Gregg Bissonette is a hugely in-demand studio session and live band drummer. During a varied career, he has played virtually every style of drums there is, from jazz with legendary trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, to rock with David Lee Roth, to playing on Santana’s huge-selling Supernatural album. Gregg is also in demand for film and television soundtrack work – he provided drums for all the musical interludes in the TV comedy series Friends, and he currently provides drums for the musical interludes in the internationally successful animated series Family Guy and American Dad.
Gregg began working with Ringo Starr in 2003, as a member of the Ringo And The Roundheads band, and he has been second drummer in the All Starr Band since 2008.
Andy Hughes chatted with Gregg during a break in Gregg’s busy schedule, at his home studio in California.
The first question Gregg, has to be, what’s it like working with Ringo Starr?
That’s a really great question Andy. The answer is, it’s a dream come true. Every time I play double drums with Ringo, I pinch myself. I saw The Beatles play live when I was seven, and I never ever dreamed that I would get to play alongside Ringo. He is a great friend, a great band leader, and a wonderful musician. I worked with Ringo from 2003 to 2008 with my brother on bass, he is playing with Elton John right now, been with Elton for ten years. Now I’m with Ringo in his All Starr Band which has a revolving cast of musicians. Ringo is the drummer that made me want to play drums.
What was your first influence as a drummer?
My dad was a drummer, a great player, and he played with wedding bands in Detroit where I grew up. He had a really simple kit, a bass drum, a snare, a ride cymbal and a hi-hat. The reason was, speed in getting the kit down and into the van. My dad was a baker, and he got up at four-thirty to deliver bread around local stores, hospitals and high schools. The wedding gigs he played ended at one in the morning, so he made sure that he could get his kit tucked under his two arms and out into the VW bus and head home as fast as possible, no wasted time at all.
What was the first gig you saw?
My mom and dad took me to see Count Basie’s band, and Rufus Jones was playing drums. He had two toms on his bass drum and I thought that was so cool. My dad wanted to upgrade his kit, and he bought a Japanese kit made by a company called Apollo. The Apollo instruments were distributed in the US by St. Louis Music, who also distribute Dixon Drums in the US. I found out about that coincidence when I signed with Dixon myself.
So, my dad got a five-piece kit with a silver sparkle finish, and I played that kit for a while. Then my dad got a Slingerland kit from his cousin Charlie who played, but decided he didn’t want to play anymore.
You are signed with Dixon, what was the reason for your choice?
It’s simple, they are the best drums I have ever played. I know that sounds just like a sales pitch, but it’s the simple truth. Any questions I ever raise about technical aspects, finishes and so on, they are right there with the answers I need.
I like thin maple shells, and my first kit from Dixon was a purple sparkle finish, lacquered, not a wrap. I remember we were in catering on tour, and I was talking with Ringo about getting a purple sparkle kit, and Ringo thought it was a great idea. Then he took a leaf off a plant that was there in the catering room, and said that I should get a deep purple kit that colour, not a light purple, but deep purple, like the band!
These days, most established manufacturers produce high-end drums and percussion so a choice has to be on a personal level. What is it about Dixon’s kits that appeals to you Gregg?
It’s two main aspects Andy. I don’t like re-enforcing rings on drums, I think they choke the sound. I also prefer a proper lacquer finish, rather than a wrap. I have two Signature snares from Dixon – one is steel with tube lugs, and the other is hammered brass. I work with those two snares in my home studio, and I take them to every studio session I do. I can get just about any drum sound a producer wants from those two drums, every variety from Steve Jordan to Don Henley. I am very, very particular about my drums, but Dixon come through with the drums I want every time and they are a great company to work with.
What’s your current project?
Right now, we are preparing to take the Ringo’s All Starr Band out on tour in the US, that will be next year and we are really excited about that. In the meantime, I am working on a band project with my brother Matt. It has a British-sounding name, the band is The Reddcoats, with two ‘d’s. The music goes from sounding like The Beatles, to Weather Report, ELO to Chick Corea, Miles Davis, it’s very varied. We have Andy Timmons, one of my favourite guitarists, and we have Wally Minko and Ron Pedley on keyboards, they change out depending on their schedules, and we have Mike Medina on percussion. That’s something we are working on right now, promoting our album. We have been asked to do some club shows in Japan, they are great to do, we get to do a couple of sets a night for maybe a week in one club, and the move on. Those kinds of gigs are huge in Japan, and they pay very well, and we all have a real bast doing them. As well as those two bands to work on, I have daily studio sessions, either here at home or in studios working on soundtracks, and for other artists. It’s pretty busy!
Let’s talk about technique Gregg, are you a match grip player, or do you like the traditional style?
I was taught to play traditional grip, because that’s what all teachers showed you when I was first taking lessons. When I was eighteen, and at North Texas State studying percussion, I was playing marimbas and no-one plays marimbas with matched grip. I was playing kit drums with toms that started around the height of my bicep, and I couldn’t reach it, and I asked myself why I was working so hard to do that, so I switched to match grip.
Another reason for the switch of course, was Ringo. I saw him play on the Ed Sullivan show with The Beatles, and he played crash with his left hand, and of course the match grip that he played with. I had never seen either of those before, and of course, then, I didn’t know that Ringo is a left-handed player, playing a right-handed kit, which creates that unique playing style he has. That gives those clever pauses in the Beatles music, where he has that short delay as he moves around the kit.
What’s your view on drum solos?
I love drum solos. I was raised on Big Band players like Buddy Rich. I love all the great players who can play great solos, but there is a time and a place for them, and you have to remember that. You have to remember not to overplay, or let it go on too long. With The All Starr Band, we perform Black Magic Woman, the Santana song, and we do Evil Ways off their first album, and I do a drum solo while Ringo nips off stage and has a juice. We have Gregg Rolie, the original Santana keyboard player and founder of Journey with us, he’s been with the band since 2012.
Of all the vast varieties of drumming styles you have learned and mastered during your career, what has been the hardest to learn for you?
It’s a new style that is called ‘drunk drumming’. The name comes from the time when Questlove heard Dilla’s beats, he said that it sounded as though the kick drum was being played by a drunken three-year-old, and the term has stuck. It has a really unusual tempo; it sounds like the beat is actually off the beat – you can see it on YouTube and people are getting lessons in how to do it. It’s hard for me because I have spent my entire life learning how to be on the beat, and following a click track, so to play off the beat is really difficult, it feels like I am un-learning everything I ever did.
The thing is, session life in L.A. is brutal, if you turn up and you can’t play the styles the producer wants, they simply don’t call you again. You have to stay current and be able to work with the styles and sounds that the session demands, that’s the only way to get work and keep getting work as a studio musician.
Do you like direction for a session, or in a band situation – or do you prefer to give your own input and find your own way?
I love direction, because I love to make people happy, that’s my job. I don’t think I actually have a ‘style’, I am willing to fit in with the style at the time, and play what is needed to make things work.
I had a conversation about this with Tony Williams. I asked him if he would be happy to do whatever was needed and he said he would be. I asked him that if that meant having a hole cut in his kick drum skin and a blanket put in, or taping gaffa tape n his snare to get a certain sound, would he be OK with that, and he told me no, that’s not something he would do, so that’s why I am a session and studio musician. I will go along with what is required.
Do you have a particular way of working when you take a studio session?
For a studio session at home, I always work the same way. I get the file and listen to it, and then I’ll record the drums exactly the way they are with the ‘plastic’ drum sound that comes on the file, the machine sounds that put the beats in. Second, I will record it the way I think it should sound, and thirdly, I will record with some suggestions for different sounds and textures, and then the producer can pick which one, or combination of sounds, he wants to use.
I have a two-hour minimum for a session, for myself and my engineer, and in that time, we may get one song down, or may get two, it depends on what is needed, and how particular the client is about what they want. I will try different cymbals or snares, mute them amplify that, whatever, I have no problem as long as the client gets what they want by the end of the session.
If people are not sure what sound they want, I ask them which song sounds the most like the sound they are after, and then we have a starting point to work from. If you give me Hotel California or Roxanne, we have some idea of the sound, and we can soon refine it from there.
What’s the one piece of kit you never leave home without?
My two Signature snares, they always come with me because the snare is the heart of the kit, the most individual part, the part that gives a player their unique signature. I love re-tuning my snares to give me the vast variety of sound, right from that really high tight pinging sound you get when you tighten the head up as far as you can, down to as slack as it will go without wrinkling, and you get that lovely fat deep whoomph sound. It’s such a vast variety of sounds to work with.
Do you have any musical ambitions left?
Loads! There are lots of great musicians and bands I would love to work with. Paul McCartney, Sting, Herbie Hancock, The Foo Fighters. I know these people all have great drummers, but if they ever need a sub, even for one night, just give me a call and I will be there.
I did get a call to fill for Scott Crago, who plays second drums with the Eagles, they had a gig the day his daughter was getting married, so they called me in to sub for him. I was really excited, and learned all the set, and then they called to say the gig had been re-scheduled, so I wasn’t needed, but it was close! I am always ready if anyone on my ‘wants’ list calls me up.
What advice would you give to our drummer readers?
Playing drums in a band or as a studio musician is as much about people as it is about music. Always treat people the way you would like to be treated, and if you do your job, and most importantly, you are good to get along with, you will get work. Remember, on tour, it’s not the couple of hours on stage that matters, important as that is. It’s the other twenty-two hours when you have to live alongside people, and you ned to be good to have around. That will get you work as much as your playing skills.