Drum great Kenny Aronoff was never afraid to go for it



By Steve Newton

I’ve got a theory, and this theory, which is mine, is that everybody wants to be a rock ’n’ roll drummer. There’s just something irresistible about the idea of pounding away on a resonating circle until you’re sweaty and drained and then having people cheer you for it.

Take my next-door neighbour Bob, for instance. A few weeks ago he rented a set of black Pearl drums, and now you can hear him and his roommates over there making like they’re on the warpath.

Kenny Aronoff, one of the most recognized rock drummers in the world and currently touring with Melissa Etheridge, thinks it’s great when people take up drums, no matter what age they are. Bob’ll be 47 in March.

“He’s not gonna make it into the Limp Bizkit band,” quips Aronoff from a Nebraska tour stop, “but I support that. That’s fantastic. That person is fulfilling their desire, their wishes. And they’re not afraid to go for it.”

Aronoff—who takes part in the Vancouver International Drum Festival’s master-performance concert this Sunday (November 28) at the Vogue Theatre—wasn’t afraid to go for it either. When he was 10, he started his first band, and before long his feisty drum sound was being heard everywhere on tunes by John Cougar, John Cougar Mellencamp, and plain old John Mellencamp. He played with the Indiana roots-rocker for more than 20 years, and his distinctive whump! can be heard on all of his big hits.

“It definitely made me a recognizable drummer in the drum world,” notes the 46-year-old rocker of his stellar career with Mellencamp. “And the sound was groundbreaking, because we were literally blowing up speakers when we were laying it to tape for American Fool. I remember John got into a big fight with the studio owner. The owner told him, ‘You can’t do that,’ and John said, ‘Oh yes I can,’ and the owner said, ‘No you can’t.’ John said, ‘I’m payin’ for this room, I can do what I want,’ and then he threw the guy down and started beatin’ on him.” (Note to self: This must be how Mellencamp earned his producer alias, Little Bastard.)

“I loved it,” continues Aronoff. “I thought it was great, because at that time, songs like ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and ‘Ebony and Ivory’ were on the radio, and when ‘Hurts So Good’ came on it completely blew those songs off the radio. I mean, sonically, the drums were so present, and that really made a big statement. But that wasn’t even really my sound until we got to, like, Scarecrow, when it really pushed the drums forward and gave it that sound of aggressiveness and attack combined with ambiance.”

Although Aronoff’s session and tour credits include work with Bob Seger, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Diamond, and John Fogerty, he veered somewhat away from traditional rock when he joined the grunge-spawned Smashing Pumpkins for a tour last year. But he says he didn’t have to make a big adjustment to his playing style to fit in with Billy Corgan and company’s alt-rock leanings.

“Naah—lookit, that alternative stuff is retro to the ’60s, to when I grew up. You know, there was certain licks and certain feels that he wanted to hear, but that adjustment comes with any situation you’re in—play soft or play loud, or less fills. I mean, if it was gonna be a major adjustment, I wouldn’t have got the gig.”

Thanks to the proliferation of music videos, Aronoff is one of the drum world’s most recognizable characters, with his closely shaved head, intense facial expressions, and muscular limbs flailing about. He’s played so hard that he’s bruised bones, and had drumsticks break and hit him, almost taking out an eye. So what’s going though his mind when he’s in the throes of such action?

“It’s everything you can imagine,” he says. “It’s like I’m thinking in terms of what I’m doing technically, what the form of the song is, the lyrics, listening to the rest of the band, making sure I’m keeping good time, making observations of how I sound, how I fit into the track, how my body’s feeling. I mean, it’s everything, just keeping everything in check but still trying to be natural. Isn’t that wild?”

Although he’s backed the elite of late-20th-century rockers, there are a few gigs Aronoff still yearns for, like playing drums in The Who. And he still wishes he’d had the opportunity to hammer out a backbeat for Jimi Hendrix, posters of whom covered the walls of Aronoff’s bedroom when he was 13. Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell was far and away his favourite skin basher when he was a kid, but when you ask Aronoff to pinpoint his fave of today, there’s no easy answer.

“There’s just too many,” he points out. “I wouldn’t know where to start. That’s why I feel so fortunate that I’ve managed to get to a point where I’m even having an interview, or where somebody cares to have me play. You know, I’m honoured to be asked to be a clinician in all these different drum festivals. It’s a rare thing for a drummer to even make it—where people know who you are—let alone to sustain that, especially in this day and age.”

To hear the full audio of my 1999 interview with Kenny Aronoff subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can also eavesdrop on my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Derek Trucks of Tedeschi Trucks, 2012
J.D. Fortune of INXS, 2006
Fernando von Arb of Krokus, 1984
Gary Holt of Exodus, 1985
Dizzy Reed of Guns N’ Roses, 1992
Scott Ian of Anthrax, 2012
Gary Lee Conner of Screaming Trees, 1992
Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, 1985
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, 2003
Rudolf Schenker of Scorpions, 1992
Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, 2001
Jeff Keith of Tesla, 1988
Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton of Arc Angels, 1992
Marc Bonilla, 1992
Mike Smith of Sandbox (and Trailer Park Boys), 1996
Dewey Bunnell of America, 1983
Robert Randolph of the Family Band, 2003
Keith Strickland of the B-52s, 2008
David Johansen of the New York Dolls, 2005
Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon, 2003
Todd Kerns, 2016
Bill Payne of Little Feat, 2002
Tommy Shannon of SRV & Double Trouble, 1998
Alejandro Escovedo, 1997
Billy Duffy of the Cult, 1989
Dave Martone, 2020
Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, 2006
Joss Stone, 2012
Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest, 2005
Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard, 1992
Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
Taj Mahal, 2001
Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Steve Lynch of Autograph, 1985
Don Wilson of the Ventures, 1997
Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, 1998
Trevor Rabin of Yes, 1984
Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
Robert Cray, 1996
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, 1984
Jeff Healey, 1988
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1996
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Colin Linden, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joey Belladonna of Anthrax, 1991
Joe Satriani, 1990
Vernon Reid of Living Colour, 1988
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
Zakk Wylde of Pride & Glory, 1994
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
John Doe, 1990
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Alex Van Halen, 1995
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001

…with hundreds more to come

Leave a Reply