Kenny Aronoff | Famously In-Demand Drummer Turned Author, Knows His Purpose

Kenny Aronoff is most prominently known as the drummer on most of John Mellencamp’s biggest hits, leaving his hard hitting mark on songs like Jack & Diane, Pink Houses, Small Town and others.

Among musicians however, Aronoff is better known for his astoundingly long history of studio work, in service to a roster of artists that reads like a “Who’s Who?” of the history of popular music.

Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ and Michelle Branch’s ‘Everywhere’ enjoyed mega-hit status two decades apart. The one thing they have in common? Kenny Aronoff, who played drums on both.

He now finds himself the author of a highly entertaining autobiography, titled,  ‘Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll!’ During our recent discussion, I discovered that when Kenny gets on a roll, he’s as much of a conversational powerhouse, as he is a power behind a drum kit. So, to highlight his enthusiasm and passion, I removed my questions from the text.

Every great drummer deserves a solo.

In my career as a drummer, I’ve recorded with just about everybody. People like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. I just did a Merle Haggard tribute where I played with Loretta Lynn. These are the real iconic country people we’re talking about. Then the next minute, I’m off recording with Tony Iommi and Alice Cooper and the Smashing Pumpkins and Dave Grohl.

I’ve worked with guys like Sting and Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel and Elton John and Eric Clapton and Steven Tyler. I’ve worked with great female artists like Celine Dion – two of her records that I played on sold 40 million each – and Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morrisette and Michelle Branch. I just did 4 songs for Avril Lavigne’s new record. Old blues greats too! Like BB King, and Buddy Guy. I performed live with Ray Charles 3 times.

I did 10 years on the road and in the studio with Joe Cocker, 17 with Mellencamp, 24 and counting with John Fogerty. I mean, I’m all over the place. It’s endless. This is why they had to cut almost 300 pages from my book!

Still, while I was writing it, I realized that I wanted to talk about not just what I did, but why I did it. That’s what my next book is going to be about. I mean, practicing 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, starting the day after I graduated high school? Why would a kid do that? Everybody was partying, but I was practicing. For me, it was because I was terrified to fail. There was no Rock ‘n Roll school of music. There were no teachers who specialized in Rock ‘n Roll. I was alive when it all started! So, I was self taught.

I was always searching for ways to be great. As a kid, I used to go out to the barn at my parents house and do a double stroke drum-roll for an hour straight without stopping, while an old wind-up clock kept time in front me. As silly as it was, it was an achievement for me. It reinforced my desire to be great.

At one point, there was a kid in school who was getting better than me on the drums, and I didn’t want to fall behind anybody. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was taking lessons from the principal percussionist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra! So, I started taking 2 hour bus trips to study with this same teacher. You have to take action. If you do nothing, you get nothing. Shit does not fall out of the sky.

I once had a teacher put a piece of music in front of me to see what my sight reading skills were. Mine were absolute shit. I started playing the piece and blew every note. But when he went to pull the music away from me, I grabbed it back from him and said, “No, I want to try it again.” I tried it again and it got a little tighter, but he tried to take the music from me again! I told him “No!”, and that’s when he gave me a look that showed he had realized, “Hey, I have to accept this guy. This guy is going to be great to teach. He wants to please me and work hard.”

I got into the University of Massachusetts and Indiana University by practicing hard and working hard, almost entirely out of fear. Failing was like dying to me. I wasn’t the kind of guy that just wanted to get by, you know? I just couldn’t do it. Still can’t! Where does it come from? My Grandfather fought his way out of Russia during the Russian Revolution. Maybe I get it from him…fighting our way up from the bottom to the top.

Indiana University was, and is, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. It was extremely tough and competitive, like being in the Marines. The movie ‘Whiplash’? The overall tone of it was very real. I mean, I had teachers that were really tough and would make me cry. My teachers were old school, and they were going to weed you out if you weren’t Indiana University material. If you missed one note, they’d be up your ass. Getting in was tough, but staying in was even harder.

They drilled preparation into you. You had to be ready to play from the minute you walked into their office, and that has stuck with me. To this day, I write every note out, so that I can walk into a studio or rehearsal and be ready to take off right away. I have files and files full of charts! That’s why I can handle so many gigs. It all amounts to preparation, and that’s what works for me.

Kenny with John Mellencamp on American Bandstand in the ’80’s, and in 2010 at MusiCares’ Neil Young tribute.

People probably know me as a rocker, not as an orchestral percussionist. My senior year at Indiana University, I saw Itzhak​ ​Perlman​ play a virtuosic violin concerto, and decided to use that piece as one the four parts of my senior recital. If you were a performance major like I was, your senior recital had to be really outstanding. My teacher was blown away by me knowing this piece, but I had to practice it 2 hours a day for 365 days to pull it off. It was the only way I could play it at that level. After college, I turned down offers to join two prestigious orchestras because I wanted to be in a rock band, like the Beatles.

It took me 4 more years of hard work to eventually get my big break with Mellencamp, but even when I got there, I hadn’t figured it all out yet. When I speak to kids today, I ask a question that I’ll admit I didn’t think about when I started, which is, “What is the purpose of a drummer?” Their answers are always obvious at first. “To keep time”, or “To keep a beat”. I tell them that their primary purpose as a drummer is to get the song to be #1 on the radio. That’s the purpose of a drummer.

But how do you do that? Well, if you work for a corporation, it’s not about you. It’s about the team, right? For a drummer, it’s the same. It’s about the band. It’s about the song. Whatever you just played a minute ago, and whatever you’re about to play, should point towards the purpose of getting the song on the radio, and for it to be #1.

Realizing that is hard enough, but figuring out how to do it is even harder. That was the challenge I had when I started with John (Mellencamp). I had only been in his band for 5 weeks when we went in to record his album, and I was fired 2 days into it! I just wasn’t cutting it. I didn’t know my purpose, and everyone could see it. I said, “Wow, I better go home and figure this out quick.”

I eventually earned another chance with John, and realized that my purpose was to serve the song, and that I would do that by asking myself, ‘Who is John Mellencamp, and what does he want?” He wasn’t always very clear about it, but he knew what he didn’t want.

I had to create parts that were simpler, and would get played on the radio. I came up with a lot of clever, easy beats of which a lot of drummers might say, “I can technically do that.”, but that would miss the point. The point is that I came up with it at the crucial second when John was demanding it. My parts served the song and helped propel it in a direction where it could become authentic and great. A year and a half after I was fired, I turned on the radio and heard myself playing on a #1 hit song, ‘Jack and Diane’. And it had a drum solo!

That started us down the road of playing arenas, flying in private jets, and appearing on every TV and awards show imaginable. ‘Jack and Diane’ landed my career.

Was John difficult? I think most people who become successful get pounded on when they’re coming up. I could have walked out on John in certain situations. Many times I wanted to. But I wanted this end result so much more.

The key is to stay in the game, survive, and move up the ladder. It’s that simple. The people that I know who are successful in this business, have paid their dues. I certainly paid mine.

Kenny, in his office.

When John quit for awhile, I was devastated. I had just gotten divorced, and had a baby, and all kinds of bills. I was wondering how I was going to make a living. Once again, I had to go back to the drawing board, and create a plan for myself.

My first plan in life was to go to college, get a degree, and get offered a job in my chosen field of study, which was Orchestral music. I did that.

My second plan was to get into a rock band, and make records. I did that.

I decided that my third big life goal would be to become an in demand session player, but I needed to do it quick. I said to myself, “You’re going to move out to L.A. and pound the pavement until you succeed.” And I did! It started slow, but again, I worked hard out of fear of failure, and eventually ended up working for people like Stevie Nicks and Iggy Pop and Elton John and Bon Jovi.

I came up at a great time to be a session drummer. Everybody wanted to use me on so many different styles of music, and that’s what makes my career so unique. I’ve appeared on over 300 million records sold, and more than 1,300 certified Gold, Platinum, and Diamond albums. Now, I still do session work, I speak, I teach, I’m writing a second book, and I tour with John Fogerty, The BoDeans, and a band that I’m a part of called Supersonic Blues Machine. It goes on and on.

Think about it. As a boy, I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, along with 72 million other people. That was the reason I started playing drums in the first place.

50 years later, I found myself playing with the two remaining Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr), honoring them for that exact television show! Only four of the 72 million people who watched that night, were on that stage playing with them. And one of them was me!

So, dreams do come true . . . just not by accident.

You can purchase Kenny’s autobiography here:  “Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll”
Kennys website is:
Follow Kenny on Twitter: @aronoffOFFICIAL
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Robert Ferraro is a freelance writer and broadcasting school graduate, who has produced radio talk shows, and Major League Baseball broadcasts. In between, he has held over 50 menial jobs, all of which he departed when he couldn’t find anyone interesting to talk to.