Every amateur drummer has a favorite drum idol. These musical crushes reveal which qualities the amateur prizes in a musician. Pyrotechnic virtuosity? Maybe you love Neil Peart. Clever atmospherics? Stewart Copeland. Understated, granite-solid steadiness? Charlie Watts.
People think I’m joking when I say my favorite drummer is Stevie Wonder. Some simply don’t think of him as a drummer at all and aren’t aware that’s Stevie on the skins for a host of his hits. (In fact, according to Mark Ribowsky’s Wonder biography, Stevie’s first paid gig was as a drummer. He was 8 years old and was paid 75 cents.) Others dismiss Wonder’s percussive talents as a footnote—mere trivia, given that we’re talking about the greatest songwriter alive.
But cue up Innervisions sometime. Focus on Stevie’s beats up and down the album—the driving thump of “Living for the City,” the rolling triplets of “Higher Ground.” It’s pretty much all him. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the ultimate musical natural (a child prodigy on multiple instruments) would be so at ease behind a kit. Yet I’m still amazed at how effortlessly Wonder places his personal stamp on his drum tracks. He sounds like no one else—no rock beast, no session pro. You can keep your Bernard Purdie grooves, your Steve Gadd flurries, your John Bonham thunder. I’ll take Stevie.
I’m far from alone. In 1974, Eric Clapton said, “Stevie Wonder has to be the greatest drummer of our time.” In 2013, Drum magazine wrote, “News flash for those who didn’t know: Stevie Wonder also happens to be one badass drummer.” One of Wonder’s producers claimed Wonder’s skill at drumming equaled his talent for piano and harmonica.
It’s his expressiveness that sets him apart. The pocket stays tight, but no two measures sound the same. Listen to the start of “Superstition,” from Talking Book—among the most recognizable drum intros of all time, built entirely on Wonder’s funky propulsion. The beat is somehow simultaneously rock-steady and ever-changing.
If there’s a single element that defines his sound, it’s his technique on the hi-hat—the two-piece, clamshell cymbal that can be hit while closed for a tight ticking sound or left wide open for a bigger splash. Wonder’s style has been described as a “slushy hi-hat.” It swings between closed and open and somewhere in between. Buffalo Tom guitarist and singer Bill Janovitz once wrote in particular awe of Wonder’s hi-hat work on the song “I Wish”: “Notice how on the doo-wop-influenced post-chorus breakdown, he opens and closes the hi-hat in a wholly unexpected and unorthodox way, creating a rhythmic hook under the actual melodic hook.” His playing verges on sloppy—sliding in and around the rhythm the same way his melismatic vocals slide around a pitch. But he creates more dance floor–worthy beats than any drum machine could hope to.
My favorite Wonder drum track comes on “Too High,” the first song on Innervisions. Subtle snare rolls, sudden tom-tom tumbles, jazzy ride-cymbal swings—they’re all scrumptious and all in the greater service of the song. This is not the approach of a hired drummer attempting to carve out his own terrain. It’s the work of a multi-instrumentalist composer who fits his vision for each part into an interlocking whole.
I could go on and on, but the first step is awareness. Now you know: On so very many of these perfect songs, it’s Stevie laying it down.
Oh, one last thing: He loves to take live solos. No Stevie concert is complete without Wonder making his way back to the kit, being helped onto the stool by his drummer, and cutting loose with one of the most joyous musical sights you’ll ever behold. Watch and listen to a genius at work.