From pots and pans, to the halls of the Berkley School of Music, to the main stages with Frank Zappa, Herbie Hancock, Megadeth, and Sting; Vinnie Colaiuta has left his mark wherever he has played drums. If the various styles of music were different speaking languages, Vinnie would articulate them all easily and with no accent whatsoever.
Born Vincent Colaiuta in the rural town of Brownsville, Pennsylvania in the United States, “Vinnie” Colaiuta began showing a predisposition towards music at a very early stage of his life.
“I always reacted to music and I always had some sort of attraction or disposition toward music. I did the typical thing a kid does, setting up pots and pans on the sofa like a drum set.” – Vinnie Colaiuta in Rule, Greg. “Vinnie Colaiuta.” Drums & Drumming Magazine Jan 1991.
Vinnie Colaiuta practiced on those pots and pans until the day his parents bought him his first toy drum set with paper heads. Vinnie was exposed to music through the radio, where he began getting familiar with certain artists. His main influences were The Beatles, The Dave Clarke Five, The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. He also listened to a lot of Motown music like Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. Vinnie remembers he used to play along to The Temptations songs on the radio.
One of his neighbors was actually a drummer. Vinnie recalls that every time he heard him play he’d feel extremely fascinated by it. Even though he only had a toy drum set, he’d form bands with his friends, playing along to songs in the street. Vinnie also had an electric guitar and took organ lessons, but his love for drumming overwhelmed any other instrument.
When he was 14 years old, Vinnie was encouraged by his mother to get into some drum lessons. He began taking lessons with the junior high school band director. His teacher gave him a now historical book to practice with – Drum Method Book One: For Band and Orchestra by Haskell Harr (1937) – with which he learned the basics of how to hold the drumsticks and how to read music. Vinnie Colaiuta couldn’t get enough of it and just kept pushing ahead at his own pace.
Vinnie Colaiuta was a fast learner and showed a real interest in what he was doing. Up until that point, Vinnie considered he would become a scientist. But as he began studying drums he decided he wanted to be a professional drummer instead. Shortly after, Vinnie was exposed to guys like John Bonham (through Led Zeppelin) and Buddy Rich, two very big influences of him.
“I couldn’t get enough of it. I was real interested in music notation and rudiments and technique whereas a lot of guys didn’t dig that stuff. I learned real fast because I was always practicing. I would go into English class and sit in the back of the room with a Remo practice pad and practice double-stroke rolls and get kicked out of class.” – Vinnie Colaiuta in Flans, Robyn. “Vinnie Colaiuta.” Modern Drummer Magazine Nov 1982.
It was also at this time that his parents decided on giving him his first professional kit, a Rogers drum set.
“I was overjoyed when my parents bought me the set, because up to that point, I had only been studying on the snare drum. When I sat down at the set, though, for some reason I didn’t have any problem. I just sat down and played, probably because of all those toy sets.” – Vinnie Colaiuta in Flans, Robyn. “Vinnie Colaiuta.” Modern Drummer Magazine Nov 1982.
Even though Vinnie Colaiuta showed great abilities on a real drum set since day one, he still needed to practice a lot. As he progressed with his drumming skills, Vinnie expressed his desire of playing drum set in the junior high school band. Since there were already a lot of drummers in the band, the band director advised Vinnie to chose another instrument if he wanted to play in the band. Vinnie Colaiuta did as he was told and played the flute for a whole year, but always with his sights set on taking the drummer’s seat. That eventually happened when the drummer vacated his position. Vinnie took his place with such distinction that he soon became the section leader. If this wasn’t enough, that same year, Vinnie Colaiuta was chosen to play in a tri-state area (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia) honors ensemble after performing a very energetic interpretation of the rudimental snare piece “Tornado.”
Vinnie Colaiuta began playing professionally with 14 years of age. His first gigs were nothing to write home about. His next gigs however, were way more interesting. Vinnie performed with a top forty’s band, while playing with Deep Purple, Cream and Led Zeppelin cover bands on the side. During a performance with the high school stage band, a drummer approached Vinnie to talk to him about favorite drummers. At the time, Buddy Rich was Vinnie’s favorite, while for the other guy, Tony Williams. Vinnie didn’t know who Tony was, so he was advised to listen to Tony’s album Ego (1971).
“When I first listened to it, it was so alien to anything I’d ever heard before. About two years later, I put it back on the turntable and it was like I’d just opened the lid to the Ark Of The Covenant or something. It was as if the sky had opened in my head. I went out and bought every Tony Williams record that I could get my hands on. From that point I realized that Tony was the genius of the drums. I realized what a force he was and how powerful and truthful his musical statement was. It changed my life; it made a profound impact.” – Vinnie Colaiuta in Rule, Greg. “Vinnie Colaiuta.” Drums & Drumming Magazine Jan 1991.
It was during his stay with the junior high school band that Vinnie Colaiuta began working on his incredible ability to read complicated sheet music while playing it at the same time. We’re not talking about drum charts but about note for note sheet music. Obviously, at first, it was a very extenuating experience for him to be able to sight read and play at the same time, but with time and a lot of practice he was able to nail it. Drum corps and summer camps followed, along with the lessons he was already having. After finishing high school, Vinnie Colaiuta worked for local bands for a year before enrolling in the Berklee School of Music.
His decision of enrolling in the Berklee School of Music was mainly motivated by what Vinnie was hearing about the place from fellow musicians. One of those man was none other than the great Steve Smith. Steve was drumming in a Lin Biviano’s big band summer tour. Luckily, they played a gig at a local playhouse in the area Vinnie lived at. It was there that Steve and Vinnie first met, and where Steve told Vinnie about how great Berklee was.
In 1974, Vinnie Colaiuta moved to Boston where he enrolled at the Berklee School Of Music. On his first day there, Vinnie bumped into Steve Smith, took some tests and was placed in a bunch of classes, like beginning arranging, since he didn’t know anything about that, and an ear training class. In the two semesters Vinnie Colaiuta was in Berklee, he learned a lot about arranging. He could’ve kept investing his time on this side of his education, but Vinnie wanted to play and not to be an arranger.
Vinnie Colaiuta studied under Gary Chaffee from the percussion department, who used a really great method of teaching. He applied polyrhythms to the drum set, independence through funk drumming and very different ways of presenting note groupings. These were all things that Vinnie had never really had exposure to. So, conceptually, this was a great time for him, not only because of what he was learning but also because of the different styles of music he was getting exposed to. This was the heyday of fusion music, and so, he really imbibed himself with music of Tony Williams, Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Alphonse Mouzon, and McCoy Tyner.
“I really loved what I was hearing and I wanted to absorb and be able to assimilate that style. The exciting part of all of this for me was that it was all so new. Mahavishnu, Cobham, Gadd, Tony, all of those guys were breaking ground. I was just very happy to be fed with so much of the muse – from so many different directions and personalities.” – Vinnie Colaiuta in Rule, Greg. “Vinnie Colaiuta.” Drums & Drumming Magazine Jan 1991.
In his first semester in Berklee, Vinnie moved very quickly through everything Gary Chaffee had to teach. For the first half of the second semester, Vinnie’s drum lessons consisted of drum jams with Gary and listening to Tony Williams. For the second half of the semester, Steve Smith joined Vinnie in some group lessons focusing heavily on drum jams. Ultimately, Vinnie Colaiuta and Steve Smith formed a great friendship.
“I used to go over to his (Steve Smith) house until 4:00 in the morning with a jar of peanut butter, a Tony Williams record, and a ride cymbal, and we’d sit there playing ride patterns as fast as we could until the first guy fell asleep.” – Vinnie Colaiuta in Rule, Greg. “Vinnie Colaiuta.” Drums & Drumming Magazine Jan 1991.
As the school year reached an end, Gary Chaffee felt Vinnie was at the point where he should just get himself on the music scene to start making a name for himself. He advised Vinnie Colaiuta to move to New York when the school year was over. Vinnie didn’t want to follow that route just yet, since he wanted to go back to Berklee the following year. But, since he didn’t have any money left to pay for tuition fees, Vinnie decided that it was time to start playing for a living.
For the next couple of years, Vinnie Colaiuta hung around Boston. He performed in top forty gigs around Boston and Cape Cod to get enough money to keep him going. On the side, he played with the Christopher Morris Band, with which he got to play his very first “big” gig. This all came to be when producer Al Kooper of the Blood, Sweat and Tears and the Blues Project, heard a demo tape of the band. He decided to produce an album with the Christopher Morris Band and Vinnie was asked to get some players together for a tour. Vinnie loved the exposure and the experience he got from that tour. The band cut their LP at the Record Plant in Sausalito for a couple of months. That was Vinnie’s first studio recording. He was very inexperienced in a studio setting at the time, so it was a very challenging experience for him, as well as a great way to learn a ton of new stuff. This experience was so gratifying to him, that in January of 1978, a 22 years old Vinnie Colaiuta got on a bus with his cloths, his drum set, and eighty dollars in his pocket, and moved to California to try his luck in the Los Angeles studio scene.
Before moving, Vinnie Colaiuta made arrangements to stay at a friend’s apartment in California. Shortly after his arrival, his drumming managed to get himself and his friend evicted for disturbing the peace. Unable to find permanent living arrangements, he roamed from place to place, even sleeping in a small bedroom at the historical Los Angeles studio the Record Plant, for a period of time. After going through some very rough times, Vinnie was able to secure the drummer’s seat for The Fowler Brothers band. This was a very cool opportunity to keep developing his musical skills, but one where he earned very little money.
Vinnie Colaiuta’s big break came in April of that year. While doing a gig with The Fowler Brothers, Tom Fowler mentioned that Frank Zappa was searching for a new rhythm section. Vinnie had always been a huge fan of Zappa’s work, honing every record he had recorded. So, after getting a hold of Frank Zappa’s management, he began harassing them non stop. Eventually, the big call finally came in and he was invited to audition at the Culver City Studios, a big movie studio in California.
Vinnie Colaiuta had to go through a number of tests before getting the gig. Frank Zappa made him sight read and play the melodic part from the song “Pedro’s Dowry,” in unison with the marimba part. To Vinnie’s surprise, he was able to do it with no mistakes. Frank then decided to further test Vinnie’s sight reading skills by giving him the “The Black Page.” Vinnie had transcribed and memorized it beforehand, so even before Frank gave him the sheet music, he began playing it flawlessly.
Next, Zappa challenged Vinnie by making him play with him in 21/16 time signature. Vinnie was not only able to accompany Zappa, but to take a drum solo in that same time signature. After going through about four of Zappa’s tunes, he pulled Vinnie Colaiuta aside and asked him when he could start. Vinnie began working with him soon after, which bailed him out of his whole living and financial situation.
The rest is history. Vinnie got the gig that night and remained with Zappa for two and a half years during which time he experienced polyrhythmic growth and developed an individual style. This was Vinnie’s key career move, not only because he was playing with Frank Zappa, the name, but because Frank, the musician, presented such musical challenges that Vinnie accepted and dealt with so proficiently.
Vinnie Colaiuta’s last gig with Frank Zappa was in December of 1980. As Zappa’s touring and studio drummer, Vinnie was featured on Joe’s Garage (1979), considered one of the top-25 drumming performances of all time in a 1993 Modern Drummer Magazine article. After leaving Zappa, Vinnie played for Shut Up ‘n Play Your Guitar (1981) and Tinsel Town Rebellion (1981), and is featured on numerous of Zappa’s releases. You can check them all out at Vinnie’s discography. Although Vinnie was making very good money with the Zappa gig, he was gone too long from California to be able to secure any studio work between tours. Doing studio work was the main reason Vinnie ventured out to California. He loved playing live and going on tour, but recording and playing in studios was something that really appealed to him as a musician.
You must be wondering: “He’s Vinnie Colaiuta, how come he didn’t get that much studio action?” Just because you are an incredible live musician doesn’t mean you’ll be able to play in a studio as well as you do live. It’s just like with everything in drumming, you’re only as good as the amount of quality time you spend doing it.
Vinnie got into the studio scene with the help of then Lionel Richie’s musical director, and bassist, Neil Stubenhaus. Neil recommend Vinnie for his first studio gig – record drums for Gino Vannelli’s Nightwalker (1980). Playing with Gino and with a group called Pages (later know as Mr. Mister) gave Vinnie Colaiuta the much needed exposure to get known and appreciated within the circle of recording artists. He soon saw himself working with Tom Scott. It was from that point on that he began being booked regularly for studio work, enabling him to stay in town to make a living out of it.
In 1990, Vinnie Colaiuta auditioned successfully for Sting’s touring band, in support of the album The Soul Cages (1990). Vinnie remained as a member of Sting’s band for the next seven years, and recorded drums for several of Sting’s albums – Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993), Mercury Falling (1996), three songs on Brand New Day (1999), and two songs on Sacred Love (2003).
In addition to these big name musicians, Vinnie Colaiuta has worked with other notable artists such as Herbie Hancock, Abe Laboriel, Barbra Streisand, Joan Rivers, Irene Cara, Leonard Cohen, Andrea Bocelli, The Beach Boys, Tori Amos, Christina Aguilera, Alejandro Sanz, Billy Joel, Jose Feliciano, Chaka Khan, Roberto Carlos, Alan Pasqua, Faith Hill, The Temptations, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Bill Myers, Frank Gambale, B.B. King, Jack Wagner, Celine Dion, Michael Bublé, Barnaby Finch, Robben Ford, Laura Pausini, Queen Latifah, Joe Cocker, Martha Davis, Enrique Inglesias, Greg Rollie, Maurice White, Backstreet Boys, Destiny’s Child, Eric Martin, LeAnn Rimes, Bryan Ferry, Paul Anka, Olivia Newton-John, Jeff Beck, Barry Manilow, John Patitucci, Everything But the Girl, Ivan Lins, Rick Astley, Djavan, Bunny Brunel, Duran Duran, Simple Minds, Eros Ramazzotti, Michael Landau, Bill Evans, Rita Lee, Chick Corea, Jewel, Steely Dan, Mike Stern, SHeDAISY, Richard Bona, Megadeth, Hilary Duff, James Taylor, Anastacia, Burt Bacharach, and Oz Noy, among many others.
Vinnie Colaiuta has played drums on commercials for Western Airlines, Maxwell House, Pizza Hut, Oldsmobile, Kent Xigarettes, 7-up, GMC Trucks, Chevy, Honda Scooters, and Polaroid; and on television shows like the Late Show starring Joan Rivers, AIf, The Two of Us , Still The Beaver, Making the Grade, New Gidget, Simon & Simon, Crime Story and Sledgehammer. For more details on albums, artists, songs, or projects featuring Vinnie, check this thorough compilation of his discography. Besides being a very successful studio drummer, Vinnie has developed his own projects over the years.
During the time he was part of Frank Zappa’s band, Vinnie Colaiuta joined Karizma, a band comprised of great musicians from the local studio circuit. He would drum for them whenever he wasn’t touring with Zappa. Vinnie drummed for Karizma from 1979 to 1981. The band was heavily featured at the Baked Potato, California. Vinnie would rejoin the band in 2000. His first record with Karizma was released in 2001 and called Document. In 2004, they released the album Lost & Found, which featured unreleased songs from the band.
In 1990, Vinnie Colaiuta teamed up with Zildjian to develop the A Custom line of cymbals, based on the Avedis Zildjian series of cymbals. Zildjian is also responsible for developing Vinnie’s signature drumstick, while Gretsch Drums has created the Vinnie Colaiuta Signature Series drum set.
In 1994, Vinnie released his first solo album, simply entitled Vinnie Colaiuta. Another project Vinnie was a part of was the fusion band Jing Chi, with Ruben Ford and Jimmy Haslip. They have released three albums to date – Jing Chi (2002), Live at Yoshi’s (2003), and 3D (2004).
Vinnie has been interviewed for famous publications in the world of drumming like Modern Drummer, Rhythm Magazine, and DRUM!, among others. He has taken part on the most prestigious event in the world of drum set playing, the Modern Drummer Festival. You an watch his performance on the multi-DVD Modern Drummer Festival Weekend 2000 and 2003 Combo Pack. Vinnie was inducted into the Modern Drummer Magazine “Hall of Fame” in 1996.
Vinnie Colaiuta has a remarkably well defined voice on the drum set. His way of playing and thinking about his drum parts, and music in general, have earned him great esteem from fellow musicians. A good example of this can be found on “Nik” Kershaw’s pop tune “Don’t Ask Me” from the 1989 album The Works. In a pop tune it’s expected for the drum parts to be kept fairly simple and with little to no fills. Well, with Vinnie Colaiuta playing drums here that isn’t the case. For the most part, he keeps steady snare and bass drum patterns throughout the song, while playing around with some fancy ideas on the hi-hats – broken 16th and 32nd notes patterns. However, the main course comes in between the bridge section and a chorus of the tune. As the bridge reaches an end, Vinnie stops playing just to come into the song with a crazy sounding two bar fill that starts on the “and” of count 3 on the first bar, and ends on “ah” of count 4 on the second bar, just before the aforementioned chorus.
This fill is a combination of 32nd notes and 16th notes, and showcases a bit of how Vinnie’s brain comes up with drum parts. The first thing to notice here is that he doesn’t start playing the fill on count 1 (the most typical place drummers chose to start a fill from) or even on any other down beat (counts 2, 3 and 4) for that matter. This catches the listener off guard and creates this really cool and weird sounding fill. This is something you can take and apply to all of your fills. Instead of starting them out on count 1, experiment by taking out some notes on the beginning of the fill. Start by removing enough notes so you can start your fill on the “and” of count 1 (this is a simpler way of getting your feet wet). As you get comfortable with it, remove the note you were playing on the “and” of count 1, so you can start playing the fill on the “ah” of count 1 instead. You can keep on removing notes as you please. These are just a couple of ideas to get you started.
Another cool idea to work with is to just move the whole fill around, without removing any note. For instance, if you have a one bar fill and move it one 8th note to the right, the fill will start on the “and” of count 1 instead of on the down beat. This way, the pattern will also end on the “and” of count 1 on the next bar. This is another cool idea, if you want to mess around with the overall feel of your fills, since they’ll be totally out of the norm. The craziest thing about this fill Vinnie played in Nik’s album is not just how awesome it sounds, but how such a complicated and over the top fill was actually recorded for a pop song. This comes to show that while you’re writing your own drum parts for a song, you shouldn’t focus on the number of notes you’re playing, but rather focus on what fits the song best.
In the beginning of the previous section of this bio, we talked about how Frank Zappa’s album Joe’s Garage had been considered one of the top-25 drumming performances of all time in a 1993 Modern Drummer Magazine article. The whole album is a testament to how brilliant Vinnie Colaiuta really is. Still, there is one track that better showcases his greatness. That track is “Keep it Greasy”. This tune is a paradise for all those looking for some cool odd time signature ideas and over the bar line phrasing, with the time signature of the tune alternating between 4/4, 19/16, and 21/16.
Another cool song to check out for some odd time signature ideas is Sting’s “Seven Days” from the 1993 release Ten Summoner’s Tales. The whole tune is played in 5/8. However, Vinnie changes the whole feel of the song during the verse section, making the time-feel straighter with some over the bar line variations of the hi-hat pattern. In the first one, Vinnie plays accents every other down beat on the hi-hat, with the pattern resolving every two bars. In the second one, Vinnie layers a faster time feel over the original one by accenting every third note of the 16th note hi-hat pattern, which resolves every three bars. These two approaches smooth the unevenness of the pattern out, giving it the feel of a regular 4/4 beat. This is known as implied metric modulation. Implied metric modulation is a “rhythmic mechanism” in which a different time-feel is layered over the original one without changing the time signature. This is another one of Vinnie’s cooler features, making odd time sound like common time (4/4).
Sting’s “St. Augustine in Hell”, also from Ten Summoner’s Tales is another very interesting song to listen to. It is played in 7/8 time signature, with Vinnie Colaiuta playing a 4/4 bell pattern on the ride. Since this ride pattern is what propels the song forward, we get the feel of listening to a song in 4/4 but with some funky snare and bass drum displacements. This was another very clever way of disguising the odd time signature.
For a more in depth study of Vinnie Colaiuta’s approaches to polyrhythms and odd times check Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage and the The UnReel Drum Book (2003) written by Mark Atkinson. The book is not for the faint-of-heart. It’s a very challenging piece of drumming education that takes you through the drum solos Vinnie Colaiuta played on Andy Waldman’s album Unreel and Vinnie’s overall way of approaching drum set playing.
If you checked the “short” list of artists, in the previous section of this biography, with who Vinnie has worked with, you must be well aware of how well rounded Vinnie Colaiuta really is. It’s not just a question of him being able to play beats for all different styles of music there is, it’s a question of Vinnie playing them at a very high level of musicianship, with fluidity, dexterity and control. It’s important that you take notice of this. It’s better for you to be able to play simple things at a high level, than hard things at a very low level. This means that whatever you are working on, and in whatever style of music, you have to make sure that even the simplest of grooves feels like it should in the context of the music. Even playing a simple 8th note rock beat with quality and consistency can be a real challenge.
Also, being able to play rock, pop, country, blues, heavy metal, fusion, jazz, funk, and Latin at the level Vinnie exhibits, while being hired to perform on records and tours from artists/ bands that play these styles of music, validates what was said in the last paragraph even more. The greater the quality of your versatility (i.e. how authentically your drumming sounds with the styles you have studied) the better gigs you’ll eventually get. This is not the only thing that will help you get gigs as a studio drummer. Good social skills are essential on attaining a successful and enduring life as a studio musician.
The things we just ran through here are very small examples of what Vinnie Colaiuta is able to do. He’s a fantastic player, with an astonishing sense of time and groove. The facility he shows while playing with such a deep pocket in any time signature and with polyrhythms is breath taking, to say the least. If you are new to all of this and feel a bit overwhelmed, don’t worry. Like all of us, Vinnie Colaiuta had to learn how to “walk” before he could “run” like he does today. As you make your way to this vast world of possibilities, remember to start simple and master the basics first. With time, patience and practice you’ll be on your way to become the drummer you wish to be.
“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right!” – Henry Ford.
Work hard, learn as much as you can, stay motivated, don’t give up, and remember to always have tons of fun.