Kenny Aronoff Picks The Five Songs With The Best Drumming Of All Time

by Greg Prato

For decades now, Kenny Aronoff has been one of rock's most in-demand drummers. All you have to do is take a look at the wide variety of big names he has drummed with in the studio and/or on stage: John Mellencamp (who he got his start with), Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, The Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Sting, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Dave Grohl, Elton John, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Jon Bon Jovi, Steven Tyler, The Smashing Pumpkins, Meatloaf, B.B. King, Rod Stewart, and John Fogerty. So, who better to assemble a drum list?!

We'll start with his picks for the five best performances by other drummers, then move on to his list of his own top five.

The Five Best Drum Performances By Other Drummers

Steve Gadd on "Aja" by Steely Dan

Everybody knows that this was absolute genius. Steve Gadd, his musicality, his iconic drum fills, his feel, his delicacy, the balance on the drum kit. He did it in one take – every take they did was a full take with the whole band playing together. That was a performance.

Now in this day and age of Pro Tools, people are getting comfortable with fixing everything. This was not those days. You had to be a great drummer, you had to have great equipment, you had to be able to play with great time, you had to be able to read, you had to be able to play with feel, you had to have musical ears, you had to be able to be perfect, basically. It was one of the greatest drum performances that made it on the radio, ever.

"Aja" Songfacts entry

Louie Bellson on "Skin Deep" by Duke Ellington

In my house on the turntable, it was usually jazz, classical music, and showtunes as a little kid. My parents grew up in New York City, so I was listening to their music. One album that just blew me away was Louie Bellson playing with Duke Ellington, and the song is called "Skin Deep." The album is called Ellington Uptown, and if you haven't heard it, man, Louie Bellson kicks the crap out of the band, and has three drum solos!

The drum solos are so musical. It's just crisp, high energy, and when he goes to do a drum solo, it was as if it was composed for that song. It's one of the greatest drum pieces ever. Unbelievable.

John Bonham on "Good Times Bad Times" by Led Zeppelin

Every song he played was genius, but I'll pick "Good Times Bad Times" because he is introducing footwork with his single bass drum – his triplet thing.

If you played what he played during the days when I was doing sessions all day, seven days a week, you'd get fired! If you played drums the way John Bonham did on that song, it would be considered overplaying and you'd get thrown out of the studio!

This was their first record and it did get played on the radio. The reaction was, "What the fuck is this? And who is that drummer?" John Bonham, I can list every song. Anything he played was amazing.

"Good Times Bad Times" Songfacts entry

Mike Clark on "Actual Proof" by Herbie Hancock

This was a new type of funk, because it was four-way independence. He was doing San Francisco style, where all four limbs are doing their own thing, but it's a funky beat.

This is off one of the greatest records ever made, called Thrust. When you listen to "Actual Proof," you're going to freak – it's the funkiest thing. And when they start getting into improvising... the melody doesn't even start on beat one – I think the melody starts on beat two of the song.

It's Herbie's best album, ever. But the whole point is this: His style of drumming is totally opposite of what I do. Total coordination where your limbs are going everywhere. These guys were basically jazz musicians playing funk in Herbie's new style, which was this modern funk type of thing, and they made all kinds of accents. It's a song that's pretty long, and they never miss the accents. They're not on the beat, they're on all the upbeats.

Billy Cobham on "Vital Transformation" by Mahavishnu Orchestra

In 1972, I had already gone as a freshman to college and was studying orchestral music at the University of Massachusetts. Somebody tells me that there's this band called the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I went, "Oh cool, an orchestra. I'll check that out." And they said, "It's different than a symphony orchestra."

Three miles from my house, there was a place called the Music Inn [in Lenox, Massachusetts] that had this outdoor festival. Back then, festivals were real big. Woodstock had happened in '69, so this is only three years later. This was basically a field that sloped down to a stage where maybe a few thousand people could sit there. I'd see everybody there: Sea Level, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Ike & Tina Turner... and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

I remember John McLaughlin said something about wanting to give reverence to his guru, Sri Chinmoy – he was an Indian spiritual leader that meditated. People in the audience are going, "PLAY SOME MUSIC!" And he bows his head and does this modal thing on the guitar. And then all of a sudden, this beast of a drummer – he looked like a running back in football – goes wailing around the drums faster than I've seen anybody, with like, 100 toms.

He's playing traditional grip, then he switches to the opposite of traditional grip, so he's playing traditional grip but like a left-handed guy, then a right-handed guy. And he's playing right-hand on the cymbal, then he goes to left-hand on the cymbal. And then all of a sudden, the whole band comes in, and they're all playing different parts. It's just absolutely blowing my mind. Who are these guys? It was as if they were from Mars.

It was still musical and you understood what was going on, but you didn't know what the hell they were doing. And if I had to pick a song, it would be "Vital Transformation." He was doing a thing that was so fusion-funk that was off the hook.

A disclaimer from Kenny: "I left out so many people – I left out Ringo, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell. But these are great for the kid who is going, 'I've never heard of Mike Clark.' When they hear 'Actual Proof,' they'll flip. When they hear Billy Cobham on 'Vital Transformation,' they'll flip. When they hear Louie Bellson on 'Skin Deep'... holy shit. Unbelievable. Just musicality."

Kenny's Five Best Drum Performances

Kenny explains how he went about picking these five: "I'm on over 300 million records sold. For me, to pick five songs from all the different styles of music that I've played on is really difficult. But I'm going to pick five songs that I felt wasn't just my best playing, but it was a very important time in recording – and I'll explain why."

John Cougar Mellencamp – "Jack & Diane"

The first one that launched my career was "Jack & Diane," a #1 hit single by John Cougar Mellencamp.

I walk into the studio and the co-producer has a Linn LM-1 drum machine. I'd never seen a drum machine before. I'm being told that they're using this on the song "Jack & Diane" that we were having trouble coming up with an arrangement for. I'm devastated that I'm going to be replaced by a drum machine. I grab the drum machine, I get the manual, and I program the drum part. I'm in the lounge, really bummed out and wondering, "What's the future of the drummer?" This is 1981. I'm wondering, "Will that machine replace us?"

Two hours later, I'm summoned into the control room, where John tells me, "I need you to come up with a drum solo or something after the second chorus." At that moment, I was absolutely terrified and excited. Excited because I'm now going to be playing on the record. Terrified because I knew that I had to save the song in order to save my career. Because if I didn't come up with it, they'd replace me. Two people had already been fired in the band and when I joined two years prior, I was fired from playing on the record. So, this was a scary moment for me.

The long and short of it is, I come up with this part on the spot and it becomes a #1 hit – John's biggest hit ever. That and "In The Air Tonight" by Phil Collins are probably the two most air-drummed solos on pop radio, ever. It's not technically hard, but I was forced to create that on the spot.

Believe it or not, when I got into the groove after the drum solo, the drummer that influenced me to hit the floor tom on beat four was Steve Gadd from a recording he did on a Chick Corea album, and the song was called "Lenore." Steve Gadd would always hit the beat on beat four. I thought that was cool, so even though I don't sound anything like Steve Gadd and nothing like he was playing on the Chick Corea record, that track influenced me to hit the floor tom, which made my hi-hats open.

"Jack & Diane" Songfacts entry

The Buddy Rich Big Band – "Straight No Chaser"

The Buddy Rich Big Band is tribute to Buddy Rich (1917-1987) overseen by his daughter, Cathy Rich. Their album Burning for Buddy: A Tribute to the Music of Buddy Rich, released in 1994, was produced by Neil Peart with different expert drummers, including Peart, Steve Gadd, Bill Bruford and Steve Ferrone, on each track. Kenny played on the song "Straight No Chaser," a jazz standard written by Thelonious Monk.

I was a less-is-more drummer at the time, a very studio-friendly drummer to get songs on the radio that would be #1 hits. And I recorded this song with the Buddy Rich Big Band called "Straight No Chaser," which was the most terrifying recording session of my life.

Neil Peart was producing. Neil Peart and Cathy Rich thought it would be cool if I played a couple of rock songs that Buddy Rich had played, but I wanted to play jazz, because in college, I played in big bands and I grew up listening to jazz. When I was 18, I was playing in a jazz trio five nights a week in a jazz club. So, jazz had a significant role with me, and my parents took me to see jazz my entire life.

I told Neil and Cathy I wanted to play big swing things. They called me back two weeks before we were recording in New York with the Buddy Rich Big Band, and had me pick another song. They suggested I do "Straight No Chaser." I wanted to do "Straight No Chaser," but I was terrified. It was so fast. I did do it and I asked if I could have right of refusal if it sucked. They said yes.

I only got four takes, and that was it. And I do a drum solo at the end. When you do a drum solo and you don't know where you're going to go and you're improvising, there's a good chance you're going to drop a beat or you may lose the groove or the time, especially under the pressure of recording in front of the Buddy Rich Big Band with Neil Peart there.

The pressure was so on me, and I didn't know I was going to be doing a drum solo until I got there. With three weeks leading up to that session I was booked – playing with Hank Jr. in Nashville, Cinderella in Philly, in LA with somebody, in Indiana and Montreal on a country record - and I barely made it to the session. I had no sleep. I was the last guy on the record. So, "Straight No Chaser" I would say was the most terrifying but one of the most gratifying sessions I ever did in my life.

Tony Iommi & Glenn Hughes – "What You're Living For"

Glenn Hughes from Deep Purple and I went to Wales and made Tony Iommi's second solo record, called Fused. When I got there, they had already been there and played all the songs. They said, "If you hear something that is missing or that you want to add, let us know." I listened to all the songs, and I felt there were no fast tempos, no fast songs. So, I went up to my room that night - ironically, this was where Sabbath recorded records, and I stayed in Geezer Butler's room – and right down the road was a studio called Rockfield, which is where Queen recorded. It's a studio in Wales on a farm.

I sat there and thought, "What's a cool intro beat?" I came up with an intro beat. Then, "What's a cool verse beat?" I came up with a verse beat. Then, "What's a cool chorus beat?" "What's a cool bridge?" I did that with six different combinations and basically came up with parts like that for six songs. They picked the one they liked the most, and it turned into a song called "What You're Living For." It's killer. It's kick-ass. It's got two sections. The first section, which is also the verse, I was thinking Queens Of The Stone Age and Zeppelin. The chorus, which was in half-time, I was thinking Def Leppard. Big, heavy, half-time chorus. And then there's the middle section, which stops and goes into part two - I was thinking Rage Against the Machine. So they wrote the song around me. The song was written from the drums.

Avril Lavigne – "My Happy Ending"

The reason I picked this song is I wanted to pick something in the pop world, and I've done a lot of female records, like Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morissette.

In the days when we recorded with tape, everything was built around the drums, so we had to get the drums first. You didn't want to have to cut tape and punch in, so we needed drummers to have it together from top to bottom: time, feel, sound, equipment, ideas. ["Punching in" means recording over part of a track on analog tape, which is as messy as it sounds, especially when you "punch out," stopping the record. You would only punch in to fix a mistake, so getting it right the first time was paramount. Digital recording, which was becoming the standard in the early '00s, made this moot.]

When we got into the days of Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne, they were actually overdubbing drums live, so you had to fit into the tracks.

But this song, "My Happy Ending," went down like this: I'm rehearsing for a tour with Melissa Etheridge, and I get a call from Butch Walker, the producer. "What are you doing tonight?" "I'm rehearsing." "I need you to record three Avril Lavigne songs." So, the next night I get there, and nobody is in the control room except for the engineer. Then Butch shows up, and he goes, "Here's the song." The song was him playing acoustic guitar and singing, a click track, and a loop. That was it! And he recorded it into an Mbox. He brought it up on the console, and now I'm composing the drum part to this song, which sounded kind of acoustic-y and folk-y.

I said, "Butch, I always look at myself as a drummer as an actor in a movie: What is my role?" So I asked Butch, "What kind of a song are we doing here?" He said, "I want this song to rock harder than anything she's ever done." But the song doesn't sound like that – it was just acoustic guitar and him singing. So, I pictured myself in a stadium playing with Zeppelin or the Foo Fighters or somebody big, and I come up with this drum part and they literally build the entire song around the drums.

Now, a million things could have gone wrong, but the song became a hit and was the first single on her record. She had already finished her record, but this happened many times with artists, where you finish the record, and they're feeling like they haven't gotten enough hits. Avril did that, and this song ended up being the golden gem that she had hoped she would have. And the fact that it did so well is like a miracle.

Cinderella – "Freewheelin'"

This had a kick-ass drum part. This is I think one of Cinderella's greatest records, but it just came at a time when everything changed. I was the third drummer recording on it. They started the album twice, and for some reason, they weren't happy. This is when they had big-ass budgets, so they pulled me in and I recorded the album.

This record was kick-ass, but it sold 60,00 copies and they got dropped. The album was called Still Climbing.

On "Freewheelin'," I was trying to play like Ian Paice from Deep Purple. I added a swing factor to it - there were bass drums to it. Anyway, check it out. It was really cool.

April 29, 2020
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Interviews with other drummers:
Carl Palmer
Neil Peart
Charlie Benante of Anthrax
Carmine Appice
Frankie Banali of Quiet Riot

photo (1): Robert Downs

More Song Writing

Comments: 2

  • AnonymousDrummers either Drive or blend ( greatly) a song! #5 Eric Carr( kiss)! In "Trills in the night" - Drives brilliantly, and He "drove" many of kiss' song's. He makes the difference in determining Pop, Rock and hard rock! -#2 "OUR LOVE" BY KROKUS, ( GREAT RIFF IN MIDDLE OF THE SONG), #3-"LAY IT DOWN" by RATT- A DRUM PERFORMANCE I HARDLY EVER SEE....,OR HEAR, ITS DRIVING, AND IT ALSO HAS A TONE SETTING BEAT, ( DIFFERENT ) EXCELLENT #4 YOU GIVE LOVE A BAD NAME! YES,JOHN AND RITCHIE ARE FACE OF BONJOVI, BUT THE DRUMS ARE THE DRIVING FORCE OF THIS SONG #5 TRIUMPH'S "NEVER SURRENDER". DRUMS ARE PUT IN FOTEFRONT , HARD , DRIVING, PERFECT ! Energy, heart moving, adrenaline fueled drumming is absolutely necessary to a groups popularity, and we know about front men + lead guitarists,.. when a driving drummer is included in the mix .., It's absolutely magic , just checking k the $ - and popularity of the group! Example: Slippery when wet! Bonjovy. Thoughts?
  • Keith P Mccarthy from Southern CaliforniaOutstanding choice of top drum performances. And Wayne Shorter's saxophone on "Aja" is unforgettable.
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