Drums & Drumming, January 1991
With the audience clamoring for an encore, Vinnie Colaiuta takes a final bow and
vanishes into the backstage bustle. As the curtain falls and the
houselights rise, a unified chorus of cheers ring out from the crowd. If there
had been any doubt about Vinnie's greatness, clearly it was put to rest today.
Backstage, it's a small mob scene with Vinnie at the center of
attention. Making every effort to mask his dissatisfaction, he signs a few
autographs before greeting the dignitaries on hand.
I just couldn’t make It happen tonight," he says to Steve Smith with
a hint of disgust"My sticks were slipping all over
the place, my hi-hat stand kept sliding around, and I just kept forcing
everything." Smith looks at Vinnie, cracks a half grin and shakes
his head. It's evident that even in a self-proclaimed "bad night", Vinnie is
capable of delivering a mind-boggling performance.
His modesty Is a testament to his greatness; perhaps a key to
the inner drive that makes a player of his caliber continue to push onward and
upward. As with most overachievers, self-satisfaction doesn't come easily, and
for Vinnie Colaiuta, the aforementioned clinic at Zildjian Day In San Francisco
dispels any myth at complacency.
It seems Inconceivable that he’s covered so much ground in
just 34 short years. His innovative work with Frank Zappa during the late 70s
and early 80s helped establish Colaiuta as a household name among drummers
worldwide, as did his follow-up work with Joni Mitchell and Gino Vannelli - not
to mention the thousands of other artists with whom he's performed. The year
1991 signals yet another phase In his musical journey as he embarks upon a
South American tour with Sting. But little known to the public are Vinnie's
inauspicious beginnings in L.A. - before the Zappa glory days.
I decided to move to the West Coast In 1978," he recalls,
"I got on a bus with my drum set, my clothes, and 80 bucks - and that was It."
Vinnie had made arrangements to stay at a friend's apartment but, shortly
after, managed to get himself - and his friend - evicted for disturbing the
peace (due to his drumming, of course). Unable to find permanent living
arrangements, he roamed from place to place, even sleeping in a small bedroom
at The Record Plant for a period of time. "I remember
buying an old, beat-up Ford for $100 out of the Recycler, and I actually had to
sleep in it for a while. I drove that thing around until it blew up one day and
I just left it there. I mean, I had no money."
In the spring, Vinnie's luck improved when he landed the drum
chair for The Fowler Brothers band. The experience enriched him musically, but
not financially - playing "dives" like The ComeBack Inn for $5.00 and beer. One
day Vinnie learned that Frank Zappa was looking for some new players.
"I got the number of Frank's management," he remembers,
"and I started calling every day. I said, 'Let me send you a tape.' And they
would say, 'No, we don't take tapes. No tapes.'" After repeated
attempts, the big call finally came in: "Mr. Zappa will hear you tonight."
With sticks in hand, Vinnie beat a path down to the Culver
City Studio where a "cattle call" audition was in progress.
"I got in there," Vinnie says, "and no
joke, these guys would last an average of 15 seconds before Frank would yell,
'Next!' I mean it was deep, man - brutal. And I stood there watching all of
this, just waiting for my turn." Finally, when his name was called,
he took a seat behind Terry Bozzio's double-bass kit and dug in. And that's
when the sweat started to fly. "He made me sight
read; then he'd throw tunes at me to see how much I could retain, see how my
time felt. He said, 'Solo in 21.' And then he made me solo over these bizarre
vamps. Then he'd solo and I'd accompany him. Then he gave me this piece called
Pedro's Dowry which I played in unison with Ed Mann. Finally, he pulled me
aside and said something thing like, 'Look man, I'll be amazed if anyone comes
in after that.'" And that, as they say, was that.
Even at an early age, Vinnie made strong musical impressions.
His drumming history began in the rural Pennsylvania town of Brownsville. He
recalls, "I always reacted to music and I always had
some sort of attraction or disposition toward music. I did the typical thing a
kid does, setting up pots and pans on the sofa like a drum set." He
tore through several toy drum sets before finally getting a semi-pro kit at age
seven. "When I first got that kit, without having any
lessons or anything, I could just sit down behind it and play. I never had a
problem knowing what to do with my feet or hands. I guess that's just part of
the gift that the Lord gave me." Upon his mother's encouragement,
Vinnie took his first drumming lesson at age 14. "I
went to the junior high band director," he recalls,
"and he gave me a book that taught me the basics of how to hold the sticks and
how to read. I took to it like a fish to water. There was no turning back,
ever. I just kept pushing ahead at my own pace. I think my teachers picked up
on the fact that I was a fast learner and that I seemed to have an accelerated
growth potential. I always showed an aptitude and interest in what I was
The same year, Vinnie was selected to perform in a tri-state
honors ensemble after playing a spirited rendition of the rudimental snare
piece "Tornado." It was during that same period that Vinnie first discovered
one of his greatest musical influences, Tony Williams.
"I was in a stage band competition and this other
drummer came up to me and asked, 'Who's your favorite drummer?' And I said,
'Buddy Rich.' So, I asked him who his favorite drummer was and he said, 'Tony
Williams.' And I was like, 'Who?' So, he told me to go buy the record Ego. When
I first listened to it, it was so alien to anything I'd ever heard before.
About two years later, I put it back on the turntable and it was like I'd just
opened the lid to the Ark Of The Covenant or something. It was as if the sky
had opened in my head. I went out and bought every Tony Williams record that I
could get my hands on. From that point I realized that Tony was the genius of
the drums. I realized what a force he was and how powerful and truthful his
musical statement was. It changed
my life; it made a profound impact."
With Tony as his role model, Vinnie's next move was to Boston
where he enrolled at the Berklee School Of Music in 1974.
"On my first day at Berklee, I was walking down the street and there was Steve
Smith, sitting on the steps. We took lessons together and became great friends.
I used to go over to his house until 4:00 in the morning with a jar of peanut
butter, a Tony Williams record, and a ride cymbal, and we'd sit there playing
ride patterns as fast as we could until the first guy fell asleep."
Another important step in his training was the personalized
attention he received from teacher Gary Chaffee. "Gary's
a fantastic teacher, the greatest. At the time I was there, Gary's teaching
method was all loose-leaf: He was still writing it as he went along. But aside
from the information I was getting from him, and his approach to that
information, I was also getting conceptual feedback which was so important."
"Berklee was a turning point for me conceptually, because I started listening
to different kinds of music. Fusion was at its heyday and I was really getting
into Miles, McCoy Tyner, and Alphonze Mouzon. At that time, Alphonze was way
left; conceptually he was so far advanced. It really shifted my head and made
me realize that because of my rudimental background, I almost had to empty my
mind in order to grasp the concept. I really loved what I was hearing and I
wanted to absorb and be able to assimilate that style. The exciting part of all
of this for me was that it was all so new. Mahavishnu, Cobham, Gadd, Tony, all
of those guys were breaking ground. I was just very happy to be fed with so
much of the muse - from so many different directions and personalities."
However, Vinnie found that there were two sides to the coin:
"I went through periods where I tried to imitate Tony and Billy, but I
eventually realized how dangerous it was. I began to ask myself, 'What am I
saying?' I wasn't saying anything. It had been said before and had a reason for
being said, but I didn't have a reason. I wasn't making a statement. I was just
repeating it - like a parrot. By imitating and copying someone else, a person
becomes a parrot. I saw the trap and I knew, as great as those guys were and
still are, that I had to find my own voice."
Find it he did; much to the enjoyment and amazement of
drummers all over the world. Drums & Drumming spent a day with Vinnie just
prior to his rehearsals for the upcoming Sting tour.
D&D: How did the gig with Sting come about?
Vinnie: I received a phone call from Sting's management
and I flew over to the studio in London where he was mixing.
D&D: Was it an audition or did he already have you in mind to play?
Vinnie: He already had me in mind. What it comes down
to, even now, is that even though you might like the way a guy plays on a
record or something, you have to see what it feels like to play with him. We
had to see how we would get along. There are a lot of factors involved when you
start playing with somebody.
D&D: Do you foresee this becoming a long-term gig?
Vinnie: I hope it works out, absolutely. At this point,
though, we're just planning a three-week tour of South America. We'll see what
D&D: Who else have you worked with lately?
Vinnie: Well, there have been so many that I tend to
lose track. A couple of things I've recently done were Joni Mitchell's latest
project, David Foster's record, Toni Childs,
Tony Banks from Genesis, Barry
Manilow's Christmas album. I also worked on a Steven King movie, Graveyard
D&D: What did that involve?
Vinnie: It wasn't your average gig. I played all kinds
of weird things like bones, I pounded on rocks with logs, Engelhart metal
percussion stuff, an Indian drum. I played an Arrowhead water bottle like a
hand percussion instrument and it sounded pretty good, surprisingly enough.
Everything was written out.
D&D: Since we're on the topic of sessions, what
are your criteria for accepting or rejecting an offer?
Some people say that I'm a prostitute. But no, I'm a hired guy I'm a freelance
session player, and this is how I earn my living. So, my whole thing regarding
who I work with is based on whether I feel the artist is on the level, and if
the money thing is straight. Most of my calls are record dates, jingles,
television or motion pictures, or people I already know.
D&D: How often are you required to play to a click in the studio?
Vinnie: Ninety-eight percent of the time.
D&D: How did you become comfortable playing to a click?
Vinnie: Well, I learned it on the job. I mean,
practicing with a metronome was great with a practice pad, but not that cool
with the full kit; I couldn't hear it. So, these days, the drum machine is the
way to go for that situation. I never use a straight click at home, I play to a
pattern on my Linn machine and set up a cross stick and shaker groove or
D&D: Is that what you use in the studio?
Vinnie: No, I usually work with the Urei digital click
in the studio. That thing cuts through every frequency, so I can always hear
it. It also displays in three digits so you can see things in frames-per-beat
or whatever. Sometimes there might already be some percussion on the track and
I'll just play along with that. It varies from date to date.
D&D: Do you always carry your own kit?
Vinnie: Always. Studios in L.A. aren't like the ones in
New York where they'll have their own drums. So I'll bring my own drum set and
a variety of snares.
D&D: What do you do i f you're asked to play an
embarrassing or inappropriate drum part, and you know your name is going to be
on the credits?
Vinnie: Usually, I play the part that I think is right
for the song-based on my developed musical instincts. But the producer might
say, "No, play this," and I may know in my mind that it's not happening. But I
can't lose sight of that fact that, as a session drummer, I'm hired to do what
I'm supposed to do. So, I'll play what they want me to play and hope they can
hear that it's not working. When I suggest a change to someone, I can't be
wishy-washy about it. I have to say, "I don't think this part is working and
here are the reasons why..." Another thing to realize is that it's not just my
name on the credits, it's the producer's name, also. He or she has to assume
their share of responsibility for the outcome. And you hope they have it
together enough to realize what's good and what's not good.
D&D: These days, do many producers ask you to play
a song like, say, Gadd or Porcaro? If so how do you. react to it?
Vinnie: Not much any more. Once in a very great while,
when that happens, I'll just play what I think they want to hear. I mean, if
it's a thing where they want me to sound exactly like that guy, then I'll say,
"Call him." If they use it to try to give me a general idea like, "We want a
groove kind of like [Paul Simon's] 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover," then that's
cool. But see, most people call me because they want me to play like me.
D&D: What have you learned about the business aspect of music?
Well, that's a whole other issue. First of all, it's a cut-throat business.
Some people are real political to try to get their way, and they step on other
people in the process. It's important to not be blind to the business aspect.
Most musicians and creative people get bored with that type of thing fairly
easily-I know I do. But I try to be aware of what I'm getting into and know, up
front, how I'll be handling a situation financially. I have to know whether I
should accept payment by the song, or by the hour. I can get ripped off if I
make the wrong decision. If I choose to get paid by the song and the session
takes 10 hours, then I got ripped off. You have to know the business aspect of
things and the psychology of how to read people.
D&D: Do you manage yourself?
D&D: Would you suggest that other drummers do the same?
Vinnie: Sure, unless you have delusions of being some
star and you want to pay a manager a certain percentage. I mean, you're going
to get a call from a service, or producer, or contractor, and then you book
yourself on a date. What do you want a manager to do? He's not going to go out
and find you more work or anything-at least, not in a session situation. In
this business, it's word-of-mouth and contractors. It's a lot of work for me to
do it myself, but I feel that I have to deal with these people personally to
find out what I'm in for.
D&D: Moving on to the topics of studying and
technique, a couple of years ago you said that you were interested in taking
lessons. Who did you go to?
Vinnie: I went to several people: Dick Wilson, Joe
Morello, and I hung out with Jim Chapin a lot. I focused on complete body
movement rather than zeroing in on snare drum technique or whatever. I spent a
lot of practice time thinking about the way my arms and legs moved, trying to
make sure I wasn't expending unnecessary energy or inhibiting my speed and
comfort. I gained a lot of insight from that experience.
D&D: Have you made any adjustments to your stick technique?
I've experimented with matched grip a time or two, but I've pretty much
remained a traditional grip player. I try to be conscious of several things
when I play. One is trying to keep my arms in a perfectly straight line, from
elbow to palm. My right hand is pretty much palm downward, or half turned over
with a gap in between the thumb and the first finger. I try to keep the fulcrum
between the thumb and the first joint of my index finger and I cup my fingers
around the stick. Sometimes, for finger execution, I might twist my left wrist,
or turn it over to create a leverage, but usually I try to keep my hand in the
same position. When I play a fill around the toms, that's when I'll shift from
finger technique to my wrists and arms.
D&D: Do you think it's good for a matched grip
player to experiment with traditional grip in, say, a jazz setting?
Vinnie: Yeah. I think it's a great idea. Because,
psychologically and physically, it affects the way you approach things. I think
traditional grip has a lot to offer, not just because of tradition, but because
of its physical and psychological uniqueness, and its musical contribution.
Those three factors work together. You just do different things because it's a
completely different motion. It's like your right hand and left hand suddenly
become separate things. It just feels good.
D&D: Is stick slippage a common problem for you?
I only have problems when I play an extended drum solo under bright stage
lights-like last night at Zildjian Day. If I start sweating, I start choking up
on the sticks which inhibits my speed and cleanliness. When that happens, my
sticks start sliding up into the second joint, which I usually don't allow them
to do. If you play in air conditioned studios all the time, it's never a
problem. But, I'm one of these guys that starts sweating easily. I mean, I bend
over to tie my shoes and I break a sweat! I've tried wearing gloves, but now,
if I do anything, I'll just sand the ends of the sticks.
D&D: Can you describe your foot technique?
Vinnie: I've had a lot of schooling but I also, in some
ways, have a "streety" approach; A natural, organic approach. I studied a lot of
hand technique, but I never went to a guy and studied foot technique. So, I've
always played-and I think it's considered incorrect by a lot of people-with the
heel up off the pedal and I bury the beater, so to speak. The only way I've
modified it over the years is by keeping my heel up when I play loud, and
putting my heel down when I play soft-concentrating on lifting the beater off
the head in that situation. Another important aspect of bass drum technique has
to do with how you sit. I think that if you sit at a certain height, where your
back is real comfortable and your thighs are parallel to the ground, then you
won't use the upper part of your leg to throw weight, because that wastes
energy. What I tend to do is bounce off my calf muscle-the lower leg-just like
I bounce on a hi-hat pedal. If I have to throw weight, it comes more from the
hip and upper body via the calf-not from the upper leg. Lifting the leg wastes
D&D: When did you start using the double pedal?
Vinnie: I looked into the old Zalmer Twin when it first
came out, but I didn't find it to be a viable item back then. When DW
introduced their double pedal, that's when I really got into it. When I first
got one, I didn't really sit down and try to suddenly develop chops with it, I
just used it for little, tasteful things. After I'd been with Frank [Zappa] for
about a year, I used a black Sonor kit that had two bass drums. So, just from
doing it out on the road every night, I got really good technique happening. I
could play rolls with my feet and all that. I primarily use the double pedal
when it's sheer speed that I'm after. It takes a lot of the work off the other
D&D: Let's talk about individuality for a moment.
You mentioned getting caught up in emulating Tony Williams and others. But was
there ever a time when you consciously started to notice your own musical
identity coming through?
Vinnie: I don't think there was a particular day when I woke up and said, "I am
now me." Over the past few years, I've started to see it, but it's so hard to
pinpoint something like that. Evolution never stops. Some people define
identity based on comparison, but that whole "better" or "worse" thing isn't
what it's all about. It's a matter of the acquired skills that you think are
necessary to express the truth within yourself-bottom line. Whether or not a
guy can play by someone else's measured standards is a thing created in the
minds of people who do it to make themselves feel comfortable or justified.
That's why the whole idea of drum competitions and drum battles is complete
bullshit to me. People will say, "You're wrong Vinnie, because it drives kids
to excel." And, yeah, if it's healthy competition. There's a fine line where
healthy competition becomes unhealthy. Where someone who's so enamored with
himself discards the validity of others and, in turn, influences other people
to discard the validity of other things. I'm sorry, I can't hang with that.
There are plenty of other ways to make someone excel, by encouraging them to be
the best at what they can be. Not to try to be better or faster than some other
guy. You can scar people with that. You're dealing with psyche, the human
spirit, and you can't impose these stupid kinds of guidelines. It's so typical
of the American way of thinking - bigger is better - and I, for one, don't buy
Getting back to the identity issue, I don't know if your
identity is something you arrive at consciously. I keep referring to emptying
your cup. I believe that emptying your cup is what gives you your identity.
Some people do it in a conscious way; They look for a trademark or a gimmick or
something that will set them apart, and sometimes it does that. But you know,
the only thing that is constant is change. Your personality-if you don't filter
it with anything-will come through you via what you are. Maybe there will come
a day where you'll want to stop changing and that's what your entity will be.
Or you'll continue to change and that's what your identity will be. And so,
that's how I see my identity.
D&D: Are you pleased with the way your career has gone?
Vinnie: Yeah, sure. But I need a good balance. I've to go out and play live
when I can, plus do, good sessions. People might look at that and say, "You
want everything, Vinnie." But no, it's not that. I think that when you reach a
certain echelon, it's just a matter of wanting to be happy at what you're
doing. Lately I've been able to do some really great projects, so yeah, I'm
pretty happy at this point.
D&D: Anything you would you do differently if given the chance?
Vinnie: I probably would have tried to be more in
control of things earlier on. I did gigs where I had to play so hard that I
bled on my drums. Sometimes people think that they have to do something that
they really don't have to do, and I should have exercised more control over
that type of thing. But other than that, I'm very satisfied.
D&D: What about the future?
Vinnie: I want to play the drums as long as I have a
willingness to play the drums, and as long as I'm physically able to play the
drums to a standard that I think is acceptable. As long as I'm able to meet
those objectives, then that's how long I'll be behind a drum set.