Kenny Aronoff never imagined that he would be come a rock ‘n’ roll drummer extraordinaire; trained as a classical percussionist, he reacted with shock when a professor urged him to broaden his instrumental repertoire. “Someday your specialty might be tambourine. Or it might be rock ’n’ roll drumset,” Aronoff told Percussive Notes. “I said, ‘Man, I hope not.’ [But]I ended up being the drummer I always put down!”
Some 20 years after that exchange, Aronoff is one of the most versatile, sought-after drummers in popular music. Modern Drummer’ s Rick Mattingly observed that Aronoff’s sound is “built on the foundation of traditional American rock music.” Writing for Percussive Notes, Mattingly called Aronoff “one of the finest rock ’n’ roll drummers in the business. His playing is distinguished by a less is more’ approach in which the beats are fairly simple but always contain that little twist that sets them apart from the norm.” That approach is responsible for the remarkable range of music in which Aronoff has made his mark. He has appeared on more than 200 albums since 1980, in styles that range from country
Born March 3, 1953, in Albany NY; children: one son, Nik.
Performed with fusion band Stream, winter 1979; recorded and toured with John Mellencamp Band 1980-1996; played as session drummer 1981-1997; toured with various bands 1987-1997; offered drum clinics and private drum lessons, 1970s-1990s.
Awards: Five years #1 Pop/Rock drummer; Honor Roll Pop/Rock Drummer; Three years #1 Studio drummer, all from Modern Drummer Readers’ Poll.
and rock to pop and jazz to the fringes of heavy metal. After getting his start with John Mellencamp, he moved on to artists as diverse as Willie Nelson, Belinda Carlisle, Iggy Pop, and Jon Bon Jovi. Not bad for a guy that never used to care for rock drummers!
Kenny Aronoff was born in Albany, New York, but grew up Stockbridge, Massachusetts. A product of the Sixties, he listened to all the music that was in the air; among his favorites were the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Jimi Hendrix. Their drummers were to have a decisive influence on his own development. When he was ten he joined his first band—with only a snare drum and cymbal. He learned everything about drumming on his own—he had no formal training on the drum kit until after he graduated from college. He picked up what he could from records, from various method books and from the garage bands he played in throughout junior high and high school. But unlike so many of his peers Aronoff did not dream of being a rock star ‘n’ roll star; he set sights on playing classical music instead.
At the age of 16 he decided to focus on classical music. “My formal training was in classical music,” Aronoff told Musician, “starting with the summer after my sophomore year in high school when I began studying with Arthur Press of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That’s when I got into the classical stuff, you know, timpani, mallets, snare drums.” After high school he attended the University of Massachusetts School of Music for a year. But after studying with George Gaber at the Aspen Music Festival in the summer of 1972, he transferred to Indiana University where Gaber was teaching. He was concentrating on timpani when Gaber warned him against limiting himself too much: “You have to be a well-rounded percussionist and learn to play all the instruments,” Aronoff recalled his teacher telling him in Percussive Notes. However, the future drummer did not realize at first how true those words were. “I figured you made a living as an orchestral player,” he told Musician. But when he graduated from IU in 1976 he faced an unsettling situation: there were no orchestral jobs. Not a single American orchestra was auditioning percussionists. He could have had spots in the Jerusalem Symphony as well as in an orchestra in Quito, Ecuador, but he politely refused both offers.
Without the orchestra job he had been preparing for over the better part of six years, Aronoff changed direction. He moved back East and started studying jazz drumset under Alan Dawson, who had taught at the Berklee School of Music. Drumset was not offered in Indiana’s percussion program, a fact Aronoff finds ironic in light of the school’s fine jazz program. Jazz drumming was nothing new to Aronoff; he had been interested in jazz since he was a child, when his father had played a John Coltrane album for him.
When Aronoff was getting ready to graduate from Indiana he decided to play a piece for jazz quartet, with himself on drums, as one of his final performance pieces. “It was suggested to me that I shouldn’t do that if I wanted to earn a performance certificate. But drum-set was as much a part of me as the other instruments,” he told Percussive Notes, “and my other pieces were very strong.” (They were classical pieces by Bartok, Saint-Saëns, and Delecuse.) Aronoff played the jazz “Tribute to Zoltan Kodahly” and was approved for his performance certificate unanimously.
After Dawson and some work under New York studio drummer Gary Chester in the late 1970s, Aronoff moved back to Indiana. Along with David Grissom, he formed a fusion band, called Streamwinner, which played the Midwest and Southern circuits for a while but never managed to make the jump to a nationwide audience.
By the end of the 1970s, Aronoff was playing drumset exclusively. At this time he felt an even stronger contempt for rock drummers than before. “I had no respect whatsoever for simple rock ‘n’ roll drumming,” he confessed to Percussive Notes. “I only liked heavy fusion and technical drumming like Billy Cobham, Harvey Mason, Alphonse Mougon, Elvin Jones, Joe Morello, Tony Williams, Lenny White and Steve Gadd.” So he wasn’t entirely prepared for the turn his career was about to take as the 1980s began. He was on his way to Los Angeles for a Lou Rawls audition when he heard that John Mellencamp was looking for a drummer for his band, a rock band. Aronoff dragged his whole kit, 14 drums and 12 cymbals—he had been playing fusion, after all—over to Mellencamp’s house and set them up in a small room there.“I remember I tried to play really loud” he told Musician’s Alan di Perna. “because I figured it was a rock audition. Ridiculously loud. I think broke three sticks and a cymbal and we only played three songs. John didn’t say anything right away, but after he hired me, he said ‘Okay, get rid of that drum, that drum, that cymbal, that drum, that cymbal….’ I didn’t understand it at first, but then I figured it out.”
Aronoff spent about two years learning to play rock ‘n’ roll music with Mellencamp. “I could make the transition because I went back to my roots, back to that Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, Creedence Clearwater approach to rock ‘n’ roll,” he explained to di Perna. “So there’s this very schooled part of me, but also this really raw street thing. Sometimes, when I want to get into that really raw state of mind I try to play the drums as if I weren’t a drummer.”
For 17 years Aronoff was an integral part of Mellencamp’s band, and the powerful, innovative sound he developed there did much to define the sound of the band’s music. He gives a lot of the credit to Mellencamp, who spurred him on to some of his most inventive ideas. With Mellencamp he felt constantly challenged; Mellencamp’s ever-changing approach to recording aided and abetted Aronoff’s musical growth. He made the band learn hundreds of songs from the 1960s and 1970s before they even started recording Scarecrow in 1985. In contrast, the songs on 1989’s Big Daddy were recorded in one or two takes, without even the benefit of rehearsals.
In the late 1980s, Mellencamp began taking longer breaks from recording and touring. With time on his hands, Aronoff became a drummer for hire and one of the most in-demand session drummers in popular music. The list of acts with which he has performed includes Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Marshall Crenshaw, Lyle Lovett, Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt, and Elton John. Although he is one of the best-paid drummers in music, he does not maintain his grueling schedule just for the money. “To me it’s not about getting quadruple scale,” he told Musician’ s Mattingly. “You have to keep abreast of what’s going on. One way for me to keep learning new things is to work constantly.”
In the 1990s Aronoff increased his work in drum education. He gave clinics, wrote columns for Modern Drummer magazine, and developed instructional videos. In 1993 he became an Associate Professor at his alma mater, Indiana University. There he taught drumset to individual students in the jazz program—the instrument he was unable to study at college. The school gave him a free hand in arranging his courseload around his other professional commitments. He believes he brought a unique perspective to his university teaching. “I know where these students are at,” he told Percussive Notes. “When I was there I was putting down the kind of drummer I’ve become, because I didn’t understand it.” Unfortunately, Aronoff was forced to give up his teaching at IU when his playing schedule became too overwhelming.
While pursuing work outside Mellencamp’s band, Aronoff tried extremely hard to coordinate his schedule. He agreed to play a Hong Kong promotional event for executives at Mellencamp’s record company, for example, during a short break in his tour with Bob Seger. At the last minute, unexpected problems arose with his flight back to the United States, and he arrived at the arena five minutes before the band began their sound check—but only by hiring a helicopter to fly him in from the airport. Not long afterwards, Aronoff was in the middle of a commitment when Mellencamp called him to play another promotional gig. But there was no way Kenny could get out of the job with such short notice. Because Mellencamp wanted someone who could be available all the time, and Aronoff could not afford to give up his other work, the two parted ways for good.
Aronoff’s latest collaboration was with one of his boyhood idols—John Fogerty. Fogerty’s album, Blue Moon Swamp (1997) took more than four years to make, as he was unable to find a drummer suitable for the project. Aronoff, who said he always believed he would be perfect for Fogerty’s music, entered the picture and ended up playing on five of the album’s twelve tracks. (Five different drummers worked on the other seven.) For Fogerty, Aronoff’s style is his special contribution to the music. “Kenny’s time always feels great,” Fogerty explained to Modern Drummer, “whereas I’ve had a lot of situations where I’m standing there stomping my left foot trying to keep the thing moving forward. Consider him the best rock ’n’ roll drummer in the world.”
Aronoff summed up his own role in the music industry in Percussive Notes: “I’ve played rock ’n’ roll with Jon Bon Jovi, but I’ve also played in the orchestra at Tanglewood under Leonard Bernstein. I’m a legitimate guy!”
With John Mellencamp
American Fool, Mercury, 1982.
Uh Huh, Mercury, 1983.
Scarecrow, Mercury, 1985.
The Lonesome Jubilee, Mercury, 1987.
Big Daddy, Mercury, 1989.
Jon Bon Jovi, Destination Anywhere.
Bob Dylan, Under the Red Sky.
Melissa Etheridge, Your Little Secret.
John Fogerty, Blue Moon Swamp.
Iggy Pop, Brick by Brick.
Buddy Rich Big Band, Burning for Buddy, Vols. I and II. Patty Smyth, Patty Smyth.
Power Workout, Volumes I and II, CPP/Belwin, 1993.
Power Workout, Volumes I and II, CPP/Belwin, 1993
Columnist for Modern Drummer, “Rock Perspectives,” July 1987 to November 1989.
Down Beat, June 1993.
Modern Drummer, September 1991; November 1997.
Musician, June 1989; May 1996.
Percussive Notes, April 1993.
Additional information from interview with Kenny Aronoff, December 5, 1997
—Gerald E. Brennan