Perhaps the best way to define “groove” is what it’s not. Groove is not controlled metric modulation blowing over the bar line (though that could groove). Nor is it the world’s most perfect drum machine beat carefully placed on the grid, no matter how acoustically resonant or rhythmically correct. Groove players often have tons of technique, but that’s not the main thing on their mind or what’s emanating from their gut. A groove is something you feel deep inside your being, which produces an irresistible demand to move!
The greatest grooves — think James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” The Meters’ “Cissy Strut” — address every possible permutation of tempo, meter, inflection, dynamics, and note content, but at their core they make the Earth move under your feet.
The greatest groove masters have come from all walks of the musical world, be it the swinging Philly Joe Jones, the wailing Gene Krupa, the delicate Manu Katché or the volcanic Alex Van Halen. But in choosing the drummers throughout recorded history who most consistently laid down fat foundations that made their bandmates sound even better, the final list was actually rather small. Who are these men of the sticking/drumming cloth who year after year made millions dance and move? What are the ingredients that made their sound so special? What’s their lasting impact and considerable worth?
Our advice to you is, read on.
We’re talking slam, strength, and the ultimate backbeat. Kenny Aronoff’s mammoth groove is more ubiquitous than many realize. The chrome-domed drumming beast is regularly called upon to replace tracks where the original drummer couldn’t cut the major-label mustard. Springing to stardom (in drummer’s terms) as a member of John Cougar Mellencamp’s band, Aronoff became a first-call studio drummer whenever a beat needed to connect to the head and the heart, and take out the gut as well. Not only is Aronoff a terrific slammer, he knows how to dish it out in the proper quantity. Aronoff understands the art of beat placement, typically laying it dead center and in your skull. A sampling of Aronoff’s 2009 discography shows his serious (and diverse) skills: Rob Thomas’ Cradlesong, John Fogerty’s The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again, Stryper’s Murder By Pride, and Les Paul & Friends’ A Tribute To A Legend.
Perhaps the original session drummer (after Earl Palmer), Hal Blaine invented the modern pop-drumming language. As a member of the L.A. session unit The Wrecking Crew, Blaine laid the foundation for some of the seminal songs of ’60s and ’70s AM radio, including tracks by Elvis Presley, The Carpenters, The Beach Boys, The 5th Dimension, The Supremes, The Byrds, and many more. Blaine’s truly massive, resonant, and original beats seemed to draw their power from the Earth itself. His rhythms drove the radio rock of Phil Spector in the ’50s and ’60s, created atmospheric, textural drumming poetry with Simon & Garfunkel, performed big band craft with Frank Sinatra, and simple folk-pop beats with Neil Diamond, The Byrds, and The Mamas & The Papas. Blaine exemplifies the ability to create the perfect drum part, regardless of style, difficulty, or era. Quintessential Blaine moment: The deep tom fills of The Carpenters’ “Close To You.”
In an era when you’re just as likely to hear a drum machine program as a flesh and blood drummer, Matt Chamberlain has successfully navigated both worlds. By creating a singular groove that has no real sonic signature, Chamberlain became the first-call L.A. session drummer (sorry, Josh Freese). The diverse artists he has recorded with mirror his enormous ability to fit into any situation. Majorly pliable, Chamberlain’s skills (both physically delivered and occasionally programmed) have appeared on more than 200 albums, including those by Fiona Apple, The Wallflowers, Stevie Nicks, Dave Navarro, Master Musicians Of Jajouka, Garbage, David Bowie, Keith Urban, William Shatner, Shakira, Sean Lennon, Sarah McLaughlin, and Dido. And while pulling in the big superstar bucks, Chamberlain has also found time to play small-time projects, including his own solo album (which he described as “an imaginary soundtrack to an Asian-Western-sci-fi-horror movie”), as well as the bands Thruster, Critters Buggin’, and Weapon Of Choice. Tori Amos has called Chamberlain “the human loop.”
For drummers, there is B.G. and A.G.: Before Gadd and After Gadd. To hear this Rochester, New York–born drummer play in the mid-’70s was to have your drumming consciousness altered forever. Gadd played with such a deep level of orchestral detail while adhering exactly to the song form, and with such stunning creativity, that it shocked the senses. Of course, Gadd is a technical master, but on such epic groove tracks as “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” (Paul Simon), “High Heeled Sneakers” (Chuck Mangione), “Lenore” (Chick Corea), and “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” (Leo Sayer), he combined finesse, power, and remarkable originality into an undeniable groove. Gadd disguised one of his big-time weapons, the nine-stroke roll, by flipping it between hi-hat and snare drum while his bass drum nailed the 1. Trademark! A rudimental whiz influenced by Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, Gadd is grooving harder than ever these days, slapping his skins for Eric Clapton, Joss Stone, James Taylor, and others.
Before the unfortunate circumstances that led to his imprisonment in 1983, Jim Gordon was the busiest session drummer alive. His legacy in rock, folk, and even hip-hop remains unmatched. Apprenticing with his hero Hal Blaine on the L.A. session circuit, Gordon brought elements of big band, jazz, and pop drumming to bear on a wide range of artists, including Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, Traffic, John Lennon, George Harrison, and the Incredible Bongo Band. The intro from the latter group’s “Apache” became one of the foundational samples of hip-hop. Gordon’s extremely musical approach had him often playing complementary melodies on his toms and cymbals while kicking a deep pocket. Streamlined groove was a trademark well expressed on Derek & The Dominoes’ Layla And Other Love Songs, and his lone solo LP, Hogfat (one side L.A. jazz, one side rock/pop stylings). Gordon could drive a band with intense sixteenth-notes on his ride cymbal, or punch flowing tom fills from his Camco kit, as on Layla’s “Keep On Growing.”
As part of the storied Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section of Alabama, Roger Hawkins drummed on dozens of hits, including Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” and Eric Clapton’s “I’ve Got A Rock N’ Roll Heart.” Loose and funky, syncopated and behind the beat, Hawkins’ iconic groove sounds like the Old South. He’s never in a hurry, and his time feel is similarly relaxed, as are his clanging bell-centric ride patterns and slipping sliding bass-and-snare-drum communiqués. Hawkins can also impersonate other drummers with flair. Are those Pretty Purdie’s shuffling rim-clicks on The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There?” Hawkins on the case. Hal Blaine tub thumping on Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances?” Hawkins again. A foursquare drummer who covers all the bases, Hawkins just feels good.
Effortless groove. Enormous feel. Solid chops. Risk-taking skills. Gerald Heyward has it all, as he’s shown on stage with Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, and Chris Brown. His snare slap is truly inspirational — no wonder, as he grew up playing drums in the church. Heyward can also give his hi-hat a workout, dropping serious Stewart Copeland–styled wizardry while steamrolling through full-set bombs as needed to raise the roof and uplift the spirit. Unfortunately for Heyward, and for us, his best work is unrecorded, as the top-selling R&B artists he works with prefer Pro Tools rhythms to the real thing.
Al Jackson Jr.
Like Hal Blaine and Roger Hawkins, Al Jackson Jr. was part of a regional powerhouse recording scene — Stax Records in Memphis. Often called the “human timekeeper,” Jackson had a very measured, powerful backbeat that produced an extraordinary amount of rhythmic energy. Jackson’s drumming found perfect expression in the tight R&B of his main gig, Booker T. & The MGs on hits like “Green Onions.” With MGs’ Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper, Jackson recorded super soul Stax tracks for Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, and many more. But Jackson’s greatest recordings are the Willie Mitchell–produced hits of soul vocalist Al Green. On “Let’s Stay Together,” “Tired Of Being Alone,” and “I’m Still in Love With You” Jackson’s drumming is simply transcendent: rich, round, energetic, kinetic, grooving beyond belief. Almost anyone can play the notes of these historic singles, but only Jackson could fill them with such life and power.
Is Jim Keltner a jazz drummer? A rock drummer? A country rock-cum-big-band drummer? It’s hard to know as Keltner is impossible to categorize — he’s seemingly played it all. Perhaps the most resourceful drummer alive, Keltner typically finds the most unusual, and the most musical solution to any drumming question. His rustic grooves rattle, buzz, vibrate, and hum, often produced from a variety of sticks and stick-like instruments. Keltner’s mid-’70s work with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson, Joe Cocker, and Steely Dan produced milestones like the Dan’s “Josie” and Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (during the recording of which Keltner cried). But his recent work is even more striking. The Traveling Wilburys, Los Lobos, and even Money Mark provided the perfect release for Keltner’s cool creativity, which includes never hitting the obvious beat when his innate, oversized talent could produce something infinitely better.
At first listen, Zigaboo Modeliste’s drumming with The Meters sounds wrong. Deranged. Damaged. Like some fool dropped a screwdriver in the tape machine. Modeliste’s second-line New Orleans rhythms herk and jerk, breathe and kick, addressing parts of the groove that no one knew existed until he found them. Whether leaning forward or back in his extremely deep and wily pocket, Modeliste, in conjunction with The Meters’ outrageous soul/funk, places the beat like no one before or since. “Cissy Strut” finds him slicing the hi-hat like it owes him money one second, splashing it silly the next, kicking the bass drum in jumbled-up bombs and popping his snare like a night sprite. Zigaboo’s beats simply dance and jump like crazy, and have been sampled by Run DMC, Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, and many others. Quintessential Zigaboo: The broken-up, totally syncopated, practically hilarious groove machinations of The Meters’ “Look-Ka Py Py.”
Andy Newmark’s hard-hitting grooves fueled such ’70s hits as John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over,” Carly Simon’s “Anticipation,” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” as well as lesser known records from organist Neil Larsen (Jungle Fever), ABC (Beauty Stab), and Roxy Music (Avalon). Oh, and don’t forget the recording that branded Newmark as a new groove genius — “In Time,” from Sly & the Family Stone’s Fresh. The ingredients of Newmark’s innovative style: airy, delicate hi-hat accents; snare hits that drove the music with sweaty intent; subtle bass drum patterns; and a flowing groove conception that turned straight tracks into funk-fired rhythm magic. This was never more evident than on Neil Larsen’s Jungle Fever. Playing pungent Latin rhythms in a band that included bassist Willie Weeks and tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, Newmark smacked his kit with a beautiful, behind-the-beat gravitas that’s both deep as a volcano and light as a butterfly.
Jeff Porcaro was a team player first, a session drummer second. Making his name with L.A. rockers Toto, he was soon in demand for his ability to not only groove, but also to turn practically any session into a hit. Porcaro’s stellar creativity and amazing drumming personality can be heard all over Steely Dan’s Katy Lied and Gaucho, where (after Dan’s Becker and Fagen left the premises) he and engineer Roger Nichols spent an entire night recording and then perfecting the odd-metered title track. Like many of the greatest groove players, you could spot Porcaro’s big beat a mile away. There’s a certain indefinable lift in his best tracks, as though he gave every bit of strength and purpose to every take, song after song. The term “monster” suits him well. In an era when not many studio drummers were particularly hard hitting, Porcaro smacked his drums with a vengeance, particularly on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” Toto’s “Hold The Line,” Boz Scaggs’ “Lowdown,” and Donald Fagen’s “The Goodbye Look.” He could as easily play popping timbale fills on Scaggs’ “Love Me Tomorrow” or skanky reggae riddims in Toto’s “Somewhere Tonight.” A perfect example of Porcaro’s creativity, deep groove, and serious skills? Toto’s 1982 hit “Rosanna.” The world lost one of its great musicians on August 5, 1992 when Porcaro prematurely passed away.
Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen once said that when recording Aja, Royal Scam, and Gaucho, while the other musicians were still figuring out the charts, Bernard Purdie already had the drum part nailed and was telling them how to play their parts. Typically performing with an erect posture like a king surveying his domain, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie lent his dancing feel (the “Purdie Shuffle”) to dozens of hit recordings in the ’70s, including Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back To Me,” Steely Dan’s “Home At Last,” James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black & I’m Proud,” and B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” Though Purdie’s effortless groove is as dominant as his personality, it’s also light, popping, and practically Caribbean. Purdie’s work on Aretha’s “Rock Steady” was nothing less than a revolution, his eighth-note snare slaps augmented with Latin bell figures and a loping feel that set the standard for drum breaks for years to come.
If ever a drummer epitomized taste over technique, it’s Ringo Starr. During The Beatles’ six albums, Ringo kept pace with the ingenious songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, creating perfectly complementary grooves in songs that ran the gamut from blues, Broadway, jazz, metal, and pop to Latin and country. If anything, Ringo created the template for every session drummer that followed. A left-handed drummer playing a right-handed kit, Ringo’s style changed as The Beatles’ music progressed. He played swing triplets, twists, and bossa novas on early material, grounded avant-garde escapades on Magical Mystery Tour, punched hard rock, blues, and country on Meet The Beatles, and reached his creative zenith on Abbey Road’s “Come Together” and his lone drum solo track, “The End.” Post-Beatles, Ringo made his name as a session drummer extraordinaire before settling into his role as an avuncular superstar leading Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band.
Clyde Stubblefield/Jabo Starks
Without the dynamic duo of Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks there would be no David Garibaldi, no Dennis Chambers, no Gerald Heyward. As the inventive soul rhythmatists for James Brown’s legendary mid-’60s recordings, Stubblefield and Starks put the singer’s vocal gyrations in drumming motion, following his every tic and movement, then replicating it on the kit. Practically inventing linear grooves on the classics “Cold Sweat, “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose,” “Licking Stick–Licking Stick,” and “Funky Drummer,” the pair’s intricate grooves meshed with the other musicians’ output to create a locomotion of unparalleled proportions. Playing both as a team and solo behind Brown, the drummers — most likely under the singer’s direction — created lockstep sixteenth-note patterns with the rhythm-section members, creating a tight, extremely fluid forward-motion groove. Stubblefield’s driving work on “Funky Drummer” resulted in one of the most sampled tracks of all time.