"That was a snare drum my family used to keep behind the couch, and every once in a while as a treat they would let me play it with a piece of material over it, because it was pretty loud.”
Rochester in New York state was where Gadd grew up. He lived with his uncle and grandparents there until he was three. “Uncle was a drummer and he inspired me, but my whole family were very supportive and very encouraging. When they realised that I was leaning towards the drums, they started to nurture it. One birthday they bought me a proper snare drum and a little white bass drum. Then for another birthday I got a tom-tom that you could clamp on to the top of the bass drum. And then for another birthday I got a hi-hat.” Gadd used his first snare drum as a little floor tom, “I stripped it of its snares,” he says. “I guess I must have been about six or seven – that was my first kit.”
At high school Gadd took drum lessons and played in the drum corps. College followed where he studied all the percussion family including timpani, marimba and all the orchestra stuff, he says. “At one point I had to make a decision, as I wasn’t going to be able to keep on playing all those instruments. I decided that there was nothing I could play as well as a kit of drums. These are the scary decisions that you have to make along the way.”
Gadd’s influences came initially from listening and playing to the records his uncle bought. “I remember he bought me some Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson. Then I heard about Philly Joe Jones and started listening to all those kinds of guys. My dad would take me to hear different live music which he loved. There were a couple of great clubs in Rochester. The one at the rich end of town brought in all the big guys like Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie. I used to sit at the very front and remember watching Gene Krupa play.
“Then there was the other club in another part of town where they brought in organ groups like Jack McDuff who would play there regularly – sometimes they would let me sit in. So I was constantly hearing different bands, and at one point I was playing with Chuck Mangione, who also came from Rochester. What I did was follow my heart in terms of where my passion was. The goal was never to get to a financial place, the goal was just to play good music.
“My uncle bought me a Gretsch drum kit when I was 12 that I still have. When I got out of the army I bought another set of Gretsch drums with a small bass drum and small toms. A couple of years after that I built a set of drums, putting different combinations of things together when I started doing some recording in New York and I needed a more ‘all around’ sound.
“Then in 1975-76 I got a deal from Yamaha. They approached me to become an endorsee and I’ve been with them ever since. I helped them design the Recording Custom series, sizes and everything. They were aware that I played and was connected at a certain level in terms of advertisements. But I wasn’t paid anything to do it but in return for my ideas I got drums. I have 12, 13, 14, and 16inch toms and I use a 22x14 bass drum, although sometimes I’ll use a 20x16, it just depends which one sounds good with whoever is doing the sound.”
Gadd keeps his own personal kit in New York, otherwise Yamaha supplies his every need for the smaller jazz tours. “For big tours I have a kit that goes with me.”
Even though Gadd has been playing the same basic kit for some 35 years he says he has changed from a birch bass drum to a maple bass drum. “It gives a fatter sound,” he says, “and when I first went with Yamaha, they were only making birch drums. I always use Remo heads. Coated Ambassador on the top and clear on the bottom although sometimes, depending on the situation I’ll use clear Pinstripe heads on top. Years ago I was trying Evans sets, which were great for recording, but then when the endorsement came along I found that I could cover everything that I needed with Remo.”
Gadd has always played Zildjian cymbals; it was a Zildjian cymbal that his uncle bought him that time 58 years ago. “I use a combination of all of them,” he says.
“One of the orchestra rides I’ve got is an A. Actually, it’s not an orchestra ride, but an orchestra cymbal that I use as a ride. I also have a Constantinople: both are 20s. I have an 18inch dark K crash and an old K heavy hi-hat which is worn out, because it’s one I bought back in the 1960s. But I use that on top with an A, with rivets in it on the bottom. It had holes in it originally, but the fact that it lets some of the air go through, means that when you’re playing it with your foot it sounds really good and helps me get the sound that I want.” Gadd plays his own model of Vic Firth sticks and brushes,. “We just came up with what we’d like them to be.”
Interview by David Gallant