Kenny Aronoff: One Of World’s Most Successful Drummers, Rolling Stone’s Top 100 All Time, Shares All
Kenny Aronoff is one of the world’s most influential, in-demand drummers in rock and roll history. Rolling Stone Magazine named him one of the “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” and the readers of Modern Drummer Magazine named him the #1 Pop/Rock Drummer and #1 Studio Drummer.
The list of artists he’s worked with on the road and/or in the studio is a who’s who of the music industry’s top talent. He’s played on records that have sold over 300 million copies. 1300 of those records have ended up as Gold, Platinum, or Diamond RIAA Certified. And he has played on many #1 Hit singles. His latest record is Joe Satriani’s album “Shapeshifting”, a 2020 release that entered the Top 100 Albums chart at #8.
Kenny’s winning approach to drumming and life is a testament to his mastery as a team player, a leader, and a communicator who also has an incredibly strong work ethic. Qualities that have earned him a lasting career for several decades with more recording studio and live performance appearances than perhaps any other working drummer in history. Known as the Hardest Hitting Man in Show Business, and one of the most impactful, creative drummers in the recording industry, Kenny has created some of the most iconic drum parts in rock history.
Join us for a conversation where Chris and Kenny dive deep into themes of teamwork, leadership, survival, greatness, and work ethic. Defining Kenny’s mindset and outlook that has led to his enormous success.
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Kenny Aronoff: One Of World’s Most Successful Drummers, Rolling Stone’s Top 100 All Time, Shares All
Joining me is rock and roll legend Kenny Aronoff. He’s one of the 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time, according to Rolling Stone magazine. Playing on records, selling over 300 million copies, playing on 1,300 that are certified Gold, Platinum, or Diamond records, and 60 Grammy Award-nominated or winning records, and nine number one hit singles on the Top 100. He’s played for the Grammys, the Oscars, the Kennedy Center awards.
He has been the drummer for the who’s who in rock and roll history, artists like John Mellencamp for seventeen years and John Fogerty for 27 years or so. Artists from Joe Cocker to Joe Satriani, Jon Bon Jovi, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Elton John, Ray Charles, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morissette, Celine Dion, Bonnie Raitt, The Smashing Pumpkins, Meat Loaf, and Johnny Cash. To Willie Nelson, Alice Cooper, Billy Gibbons, and many more. He’s played with so many incredible artists and he stayed in relevance for many decades. We talked about what he believes in and the principles and tools that make him in demand and loved by all the people who play with him. Topics like teamwork, leadership, work ethic, survival, and of course, becoming and remaining great. Please join me in a conversation with this rock superstar, Kenny Aronoff.
Kenny Aronoff, thank you for joining me on Virtually Speaking. How the heck are you doing?
I’m great, Chris. I’m in my studio. I love being in my studio. I get to play drums and record music.
You’ve recorded a lot of music in that studio, and you’re there every day rehearsing.
I’ve been here every single day. This is my office. It makes me feel good to come here and get some work done.
It’s the actual woodshedding, they call it?
Yeah. People send me music and then I transcribe every single drum part for the songs I record. I then go into the other room and record the songs. I usually give people three takes and then I move to the next song. I love the process.
You have some Gold and Platinum records behind you. I know that’s a small portion of the 1,300 Gold, Platinum, and Diamond albums that you’ve been awarded and you’ve played on. That’s got to be a record. I’ve always wanted to talk to you about that. Is there anybody else who has that many? If you look at Elvis, he’s got 90. He’s got less than 100 records that are either Gold, Platinum, or Diamond. I don’t know how many millions that is. You’ve been on 300 million albums sold. There’s a chance that there might not be many other people who’ve even gotten over 1,000 certified RIAA Gold, Platinum, or Diamond records. Am I right?
I haven’t checked that out but it is a lot. I would imagine that because these three albums I recorded, two Celine Dion records, each one of them sold 40 million records. Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell II sold over 40 million records.
You played on one of my favorite songs, I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That). That’s a seven-minute song.
You heard the seven-minute version. It was actually a ten-minute version. The funny story about that was I was going like, “You’re wasting your money. You’re wasting your time. Nobody plays a ten-minute song on the radio.” Typical hit radio singles are 3.5 minutes so I was laughing, and it was number one in twenty countries in the same week. That was the 7.5-minute version, people wanted to hear it.
He was the king of the world at that point.
I love being on records that were successful because I feel like I’m doing my job. My job is one thing and one thing only, that is to serve the artist, the engineer, the producer, the label, and the musician. Serve and serve to get that song on the radio to be number one. It’s all about serving the team. That’s my job. It’s not about me. It’s about we.
You have nine number one hit singles on the Top 100. That’s a lot.
That’s the chart. You can be number one on other charts like Mainstream Alternative Rock, Easy Rock, or whatever, but when you’re number one on the Top 100, that’s top 100 of the biggest songs.Don't stop when you reach the top of the mountain. Find a higher mountain. Click To Tweet
Let’s go through those songs.
It’s going to be hard to remember them all but the first one was Jack & Diane, which launched my career with John Mellencamp. This next big one that wasn’t with John was Belinda Carlisle, Heaven on Earth. It was the first song I recorded in LA. That was the first session I did in LA. The next one I can think of is Blaze Of Glory by Bon Jovi. Another one was a duet, which once again, I was wrong. I thought this was never going to go because it was in 1992, 1993, right when that whole Seattle thing started, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden. I’m going, “You’re wasting your time. This record will never make it,” but it was a duet with Don Henley. It was a beautiful song called Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough by Patty Smyth and Don Henley. A great song is a great song, people want to hear great songs. Despite that massive movement in Seattle, that song was the number one hit.
What else? The Meat Loaf song was also number one.
I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) was big. It was number one.
Mellencamp had a couple of other number ones, right?
He had number one hits. Hurts So Good was number two for six weeks. I don’t know what was bumping it out. This is what’s wild, that was the first song off of American Fool which won two Grammys, Album of the Year and John won Best Rock Vocal. It was number two and it just hovered there. We’re going, “Come on. Come on,” and it wouldn’t go up. They went, “Release Jack & Diane.” As Hurts So Good goes down, Jack & Diane come up.
Both ended up in the Top 10 at the same time, and people were like, “The only people to do that are Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and CCR.” We were flipping out and then Jack & Diane went to number one, and Hurts So Good went back up to number two. We were like, “Come on, come on.” It never made it. The songs that were keeping it out were Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor, and it might have been Ebony and Ivory. A wimpy song was keeping Hurts So Good out.
You mentioned CCR, John Fogerty, the lead singer of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Have you been playing with him for about 1/4 century?
Maybe more. It may be going up to more than 28 years. In 1995, I was the 30th drummer. After five years of him recording Blue Moon Swamp and I walk in. After one day, John looks at me and goes, “You’re the drummer I’ve been looking for my whole life. Would you like to come back tomorrow?” I was like, “Are you kidding?” I was a little kid looking at CCR, reading Marvel comic books, and hearing the CCR songs going, “If the Hulk could sing, this would be the guy’s voice,” and I told John that. That record, I ended up erasing all the other drummers’ parts. I end up on half of the record. That won a Grammy, Blue Moon Swamp. A wild thing about that is John spent five years getting ready to record the album and spent five more years recording it. I was the last guy.
There was one time in his studio, he tapped me on the leg. It was 10:00 in the morning, he goes, “I don’t know how you do this in the morning. That’s incredible.” I went, “Me either,” because at 10:00 AM, usually, I’m sleeping. I’m like, “John, I can do this better.” John goes and I’m like, “High five? What are you talking about?” He goes, “No. When I broke up with CCR and I was playing all the instruments, I practiced for four hours a day on the drums for ten years and realized I couldn’t play a simple beat like that. That’s why I hired you.”
You were with him for 25 years and then you played Woodstock.
We played Woodstock not on the same stage but on the same property. They go to this incredible venue. That was iconic. On the anniversary of Woodstock, I’m with John Fogerty. As a kid, I went and saw the movie and all the footage. Before we get on stage, they have the helicopter flying over Woodstock and they go to John doing Born On The Bayou. I’m getting pumped thinking about it. He’s singing the first verse, I walk on stage, the band follows me from different sides of the stage. I get in my drum throne, it’s like getting in a space capsule. My ears are plugged in, ready to go. I got maybe two measures, and then I come in playing, bring the band in and the video stops. At the same tempo, we’re playing the second verse of Born On The Bayou. It’s unbelievable, it gives me goosebumps.
That is unbelievable. You played with one of your childhood heroes in CCR. That also happened to you with even a bigger band or a bigger name, but I know the story. You were ten years old and the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show. You saw that live. Your mom says, “Come in, the Beatles are on TV.”
She said come in, and I thought I was in trouble. She’s like, “Get in here, quick,” and I usually was in trouble.
How did she know that was something you’d want to see? Everybody in the country knew it was a big deal at that moment.
There was so much hype. Remember, there was nothing to watch on TV. We had a black and white RCA TV set with rabbit ears and tinfoil on it. We grew up in Western Mass in the mountains, in the Berkshires so there was nothing on TV. We were always outside. When she yelled at us, that’s why I thought I was in trouble. I come in and she’s pointing to the TV, and she didn’t even say the Beatles. Ed Sullivan introduces them, and they came. I was like, “Oh my God.” I was blown away. I was bouncing off the walls and jumping up and down. As a ten-year-old kid, I went, “Who are those guys?” She said, “The Beatles.” I said, “I want to play with the Beatles. Call them up. Get me in the band.” It sounds funny now, but when you’re ten, what do you do? Obviously, she didn’t call them up.
I’m sorry to hear that. The greatest part about that story is some years ago, you got to play with the remaining Beatles on stage on their reunion show. The night that changed America on CBS. You got to play with Paul McCartney and Ringo. You’re on the stage playing drums. The spotlight is on Ringo, you’re the one who’s playing drums, then Paul comes out and sings a song. That must have been surreal.
It was. While I was doing it, I’m an extremely disciplined person when I perform. In between songs, they would change the set. There was some time while they’re changing, I’m rehearsing with a click track the intro of every song. You have to remember, everybody knows every lick that Ringo Starr played. Doing that song or something, it starts with your left hand. Again, switch to the right. It came on TV, when I was playing that song, there’s a section where I could never understand what Ringo was doing. On the record, you can’t hear that. The producer sent me his drum track, and somehow they were separated. I heard it and I went, “Oh my God.” During that show, the camera went on Ringo when I did that part.
It’s because you nailed it.
He knew I nailed it. He knew that I knew and I’d done my homework. He knew I did it. After I was done, I played with Stevie Wonder. I played with Joe Walsh. I played with Dave Grohl. I played with Brad Paisley, John Meyer, and all these people, and I did a good job.
That night, you played with all those people?
Yeah, I was the house drummer. When I walked off, Dhani Harrison, George’s son. I walked off and I’m looking for my wife and there are these elite seats in the middle of the arena. There’s Tom Hanks and his wife, Ringo Starr and his wife, Paul McCartney and his girlfriend, George Harrison’s widow, Julian Lennon with Yoko Ono. I’m going by. Ringo is applauding and going, “Bravo. Mr. Aronoff, bravo.” I played the Grammys with them the night before. I played for David Lynch’s thing two weeks before honoring Ringo and played double drums with him, but I never had this intimate moment. I got down on one knee to talk to him. Everyone was looking at me and he said, “That’s okay, Kenny. I’m married.”
I was fumbling and I thought, “This is going to be corny.” What I said was, “Ringo, you’re the reason why I play drums. You’re the reason why I play rock and roll. You and the Beatles set me on a course at age ten that I’ve been on ever since.” His wife was teary-eyed. Ringo was thanking me. When I walked away, I realized they literally ignited what my purpose in life is. I didn’t know what that meant, realize your purpose in life. I’m like, “I like it,” but that made me come back later on in my life after my formal training in classical music. I realized I turned down certainty for complete uncertainty because I was following my purpose in life, my passion, and my desire.
You were classically trained. You were accepted into a prestigious symphony orchestra. You had been working your whole young life to get to this point, and you completely about-faced and said, “No, I’m going to go forward with rock and roll. Tell us a little bit about that.
Back then, there was no school of rock. There wasn’t even a teacher teaching rock. It just happened. I was self-taught, I played in bands all through high school and stuff. In my family, everybody goes to college, they said, “Kenny, what do you want to major?” I went, “The only thing I’m interested in is music.” You could either get a major in classical music or some schools had jazz. I picked classical. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, their summer festival was 3 miles from my house where I grew up. I started taking lessons from the percussionist, but he wasn’t teaching drums.
He was teaching marimba, mallets, timpani, snare drum, how to read music, and theory. I was good enough to get into an okay school of music, The University of Massachusetts. The day I graduated high school, I started practicing eight hours a day, seven days a week, totally from fear of failure. I talk about this when I speak. It’s natural for people to run from danger, but Marines learn to run into bullets, firemen learn to run into burning buildings. People jump out of airplanes with parachutes. It’s not natural, but we learn to deal with adversity.
What I’m saying here was that I was so fearful of being a loser and bad because I was not in the marching band or the concert band in high school. I was playing in rock and roll bands. Why would I want to play in a concert band? I was popular playing rock and roll. Needless to say, when I got to college, I was behind but I was determined to get to the number one school of music in the country and that was Indiana University.
That summer, there was a girl that I had a crush on, a cellist and a junior, she said, “What are you doing this summer?” I said, “I’ve got my rock and roll band, Allman Brothers Band. I’m going to study with the percussionist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” and she said, “I’m going to Aspen School of Music.” I said, “What’s Aspen?” She said, “It’s run by Juilliard.” I went, “Juilliard? That’s the number two school in the country. Maybe I’ll go to Aspen, spend some time with her, get to know the Juilliard people, and then transfer.”
I auditioned on a marimba piece. I’ve made a recording of timpani, snare drum, and multiple percussion and sent it off. I never heard from them. On the last day of school, I’m about to drive home and I went, “I forgot my mail.” I went back, I got the mail and I got a check. I open up and it says, “You’ve been accepted to the Aspen School of Music with a slight scholarship.” I went, “Now I have to be there in two weeks.” I think I was an alternate. You don’t accept somebody in two weeks.
I went there. I was so stoked because she was going to be there. I am literally the worst percussionist there. I was made fun of by conductors because I come in the wrong place. My technique was way below some of these kids who went to Juilliard prep playing mallets and timpani and working in the orchestra since they were in their diapers. I was way behind, but the teacher who taught there was head of the percussion department at the number one school of music in the USA, Indiana University. I said to George Gaber, “I want to transfer to Indiana,” and he goes, “No, that’s okay. Come back in January and audition.” I went, “No, I want to audition here.” He says, “No, that’s okay.” I said, “I want to audition here and go to Indiana University and study with you.” That’s when he went, “I think I’m going to like teaching this guy because he wants to learn.” That’s what he did.
I auditioned up there. It’s a tough school to get into and even harder to stay in. It’s like getting into the Marines, which you have to prove yourself every semester or they wash you out. That’s why they’re number one. The discipline and the preparation that I learned from that school made me the rock and roll drummer I am now. The first lesson I had when I got there, I obviously got in, I walked in and I didn’t have a pencil and eraser. He gave me an F and threw me out of the room. There was no hand-holding there and no coddling. You practice your ass off all the time and you had to be on point.
I’d never show up at a rehearsal, rock and roll, jazz, funk, R&B sessions, or TV without a lot of pencils and erasers because I write everything down. When Sting, McCartney, Don Henley, Mellencamp, or anybody comes up to me when I’m doing Kennedy Center Honors and says, “Could you do that?” I go, “No problem. I wrote it down,” never make a mistake. I learned that fundamental work ethic, self-discipline, hard work, and perseverance at Indiana University, which made me great.
The number one summer program, it’s not Aspen, it’s Tanglewood run by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It’s the elite orchestra in the United States. I auditioned the first year, it’d be for the summer program, and I failed. I went, “I’m going to go back next year, I know what to do.” I auditioned for the timpanist to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the biggest stick company in the world, and I failed. I went back a third year, I’m like, “I’m getting in.” I go back and I get a rejection. Strike three and you’re out.
I went back a fourth year and got in. Seven percussionists from the whole world. That’s why I got to work with Leonard Bernstein, one of the greatest composers/conductors. Aaron Copland, one of the greatest American composers/conductors. Seiji Ozawa, the brilliant tyrant conductor. Arthur Fiedler, the Boston Pop guy, and on and on. I then get into the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra after I graduate from Indiana University. My parents were ecstatic. All the money they invested in Kenny Aronoff paid off. I look in the mirror and I go, “I can’t do it.” My brain said, “Do it.” Thank God, I followed my heart. It said, “No, we want to rock.” I still had my heart on the Beatles.The payoff after planting discipline is fruitful. Click To Tweet
Were there any bands that you were also still playing with or connected with at that point?
What did you do? You said I’m done and then where did you go?
I humbly moved home to my parents’ house and started practicing eight hours a day and studied for the first time with a drum set teacher in Boston, and another drum set teacher in New York. The New York guy was one of the biggest session drummers ever to come out of New York. He was the Hal Blaine, who’s the big one in LA. The teacher in Boston was a heavy jazz guy. I practiced, panicking, trying to catch up, thinking, “While I spent five years studying classical music, people were studying drum set.”
I spent one year at home, and then a bunch of guys convinced me to move back to Bloomington, Indiana. The business model was you start a band, write songs, get a record deal, and then make records and tour. Everybody told me, “What are you going back to Indiana for? You should go to New York, LA, and Nashville, the three primary centers of the music business,” but I had no connections to those. I went back to Bloomington. After three years of trying to get a deal, it didn’t happen.
I’m 27, I’m going to move to New York because that’s where I know more people. I have lunch with this girl and she says, “There is a singer/songwriter guy who just fired his drummer last night. Have you ever heard of him? He’s on MTV, this new TV show. He makes records and he tours.” I go, “It’s not my favorite kind of music at this point, but he’s doing what I’ve always dreamed about, the Beatles.” Tour, make records, you’re popular. You’re on TV, on the radio. I auditioned and I get in. I flipped out. Five weeks later, we’re in LA making a record.
This is John Mellencamp, by the way.
Two days later, after recording, we have a band meeting. That John, who was Johnny Cougar back then, fires me. I didn’t notice. It wasn’t his idea. I thought he fired me because he’s the one that told me, but it was the producer. The reason why was I had no experience getting records on the radio to be number one. I had trained, could read music, could play Shostakovich, Beethoven, Mahler, symphony orchestras, I won a concerto competition, a violin concerto on marimba. I practiced three hours a day for 365 days.
I was amazing, but I had no experience getting records on the radio. Back then, it was only tape and you need the drummers that had the perfect sound, parts, drums, time, groove, beats, everything and play a song from beginning to end perfectly. I simply didn’t have that experience. The producer wanted to get the record done in eight weeks. You’ve got to get the drums down first and then you build on top of that. John tells me to go home and I tell him, “No.”
You had a habit of saying no to people who were firing you or saying no to you. You would never take no for an answer.
When you tried to fire me, I told you no.
You’re a hard worker. You never give up and you stay there. This is at the hotel Chateau Marmont in LA at Sunset Boulevard. What did you do? Did you camp out and say, “I’ll stay here?”
I look back and I go, “Why did you say no?” Let’s go back to purpose, the reason why is he was stealing my purpose in life. In my mind, “This is who I am. What am I going to do now?” It was a fight or flight thing. I want to stay. I’m improvising. There’s silence when I go out, the band is smoking cigarettes going, “What’s going to happen next?” It’s was like telling a Marine Drill Sergeant, he goes, “Aronoff, give me 100.” I’m like, “I’m not in the mood for that today.” “What? Give me 100. Give me 200.”
John Mellencamp was a tough eater.
He was tough.
You’ve told some good stories about that. Of course, this led to decades-long of you recording and touring. The list of bands that you’ve played with is insane. You’re with Mellencamp for seventeen years, every major hit that he had. He plays a similar song a lot of the time so you’d have to be creative.
That’s a great statement because that’s where I learned I had to come up with a formula. Basically, it’s four steps. Always think of the obvious because when he’s playing the song, when he’s done, he’s going to go, “What have you got?” He’ll even say all my songs sound the same. I was nervous because if you didn’t get it, I was holding the whole thing up. I came up with the saying, “Always think of the obvious because that’s your foundation.”
I then start going, “Let me embellish that little bit.” That’s step two. Step three, “I want to embellish it a little bit more.” Finally, step four, I think completely out of the box so when he comes to me, and this applies to anybody in any business meeting or any situation that you know you’re going to be on the spot, think of the obvious because then you have a starting point. You can twist the obvious and come up with creative ideas from that starting point.
He would go, “What have you got?” I had four things for him. The song Crumblin’ Down, the album was done, but he calls me up and goes, “Kenny, what are you doing?” “I’m practicing.” He says, “I just wrote this song. It’s going to be the first song on the album.” I go, “The album is done. I thought it was done, mastered, mixed.” “Yeah, but we need it.” He was still trying to be creative even when it was done. I admired him for that. He said, “No, we need a single to release this album, and then we’ll have the Pink Houses and the Authority. I’ll be over there in twenty minutes.”
What time is this? Is it in the middle of the night?
No, it was in the afternoon. He pulls up and walks up. I can’t say exactly but he goes, “This is the hit single, don’t mess this up.” I’m going, “Okay, four steps, four steps.”
It would be great if you could show us an example of what happened and what beat you came up with.
I can. I’ll go into the drum set and do that. I will go into the next room.
This is awesome. Let’s do it.
Chris, this is the drum set. This is where I record all my records. The other room is a control room where the engineer typically is.
That is a gorgeous drum set. This is exciting. John Mellencamp called you and said, “I’ve got a new song.” You thought the album was done. He’s got a new song that he thinks is going to be the first single, which is Crumblin’ Down. He comes over last minute, you don’t have any idea that he’s coming. You don’t know what it’s going to sound like. He has an acoustic guitar, I take it?
He starts playing the song. I’m thinking, “What’s the obvious beat?” I’ve done those before in his records. He’s always looking for something new. I thought, “Maybe I’ll copy what he’s playing on guitar with my floor tom,” but it didn’t sound exactly right. “Maybe I’ll do with my foot and put the hi-hat right in that one little spot,” and he loved it because he didn’t say anything. If he doesn’t say anything, it means he loves it. I’m going to play you the basic beat and then I go into the pre-chorus. I’m trying to develop the song which leads you to the chorus of the song, which is usually the biggest part of the song. When I go to the pre-chorus, I add more hi-hat. When I go to the course, I switch over to playing right-handed as opposed to left-handed, and kick it in the butt. This is basically what happens.
That is amazing.
That was awesome that you could go to the drums and show us that. It’s amazing you have the two cameras set up. It’s such a cool setup you have there. This is part of your process. This is something you do with Mellencamp, but then it transferred over into a ton of other bands that you played with. The list is like a who’s who in rock and roll. I don’t know if there are many other musicians who have a resume like this. It’s incredible.
From the rock and roll bands that you played with, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, then you have the Celine Dion’s, the Avril Lavigne’s, Santana, Elton John, and Bob Seger. You played with Joe Cocker. You were Smashing Pumpkins’ drummer for a year on tour. It’s one of my favorite bands. You played with all the great country guys, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, then Ray Charles. You played with Latin people all the time, Ricky Martin. You played the Latin Grammys years ago. You were going to play with Billy Gibbons. It’s amazing.
When we first met, I got it. Not only are you a great drummer, but you’re the most likable guy anybody’s ever met in their life. When you and I started talking about it, you approach it in a unique way. You have no ego. You go into the situation like each band, each session is like a team. You’re there to be a worker and to make everyone else sound good. A lot of people don’t realize that the drummer is the engine behind the band.To avoid being contained, think outside of the box. Click To Tweet
That producer knew you weren’t ready yet when you were with Mellencamp on that first album. The drummer sets the tone, the vibe, the tempo, and the intensity, and sets the song on its way to be what it was meant to be. You probably look at the teamwork and the leadership topics that you talk about as a speaker in a unique way different than anybody else but appropriately. There have been weeks where you played with four bands in one week or four different artists. Is there any week that sticks out to you where you played with a whole bunch of people in a short amount of time?
It wasn’t one week, but it was maybe four weeks. I remember I did BB King and Bonnie Raitt for a song for Air America. That was on Monday. On Tuesday, I’m with Elton John for two days doing his box set. Later, he asked me to tour with them. Thursday through Sunday, I’m doing Bob Seger’s record, which I did end up going on tour with them. I then flew from LA to Athens, Georgia, and did a week with the Indigo Girls. I then fly back and when I landed, I go right into a session with Willie Nelson. The next day for four days, I’m with Bob Seger again. The next week is Blaze Of Glory, Bon Jovi, which was a number one hit single, and it just goes on. I had two sets in LA, two sets in Nashville, two sets in New York, Indiana, a set in Germany, and one in Japan. People would fly me all over the world and I was making records.
You hit on such a key thing. Obviously, as a team player, I have to collaborate and serve the team, serve the artists, serve the band, serve the producer. Definitely, I’ll serve the person who hired me, the musicians. It’s not about me, it’s about we. How do I get the song to be a number one hit? I have to be innovative and creative for that session for that specific band or artist. I have to be always trying to get better. A lot of people think they become successful and that’s it. No.
I drill this into people, what got you where you are, you must continue to stay where you are. Being successful is one thing. Especially in one of the most difficult businesses in the world, the music business, to stay successful in it is so difficult because it’s a fad. Here I am years into it, and I’m still relevant and that’s because I’m constantly working hard, I’m self-disciplined and persevering. I have my own studio because I had to. Budgets were going because of the business model of you making a record and selling records, those 40 million record sales that I was on with Celine Dion and Meat Loaf, labels are making $0.82 to $0.85 on the dollar. Think about that, 40 million times $0.85. That’s gone. I created a studio so that people could send me their files virtually. They don’t have to fly, no hotel, no expense for the recording studio. I make it affordable and I’m recording all the time.
How long ago did you start recording virtually with bands so they didn’t have to hire you to go into town and you could do more sessions?
I started some fifteen years ago. It used to be I’d be in the big room seven days a week. Now, I was in the big room seven days all year. They’re expensive, those rooms. They’re great.
Do you mean the recording studios?
Yeah. I’d rather play with musicians live but because I’ve done that so much, when I do perform live, when I record, or when I speak virtually, I see the audience. I see the band. I know what it feels like to be playing in a team situation. I can tap into that experience when I’m standing in front of people and speaking. I see those people when I’m in my room. I don’t need the audience necessarily. I’d love to meet them afterward, but it’s that connection.
To be a great session player or a great team player, you’ve got to be able to walk into a room, connect, communicate, and collaborate. When I met Elton John, I walk in, I have to go right to him, shake his hand, and say, “What’s up?” I start communicating and get along with him. I’m good at that, so then when I play music and I’m watching him, he’s looking at me, we already have a relationship, but this happened in 30 minutes.
You are a great communicator. I’m glad that you said that. I was thinking that we were talking about what makes you a great person that so many people want to play with. It’s about listening. It’s about feeling what the other person is thinking. As a musician, you have to be able to do that, especially a drummer. I’ve always thought that you are so talented because you can say the perfect thing that needs to be said at any moment. That’s what you do, and you also do the same thing as a drummer. You play the perfect beat for every song. You play on and you invent a new beat like with this Mellencamp song. You never played that beat ever again. Right?
What’s that song?
Crumblin’ Down. That’s what John liked about it because he’d said, “I haven’t heard that before.” He was always looking for things that were creative and different but simple. It’s about the lyrics. He’s a simple songwriter but he’s looking for simple creative ideas. Sometimes, you have an idea and all you have to do is twist it. See the same thing in a different light and it’s brilliant.
In nowaday’s world, there are a lot of virtual needs for everything, you’re well set up for that. How do you maintain your creativity? How do you connect with people when you’re not in the same room with them? You touched on that with playing, you’re laying down the drums and everybody’s putting their music over you. You’re good at visualizing the audience or visualizing the band that you’re playing with and hearing what they’re probably going to be doing.
You’re into understanding where everybody else is coming from, and putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes and listening. I have to say, I know that about you already. You’re good at all that. How are you going to share with us what you think, especially now that we’re virtual? Not only have you been playing virtually with bands for years, but now you’re doing everything virtually, the speaking, the meetings that you have, the podcast, and everything you do. What are your tips for communication now that you’re behind the camera?
I feel like I’m communicating even better now because it used to be, I pick up the cell phone and talk. Now, we’re having the Zoom meetings. Everybody’s so much more comfortable with FaceTime or whatever, the device. Now, I see the person. We’re connecting amazingly, whether it’s the artist, whoever hires me, or even family and friends. It’s the way to do it. It feels real to me, and I’m connecting even more now because I wouldn’t have been on Zoom and seeing people as much. I am now seeing people more. That’s a great way. I love being able to see people moving their hands.
It’s like you’re in the room with them. I was talking about that with Dr. Jenn, about the Zoom meetings and how people are connecting. How when you’re done with it, you feel like you were actually with them. It’s like a trick that your mind plays on you or the Zoom plays on your mind. You were telling me about Joe Satriani. You guys recorded the album before COVID. It came out during COVID. He’s working on two new albums but he’s doing it all through Zoom and all files sent through email. How does that work? You were telling me how much you loved it and how great a job he was doing as a leader and as a teamwork aficionado, the way he looks at the band. Tell us a little bit about that. It’s cool.
Joe’s record comes out, enters the charts at number eight in the Top 100. That’s extraordinary. The thing is, he doesn’t even sing on it. It’s instrumental. It was his highest-charting record in the Top 100. That’s amazing. Of course, we wanted to go out and play live. We were supposed to do nine weeks in Europe and then three weeks in South America. The US is not off the board yet. Joe is doing an incredible thing because this is not normal. He’s communicating with the touring band. We’re in a thread saying, “I wrote this song, what do you guys think?” We’re all talking about it, and then we’ll all say, “I’m having a barbecue tonight, what are you having?” He’s keeping the band vibe going, which is extraordinary.
That’s not normal?
No, not normal at all. I heard of somebody who played bass in a band for twenty years and the tour got canceled, he hasn’t heard one word from anybody on the business side or the guy who hired him. I’m like, “Wow.” Here’s Joe, he’s keeping us all connected, then he writes another song. He then decided, “I’m loving this,” and we’re all loving it. He said, “I’m going to write two records. One song is going to be instrumental, but it’s different than the record we just made.” To me, it’s different.
By the way, we have a keyboard player. Joe has a guy, as we’re writing this, we’re doing it together, it’s going to be able to take some of the melodies from Joe and Joe will be more in the background. The keyboard will be up, and they’ll go back and forth. It’s a different approach. They’re going to get ten songs demoed up. He has drum grooves he programs, then they’re going to send me the mp3’s with a click track, and I’ll come in here. There’s a fifth member of this quartet, who’s the engineer, a creative guy, he fixes everything and moves things around. He will come here and engineer. Once we get my drum parts down, Joe will add more to what he’s already given me and the keyboards. We’re going to have the record done without being together. I’m so used to that now, it’s normal. When I record in these situations, I imagine being in that band onstage. When I record, I want to sound live. When I play live, I want it to sound like I’m making a record on stage.
When you play with Smashing Pumpkins, you play with these tons of other bands, and you’re the touring drummer in some cases. In some cases, you’re the drummer on the album. In some cases, you’re not. When you’re the drummer who’s not on the album, are you learning exactly the same part that the guy played on the album, and then delivering that to the audience? Is that what the artists normally want, is exactly the same thing? Do they want you to liven it up a little bit or do your own thing? What’s normally the case?
It depends on the artist. I start from the starting point of learning it exactly the way they’re used to hearing it but it’s tricky. With the Smashing Pumpkins, Billy told me immediately, “Do not sound like Jimmy Chamberlin. Be Kenny Aronoff,” so I did. I stay pretty strict to the song and what they’re used to hearing on the album to start with. It’s interesting you brought that up because when I do a show like the Kennedy Center Honors, I listen to the record. Let’s say we were honoring Sting.
That was such a memorable show. Also, when Sting honored McCartney. Those are the two that stick out to me the most.
I had to play songs and Bruno Mars was one of the guys who was honoring Sting. I had done some research, I went on YouTube and saw Bruno Mars. He does a medley of Police songs. I asked the musical director, “Are we going to do those songs?” You don’t know until a week before and he said, “Yeah, those songs.” I learned the album version and then I learned the version that Bruno does because I had a feeling Bruno is going to come in, and if I’m playing it like the album, he’s going to go, “No. I want to do it this way.” It’s exactly what happened.
I had done my homework. I had written it out. Bruno then had done something different since that YouTube. He actually sat on the drums and was trying to show me. I was trying to figure out what he was trying to show me and I figured it out. I said, “You mean this?” It was like a halftime thing. He says, “Yeah.” There is an example of where I was changing it from the original recording because the artist wanted me to.
What was your most memorable show besides the Beatles and the Woodstock with Fogerty? I’m sure the Farm Aid shows were legendary, right?
Yeah. Especially the first one because I played with nine artists. Sammy Hagar reminded me that show and I remember hearing about this, Eddie Van Halen comes on, he’s swearing all over the place and says, “Meet our new lead singer,” and he bought Sammy on. For Van Halen, that was big. I played with Brian Setzer, Jon Klein, John Mellencamp, and Bonnie Raitt.
It was John Mellencamp’s deal. It was his idea.
John, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson were the primary three guys that wanted to do this Farm thing. This is Indiana, this is farm country, John’s sister was married to a local American farmer. The corporations were absorbing the farms that people own personally and putting them out of business. John took this personally. We even have an album called Scarecrow with a song called Scarecrow. It was all about this movement that was happening in America. It was cool to be part of it. I loved the fact that John started making his videos on the AHA record in Indiana. People had never seen Indiana like this. They didn’t know about Indiana. John wanted to be and it was great. People were going like, “Wow.” The music looked visually tight. The music and the video were the same things. The words spoke Indiana, the videos were Indiana. It was great. It’s fantastic marketing.
He was a genius in a lot of ways, still is.
He is an authentic guy.
As a final thought, you’ve been incredibly successful. It’s obvious that you’re a hard worker. You do the research. You write out every chart of every song you’re going to record or you’re going to play live. You don’t take no for an answer. You’re an incredibly hard worker. We’re in some times that are tough and depressing. When you watch the news, you’re going to be depressed. People have lost their jobs. People are worried about the future. They don’t know what’s coming. What is your mindset? You are the kind of guy who just always perseveres, always knows what you have to do and always keeps doing it. You always have goals and you’re always hitting all those goals. What else is there that you’re thinking to yourself daily, especially when times get tough?
I’ll go back to when I was eighteen, practice eight hours a day, seven days a week. The model is, there’s always a lot for me to do. If I stay busy and I’m accomplishing things, it feels good. I feel good because I did this, I did that. Turning my studio into a place where I can do virtual speaking was so exciting for me because it had a purpose to it. It took a long time to get the equipment, the lighting, and this and that, but it has a purpose. I’m recording a lot.The ability to listen is what makes you a great person. Click To Tweet
I come here, at first, it was practice, stay in shape. I have eight steps to a healthy life. I follow that. Get your foundation. I deal with adversity. I embrace adversity by staying strong mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. You do that by working hard and staying healthy. It’s not trying to get positive, I sustain positive feelings by working hard and accomplishing. I have a list of things that could tell you what I’m doing, it doesn’t matter. The point is I’m staying busy.
At the end of the day, I feel good. When this is all done, I will be standing on top of a mountain and not suddenly starting to climb the mountain. I always stay busy. You have your down moments, but I know those down moments are normal. I know that the next morning I wake up, I exercise, I eat well, and I start working, it makes me feel good. When you make yourself feel good, the ripple effect goes out to everybody around you.
There’s also a lot of magic to you as well because when you are a musician who’s been on 60 Grammy-nominated songs or albums, has that many Gold, Platinum, and Diamond records and has been a part of 300 million records sold in the world, it’s like everything you touch turns to gold. There’s a certain amount of magic to you. It comes from your personality and your mindset. It’s infectious. It’s unbelievable to know somebody like you because you hang up the phone, you see, you speak, you listen. The latest album that you’re on, which is the Joe Satriani album, Shapeshifting, it’s an incredible album. Whenever there’s an interaction with Kenny Aronoff, it’s like, “I just got picked up. I got lifted up into the air and I’m soaring now.” Thank you, Kenny Aronoff.
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me, Chris Lee.
It’s my pleasure. Have a wonderful rest of your week. Thank you so much for doing this and I will talk to you soon.
About Kenny Aronoff
For five consecutive years, the readers of Drummer Magazine have crowned Kenny Aronoff the #1 Pop /Rock Drummer and the #1 Studio Drummer for his unique and emulated style combining finesse and power. The celebrated musician has contributed his talents to more than 60 Grammy® nominated recordings. Over 300 million records sold worldwide feature his work—1,300 of which are certified gold, platinum or diamond records!
Kenny has learned countless lessons over his four decade career in show business, taking what was once a dream and turning it into an awe-inspiring reality. He has transformed his foundations of hard work and dedication into a message of achievement and inspiration that he shares with audiences worldwide. Join Kenny as he walks you through the steps to becoming a Rock Star, both personally and professionally.
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