From DRUM! Magazine’s March 2017 Issue | By Brad Schlueter  |  Photo courtesy of Avedis Zildjian Company

Steve Gadd is one of the greatest drummers of all time, but somehow even that sounds like a bit of an understatement. His extensive résumé includes Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Chick Corea, Steely Dan, and several hundred others, including, believe it or not, Jon Bon Jovi.

It’s beyond a doubt — his influence is undeniable. Drummers will play differently from now on because of his percussive gifts. If you have ever played linear patterns or used rudiments musically in your grooves and fills, you know who to thank.

Gadd celebrated his 70th birthday last year, and to commemorate his enormous contributions, a live concert was held at his alma mater: the Eastman School Of Music. Fortunately for those of us who couldn’t make it to that gig, the event was captured on DVD and CD and released as Way Back Home: Live In Rochester, NY. His stellar band included Walt Fowler (trumpet, flugelhorn), Larry Goldings (keyboards), Jimmy Johnson (bass), and Mike Landau (guitar).

Of course, any Steve Gadd performance is something to celebrate, so to help document this historic occasion, we transcribed six six highlights from Way Back Home, sent them to Gadd for his blessing, and got on the phone with the man himself to drill down deep into his brilliant, tasty, and signature grooves and fills.


“Green Foam”


In this tune, Gadd gets very creative with time feels, shifting them around with apparent ease. The transcription begins with an up-tempo back-and-forth kick-snare beat (original groove).

He shifts the feel in the next couple of bars to half the rate of the first bar, playing the snare only on count 4. In the second line, things become interesting when he shifts to a triplet-based metric modulation.

“It was like a triplet paradiddle thing,” Gadd explains. “It’s all triplets, but with the paradiddle. It’s groups of four within the triplets, so it sounds like another time feel.” To play this groove, Gadd plays a paradiddle between his hi-hat and snare in triplets, layering his kick underneath. At that point, the kick downbeats and snare backbeats fall on every fourth note of the triplet rhythm, creating a half-note triplet feel.

“It’s about understanding time as well as you can, and how different times and grooves work together,” he says. “It’s just a play on different rhythms, but it’s amazing the way they work off each other. I like that kind of stuff. It’s fun stuff to play, and the people get a kick out of those short little transitions.”

The second modulation leads into an extended guitar solo. Coming out of the original groove, Gadd shifts to the half-time feel (3:29), this time with a slightly funkier feel than the first. It changes to a very slow blues pattern a couple of measures later, which is half the tempo of the original beat. As the stellar Mike Landau solo ends (5:37), Gadd plays a one-bar triplet fill leading back into the paradiddle modulation we saw earlier. He uses this intermediate tempo shift to take us back to the original groove. The final modulation occurs about a minute later (6:38), and then moves again into the previous paradiddle triplet modulation. Asked if all these feel shifts were difficult to learn, Gadd replies, “We worked it out in the studio. But once we understood it, the more you do it the more comfortable it gets. So even when you’re not practicing things, I think about tempos and grooves and how things work together. You can work things out in your head, so when you do finally get to the drums, you’ve got a little more clarity of how it all fits together.”

“Way Back Home” Drum Solo

This solo builds not only in intensity, but also dynamically, from the rim-click patterns heard near the beginning, until he’s ripping around the toms at the climax. Gadd deploys several licks that made him famous, and reveals some new ones as well.

In the second line, we see one of Gadd’s best-known licks. It’s based on an inverted double stroke roll (RLLRRLLR), but Gadd replaces some of the right-hand notes with his bass drum to create this very fast, thirty-second-note pattern.

Often when he does this, he uses snare hits instead of the rim-clicks played here. Since his left hand plays rim-clicks, this pattern becomes very challenging to play at the performance tempo. When his right hand strikes the snare, it creates a muted rimshot sound, because his left palm is resting on the batter head. “It’s the same thing with a different sound,” he says. “If you get to where it feels comfortable, and just play the cross-stick, it’s a whole other ball game. One little change can give you a lot more to work with.”

Lines six and seven use a variety of triplet rhythms. Much of this is based on the puh-duh-duh (RLL) sticking. He answers this RLL idea with a contrasting pattern based on double strokes, creating a call and response motif. “I try to create musical ideas. If I’m soloing, I try to think compositionally, at least in terms of keeping phrases together, because the clearer I am with that, the clearer it will be for people listening. For solos, it’s important for everyone to keep 1 in the same place. No matter how far out you go, it’s important to come back, that you care, that you’re all in the same spot.”

Line seven takes a paradiddle-diddle sticking (RLRRLL), where again Gadd uses his bass drum to replace some of its notes. This pattern almost feels like it’s in an odd meter due to its over-the-bar- line phrasing. He creates this interesting effect by moving his right hand from the hi-hat to the snare to play an accented note on counts 2, 1, and 4. It’s such a cool trick, we couldn’t help wondering if it was planned or spontaneous. “It was really just improvised,” Gadd reveals.

He straightens out this idea in line eight, playing his snare backbeats on counts 2 and 4. The following line is similar to the previous one, but here he begins playing ghosted snare notes in place of the rim-clicks he’d played previously, and adds more kick drum notes to fill out the groove.


For the next section (beginning in line 11), Gadd switches to a lick he made famous during his solo in the Steely Dan song “Aja.” It consists of quick thirty-second notes, played in this order: kick, snare, high tom, and floor tom. It’s a Gaddism, to be sure, but sometimes he plays it straight, while other times he swings it. Gadd confirms: “It’s the same four notes; it’s just how you want to swing them or not swing them. This is straight.” He demonstrates by drumming the pattern on his legs, first as straight, and then again, swung. “It’s the same sticking, just a different phrasing.”

He closes the solo by using a signature linear triplet pattern that is now a required part of most drummers’ vocabularies. Unlike many right-handed rock drummers who always lead with their right hand, he plays this pattern BLR, so that it creates a descending melody as he moves it around the kit.

Does he always play it BLR? “I try to do it both ways, but that’s my comfortable way of doing it,” he says. “As part of ending a solo, those kinds of things build nicely, dynamically. It’s something I’ve been doing for years, and I just go to it whenever I need it.”

We wondered how Gadd shapes his solos so effectively. “If I have to take a solo after somebody played a real high-energy, a ‘lot of notes’ solo, the best thing for me to do is not to try to start where he left off and go from there, but to create and go somewhere completely different. Not only would that be a good idea for me physically, to not start at that level, but it’s also good for me to give the audience a chance to clear their heads. So a lot the decisions are made with that in mind — what happened right before my solo, and using everything to your advantage, which means, it could be a sound or volume change, depending on what happened before. I think you just learn that from being in different situations and trying things.”


“Sly Boots”

We chose to transcribe this song because the opening groove sounded so funky and polyrhythmic. Once we were done and could see what was going on, we got a bit of a drum lesson from the master.

This tune is in 6/8 and Gadd’s opening pattern shows a clever way to create a groove out of a simple rudiment. He plays an inverted double stroke roll between his bass drum and snare (rim-click). Since the song is in 6/8, this four-note pattern creates a funky, polyrhythmic four-over-six feel against the meter.

A minute into the song, the patterns evolve a bit more. I’m no mind reader, but Gadd’s cymbal patterns suggest he’s thinking of paradiddles or double paradiddles, as he seems to base his groove around those rudiments.

On using a musical approach versus a technical one, it’s probably little surprise that Gadd thinks musically first. “When you did the transcriptions, you could see, probably better than me, how the rudiments fit in — possibly in ways I’m not even aware of,” he says. “Rudiments are important. I think they’re real important.”

In the last couple of lines, he moves to his ride and continues this double paradiddle approach for the first half of the bar, but now follows it with a left-handed five-stroke roll sticking played on his toms. This gives this section a half-time Afro-Cuban flavor, partly because his left hand often accents count 4.

It may sound like we’re analyzing a rudimental solo, but listening to the song tells another story. It reveals how deeply Gadd has internalized his rudiments, and how easily he can create music with them. “After you first learn a song, when you first start playing it a lot, things start falling into place,” he says. “It’s all about finding the most comfortable way to play the feel. You’ll come up with two or three really good ways that work; that you can play off of. But it takes a minute to find out all the different ways it’s possible to play it, and all the ways that you really shouldn’t play it. Sometimes you’ve got to try them, and eventually you find the ones that work the best, and those are the ones you end up using.”


“Oh Yeah”

The first bar of this transcription shows the simple, funky, rim-click groove Gadd uses for the intro. The song breaks down for a couple of measures, and he shifts the feel by playing his kick on counts 2, and (3) ah 4. This perfectly sets up the louder section of hits and fills that follow. Gadd plays a lick at the end of the second line that uses a pair of kick notes followed by a tom and snare. This creates quick triplets based on dotted quarter-notes, giving the section a disorienting quality until he resolves it with a sharp snare note on count 4.

“I try to keep the drum breaks interesting; not play them the same all the time and try to come up with variations. The kind of music you play determines the kind of breaks you’re going to play style-wise. So I just try to come up with things that are interesting and unique, if I can, which are good for the music. That’s why you’re doing it — so it’s always about the music.”

I confess to occasionally playing a lick just to surprise the guys on the bandstand. Gadd laughs, “That’s all good stuff and part of the ride, all part of the stuff that makes you want to keep doing it and makes you feel good. It’s great when you do something and it’s appreciated and acknowledged and you even get a smile back or something. That’s pretty good, right?”

For the fill that begins at the top of line five, Gadd plays a simpler floor tom crescendo that culminates in a loud flam on the last beat. As he comes out of this section, he uses one of his signature groove ostinatos. To execute this tricky hand pattern, Gadd plays the ride bell as a deadstick (leaving the stick on the bell after each stroke to mute it a bit) while his left hand moves between playing an open hi-hat note on all the &’s and the snare backbeats. Underneath, his left foot keeps time while his bass drum plays the funkier bits.

Why the deadstick? “I try to get as many different sounds as I can out of the kit. The inspiration comes out of creating a certain sound or groove. The thing that’s nice with this band is that those guys pick up on those little subtleties and they respond.”


“Them Changes”

This example shows the band tearing up Buddy Miles’ best-known song “Them Changes.” At the intro, Gadd plays a straight-ahead rock groove, but after the first four bars, he goes to a funkier pattern with lots of ghost notes. At the end of the second line, we see him change his hi-hat pattern, playing a paradiddle followed by an inverted paradiddle (RLRR LRRL).

“The tune has a couple of feels that I normally go for,” he says. “You try to come up with something that you can go to, that works. There will be things that you try to plan, that you can go to every night, that are good for the music. Then there are other parts that you want more open, where you can ad lib, like in solos. The solos are different every night, so there are parts you can always go back to that work, and then there are parts that are more open creatively.

“I think they just sort of evolve as you’re playing these songs, and trying to play with whoever is soloing. Yeah, it’s a constant evolution with that kind of stuff, trying to make it feel as good as it can.”


“Them Changes” Solo Excerpt

Here’s a brief excerpt from Gadd’s solo in “Them Changes” that demonstrates why we all need to practice our rudiments more. He begins by playing a couple paradiddles before switching to the single flammed mill rudiment (also “Swiss windmill” or “Swiss flamadiddle”). If you’re unfamiliar with it, you can think of it as a paradiddle that begins with a flam on the diddle (lRRLR rLLRL).

In the second bar, he shifts the accented flams to the e’s briefly and then brings them back onto the beats via a Swiss triplet. The next two measures are very similar, which establishes the recurring motif of this section of the solo.

In the third line, he adds his bass drum underneath the rudiments, playing on all the &’s and ah’s. In the last line, he displaces his hands, but not his feet, again shifting the flams and accents to the e’s before shifting everything back to where it started.

How did he come up with that? “That’s a fun thing,” he says. “It’s something I stumbled upon [while] practicing, and sometimes I’ll throw it in if I can play it comfortably, and it feels good. I try to take one idea and get as much mileage as I can out of it. That was where I was taking a Swiss flamadiddle and starting it on the 1 of the bar, and then starting the same rudiment in a different place in the bar and still keeping aware of the original downbeat.

“That’s something I try to do when I practice. Take one thing and play it in as many different ways and places in the bar as you can. Because every different beat that you start it on forces you to make adjustments, and it helps a different kind of independence: the independence of knowing where the time is, and being able to start patterns in different parts of the bar, still knowing where the original time is. When you can do that, and do it in phrases, it gives you some freedom to really create. The freedom of how you think, and what you’re able to put together in four-bar phrases.”


Closing Time

It may be a little off topic, but we wondered if he had any additional advice for young drummers.

“Never give up what’s in your heart and soul in terms of drumming, technically, and learning how to do that, and enjoy doing that with other people. You’ve got to keep playing. In terms of feeling comfortable on the instrument, the more the better.”

With 71 on the horizon, does he foresee ever retiring? “I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing,” he replies. “So, if stopping playing means retiring, no. I don’t think I’ll retire. I might divide my time up a little differently between family and work. But I can’t imagine not playing music.”