Modern Drummer Interview

In 1997, MD writer T. Bruce Wittet interviewed Cozy Powell by phone. Speaking from his 350-year-old thatched cottage near Bristol, Cozy talked drums-lots of drums. "We could go on for hours," he remarked. As a matter of fact, he did. As you'll see, the late, great drummer had much to offer.

MD: You must have a lot of experiences, some printable, arising from your early days playing in German clubs.

Cozy: You'd have to have a couple of days, mate, and your phone bill would be very steep! In those days there were no mics; everything was played acoustically. I started off with The Sorcerers, a band I met in Germany in 1966, which played pop hits. Everybody did that over there.

The first time I came across anybody who played with any real volume was when I saw John Bonham. The kit was kind of thrown on the stage, but he played and there was this power. When I saw him play, I thought to myself. This is where it's going, this is what drumming is all about.

I'd been playing already for ten years at the time and thought I knew it all, but when I saw John my jaw dropped to the floor. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was the single most important statement made to me about drumming. When I saw John Bonham, I decided to change my style of drumming. This guy had such natural ability and aggression that I just had to emulate it. I can't say that I'd ever be as good as him...but at least I could try to be like him.

MD: Do you remember what changes you went through?

Cozy: I can. In those days, drummers were desperate to be noticed. They'd sit very high. Well, that's the first thing you change. The only way to get any power is to sit low. I studied the way John sat and, if you notice, he sat low and "into" the kit. People like Carl Palmer-and I'm not trying to slag him off here-but they sit very high so they can be noticed when they take their shirt off, whereas Bonzo sat low.

Literally overnight I changed my drumming style. You have choices, and I took the choice of being a more solid rock drummer. The kind of impression Bonham had made on me, I wanted to make on young kids coming up. John tuned his drums open. They'd ring a little bit and have this "snap" when he hit them hard. He hit the drums mercillessly hard. He really could demolish a drumkit, no trouble. I don't think kids will ever know what that sort of physical power is like unless they've ever witnessed it.

MD: You've always had a much larger setup than Bonham. How do you ensure that you get a distinct sound from each of those drums?

Cozy: The first thing, when you go into the studio, is that the engineer says, "I hear all this ringing," and I say, "That's the sound of the drumkit, you prick! That's the way it's supposed to sound. What you're supposed to do is get that sound down on tape." I've had so many rows with engineers and producers over the years it's unbelievable. But if you don't have overtones, the kit's going to sound dead.

MD: Do you adhere to the Bonham thing, tuning your heads higher?

Cozy: Yes. I tune the top head tighter than the bottom head, and I try and get a balance between the crack of the drum itself and the tonal quality. At the moment, I'm playing Yamaha maple drums and they're great; they're as good as the maple drums Ludwig made in the '70s. You take the Yamaha drums out of the box, set them up in the studio, and they sound great. The first time I heard John Bonham play the maple kit Ludwig made for him, they sounded awesome. But things have moved on a lot since then.

I've always used metal snare drums. Yamaha made me some custom metal shells with very heavy-duty steel rims. They're so heavy you can hardly lift them up! I told them I needed them for projection and they looked at me as if I was talking nonsense.

MD: Talking about heavy rims, I remember Carmine Appice saying that in the old days, everybody would play rimshots even on the toms. Did you do that?

Cozy: I did. Rimshots are very important to my style of playing, even on the toms when needed. It's funny: When Bonham came back from the first tour of the States, he told me, "This guy I've just seen, Carmine Appice, is amazing, but I'll tell you something: I can still play louder than him!"

One thing I did to achieve volume is change from matched to traditional grip in my left hand. You can't get the power unless you play the orthodox style. And I changed the angle of my snare drum so it angled down towards me more so I could hit it harder and get the rimshot sound. I angled the toms in the same way so I could hit them in the center or with a rimshot. Since I've always played two bass drums, I lowered the stool so that my legs were level with the floor for maximum power. I built the rest of the kit around that. Everything went down in height. The cymbals would be positioned so that when I hit them it would be halfway through, as if you were chopping a piece of wood and the impact would be halfway down the arc. You've got the most power at that certain point halfway down.

Then I went into the gym and did a lot of work. I studied boxing, which I figured was the best thing for drummers. I got speed on the bag, and I worked out on weights, sitting on a chair moving backwards and forwards. I wanted to improve my muscles in relation to what I wanted to do as a professional drummer.

MD: At extreme volumes you don't simplify your fills like some guys.

Cozy: That's down to sheer perseverance. With Jeff Beck, which was my first big gig, I wanted to show people I could play hard but have chops as well. I'd practice a four-stroke ruff and go from the floor torn to the top toms and work out this kind of rolling thing. If you listen to "Stargazer," from the Rainbow album, there's that sort of "roll" thing. I could do that, on any combination of drums, at the same pace, for quite a long time. It's a statement; you have to play as if you mean it. And that's how I've always approached drumming-playing as if it's my last show ever.

I taught myself how to drum and took it upon myself to learn how to project in stadiums. I'd work out a way to hit a drum hard, but not so hard that it would choke. It's the same with a cymbal; you've got to find a balance. If you can hear it in your head and know what you're looking for, then you can build your body up to do what you're hearing.

Another thing is that a normal stick, on a rimshot level, was not good enough. I asked Yamaha to make a similar stick as a 3A or 5A but half again as heavy to withstand rimshots. After a while, I got used to playing with this weight, and the power I get is incredible. You see, with 5As, I would have to turn them around and play with the butt end, which wouldn't be satisfactory because then I wouldn't get the same feel out of the cymbals. I show these sticks to some drummers and they look at me as if I'm bonkers! You play a 24'' ride with a jazz stick and it'll sound like crap, in my opinion.

MD: You are a fan of Paiste Giant Beat cymbals [discontinued at the time of this interview]. They were touted as a cymbal for heavy rock, although by today's standards they're quite mellow.

Cozy: I remember that they had a kind of "medium brilliance." They didn't sound like a Zildjian, in the sense of a hard, jazzy tone. They were softer in some respects. When you hit them hard, though, they projected more. It's the frequencies in the mids to upper-mids that project, and that was their secret. It's a softer cymbal than a Zildjian, if that makes sense, but if you hit it hard, it had a similar resonance to the 3000 series. When Paiste went back to 2002s, I made my feelings clear at the factory because I think that 3000s had a similar feeling to the Giant Beats.

MD: You've always played a 15'' 602 hi-hat-also a line long gone.

Cozy: That's a fabulous cymbal. I managed to get six or seven pairs and horde them because there's nothing equaling that sound, nothing to equal that crispness. It sounds a little silly-I mean, we're talking as connoisseurs-but it's an excellent, heavy, clean cymbal. Nothing today has that "edge." As professionals we all try so many cymbals, but the Formula 602 was special.

It's like Ferrari motorcars. They bring out something special-select, classy models-and they move on, thinking they'll improve it. They don't, of course!

MD: You're a man dear to me because you prefer 20'' crash cymbals. That's a great sound.

Cozy: Right. In my opinion, 16'' and 18'' crashes have got a nice sound and high-end quality, but the 20'' heavy crashes...when you hit one of those, you feel it three blocks away. It's a serious statement, as opposed to an after-effect.

Because of the way I've played over the years, people think I'm some heavy drummer who's not concerned with cymbal sounds. But there's so much subtlety in cymbals. A lot of kids today just hit them hard as if they're separate objects, but they have to complement the drumset.

MD: Let's say things didn't work out and you're now working at a drum shop. A kid comes in and says, "Mr. Powell, I'm playing a metal gig. Could you advise me as to a good cymbal setup?"

Cozy: It's very difficult because it's a personal thing. I use thirteen or fourteen cymbals, always the same ones, including a 24'' ride that's made specially for me. It's so seriously on the money that when I use it on sessions-I used it with Brian May on the Pinocchio film-it cuts through unbelievably. We cut tracks with The Seattle Symphony Orchestra and it cut through the timpani, percussion, brass, and strings.

MD: Speaking of studio, you worked for producer Mickie Most. You played with many artists, including Donovan. Did you play on, say, "Sunshine Superman"?

Cozy: No, but I did do lots of album stuff. In those days I played all the demo tracks, up to when they recorded the top-line track. I did all the groundwork for a lot of the hits that came out in the '70s. Some of the time, they would keep the drums. Depending whether I was available for the final tracks, they would use me or somebody else. In those days it was a cutthroat business and you got used to doing pre-production. Sometimes it seems that my whole career has been spent doing pre-production.

Do you remember that big Whitesnake album in 1987 that sold fifteen million? Well, I did the whole album. God bless him, Aynsley [Dunbar] came in and redid it all. I did a number of albums for other groups, where I did all the groundwork. It's one of those political things, part of the business, and I really shouldn't complain because I've been on a lot of records that have been hits.

MD: Such as Robert Plant's Pictures At Eleven.

Cozy: Well, that's another example. I did the whole album and Phil [Collins] came in and finished it. It's not a bad thing to have Phil Collins as a "deputy." I had to go on tour with the Michael Schenker Group and couldn't complete the album. Robert told me that Phil Collins came in, heard my tracks, and said, "There's nothing wrong with these. I couldn't do any better." That's a real compliment.

© T. Bruce Wittet, Modern Drummer 1997