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Steve Ferrone: Tapping Into 40 Years Of Groove

By Sam Pryor // Cover photo by Deborah Arlook Originally Published In DRUM! Magazine's August 2010 Issue

Steve Ferrone

A gentle giant with a quick smile and a soulful style, Steve Ferrone has the perfect drumming physique: large, muscled, and as formidable as a mountain. Sitting erect as a flagpole behind his Gretsch kit on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, Ferrone provided the wallop behind tracks from Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ new record, Mojo. A rock and roll return for The Heartbreakers, Mojo is all butt-kicking beats, bluesy guitar riffs, and Petty’s nasal howl raised to new heights. And Ferrone has never sounded better. But with a legacy as large and looming as his, “better” is a relative term.

Ferrone came to prominence in the mid-’70s with Scotland’s answer to Tower Of Power – Average White Band. AWB’s big hits, such as “A Love Of Your Own,” “Cut The Cake,” and “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” relied on Ferrone’s seamless funk rhythms. Videos of that era show a younger, thinner Ferrone knee-deep in the funk, playing his striped-shell Gretsch kit like some Zigaboo Modeliste—meets—John Bonham earthquake starter – his sound massive, his tone dark, and his wide-as-a-Hummer groove slightly behind dead center. Recalling the magic of AWB is easy for Ferrone, relaxing in the backyard of his home in Van Nuys, California.

“I’ve had to teach people to play Average White Band songs,” Ferrone explains, with his quick laugh always at the ready. “You have to teach people things that come naturally to the Scottish. In England we grew up listening to Motown and Stax and we fell into the funk naturally. It’s the same thing with The Heartbreakers and Average White Band. You put those guys together and we start to play and something just clicks. There’s knowledge of how this music goes. You don’t have to tell them anything. But guys on the outside of that have to learn to play like that. To sit there and have faith and just play that groove and not play any fills because you don’t need to – having the knowledge that this groove is grooving so hard you don’t need to play anything else. Don’t try and make it better – it’s a discipline that comes from knowing that music.

“It’s always gotta come back to the pocket,” he continues. “That’s something the Average White Band had. It’s like the time I was rehearsing with George Harrison. I saw Ringo standing outside the live room, and I nodded to him to jump on the drum set. And just the way Ringo and George fell in playing together, they knew each other so well, there’s not much else to do. It just happened. It just gelled. Oh, that’s what it was like to play with The Beatles!”

TAP DANCING INTO SIMPLICITY
Any musician who can casually mention the time he motioned Ringo over to play with George is a man with serious history. And Ferrone’s lengthy discography reveals a 37-year career loaded with top-flight and extremely diverse gigs, recorded both as a band member and session musician. He’s recorded R&B with Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Marcus Miller, David Sanborn, and Michael Jackson. He’s been a pop star with Duran Duran, Bee Gees, Carly Simon, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, and Paul Simon. Ferrone’s fluidity is featured on jazz records by Pat Metheny, Maynard Ferguson, George Duke, Jason Miles, and Jaco Pastorius. He’s bashed the blues with Freddie King and Keb Mo, even gone country with Johnny Cash and LeAnn Rimes. And the ultimate irony: Ferrone is an English national who made his name playing funk in a Scottish band, and today he’s still an English guy playing rock and roll with one of the most quintessentially American bands around. But like Buddy Rich and Steve Gadd before him, Ferrone began his love affair with rhythm as a tap dancer.

“Growing up in Brighton, I tap danced professionally,” Ferrone says. “That is how I started playing drums. When I was 12 my parents took me down to audition for the summer show and I got a top-place ranking. I was a pretty good tap dancer! I was onstage dancing professionally at the Brighton Hippodrome. I looked down in the pit at the drummer and I went up to my dressing room and practiced what he was playing, some sort of twist. Tap dancing helped me understand syncopation. We danced to standards. That really helped me understand the construction and dynamics of songs.”

Fast-forward 50 years and Ferrone’s mastery of song construction, dynamics, syncopation, and musicality can be heard all over Mojo. Ferrone understands the subtlest elements of drum inflection, the meaning of groove, and playing for the music. His grooves are often so simple sounding you wonder, What is this guy’s secret?

“People say it’s so simple what you play,” he comments. “If it’s so easy how come a bunch of other people aren’t doing it? It’s just a question of feel. We’re back to tap dancing again. When I’m tap dancing I’m not listening to the rhythm that my feet are doing, I’m listening to the song. I don’t like to tread on vocals; I don’t like to tread on people’s parts. I have this support position. I don’t think that I’ve ever played anything that was so difficult, even when it came down to the funk thing. There wasn’t anything there that was that complicated. It’s just the way it felt. I didn’t approach it any differently than I approach Tom’s music.”

Another ingredient in Ferrone’s stash: He often seems like he’s not slamming the drums even when he is. Weird? For sure.

“There are a couple songs on Mojo where Tom wanted it to sound easy. I just played it easier, so I didn’t have to lay into the drums so much. I was concentrating on the tone of the drums more than the power that came with it. ’I Should Have Known It’ is an obvious rocker. But the idea that I am not generally hitting hard is deceptive. There is a lot of energy that goes into it. I usually spend a little quiet time before we play. I envision it like I suck in all this energy before we go onstage, then I get onstage and I let the whole lot go.”

And when Ferrone’s beat is in full effect, as with Petty, Average White Band, Chaka Khan, or on his own solo albums (It Up, Again And Yet Again) you’re hearing an unqualified timekeeping master in thrall to the music.

“I don’t really like to play on top of the beat,” he explains. “Middle or back of the beat is where the pocket sits for me. And Tom has a sort of low-key swing to things that he plays. There’s a soulful side of Petty too. There are a lot of diverse tastes of music in the band, and sometimes when they listen to my solo albums they call that jazz. But it’s more R&B than anything else.

“Back in the very busy studio days in New York,” Ferrone recalls, “I remember one day in particular I was up in the Bronx recording with a thrash metal artist from Argentina. Then I came back to town and at noon I was in Atlantic Studios with Roberta Flack. Then that night I was in Power Station with Pat Metheny. I don’t really think about my approach to each artist; I just go in and play whatever the music needs. It’s a way of approaching a song for me: I don’t sit down and switch hats and say it’s this style or that style. I’ve been blessed with this way to sit down and interpret a song.”

Steve Ferrone MAKING MOJO
Ferrone has been working with Tom Petty since 1994’s Wildflowers, a rustic album where the Englishman’s role was as sideman, a drummer for hire. By the time of 1999’s despondent Echo he was a full-fledged bandmember. 2002’s blazing The Last DJ followed. Mojo returns Petty And The Heartbreakers to the popular perception as America’s greatest rock and roll band, a 30-year establishment with more passion than The Stones, and as much kick-ass purpose as any indie band you’d care to name. But it don’t come easy.

“Tom is not too thrilled with the way the music business is going at the moment,” Ferrone confides. “You don’t have the ability to make the sales that used to happen – everybody gets disenchanted with that. We go on the road with Tom and he is very enthusiastic; then after a while it starts to wear on him. Usually by the end of the tour even though we have had a great time, Tom says he will never do it again. But give him six months sitting at home and he’ll start writing and then he’ll want to get together and play over at his clubhouse in Van Nuys. That’s what happened this time. We got together just to play some stuff, and usually we’d start working out the songs at the clubhouse and then we’d go into a studio. But Tom built a studio at the clubhouse and he wanted to record the music live. So we recorded for two weeks, then he heard something in it that he liked and he became excited about the music.”

That excitement clearly was not limited to Petty. Mojo kicks it, and hard. “Jefferson Jericho Blues” lets Ferrone strut his two-beat chops over a mean harp groove. “Running Man’s Bible” pops, shakes, and quakes, Ferrone tipping his cymbal like Sam Lay. “I Should Have Known It” is Mojo’s “You Wreck Me,” a full stomper with trashy hi-hat licks and drunken tom thumping. Ferrone drops serious blues bumps in “Takin’ My Time,” shuffles his butt off in “Let Yourself Go,” creates reggae magic in “Don’t Pull Me Over,” and simply lays it down in “High In The Morning.”

Mojo was a return to recording live,” Ferrone says. “The way it was recorded was that we would just play it until we played it right. It has a freshness about it that sounds really good. There are Mose Allison influences, Led Zeppelin – it’s just us having fun playing. And you can hear the fun we had playing the songs translating well into an album.”

In keeping with Mojo’s rock and roll purism, the click track was banished.

“I am the click track!” Ferrone laughs. “There was a click track on The Last DJ, but not on Wildflowers. Overall, I didn’t think about my approach for Mojo. Whenever I do a record, I just walk in and try to figure out what the music is and where the artist wants it to go. Sometimes Tom will start playing and then I fall in; Mike will play something; we all listen. It takes a minute and the whole band just gels. We all start listening to each other, minor adjustments get made, and then all of a sudden, bang! It’s a real cohesive unit and it’s just there. Or I just listen to a song, and sometimes I am completely wrong. They’ll say, ’No, no, no. Play with this sort of feel.’ Then I will get into that. Sometimes I hit and sometimes I miss. But I hit more often than miss. It’s trying to figure out what the artist and producer are looking for, and giving them something that they didn’t think of as well – something that enhances it and pushes it even more in the direction of what they want.”

TAMING TOM
When original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch left the band in the ’90s, rumors were widespread that Petty was a drumming dictator who wouldn’t let a man find his drumming way. Does Petty stress Ferrone’s parts?

“I never had a problem with Tom,” Ferrone replies. “And I don’t feel that way about it anyway. It’s not what I always want. I might come up with something and it’ll be, ’That’s not it. We’re looking for that.’ Then I find out what it is that they want and I’ll play the hell out of it. I don’t take it personally. A number of times I have come up with what I think is a brilliant drum part and The Heartbreakers look at me like I am nuts! They do things their way, and once in a while I will come up with something that works. I don’t take it personally.

“Tom is really good at tempos,” he continues. “He’s not one of these guys who says, ’We have to do this live tempo twice as fast as the record.’ He’s not into that at all. He likes the tempo of the record. The other day we were playing a song, and I use a click to give me a tempo to count off the songs. I counted off this song and we were playing it at that tempo, and Tom said, ’I am not feeling comfortable playing this guitar part. I am having a problem fitting it in.’ When I listened back to rehearsals everything sounded fine. Then he asked me to check the tempo. Sure enough, I checked the tempo and what I had was ten bpm faster, which is not a lot but enough to make a difference. Tom will notice that.”

Ferrone’s work on Mojo is some of his best with the band, but he has his favorites from older records as well. Wildflowers looms large in his legacy, to quote George Harrison. “You Wreck Me,” a stone-cold raver, and “It’s Good To Be King,” with its prominent bell cymbal pattern, make Ferrone proud.

“The eighth-note bell part is just what I came up with,” he recalls of the latter. “I just started playing that when the song began and that was it. What was really perfect about that part was the cymbal. It was funny. We were playing that and I had a ride cymbal up and it wasn’t sounding right. I got one of those raw, unfinished cymbals and I put that up and it worked. It’s the bell part on the &’s. It caught a lot of producers’ and engineers’ attention and they asked that I bring in that ride cymbal.”

“You Wreck Me” is the other end of the Petty spectrum, a bawdy, Mike Campbell—riff—fueled classic. “I love playing ’You Wreck Me,’” Ferrone practically shouts. “When Mike came up with that song and demoed it, he’d done a drum loop with eighth-notes on the hi-hat. But every eighth-note was even. It was this choppy hi-hat part – every beat a hard eighth-note. So when I played it, I played it like that. It’s hell on the right arm, but it’s a fun song to play.”

Playing with Tom Petty full time doesn’t give Ferrone much time off, but he is writing for a third solo album, and he continues to donate time to worthy causes. A recovering substance user with 17 years of sobriety under his belt, Ferrone works with other recovering alcoholics. He delivers PSAs in his clinics, telling listeners, “Everything your parents told you about drugs and alcohol is true. Get help if you need it.” Ferrone is also a prostate cancer survivor, and tells everyone over the age of 50 to get a yearly check-up. Protection is the best antidote, says Ferrone, and the best cure. “I like pulling people back from the brink.”

SECRET TO HIS SUCCESS
With nearly five decades in the music business and no end in sight, Ferrone has the wisdom, knowledge, and understanding that only come with experience. Granted, 2010 is nothing like 1975, but how would Steve Ferrone break into the music business today?

“I wouldn’t want to be starting off now,” he laughs. “When I began it was pretty easy. You’d do a demo, he would like your drumming, and you’d be on the record. Now a lot of demos are done at home with a machine. There aren’t a lot of drummers out there now that you can distinguish. I am not talking about being able to play a lot, I mean the way a song feels and the sound. It all sounds very generic now. So I would concentrate on making a style for yourself as an individual. Try to bring some personality into your playing. Don’t just concentrate on being able to play with a click, concentrate on making it feel good. Concentrate on the song, not the drumming. Figure out how to make the song really feel and sound good. Put some personality and soul and originality into the music.”

FERRONE'S SETUP

Steve Ferrone's Setup

Drums: Gretsch Steve Ferrone Signature (Cadillac Green finish)
1 24" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Snare Drum
3 12" x 8" Tom
4 14" x 14" Floor Tom
5 16" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals: Sabian
A 15" HHX Stage Hi-Hat
B 18" HHX Studio Crash
C 21" HHX Dry Ride
D 18" HHX X-Treme Crash
E 20" HH Leopard Ride
F 18" HHX Evolution O-Zone Crash

Steve Ferrone also uses Pro-Mark Steve Ferrone Signature sticks, Remo heads, and Gibraltar pedals and hardware.

FEELING OUT FERRONE

British drummer Steve Ferrone is known to many of us from his tenure in Average White Band, but his deep feel and impeccably solid drumming have landed him some of the plummest gigs in rock and pop, including the last 16 years behind Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. Their new release again proves how deep Ferrone’s groove is, but with prime influences like Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, that shouldn’t come as too great a surprise.

“Jefferson Jericho Blues”

Jericho

This groove sounds a lot like a traditional train beat because the hi-hat is so quiet, but there’s a louder shaker playing eighth-notes to add extra momentum. Ferrone adds a slight swing on all the eighth-notes and continually adds little variations and embellishments on his snare and hi-hat to keep the track chugging along.

“First Flash Of Freedom”

Freedom Flash

This bluesy track has a triplet feel in six. The intro shows the tasty way Ferrone kicks the guitar power-chord hits that fall on 1, (2) ah, 4, and (5) ah, and then repeats. In between the sets of kicks, Ferrone settles into a jazzy groove that constitutes the basic groove of the tune. There’s a good chance he’s playing quarter-notes on his hi-hat, but if so most of them get obscured by his fills.

“Takin’ My Time”

Takin' Time

This slow blues dirge has a very heavy feel and Ferrone takes his time building the tension to a climax. He plays a very sparse groove with very faint hi-hat notes over his plodding bass drum. He plays a triplet on the snare on ah 4 & ah. He repeats this groove for the first minute and a half of the song without any variations or embellishments. Eventually, he changes his pattern by supporting the guitar’s triplets with his ride cymbal and snare over quarter-notes on his kick. Next, he plays his snare and toms in unison to lead up to dramatic cymbal crashes before building up to his powerful snare flam.

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  • I drummed to Wildflowers as a kid, and it wasn’t till now that I knew it was Steve on drums on that record. He is one of the most musical drummers I’ve heard x2, given that reference now smile