Vinnie Colaiuta is a musical chameleon who possesses astounding technical and polyrhythmic talents, yet still plays with incredible musicality. He has the uncanny ability to blend into most any musical situation yet always creates something new and interesting with his phenomenal skills.
While Colaiuta has spent countless hours practicing, transcribing, and studying other great drummers, he has learned the ability to restrain himself from using his tremendous skills inappropriately. For that reason, he has proven himself not only within the narrower framework of great drum technicians who play principally for other musicians, but also on the broader field of pop music playing for the masses.
Recording with artists ranging from Frank Zappa to Sting, from Faith Hill to Megadeth, his wide stylistic range not only reveals him to be a drummer who’s comfortable in many genres, but also as one who is willing to takes chances. But through it all, he’s consistently shown himself to be not just a great and interesting drummer but a great musician as well. As a result, nearly every tune he’s recorded can serve as a drum lesson to the attentive listener.
These excerpts were chosen partly because they reveal a glimpse or two of his musical brilliance and frightening technique, and also because none of these transcriptions has been published before.
On the jazz group Wishful Thinking’s CD Train Of Thought, Colaiuta plays less of a textural role than his predecessor David Garibaldi did, taking a slightly more aggressive approach to playing the group’s songs. For this transcription, we’ll look at a short solo he played. Colaiuta leaves a hole and enters on count 2, with his toms separating the notes into seven-note groupings that flow over the 4/4 meter. He switches to playing groupings of five notes in the second line, giving the impression of acceleration, though the tempo doesn’t budge. His sextuple triplet lick that follows may have been played with a RF-RLRLL-RF-RLR sticking (where RF = right foot, R = right hand, and L = left hand). He plays some broken flams (grace note on one surface, main note on another) for another interesting texture. The percussionist solos with timbales and crashes, played polyrhythmically over triplets in the rhythm & ah 2, ah 3 &, 4 & ah, until Colaiuta joins him again in the last measure.
Guitarist Jeff Richman rearranged a selection of the seminal fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra’s songs and assembled a stellar group of musicians to perform them on the disc Visions Of An Inner Mounting Apocalypse (a play on several of the band’s CD titles). On the great tune “Birds Of Fire,” Colaiuta takes a solo over a 9/4 vamp. This section of the tune can just as easily be counted in 18/8 since the underlying eighth-notes are arranged as 3-3-2-3-3-2-2. Parts of this solo are played as notated, other phrases are slightly slurred, due to the different stickings he uses to create these patterns. Here and there Colaiuta’s soloing is reminiscent of Billy Cobham’s phenomenal drumming from the original tune.
Jeff Richman also recorded a tribute to the songs of Miles Davis with a similar group of musicians on the disc Fusion For Miles that shows off Colaiuta’s interesting approach to grooving. On the song “Splatch,” Colaiuta plays a couple of interesting patterns. The first one notated in the top two lines is a pretty conventional Afro-Cuban groove. In the following two lines, he plays an angular groove with a cymbal pattern that flows polyrhythmically over the time signature, implying a slower 3/4 metric modulation. The cymbal pattern is similar to the timbale break shown in the Wishful Thinking transcription, though it starts in a different place. It sounds great in the song, even though it’s only there briefly.
Here’s another song from the Fusion For Miles disc. The tempo is slow, and the groove is ridiculously deep. The time signature is notated here in alternating bars of 5/4 and 4/4 but could also be written as one longer bar of 9/4. At the transition into the 6/8 section, the eighth-note speed remains the same, making it seem as though the backbeat has briefly shifted to the & of 2. The outro groove feels equally unusual.
Colaiuta played this version of “Billion Dollar Babies” on a tribute disc to Alice Cooper called Humanary Stew. He starts the tune with a powerful flam-based groove, before laying down his great pocket behind George Lynch, Bruce Kulick, Phil Lewis, and Stu Hamm. Notice how his thirty-second-note bass drum ruffs and short fills add lift without cluttering up the groove.
What do Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, and Steve Gadd have in common? One thing is they all performed brilliantly together on the Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship concert DVD. At one point, all three drummers take the stage together, play a tune, and trade solos. Colaiuta plays an absolutely jaw-dropping four-bar drum break. This break is not only a great example of testosterone-fueled drumming, but is an incredibly difficult passage to play anywhere near the tempo at which Colaiuta rips it. The stickings are included, since I could see them in the footage. If you haven’t seen this selection, buy it. It’s a must-have for fans of great drumming.
Colaiuta is not just a great jazz, studio, pop and country musician. He’s also a great metal drummer who makes muscular drumming sound easy. His work throughout Megadeth’s most recent disc, The System Has Failed, proves it. Every track has smart and powerful drumming, with enough impressive double bass work to satisfy the hardcore among us. “Truth Be Told” starts with a drum solo in 6/8 before changing to the half-speed verse groove in 15/8. Colaiuta makes it all sound as challenging as a walk in the park.
This track off Nik Kershaw’s The Works has perplexed drummers for years. Take a cheerful synth-laden pop tune, throw a completely off-the-wall fill into the middle of it, and you have a perfect Vinnie moment. The first couple measures reveal the fill, which is followed by his equally enjoyable groove. Check out the way his hi-hat bounces around the backbeats.
Warren Cuccurullo’s Thanks 2 Frank features some Zappa alumni improvising some great musical moments. On the tune “Tardinha,” Colaiuta plays a blistering fill that will surely make lots of drummers shake their heads and mutter to themselves incoherently.
Paul Simon’s humorous song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” featured a funky rudimental groove by Steve Gadd that became a classic by virtue of it being both original and brilliant. On German singer Gitte Haenning’s version, Colaiuta plays a very different pattern that suits this hip-hop interpretation of the tune perfectly, rather than just mimicking Gadd’s groove. Colaiuta still manages to work a rudimental roll into the verse groove, perhaps as a nod of acknowledgment to Gadd.
Saxophonist Frank Macchia’s Mo’ Animals is full of changing moods and time signatures, and Colaiuta enters this track with a quick fill and funky groove that deftly navigates the alternating feels of five and six.
Frank Macchia’s tune “Rhinos” has lots of great Vinnie-isms for us to enjoy. Here are two short but great fills. The first has a polyrhythmic feel of six over eight, created by accenting every sixth thirty-second-note in this run. The second fill uses syncopated flams ascending the toms to create tension, until his flam and bass drum note relieve it.