From DRUM! Magazine’s December 2017 Issue | Text And Music By Brad Schlueter | Photography By Rick Malkin
Jeff Porcaro was born to be one of the world’s top session drummers. From the mid-’70s until his premature death 25 years ago, from a heart attack at the age of 38, the prolific drummer played on many (if not most) of the biggest hits of his era. Whether you know it or not, you’ve heard him hundreds of times with such legends as Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs, Madonna, and his own band, Toto.
Artists would reschedule sessions to fit his schedule, rather than call someone else. That’s because he was a hit maker who improved every song he played on. His grooves were always impeccable, precise, and hip. He made even the simplest beats worth studying, because everything he played felt magically good.
While it’s impossible for us to show you how to sound exactly like Jeff Porcaro, it’s certainly worth our time to figure out how he developed his sound and became such an interesting player. Some of the things he did may be within our power to imitate. Others might not be. But they’re all worth learning about.
1. Lineage & Locale
Unless you own a time machine, you won’t have much control over your family history. Fortunately for Jeff Porcaro, he was born into an ideal family for any drummer. It began with his grandfather, who played snare drum in a marching parade band. His love of drumming was apparently inherited.
More influentially, Jeff’s father, Joe Porcaro, is a superb jazz drummer and educator, and was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Music Academy and the L.A. College Of Music. Over his varied career, Joe recorded for many top tier artists like Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, and Sarah Vaughn, and also recorded hundreds of film scores with John Williams, Danny Elfman, James Horner, and others.
But we might never have heard of Jeff or his father Joe if it hadn’t been for Jeff’s uncle, P.A.S. Hall Of Fame studio percussionist Emil Richards. It was he who convinced Joe to move his family to Los Angeles in the late ’60s because there was a lot of work for skilled musicians. Joe’s first gig in L.A. was to play a star-studded private party at Dean Martin’s home.
Living in a music hub is clearly an advantage for musicians who want exposure to people who can help their careers. But surprisingly, the Porcaro family connections didn’t open any doors for Jeff. His father’s connections were largely in film and TV, and the people who initially hired the young drummer didn’t know his family. Jeff did it on his own.
2. Start Young
Jeff began studying drums with his father at age seven, along with his two brothers. He continued for a couple years, but claimed he never made it through the book Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation Of The Snare Drum Rudiments because he found practicing out of books tedious. According to several Porcaro interviews, music wasn’t that exciting to him as a child, partly because he was used to having musicians around all the time; it seemed ordinary to him. Fortunately, he stuck with it a little longer and studied with two other teachers, Bob Zimmitti and Rich Lapore.
Porcaro quit formal lessons when he was just nine. He preferred to play along with records, which he did for hours each day after school. He would practice hard, studying the grooves and emulating the feel of the drummers he admired.
This kind of focused musical immersion worked well for him. Had he concentrated on method books he might never have developed his time and feel, or his sense of what creates a great groove. He also learned the grooves that worked for successful drummers and how each fill should have a function in a song.
He learned lots of little tricks studio drummers used to help focus the listener’s attention. For example, Porcaro would often not crash on the downbeat of the first verse following the intro, in order to leave room for the opening vocal entrance to make a bigger impact.
4. Take Calculated Risks
As a teenager, Porcaro planned to become an artist and wanted to attend art school, but it was expensive, and he needed to raise money for it. Fortunately, he got a lucrative offer to tour with Sonny & Cher, which would allow him to earn his tuition. But there was a catch — he had to leave high school before graduating. After explaining the opportunity to his school (and how much he’d be paid), administrators let him leave for the tour, and eventually sent him a diploma even though he never took his last exams.
The Sonny & Cher gig led to touring and recording with Seals & Crofts. Then, when Jeff was still only 21, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen stopped into a club, heard him playing with a fusion band, and liked his drumming. They offered him the opportunity to tour with them. Porcaro still had a much better–paying gig working with Sonny & Cher, but quit to work with Steely Dan, which he thought was the most happening band in town.
Ultimately, this decision was a smart one, even though he took a substantial pay cut to do it. That tour led to recording a couple of tracks with the band, which blossomed into requests for his skills from many other artists. Fortunately for us, that art thing didn’t work out for him.
This story can’t help but make you wonder: If he’d stuck with the safer money gig, would we have ever heard of him? Probably so, but who knows? It could have been years later, robbing us of many of his early recordings. Porcaro had clear goals and more importantly was willing to make the necessary sacrifices to pursue them.
Let’s check out one of the two songs he played at his first Steely Dan session. The first line of Ex.1 shows the funk break from “Night By Night,” off their Pretzel Logic album. Note that he doesn’t overplay and interrupt the flow, but instead adds some funky hi-hat barks to it. In the second line, we see a fast fill, shortly before the song’s fade. For this one, he rips a thirty-second note fill between his snare and hi-hat and then ends it with a trip down his toms.
5. Be Humble
Read some interviews with Porcaro, and you’ll notice how self-effacing and humble he was about his incredible abilities. He said he had terrible independence, was a poor reader, and hated playing shuffles because they’re so hard.
In the same interviews, you can hear him heap compliments on the players that he respected. He held studio drummers like Jim Gordon, Steve Gadd, Jim Keltner, James Gadson, Ed Greene, Vinnie Colaiuta, Rick Marotta, and many others in his highest esteem.
6. Learn To Read
Porcaro would always show up for sessions early, partly out of sheer professionalism and to get drum tones before the other players arrived, but also because he knew he wasn’t a strong sight reader. Arriving early allowed him to look over charts to see if there were any rhythms and parts he’d need to figure out before the other musicians clocked in.
This weakness also helped him focus and listen very carefully, a skill he developed as a teen playing to records. If he missed a rhythm on the first run-through, he’d make a point of remembering it and nailing it on the second pass.
7. Nervous? Use it!
Porcaro often became nervous before sessions or gigs, especially if other drummers were around. For example, he once said one of the reasons he came up with the ghost note patterns heard in songs like “Rosanna” was that he once got nervous during a session, and his left hand started shaking badly. It made a chattering sound on his snare that sounded cool, so he channeled that into playing ghost note patterns. It’s hard to know if he was being completely serious or having a laugh. Regardless, he was a master of using ghost notes to deepen his grooves.
8. Morph Ideas
One of Jeff’s signature grooves is the pattern he played in Toto’s hit “Rosanna.” He created this beat by combining elements from three other well-known grooves.
The first was known as the Bo Diddley beat (Ex. 2), which is a 3-2 son clave feel Porcaro used as the basis for his bass drum pattern, except in a triplet feel.
He also used the half-time feel from John Bonham’s groove in Led Zeppelin’s song “Fool In The Rain” to put his snare accent on count 3 and give the song its laid-back feel (Ex. 3).
His third borrowed idea was the Purdie shuffle, which has ghost notes in the gaps of the hi-hat pattern. It is named for Bernard Purdie, who played the groove on Steely Dan’s song “Home At Last” (Ex. 4).
Jeff morphs all three of these grooves together to create his original groove (Ex. 5).
9. Stay In The Moment
Porcaro had a great sense of humor and an upbeat and positive attitude that other musicians found contagious. There was no pretension about him. He was funny, down to earth, and very likable. As you watch videos of him drumming, you can’t miss the sheer joy he got from playing. He seemed always to be grinning and interacting with the other musicians and always connected emotionally to the music.
10. Street Drummer
Joe Porcaro described his son as a “street drummer.” He meant that Jeff had street smarts when it came to drumming.
Jeff knew lots of drummers who could read anything and had tons of chops, but somehow, they weren’t called (or called back) for many sessions. He speculated that there might have been an “anti-social” aspect to their playing, meaning it could be too stiff, or their ideas were too complicated and didn’t fit pop music. Perhaps they overplayed, or were unaware that they were stifling the other players and killing the vibe. Jeff thought they’d be better off just playing solid grooves and letting the other players contribute more.
In the MI Vault video, he said, “I’m just a timekeeper. I basically always thought drums were to keep time.”
11. Don’t Solo
Porcaro had strong chops, but he hated to play solos, because he felt drums were there to lay down the groove. He claimed to never play solos, and that he had a mental block about them, although in the song “I Don’t Hear You” by Boz Scaggs he comes close to one (Ex. 6).
In this track, Jeff fills between the band hits that fall on 1 and 2. One of Jeff’s flashy licks was to play linear sextuplets using RLRLFF. He uses this idea in the second measure, morphs it into thirty-second notes in the fourth bar, plays it again as sextuplets in measure six, but changes the melody and sticking of the lick.
12. Heads, Tuning & Muffling
The previous generation of studio drummers like Hal Blaine commonly used muffled, single-headed concert toms in the studio, since they were easier to record and control than double-headed kits. Outboard gear to control drum bleed, such as noise gates, wasn’t around until Valley People’s Kepex units in the early ’70s.
By the time Porcaro began doing studio work, technology existed to control double-headed toms using gates. He loved resonant tom sounds and took advantage of these noise gates by choosing single-ply batter heads for his snare and toms. In the early years, he’d use Ludwig db-750 heads on his toms with thin bottom heads. Later he switched to Remo Ambassador heads on his toms and snare and preferred a Powerstroke 3 head on his kick, often with a packing blanket inside. He muffled his drums as little as possible since he wanted a big, resonant sound. He didn’t like heads with dots on his toms, but sometimes would use a Remo CS snare head with a 5mil dot underneath that added durability, but didn’t get in the way of brush patterns.
He liked to tune his toms to sound deep with a little pitch bend, which he accomplished by tuning the top head looser than the other. He tuned his snare on the tight side, but varied it to suit the session.
13. Get It In One Take
One reason studio musicians from the past are so revered is that they had to work under much more challenging circumstances than studio musicians do today.
You might be shocked by how different the recording process was 30 or 40 years ago. In the ’70s and ’80s, studios recorded to 2″ tape that could hold 24 tracks of music. It was difficult to cleanly punch in drum tracks because there was a time lag between hitting the record button and the start of the overdub. Unless there was a pause in the music where an engineer could safely punch in, most wouldn’t risk it. There wasn’t an “undo” button if you made a bad punch.
They could use a razor blade to cut one piece of tape in half, then splice another take of a song onto it if the players couldn’t get the song recorded in one pass. However, that, too, was an inexact and sometimes bloody process, so studio musicians were expected to get it all done in a single take.
Porcaro almost always recorded without punching or comping together multiple takes. It might take a handful of attempts to get the best one, but they were usually done in one pass — from start to finish. When you listen to some of these songs, keep that in mind.
14. Have An Internal Clock
Most recording is now done to a click track on a computer, so you might be surprised how many of the recordings in the ’70s and ’80s didn’t use a click. Often musicians simply played together in a room separated by baffles, with the amps isolated. The primary goal was to get a solid drum track and hopefully some of the rest of the rhythm section if all went well. Porcaro had such an excellent sense of time he could nail a track with or without a click.
He also never played to a click live. Again, the reason is partly technological. In the era in which he was active, in-ear monitors weren’t very commonplace, and most musicians preferred floor monitors. So if a drummer was going to play to a click, it would have to be fed through his stage monitor along with everything else. He’d be at the mercy of the sound engineer running his monitor mix to set the levels exactly right.
Today’s digital mixers allow musicians to use an app on their phone or tablet to remotely set the levels they want, but in those times, it was much more precarious. The closest Porcaro came to using clicks live was in his band Toto.
Their song “Hold The Line” had sampled background vocals played from a keyboard, so Porcaro’s tech would briefly feed the next song’s tempo from a drum machine into his monitor so he could count it off at the correct speed. If the tempo deviated from the count-off, Porcaro could steer the band so they’d match up with the vocal sample.
For their song “Africa,” Porcaro would play along with the percussion loop that plays throughout the song.
15. Four On The Floor
Porcaro didn’t shy away from simpler bass drum parts, as you can see in “Africa” (Ex. 7). His samba feel is based on a quarter-note bass drum part that makes grooves feel anchored, and any embellishment stands out more. Toto’s “Hold The Line” (Ex. 8) is also based on this quarter-note feel. Check out his disorienting tom fill in the intro.
16. Bass Drum Technique
Heel up or heel down? Porcaro learned to play heel up as a child, because he could barely reach the pedals when he sat behind his father’s kit. This habit stuck with him, and he’d typically play on the balls of his feet.
It took him a couple years to develop his sliding bass drum technique. This method begins with the first stroke played with the foot about midway up the footboard and then sliding it forward to play the next stroke. This was how he played such fast double and triple strokes. Even though Porcaro had a quick foot, he rarely showed it off. You usually have to listen to a song’s fade out to catch him using it, as he does in Michael McDonald’s hit “I Keep Forgettin’” (Ex. 9).
17. Use Your Hi-Hat
When Porcaro was learning to emulate studio drummers like Bernard Purdie, one thing he didn’t notice from the recordings was that Purdie would often keep time with his left foot as he grooved on his hi-hat and during fills. This helped anchor the tempo and often would add the slightest hint of a hi-hat bark as seen previously in “Home At Last” (Ex. 4). It wasn’t until Porcaro began working professionally that he noticed lots of great players used their left feet this way.
This was one of the reasons he felt insecure about his independence. It wasn’t until he had been working for a decade or so that he finally was able to keep quarter-notes going on his hi-hat throughout a song.
18. Do It With One Hand
Something Porcaro learned from drummers like James Gadson, Bernard Purdie, and Ed Greene was that one-handed sixteenth-note hi-hat patterns usually grooved harder than two-handed (RLRL) ones. At brighter tempos, it’s challenging to play them one-handed, but is almost always worth it.
This is due to the mechanics of playing faster patterns with one hand. Most drummers move their hi-hat hand up and down in a slight pumping motion to relieve muscle fatigue. This changes the angle at which the stick hits the hi-hat and causes downbeats to strike with the shoulder of the stick (making them louder) and upbeats with the tip (making them softer). This motion also creates a bit of swing that can make all the difference in how a pattern feels. Porcaro would play two-handed hi-hat grooves only if the tempo required it.
On Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’,” Porcaro plays a brisk funky groove with one hand (Ex. 10). This was the second take, and he said he broke a stick in the middle of it. I can’t hear it — can you?
The Boz Scaggs R&B classic “Lowdown” (Ex. 11), sounds like a typical two-handed hi-hat groove, but it’s deceiving. This song was recorded with an eighth-note hi-hat pattern over the kick and snare pattern. But since this song was released during the disco era the producer asked Jeff to overdub a two-handed sixteenth-note hi-hat pattern onto it. That’s why the two-handed sixteenth notes are panned left, and the eighth-note hi-hat barks are heard on the right.
For more, read:
Plus, listen to this Drummer’s Resource podcast:
“This audio is from Jeff Porcaro’s clinic at the famed Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California, courtesy of Musicians Institute. Jeffrey Thomas ‘Jeff’ Porcaro (April 1, 1954 – August 5, 1992) was an American drummer, songwriter, and record producer.”