16 Oct 2018

Master drummer Steve Gadd talks us through his finest work

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:13 pm on 16 October 2018

Steve Gadd is the man behind the effortless drumming on legendary tracks like 'Aja' by Steely Dan, 'Chuck E's in Love' by Rickie Lee Jones and '50 Ways to Leave Your Lover' by Paul Simon. He's in NZ this month to play shows with James Carter and the Rodger Fox Big Band, and to host a series of drum workshops.

Steve Gadd

Steve Gadd Photo: Wikicommons

Gadd was born in Rochester, New York in 1945, and by the end of the 1970s, was one of the world's top jazz and pop drummers.

He's worked with top names in the music industry including Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, James Taylor, Chick Corea and Grover Washington Jr. He's also been releasing his own records since 1984.

Gadd started out drumming during his years in elementary school in Rochester, playing with the drum and bugle corps. From a musical family, he'd be taken to local venues to see some of the greatest names in jazz playing.

"There was a place called The Ridgecrest Inn. They brought in Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie…

"When I was a kid, my parents and my grandparents and my uncle took my brother and I to see these guys and I could sit right next to the bandstand and stare at the drummers and it was a great way to learn.

"The artists were very generous towards young talent, they encouraged us, let us sit in."


Steve Gadd joined Jesse Mulligan and Simon Sweetman to talk through some of his most influential recordings:

'Legend of the One-Eyed Sailor' - Chuck Mangione (1972)

Chuck and Gap Mangione were among the first musicians Gadd played with professionally.

"Chuck and I grew up together and the first album I ever recorded was a Gap Mangione album with arrangements by Chuck called Diana in the Autumn Wind."

The snare drum on this track shows Gadd's roots in rudimental or military style drumming.

"It feels good to play, it's got a nice groove", he says.

'50 Ways to Leave Your Lover' - Paul Simon (1975)

The intro to this tune is an example of Gadd's "linear" drumming, which moves between the hi-hat, snare, bass and tom.

"When we were in the studio, the chorus of the song fell into place pretty naturally but not the verses … Paul was looking for something different but he didn't really know what.

"Phil Ramone was the producer and I was practising this little pattern with the left hand on the hi-hat and tom and syncopating it with the foot and Phil heard me and thought it would be a good idea to incorporate into the groove – that's how the beginning of the song came about."

Gadd Gang

Gadd Gang Photo: Steve Gadd Website

'Aja' - Steely Dan (1977)

There are lots of Gadd trademarks on Aja by Steely Dan.

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (who essentially were Steely Dan) had definite ideas about the drum sound they wanted, Gadd says.

"I played busy."

Gadd recorded his part in one or two takes.

'Samba Song' - Chick Corea (1978)

Gadd has worked with Chick Corea steadily over the last 40 years.

Samba Song is an example of his jazz drumming in the late '70s.

On this track, he makes use of the legendary Gadd cowbell and incorporates the "Mozambique" patterns which became something of a trademark.

'Love The Stuff'/'Ain't No Mountain High Enough', Live in New York - Stuff (1980)

In the mid-1970s, Gadd was a regular at Mikell's – a jazz club in New York where the city's top studio and session musicians would turn up for jam sessions with artists visiting the city.

Here he met Eric Gale (guitar), Cornell Dupree (guitar), Richard Tee (piano), and Chris Parker (drums) and the band became known as the Encyclopedia Of Soul. (They eventually changed their name to Stuff.)

"These guys taught me so much about the groove," Gadd says.

'Just The Two of Us' - Bill Withers (1980)

This one of Gadd's most famous and beguilingly simple recordings, completely in "the pocket".

"We sure had fun playing it," Gadd says.

"To play simple and spacious and still make the foundation feel strong."

'Chuck E's in Love' - Ricky Lee Jones (1979)

­This track is another Gadd masterclass and required listening for drum students – particularly his fill at 1 minute, 55.

"Ricky Lee was a pop artist but you could tell that she liked some jazz and she used to go out with Tom Waits and he's a pretty deep musician, too.

"Even though it was pop there was an underlying jazz thing so I could be a little bit free and loose."

No caption

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Steve Gadd's drum setup

­"I started out playing an 18" bass drum and 8" by 4" tom a 14" by 14" tom and a snare drum like a little bebop kit. I was using that configuration of bass drum and two toms.

"When I got to New York I bought a new set of drums. The bass felt good but the toms didn't feel right.

"Pearl made a set of chromatic toms with one head, and I had bottom heads put on all of them and chose the 10" the 12" and the 13" and 14" - four toms and I've been using that configuration ever since – I built that set, I put it together."

Later Yamaha duplicated Gadd's setup and invited him to be an ambassador.

"We've been together ever since."

Steve Gadd with James Carter and the Rodger Fox Big Band:

  • Wellington: Friday, October 19, The Opera House
  • Christchurch: Saturday, October 20, Isaac Theatre Royal
  • Auckland: Sunday, October 21, Bruce Mason Centre

Steve Gadd drumming workshops:

  • Wellington: Friday, October 19, 6pm-7.15pm,  Victoria University Memorial Theatre
  • Christchurch: Saturday, October 20, 3pm-4.15pm, Isaac Theatre Royal
  • Auckland: Sunday, October 21, 12pm-1.15pm, Atwaters Musicworks Hobson Street

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