Steve GaddAbout ten years ago when I started getting into Brazilian music, some of the most important things I learned actually happened away from the drum kit. I had already been performing rock and jazz for about a decade and was well versed in rudimental playing from my high school and college marching band experiences. But, when I began learning about sambas I had to abandon some of my ideas of how to perform, because I was actually playing ‘too cleanly’ on some things. I read a Steve Gadd interview which focused on his great Mozambique groove on Paul Simon’s Late in the Evening. In the interview he stated that he played the groove with two sticks in each hand to give it a more authentic sound and feel, to emulate the vibe of a few guys just jamming on a street corner. When I went back to the kit and started practicing sambas again, I had a whole new mindset, in order to get an authentic sound; I needed to learn some of the history of the groove, where it developed, what the purpose was, etc... After I learned that it was street party music played largely by amateurs this allowed me to ‘muddy up’ my snare drum rolls, and hit the cymbals with the shank of the stick to give it a more authentic sound. This led me to start reading and making discoveries about Brazil, Escolas de sambas and the Rio Carnaval festivals. I actually got so into it that I learned that Brazilians speak Portuguese; prior to my study of sambas on drumset, I thought everyone in South America spoke Spanish!

Jump ahead to 2009… the first thing I usually ask a new private student or a student at a clinic is “Who’s your favorite drummer?” In most cases, to my surprise, the kids don’t respond immediately. They actually look at me like I have two heads. I keep the pressure on though. I’ll say okay if you don’t have a favorite drummer “what is your favorite band?” Again, looks of befuddlement. This makes the first lesson pretty easy, “Your assignment for next week – tell me who your favorite drummer is!”

99.9% of the kids involved in Little League Baseball could probably tell you the whole starting line-up of the 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies (sorry, hometown plug!). But I don’t see the same statistics with kids involved with music unfortunately.

Researching and understanding where techniques and sounds come from is such a vital part of learning the drums, or any instrument for that matter, more students really need to take responsibility and find out about the people that brought music and drumming to where it is today.

Liberty DevittoThe main reason I want the students to have a favorite player is so that we can start developing a broader understanding of music, in general. If we have a common starting point, i.e. favorite drummer, it will be much easier to make musical connections. For instance, one of my current students started with me about a year and a half ago. He told me early on that his favorite drummer was Liberty DeVitto.

From that point we were able to study Liberty’s playing on tons of hit records. As the weeks and months progressed we were able to jump to related topics, like, Liberty’s hero growing up was Ringo Starr. From there my student got exposed to the music of The Beatles and actually began to transcribe the drum parts to Rain. We were also able to jump directly to Liberty’s former collaborator Billy Joel and learned about his influences, namely Beethoven. Prior to mentioning Liberty DeVitto a few weeks before, my student never would have checked out any orchestral music from the 1800’s, but since Liberty played with Billy, and Billy loves Beethoven, the ground work was laid for us to branch out. My student also discovered that Billy Joel liked Dave Brubeck. From there I was able to expose him to the great drumming of Joe Morello, and their use of odd meters, which led us to Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, Rush and all of the prog-rock groups of the 70’s that used odd meters almost exclusively.

Ringo StarrGetting back to Ringo Starr – we were also able to start talking about traditional grip versus matched grip, since Ringo has been credited as being the impetus for a lot of rock drummers playing matched. We were able to talk about why and how the traditional grip developed from the military tradition of players using side-drums in Europe back in the 1500’s. While talking about Ringo we also dug into some of the Beatles influences, who they listened to. Of course, we got to Elvis and started looking into Mississippi Delta Blues, Rockabilly, etc… Then the discussion of Elvis led to Sun Records and Sam Philips studio. After a quick Google search for Sun Records my student was able to see how archaic the studio looked compared to today’s ultra hi-tech studios. And in our quest to find out about some great traditional grip players we began with Gene Krupa, which led to my student discovering that the drumset as an instrument is still less than one hundred years old.

The chart below shows how we got to such seemingly unrelated topics as ‘payola’ and equal temperament tuning merely from my student telling me that Liberty DeVitto is his favorite drummer. It is a graphic representation of the paths that our discussions took over the course of a few lessons. I can’t begin to go into detail about every single connection in this article. In the back of my mind I’ve always tried to connect things for my students, but when I actually started writing the chart out I began to realize just how vital it is for people to listen to music and really dig in to their favorite players. How many students know that John Bonham’s favorite drummer was Buddy Rich or Bill Bruford loved Max Roach’s playing?

Just as I was able to get closer to playing sambas more authentically by reading an interview with Steve Gadd, which led me to research Brazil; students, pros and music aficionados can learn a great deal about their favorite music by actually going backwards. Learn who your heroes listened to, then learned who they listened to, etc. It will help to solidify your musical vocabulary on the drums and you will really begin to appreciate the long tradition of drumming that we are all a part of.

Your heroes did not listen to themselves growing up…who did they listen to? and who will listen to you!?

Who Did They Listen To

Sean Kennedy Philadelphia-area drummer, Sean J. Kennedy is equally at home on the concert stage or in the teaching studio. Due to his versatility, Kennedy has been able to record and perform with some of the world’s best musicians, including Bob Mintzer, Liberty DeVitto, Ricky Byrd, Donald Nally, Richie Cannata and the late Dr. Frederick Fennell.

In June 2009 Carl Fischer Music Publishing released “Rock Solid: Drums” a rock drumset method book co-authored by Kennedy and Liberty DeVitto. Kennedy holds a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in percussion performance, and endorses Zildjian Cymbals, Casio Keyboards, Vic Firth Drumsticks and Evans Drumheads exclusively. To contact Sean visit