Steve Smith's Drum Talk:
Confessions of a U.S. Ethnic Drummer (part 2)

In Part 1 of his interview with jazz journalist Bill Milkowski, drummer and scholar Steve Smith addressed the idea of being what he calls a "U.S. ethnic drummer."

This second installment, which details more of Smith's playing experiences past and present, picks up where he left off, bemoaning the loss of creativity and individual personality in modern day drumming as the pop world turns with increasing frequency toward having drummers emulate the "perfect" beat of drum machines.

MD: There was a moment in time, and you have to go back to the '50s, where pop music had all this very expressive drumming happening on records. Think of Earl Palmer's bass drum into on Fats Domino's hit "I'm Walkin'." The hook of that tune came from the bass drum, which kicked off the track. Drummers could make creative choices like that on those sessions which revealed their unique personalities. Nowadays, as you say, drummers have been relegated to simply emulating drum machines and so their playing is devoid of any personality.

Steve Smith: True. One of the measures of a good drummer today is that all your hits sound exactly the same and that you're consistent and perfectly in time. I don't see that so much as progress, really. I see it as a skill. It's a necessary skill for today's music business and I can do it.

I play on pop records so I can draw on that skill but it's not a natural or fun way for me to play music. I do it as if I'm a house painter and somebody tells me, "Paint my kitchen red." I'll go in and apply a coat of red paint to the walls. I don't feel like an artist at that point, I'm just following orders. And if somebody wants me to play a track on their record I'll go in and do it... make sure that all the snare hits are the same and the time is real even. It's a skill but it doesn't feel like what I aspire to do as an artist.

MD: So this is the prevailing aesthetic in the pop music of today. But what about when you were playing with Journey? Was there more room for expressiveness from the drum chair in that band?

SS: For me, that was a time when I was investigating and exploring and partaking in that whole rock experience, and at the time I felt a combination of restriction but with some creative license. I had come from playing with Jean-Luc Ponty and big band jazz and people like that so it was a big shift for me to play one beat for the chorus and another beat for the verse and have to stick to those rather than playing a time feel that was constantly varying. That was definitely a new concept for me but I tried to be as creative as I could within those parameters.

So I really started to get into that idea of developing that skill, yet it was before the time of click tracks and drum machines so there was still the concept of the band developing a pulse together with time being relative. It wasn't absolute as it is now with click tracks. You developed a pulse so the band could play together with a nice feel. And when we made records we tried our best to play with real good steady time and feel, and the records hold up today and still sound good. But if you analyze them against the perfection of today's standards you'll hear a chorus will speed up a little and a verse may slow down a little. The music breathes, it flows.

All pop music up until sometime in the mid '80s or the early '90s had that flow. Since then, virtually everything is done with a click. But with a group like Journey I had some freedom and also restrictions. So it was a bit of a balance. But still, it was never my everything. I didn't feel like it expressed all of who I was or am as a musician.

MD: That's true of every gig you've done since then from the Buddy's project to Vital Information to all the Tone Center stuff. You're so versatile that no one gig represents the whole scope of your musicality.

SS: And I need that. I guess I just need a constant shifting around of playing with different people. In a way, Vital Information does satisfy quite a bit of my musical urges. I can create it to express what it is I'm interested in expressing. So that's one of the more complete musical experiences that I've had. Steps Ahead was also like that.

MD: Let's address your prodigious output in recent years with Tone Center. How did you get involved with that label?

SS: The Tone Center label started with the first Vital Techtones record. Mike Varney owns Shrapnel Records and I had made records for him before -- Tony MacAlpine's first record (1986's Edge of Insanity), a Richie Kotzen record (1989 self-titled debut), Jeff Watson record (1992's Lone Ranger) and a few others.

Anyway, Varney had wanted to get into some fusion. I think part of the motivation was that there was so much emphasis at the time on smooth jazz and people dumbing their playing down for the masses that a whole audience was being ignored. And that's what we were going for, the people that LIKED the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck and The Tony Williams Lifetime. There was no label addressing that kind of music in the present day. And yet it seemed like there were a lot of people who wanted to hear musicians really playing and pushing their limits.

So with the stuff we do on Tone Center, it's aimed at the musicians. We're going for the same people that like to come to the clinics. And we're not worried about making music for the masses, we're aiming it at the listeners who want that adventurous playing. So in 1997, Mike Varney came up with the idea of me putting together a fantasy trio. I immediately blurted out, just sort of joking around, "OK, how about me, Scott Henderson and Victor Wooten." And he said, "OK, let's make it happen."

I had worked with Scott before in the ‘80s with Jeff Berlin and the band Players, so I called Scott but I didn't really know Victor. I only knew Victor from his solo records. I had checked out his first solo record at a listening station in a record store and was instantly blown away. I bought the record and just really loved it and I thought, "Wow, this guy is amazing. It would be great to play with him." Later he came to see Vital Information at Catalina Bar & Grill in L.A., which is how I met him. So I somehow traced him down, asked him about doing this fusion trio project with Scott and I, and he was into it. And then after we agreed on a time we got together at my house and made that record, pretty much just by jamming the tunes up... a song a day.

MD: That's been one of the conveniences of having a home studio.

SS: Yeah. But after the record was done then Mike Varney showed up with the record contracts and it said "Shrapnel Records" on the top of the contract. Somehow that didn't seem right for this music because Shrapnel Records was well known at the time as a heavy metal label and this wasn't a heavy metal record at all. So we talked to him about considering another label name and so Mike came up with the name Tone Center. And after that first record with Scott, Victor and myself, Varney said, "OK, so now I got a jazz label. I need product! Think of another group." So I just came up with all the different combinations I could think of.

First I did a recording with Frank Gambale and Stu Hamm (1998's Show Me What You Can Do). Next I was going to do one with Larry Coryell with Jeff Andrews on bass but something happened where Jeff couldn't make the session so we got Tom Coster to play B-3 and play left hand bass, that one's called Cause And Effect. Then I started getting a little more creative and I came up with three other guys I had never played with or even met but just thought it would be great to work with, which was (harmonica ace) Howard Levy, (violinist) Jerry Goodman and (bassist) Oteil Burbridge. Howard I knew from his work with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones and Jerry, of course, played on those early Mahavishnu Orchestra recordings that were so influential for me. Oteil is someone I had never heard of but Victor Wooten recommended him, saying that Oteil was his favorite bass player and that I should really work with him. I got in touch with them and even though we had never met we got together and created The Stranger's Hand, which is a really interesting recording.

MD: And a lot of this music develops while hanging out and casually jamming at your house?

SS: Yeah, basically, with that idea of doing a song a day. For each project we'd set aside nine or ten days and each day create a new piece of music.

In some cases, like with the Larry Coryell project, Larry brought in some finished tunes and we also created some stuff on the spot, so it was a combination of things, as it was with The Stranger's Hand. On that project Howard came in with some tunes and Jerry came in with some song fragments that we developed in the jamming scenario. But in general we'd just come up with things in the spur of the moment -- improvise a duet... you know, do something! Just get into a creative space and go with it. So it was always a great experience.

And we've continued that momentum with Vital Techtones 2 and two more projects with Frank, Stu and myself (2000's The Light Beyond and 2002's GH3) and a great group called Count's Jam Band that features Larry Coryell, Steve Marcus and Kai Eckhardt. And then other people started making records like those for Varney. (Bassist) Bunny Brunel started putting projects together for Tone Center with Dennis Chambers on drums and Tony MacAlpine on guitar called CAB. And then Jimmy Haslip, Robben Ford, and Vinnie Colaiuta put one together (2001's Jing Chi). And Mike also signed Rachel Z to the label. So he's gotten a lot of other people now who are making records for him with that same attitude of pushing the envelope and appealing to the fans of real playing. He keeps hammering us for VTT3, which hopefully we'll be able to do someday. It's been hard to get everyone together for another one.

MD: A departure from that formula of fusion-oriented thing which has come to define Tone Center was the Buddy's Buddies project.

SS: Right. I brought the idea to Mike Varney, which was a little more of a stretch for him because it was more straight ahead jazz. But it was a group that I had been playing some gigs with and it was a lot of fun. So we did the first one (1999's Steve Smith and Buddy's Buddies) and now there's two in the can, Buddy's Buddies Very Live at Ronnie Scott's -- Set One and Set Two -- they will come out late 2003.

MD: What do these Tone Center records represent to you as a player?

SS: Well, I have a very large part to play in the creative process. On most of them I'm credited as the producer so I organize the sessions and direct them while we're in the studio. And before we do the records usually I'll take some time and come up with, say, ten song ideas that are just drum parts or grooves. So there'll be a tempo and a concept and maybe even a reference, like, "OK, listen to this Mahavishnu tune where it uses a beat like this and let's try writing something in that vein." So out of those ten grooves maybe six of them will be turned into songs. First by me playing a groove and then, say, Victor or Stu or whoever's playing will come up with a bass groove to go with that drum part. And then Scott or Frank will come up with the chords. And then the melody will happen and we'll go from there.

The other guys also bring in fragments, generally not completed songs. And that way it gives everyone input. So as a drummer it's exciting to be involved on the ground floor of the composition of a piece of music and the direction of it.

MD: But is there anything in that context of those Tone Center recordings that you're doing technically that you can't do in Vital Information or other situations?

SS: Each one is very unique. With Vital Information there's a concept that we now have which is more or less the soul-jazz Hammond B-3 organ sound with some swing and funk and New Orleans in the mix. So I have a general direction with that group. With GHS3, that's more rock-fusion, where Frank plugs in, turns his amp on ten and wails. We don't generally do that with Vital Information. Maybe at the end of the night or sometimes for the last tune, but generally we don't do that. So yeah, it's different and I play with a different concept on the drums in each setting.

MD: Do you use a different kit for the more hard-hitting fusion-oriented stuff?

SS: A little bit of a different kit. Usually is use a bigger bass drum and some different cymbals. It's generally the same kit but with a bit of a different playing concept. With Vital Information I might have Zigaboo (Modeliste, of The Meters) or Mike Clark (of The Headhunters) in mind as a reference. Or even Tony Williams, but Tony from the '60s. Whereas, with Vital Techtones or GHS my reference is more Tony Williams from the '70s, like the New Lifetime band with Holdsworth, or Billy Cobham or Alphonse Mouzon. It just gives me a different point of reference conceptually to come from. And so naturally I play differently in all of the settings.

MD: I understand that you've been involved lately with playing a lot of Indian music. What are your points of reference with that as a drummer?

SS: Interestingly with the Indian music there's really no precedent. So in some ways it's the most uniquely creative outlet for me as a drummer. There are no U.S. drumset players that play with an Indian concept, at least not that I know of. Trilok Gurtu is the other way around. He's not a drumset player who plays with an Indian concept but an Indian drummer who incorporates a Western concept. So he's somewhat of a reference but I use the actual drumset when I play in these Indian music settings. So I have to really create that sound on my own, which is nice...and very creative.

MD: What are the situations that you are currently playing in that utilize this Indian concept of drumset playing?

SS: There's two groups that are somewhat similar. One was with tabla player Sandip Burman called East Meets Jazz with Victor Bailey on bass, Jerry Goodman on violin, Howard Levy on keys and harmonica and David Pietro on sax with special guests Randy Brecker on trumpet and Paul Bollenback on guitar. That was in a way my trial by fire introduction to Indian music and I found it incredibly fascinating. I learned a lot playing Sandip's music because he wrote music that was based on Indian rhythmic and melodic concepts. So it was really, really challenging and difficult at first until I started to understand some of the basic concepts and then integrate them into my playing.

And then I wanted to learn a lot more about Indian music so last summer I had the chance to study with a teacher from South India named Karuna Moorthy, he plays a drum called the tavil. It's a drum from South India that we don't see very much over here. It's a short double-headed drum. On the right hand he uses what look like thimbles on his fingers and with the left hand he plays with a stick. The left hand is the low side and the right hand is the high side. He taught me the basics of a rhythmic system called kunnakol, which is a rhythmic language of South India. Not drum sounds but the rhythmic breakup of phrases that you hear in Indian music... you know, the taka-dimi-taka-dimi-taka-takita-taka-takita rhythmic phrases that they vocalize.

So he taught me some of that and a lot of other exercises, and he gave me some drum compositions. One of the things that the Indian drummers do is write rhythmic compositions for the instruments, and many of them are like standards. They know lots of these compositions and most everyone knows the same ones. So Karuna taught me some of them and we played them together. And then I've had the good fortune of being in a band and touring with Zakir Hussain, who is really, probably, the greatest drummer alive on the planet Earth. He's just an incredible musician and an incredible drummer. We play together in a band called Summit with Kai Eckhardt on bass, who played with John McLaughlin and Trilok Gurtu, Fareed Haque on guitar and George Brooks, who is the bandleader and principal composer, on sax.

We did a record together and we've been playing gigs around the world lately. Doing that has taken me to another level because the music is very sophisticated. I'm playing these drum compositions that I've learned with Zakir and we get to really stretch out. It's incredibly exciting! We just recorded a tracked for an upcoming Magna Carta drummer CD, it features Zakir and I playing solos and duets, we called it "Mad Tea Time."

MD: You're playing the regular kit with that band?

SS: I play the Sonor Jungle Set, which is the same thing I played with Sandip, because the tablas are very quiet. I had to develop a kit that wasn't too loud, so I use mainly flat cymbals and splashes and use brushes or bundled rods instead of sticks.

MD: As you mentioned that the swing beat or swing feel is the fundamental characteristic of U.S. drumming, what is the fundamental characteristic of Indian drumming?

SS: That's a good question and I don't know the answer yet. I do know that playing with Zakir is very different than playing with Sandip because Zakir has incorporated the rhythmic feels of all the different cultures from around the world into his playing. He'll play what absolutely feels like Afro-Cuban rhythms on the tabla, or he'll play African sounding stuff or even swing on the tabla. He can sound like an American swing drummer and he even incorporates a walking bass by playing melodically on the baya with his left hand. It's incredible!

So he really adapted his playing in a lot of ways to the Western concept and it just feels very comfortable for me to play with him. In a way, I'd say our fundamental way of communicating is still more U.S. but with the flavor of raga and tala, that melodic and rhythmic characteristics of India. And the way we play is essentially we're U.S. players. Actually, it's a pretty international band from Fareed (Pakistan) to Kai (Germany) to Zakir (India), but we communicate fundamental with a U.S. central concept and then superimpose the other concepts onto that.

Indian musicians have such an extensive rhythmic vocabulary to draw on. They work on all of these rhythms and time signatures... we call them time signatures though I hesitate to use that word because it's more thought of as beat cycles. As a drummer it's infinitely interesting to get into. And again, playing with Zakir has been so inspirational.

The tabla is such an expressive instrument. You get so many sounds just on one little drum and with Zakir's two drums, in a way, he plays with more sounds than I do with the whole drum set. The closest that we drummers come to the level of nuance that tabla players can get is when we play with brushes. We can muffle the tone, we can hit it and let it ring and get some different tones that way. With the stick we can get different tones depending on where you play on the head, but mostly it's open tones on the snare drum. But without having a hand on the drum to alternate between muffled tones and open tones and pitch change it's tough. Although, there are some great drummers, like Jeff Hamilton, who are exploring the concept of pitch change on the drumset. He plays melodically in a way I've never seen anyone do. He can play actual jazz standards using pitch bend by putting the stick in the head. He's one of the most musical drummers on the scene today.

MD: It seems that today the drumset, a U.S. invention, has become such a universal instrument.

SS: Right, it went out from the U.S. and was accepted by other cultures and then was adapted in some ways to them. Really, the first culture outside of the U.S. to embrace the drumset was the British. And as a result we have the first generation of rock drum stars. For the most part the archetype does come from England. Even though we had Dino Danelli and Carmine Appice and Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine... a lot of great drummers came from the United States but really the main archetypes that defined the rock drummer even of today are the English drummers from Ringo to Charlie Watts to John Bonham and Ginger Baker. So the British really embraced the instrument and then added to the vocabulary.

MD: And each really had a unique style, a signature voice on the instrument.

SS: Yeah, really different. And essentially they all had strong pulse and great swing to their playing. And then the French, especially with Kenny Clarke moving to Paris (in the 1950s), they really embraced the drumset. And then it spread to the rest of Europe and guys played it but with a bit of their own culture added in.

Take a guy like Jan Christiansen, for example (drummer with Keith Jarrett in the '70s). To me, he sounds like Jack DeJohnette or Tony Williams and yet there's something really uniquely Norwegian to his playing. Somehow he put the music of his own culture into his drumset playing. And you hear it today in players like Akira Jimbo, who has integrated the U.S. concept with a Japanese technology concept, or Trilok Gurtu, who is essentially a North Indian tabla player who has brought in elements of the drumset and created a real unique hybrid.

Or Joe Zawinul's great drummer from the Ivory Coast, Paco Sery, he's absorbed the whole U.S. thing but he's put his own thing on it, an African concept. And obviously there are the Afro-Cuban players like Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez who have assimilated the drumset into their music, and so on. You can see how it's a real adaptable instrument. It's been brought into the other cultures and everyone's done their own thing with it.

MD: How would you look back at yourself as a drummer when you just got the gig with Jean-Luc Ponty and were getting your career started? What was your vocabulary like at that time and how have you grown since then?

SS: OK, that's a good question. When I auditioned for Jean-Luc Ponty I was a seventh semester student at Berklee. I was 22 years old and my focus was big band jazz. I toured for a couple of summers with a trumpet player named Lin Biviano, who was a lead trumpet player for Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson and had his own band in the style of the Maynard Ferguson big band -- the small big band he had at the time with two bones, four trumpets and three saxes and a rhythm section.

We toured the East Coast and the Midwest with that group, which included Bobby Malach on tenor and Barry Kiener on piano, Joe Romano on lead alto, John Lockwood on bass...a lot of really great players. I played a lot of big band and I also played a lot of free jazz at the time in a Boston group called The Fringe with George Garzone on tenor sax and Rich Appleman on bass. I had played a little bit of bebop with (clarinetist) Buddy DeFranco and also played locally in Boston in a pop-funk band with bassist Neil Stubenhaus that played at the Ramada Inn six nights a week.

But at the time I met Ponty, I didn't really play much fusion. I had played a little bit of fusion with (guitarist) Jamie Glaser and (bassist) Jeff Berlin. And then there was a band I played with called Baird Hersey & The Year of the Ear, which was kind of fusion. So I didn't have much experience playing fusion but I had heard it and seen enough of it to get a handle on it. And I was able to get the gig with Ponty because I read well. He put a lot of charts in front of me... I mean, odd times and some very difficult music, and I could read everything. I think he saw that I had the potential to do well but it took me a long time to really do that well with the band.

MD: It seems like it must've been a very disciplined gig.

SS: Yeah, I was more of a jazz drummer than a fusion drummer at that point, so things were sort of... a little more separated. I was a good straight-ahead jazz drummer and I could also play sort of pop-funk drums but I didn't do much of both together. So that Ponty gig put them both together for me.

That gig was literally fusing those two styles so I very naturally developed the ability to play fusion. I have a video of me playing with Ponty from the first couple of months. I used a little Gretsch drumset. I didn't have a double bass kit back then. He asked me to get a big double bass kit "like Billy Cobham's," so that's when I got my first Sonor drumset with two 24" bass drums and three rack toms and two floor toms.

Then I worked on that style, consciously emulating Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden, who were my favorite drummers at that time. I especially loved the way that Narada Michael Walden played with Mahavishnu II, especially on Visions of the Emerald Beyond. That Ponty gig was a big transition for me and that was the doorway into being a rock drummer, because once I got the double bass drum set I really started operating at a different dynamic...playing loud, playing hard, which then led me to eventually playing with (guitarist) Ronnie Montrose. I left Ponty at the end of '77 and by early '78 I moved to L.A. and auditioned with Ronnie Montrose and Freddie Hubbard in the same week and got both gigs, so that was a real turning point in my career. It was like, "OK, I can play with Freddie and do the straight ahead thing or play with Ronnie Montrose doing something like a Jeff Beck kind of thing."

MD: This was just after Blow By Blow?

SS: Exactly. Ronnie had just put out an instrumental record called Open Fire, which was in that vein, and for the tour he wanted a fusion drummer. So that made sense for me to play with him because I wanted to play a little bit more of the rock thing. It just seemed interesting to me at the time. Where, geez, I would've loved to have played with Freddie Hubbard but I had to make a choice and I just somehow had the feeling that I could always do that or something like that.

So for me, playing with Ronnie Montrose was a more unique opportunity, to see what that more aggressive style of playing was like. So I took that gig and that ultimately ended up leading to Journey because we were the opening act for Journey. And then I wanted to see what that was like... playing with singers. So there I was playing with singers and songwriters and rock players, but to me they seemed very good at what they did so it didn't seem like that much of a stretch.

Neal Schon played great guitar and Gregg Rolie was a great B-3 player and singer and Steve Perry was a great singer and I liked Ross Valory's bass playing. It just all made sense to me. And my chops were slowly developing and adapting to each situation. I'd have to say that I had the potential to do well in each situation but I needed to develop into the gigs.

But it's not like I feel today... as you say, I can go into something and have a large vocabulary to draw upon. I didn't in those days. I was just building it. I'd get my foot in the door because I had enough musicianship to do that but then I would exploit the situation and learn as much as I could from it. I was learning about rock drumming from hanging out with rock musicians and playing with rock musicians. I was learning about fusion drumming from hanging out and playing with Jean-Luc Ponty and (bassist) Tom Fowler and later (bassist) Ralphe Armstrong and (guitarist). Allan Holdsworth played with that band for a minute and appeared on the record Enigmatic Ocean.

I was thrown into situations and I was learning by doing and developing a vocabulary, researching the drummers that did it in each setting. When I was with Journey I was listening to everyone from Charlie Watts to investigating how Nigel Olsen played ballads with Elton John. In some ways, Nigel was an inspiration for my playing on some of those Journey ballads. He doesn't get a lot of credit but, you know, he was somebody that I checked out and really liked how he approached the music.

MD: So you've always had an analytical ear?

SS: I guess so. And I would do a certain amount intuitively, just as a response. But then there was the studied thing too that I would get into...seeing how other guys did it and then adding their ideas and licks to my thing. And then the next really big thing that happened for me was leaving Journey and playing for Steps Ahead. That was really jumping in with both feet playing with great musicians like Michael Brecker and Mike Stern, Darryl Jones and Victor Bailey and Mike Mainieri.

But again, I think I had the ability to get my foot in the door but I didn't go in there and do this great job from the first minute. I really worked my way through it, worked my way up through practice, through listening to recordings, studying and hanging out with the players. That's when I really started to try and work on my chops a lot more because I needed to play with a lot more dynamics in Steps Ahead than I had played with in Journey...that and the ability to play really fast jazz tempos. That all required a lot more finesse so I really had to re-examine my technique. And that got me into eventually studying with Freddie Gruber.

MD: What specifically did he work on with you?

SS: The first and really the most essential thing for me was to get into the balance point of the stick. When I was playing with Journey and even in the early Steps Ahead days I held the sticks way in the back. Well, if you hold the sticks way in the back you have to individually play every stroke, there's no bouncing, there's no rebound. The balance point is finding the spot where the stick just bounces by itself.

Freddie, being from the old school, is really in touch with how to play the drums very relaxed and naturally. That wouldn't have been an issue for drummers from the '60s on back. People picked up the drumsticks and they played with the proper balance point in order to play the music, they didn't have to try to play loud all the time. And even for me...before Journey I played the same way I'm playing now but I got out of that because I changed my grip. You can play louder if you hold the sticks in the back but you can't play with more subtlety.

MD: Did you ever try to play with a matched grip?

SS: A little bit. I messed around with matched grip but it never felt that good to me since I started with the traditional grip from the time I was a kid.

MD: But you can get more volume that way.

SS: Yeah, I think I could. But at this point I'm not concerned with volume, just sound. So that was the first thing I did with Freddie Gruber... finding the balance point. Then he helped me get out of the habit of always hitting the drum hard as opposed to letting the stick drop and getting a nice sound, really getting a better tone on the drum. The other thing was breaking the habit of playing through the head. I describe that in the DVD... that idea that you allow the stick to rebound off of the head rather than driving the stick into the head. And that just opens up a new world.

You can play so much more relaxed that way and you can get a nicer sound, and interestingly, a bigger sound. You actually get a bigger sound by just aligning with a lot of these natural principals. So as I'm incorporating all of these different techniques and playing concepts I'm generally not discarding any of the old ones, so it's an ongoing and natural way of building abilities and vocabulary, which is not something you can only do at home in the practice room. You can sit home and practice, do some research, listen and transcribe and get some things together, but ultimately you need the on-the-job experience to actually turn these concepts into music and really absorb the ideas and have them be meaningful and useful within the different genres and idioms.

So when I play a certain fill and I'm playing with a rock musician they give me the nod of "Yeah, that's working" as opposed to the stare or surprised look of like, "What the hell was that that you're doing!" You figure that stuff out just by experience on the bandstand. So the tendency is to go for the nod. And the concepts are different, depending on who you're playing with and what the music is. Some of the things that worked great for Journey, if I did that behind Michael Brecker it would be like the "What the hell are you doing?" look.

MD: You've gotten that look before in your career?

SS: Absolutely! (laughs) Sure. It's part of the learning process and you want to try to avoid that look. You know, you figure out what people need. Even in the same band, different things are going to work for different people. When I play behind Tom Coster, what's going to work for him is a little different than what's going to work behind Frank Gambale. And it's like that with whatever band I'm in. You have to just learn to listen and make some adjustments.

MD: So through all these experiences over the years you've arrived at this place now where you're a far more seasoned player, a more well-rounded musician than that kid who came out of Berklee to play with Jean-Luc Ponty.

SS: Yeah, definitely. I was a pretty good musician for my age back then but I had a long way to go, really. That's why I tell students who come to the clinics, "Just because you went to an audition and got the gig doesn't mean that you're really good enough to do a great job on that gig right away."

In my case I was good enough to get my foot in the door of that Ponty gig, but that was just the beginning. The leader usually sees, "OK, the kid's got the potential." But then it's up to you to get in there and take advantage of the situation and really learn and grow and develop. And I think you hear that with all musicians that did that. The Tony Williams that left the Miles Davis band in 1968 was a different drummer than the one that played on Seven Steps To Heaven back in 1963. Follow the path of Elvin Jones from the beginning of the Coltrane experience to the end or Billy Cobham from the beginning of the Mahavishnu Orchestra to the end. They evolved. If they're into it, they'll take advantage of the situation and learn and grow from that situation.

The Dave Weckl that first started playing with Chick Corea was a great drummer. But where Dave Weckl is now is a completely different player. He's so much more seasoned and mature and has developed a lot as a musician. That's just one example that's easy to see. I think a lot of young people get fooled into thinking that once you get the gig, that's it. Relax. But it's not really the case. That's when it's time to start going to work.

Continue to Part 3...

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Click the links, below, to read "Drum Talk" articles written by Steve Smith:

Drummer Magazine, 2007 (PDF)
Modern Drummer (three parts)
Choosing the Right Equipment
The Art of Practice (an excerpt)
Interview with Rhythm Magazine
Drums du jour: Dealing with Rental Drums
Vital Reading: My Favorite Music Books
Learning from Mentors
My Setup and Equipment: The Early Years
My Setup and Equipment: My Setup Today