Steve Gadd

This month we’re going to revisit the cover interview I did of the legendary Steve Gadd in my days as a journalist for Rhythm Magazine, way back in 2002…

For this interview I had lunch with Steve Gadd at his hotel in Manchester. He was touring with Eric Clapton and suffering from a heavy cold, and the interview started a little slowly. But as lunch and the interview progressed he perked up and it was amazing to sit with Steve Gadd one to one and talk about different aspects of his career. One of my abiding memories is that he was also gracious enough to ask about what I did and was genuinely interested in The Lion King gig, which his friend Tommy Igo was drumming in on Broadway.

Groove is in the Heart

For nigh on thirty years the name Steve Gadd has been synonymous with the groove – sorry, the groove. From his seminal work in the jazz world with artists like Chick Corea and Stuff to his more mainstream classics with Steely Dan, Eric Clapton and Paul Simon, Steve’s playing has always been integral to the music he’s been a part of. The man has a rare feel, and Rhythm is proud to have bagged a rare interview…


Getting hold of Steve Gadd is a little like diving for pearls; exciting, nerve wracking, slightly perilous, and rarely successful. But when you finally do succeed, all the effort, endeavour and patience are immediately forgotten, and you are left elated by the prize – pearls of wisdom from one of the biggest influences in the history of drums.

For the uninitiated, Steve Gadd is regarded by most of today’s top players as the ultimate groove master, with a style that is unique and a feel that touches on the divine. He may be Gadd almighty to a whole generation of players, but he’s not always been an angel; a long and well documented struggle with drugs and alcohol brought on by a ridiculous workload was eventually kicked in the late eighties, when his love for music and playing were rejuvenated. Testament to his standing in the league of drummers can be seen in the fact that along with John Bonham, Steve came joint first as the drummer with the most beats in Rhythm’s Top 100 Beats of all time.

The last time we tried to hook up with Steve was on his four day visit to the UK towards the end of last year. Unfortunately, as he was in the studio with Eric Clapton by day and gigging with Paul Simon by night, his spare time was non-existant, (though that gives you a good idea of how ‘in demand’ he still is). Happily he came back for a longer stint earlier this year to tour the UK with Clapton, giving us the chance to bag our man, though even that took some fairly mammoth organisation.

When we meet at last Steve is looking tired and things are a little slow at first – he’s been away from home for a couple of months and the flu bug has just gone through the band. Humble, a little nervous, pensive and very deliberate in his answers, things soon warm up, and it’s only after we’ve been speaking for the best part of an hour that we discover why he’s such a hard man to tie down…!

“I don’t really like doing interviews, it’s a funny situation to be in. You know, for me to start talking about me, if I started to do a lot of these things, and started to really believe in what I was saying, I might be in trouble, you know what I mean! My best days are the days when I wake up realising that I don’t really know the answers and I’ve got something to learn, and I don’t try to run the whole show. Those are better days for me.”

That was at the end of our chat, though as you’ll see, he certainly does have plenty of the answers! For now, let’s start at the beginning of our one to one with the man behind the drum…

Rhythm: How are you?

Steve Gadd: “Yeah, I’m good, you know, I’m out here, the band is good, it’s nice to be on a world tour working with a good band. Nathan East is playing bass, there’s Andy Fairweather Low on guitar, David Sancious is playing keyboard, myself, Paulinho da Costa is playing percussion, and for the Albert Hall and the concerts in the UK the Impressions are singing background. And Eric of course. So it’s a great tour.”

What material are you doing setwise?

“We’re sort of working it out now, but we’re doing a little bit of everything. We’re doing some Unplugged things, we’re doing some blues, some older things and a couple of tracks from the new album that hasn’t come out yet. There’s also some things from Pilgrim, so it really covers a lot of ground.”

Prior to this you did the Paul Simon tour, how did that go?
“That went very well too, it was very well received. He has a new album out and he went out to get behind the album, so it was good.”

You’ve worked with Paul Simon for over twenty five years now, and his material has evolved with many new influences. When he brings you a song does he give you an idea of what he wants, or do you have a free reign?

“It varies. He’s come with songs that we’ve worked on and then we’ve gone in and just recorded. On this album we went in and recorded drums and percussion, and just different grooves, and he would sort of direct us as to how long this section should be, now let’s go here. But there’s different ways of doing it with Paul. There’s no magic formula, it’s trial and error.”

It’s interesting you worked with the percussion early on. On the new album you leave a lot of space for the percussion for fills, like on the title track, ‘You’re The One.’ Is that orchestrated before hand or does it just happen?

“Paul sort of orchestrates the whole thing. He’s very good at taking something and then using it very tastefully, and that’s the way he did it. And now, with modern technology, with Protools you can sort of piece things together, so some of it was done that way as well.”

Do you enjoy working with percussionists?

“It depends on the percussionist, that’s really it. If you’re working with someone that’s a good percussionist and good musician, and that would mean someone who listens real hard and leaves some space, then it’s enjoyable. If it’s a situation where you’ve got to fight for a space then it’s not too much fun, it makes the job more difficult. So it’s like anything else, if the people can play then it’s enjoyable.”

If we can go back to when you started as a drummer, you had a very varied musical education in music school, college, the army, with the orchestra etc. – how important do you think that was for your career?

“I think it was important for me because in classical stuff I learnt not only how to read, but playing in an orchestra and following a conductor, that’s helpful. And the rudimental stuff that I did I’ve been able to apply to different musical situations – I like a wide variety of musical situations, so all that stuff was important for me. Even though there was a big variety when I was young, I was able to enjoy each one, I was able to get into each one. And then after I had a little bit of experience in different fields I sort of gravitated to the one that felt the most comfortable for me. The set of drums was something that I could have more fun spending time with than say timpani or xylophone. But I think I’ve been able to apply all those things, so for me it’s been helpful.”

You mention reading, and according to legend, Donald Fagen was stunned that you sight read the whole of Aja on the second take – how necessary has reading been for your work?

“At different times during my recording career it’s been very important. It’s not important for every type of situation, but like for the stuff I did for Chick Corea it was very important for me to able to read. Things with Bob James, a lot of those kind of things, recording jingles and any kind of film work. Plus a lot of fusion and more complicated types of music, it was very important, because there was no way to memorise that kind of stuff. For the more pop stuff a lot of it’s just a lead sheet, you don’t have to read drum parts, but to be able to do it, it’s helpful.”

Do you have to read much these days?

“I don’t do as much now, but if it came up I could. I’m glad that I can do it, I think it’s good that I can read and I’m glad that I spent the time learning. It wasn’t easy. The other thing that I learned when studying is that as difficult as it was trying to learn how to read, at one point, as confusing as it all seems, in a flash it all starts to get clear. I don’t know when that happens, but that’s a nice thing for me to understand about the way I learned: that if I keep at it long enough sooner or later it’s going to get clearer.”

Does that apply to everything?

“It definitely applies to the reading. I don’t know how long I would spend doing something that I wasn’t understanding if it wasn’t that important to me, if it wasn’t to do with music. But if I really wanted to do something, I’d know that if I kept at it long enough, sooner or later, if it was important enough to me, I’d get it and be able to do it. If you just keep at it long enough and you want to do it bad enough, it’ll happen. The thing is, it doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re looking for a quick fix, if you’re looking to be able to do something overnight, it’s not going to happen. But if you spend the time at it then the rewards are pretty high.”

Many of the songs you’ve performed on during your career have become regarded as classic drum tracks, such as ‘Aja’ and ‘Fifty Ways.’ When you were originally recording and creating those, were you aware at the time of how revolutionary and important they were from the drumming perspective?

“No, I wasn’t aware at the time, and I’m flattered by the things that people say and how they’ve inspired people, but I don’t even know if I’m aware now, you know what I mean? That stuff just comes out. If it’s in you, sometimes you need people to bring it out of you, so I was lucky enough to be in a situation where the music brought things out of me. I mean Fifty Ways, I used to practice those kind of things as exercises, and it was just luck that I was able to try it on that song and have the producer and Paul say ‘Okay, let’s do that.’ But you don’t even know when you do the track if it’s going to be a hit or not.”

But you must look back with some degree of pride…

“I’m very proud, though I don’t know if I’m as proud as I am grateful for the opportunities. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things with a lot of great people, and that’s something to be grateful for. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve known these people, and that I’m friends with some of them, that’s something that I’m proud of.”

It’s admirable that you’re being so modest, but you’ve actually been quite integral to some of those artists sound and success.

“Yeah, but actually, when you get hired as a musician on a recording session, that can be part of the job. Some jobs can be where you just read the music, other things can be where they want you to come in and offer something creatively. And so for me I consider myself lucky to have had a variety of different situations and the outcomes were pretty cool.”

These days, because you’ve had so many ‘cool outcomes,’ you’re generally asked to do a session because of what you bring to the table. Do you feel any pressure from that?

“I don’t really, because I think the main thing that I bring to the session isn’t any kind of preconception of what I’ve got to do when I get there – the first thing I’ve got to do is to throw all that stuff out and just listen to what the music is on that particular day. Because I’m not going to determine what the music is; it’s going to determine what I do. If I go in there with a clear head then I’ve got a better shot at doing what’s best for the music. So the main challenge is to get out of my own way, and just listen to the music before I play it, and listen to what people are verbalising that they want, and try to interpret that musically. Because it’s about me giving them what they need, it’s not about me getting off.”

Though quite often that’s what they might want from you.

“I don’t know, I think that maybe years ago there was that sort of attitude where they wanted that kind of energy, but now a lot of the work I’m doing they want you to listen and play the music, and I like that. I like it when it’s okay for me to just go and play.”

When you just play, do you have any kind of spiritual approach towards what you do?

“I believe in a higher power, and what I’ve learned is that spirituality is a lot different to just religion. So I hope that spirituality enters into my playing although it’s not because that’s what I decide to do right before I play as much as hopefully that’s the way I’m trying to live my life. And the playing is an extension of that.”

I remember reading once that seeing Chick Corea play your kit had a profound effect on your approach to playing.

“Yeah, I was playing with Chuck Mangione and Chick Corea, Joe Romano and Frank Pullara was bass player, and Chick and Chucky had been working with Art Blakey’s band, and I’d just been in Rochester. Anyway, I just saw Chick sit down at the drums and he was doing things that Tony Williams did. And to try and figure that out by listening was really difficult, but when you saw someone approach the drums that way, it just opened up a door for me and helped me tremendously.”

We’re mostly aware these days of the mainstream acts you’re working with, like Eric Clapton and Paul Simon. Do you miss the jazz and fusion side of things, or do you still get a chance to play that stuff?

“I’m pretty much happy with what I’m doing. I try to stay focused on what I’m doing while I’m doing it, and I’m feeling pretty fulfilled with the jobs I’m getting. I was doing some stuff with Michel Petrucciani, though he’s not with us any more. I miss him, he was a lot of fun and that was a nice little trio. But I still get a variety of things. The other thing is, if there was anything I really wished I was doing that I’m not doing then I could always put it together myself if I wanted to do it bad enough. So I’m pretty thankful for the work I’m getting, I feel pretty lucky, and I’m happy to be playing with the people I am.”

Ever think about putting a version of the Gadd Gang back together?
“You know I think about it every once in a while, but that thing was with Richard Tee, he was a real good friend of mine; that

group just played itself, it was pretty painless to put together, it was a real natural hang. We were all willing to share everything completely.”

Finally, you’ve worked with so many incredible musicians and artists in your life, is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you’d like to?

“Well, I like Prince, he’s a great artist. But I’m not up on all the new artists. Let me tell you something. If someone is serious about what they’re doing, in other words if they’re doing it from their heart, I’d love to make music with them. It’s not about whether they have a name or not, it’s about where they’re coming from. Because when they’re honest and sincere about their music, it’s a great experience to share with people.”


What kit are you using on the Clapton tour?

“I’m using Yamaha, it’s a 22″ maple bass drum, and I’m using birch toms, 12″, 13″, 14″ and 16″, with standard depths, I don’t like the power ones, and all Remo heads. And I’m using my signature snare drum, I like the steel one.”

And the cymbals?

“Well, I always use Zildjian, I think they’re making great cymbals, I use K crashes, and I try different ones. I like the Pre-aged ones, I’ve got an old K that I use as a ride. They sent me these orchestra cymbals and I’ve been using them for crashes, and the Constantinoples are nice, they’re all fantastic.”

How did you go about developing the signature snares, getting your classic Ludwig 400 sound.

“Well, I tried to get the specs as close to the Ludwig as possible – it was so simple, there was only tension on one side of the drum, and the strainers and the snare holder are very close to the rim so you’re pulling directly, you’re not pulling out, you’re pulling up. It’s basically a simple kind of design, and what I liked was the wide range, you could get that thing to sound crisp and tight or with a few minor adjustments you could get it to be fat and funky sounding. And that’s what I wanted from my Yamaha drum.”


Recommended listening

1. Paul Simon
‘Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’
From Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)
The track that has it all – hi-hat, bass drum, snare, not to mention groove, feel, swing, originality, creativity, individuality… you get the picture

2. Chick Corea
From Leprechaun (1975)
Where, according to Pete Riley, “Steve throws down the guantlet in terms of the Gadd sound and style – really dark cymbals, double ply heads (for jazz!), hip phrasing and grooves.”

3. Steely Dan
From Aja (1977)
The explosive solo in the middle is all the more remarkable for the fact that Steve sight read the piece – adrenaline pumping stuff.

4. Rickie Lee Jones
‘Chuck E’s in Love’
From Rickie Lee Jones (1979)
The Gadd Shuffle coupled with some beautiful pressed rolls and oodles of space adds up to a top Gadd classic

5. Bob James
‘Night On Bald Mountain’
From One (1974)
As Ian Thomas says “ridiculous groove, everything placed exactly right, I put it on and I’m mesmerised…”

6. Stuff
‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’
From Live Stuff (1978)
Vintage Steve Gadd live solo, with his trademark tom flurries, military snare work, and atmosphere assisted by a stack of audience whooping and hollering.

7. Paul Simon
‘Darling Lorraine’
From You’re The One (2000)
The latest Gadd classic, a shuffle with turn arounds on the snare that really punctuate the vocals – musical muscle with consummate dynamics.

8. Steps (no, not that Steps…)
‘Tee Bag’
From Smoking In The Pit (1999)
“The best shuffle ever, and when the snare rolls into the solo on the two, it’s a killer…” (Ian Thomas)

9. Paul Simon
‘Percussion solo’
From Paul Simon’s Concert in Central Park video (1991)
Whilst four Brazilian percussionists go wild all around him, Steve holds down the groove and fires the mood – you can see the passion burning in every muscle.

10. Eric Clapton
‘I Shot the Sherrif ‘
From the Live at Hyde Park video (1996)
The camaraderie between Steve and Eric is electrifying, with Gadd totally animated and driving the song along. The look Clapton gives him after he plays through an eight bar turn around says it all – sheer joy.

5 Facts

1. Steve was born in Rochester, USA in 1945, and started drumming at the age of three, when his drumming uncle, noticing that the young Steve was always tapping, gave him a pair of sticks.

2. Steve’s early influences include Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jack de Johnette, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson.

3. One of Steve’s few unfulfilled ambitions would be to perform with players like Rick Marotta, Jim Keltner, Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl in a drum group. “I haven’t had the time to do it, but it’s always in the back of my mind because I had so much fun playing in corps when I was a kid.”

4. The long list of artists Steve has worked with include Paul McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, Steely Dan, Frank Sinatra, Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, Peter Gabriel, Weather Report, James Brown, David Sanborn, Michael McDonald, Herbie Mann, Al Di Meola, Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, George Benson, Bee Gees, Laurie Andersen…