10 Drumming Chameleons Who Can Blend into Any Style

By Drum! Staff

If you’re like most drummers, it’s likely that you keep a stable of drumming styles tucked in your back pocket, ready to whip out at a moment’s notice. However, if you’re really and truly like most drummers (and can be brutally honest with yourself) chances are you still have trouble with a number of styles, and might never completely nail some of them. Don’t worry. You’re definitely not alone.

Master drummers who can sound authentic in any given drumming style are members of an ultra-elite club. Not only have they learned the stickings and rhythms inherent in every style on the planet, they also know how to make them feel right, which is perhaps the trickiest part. That’s why we call them chameleons. Some, like Vinnie Colaiuta, are so versatile that they almost don’t have a signature style. They simply fade into whatever arrangement they have to play, be it metal, jazz, fusion, or pop. Others, though, simply possess a distinct style that is so malleable that they can sound at home without compromising their identity.

So here’s our list of the top ten chameleons from the past and present that set bars far too high for most of us to ever reach—although that’s no excuse to stop trying!

Tony Williams

When Tony Williams first strode on stage with jazz icon Miles Davis in 1962, at the tender age of 17, he’d in fact already clocked professional experience with saxophonists Jackie McLean and Sam Rivers. While he displayed a mastery of metric modulation and polyrhythmic play early on, which left a lasting influence on drummers of all stripes who followed, it would have been impossible at that gig to predict the wide range of styles he would tackle throughout his career. From bebop sessions with Miles and avant-garde explorations with Eric Dolphy, to his invention of jazz fusion with Life Time, reggae sides with Jimmy Cliff, and rock cuts with Yoko Ono and Public Image Ltd., Williams could seemingly fit into any stylistic situation without ever forsaking his sound. Who knows what else he would have taken on if he hadn’t died prematurely of a heart attack at age 51.

Steve Smith

It’s no coincidence that Steve Smith and Vinnie Colaiuta share the same uncanny ability to fade into any new style they encounter, since Smith and Colaiuta became fast friends while studying with Alan Dawson at Berklee College Of Music in the ’70s. Under Dawson’s tutelage, Smith developed such a wide drumming vocabulary that, upon leaving the school, he quickly established his remarkable flexibility by taking gigs with jazz violinist Jean Luc-Ponty, followed by short stints with early prog rockers Focus and guitar shredder Ronnie Montrose, before replacing Aynsley Dunbar in Journey just as the arena rock hit makers were about to reach their peak popularity. While jazz and fusion sessions with artists like Vital Information and Buddy’s Buddies make up much of Smith’s most celebrated output since he left Journey in 1985, he’s continued to work with such rock and pop acts as Mariah Carey, Y&T, and Savage Garden.

Dennis Chambers

A child prodigy, Dennis Chambers began playing professional gigs at the age of six in his hometown of Baltimore. By the time he graduated from high school in 1978, he had ample chops and experience under his belt to get drafted into George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic collective, which kept him busy for the next nine years. But something interesting happened when he left Clinton’s outfit in 1985. Rather than rushing right into another funk gig, Chambers—a self-taught drummer—decided to see how far he could take his chops. Like a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly, he emerged from his intensive woodshedding as one of the most formidable jazz fusion drummers around, and has since been in high demand by such esteemed fusion artists as John Scofield, Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin, and Mike Stern. Stretching his stylistic wings even further, he took the gig as the full-time drummer in Santana in 2002.

Omar Hakim

With the help of houseguests such as John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, and Art Blakey, and a professional gig with his father Hasan Hakim (trombonist with Duke Ellington and Count Basie), ten-year-old Omar Hakim experienced quite a musical kick-start. At 21 he was introduced—by friend and bassist extraordinaire Marcus Miller—to vibraphonist Mike Manieri, which led to a coveted touring gig with Carly Simon in 1980. One of the most versatile drummers in history, Hakim has played with artists from Miles Davis, Madonna, and Weather Report to David Bowie, Sting, and recently, Daft Punk. Hakim is celebrated for both his free-flowing, stream of consciousness approach and his infectious, straight-ahead dance grooves. His jazz drummer’s sensibility allows him to create many sounds on a small kit, but he also taps into his inner geek squad by using cutting edge technology (including electronic kits) live and in the studio.

Peter Erskine

It seems that Peter Erskine may have sprung from the womb as a drumming multi-stylist. As a precocious seven-year-old, Erskine won an audition into Stan Kenton’s 1961 jazz camp, and while receiving priceless instruction there, he began a lifelong habit of listening to diverse music from classical to African to Caribbean. Soon after he landed gigs with The Stan Kenton Orchestra and Maynard Ferguson. Erskine has since performed with Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Bob Mintzer’s Big Band, Steely Dan, Diana Krall, and Kate Bush; played on film scores such as the Austin Powers movies; and premiered the opera Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House in London. As his prodigious career has unfolded, an unmistakable style has developed: a marriage of unremitting musicality and raw emotion. Now at the age of 59, Erskine continues to fit his trademark sound into endless musical environments—while keeping that boyish grin on his face.

Stanton Moore

If you have any doubt that Stanton Moore is a drummer-contortionist, you need to go on a jambalaya diet. After all, New Orleans is the melting pot of musical styles—just walk down Bourbon Street and take a listen—and native beat-ologist Moore is the epitome of this gumbo. His most well-known groups, Galactic and Garage À Trois, are vehicles for his exuberant, slamming funk but also reveal tinges of blues, jazz, and hip-hop. He has worked with Corrosion Of Conformity (heavy metal), Street Sweeper Social Club (hard hip-hop), Irma Thomas (the “Soul Queen Of New Orleans”), New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, and is about to release a straight-ahead jazz album. Moore is able to fit into all of these different-sized musical boxes by studying the drumming greats before him. His flexibility and creativity allow him to play what’s right for the music while still making it his own.

Dave Weckl

What happens when a “little” talent is combined with inextinguishable passion and the courage to do it your own way? Introducing Dave Weckl. Exploding onto the scene in New York City in the early ’80s, Weckl’s friends helped him pave a diverse career path: Peter Erskine recommended him for French Toast (a precursor to the Michel Camilo Band); Anthony Jackson (bassist) brought him into the Simon & Garfunkel touring band; and Michael Brecker (saxophonist) suggested him for Chick Corea’s Elektric Band. (Weckl played in this project along with the Akoustic Band for many years.) He has also been called in to do sessions with Diana Ross, Madonna, Natalie Cole, Eliane Elias, and the GRP Allstar Big Band. Weckl has produced a number of educational products, has become a professional mixing engineer, and composes music for his own band. Enjoy the fact that this shapeshifter will never rest.

Steve Gadd

If you ask people about their favorite Steve Gadd moment, four out of five times they cite the 17-second passage off “Aja” from the Steely Dan album of the same name. And while there’s no doubt that his “Aja” solo was nothing short of masterful, it was but one of countless defining moments in Gadd’s storied career. From popularizing the Mozambique to the marching- band–esque beat that propelled Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” to collaborations with artists as unlikely as pop-folkie Edie Brickell and jazz maestro Chick Corea to blues legend B.B. King, chances are most music lovers are fans of Steve Gadd’s drumming whether they know it or not. Credit Gadd’s invisibility to selfless yet singular playing—a fine line to walk indeed. As session bassist Lee Sklar said in the pages of this magazine some years ago “He’s got a unique ability to take the mundane and make it special.”

Cindy Blackman-Santana

When Cindy Blackman was seen slamming down fat grooves behind Lenny Kravitz in the early ’90s, fans figured she was just a hard-hitter with great feel. One of the most dedicated jazz drummers of her generation and an ardent champion of Tony Williams, she has gone in wildly different directions under the fusion umbrella. Note that 2010 release Another Lifetime—a Williams tribute—saw Blackman-Santana essay an eclectic range of styles and moods, not merely inspired covers. A later project, Spectrum Road, a jazz-rock group she formed with Vernon Reid and Jack Bruce, saw her take the Williams worship into a funkily weird-cool direction. Collaborations with husband Carlos Santana brought out a Latin-tinged facet of her playing, which just as quickly morphs into the experimental forays of her current solo band.

Keith Carlock

If the intimidating length and genre-spanning variety of Keith Carlock’s résumé doesn’t qualify the Mississippi native and North Texas State music school graduate as a chameleon drummer, we don’t know what does. From the new-music frontiers of Leni Stern and Oz Noy to the lowest common denominator possible (Clay Aiken) and every crowd-pleaser in between (John Mayer, Rascal Flatts, and recently, Toto) it seems the 42-year-old can play with just about anyone. Does all this mean that while on the kit he erases his artistic identity? Yes, but that’s kind of the point. (If you want to see a personal side to his playing, there’s always that four-hour Hudson DVD). Maybe it’s his Southern roots but Carlock’s clinics betray the occasional weakness for second line grooves and complex linear funk, but those displays of flawless technique and head-bobbing musicality are the twin drivers behind getting those high-profile session calls in the first place.

Kenny Aronoff : It’s Okay To Be A Stylist, Too

Interview by Andrew Lentz
When only a deep, earth-shaking groove will suffice, you need Kenny Aronoff, the shaved-dome slammer who first rocked the world in the mid-’80s with the humongous drum sound of John Cougar. From the Grammys to the annual Kennedy Center Honors, Aronoff regularly gets the high-pressure all-eyes-on-him gigs. Not that the first-call drummer can’t blend into different musical situations, but with a signature sound so in demand, well, the Aronizer obliges.

Was finding your voice a sudden thing or painstakingly gradual?
John Mellencamp [formerly Cougar] knew more about what was right about his music than I did. I was so bored playing his music at first, I recorded “Hurt So Good” left-handed. I remember sitting down to do a playback and going, “Stewart Copeland gets to play all the cool grooves and I’m stuck playing this stuff.” And then, bam, it hit me. I felt the energy of my personality coming through those speakers and all the music around it just driving that song with feel and simplicity and power. That was it. I was on my way.

How did you control the impulse to overplay?
When I got in the Mellencamp band I didn’t know how to play “less is more.” I was trying to be like Billy Cobham and I remember thinking at one point, “If I don’t learn to love this I shouldn’t do this because there’s somebody out there who’s going to do it better than me.” It took me about two years but I finally got it. I was listening to Charlie Watts and Phil Rudd and some John Bonham, anything that had simple grooves. I learned to simplify my playing and feel it with joy.

How did you make that your signature style after Mellencamp?
Producers heard [singles “Jack And Diane” and “Hurts So Good”] and they wanted a piece of that. They were like, “Let’s get that guy,” and what happened is that I started getting hired to do sessions in L.A. and Nashville and New York. I just took the things I’d learned with the Mellencamp band and was able to use it with all these other bands and sessions. I’ve got a certain energy that, no matter what, I’m going to sound like me. That’s what people tell me all the time.

Any fears that you’ll be pigeonholed?
There’s no question everybody gets pigeonholed, but I think I broke the mold better than most people. When you get so pigeonholed that nobody will hire you except for one thing, that’s the nightmare. You get pigeonholed no matter what, but I’m less pigeonholed. Otherwise I wouldn’t have played on so many records.

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Drum! magazine. This is the first time it has been appeared online.