Stevie Wonder

Genius (Definition of)
1. exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.
2. an exceptionally intelligent person or one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity.
Source: Oxford English Dictionary

The noun ‘genius’ is often over used, especially in the narcissistic world of the music industry where opinions carrying little weight often reign supreme. Personally, I believe the definition describes an exceptionally gifted individual who is: as capable of creating a masterpiece, as they are of producing mediocrity, but without being able to consciously differentiate between the two extremes. If you need proof, sit ‘As’ next to ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ and then question how these could have possibly come from the same gifted source. Despite the odd faux pas, Stevie Wonder remains for me, a genius within his field as song-writer and multi-instrumentalist.

One of the most extraordinary skills Stevie has in his trick-bag, is the ability to play the drum set like no other human on the planet; much to the chagrin of some ‘real’ drummers who simply don’t ‘get it’. Personally, I love the way Stevie plays the drums as it is, so completely unique. Furthermore, I have yet to hear any one of Stevie’s hired-hand drummers come close to replicating the feel of the parts he played – and we’re not talking about some run-of-the-mill session players here; these guys are the cream of the crop. Not that I’m implying any criticism (who am I to cast aspersions on musicians who hold much coveted positions?), but it remains a fact that Stevie Wonder is a truly inimitable drummer, which, I was to find out for myself back in the early 1990’s.

Back in that decade, I took up with a pro covers band who played some pretty high-brow material for their target audiences, including a few of Stevie’s compositions. It was ‘I Wish’ in particular, that totally floored me on feel – and still does to this day. Back then, I wasn’t, shall we say, as ‘qualified’ as I am today when it comes to approaching the drum parts of Mr Wonder and I struggled with the groove. The same applied to ‘Superstition’, another favourite I still get to play on a regular basis. After nearly twenty years, I believe I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that Stevie Wonder is an impossible drummer to replicate and at best, I can only try and pay homage to his unique feel. One way to approach this is by attempting to forget that you are ‘a drummer’ when tackling his works; throw away the drummist baggage of striving for perfection and try to feel the song’s groove without inhibition. That’s a hard space to put any drummer’s head in – but it’s achievable.

Going back to ‘I Wish’, although drummer Raymond Pounds is officially credited for the track, I always felt that the pocket was a million miles away from what Pounds laid down on ‘Sir Duke’, raising my gut suspicions that it was actually Stevie himself who played uncredited drums. Finally, in 1997, what appears to be confirmation was provided on the ‘Classic Albums’ documentary covering the making of ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’…

Being somewhat of a musical sponge, soaking up all that the Funk Brothers rhythm section could teach him during his teenage years, it’s no surprise that Stevie’s turned out to be a true musician’s drummer, rather than simply a drummer’s drummer. As mentioned earlier, I have been in the company of drummers who openly refuse to acknowledge his skills behind the kit, believing that drum tracks should be laid down by ‘proper’ drummers. Maybe there was a time in my life that I too would have subscribed to that train of thought; but that remains buried in a mass grave of the unenlightened. You either ‘get it’ or you don’t with accepting Stevie Wonder as a drummer and unashamedly, I get it. I’m not the only one either. If you need any more proof that Stevie’s drumming skills warrant accolade, then look no further than Death Metal drum supremo, Gene Hoglan, when being asked about favourite drummers:

“I also discovered Stevie Wonder years after I started playing, but he’ll forever be one of my favourites.”

Gene Hoglan, Modern Drummer, 2010


6 thoughts on “Stevie Wonder

  1. Right on Man! I’m working up both “I Wish” and “Superstition” and struggling to not have them throw me into a fit of depression every time I play them. Of course, knowing “I Wish” has a HiHat overdub helps alleviate the pain, but it’s still gets my goat that a blind keyboard player (albeit genius) can play something that I can’t understand why I can’t perfectly mimic! Kudos to Mr. Wonder (truly a “wonder”).

    The exact thoughts you’ve expressed having been milling around my head now for weeks. I might just have to direct my bandmates to this for vindication.

    And the Haters will Hate. Mostly because they’re embarassed.

    1. Absolutely spot on observation – the Hi-Hat overdub! All that time Raymond Pounds was credited for a track that wasn’t his! These songs will always be ‘work in progress’ for me – especially Superstition. That feel is pretty much impossible to nail but what the heck, I try…

      Part of the problem with covering any of Stevie’s stuff is how the rest of your band mates approach the song. Often, they can hear in their heads something completely different and come out with their own interpretation, which can open up another can of worms, mainly to do with ‘space’. Yup, that sloppy Hi-Hat groove can feel oh-so-good in your hands during your solo intro, yet disappear into oblivion under a poorly replicated keyboard or guitar part. The Clavinova replication is often the downfall that will destroy the groove set up by a great rhythm section (I’ve been there, trust me!)

  2. You will get a good laugh knowing I camr across this article by googling “were there 2 drummers on Stevie Wonder I Wish.” Of course I am a drummer, a meat and potatoes player as I call it, struggling to capture this groove. I came across Steve’s playing trying to learn Superstition about 10 yrs ago. While I manage to capture the feel, the song never feels right, as the band struggles with a mix of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Stevie Wonder. Sigh. Anyway. I love that Stevie plays so “well” and hate it at the same time. I can only describe his playing as Consistently Inconsistent. I am so glad to hear that damn hi-hat was overdubbed. I think I am gonna shit can it and go for feel. I’m a pocket player and not a fancy drummer by any means, so I always go for capturing the feel of songs and playing what works for me, and my band. Thanks for this article… Now let me go see how Raymond Pounds played I Wish on youtube….

    1. Great comment! I think some guys have a totally unique inner clock and Stevie is one of those people. I think though, the years have taught me, finally, that every drummer’s inner clock is their own and something to be nurtured and be proud off. After all, when other musicians want to play with us, it’s because we make their time feel good!

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