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August 2009: It's really not much of a surprise that Kenny Aronoff's signature Tama snare drum has been dubbed the "Trackmaster." When you've reached the unfathomable career peak that Aronoff has—nailing countless hit singles and albums, embarking on massive tours and attaining living legend status in the drumming world— you're automatically deputized as the master of cutting any drum track.
Part of his success comes from his persistence and unflinching drive to constantly perform at his best. But it also stems from Aronoff fostering and furthering an excellent attitude about his approach to the kit, the business, the art and the musical community that he supports, which hails back to his upbringing as a schooled, disciplined percussionist.
Growing up in a musical home in Stockbridge, Mass. was part of an early education for Aronoff. However, it was the marching band in the annual Memorial Day parade that served as true inspiration. Aronoff recalls that he would follow the drum line on his bike and observe the group. And when it came time for him to join the school band in the fourth grade, choosing an instrument was incredibly easy.
Getting into a real band wasn't much of head scratcher either. A week after catching the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," Aronoff had formed a band. "All I had was a cymbal and a snare," he recalls of his earliest drum kit. The group played cover songs, winning local talent contests.
But the talent was just beginning to show for Aronoff. Though he was playing in clubs as a teen, Aronoff decided to take formal lessons, studying vibes, timpani and snare drum. The training found the young disciplined drummer woodshedding eight-plus hours each day on all of those plus the drum kit. By the time he was 18, Aronoff was playing five nights a week in a jazz trio and later became a student of legendary percussionist (and drum stick manufacturer) Vic Firth.
After spending a year at the University of Massachusetts, Aronoff spent four years at Indiana University, one of the largest music schools in the nation. "I had tunnel vision and was dedicated to doing the best I could. I always was playing in funk bands, rock bands or jazz bands. At night, I was playing be-bop until three in the morning… I was open to everything."
He went back home to Massachusetts after graduation, where he waited for auditions in orchestras. However, Aronoff says, a turning point in his career came with a quick realization when he got offers to perform both with an orchestra in Quito, Ecuador and with The Jerusalem Symphony. He didn't want to go and instead accepted another call from some musicians he knew from his days back in Bloomington, Indiana. They were inviting him to join their band and Aronoff moved back to the Hoosier State, living in "a rock and roll band house."
After three years with the band, Aronoff planned a move to New York. But two weeks before his move, he learned of John Cougar, who had a hit song on the radio and was opening up for large acts.
"I knew one guy in the band, I said I'd like to audition and they told me to be familiar with the record," he continues. "I practiced six-to-eight hours a day and memorized every single note on that record. I didn't understand the language of the simplicity of John Cougar's music. I thought there were so much hipper fills. I didn't understand that whole Rolling Stones approach of playing the song, playing the music—feel, groove, attitude. I memorized the record and I won the audition. There were 50 drummers and I won, and it took me two years to learn how to play simple and how to service the song."
Aronoff went on to perform with John Cougar (later known as John Mellencamp) for 17 years, performing many hits, including one of the most famous drum fills in rock's history—the slamming tom patterns in the bridge of "Jack and Diane." However, during his time with Mellencamp, he also became known as a session drummer, drumming on other recordings and on the stage with other musicians. In fact, the massive list has since become tough for Aronoff to recall. ("It's who I didn't play with that's easier to name," he says with a laugh.)
However, he notes, there is a stack of notable sessions from the expansive crop. "The scariest [gig] and the one that sticks out the most is playing with the Buddy Rich Big Band," he says. "They wanted me to play on more of a rock thing, but I picked two amazing jazz big band songs." Aronoff also provided the beat behind recordings for Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath), Alice Cooper, Elton John, The Highwaymen, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Jon Bon Jovi's immensely successful song, "Blaze of Glory."
Though he'd cut countless hits, there's one song that Aronoff didn't expect would find his drums blaring all over the radio in 1993: Meatloaf's "I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)." "I thought that would never make it on the radio, 'cause it was 13 minutes. I just laughed. ‘You guys are wasting your money!' [But] it was No. 1 in 15 countries in the same week," he recalls.
Aronoff has played a Tama kit for the past 28 years of his career. His current setups are based around the Starclassic Bubinga and Maple series drums. "Both are just amazing, totally different sounds," he says. "Some people like the maple; it is a bit warmer, it's got attack. The Bubinga is much harder with great low end, and it's very aggressive."
So which does he prefer? "When I go into the recording studio, most of the time, I start with the Bubinga," he says. "I use the 24x14" Bubinga kick drum. I like the 24" drum size because it gives a lot of low end. The 14" depth makes it a little tighter sounding." Aronoff says that great drum sound also has to do with drum tuning and performance. "I can sound like Kenny Aronoff on any drum set that I hit because of the way I hit," he says. "I'm well known for the 12 and 10" combination on the top, or a 13 and 10". My first rack tom is bigger than my second rack tom. That's something I started in 1982 because John Mellencamp wanted just one rack tom, one floor tom. But as I started doing more and more recordings, I put the 10" over there because it's the least used. So I'll go 12", 10", 14x14" floor, 16x16" floor… I've now gone to using legs. I used to hang 'em, but now I use legs, mostly because you can move them real quick."
Talking snares, there's the aforementioned "Trackmaster," featuring an engraved, black-nickel plated brass shell. "It's basically based on the old Ludwig Black Beauty," he says. "It's a warm but very powerful cracking sound. I have a 5x14" traditional snare drum. I carry four of them that you can tune real low with a Remo Emperor two-ply head, put tape on it, and it sounds like a fat drum—a good drum will sound good no matter where you tune it… You tune it with a coated Ambassador, which is a one-ply head, and give it a standard tuning which gives it a nice open sound. Or you can go up high and now you get that cracking I used to get—right before you choke it—with the Mellencamp records. And if you tune it super high, now you've got the Stewart Copeland thing."
Aronoff also plays the 6.5x14" version, which he uses more as the starting snare drum in the studio. There's also a unique-sized 4x15" snare in his arsenal, which is modeled after a 1920s brass snare.
As for cymbals, Aronoff has everything Zildjian makes, and is currently using the new ReZo series and the A Custom Projection series, including a 21" ride, with 18, 19 or 20" crashes (depending on whether he's in the studio or on stage). Plus he's real fond of the 15" New Beat hi-hats. "I find that the 15s round out the kit better," he says. "I was in Nashville doing this Jake Owen record, and typically you don't use 15" hi-hats in Nashville, but I was listening to the record and noticed the frequencies of the guitars and the hi-hats were all in the same range, and they were kind of canceling each other out. And I felt that the hi-hats and the drum kit were separated. I asked if I could overdub the track with 15" hi-hats, and all of a sudden you've got a lower frequency, and you could hear the three guitars, pedal steel and violin better, and the hi-hats blend into the drum set and sounded like a much more complete sound."
Aronoff has been fitting Remo heads on his kit, including coated Ambassadors on the tops of his toms and clear Ambassadors on the bottom. On tour, he uses coated or clear Emperors as top heads. For his snares, Aronoff uses a coated Ambassador batter head in the studio and switches to a two-ply Emperor head live. His setup also includes signature series Vic Firth sticks, Meinl percussion (he has two signature Meinl cowbells), ddrum triggers, ButtKicker amplifiers and Shure microphones.
Though he's inspired many through his determined work ethic and phenomenal performances, Aronoff keeps an ear to the ground through his involvement in a variety of drummingrelated events, including judging Guitar Center's Drum-Off competition.
"Drum-Off is fantastic for many reasons," he says. "One, it stimulates excitement for drummers, getting young drummers to practice. There aren't as many avenues to play music like there used to be. There were clubs on every corner and you could play in bands all the time. But if you have drummers who love playing drums just because they love playing drums, this is an opportunity for them to practice and get better and there's an outlet and a place for them to perform and compete and really just do it for themselves. It's like practicing football; if you don't play, it's not complete. Here's an opportunity for a drummer to perform and be judged by their peers. It's all good, it's positive, it's testing yourself for life… It's good for the community, wherever the competitions are, to be entertained by all these drummers."
For those seeking to enter the Drum- Off competition this summer, Aronoff offers some advice on impressing the judges. "Typically, when I see the finals, the drummers have amazing technique," he says. "And the hardest thing for people when they have monster chops is to lay down a groove and stay with it for a while. It's like building a cake, you don't just take icing and start squirting it everywhere. To me, the cake is beat, time and groove. And then you decorate that. I would like to see people stretch their performance out by staying more into groove and developing from that."
Aronoff is also one of the counselors at the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp and says that teaching and participating in the Camp is very important. "Three aspects of my life are education, touring and playing in a band, and recording," Aronoff says. "For me, it's the way I learned and it changed my life. It's just a part of what I like to do. I like to give back and share what I've learned. It's kind of the way the world goes around. People help people, they move forward, they help people. I've always loved education. I love working with people. It's fun to share information you already know." Even outside these specific forums, Aronoff is willing to share his advice and stories about professional drumming, as he receives e-mails daily from aspiring studio musicians. However, he's quick to note that the musical landscape has changed since he started.
"I tell people, look, if you're going to come to L.A. or Nashville, you've gotta give yourself five or seven years," Aronoff says. "Just try to fit in. And there's no guarantee. You can come and maybe if you're really hot and get the right break, you could be in a band in a year. It's not like what it was. There's more supply than there is demand."
"You have to be realistic," he continues. "The people that want to do it the easy way, that's most likely not going to happen. But if you love it, then you do it, because you want to do it. And if that means you have a day job and you play music as much as you can 'cause you love it, then do that. The system is changing. Me, I'll never give up music—it's always going to be a part of my life. I tell the aspiring people, there are no guarantees; there are less than there used to be. Still go for it, but be realistic. You might have to have a day job to support your love for what you do… Maybe it's not your full time job, but you do it anyway, because it will enrich your life—be grateful that you can work and afford to play music because that's what makes you happy. That's the value in music."