How to Play Like Vinnie Colaiuta

Vinnie Colaiuta

We need to talk about VINNIE!! Vinnie Colaiuta, that is. But you already knew who I was talking about (and not just because of the title of this blog is ‘How to Play Like Vinnie Colaiuta’) because Vinnie, like Ringo and Buddy, doesn’t need a surname. OK, he’s not a household name but you probably own an album featuring him on drums. Vinnie is one of the most in demand session drummers on the planet. He’s recorded with Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Jeff Beck, Sting, the Pussy Cat Dolls (can you blame him?) and err…. Megadeath, to name but a few. Yes, Vinnie’s status as the ‘go to’ L.A. session drummer, the ‘one take wonder’ with the ability to sight-read the most complex of charts, means he shows up in some very surprising places. To view Vinnie’s complete discography, visit his website. 

I first saw Vinnie perform at a drum clinic in London in the 1987. I don’t remember much about it, but I came away feeling inspired, in awe and inadequate in equal measures. The Jazz drummer Gary Husband, who most famously played with Level 42, bravely served as the warm-up act. I remember thinking he was pretty good, but Vinnie was in a different class.

Play like Vinnie Colaiuta: Best Study Books

As a boy, Vinnie would practise at every available opportunity. At school he would sit at the back of the English class with a practise pad and work through the rudiments. Invariably, he would get kicked out of class. Are you prepared to do the same? Get your hands on some of the following titles if you want to find out how to play like Vinnie Colaiuta.

Gary Chaffee Techniques Series 

Things became a bit more interesting when Vinnie enrolled at Berklee College of Music to study drums with Gary Chaffee, the then Head of Percussion. Chaffee is well known for his five volume series of ‘Technique’ books. They represent to drummers what Nicholas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns represents to players of pitched instruments. Virtually every possible sticking combination is examined, every possible beat subdivision is subdivided. 

Studying Chaffee’s books is a great way to take your playing to another level.  In one volume, he deals with odd-rhythms, polyrhythms and mixed time signatures. What’s interesting is that even the early exercises have a frightening look about them. He mixes irregular note groupings and inserts rests in ways that appear counter-intuitive. As the book progresses, the exercises get increasingly difficult; the hapless drummer is expected to switch between subdivisions (triplets, quintuplets, sectuplets, etc.) whilst timekeeping foot ostinatos chugging along. Rhythms are stretched and distorted in all manner of ways; all the kinds of things you can hear Vinnie doing on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar.

Linear Drumming

One of Chaffee’s most famous rhythmical concepts is linear drumming.  He describes linear as “nothing more than a way of playing.[…] it doesn’t matter what you play, as long as nothing hits together. […] Linear has no layering, no points where two or more voices are sounding at the same time.” Learning some linear patterns is a great way to capture part of that ‘Vinnie sound’.

The Unreel Drum Book

Another great source of Vinnie material is The Unreel Drum Book by Marc Atkinson. This book goes ‘beyond licks and takes you inside the artistic and rhythmic mind of one of the true visionaries of the drums, Vinnie Colaiuta.’ The book contains: an in-depth, step-by-step analysis and breakdown of Vinnie’s performance, note-for-note transcriptions, play-along tracks and drum charts. But don’t get this book if you’re hoping for quick results! This is a serious, long-term study aid and it’s not easy… well, it’s Vinnie… you wouldn’t expect it to be.

The Frank Zappa Guitar Book

This book contains Steve Vai’s transcriptions of the solos on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. Along with the guitar solos, Vai transcribed Vinnie’s drums with incredible accuracy. If you want insight into how Vinnie plays when he’s let off the leash, this is the book. 

Vinnie Colaiuta on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar

I was studying for my A Levels when I got hold of the Zappa album Shut Up ‘n Play Yer GuitarI remember listening to it on loop. Zappa’s solos are like real time sonic sculptures, forever searching and exploring musical possibilities. I found it a transcendental, mind-altering experience (no drugs required!). During the solos, Vinnie’s drumming comes across as an integral component. Indeed, from start to finish, you get the impression that he is sharing the limelight on this album, the drumming is of equal importance to the lead guitar.

“Gee I Like Your Pants” is one of the shorter tracks on the album. It’s 2’32” of inspired lunacy. Vinnie’s fills sound like machine gun fire as they splutter and fizz all over Zappa’s guitar. Rhythms fragment and reform; they rub against each other one moment and bounce apart the next.  It’s an approach to drumming unlike any other.  Whilst it maybe improvised, it’s not jazz. It’s on a rock album but far too unpredictable to really be considered ‘rock’. You can’t even call it prog because it lacks all the preposterous pretention! 

On the piece Stucco Homes, his playing is so intricate, so dazzlingly entwined with Zappa’s solo it’s as if he is actually predicting Zappa’s every move. The pieces starts with Vinnie holding down his trademark one-drop reggae for about eight bars before mutating into something far more exotic. His drum kit at the time incorporated all kinds of goofy percussion: bongos, castanets, rototoms, etc. You can see him playing it in this German TV special, ‘We Don’t Mess Around’, recorded at Circus Krone in September 1978.

You can also hear Vinnie’s drumming on the Frank Zappa albums Joe’s Garage (1979) and Tinsel Town Rebellion (1981).

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