Many of the world's best drummers have earned reputations as legends from their work with one band, but Terry Bozzio is notable for both the quantity and quality of the musicians he's worked with over the last four decades. Boasting perhaps the most staggering drummer's résumé of all time, Bozzio has played avant-garde rock with Frank Zappa, fusion jazz with the Brecker Brothers, progressive rock with UK, instrumental guitar rock with Jeff Beck, and nü metal with Korn. He also formed his own new wave band Missing Persons in the early Eighties and participated in numerous "super group" projects like The Lonely Bears (with Hugh Burns, Toney Coe, and Tony Hymas), Polytown (with Mick Karn and David Torn), Bozzio Levin Stevens (with Tony Levin and Steve Stevens), and HoBoLeMa (with Allan Holdsworth, Tony Levin, and Pat Mastelotto).
But Bozzio's solo work is even more impressive than the various bands, projects, and sessions he has participated in. In 1992 he released his first solo albums, Solo Drum Music I and Solo Drum Music II, which feature innovative and daring classical-inspired compositions performed entirely by Bozzio on drum and percussion instruments. Bozzio expanded that concept on his 2005 album Chamber Works, this time performing symphonic compositions with Holland's Metropole Orkest. While Bozzio's work with bands over the years has revealed his knack for remaining relevant and fresh, his solo work displays an even more rare talent for creating a legacy of work with timeless appeal and original vision.
As busy and in demand as Bozzio has remained since getting his first big break with Frank Zappa in 1975, over the last 25 years he's also devoted significant time giving back to the drum community as a clinician. "The first time I did a clinic I thought that I'd reveal my hippest techniques," says Bozzio. "Then by the next year everybody would have encompassed and absorbed that so I'd have to move forward and develop new material. I've been developing new material over and over for years, and I've found myself out in left field trying to make music and play melodically on the drums."
Bozzio showcased his unique approach to drums at the 2011 Grand Finals to Guitar Center's annual Drum Off competition, which took place January 14 at Club Nokia in Los Angeles. Bozzio was one of several featured performers, who also included Dennis Chambers, Mike Portnoy, Brooks Wackerman, Aaron Spears, and Ilan Rubin as well as the five previously undiscovered finalists. As a participant in several prior Drum Off events both as a judge and performer, Bozzio appreciates the opportunities the event gives drummers to boost their careers and gain some recognition from their peers.
"Many of the winners like Eric Moore, Tony Royster Jr., and Thomas Pridgen became more well known for winning the competition," he says. "Thank God, because they're three of the greatest drummers that are around. It's a good thing."
While Bozzio has been a prominent drummer for 37 years now, he stresses that it took a lot of hard work to reach the levels he has achieved. He initially developed an interest in playing drums as a child in the Fifties, watching drummers like Cubby O'Brien on "The Mickey Mouse Club," Ricky Ricardo Jr. on "I Love Lucy," and legends Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich on various television program guest appearances.
"That's when I knew I wanted to be a drummer," Bozzio recalls. "I made some makeshift drum sets and played along with Beach Boys, Ventures, and Sandy Nelson records. By the time the Beatles came along in 1964 I begged my father for drum lessons. I took my first drum lesson on July 15, 1964, when I was 13 years old. I got a pair of sticks, a practice pad, and a couple of books, and from there I just kept doing it."
Bozzio credits having a great teacher from the start as being a big benefit while he was learning. "Towards the end of high school I got a better teacher and started to study music in college," he says. "I majored in music for a couple of years and got a degree. That's where I learned the names of the notes on the staff, music theory, and ear training. I also played in bands, orchestras, and ensembles. That prepared me for my next step, which was when I got a substitute gig playing for the rock musical Godspell, which had come to town. I got the gig because I could read music."
Bozzio's ability to read music also helped him land his breakthrough gig with Frank Zappa a few years later. "Getting the call from Frank Zappa was life changing," he admits. "If you got to play with Frank Zappa you were immediately world famous with credibility that you could only get from playing with him. It was a unique situation. I'm very lucky and grateful I had that. From there I became involved with other things that were all based on my credibility from having played with a guy who also has a lot of credibility."
One recording with Zappa in particular—the live performance of "The Black Page" on the Zappa in New York album—established Bozzio's credibility as a formidable talent. An incredibly complicated composition that earned its name for the density of notes filling music staff, "The Black Page" was written by Zappa for drum kit and percussion and features extensive tuplets, polyrhythms, nested polyrhythms, and polymeters. Incredibly, Bozzio learned and mastered the piece about two weeks after Zappa presented it to him.
While this feat proved that Bozzio could play pretty much any piece of music placed in front of him, he also realized early on the importance for a drummer to develop and nurture a unique playing personality. "There's something really beautiful, individual, and unique about great drummers that we can't really duplicate," Bozzio explains. "I can't imagine the Rolling Stones without Charlie Watts or the Beatles without Ringo Starr because they were the right personalities for those bands. They may not be the most complex drummers, but they were certainly right for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
"I started to really consciously try to develop my own style when I was around 30 years old," he continues. "I did that by eliminating some of the things that I had taken as influences that were trademarks of somebody else. I built upon some little things that I had just kind of stumbled upon, and soon other people were telling me, ‘Hey! That's a Bozzio trademark.' I did more of that stuff and less of imitating Billy Cobham."
This newfound ambition coincided with the development of Bozzio's first band that he formed himself, Missing Persons, featuring fellow Zappa bandmates Warren Cuccurullo (guitar) and Patrick O'Hearn (bass), classically trained keyboardist Chuck Wild, and singer Dale Bozzio. While the band's music seemed simple compared to Bozzio's previous work with Zappa, the Brecker Brothers, and UK, his innovative hi-hat and cymbal embellishments and distinctive tom fills gave the music a sophisticated flair and revealed Bozzio's emerging unique voice as a drummer.
After Missing Persons broke up, Bozzio played on sessions for artists like Debbie Harry, Robbie Robertson, Andy Taylor (formerly of Duran Duran), and Gary Wright, but he burst into the limelight again in 1989 when he became a member of guitarist Jeff Beck's band along with keyboardist Tony Hymas and recorded the Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop album. In the band's instrumental trio format Bozzio's drumming had the opportunity to enjoy prominent status, and Bozzio delivered performances that further established his reputation as an innovative player with a truly individual style.
Bozzio says that even now he strives to maintain a unique sound: "I usually try to play something I don't know how to do. I'm always constantly trying to work on something new. Whatever happens to stumble into my inspirational radar, I'll try and see if I can apply it. Usually it's something that I have to practice and work on. It doesn't come right away, so I just chip away at working at it and maybe after three days, or maybe after a year, I can do it. Then I have a new piece or a new approach."
A glance at Bozzio's current drum kit that he uses for solo performances reveals that he's added a lot of new pieces to his rig as well over the years. The setup include six bass drums, two snares, and 26 melodically tuned toms of various sizes (all DW Vertical Low Timber drums), a Roland Handsonic, glockenspiel, six hi-hats, 30 cymbals, three gongs, and a one-octave tuned set of Wuhan Chinese bossed gongs. Toms are arranged in rows of two and three, many of the cymbals are stacked, and 18 floor pedals are arranged in a semi-circle for operating kicks, hi-hats, toms, and various percussion instruments.
"My kit grew because I though that maybe I could add pieces and get a particular sound," says Bozzio. "What I'm trying to do is similar to what Miles Davis and Weather Report did, where they'd have an ethnic percussionist, a drummer, and Joe (Zawinul), Wayne (Shorter), or Miles playing these great melodies. I've tried to encompass that by making a musical statement on the drums by myself. If I can accompany myself with my feet and maybe splash some colors with some ethnic instruments and sound effects while keeping the beat at the same time and doing some melodic soloing, I'm a happy guy."
Bozzio's solo work is as awe-inspiring as his sprawling drum kit, and he hopes that other drummers are inspired to explore new paths with the instrument the same way that he has. One way he encourages drummers to grow is by listening to all musicians, not just drummers.
"The best thing you can do is to listen," he emphasizes. "Listen when you play. Listen to other music. Listen in a discerning fashion. Listen for the concepts. Learn to identify a concept like Bach, whose music has counterpoint and three or four different melodies all following the rules of counterpoint and harmony. When you can identify a concept like that, then you realize how simplistic Crosby, Stills, and Nash, who basically tracked three-part harmonies in parallel, is from a technical musical standpoint. When you've identified that you should see how we can learn and grow from that instead of not knowing what something is and just copying it because it's popular.
"Then practice and learn as much as you can," he concludes. "Stick to your guns if you really want to do this thing. It should be an enjoyable process. If it's not enjoyable, and it's like pulling teeth, maybe you should do something else that doesn't feel like pulling teeth. No one ever had to twist my arm to get me to practice. It's something I love to do and continue to love to do. I have to twist my arm to do all the other crap in life that takes me away from playing drums."