By John Payne
It’s not as if Vinnie Colaiuta just decided at one point to learn to play different styles, and indeed it wasn’t always easy for him to adapt to them. The Republic, Pennsylvania lad instead found that it was much easier to learn a new style of music if you actually liked it.
“Let’s just say what I didn’t do was try to seek out many different playing styles, because I was thinking, ‘Well, I’d better be able to do this to be a big session kingpin,’ or anything like that,” he says. “I just like a lot of different kinds of music, and I like quality music regardless of genre. I’ve never looked at it like, ‘Well, this is really hard and, damn it, I have to learn this style!’ I just like it first.”
1. It’s About Getting In Character
He likens his multifaceted job as a drummer to that of an actor playing a role that he perhaps hates; a lot of times he’s got to say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that role.’ And if he doesn’t happen to like the music he’s playing, well, he doesn’t feel it should be a requirement for any drummer to feel like they have to be able to play ten different styles with absolute authenticity.
“As a kid,” he says, “you can identify with and you want to play certain kinds of punk music or something, and then later on in your adult life you still have the physical capacity to play ‘punk’ music, but on an authenticity level, you don’t have teen angst anymore; now you have adult angst, [laughs] like, ‘I have to pay my mortgage angst’ vs. ‘I’m trying to establish my autonomy angst’ or whatever it is.”
A drummer’s developmental periods are manifested in various ways, one being the desire to play a certain thing and the willingness and the amount of time they put into it. And, like an actor, a drummer doesn’t need to have an identity crisis when playing a musical role that he doesn’t strongly identify with.
“Interestingly, when you see some actors in various roles, it seems like they’re always kind of being themselves, while other actors usually seem a little more transparent,” he says. “Even certain actors who have done a good variety of roles know that they’re just never going to be Batman.”
For Colaiuta, there’s nothing wrong at all with being a specialist drummer adept in a limited number of roles. “I’ve come to believe that greatness is really not genre-specific; it’s not about how many genres you’re ‘good’ at,” he says. “There’re photographers who just do portraits or just do landscapes. Musicians shy away from being specialists now because everybody wants to work and make money. They start thinking, ‘Oh shoot, I’ve got to do this,’ and the next thing you know they’re forcing themselves to play.”
2. It’s About Concept + Context
By the time he’d gotten into sixth grade, Colaiuta had been exposed to a veritable plethora of musical things, from Motown, soul music, R&B, and the British invasion bands to big-band drumming including Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton, and Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.
“Seeing advanced concepts with big bands like Don Ellis’ at a high school concert was a big turning point for me. And then the high-school jazz band I was in went to one of those tri-state gatherings, and I met with a young drummer in one of the other bands and struck up a conversation with him. He asked me who my favorite drummer was. I said ‘Buddy Rich.’
“And I said, ‘How about you? Who’s your favorite drummer?’ He said, ‘Tony Williams.’ And I didn’t know who Tony Williams was, so the next day I went to a record store, and on the wall was this Tony Williams record called Ego. So I bought it and took it home and put it on my turntable.”
The music of Tony Williams was a huge departure from anything that Colaiuta had previously been exposed to. “I listened to this, and it was like someone has just started speaking Greek. I was confused, because viscerally I knew there was something there that was huge, but I just couldn’t get it. And so the next day I put the record on again, and it was one of those anvil-hitting-you-on-the-head moments, like a flash of light, and the skies opened and the whole bit. I got it.”
On his second listen to Ego, Colaiuta was transfixed, literally. “I could not believe what I was hearing,” he says. The most important thing for him was the conceptual expansion. He explains, “Because it’s all concept: concept plus context. The concept rules, but everything is contextual. And the concept and the context work together.
“Chops are a means to an end. Anybody who doesn’t have a physical or mental handicap who sits behind a kit long enough and goes through repetitive motions and devotes their time to that in the right way can have chops. But it’s like if my grandmother gets in a dragster and turns the ignition and just floors it, and you’ve got 1,000-1,500 horsepower. Someone who has conceptually arrived can contextually take just one of those horsepowers and change your life.”
3. It’s About Loving It
Colaiuta was by his own description a geeky, book-study kind of guy as a kid, and he wanted to absorb as much musical knowledge as he could, though he didn’t think much about putting radical teachers like Tony Williams and Don Ellis in perspective. For him it was all about growing and learning, and having a ball doing it. Which is, he says, a timeless thing.
“You’ve got to have joy in the process, because it’s all process. Whether it’s ups or downs, we just have joy in learning from that process.”
4. It’s About Having Big Ears
Figuring things out thus became somewhat of a passion for Colaiuta, and, mind you, he had to sort out the proper techniques and disciplines long before there was YouTube, a research tool he both likes and dislikes.
“It does have its benefits,” he says, “but it’s a rabbit hole, too. The plus side is that you can see something that you might want to see, and that something could be beneficial, historically or technique-wise. The minus is that you can see bad representations of things and become a little myopic.”
He calls YouTube’s ability to lay everything out in front of you an aid in the modeling process, but emphasizes that the modeling needs to be a transitory process; i.e., if it isn’t, then everybody risks getting stuck playing the same stuff.
“Back in the day we just had to figure things out and use our ears,” he says. “The eyes were used for looking at written music; we listened to recordings and transcribed things as best as we could, and deconstructed things. We absorbed whatever we could through witnessing live events and let that sink into our minds and our bodies through fricking osmosis. It seemed to work for a lot of people.”
He references the old New York jazz days, before he was born, when musicians would study, and play, and gain experience interacting with other players, and hang out, and the learning process was very hands-on.
“When it comes to technique, that horse has to be trained and tamed,” he says. “The horse can’t lead you where it wants to go, you have to tell it where to go. But unfortunately, it’s telling us where to go a lot of times, and it can breed passivity. We spend more time getting talked into constant software upgrades and spending much of our time learning it instead of having an easily learnable tool that just enables us to create.”
5. It’s About Learning The Language
Now picture that light bulb flickering on above young Colaiuta’s head as he starts to grasp Tony Williams. For this young drummer, thinking about and feeling Williams’ musicality involved a willingness to unplug his ears and embrace the unknown and unfamiliar. It was an experience that in later years would serve him well in adapting to a wide range of styles — and playing them with authenticity.
“You need to play the music to master different styles,” says Colaiuta, “because they’re all different cultural expressions and emotive musical expressions. And the technique of doing them will follow when you seek to understand what is being said.”
“You need to play the music to master different styles.”
Yet he suggests that it’s best for a drummer to think like a specialist before roaming far afield genre-wise. “There are so many different dialects among Latin communities, for example, that I’m sure they even argue over; in Brazilian music or African music, there’s so much dialectical stuff that’s reflective of their culture and their language, and to master all of those dialects is a daunting task. You can’t possibly hope to become a chameleon until you start delving into being a specialist.”
He feels that musicians need to seek a broad understanding of musicality, which includes sensitivity toward cultural aspects of the music, and that without being a specialist you have to cut your way down the middle and seek to understand it on a broad level. “And then once you get into it deeper you can choose to go down any of the various alleyways in that big city.”
6. It’s About Letting Go
Any young drummer will eventually come face-to-face with the big-picture question of what it takes to play the drums truly musically. Colaiuta’s answer to that is a bit radical. “At the end of the line,” he says, “you’ve got to stop thinking drums and just think music — and actually, don’t even think music, just flow, because thought is the enemy of flow. It’s like this: You’re flying a plane through the jungle and you see all these trees, and your thinking about how to negotiate over the trees is an automatic process because you’ve already learned how to fly the plane — and now you have to react.”
Similarly, he says, when you’re playing drums, your thinking is like a computer running programs in the background; when the band is playing at blistering tempos, you can’t stop to think about fills. He notes the great advantage in learning how to read music in gaining an understanding of this process.
“Just play the whole piece from top to bottom, no matter how much you fail, in the tempo that’s written, then go back and try to work out difficult passages — but don’t stop, because you’re not going to stop in real life; there’s no cutting and pasting in live performance.”
It’s a tricky thing, this thinking/not thinking aspect of playing the drums with trueness and feeling. Colaiuta takes pains to point out that he doesn’t want to discourage anyone in the midst of their learning process from dissecting the music and learning pattern recognition, for example. The risk, he says, is that things get shortsighted when one puts the thinking/technique cart before the musical horse.
“Everything has its place, and you have to understand what it’s for and prioritize it,” he says. “For the student who wants to do that, there’s got to be something about the music that they want to learn to play that is inspiring them to want to play, so they’re going to figure out how to do it, all the while keeping that music they like in mind. If it’s speed metal drumming, they’ll practice and practice until their feet get really fast, but it’s because they want to play these songs, and it’s a genre that they like. They’re figuring it out, but they have the musical picture in their head already. Same goes for jazz and any other genre.”
7. It’s About Building A Solid Foundation
Colaiuta puts most any discussion of learning the rudiments in a cultural context. What we in Western society think of as “rudimentary” drum techniques certainly have their place, he says, but don’t quite reign supreme when playing the rhythmic traditions in other parts of the world.
“Rudiments are just building blocks that have been cataloged and developed,” he says. “But drums are about sound, too, whether you play something hand-to-hand, whether you play doubles, and how that might apply on the instrument you’re playing. Yes, there are guys taking Western standard snare drum rudiments and playing them on conga drums; by the same token, I don’t think people playing djembes in Africa are thinking about ‘rudiments.’ They might have hand-to-hand patterns that they use in various combinations in order to play the sounds that they are playing, which are also determined by their particular sound sources.”
8. It’s About Touch
Drummers who wish to play styles not culturally their own will develop a touch based on the instrument itself and on the kind of music they play. To this end, learning to play ergonomically, Colaiuta says, means finding the path of least resistance.
“An orchestral player will be quite different from a rudimental player, but there are a lot of common grounds, like rebound vs. non-rebound and broad things such as ergonomics. People say, ‘You’ve got to have more strength to play heavy rock than you do to play jazz,’ but there are people who play loud jazz and people who play very relaxed rock and roll, and the more that you can play ergonomically, the more that your technique can be a well-rounded technique that you can adapt into various situations.”
One might assume that most drummers learn easy drumming styles first, and harder ones later. But “easy” and “hard” just sort of scrape the surface; learning to play simple things well, for example, can be difficult.
“I found playing the soul music I was listening to as a kid to be very ‘easy,’” he says. “But would you say that playing a groove like the Staple Singers’ ‘I’ll Take You There’ is easier than Mahavishnu’s The Inner Mounting Flame? It takes more time and technique to play Mahavishnu, but that might not translate to being able to really play ‘I’ll Take You There’ well. That’s not easy. I’ve come to realize that some of the simplest things are the hardest things to play.”
9. It’s About Emotion
Mastering the real-feel of a new drumming style will always be a get-it or not-get-it proposition. How does one get the feel beyond just practice, practice, practice? It’s a matter of getting beyond technique, says Colaiuta, and viewing the kind of music you’re playing in context. Like a mantra, he emphasizes the importance of internalizing what you know how to play without being overly conscious of it.
“Technique just means ‘by way of’ — how you do something,” he says. “Ultimately it has to service a concept, and you’ve got to have a concept and context. And you can bend from that technique in order to facilitate a concept, and to get it musically you have to open yourself up, willingly listen to it, shut your mind down and just feel it.”
Overall, serving the concept musically might extend to the way Colaiuta feels the beats within the beats — a rhythm is a rough guideline within which matters of phrasing and feel can be doled out in a flexible way. “I see a beat as an emotive event in time, and even if it’s a repeating pattern, it’s got momentum, this propulsive thing that’s happening for a specified amount of time.”
10. It’s About Making It Work
Vinnie Colaiuta finds peace just sitting down and playing his drums. His practice routine, by the way, is just that, a routine, and there isn’t one drumming style he works on more often than others. His practice routine’s basic tools or rudiments are the same ones available to anyone, yours to use in a personal way; it’s what you make of it, he says, what you say with it, that’s going to get you the mileage.
“It’s like, Shakespeare dealt with the same alphabet as some guy who writes in the comments bar on YouTube and who spells like someone in kindergarten. You can be Shakespeare or you can be ‘Why Can’t Johnny Read?’”
He finds that when working on a new drumming style, his “comfort level” will usually lock in fairly quickly, which he attributes to the sheer amount of experience he has playing — and dissecting — various related styles, and from his natural inclination when faced with an unfamiliar style to immerse himself in it, dive in feet-first, and start swimming.
“If you were to put me in a situation where it was very dialectic, like African music where you had to adhere to a rhythmic pattern that reflected a linguistic statement, I would say, ‘Okay, I see, all the improvisatory and interactive aspects will be based off of this mothership, and I’m not that familiar with it, so I have to go and practice it.”
The same is true when Colaiuta needs to learn a piece of music that isn’t a genre that he’s comfortable with, or, as is often the case, he’s asked to interpret an electronically sequenced drum track. Often it’s an awkward pattern, where some guy has programmed a rhythm and he’s not a drummer and doesn’t understand what plays well on a drum set. Ever the pro, Vinnie gladly takes the challenge.
“I like to try and find things that flow well — again, the path of least resistance — and sometimes I’ll have to go and practice that, and it can take a while or not take a while. But I have enough technical facility that, aside from any weird physical requirements to do that oddball thing, I can find a way to make it work.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Drum! magazine. This is the first time it has appeared online.