Drums In The Key Of (Stevie) Wonder

stevie wonder

“Stevie Wonder has to be the greatest drummer of our time” –Eric Clapton

The staggering songwriting and vocal skills of the legendary Stevie Wonder have been lauded around the world for decades. His prowess as a formidable, inventive keyboardist (and pop music synthesizer pioneer) is undeniable. His virtuoso-level skills on harmonica have been documented since he was a child. Everywhere he goes, Wonder is justifiably heralded as one of America’s most valued musical treasures and one of the greatest musical minds of the late 20th/early 21st centuries, and rightly so.

News flash for those who didn’t know: Stevie Wonder also happens to be one badass drummer.

Wonder’s singular, homespun drumming style and sound can be heard on well-known tunes like “Superstition,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” as well as deep album cuts like “Maybe Your Baby,” “Black Orchid,” and “Cash In Your Face.” While his playing on the hit songs is dynamic and exciting, it is the album cuts that fully reveal the essence of Wonder’s unique approach to drum set. “Maybe Your Baby,” for instance (from Talking Book) is built on simple, slinky hi-hat timekeeping with only occasional full-on snare hits. His fills, when they come, serve the song perfectly by injecting a sense of urgency and release. On the gorgeous “Black Orchid” (from Wonder’s controversial Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants double-album), his drums sit out the entire intro and the first half of the opening verse before entering with metronomic backbeat precision; the result is some solid steady-handed funk beneath the stately keyboard parts. “Cash In Your Face,” from the excellent Hotter Than July album, is all-business funk, complete with syncopated kick drum and accented hits that form a rhythmic motif of sorts. There are acoustic drum set—driven gems like these all over Wonder’s 1971—1980 output, and virtually all of them are worth a studious listen.


In a recent session I produced for Oakland pop/R&B artist Chase Martin, I had a chance to collaborate with a couple of guys who share my enthusiasm/fanaticism for Stevie Wonder’s drumming: Bay Area drummer (composer/producer) Kevin Carnes of the legendary trio Broun Fellinis, and recording engineer Willie Samuels of Studio Trilogy.

It all started with a song, of course. Chase Martin and his songwriting partner Jeb Havens cooked up a song called “New York Times,” which even in cabaret-style piano-and-voice demo form, sounded like an outtake from one of Wonder’s groundbreaking albums from the ’70s. I told Chase I’d like to explicitly pursue a Wonder-inspired production for the tune, with clarinet, growly bass, and a loose, vibey drum set approach. He was into it, and I knew exactly who to call for the drum gig: Carnes.

stevie wonder

1. Snare mike placement using a Neumann KM84.

stevie wonder

2. Snare mike close-up.

stevie wonder

3. Hi-hat placement using a Neumann U87.

stevie wonder

4. Kick drum mike placement using a Sennheiser MD441.

stevie wonder

5. Overhead view showing Neumann M269c's.

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