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Music is a way of life. It takes a certain level of dedication and drive to shape ourselves into the musical beings we strive to be. There are no shortcuts, no magical methods. Talent alone won’t get you far. You have to practice and play. Virgil Donati represents this very essence. His playing comes to show how perfect practice does indeed make perfect.
Virgil Donati was born on October 22, 1958 in Melbourne, Australia of Italian descent. His father had a show band that rehearsed in his house regularly. Each band practice was followed with utter interest by a very young Virgil Donati. His interest for music and instinct for rhythm had been apparent to his parents for some time, so it didn’t take long for them to start nurturing that interest of his.
“I have this memory of getting my first pair of drumsticks at three years of age. My father, having noticed me watching with fascination as his band rehearsed, bought me a pair of sticks one day. They came wrapped in brown paper and as soon as I tore the paper off I started straight away playing a basic jazz ride pattern that I gad seen the drummer play. I just picked them up and went for it. It is my first memory of playing.” – Virgil Donati in Matcott, Paul. “Virgil Donati Stretching Out.” Drumscene Magazine Apr 1995.
Shortly after, Virgil Donati was given his first drum set by his parents. His father’s choice of records included albums from Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich, and so, naturally, Virgil’s first major influences were these two jazz and big band drummers. He would spend a lot of time trying to emulate their solos. Some time after he began learning how to play drums, Virgil Donati started performing with his father’s show band. He kept playing with them until he was around 6 years old.
Virgil Donati began taking private lessons when he was 7 years old, first with Brian Czempinski and later with legendary Australian drummer Graham Morgan. Nonetheless, Virgil learned most of his drumming skills by himself at that point in his musical journey. What he also discovered on his own was the music of Deep Purple. As most of that generation, drummer Ian Paice struck a chord with the young Virgil Donati. Guys like John Bonham, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Narada Michael Walden, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, and Tony Williams, were also very important in shaping his way of approaching the drum set.
“I was blown away with his playing, his clarity. Back in the early ‘70s he seemed to be an articulate drummer with a lot of soul in his playing. I loved his power and strength and the way he articulated his phrasing. I loved his approach.” – Virgil Donati talking about Ian Pace in Flans, Robyn. “Virgil Donati Australian Master.” Modern Drummer Magazine Aug 1996.
Around 1973, a 15 years old Virgil Donati joined his first rock band. The band was called Cloud Nine, and would later change its name to Taste. At the age of 16, Virgil decided to leave school so he could focus entirely on his musical career and on touring with his band. He felt that if he wanted to succeed as a professional drummer he had to learn as much as he could about his instrument of choice, so he could take on any musical situation he was confronted with. He also took on piano at the same time as a way to diversify himself and to develop his skills for music composition.
“I was very systematic with my practice in those days. I’d do my hand work and then move on to certain coordination exercises among the four limbs. Then I would try to tackle different styles – jazz, latin, rock – and then the best part was playing along with records and transcribing the parts from different drummers. I also took up classical piano and did that for a couple of hours a day. I’m glad I did that then because it enables me to write today.” – Virgil Donati in Flans, Robyn. “Virgil Donati Australian Master.” Modern Drummer Magazine Aug 1996.
His practice routines were obviously pretty extreme. Australia was very isolated in the 1970s and 1980s, so staying motivated could be an issue. There were no videos and not that many drum books available for him to purchase. He had to basically rely on himself and on records to get the work done. However, amidst all the practicing, Virgil Donati still thinks that playing live with a band was what really solidified all the knowledge he was assimilating.
“It’s fine to do a lot of practicing, but I was practicing during the day and playing five or six nights a week with a band. That’s where I really got my chops together – on stage, getting out there and traveling with the band. I was lucky to start so young with a touring band. All the other guys were sixteen and seventeen, and it was a great experience. Having that balance between the practice and the live performance was what got it together for me.” – Virgil Donati in Flans, Robyn. “Virgil Donati Australian Master.” Modern Drummer Magazine Aug 1996.
At the age of 19, Virgil Donati decided to travel to the United States to further his studies in drumming. This was an eighteen month journey that went from 1979 to 1980. He studied at New York’s Drummers Collective, under the guidance of jazz great “Philly Joe” Jones and Horace Arnold. He then journeyed to Los Angeles, California to develop his composition, theory, and arranging skills on Dick Grove’s Workshop.
In 1980, Virgil Donati decided it was time to head back home. This return of his proved to be a very enjoyable one, since a 21 years old Virgil Donati saw his career really take off. He became an in demand player, getting a hold of very different styles of gigs – jazz, rock, pop, tours, television recordings, and even theater and studio gigs. This also gave him the opportunity to work with talented artists from abroad, like jazz pianist George Cables, vocalist Mark Murphy, Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, and Melissa Etheridge. However, some years later Virgil would make a trip that would forever change his professional career.
In the 1980s, Virgil was already endorsing Remo. He first met Remo’s chief executive officer (CEO) and founder Remo Beli in Australia in 1989, when Remo and Virgil toured together promoting the Remo brand. Shortly after, Virgil was invited to travel to Los Angeles to be part of the Remo Drum Day at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). This was Virgil Donati’s first performance on the United States, serving as a catalyst for his future move to Los Angeles in 1996. Virgil Donati’s career was a very successful one in Australia, but he wanted to try his luck in a bigger pond. He has since achieved an enormous level of success as a session and touring drummer, as well as with his own musical projects and as a clinician.
“I wanted to be in a place with more opportunities and more visibility. I’m proud to wave the Aussie flag, but it’s really about the music and finding new challenges”. – Virgil Donati in Clark, Blanche. “Drumming Home Success.” Herald Sun May 2001.
Dennis Chambers, Simon Phillips, Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Mangini, Marco Minneman, Thomas Lang, Steve Smith, Terry Bozzio, Dave Weckl, Kenwood Denard, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Peter Erskine, John “J.R.” Robinson, Dave Abbruzzese and Alex Van Halen, are some of Virgil’s favorite drummers.
As a studio musician, Virgil Donati has taken part in some very cool projects. In 1992, he worked on the Australian stadium tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, which featured some of the biggest names in the Australian rock scene playing leading roles. Before going on tour, Virgil recorded drums for Jesus Christ Superstar: The Album, released in that same year. In 2004, Virgil played drums for four of the songs of the official soundtrack for the movie Alfie. The tracks were “Lonely Without you”, “Darkness Of Your Love”, “Oh Nikki” and “Counting The Days”. Throughout his career he has worked with artists/bands like Steve Vai, Josh Stone, Terminal, Soul Sirkus, Joel Hoekstra, and Jon Stevens, among many other. If you want to know more about some of the recordings he has been a part of, check Virgil Donati’s discography on his personal website.
Like many other artists, the need to express himself has taken Virgil to work on various projects of his own. Besides touring with his first rock band, Taste, Virgil recorded two albums with them – Tickle Your Fancy and Knights of Love. During the 1980s, Virgil Donati drummed for the Melbourne-based jazz-rock fusion band Changes, which later became known as Loose Change. They did residency at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, Australia and recorded a live album called Live at the Grainstore.
In the mid-1980s, Virgil Donati joined a band called The Cutters. After changing their name to The State and releasing Elementary (1988), the band went through another name change. They finally settled on the name Southern Sons. In 1990 they released their self-titled album, which went on to sell over double platinum in Australia. They edited two more albums – Nothing but the Truth (1992) and Zone (1996) – which weren’t as successful. By the time Southern Sons released their last album they were already falling apart. It was after the band disbanded that Virgil went on to the United States to pursue his musical aspirations.
After recording drums for keyboardist Derek Sherinian’s debut solo album Planet X in 1999, Virgil was approached by him to form a band, recruiting guitarist Tony MacAlpine latter on. The group is known as Planet X. They have since released four albums – Universe (2000), Live From Oz (2002), Moon Babies (2002), and Quantum (2007).
Other noteworthy projects Virgil Donati has worked on as a band member are Bunny Brunel’s CAB, Seven The Hardway, Ring Of Fire and On The Virg. He recorded the drum tracks for three albums of the The Ring Of Fire project – The Oracle (2002), Dreamtower (2003), and Lapse of Reality (2004). They also recorded a live CD and DVD on their third live concert – Live in Tokyo (2002). In 2009, Virgil Donati contributed drums for his first album with CAB – Theatre de Marionettes. The next year, Seven The Hardway released their self-titled debut album.
Besides his band projects, Virgil has also released albums under his name. His first one was called Stretch (1995). It was designed as a sampler for the debut issue of the Australian magazine Drumscene. The publisher for that magazine approached Virgil with the idea of making solo album out of the sampler. Just Add Water was the follow up to this album and was released in 1997.
Virgil Donati is not only an in demand drummer and musician, but also a in demand teacher and clinician. Since the 1980s he has devoted some of his time to create educational products where he could share his very innovative approaches to drumming. His first videos came out in 1989 and 1991, respectively known as Obsessive Rhythms and Power Drumming. Virgil Donati’s next educational products would only be released in the twenty-first century. The first one, a play-along pack entitled Virgil Donati Ultimate Play-Along (2005) featuring some of Virgil’s most studied drum tracks from the albums Serious Young Insects (On The Virg) and Universe (Planet X). His last one – Double Bass Drum Freedom (2009) – sheds light on all the exercises Virgil Donati has developed through the years for expanding his foot independence, control and chops. Virgil Donati is also offering online video drum lessons with various camera angles and downloadable charts. You can subscribe to the lessons by going to Virgil’s Master Class webpage.
As a clinician, Virgil Donati has played in some of the greatest drum festivals on the planet. In 1997, he took part of the Modern Drummer Festival. His performance was captured on video and can be watched on the Modern Drummer Festival 1997 DVD. Virgil has played on the The Ultimate Drummers Weekend, the biggest drum festival in Australia, on several occasions. In 2002, his performance on that festival was captured on video and can be enjoyed on The Ultimate Drummers Weekend – 10th Anniversary Edition DVD (2002). He has also worked festivals like the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) and the Montreal Drum Fest, among many others. You can check other DVDs with live performances from Virgil Donati here.
Virgil Donati is not only an innovator as a drummer but also as an inventor. He has collaborated with some of the companies he endorses for the creation of drum products. In 1999, Vater Drumsticks came out with its last inception of Virgil’s signature drumstick the Assault Drumstick. In 2000, Sabian Cymbals unveiled the Virgil Donati’s signature Saturation Crashes, available in 16″, 17″, 18″ and 19″ sizes. Sabian has also developed prototypes of a Saturation hi-hat and ride, but have not launched them to the general public. In 2005, Pearl Drums launched the Virgil Donati’s signature snare drum.
“It’s not about throwing phrases together in any combination we want, but about following and availing ourselves of the true idiom of the music we play. That is what I believe. But here is the paradox: We hear this almost to the point where we are led to believe anything interesting and colored with technical skill takes from the dignity of our profession. We’re at a point where it is almost wrongdoing to have chops! And perhaps, it even earns you a lack of credibility. Look out for the Groove Police – they take no prisoners!” – Virgil Donati in Kerr, Mackenzie. “The Power Chops Sensation From Down Under.” Stick It! Magazine February 1998.
In some of the bios on this website we talk a lot about groove playing and practicing, and about the important of groove on the overall scheme of music. This statement made by Virgil Donati is not a counterpoint to the importance of groove, it serves as a kind of warning sign to the musical dangers of not adding color to your music because of some biased, and some times, extreme notions about what you, as a drummer, have to play.
It’s important to play for the music and to respect it, but that doesn’t mean some of the more technical things you have learned, or some licks or cool nuances can’t be added to the music you’re playing. A drum set is as musical as one makes it to be, it’s not just a percussion instrument that is used to glue a band together and give a song a pulse. What makes a good drummer is being able to play something that makes the song more exciting and inviting to the listener. So the number of notes or what you play is not really important. What’s important is how what you play works with the song.
This comes to remind us all of another aspect about drumming and music. This is an art form. There is no right or wrong. There is only your right and your wrong. The day you get to free yourself of those conceptual shackles is the day you start to create freely and to explore the infinite potential of your instrument and of your own musicality. Most of the times, drummers are taken with the idea that less is more, and although that can be a true statement, sometimes less is really just that, less, and adds nothing to a song. So always think critically when working on a drum part, play what feels right for you without disregarding the song.
Don’t ever be afraid to explore new possibilities, it will make you that much of a better musician. The concepts Virgil Donati has been working on for the last years are complex. But his philosophy is simple. Virgil wants to be free to play exactly what his mind wants to at a given time, he’s looking for more expressiveness. Having this in mind is one of the things that has made Virgil Donati push the boundaries of what it’s possible to play with a drum set. The kind of rhythmical richness he can add to a song are beyond the scope of most drummers. His way of thinking about the drum set has helped him move forward in the world of rhythm and music by exploring uncharted territories. Now let’s take a look at the technical aspects of Virgil Donati’s playing.
It’s quite hard to watch him play and not be totally mesmerized by the way he uses his feet in conjunction with his hands. Everyone talks about Virgil’s foot technique, about his great facility of playing a very fast double stroke roll with the feet, his ability to play rudiments with the feet, and his rhythmic vocabulary. Still, the most fantastic thing about his foot technique is really how he’s able to play with such a great level of control and at the same time exhibit an extreme level of independence between his four limbs. If you’re looking to study a drummer with a lot of independence, then Virgil Donati is the guy for you. Check the tracks “Dog Boots” (Planet X) and “Alien Hip-Hop” (On The Virg) for some very cool double bass drum ostinato patterns.
Just so that you can get an idea of how his mind works, Virgil Donati can play a double paradiddle between his left foot on the hi-hat pedal and the left hand on the hi-hat, while keeping a steady single paradiddle between the right foot on the bass drum and the right arm on the snare and toms. He can also reverse this pattern, playing the single paradiddle with the left side of his body while playing the double paradiddle with the left side. This way you get to play, what Virgil calls, a “Layered Groove” with on side of your body playing in a two feel, while the other side plays in a triplet feel. Achieving this level of independence is the work Virgil has been developing for a very long time.
His interest in odd times coupled with his extreme independence gives shape to some of the most sick and mind twisting odd time playing you’ll ever hear. He can play different time signatures at the same time with different parts of his body, while keeping a steady flow in the music. The songs “Pyramids of Mars” and “Native Metal” from On The Virg are a great example of songs with multi-layered odd time signatures, metric modulation and beat displacement. Check the music of Planet X for more advanced odd time signature playing.