Artistic dedication. It dominates Virgil Donati’s global reputation, shadowing even his peerless execution of imaginative rhythmic phrasing, his mind-bending tom and cymbal play, his dizzying display of double-bass work and his jaw-dropping riffs and stick-flips. Don’t forget his groove. Yes, Donati is a certified technical guru, a creative virtuoso, a physical specimen. And he’s a grinder and a grunt – logging exhausting practice sessions day after sweat-soaked day despite his proven success and esteemed accolades.
The Aussie-born drummer’s career has resonated through more studios and concert venues – with the collaboration of more top-shelf talent – than we could sensibly cover here. (See: Southern Sons, Planet X, Steve Vai, On The Virg, Virgil Donati Band, Branford Marsalis, etc.) Between multi-platinum pop bands and premier international drum events, through worldwide clinic tours and prestigious libraries of solo CDs and video releases, Donati’s schedule seems to move faster than his double-stroke double-bass roll.
This guy does not sit still, especially when on the drum throne, but we managed to pin him down long enough to count his extremities. We were shocked to find the standard two-hands/two-feet configuration that has limited so many drummers for so long. There goes the conspiracy theory that Donati has surgically added three right feet and four left hands.
While being cornered and probed by our team of physicians and audiophiles, Donati took the time to talk with us about his latest projects, practices, and philosophies. The newest volume in his encyclopedic career involves a super group of sorts by the name of Soul SirkUS. Organized by Journey guitarist Neal Schon out of the remnants of Planet US and featuring singer Jeff Scott Soto (Yngwie Malmsteen, Talisman) and bassist Marco Mendoza (Ted Nugent, Whitesnake), the band creates melodic hard rock with an old-school showmanship.
“It’s melodic rock, hard and heavy, that has some twists to it,” Donati says of Soul SirkUS. “It’s rock and roll but flamboyant. And every chance we get it takes off in different directions. That’s one of the bonuses of playing with seasoned musicians. We start with that basic 4/4 rock element and then rely on our musical instincts to take it beyond that. Every night we’re excited by the possibilities.”
The CD World Play (Frontiers Records) is actually a re-release, as the original tracks were cut with a different drummer. In fact, a guy you may have heard of – Journey skinsman Deen Castronovo was the original drummer for Soul SirkUS. After Castronovo withdrew from the project to spend time with his family and recover from exhaustion, Schon contacted Donati to gauge his interest in filling the void left by Castronovo. It was January 2005 when the phone rang.
“I got a call late one night saying Deen had to withdraw due to general exhaustion, and a few conversations later I found myself on a flight to San Francisco to audition. I hadn’t heard any of the music other than a few clips from the web site. And although they did have four specific songs they wanted to run, I didn’t have the songs to learn. So when I arrived at the airport one of the crewmembers picked me up and had an iPod with the four tunes. Luckily it was an hour-and-a-half drive to the rehearsal studio. So I listened to them during the drive and made some rough charts, jotting down some quick notes.”
Situations like this allow all the practice and studying and preparation to pay off. During the hour-plus drive, Donati was able to rough chart his parts for the four tracks and effectively memorize each of the songs and his corresponding drum parts. “I just did the best I could on the short notice and apparently that was enough. So I got the gig. And it was just great walking in there with all those guys. They’re all such great musicians and there was a chemistry between us from the beginning. The opportunity to play with guys of this caliber is what appealed to me and drew me to the project. I was very excited by the possibility of playing with this band.”
“‘Aud-ition’ can be just a word for getting together and playing. There’s more to auditioning than just playing. It’s to see how we get along as well. You can be the best player at your instrument and still not be the best player for the gig. So it’s a chance to see how things feel together. And besides, I kind of like those challenges and it’s nice to succeed at them.”
The challenges didn’t stop there. Donati returned to his home base in Los Angeles only to hear his phone ringing once again. Schon here. Don’t unpack. “I had a day and a half to learn all the material and be ready to re-record the drum parts in the studio. So I headed into my studio and just ran the tracks over and over again until I was familiar with them. That was a big challenge to go in and fill Deen’s shoes. He had done such a great job. But I was glad for the opportunity to bring my interpretation to the music.”
While Donati headed into his studio to chip away at his next Michelangelo, Castronovo was just getting word of who would fill his bass drum pedals on the album and subsequent tour. “Oh my God, Virgil Donati seriously kicks my butt!” Castronovo said in a publicity release. “He is the most unreal drummer I have ever seen. This guy is a studied musician and does things on a kit I had never witnessed. With [Donati] in Soul SirkUS they are going to make some real noise in the music business. They couldn’t have chosen a better guy – they just don’t come any better than Donati.”
Now all Donati had to do was actually lay the tracks. Even for the best of drummers, converting existing drum parts (especially those by a drummer of Castronovo’s caliber) is a sticky, gooey undertaking. “You really have to use your imagination,” Donati says of the task at hand. “There are certain parts that are intended for the composition that you want to hang onto. And then there are things you have to let go of and do them how you would play them. And we would bounce back and forth in the studio on what some parts should be. The danger is the bandmembers getting comfortable with what they’re used to hearing and wanting to stick with that. To break away from that can be a big challenge. So I brought a couple things to the table that I thought would challenge them, but for the most part they were very excited about those new ideas. There were moments where they weren’t sure, but once I got it all in perspective I think they were happy with the new parts.”
What resulted was a flashy yet classic feel on a hard rock stadium album. For the fusion enthusiasts it will be disappointing to hear Donati playing meaty 4/4 rock beats. But just a few bars into the first track and you quickly realize that this is more than just a rock drummer, as he spews epic fills and brilliant Donati-isms that continue throughout the record. Overall, it’s an impressive rock album with enough musicianship to compensate for the occasionally weak songwriting. Rush fans? Step right up.
At time of writing we were unable to procure a copy of the original CD with Castronovo’s parts on it. About 2,000 were printed, released mostly in Europe, and we’re not alone in thinking that’s pretty cool. “I think the whole situation is exciting,” says Donati. “I’d love to pick some of my favorite albums and have two different versions with two different drummers to hear the two different perspectives. That doesn’t happen very often.”
World Play is, above all things, a crystal clear snapshot of what one of the world’s best drummers can do to a hard rock album with only a couple days of preparation. It is a testament to the value of hard work as well as a tribute to the talented musician who is always ready for any opportunity should it arise.
Drums: Pearl MRX
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 5" Virgil Donati Snare
3. 10" x 4" Sopranino Snare
4. 14" x 12" Tom
5. 10" x 9" Tom
6. 12" x 9" Tom
7. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
8. 18" x 16" Floor Tom
9. 10" x 8" Tom
10. 13" x 11" Tom
A. 14" Prototype Saturation
B. 18" HHXtreme Crash
C. 16" Saturation Crash
D. 17" Saturation Crash
E. 18" Saturation Crash
F. 12" Regular Hi-Hats
G. 20" Prototype Saturation Ride or 20" HHX Dry Ride
H. 19" Saturation Crash
I. 14" AAX Mini Chinese
J. 12" HH Hi-Hats
Virgil Donati also uses Pearl hardware and pedals, Remo heads, Moon Gel, and Vater
signature model sticks.
Time has passed since the tracks were recorded. Tours are underway. And the drum parts are constantly evolving. “I try not to think of the recorded parts when playing live, and try to play whatever I’m feeling at that particular time. Of course there are basic elements of the song that have to be there each time, but I always play different fills or mix the beats up.”
The live show consists of most of the World Play album as well as a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” that Donati says, “we really stretch out some nights. And we do have a drum solo during ‘Third Stone From The Sun’ – an old Santana thing where the band riffs a bit and I solo over them. On some nights we throw in an open drum solo, but not too often. It’s a fun live show.”
Sounds like enough to challenge us mere mortals, but for Donati, we have to wonder if playing in a rock band is enough to quench his insatiable thirst for challenge. “A lot of people don’t know or they forget that I was in a multi-platinum selling pop band in Australia in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I always had my progressive projects on the side because I enjoy that creative outlet, but my bread and butter has always come from the rock side. Then when I moved to the U.S. I just headed off into that progressive side more. Now this takes me back to my roots. And I don’t mind bringing my personality and some flamboyance to it. I’m not afraid to be who I am.
“Everything I do is a challenge in it’s own way; whether it’s a rock gig or the most progressive thing in the world. The challenge is to push yourself to the limit of whatever it is you’re involved in. So playing a strong, driving backbeat night after night can become a challenge – especially physically. On a musical level, the challenge is trying to create that magic every night so you don’t become blasé about it and turn on the automatic pilot. That’s just part of my nature and I
think everyone in the band is like that – pushing hard to bring out the best from
Get Into The Groove.
Whether playing progressive fusion polyrhythms or laying down straight backbeats, there’s no denying Donati’s ability to create a thick, driving groove. His groove is what blazes the trail for his flashes of freakshow fills. While we have him, let’s talk groove, time, and feel.
“It’s a very intangible thing,” he explains. “It’s one of the most talked about aspects of drumming, but no one ever really explains it. It’s a personal thing to some extent and there are so many little subtleties that contribute. But at the same time, a lot of developing time and feel comes from the maturity of the player – having an awareness of the time and pulse, the meter of the music and making that pop out. I think it’s a combination of having a strong awareness and being able to control what you play. It’s a lot like taking the reigns of a wild horse. You get on a wild horse that’s got this really strong spirit, and unless you can control it, it’s going to run away from you. It’s going to bolt. You won’t be able to control or stop it. And that’s like drumming. You have to learn to harness that power you have when you sit behind the drums. Especially playing with a band, you have to keep your awareness on the meter and the pulse of the music.
“It also has to do with developing a sensitive touch where you can really find that sweet spot in the drum. And all these things are really difficult to teach. They only come through experience and awareness. I think that once you’re aware that these concepts are important, then you’re already on your way to improving at them. One way is to practice to records. And I used to sit down and transcribe a lot of parts. That helps with your sense of rhythm, when you can understand how everything fits in a time signature. Also, try playing with other musicians as much as you can and playing to a click track. For example, set a click track on quarter-notes and play quarter-notes along with it, then move to eighth-notes, eighth-note triplets, sixteenth-notes, etc. That’s really going to help your awareness of time and groove. So it’s a combination of all those things.”
Taking It To The Extreme.
One thing that a lot of artists talk about, and a few even attempt, is pushing the limits of their respective craft beyond what is known or expected. Donati fits the mold of legitimate, expansive artists. His technique, his dedication, his ambition stretch far beyond what is common in the drumming industry. When cornered, he’ll humbly state that he doesn’t mean it to be that way – it’s just the way he chose to go about his art. No better, no worse. Fair enough, but what we want to know is: is there a limit to drumming? Can a drummer reach a point where there’s nowhere else to go?
Let Yoda Donati speak: “The limits are what we go after every day. That’s the point that I intend to reach during my practice sessions every day. That’s why I go to my rehearsal room every day and work on specific things – because there are always limitations. So we have to work to push those limits back. Every passing day, every week, every month, we confront new limitations and that’s part of the process. It’s been that way since I was a kid. I remember being ten or eleven and having trouble with certain pages of the book Stick Control and that was a real challenge and an exposure of my limitations at the time. And in a way nothing has ever changed. It’s just happening on different levels now, of course. That’s part of the creative process, I believe.
“You often hear great artists in all fields talk about how you never reach a point where you’re comfortable with what you’re doing. In fact, the more you uncover, the more remains to be uncovered. And that is certainly true of drumming. When you delve deeply into it, it’s a very involved subject with so many nuances and so many layers to uncover.
“Drumming is also such a physically oriented instrument that just maintaining the physical aspects of it is a big challenge. It’s like being an athlete, really. As a sprinter you can reach the limit and break the world record for the 100-meter dash, but it doesn’t mean you can do it the following week – especially if you stop training. It’s the physical maintenance. So it’s not only the understanding and the technical experience, but also the mechanical and physical skills that you have to maintain.
“I still feel like I have to renew my contact with the instrument every day just to maintain a certain skill level. That’s what I choose to do. There are all kinds of players and personalities that go about things in different ways. This is just how I chose. Putting in the hours of work and all the practice allows me to express myself best on the instrument.”
Sounds exhausting doesn’t it? Well, it is. But it’s worth it …
“It’s so great to get up every day and think about drumming and music and get out there and play and bring it to the public all over the world. It’s a very exciting thing to be able to do. And just the thought of that should be enough to motivate any young musician who wants to make music their way of life. It takes a lot of work but in the end it’s all worth it.”
The time we spent with Virgil Donati allowed us to confirm the simple but often forgotten fact that in drumming, like in all of life, there are no shortcuts. There are no quick fixes. There are no magic tricks. There are no easy ways out. There are no breaks undeserved. There are no extra extremities. There are only two hands, two feet.