The Backbeat of Bon Jovi
By Nate Duchene & Jarred Tibbetts
Musician’s Friend Staff Writers
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Musician’s Friend: Do you remember the first gig you played? What were some of the lessons you learned that first night that are still valuable today?
Tico Torres: I guess the first paying gig was a nightclub with dancers in front of me, a Mexican bar. It was quite interesting. The key when you perform is if you mess up, not to let the audience know. If you make a mistake, do it twice, that way it becomes a part. That’s a little trick to keep it going. The whole key is not to let the audience know. I’ve taken that with me all my life. Showmanship is key.
MF: How has the live experience changed for you as your career has progressed and the band had more and more success?
TT: Whenever a musician plays live, it’s a one-time experience, whether you’re in a nightclub or an arena. Although today everyone can record it, when I started out it was what you heard, and you walked away with that. Playing live is the payoff for musicians…to have an audience, at any stage and any level. Of course it’s changed for us; we play for larger audiences, and to be able to translate a more intimate feel to a bigger venue takes a little doing, but there are ways to do it to make the venue feel smaller.
MF: How did you adjust sonically to larger and larger venues as the band’s following grew?
TT: The monitor systems became more massive. On a bigger stage, you really don’t get to hear the other instruments like you would in a club. You’re a little more removed, so you rely on your monitors. They always seem to get louder. [laughs] A great invention was the in-ear monitors. When they first came out, they were a little detached from what the drums actually sounded like. Then they perfected them, so it’s a wonderful stereo sound now. You get to hear everyone’s instruments, perfectly controlled, volume as well as tone. And at the end of the day, you’re not going deaf. One of the problems with some of the big speakers is that it’s so loud, your ears really suffer. If you want to get away from it, you have to turn your head. For your hearing health, the in-ear monitors have been a great innovation in music.
MF: It’s been written that the non-stop touring between Slippery When Wet and New Jersey almost destroyed the band. How did the group recover from that and find a tour schedule that works for everyone?
TT: That was a roller-coaster era that lasted a couple years straight. It did take its toll. At the end we each got on different planes and probably didn’t talk for about a year. It was the burnout factor. We were younger, the band was at its peak worldwide for the first time, and so we wanted to play as many places around the world. It all looked good on paper, but when you actually get out there it takes its toll. We did learn from that to be able to control it a little bit.
MF: You played and recorded with a number of artists prior to joining Bon Jovi in ’83. What were some of the changes you had to make once you became Bon Jovi’s drummer?
TT: In the very beginning all the guys, minus myself, lived at home with their parents. I had a house and was married. [laughs] So it was a financial adjustment, for one. The first couple of records, as much as we worked, there was really no money compared to what I was making before. So I had to do a lot of session work in and pick up gigs wherever I could just to play the bills. It was a sacrifice, but I had a good feeling about the band, so there was a reason for doing it.
MF: When it comes to live performance, what drummers have influenced you the most over the years?
TT: Wow, there are so many. Elvin Jones was my mentor for many years. I got to know him, and I worked with him and studied with him. I used to sit next to him and see how bombastic yet light and smooth he played. He said, “Now that you have chops, see what I’m playing with [pianist] McCoy Tyner, what I’m trading off with him.” That was a very important lesson for me, to see and hear how he played and complemented the other instruments in the group. That there’s more than just the technical aspect to being a drummer; it’s about feeling the part and playing the right part for the song. That was always a big influence.
Some of the great live drummers…there’s a million of ‘em. Even the worst drummer has something to offer me. I was a big fan of Buddy Rich. There’s Jon Hiseman, Mitch Mitchell. They were jazz guys but would go back and forth with their rhythms. Keith Moon, I could never relate to. I never understood it. He was just difficult for me to follow as a drummer. I looked more to the Garibaldis, the guys who were technical but in the pocket. I loved Ginger Baker because he was very rhythmic. Most of these guys came from jazz roots, and they had that technique of being able to go in and out of the music in different ways. I always looked for a drummer that plays well with the music and didn’t get in the way of it. Aynsley Dunbar, Tony Williams, Art Blakely. All these guys I used to watch, and it was a treat to see them play. But again, I get in awe of anyone who performs. Whether they’re good or bad, there’s always something you can learn from them. The key to being a good musician is to keep your ears open.
MF: You’ve played stages large and small all over the world. Are there any particular venues that still give you that nervous energy before you play?
TT: I think I get that nervous energy before every show. But you know what, Giants Stadium has an incredible glow to it. Hyde Park, when you’ve got 90,000 people there, it’s pretty cool. Of course, sometimes you barely get to the stage because you’re late, your plane didn’t get in. That will make you nervous. We run up on stage, literally in our street clothes and start playing because you have to.
MF: As a native New Yorker, what was it like to play Madison Square Garden for the first time?
TT: Pretty cool. The Garden is a special place in the world. It has a great sound and a great vibe. It’s not that big, so it’s pretty intimate. Everything from sports to music has a magic about it. You can’t help but smile when you play there.
MF: What are some of your favorite pieces of gear in your collection?
TT: I have a 1938 Slingerland snare drum. I had the original kit; it burned in a fire, but I still have the snare. I played it so much that the brass rim was wearing down. It’s a great sounding drum that I used on a lot of records until I retired it. It just couldn’t take it anymore. I also have percussion that I’ve collected over the last 40 years that are very dear to me. They’re handmade. I use them in the studio quite often when we record a record.
MF: What are some essential differences between your live and studio setups?
TT: I carry four snare drums with me on the road, but in the studio I have an array of different snare drums, old and new. One of the advantages is finding what fits the song best. Same with cymbals. Sometimes you want a thinner sound so you go for a thinner cymbal. Or a harder sound or a darker sound. So you have that flexibility, as well as with drumheads. You have different thicknesses because each one speaks differently. In the studio you have complete control and the flexibility to use anything you want. That’s fun, experimenting to find what fits the song. On a live kit, you pretty much go with what you have that works with everything.
MF: From your perspective, how have drums gotten better for touring drummers over the years you’ve been playing?
TT: Technology with drums has improved, so things are more roadworthy. When you’re on tour, you’re playing outdoors, you’re playing in different temperatures. It could be raining or snowing, and the humidity changes. Your equipment has to bend with that, and the older stuff couldn’t hold up as well. The equipment now is much more conducive to how we play.
MF: Do you have a pre-show regimen?
TT: This is the first time in my whole career that I have a little electronic kit in the back. Pearl makes this kit that looks like a regular drum set [the E-Pro], and it sounds great. It’s nice to loosen up and get in the groove with that. You want to get the muscles stretched in your back and your legs. Our shows are 2-1/2 hours or more, and I usually don’t get off the stool the whole time. So one ritual is to go to the bathroom before you start. [laughs]
MF: How much does the band rehearse before going out on the road?
TT: This tour, we rehearsed for four days. We have a lot of catalog that we pick from, maybe 90 songs. There are more than that, but that’s what we usually play. Tonight we’re doing a show, and we’ll probably add in five songs that we haven’t done. So I’ll listen to them for a little while and we’ll bang it out.
MF: Do you have a master set list that you work off of?
TT: Jon writes the set list every day, and it changes. There are certain songs you have to do for production, but the majority is pretty loose. We have a list of audibles at the bottom that Jonny might feel like doing too. People get to know your stuff, so you want to change things up. Although sometimes, because we do it all the time, we don’t realize that some people do want to hear the same show again, because it went by quick. [laughs] But we mix it up. We always try to include the standard hits. There are certain songs you should do for your fans.
MF: What’s typically your favorite song in a Bon Jovi set to play and why?
TT: It’s always been “Wanted Dead or Alive.” That’s a big song. The history of that one was we tried a couple of takes in Vancouver, and it wasn’t coming out. So we went out and I think we had sushi and a bunch of drinks. [laughs] We went back to the studio at 12 o’clock at night and did it in one take. It was magical. I love songs that fall together that way, that have a clear feeling. Where the random abandonment works. It has a special place in my heart.
MF: Tell us about the new Bon Jovi album, What About Now.
TT: Every album is different. When you release an album, you do the best you can to tell your story, and people take it and it becomes their story. It’s like having a baby; you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. This is the first time we’ve done a tour and a record at the same time. Usually the album comes first. So we’re testing these songs out live, and it’s nice to see their reaction and how they work with it and how they listen. It’s a different animal to go in there and play songs they’ve never heard. It’s very interesting; we’ve never done that before.