him a kit was their’s. Unfortunately, Steve Smith’s drum set didn’t last long, seeing it was a toy-set and he didn’t know how to play. However, that experience planted the seeds for what Steve Smith was yet to become, one of the best drum-set players of all time.
It wasn’t until 1963 came along that Steve Smith began playing drums. It all came about at a school assembly where musical instruments were being demonstrated. At the end of the assembly, students were given the opportunity to play any instrument they liked. Seeing he was a big fan of hearing marching bands in parades, Steve Smith chose the instrument he loved to hear the most: the snare drum. Steve Smith was completely jaded and began taking drum lessons almost immediately.
Steve Smith’s first drum teacher was Bill Flanagan, a big-band drummer from the swing era that lived in the Boston, Massachusetts area. For the first two years Steve Smith played on a practice pad exclusively, while learning about drum rudiments and reading. On his third year of lessons Steve Smith began playing and practicing on a snare drum. He eventually got his hands and feet on a drum kit and began learning about independence and how to play the instrument in a jazz context.
“My practice sessions then didn’t take place on the drumset. I used to practice on a practice pad all the time—just practicing to records. Half of it would be trying to understand the different drum parts and copying them, and the other part would be improvising, using the record for tempo. I think that not practicing on a drumset then was a mistake. It would have been better if I had, because I would have developed faster as a drumset player.” Steve Smith in “Steve Smith” by Robyn Flans, Modern Drummer Magazine, August, 1986.
Steve Smith’s major inspiration at the time were great big-band drummers like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and Kenny Clarke. Regular trips to The Boston Globe Jazz Festival had a special impact on Steve Smith since it was where he first saw and heard his idols play. Steve Smith didn’t get interested in rock music until 1967 when he heard Jimi Hendrix with Mitch Mitchell on drums and Ginger Baker with Cream.
During his high-school years Steve Smith kept himself quite busy by going through the school-band program, playing with a professional concert band, the Bridgewater State University’s big band and every other kind of gig he could find: weddings, circus bands and local garage bands. After he was done with high school, Steve Smith went on to study music at the Berklee College Of Music, Boston from 1972 to 1976, where he was mentored by renowned teachers like Gary Chaffee and Alan Dawson. His influences at that point in time were mainly fusion drummers like Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Lenny White and Steve Gadd.
Steve Smith’s professional drumming career began in 1974 as a 19-year old musician for the Lin Biviano Big Band. He toured and recorded with the band during 1974 and 1975’s summer breaks. During that period of time he also played for Buddy DeFranco and the free-jazz band The Fridge. In 1976 Steve Smith began playing fusion music when he joined violinist Jean Luc Ponty’s group, with whom he recorded the album Enigmatic Ocean (1977) with Allan Holdsworth on guitar.
In January, 1978 the 23-year-old Steve Smith left Jean-Luc Ponty and moved to Los Angeles, California to immerse himself in the music business and jump-start his career. In his first week there he auditioned successfully for jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose. Ronnie was getting ready to embark in a three-month solo tour of instrumental music from Open Fire (1978). Steve Smith was way more intrigued with Ronnie’s music than with Freddie’s since he was already quite fluent in jazz music. Therefore, he chose to go on tour with Ronnie Montrose instead of Freddie Hubbard. As it turned out, Ronnie Montrose’s tour was actually as a supporting act, alongside Van Halen, for Journey’s first tour as a headliner. The three bands had a lot of fun together and got to know each other pretty well.
Later on, Steve Smith found out Journey was thinking of getting a new drummer. They were looking for someone that could play fusion, as well as pop-rock with an R&B feel to it. Curiously, they found in Steve Smith the potential and qualities they were looking for, although he wasn’t doing much of that on the tour with Ronnie Montrose. A couple of months after the tour, Journey called Steve Smith and invited him to join the band as a full-time member.
“I wasn’t looking to be in a rock band but since the opportunity came my way I thought, ‘okay let’s check it out, this should be interesting.’ I agreed to join the band and I was excited to play with some very good rock players. Also I hadn’t done much work with singers, so working with a great singer sounded interesting too. I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco and we got right to work.” Steve Smith in “Steve Smith – The Journey Days” on MikeDolbear.com.
Steve Smith went on to record six albums with Journey. Escape (1981) is Journey’s second-best selling album to date with over nine million copies sold worldwide. It has only been surpassed by their Greatest Hits (1988) album, selling over 15 million copies. Before reaching this level of success, Journey with Steve Smith on drums had three previous, successful releases in Evolution (1979), Departure (1980) and the live album Captured (1981). The first two have sold over three million copies worldwide while the live one has sold two million copies.
After their massive success with Escape, Journey hit the studio to record the highly acclaimed Frontiers (1983), selling over six million copies to this day. The year of 1986 saw the release of Raised On Radio. The recording of that album marked a turning point in Journey. As Steve Perry (singer) was gaining more and more control over the band, his ego started taking over. The band began following the direction he wanted to pursue. This included firing Steve Smith and Ross Valory (bass) in 1985 due to internal disputes during the album’s recording sessions. Steve Smith was still able to record some drum tracks, namely for the songs “Positive Touch,” “The Eyes Of A Woman” and “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever.”
After being fired from Journey, Steve Smith began pursuing his original passion, jazz, and continued developing his career as a session musician as well. He had already worked with Bryan Adams in Reckless, his highly successful 1984 release, but over the course of the next decades he would record drums for big-name artists. You can find Steve Smith’s drumming on albums from artists like Frank Gambale’s A Present For The Future (1987) and Note Worker (1991), Dweezil Zappa’s My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama (1988), Mariah Carrey’s Emotions (1991), Zucchero’s Spirito Di Vino (1995), Savage Garden’s Affirmation (1999), Lara Fabian’s Lara Fabian (1999) and Andrea Bocelli’s Andrea (2004).
Vital Information was the main project Steve Smith focused on after his Journey days. This jazz-fusion band got started during his high-school days in 1971, when he met Tim Landers (bass) and Dave Wilczewski (saxophone) while playing together in the Bridgewater State College Big Band. The three members never lost touch after high school, meeting in Boston once a year to perform various gigs with guest guitarists. From 1977 to 1982 they worked on many compositions and played various gigs. This helped develop a repertoire and style that would eventually be bolstered through Vital Information (1983) and Orion (1984).
Steve Smith and Vital Information have gone to record several albums since then: Global Beat (1986), Fiafiaga (Celebration) (1988), Vitalive! (1991), Easier Done Than Said (1992), Ray Of Hope (1996), Where We Come From (1998), Live Around The World (2000), Show ‘Em Where You Live (2001), Come On In (2004), Vitalization (2007) and Live! One Great Night (2012). Most recently, Steve Smith created Vital Information – NYC Edition and is playing as one third of the Raga Bop Trio. Vital Information’s Where We Come From was voted Best Contemporary Jazz Recording Of 1998 by the Association For Independent Music. Vital Information was actually very therapeutic during Steve Smith’s Journey days. It helped him stay grounded while keeping in touch with his jazz roots.
Other projects Steve Smith was highly involved with were the bands Steps Ahead, GH–with Frank Gambale (guitar) and Stuart Hamm (bass)–Vital Tech Tones–with Scott Henderson (guitar) and Victor Wooten (bass)–Steve Smith and Buddy’s Buddies and Steve Smith’s Jazz Legacy. For more information on the artists Steve Smith has worked with, as well as the albums he contributed drums to, click on this link.
Besides his musical endeavors, Steve Smith has been keen on sharing the knowledge he acquired over the years, with the rest of the drumming world through various DVD releases. Drumset Technique/ History Of The U.S. Beat (2002), Classic Rock Drum Solos (2007), The Art Of Playing With Brushes (2007) and Drum Legacy: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (2008) are a testament of Steve Smith’s virtuosity on the drum set. You can also watch him perform on the 2003 and 2006 Modern Drummer Festivals and the Drummers Collective 25th Anniversary (2002) through the DVDs with the same names.
Steve Smith is a highly regarded performer in the drumming community. His music, concepts and drumming abilities have earned him many accolades around the world. In 2001 Modern Drummer magazine acknowledge him as one of the top 25 drummers of all time, and the magazine’s readers voted him the best All-Around Drummer five years in a row. In 2002 Steve Smith was voted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame and Drumset Technique/ History of the U.S. Beat was voted the best Educational DVD of 2003. DRUM! magazine’s readers voted Steve Smith as the best Jazz Drummer in 2008 and 2009, and Drum Legacy: Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants was voted the best educational DVD of 2009.
Even though Steve Smith attained worldwide recognition with the time he spent with a radio-friendly band like Journey, he always managed to sneak in some cool little nuances to the band’s tunes. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” features Steve Smith’s most well known woven piece of drumming tapestry. The patterns played from minute 1:23 onward are based on a simple four-on-the-floor 8th-note rock drum-beat. The magic behind Steve Smith’s playing in this track are the different off-beat shots he orchestrates around the toms and later on the ride-cymbal bell. Steve Smith plays the accents with his right hand while keeping a constant run of 8th notes on the hi-hat with his weak hand. This is a very cool pattern to play and serves as a great example of how creative you can actually be in music that requires simpler grooves. Keep it simple doesn’t mean you have to keep it bland.
You can find intricate and out-there drumming in Journey’s music. “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” features a very intricate drum fill around the 2:28 mark. The pattern is spread around the snare, rack tom, floor tom and bass drum. In a single bar, Steve Smith fits four groups of 16th note triplets in three counts to create a 4-over-3 polyrhythm drum fill. This is a great example of how to introduce advanced concepts to pop music in order to give it more feel and emotion. These two examples of Steve Smith’s work with Journey are of a great importance since they debunk the myth that you have to avoid any out-there concepts when playing pop music. However, you have to keep in mind that Steve Smith did venture out in these songs while being sensitivity enough to know where it would sound be more musical and appropriate.
“But I find you don’t need to be an incredible technician in order to play music. A solo is just playing music by yourself. I guess the whole thing comes down to having a solid foundation – learning about how music is constructed, having good technique and studying the masters, but everybody teaches themselves how to play music. Nobody can teach you how to take your technical drumming ability and then communicate with other musicians successfully. That’s a self-taught process, even if you take a million lessons.” Steve Smith in “Going for It: Steve Smith – The Art And History Of Drum Soloing” by Don Zulaica, DRUM! Magazine, October, 2000.
Through experimentation, stealing licks from your favorite drummers and studying solos from the greatest drum soloist that ever existed are the main ways to learn about this art-form. This approach to learning about drum soloing has had a profound effect in the way Steve Smith plays his own drum solos. It taught him a lot about musicality and a great array of different ideas. Now, studying drummers like Max Roach, John Bonham, Neil Peart, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Steve Smith himself will do wonders for your drum soloing, but you can also use concepts you’re very keen on. For instance, Steve Smith does so with his studies and applications of Indian rhythms to the drum set. “Khanda West” is a great example of that.
“Let’s look at a big band, and let’s look at the lead alto player, and the first tenor player. They read music and they can play in the section, but when it’s time for them to blow they can stand up and blow. But the second alto player and the second or third trombone player, those guys play parts, and for the most part they usually don’t solo. They read music really well and they function within the section really well. That’s a good musician, but to me it’s not complete. So to be a complete musician, just in my opinion, you would be able to play in your section, and then you would be able to solo as well.” Steve Smith in “Going for It: Steve Smith – The Art And History Of Drum Soloing” by Don Zulaica, DRUM! Magazine, October, 2000.
Steve Smith has made a career out of being able to play various styles of music proficiently. Drawing inspiration from the many drummers who came before him and that paved the way for the different standards played around the world in various styles of music, he was able to carve his name in the annals of drumming. The careful study of his craft enabled Steve Smith to acquire a refined sensitivity toward the needs of the music he creates and plays. This, coupled with technical proficiency and various concepts, helped Steve Smith develop his own vocabulary and voice on the drum set.
Although you may feel that working on your own voice is the thing you should spend more time with, you have to realize that before you can develop your own sentence structure you have to learn how to speak properly. In order to do so you have to use words and even sentences from the ones that have been talking and writing for a lot more time than you and that have defined the language you’re trying to learn.