Versatile and ubiquitous: Vinnie Colaiuta plays pop, jazz, rock, R&B, and more, both as a renowned studio musician and an experienced concert performer. He seems to play everything and, recently, seems to be playing it everywhere. Whether working with Bill Evans, or on Lee Ritenour's new solo album, or on the new movie soundtrack to "Queen of the Damned," or in Nashville, he has the type of ear that other drum pros envy. And his equipment proves it. We sat down with Vinnie and talked about gear, talent, perseverance, cymbal construction, and the drummer's art.
GC: How long have you been playing Zildjian cymbals?
Vinnie: Ever since I actually started buying cymbals. When I got my first pro kit, it was Zildjian. It's always been Zildjian since my first exposure. It goes back as far as my association with drums and awareness of things.
GC: What is your current setup?
Vinnie: My current setup is not exactly 100% carved in stone. But, basically it is a lot of A-Customs. I'll go between a combination of A-Customs and Ks depending on what I'm doing. I find that with those two cymbal lines I can pretty much get what I need. I usually use either 13"K-Zildjians, that I've had for a long, long time or I'll use a13" or 14" Mastersound hi-hat. And usually I use the A-Custom splashes, an 8 or a 10--or at least have one 8. I like to use 17" and 15" crashes: 17" on the left and a15" on the right with a large one off to the far right. I also like to use a 22" A-Custom ride. Sometimes I'll use a Ping ride and sometimes I'll use a regular A-Custom ride of the new series. I find them to be a bit more transparent now. I would not have used a Ping cymbal necessarily before, but now I find them to be friendlier and so I'll use that, either a 22" A-Custom or a 22" K. I usually gravitate between those two cymbals. And I use a 22" china trash off to the left, which I just like having and I like the sound of. The thing about the ride cymbals is, if I use a regular A-Custom, I find that I can lay into it and get a little more spread, but it's still controlled. With the new A-Customs, it's like they're more there. They've gone to another level of transparency and quickness of the crashes. It's just a really observable refinement that I can hear.
GC: Were you very much involved with the development of the A-Custom line?
Vinnie: Yeah. I was actually doing a clinic at GC Chicago and we went to a friend's house, who is a great composer. He had some drums and he had a 20" ride cymbal, which is probably circa 1960s A-Zildjian ride, which now belongs to me--it was bequeathed to me. Basically, I called Zildjian and told them that I had an idea I wanted to throw by them. And they said, "Let's go for it." I felt that the A-Line had drifted a bit from the original way that it was and I wanted to see it go back to the way that they were back then. So we wanted to recapture that. Their cymbals had gotten thicker and their general base line of A cymbals were much more thicker and rocky. I would've liked to see it go back to the way they were more in the 60s, but more contemporary, so we put our heads together and that's how the A-Customs were born.
GC: Why, was it Zildjian that brought you into playing that particular line of cymbals verses any other brand out there?
Vinnie: I think that after having been exposed to them for all those years and hearing music that I loved being played on those cymbals and then playing them myself, I just loved them. They not only sounded great, but they felt great to play. They still do. They always do. So that's a big one for me.
GC: Have you tried others?
Vinnie: Oh yeah, it's difficult to escape that. At one point I remember playing another company's hi- hat and it cracked straight up the cymbal. That never happened to me with a Zildjian cymbal unless it was from excessively hard playing or just normal wear and tear or just abuse. They have a particular kind of richness to them and a warmth that has to do with the way they're built and the kind of metals involved. They've always been pleasant to my ear. They'll listen to you and they can pretty much make whatever you want. I just love them, I can always get what I want out of the cymbals to service the music. I feel that they're the best for me.
GC: Tell us about Zildjian's new A-Custom line, the new fast crashes and medium ride.
Vinnie: Oh man, it's like the A has gone to another level. The key word is transparency. What I mean by that is, you don't usually get stuck hearing a particular overtone series that may get in the way. You can discern the pitch difference but they're transparent, so that from a recording standpoint, they're friendlier in the track and in the room they take up in a track. The response is just beautiful, the decay time on those crashes, the way that the overtone series has been smoothed out is a sure bet, especially in a recording situation. It's a refinement. I'm not sure how they did it, but it is nothing short of brilliant. My involvement was more conceptual than hands on.
GC: You have a very close relationship with the Zildjian family I imagine. Can you comment on this?
Vinnie: Yes I do. I just love them. When you have an instrument that you love and then you see what the people who are actually making the instrument are like, it makes it that much better. It also makes sense to me to see that they put that kind of love into their instrument. I can't say enough about them, they make the best cymbals and they're just the best people. It's doubly great. There are instances where you see people who may be one of your favorite musicians and when you meet them, it's a little disappointing. Sometimes I wonder how they can make such beautiful music, but be so cold. I've come to realize that it's because that's the only way the person knows how to communicate. When you find that a person is also a heart-warming person, it's satisfying to you and it's a blessing to you. By the same token, knowing the Zildjian family and knowing how they are as people is heart warming.
GC: So what are you working on now and what are your latest projects?
Vinnie: Well, I've done some recording in New York and in L.A. on Bob James' latest solo record. I recorded on a new Bill Evans record. I'm working with an artist on Sony. I'm working with an artist from England who was in a band called Broth, they were a huge international group. I'm not sure that they were that big in America, but in Europe and beyond they were humongous. I also worked on Lee Ritenour's new solo album. I've worked on a record in Nashville for an artist called Jessica Andrews. I've been working on a record with Jack Russell, the lead singer from Great White. I'm on the soundtrack to this movie called, "Queen of the Damned." I don't know if it's in the theaters yet or if it's about to come out, but it was a soundtrack written by Richard Gibbs and Jonathan Davis from Korn. So that's a nice cross section of stuff. I've also been working on a record for Olivia D'Abo who is doing her first solo album right now. Oh, also I have recorded some tracks on Robben Ford's solo record. Robben, Jimmy Haslip and I did a project recently called "Jing Chi" for Shrapnel Metal Records. Basically, Jimmy had talked to Shrapnel Metal Records and said why don't you do a record. So we got together and we wrote some stuff and went into the studio and just had some fun and did our thing. It was great. Those guys are brilliant musicians and dear friends that I've known for a long time and it's a real honor and a thrill to be able to do that with them.
GC: Is there significance to the album name, "Jing Chi"?
Vinnie: I think it's an Eastern based title, where you know "chi" in Eastern philosophy is a philosophical, conceptual descriptive of the all pervasive energy, of an all pervasive type of energy and/or life force. And "chi" is the Chinese descriptive of that. I'm not exactly sure what word "jing" prefacing the word "chi" means in conjunction with that, as I'm not actually fluent in Chinese, but I know it actually relates to that. We thought it was a pretty cool title. Robben actually brought it up and we said, "Hey, that's really a nice sounding name."
GC: When you're playing at the Baked Potato, who are you sitting in with?
Vinnie: At the Baked Potato we have a band that doesn't really have a static name, but it's myself, Greg Mathieson, Abe Leboriel, Sr. and Michael Landau. We play there randomly. We've been doing that for a couple of years now and we recorded a CD. It's a really fun band, a group of guys that I'm very comfortable with, who are my dear friends that I love very dearly. That makes a huge difference because it's about trust. They're brilliant, brilliant musicians. It's a great gift to me to be able to play with them.
GC: What is your kit comprised of and why do you use what you use?
Vinnie: My kit is comprised of Gretsch drums. I play Gretsch drums because they're my favorite sounding drums and I love the way they feel. For me, the Gretsch-Zildjian combination is really the ticket. I play them because they're my voice and it's important to me to honor what my voice represents with the best sounding and feeling instrument. I can't say enough about how wonderful the Gretsch family is. Those people are very good to me. They're just awesome folks. When I sit down and play those Zildjian cymbals and I play those Gretsch drums, it feels really good. It's not just the pleasure principle thing. It's more than a simplistic "ah" like the satisfaction you get when you ate a great sandwich or something to quell your appetite for pleasure. It's something that you know will give you a lasting joy that has inherent quality that will really be the medium for your voice to output. People can say whatever they want about it all being in your hands and how you can make anything sound great. If you want a particular sound to come out, you need an instrument that's going to do that. That's what Zildjian cymbals and Gretsch drums do for me.
GC: In other words you want an instrument that fits the musician?
Vinnie: You don't want to fight the instrument. You don't compete music. You don't even work it. You play it. It's an artistic expression. If people denounce that and disagree, it's because they're placing too much importance on the aspect of what developed skill means to manifest that art. The number one thing is you glorify God with it and the second most important thing is: what are you saying?
GC: How do you convey what you want to say?
Vinnie: There has to be truth contained in your statements. If you're going to be persuasive then you have to be emotive. Whether or not you're being persuasive is sort of like if you want to dazzle someone with technique, you can persuade a certain aspect of their nature. If you're faster or louder than the next guy and you have deeper vocabulary then you are going to take food off the table or you're genetically going to be superior. You may take their life away from them and be king of the mountain. What if you did that and eliminated everyone else? If that were the case, you'd be alone on your mountain. Who would you communicate with if you didn't have anyone else to bully because you defeated everybody? People have to understand the chain of events and thoughts and motives as to why these behaviors were accepted and what part of human nature they're appealing to. It's absurd. Why not instead just send a message of love through the music and just love one another instead of trying to destroy. You're not proving anything. There's room for everybody. Everybody has something to say. I see people who are brilliant and have a huge vocabulary and more technique than humanly necessary, who in certain contextual situations would not be able to make it happen with conviction.
GC: What's the coolest and most recent addition to your drum set?
Vinnie: I got a God Bless America drum that's just awesome. It's an addition that the Gretsch family is putting out that I think is a great statement revolving around the sentiment of America in the aftermath of 9-11. It's just beautiful. It actually has fabric around the drum shell but has a very patriotic and emblematic look about it. It says "God Bless America" and I love it very much.
GC: Do you take a different approach to choosing cymbals and drums for recording than you do for live application?
Vinnie: No, I don't separate the two. The only difference is that in a recording situation, you know that you're going to document it forever and you also know that microphones hear things differently than people do; however, that's changing now. When you are playing you're just going to play--it's just that when you're live, you can't just stop and punch it. I just see it as playing music and because having been involved in a recording medium for so long my developed instincts have become honed to a fine level whereby I understand and get into the music and document it. It's like your instincts become developed to the point where you just are able to do the right thing quickly and so that carries over into a live situation as well.
People and engineers have come to realize that the drum set is an instrument, where you might hear some ringing, toms ringing, but when the drums are tuned right and the drummer plays in balance that all goes into track, the whole side of the instrument moves that air and all the overtones and that's what you get as opposed to having to strive for 100% isolation. That's an effect and that's an option now. Or you could play really soft because we'll compress the drums and they'll be really in your face. You may not be able to have that effect live, but by the same token if you're going to play that kind of song live you have to approach it that way because that's what's conceptually right for the song because if you get the drums too loud, the attitude is going to be too hard. So now if you're playing that way live you're moving more air and it may not sound as in your face because you have the natural reverb of the acoustic space around you. But you have to play it that way anyway because it's right for the song. In a studio you can get away with that kind of stuff because you can control the environment. So rather than just playing a different way because you have to, you have the freedom to play a certain way to convey the essence of the concepts of the song because the acoustic environment can be controlled.
GC: Say I have a basic set of cymbals and I want to expand it, what would you suggest to expand into your setup?
Vinnie: Well one thing you can do, depending on the kind of music you play, is to have an extra small snare drum and a small set of hats. I'd say maybe a splash or two--they're nice to have. It kind of depends on the stuff you do, the way that I try to work it, aside from having extra hi-hats and an extra snare, is to cover the spectrum. I like having the china and at least one splash, but I also have a third crash cymbal on the right that's larger and thin for mallet rolls. If I were playing ballads, then I would want a slowly explosive low pitched crash or something that had that kind of lower, slower effect. So if I wanted a larger, thicker sounding crash--thicker in terms of its lower timbre not in a thickness of the cymbal--I would use a larger crash cymbal on the far right for that reason. Meanwhile by having the left and right crashes, the splash for punctuation, a versatile set of hi-hats, and the china, I can get the maximum amount of versatility for the most situations.
GC: Is there anything else you would recommend to a young drummer to expand their kit?
Vinnie: That's a tough one. I think it's really individual and again depends on what you normally do. I use four toms, two racks, and two floors, and I can get quite a bit of a tonal spectrum out of that just by how I tune and then how I play. Some people might want to have a timbale or something on the side. Another thing is you can either have triggers or not or have some sort of triggering pad device if you were going to integrate electronics. That's an area that's been sort of shifting lately and has picked up renewed interest. It's a bit of a miasma now, but I think it's coming into another realm again as technology is expanding, there seems to be a renewed interest in digital drums. Although for me, they are one thing and acoustic drums are another. But it's a subjective thing. For a basic drum kit, I would look for something that the versatility would come from the tuning and having enough instruments and sound sources at your disposal that can be varied and used in different situations.
GC: Do you have a music writing routine and what instrument do you typically write on?
Vinnie: I don't really have a routine, but I use a sequencer and sometimes I'll use a keyboard. There's no sequence of events as to what comes first, the melody or groove or whatever. My performance instrument is the drum, not any other instrument. I use the keyboard just compositionally. I don't have keyboard skills and I think you're either going to spend time developing skills on another instrument or you're going to concentrate on your writing. For me the bottom line is getting your ideas out however you do it because at the end of the day the composition will be valid and aesthetically good or it will not. At the end of day, if you write a composition and use the sequencer and synthesizers or a piano and a tape machine or sheet music, then get it out--the composition will reveal itself. Its quality will stand on its own two feet and be self-evident. Whatever means or medium you use to get your ideas out reveals your musical mind.
I also use a keyboard controller. I use a Macintosh. And I use Mark of the Unicorn Digital Performer, which I swear by. I've been using Motu stuff for years. I just love it. I think the Motu stuff is the bomb. It's helped me realize my ideas really well. Now being able to record audio and MIDI is great, because with all the flexibility you can really make things sound the way that you want. So that's really the crux of the matter.
GC: You've played in groups that cover a range in styles and genres, are there differences in how you approach playing different situations?
Vinnie: The differences for me are really just trying to get inside the music. I will only bury my sound sources to a point, usually. I don't get real radical. I use my basic kit and physiologically I try to not change that much. I don't suddenly start playing with heavier sticks turned over backwards and playing match grip and as loud as I can in order to get an effect. I will bend to a certain amount in order to convey my concept.
GC: What kind of home studio do you have and what's in it?
Vinnie: I have a Yamaha O2R 20-bit Adat, a Motu Audio 2408, a Motu Midi Timepiece, and a rack of TC Electronics gear that's really great. I also have a Roland JV-2080, a Waldorf Micro Wave XT and an Akai CD3000XL sampler. I have a Macintosh Titanium PowerBook G4 with Digital Performer 3.0, as well. I have a small remote controller if I'm just sitting around, wherever in any location, called an Oxygen 8. I have Propellerheads Reason software in there. I just bought Motu 896 and a Glyph Technologies M-Project 40-Gig hard drive at GC Hollywood. I'm actually just configuring this stuff right now so that you can actually record a whole drum kit into that stuff. It has eight discrete mic pre's with phantom power that you can plug a whole kit into and record right into Performer in any location. That's pretty powerful stuff, a 24bit 96K. It's cutting edge stuff and I think it's giving people a lot more flexibility. It's amazing because there are so many things out there now and it's incredible to me how one platform seems to take over in the marketplace when in effect the things that the Motu stuff does is just amazing and the audio sounds as good as anything. Also, the MIDI stuff is the most concise, the program is aesthetically beautiful to look at, and it's friendly. It's just really well laid out and 3.0 is stable. That's what I use and I am a big fan.
GC: What about mic'ing your drums, do you have a preference on what to use?
Vinnie: Yeah, I use Rode microphones. I use them because they translate the sound of my drums the truest. I have them on my drums and when I started using them and liking my drums with it, it was like the difference between having a blanket on the speakers and taking the blanket off. That's how good they are: night and day. Rode mics for me are really the best bang for the buck. And buck aside, they're just really the highest quality stuff, from the construction. They do it all in house and the quality control is amazing. Sonically, these mics are really warm and musical. If you just soloed the overhead, all the tone of the toms, the entire frequency panorama of the drum set is faithfully reproduced with warmth and air as opposed to only hearing the cymbals, the transient, the top end stuff. You hear it all, you hear everything. And so I use a combination of their mics. I have NTKs, NT3s, and the new tube mics. I can't say enough about them. I swear by them, I really do. I swear by the Rode mics.
GC: How do you warm up before a performance?
Vinnie: Nowadays I shake my hands out a little bit, maybe do some real relaxed singles, medium speed singles, full stroke singles, some doubles, and a couple of flams. I just do a few different kinds of strokes to get my arms and wrists loose. I'll stretch my calves and ankles and do some heel toe stuff. Sometimes I just sit down and hit it and try to operate from the perspective of relaxation and let it go from there, warm up as I go without necessarily hitting the ceiling. But that's about it. I've made the mistake of over warming up before and blowing my chops out. I don't want to do that anymore.
GC: Do you practice a lot these days and how do you practice?
Vinnie: No I don't practice as much as I probably should, but I'm working a lot. I'll either just do some basic technical things or I'll just sit down and whatever comes out. Some stream of consciousness stuff and if something sticks, I'll just try to sit there with an open mind. If I find something that is interesting repeated a few times, it just seems to stick to the psyche. By doing that, the brain and the muscles can integrate themselves and have a little familiarity with doing something different. It's a little different for me nowadays. I don't really work stuff out as much as I use to. I'll go through phases. Right now, nothing specific really. Because I'm working a lot, I'm just really concentrating on the music.
GC: Do you have any thoughts on a practice regiment and is it important for every drummer at some stage to practice like crazy?
Vinnie: I think that if it's important for every drummer to have an iron clad rule at some point in his life and to practice like crazy, if we understand what "like crazy" means, I would say no. Sometimes you can get into a neurotic obsessive thing about it just because you think you have to do it rather than wanting to do it and you worry about getting to a certain level and that's your motivating factor. Some people may argue and say what difference is your motivating factor as long as you get results. I would argue that what you're doing when you're in that mind set is: you're not relaxed, you're worried, you're doing it for the wrong reason and you could sit there and continually repeat the wrong things and do something the wrong way for nine hours. I think it's just better to know that there are certain things that are beneficial to you to have certain skills developed and that it is a process. Enjoy the process and realize that if you have good form and you're not doing anything really physiologically twisted, the way you do something technically should service your concept. Not the other way around. It should service your concept and so you should strive to conceptually understand why you're doing something on the instrument and have your technique develop around that . Otherwise, quantitative skills are a measurable amount of speed and flexibility to an extent after which doesn't serve a pragmatic purpose in situations. It could be a point of diminishing returns. But concept and certain things like developing a good innate sense of time, internalizing time, having good form on the instrument, having a specific kind of touch, and doing things repetitively over a time-event oriented process, you physically become physiologically comfortable with the instrument. I think the battle is getting as good as we can as fast as we can and comparing ourselves unfavorably for the wrong reason as opposed to knowing what it is we want to do, what it is we need to do individually, and what our objective is in the musical collective.
GC: What's your advice to a young drummer who might be trying to model their career after yours? Is there a secret to your success?
Vinnie: The only secret I know to my success is that I've been blessed by the grace of God and I've tried to be a faithful steward of what he's blessed me with. My advice to someone trying to model my career is that they don't really know me or the ins and outs of why and how I got to where I am, what it entails, or what my life is like. Rather than trying to emulate some else's life, it's good to use someone as a role model for inspiration to a degree. But be yourself because at the end of the day, after all your development, you'll come full circle and all you got is you. No matter where you go, there you are. And really the thing that is going to separate you from others, aside from certain amounts of developed ability, is your identity. Also, be honest with yourself and know that if you have something to offer, really know what it is that you have to offer and believe in it. Believe in it and just keep going.
GC: Do you shop at Guitar Center at all and what do you think of it?
Vinnie: Yes I do. I shop at Guitar Center and I think GC is amazing because of the wide variety of services they offer. I've known the people at GC Hollywood for twenty years and the sales staff is always willing to help me after hours. They give me great deals. If something doesn't work and I need to bring something back, they honor that. They'll steer me in the right direction, give me good advice, and they're friendly and supportive. You can always get what you need there.