Legendary drummer talks Gretsch, Sabian and the thrill of playing music
IN HIS NEARLY FIVE DECADES AS A
PROFESSIONAL MUSICIAN, STEVE FERRONE
HAS WORKED WITH MANY OF THE WORLD’S
TOP RECORDING ARTISTS.
From Tom Petty and Average White Band, to Chaka Khan, Slash and Eric Clapton, Ferrone’s list of credits is as long as it is impressive. He has toured the world and worked countless hours in dozens of top studios. While you might think he’d be tempted to see his drumming as work, Ferrone says it’s still all about the feeling he gets from playing music.
“Oh, man, it’s a thrill to play music,” Ferrone says. “I love playing music. I love the camaraderie with other musicians. I love bringing something creative. I love playing and watching someone realize that I contributed to their experience, and made it real for them. What’s not to love?” For young boys and girls who haven’t been exposed to the arts by way of proximity, it’s o en a parent, guardian or a friend that makes the eff ort to open those doors to discovery. As a young man, Ferrone’s family noticed he had natural rhythm, and helped him find an outlet for his creative talent. “When I was very young, in a high chair, I used to bang a spoon in time with the music on the radio,” says Ferrone. “My parents and grandmother recognized that talent and decided to send me to tap dancing school. Music came along later when bands became popular.” While tap dancing school may not have been the final frontier for young Ferrone, it’s directly related to his discovery of music as something that he could watch and learn. He had always heard the music and felt the beat, but his time in a dance show helped make drumming something he could see himself doing.
“I got a job when I was 12 years old tap dancing in a children’s chorus in a summer show with this guy who’s a very big star in England, a guy named Max Bygraves, who is a television personality. He did a summer show in my hometown, and wanted to have a children’s chorus,” says Ferrone.
“Every night I’d go out on stage and do the Twist. But, while I’m up there doing the Twist, I’m looking down in the pit, and I could see this drummer. I don’t know who he was, but he was sitting down there playing and I thought, ‘Oh, so that’s how you do it. That’s how you play the drums. That’s how you get that sound!’”
Ferrone says he’d return to the dressing room a er the show, and tap out what he had seen on his thighs. He was practicing before he had ever touched a drum kit or taken a formal lesson. “I thought, listen to him play, hear what he’s doing with the bass drum, too. Then ‘Take Five’ came out. I just got that basic beat down and that was it. I got a little kit and I was off and running drumming.” Ferrone says not long after, Manfred Mann’s band came to town for a show at the dance hall. The show itself was for adults, but the band let kids, including Ferrone and his friends, in for sound check. “I saw these girls go crazy over the band and I said to my friends, ‘We need to have our own band, ’cause we’re not getting that kind of attention.’ So we started a band. We played ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ It was about the only song that we knew.” Around age 12, Ferrone and his friends spent time hanging out in music stores. One of the guitarists had heard about a band of 18-year-olds called the Flames. Their drummer had recently had his appendix removed, and they needed a drummer to sit in for a gig over the weekend. “My friend told them he knew a kid that could play the drums. They asked him who I was and whether I could play the blues. My friend said, ‘Well, he’s black.’ So they decided to give me a tryout.” After a quick demonstration of what he had learned on the kit, Ferrone earned a spot with the band for one gig. Following the success of his first show, the band decided to keep Ferrone on and fire the previous drummer.“That band helped me a lot because they were so into the blues. We used to have these blues tours that came over to England, with Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, John Lee Hooker. All these huge blues guys would come over, and the guys from my band would take me down to listen to it.
“Had I known what I was watching I probably would have paid more attention. But, you know, they were telling me this is where the Rolling Stones and The Beatles, this is where they all got their music. I didn’t put the two together until years later.”
As Ferrone’s musical knowledge grew, he began to find drummers whose playing inspired him, who made him feel something. His list of influences is long, but Bernard Purdie, Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette rose to the top. “Bernard Purdie was the first person I ever heard use that kind of syncopation. Elvin Jones, just for that swing, that big wide-open swing. And Jack DeJohnette,” Ferrone says, “because of his sensitivity to what anybody’s playing at any time and to be able to focus attention on something. He’s the firing pin, I guess, he has a way of setting somebody off.” Over his long career, Ferrone has endorsed a couple of high-profile drum companies, including decades with Pearl, but says his heart was always with the Gretsch sound he had heard many years ago. He says Gretsch always had a great reputation. “When I first started playing, I knew absolutely nothing about drums. I started to hunt around for a good kit, Ludwig was very popular, but most people that I spoke to said the best drum kit around was Gretsch.”
“When I came over from England, started working with Average White Band and made some money, I got a black and white Gretsch kit—and I still have it. I love that kit. I played it on a lot of records.”
As the music industry grew and evolved, many musical instrument companies began looking for new ways to get their instruments on stage in what Ferrone calls the “endorsement phase.” He took some advice from a fellow musician to sign an endorsement deal.
“The people who ran Gretsch at that time really didn’t have that much of a clue about endorsements. I got in touch with Pearl, who supplied me with a drum kit. They were very, very obliging. I stayed with them for like 21 years, but I still had a Gretsch kit and it was still very close to my heart. They all make great drum kits, but there’s something special for me about the tone of the Gretsch kit.
“It’s really hard to put your finger on what it is. They’re really easy to play. You don’t have to hit them hard to bring the tone out of them. The tone is beautiful. They record beautifully,” Ferrone says. “Eventually I got to the point where I decided that’s what I wanted to play. I’m still really good friends with Pearl. I always visit them whenever I go to the NAMM show. But I just love the sound of Gretsch drums.”
Early in his career, Ferrone played cymbals straight from a factory in Turkey. When the factory moved, he says he was convinced the sound had changed somewhat, and opened up to the possibility of making a switch.
“As I was looking around for cymbals, I went to see Lionel Ritchie play at Radio City Music Hall and Jerry Brown was playing. He was playing Sabians. So I called them up and I think I’m the second longest endorsee with them now, too. Must be a good 30 years I’ve been playing Sabian,” Ferrone says.
“Sabian cymbals have a great sound and they’re very consistent. I’ve got some really old Sabian cymbals and they still sound great. Cymbals are a very, very personal thing for everybody, but I love my Sabians.”
Though he says he’s usually not one to change, Ferrone shows that, for musicians who are truly passionate about their sound, it’s never too late to try something new.