Twenty-four year old Jeff Porcaro was born in Hartford, Connecticut and first got interested in drumming due to the influence of his father. He began playing seriously at age seven though he is sure "I was playing even earlier than that. Only my father would actually know when I got started." Formal lessons initially came from papa Joe, followed by further studies with Bob Zimmitti and Rich Lapore. Jeff clearly remembers his early drumming years.
"I was using my father's drum, and when I was thirteen I got into a rock band. I remember walking home from school one day and a friend came running down the street and told me I got a new drum set. Some kid had won a Slingerland champagne sparkle set in a poker game and he sold it to my father with cases and cymbals for something like $250. It consisted of an 8' x 12" and 16" X 16" tom, 22" bass, a snare, and a couple of cymbals, 20" and 18". I was only aware of my father's work back then. I listened to other drummers, but I wasn't really aware of them. Eventually I left high school. I didn't actually graduate, but I did get a diploma. I got this gig with Sony and Cher and I left a week or two before finals. I never took the finals, but they gave me a diploma anyway. I had to tell them how much I'd be making, and why I wanted to leave and what it meant as far as my future was concerned. They were quite pleased. They let me go without any quarrel.
Though he left school early in return for a drumming career, he doesn't necessarily suggest that high school age drummers in search of musical fame and fortune follow the same path. "In general, I wouldn't recommend that an individual drop out of school at say his junior year for an opportunity like mine. I don't think my parents would have allowed me to leave if I was any younger. If it was totally up to me I probably would have, because I was a shlock in school. From my personal experience, going on the road at eighteen did a lot more for me than becoming a school musical genius. They're schooled, and they're slick, but there's no soulful feeling from those guys. The school bit doesn't mean anything to me. It's good to look at, and you say, 'Oh yeah, beautiful, I like that, beautiful touch, you've got stick control'...but those guys would fall apart if they had to play with Chuck Raney, or someone like that. If they played anything, they would fall apart."
Jeff's early dates with the team of Sonny and Cher led to some road work and recording dates with Seals and Crofts, on three of their albums. In 1977, he joined Steely Dan and stayed on about four months. All of that was followed by his work with Boz Scaggs. In between, there were numerous recording sessions with Jackson Browne, Barbra Streisand, Helen Reddy, Leo Sayer and Diana Ross, among others. After several years of backing other people, Jeff's primary interest now has turned toward the success of his new group.
"David Paich and I started our own group and plan to make our own album. David is the keyboard player who wrote Lowdown, Lido Shuffle, and What Can I Say for Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees album. The group also includes my brother, Steve, Dave Hungate, bass, Steve Lukather, guitar, Bobby Kimball, keyboards and lead vocal. At this point we're calling ourselves Toto. What we're going after is triple-platinum albums. It looks like it might happen. We have a lot of offers right now, and we're in negotiation with several record companies. It'll be a real commercial thing. We have a manager who does Chicago, Rufus, and a couple of other groups.
When it comes to equipment, Jeff has a set for practically every musical situation. A real stickler for the precise sound for each situation he runs up against, his assortment of gear is astounding.
"I have three Ludwig drum sets. Two of them consist of 22" bass drums, 9 X 13, 10 X 14, 16 X 16, and 18 X 18 toms. One set is black and the other is blue. The third set is an older one. It's made of wood, with a 24" bass, 8 X 12, 9 X 13, and an 18" tom. I also carry another 26" bass drum. I have two Gretsch sets. One has 8 X 12, 9 X 13, and 16 X 16 tims, and the other an 18" bass drum, 7 X 10, 8 X 12 and 14 X14 toms. I have a Camco set that they made for me with a 24" bass, 8 X 12, 9 X 13, 16 X 16, and 18 X 18 toms. I had Steinway Piano Company do the finish on them. They're wood and the shells are thick. Everything is brass plated, so it's all black and brass, with a solid brass 6 1/2" snare drum. And then there's my Slingerland with the 28" bass drum. That's my "heavy metal" set with everything in chrome, 20 X 20 floor tom, and an 11 X 15. The Ludwig was basically my all-around studio set. I got into Gretsch for live performances. I use clear plastic heads on them, all wide open. Fiberglass drums, plexiglass drums and all that is bullshit. There's something about them I just don't like. There's something about the sound. You can blow them all away. I go for the wood sound.
"As of late the recording engineers are getting into putting the drums live out into the open room. The west coast recording techniques were pretty much standardized in the late 60's and early 70's to the point where everybody's snare drum sounded the same. And you had to have them that way because that's the way the engineers wanted it. But now, peoples' heads are stretching out. Guys are getting back into putting drums out into the open room with just two overhead mikes, and getting an unbelievable sound. I basically have different set-ups for different recording projects. With Jackson Browne, I'd have a more mellow sounding set with huge toms for his kind of music. When I'm doing Boz Scaggs it may be a little crisper, maybe wide open. But if Boz happens to do Lido Shuffle, which is kind of Led Zeppelinsique, then out comes the big giant set. The Camco was made especially for live performances. It looks good, and sounds good too. I also have a slew of snare drums, all different sizes, ages and materials. I own four cymbals and one pair of hi-hats. Out of all those sets, just one set of cymbals, and only one of those cymbals is solid, my 22" ride. All of my cymbals were once my father's. That's a standing joke between us. 'Hey dad, can I borrow one of your cymbals?,' and he never sees it again."
Following along the lines of a set for all occasions, Jeff has distinctive opinions and preferences in head choices and tuning. He puts forth a total effort to achieve the proper balance of sound to complement the styles of different artists.
"For recording, I mainly use Ludwig DB-750 drum heads on all my Ludwig toms. I use bottom heads. It's a thin head, and the best sounding. I change the heads on all the drums of my recording sets every three days. I tune them low and fat as hell and they sound perfect for recording. They're thin, but they're tuned so loose, they get wrinkles. After a few hard takes they get dents and they're no good anymore. I use Remo Ambassador on the snare drum, and some of the Remo clear plastic on the other sets. No black dots. I don't like any of that. One set has the Evans heads, tuned real tight.
"As far as snare drums go, I recently hit upon something that's a little hard to talk about, but you have to hear it on records. A lot of them like that big, fat, meaty snare drum like you hear on Fleetwood Mac. That real thick sound. I use a 6 1/2 metal snare with the bottom head pretty tight and the snares going all the way across. I put the top head on and use a splicing block, like those used for splicing tape, or something about that size. I put it together with some foam, and I wrap a piece of leather around and lay it so the foam is resting against the head. I don't like any internal muffling, or cloth with tape. A wallet sounds good on top of the snare. The top head is tuned loose, to where each lug is about to fall off. Start hitting it with the snares real loose and raise the pitch of the head from that position, tightening the snares slightly. Within about three rotations, you've got yourself a nice sounding snare drum. I keep the top heads loose and the bottom heads tight on my toms to get the ptich to bend a little."
Coinciding with many of the "new" players, Jeff's preference in stick grip leans toward the matched. With the standard grip he found blisters developing on the middle finger of his left hand simply because of the power with which he plays.
"I don't have any of the chops I use to have with my left hand, but I feel a lot better using the new grip. It's the only way there is. My father was a professor of the traditional grip and even he switched to the matched grip."
Jeff also has some strong feelings on matters ranging from drum sticks to drum electronics.
"I hate sticks. They're not like they used to be. I remember when you could buy a pair of sticks and they would last awhile. They'd feel good. The wood was nice, and you knew it just by the feel of the stick. When you hit the tip on a cymbal, you could feel it in your hand. Now sticks are warped and the wood doesn't feel right. They don't last as long. I usually use a stick similar to a 5A in weight, but not as thick, and maybe a little shorter."
"As far as electronics go, I just did a bunch of records using the Syndrum. I was one of the first guys to see the prototype of that. Jim Keltner, Hal Blaine and myself were using those in recording when the prototypes came out. Now, everybody is using them. That Carly Simon tune, Nobody Does It Better, was one of the things I did using the Syndrum. The new Hall and Oates, Boz Scaggs, and Leo Sayer albums have it all over the place. They're the best electronic drums I've heard or played. You can get them to sound just like a drum."
Recently a new homeowner, Jeff hopes to fix up his garage for use as a studio, and with the new group, have more time for practice and study.
"I haven't had much of a chance to do any practicing. It's really weird because when you start doing lots of sessions and working every day, you have to start meeting up to what people imagine of you as a player. I'm really not into that. I don't care what people think of me, as opposed to being a really good all-around player. I just enjoy what I'm doing."
At the ripe age of 24, Jeff has also developed a fine ear for the work of a wide variety of drummers, along with some astute feelings on the importance of a drummer's concern for musicality, first and foremost.
"One guy that has really impressed me is Steve Gadd. The finest drummer out right now. He's unbelievably straight and well schooled. He's getting to be known as one of the most schooled drummers in history. He's amazing. He can read anything you put in front of him. He blows peoples' minds. Then there are people like Jim Gordon and Harvey Mason. I wouldn't put myself up with any of those guys. They're the guys that are doing it today. Ed Green, Rick Mirada [Marotta?], Bernard Purdie, and Jim Keltner. In the pop-rock field, Keltner has to be the master. The shame is that he's done a lot of sessions and is not someone everybody is aware of. He's done a lot of big records with John Lennon, Joe Cocker, and all the George Harrison things. Those aren't the real Keltner though. The real Keltner is stuff like the original Delaney and Bonnie album, and the old Leon Russell, and his own group called Attitudes. He's incredible. Among jazz players, there really aren't many guys who are playing like Elvin, or Philly, or Art Blakey or any of those guys. When those guys do a solo in the jazz context of soloing, it's cool because they play a chorus and still play musically. I'm not interested in a guy showing me what he can do rudimentally when it's not musical. When you don't hear any nice notes, or phrases, and when there's no soul to it whatsoever, it's like saying, 'Hey, dig what I can do'. No thank you. That's not for me.