THE STUDIO LEGEND TALKS DW, PAISTE AND THE GUITAR CENTER ROCKWALK
WALKING INTO THE VINTAGE ROOM AT GUITAR CENTER HOLLYWOOD, THE REFRESHINGLY DOWN-TO-EARTH, SELF-PROCLAIMED “OKIE WHO’S NOT TERRIBLY COMFORTABLE WITH ON-CAMERA INTERVIEWS,” JIM KELTNER IS NO ORDINARY SESSION DRUMMER—HE’S A LIVING LEGEND. YOU’VE HEARD HIM ON COUNTLESS RECORDS. THE INCREDIBLE LIST OF ARTISTS HE’S WORKED WITH INCLUDES JOHN LENNON, GEORGE HARRISON, RINGO STARR, THE BEE GEES, JOHN HIATT, JOE COCKER, NEIL YOUNG AND BOB DYLAN. AND EARLIER THIS YEAR, KELTNER WAS INDUCTED INTO THE LEGENDARY ROCKWALK, JOINING THE RANKS OF THE MANY ICONIC MUSICIANS IMMORTALIZED BY GUITAR CENTER.
“I’ve grown very old in this business, I’m a real old-timer now. When I was much younger, they asked me [to be inducted into the RockWalk], I think they had just started it, it’s gotta be over 20 years, and Dave Wiederman I think was the first one to ask me. It freaked me out … to do an interview, this is already unnerving enough, you know?” says Keltner. “It’s a great honor, obviously. It’s a fantastic honor to be included with all the greats—those guys are all my friends, they’ve all done it … I love seeing them. I love seeing [Steve] Ferrone up there … Steve Jordan, these are all my closest friends … I’m honored to be a part of it.”
Of course, Keltner wasn’t always the “old-timer” he claims he is now. His journey began in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his father, a marching drum corps percussionist himself, got Keltner hooked on the drums at a very young age. “I was addicted immediately to the sound of the drums,” says Keltner. “[My dad] brought home one of his rehearsal snare drums after I had been with him at a rehearsal, and at the end of the night I played back to him what I had been hearing, and I didn’t know it would knock them out, but they all were blown away … they made such a fuss over it, that I got way into it then … so [my dad] brought the drum home, and I started playing on it … whatever it was, it just fascinated me. I wanted a drum set real bad, so my dad bought me—from a pawn shop, a local pawn shop there in Tulsa … he brought home a beautiful, old, 1920s Slingerland drum set. I have pictures of it. He fixed it up for me later—he should have left. it like it was, we didn’t know, you know? Right now, it would be so valuable. But it was just an old drum set to me. But I loved it.”
Keltner’s father moved the family to Pasadena shortly after Keltner received that first drum set. “I came to California with my family when I was 13,” says Keltner. “It was the first time I had ever seen so many blonde people. I was this little skinny kid that ‘talked like this’ (with a thick accent), truly, really, really Okie. So I felt really, really uncomfortable around everybody. But, what was great, was when they saw me play at an assembly, all of a sudden I became the guy everybody wanted to know … and all the girls started giving me a lot of attention … I really got the picture, early on, what it meant to be a musician, and a drummer in particular.”
What exactly music means to Keltner has undoubtedly evolved throughout his lifetime, though he maintains that music was, as he puts it, his “saving grace.” “When you’re playing, and we’re in the groove—and you know it—there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like it in the world,” he says. “And there are many versions of that. When everything is going well, and you’re kind of out-of-body—I’ve heard other drummers talk about this … you can understand it as somebody hearing about it, but for you to have been there, in that situation before, it’s a tremendous thing to know that feeling. When you can’t do anything wrong. Nothing can go wrong. Everything you play is right on the money, and interesting—and interesting to you, hopefully then it translates to being of interest to other people listening— that kind of feeling is rare. For me, [it’s] rare. I’d love to be able to call that up … those are fantastic moments.”
While Keltner may call these types of moments “rare,” it would seem to anyone taking a look at his body of work that he’s had many more of these moments than your average musician. Keltner recalls a particularly touching experience, “The first time it happened to me was very early in the morning at the Warner sound stage, which is now the Eastwood stage, we were doing the soundtrack for [Pat Garrett and] Billy the Kid. And Bob Dylan was singing the song that day, [it] was ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,’ and it was a dark room … in those days, the drums were in a pillbox … like a little room they could roll around … [and] you didn’t look at little TV screens like you do now. It was a big screen. Like, huge screen. And so, it’s dark … I can’t see Bob, I can’t see anybody else, I can only hear him in the ’phones, but I see this screen. [And it’s] Slim Pickens and the actress was Katy Jurado, a Mexican actress, and I’m half Mexican … so I was raised by a beautiful lady of color, beautiful mama, dark skin … so, I’m seeing this scene play out in front of me. And the scene that we’re playing for is Katy Jurado is crying because her husband has been shot and he’s dying at the edge of the water. And so, I’m looking at these big, soulful eyes of hers, and Bob is singing ‘Mama put my guns in the ground, I can’t shoot them anymore’… you know, it’s remarkable how it gets to me even talking about it, but if I hear that song, if I hear ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ by anybody—but especially Bob’s version—I just go. I just [burst into tears], I’m gone. It was very emotional to me, because I cried when we were playing it, and it was the first time I’d ever cried and played music at the same time,” he says. “If you can be in a situation like that, where you’re crying and playing at the same time, [whew], there’s only maybe one thing better than that, and we all know what that is.”
As a professional drummer of nearly half a century, Keltner has had the opportunity to not only play with some of the biggest names in the business, but play on some of the best gear in the world. And when it comes to selecting a kit, DW remains Keltner’s go-to manufacturer. “One of the first things about DW drums is that I always wanted to play a drum that was made by my friend Don Lombardi. Don and I go way back,” he says. “We played in different bands that competed against each other, little jazz groups … so when [Don] got geared up and was ready with the drums, I was there, I was ready for it. And when I went out to the factory, the same people that make the drums now are the same people that made them back then, and they’re Mexican families. Guillermo is like the patriarch, and he’s got, I don’t know, probably grandkids in there now. But you go and you look in a line, they’re making the drums by hand. That’s a big deal. They’re handmade drums. And Louie, the guy that does all the art, he’s a genius … they don’t stop making different kinds of shells, their R&D is tremendous … DW, to me, is the best drum set that I’ve ever played on, and they’re
my friends, and kind of, almost like family.”
And when it comes to outfitting his cymbal vault, Keltner has relied on Paiste for decades. “I came to Paiste in the early ’80s,” he says. “[At] the NAMM show, my good friend, bless his soul, Bruce Gary, great drummer with The Knack introduced me] and I fell in love with the Paiste cymbals right then, and that was it. So, since then, what I’ve discovered about Paiste, is that they make so many different kinds of cymbals … I’m always having to decide between that great one and that great one. So it’s a high-class problem, you could say. And I’ve never been unhappy for a day since I’m playing Paiste cymbals. And, a big thing for me … [I see so many drummers] in cymbal bondage. You obsess on cymbals. You go to bed at night, and you’re dreaming about a cymbal. And then, whether you can afford it or not, you still make sure you can get it—that was my story… the cymbal bondage went away when I got with Paiste … I mean, it sounds like I’m doing a Paiste ad, but I can’t say enough about it, you know, Paiste and DW, those are the two products that I don’t think I could do without. I can play on anything, any drummer can play on anything, any guitar player can play on anything, you know. If you have a choice, these are my choices.”
And though Keltner chooses the same reliable gear time and time again, he strives to consistently create new and interesting sounds every time he sits behind the kit. “I’ve always said that if you’re gonna play on records, you shouldn’t have your own sound. You should have the sound that’s appropriate for that day, that song, that artist … I have people say that to me, for many years, they say, ‘Man, I can tell it’s you right away,’ and I don’t know if I dig that. In the
fi rst place, I don’t think they can—and thank goodness for it,” he laughs, “’cause I’ve played on some records that I hope they don’t think it’s me … to have your own sound is a wonderful thing, if that’s what you aspire to. For me, I want it
to sound completely different every time, if that’s possible”.
Keltner goes on to describe his philosophy of the drums being the “icing,” rather than the “cake.” “Levon Helm, when I spent some time with Levon privately … he would say, ‘[Gosh darn] it, Jim. People always say that the beat is about the drummer, but it’s not. It’s about everybody else. Everybody has to keep the beat.’ That’s the way he put it, and he’s right—and I’m producing this young artist right now… I liked his music, and I wanted to show him some things, I wanted to prove a point that, look, you write your song, and you take all the care for the lyric, and the melody, and everything—you’re gonna have to make sure that you know what you want this song to feel like … give it a feel right now, man, give it some deep feel from you, and then we got someplace to go … that’s the way the great songwriters have always written.”