What makes a great session drummer?

20th Mar 2013 | 12:00

What makes a great session drummer?
Session drummers: a guitarist's perspective

What's an interview with a guitarist doing on a website for drummers? Gannin Arnold is an LA-based session guitarist and producer who has worked with an impressive pedigree of drummers and picked up plenty of tips along the way. Throughout his career so far he's recorded with the likes of Vinnie Colaiuta and plays guitar in Taylor Hawkins' '70s inspired Coattail Riders band. In 2011 Gannin put out a solo album, Not From Here, featuring a host of his drummer friends including Hawkins, Terry Bozzio, Simon Phillips, Jimmy Chamberlin and Gary Novak.

The album spawned a DVD project, 5 World Class Drummers, released via Drum Channel (trailer below). The premise of the DVD was to have Phillips, Bozzio et al performing tracks from the album, and in one case each drummer playing the title track as an experiment to highlight the different nuances and personality that each drummer brought to the table. It's a fascinating watch.

With so much experience working with and knowledge of the world's greatest drummers, who better to ask what makes the perfect session drummer than Gannin?

What are the main characteristics a session drummer needs?

"Someone who has great time and great feel. Also, someone who understands many different styles. I think it's important for a drummer to have a good grasp of history and understand the lineage of drumming."

Who, in your opinion, are the best session drummers on the scene right now and why?

"Well, there are a lot of amazing drummers. But here's a few off the top of my head: Adam Watts - Adam, Andy Dodd and myself have a production company called Red Decibel and I have to say Adam is one the best drummers I know. He has perfect time and amazing chops and he always knows what's right for the song.

"Josh Freese's resume pretty much speaks for itself. He comes in, plays a few perfect takes and leaves. He's a powerful drummer with a great feel.

"Vinnie's the most versatile drummer and best reader I've ever worked with. Let's face it he's probably one of the greatest drummers of all time. Everyone is in awe of Vinnie!"

What makes a great session drummer?
Gannin has worked with Vinnie, Taylor Hawkins and more

You have worked with plenty of big name drummers like Taylor Hawkins, Jimmy Chamberlin and Simon Phillips. How did you get to a point of working with drummers of such calibre?

"At the end of the day it's really word-of-mouth. In some ways it's who you know but you have to have the talent to back it up when you get the opportunity. They have to respect what you do because they're on such a high level of musicianship."

Is it daunting working with artists who have a lot of recording experience?

"It can be very intimidating but you have to keep in mind that you're there for a reason and that's to record a great track. You can't be starstruck, you just have to get your head wrapped around the music as quickly as possible."

Have you ever had to sack a drummer from a session and if so, what was the reason?

"Sadly yes. Sometimes the name on paper seems like a perfect fit but it just doesn't work for whatever reason. It's really nothing against their playing. Sometimes styles don't gel with certain songs."

When recording a drummer, how hands on do you get in terms of getting drum sounds and suggesting parts?

"When it comes to sounds that's not really my thing. I'm really fortunate to work with some great engineers. But as far as the playing is concerned if the drummer needs direction I'm more than happy to give it, but I like to work with people that know what they're doing and don't need a lot of direction - that's why I hired them in the first place! I think it's important to let the drummer do his thing first and then make some suggestions."

Do you know how to play drums yourself? Either way, do you find this a help or a hindrance.

"Drums were my first instrument, so yes I play drums a lot. I think it's really helpful. It really helps my guitar playing. It makes you play and think more rhythmically. It's funny, most of my closest friends are drummers not guitar players!"

From the perspective of working with other drummers, what have been your most memorable sessions to date and why?

"I was recording Jeff Berlin's CD Aneurythms and Vinnie was on the session. These songs were hard and I worked on them for a couple of weeks. We all played live together in Brian Bromberg's studio and Vinnie killed it every time. The stuff he was doing with the hi-hat on the fly would have been genius enough but he also made it feel good and sound easy. I was blown away."

What makes a great session drummer?
"I really wish I heard more personality in drummers these days"

Do your requirements of a drummer change when you're producing compared to when you're playing guitar with them?

"It's basically the same. Play what's right for the song and be yourself. I really wish I heard more personality in drummers these days. Pro Tool's has been an awesome recording tool but it's also been responsible for taking away a drummer's personality. If Keith Moon was alive now an engineer would put him on the grid and he wouldn't have that special thing that made him the loon. We need to find a balance."

How much tracking do you actually do in a room with a drummer or other musicians these days?

"This is rare these days. Most of the time it's drums first then overdubs. I wish there were more live recordings. It's what separates the men from the boys."

Do you still swear by using a 'live' drummer, or are you comfortable using programmed drums too?

"I'm ok with both as long as it's right for the song."

When recording a session, how much of what you play is inspired by what the drummer is playing, or do you always play to complement the vocals?

"I work off of both. The drum track is the most important thing to lock into time-wise. Sometimes what the drummer's playing will make me come up with a riff to compliment what he's doing. It really depends on the style. If it's a jazz trio then I'm really reacting to the drums. My playing becomes more rhythmic and we play off each other. At the end of the day it's all about listening to each other. That's the most important thing in music!"

You play guitar in the Coattail Riders with Taylor. What difference does it make to your approach having the drummer as the bandleader?

"No difference at all. In fact it's great! No lead singer disease. Plus I'm a drummer at heart so it makes it easier in some ways. We speak the same language. Taylor is one of the greats. His name should be up there with Bonham and Stewart Copeland. He's a really gifted musician and one of my best friends!"

You worked alongside Taylor, Simon, Jimmy, Terry and more on the Drum Channel DVD. How did that come about and what are your memories of recording it?

"I was speaking to Don Lombardi at DW Drums/Drum Channel about putting together a DVD with multiple drummers playing songs off of my CD, Not From Here. He liked the idea and urged me to make the calls and he would make it happen. So I did and I got everyone on my wishlist. The experience was amazing! We would play the songs down three times and record each take. There are no overdubs. What you see is what you get. The one thing all those drummers have in common is their own style. I would urge all drummers to check it out and not for my playing, but for the drummers. I think it's one of the most instructional videos out there. I sound like Muhammad Ali, but I'm serious. You get a sense on how they approach a song. They all play the song Not From Here and you can see each drummer's personality and genius shine through. It was very inspirational for me and I was honoured that they did it!"

What makes a great session drummer?
"The beauty in drumming is really in the personality of the person holding the sticks"

Jimmy Chamberlin on working with Gannin on the 5 World Class Drummers DVD.

"It's a great educational tool for drummers to hear what an influence a drummer can have on a song. When you hear Ian Paice play a Deep Purple song you feel that interpretation and we as listeners tend to embed that stuff in our brain like it's written in stone. Certainly if you hear 'Take Five' with Joe Morello there's a certain expectation in the listening and our brains are used to being satisfied in a certain way. What it does is tell you there are so many ways to interpret a song. Listening to Terry [Bozzio] play some of those songs with his ability to listen and re-interpret on the fly, it just tells you there really are so many ways to skin a musical cat and that the beauty of all of our playing is that no two drummers are even remotely alike. The five guys playing the same song are completely different interpretations of that song. The beauty in drumming is really in the personality of the person holding the sticks and how the sound comes out through that personality, not really the technical proficiency.

"We as humans get into this 'oh it's sacrilegious, it can't be this way'. What we have to get into our heads as artists is that really change is good and it doesn't have to feel uncomfortable. A lot of times we get comfortable in our listening and it's a good way to push ourselves out of our comfort zone."

What makes a great session drummer?
"Terry Bozzio is an icon, an original"

Taylor Hawkins on working with Gannin on the 5 World Class Drummers DVD.

"I think the whole thing is such a great, original idea. No-one's done anything like this. It just shows you how much better all those guys are than me! It's just so different. It just shows you the difference between feel and approach and attitude to drumming. You have Simon Phillips who's this octopus on the drums and insane. You have Novak who's just completely unbelievable, then you have Terry Bozzio who's just an icon, an original. There's just one Terry Bozzio. Jimmy Chamberlin, who to me was the first guy to really bring jazz fusion chops to what now is considered alternative rock. He sounds like Tony Williams. He's such an amazing drummer."

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