Kenny Aronoff

Kenny Aronoff

If you’ve listened to mainstream rock radio for just 30 minutes at any time over the past 40 years, then you’ve probably heard Kenny Aronoff’s playing – even if you didn’t realize it at the time. One of the most in-demand studio and touring drummers on the planet, his resume includes a near-dizzying array of the most chart-busting, trailblazing and influential names in popular music over the past four decades, a virtual who’s who of post-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll.

Musical beginnings

Born March 7, 1953, in Albany, New York, and raised in the tiny Massachusetts town of Stockbridge, Aronoff’s rise to fame is the stuff of fairy tales: He was inspired to play drums when he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, one month before his 11th birthday, and pleaded with his mother to call the band to say he wanted to join the group. Little did he know that his dream would come true exactly 50 years later, in February 2014, when he performed onstage alongside Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as part of the CBS special The Beatles: The Night That Changed America.

Early bands, Classical training, Switch to fusion/rock

Self-taught from age 11 to 16, Aronoff played in various bands during junior high and high school including the orchestra, the jazz ensemble and a rock group called the Alley Cats. At age 16, he decided to concentrate on classical music. In addition to studying with Boston Symphony Orchestra timpanist Vic Firth, he honed his skills at the University of Massachusetts Amherst before transferring to Indiana University’s Jacob’s School of Music, where he was awarded the school’s prestigious Performer’s Certificate for “musical understanding and technical proficiency demonstrated in recital.” During summer breaks, Aronoff played timpani with the BSO at Tanglewood.

Upon graduation in 1976, several orchestras offered Aronoff spots playing timpani but he turned them down, turning his focus to jazz fusion primarily and balancing his time between Massachusetts and New York for about a year, studying and gigging. In 1978, Aronoff returned to Indiana where he spent the next two years playing the Midwest club circuit with various rock and fusion acts.

Joining John Mellencamp

In 1980, Aronoff got his big break when he landed a gig with Indiana native John Mellencamp – billed as “Johnny Cougar” until 1983 – and from there his career behind the kit got turned up to 11. Mellencamp had released four albums already but reached superstar status with his 1982 album American Fool, Aronoff’s second with Mellencamp, which was #1 in the Billboard 200 for nine weeks and the single from which, “Jack & Diane,” spent four weeks at #1 in the Billboard Hot 100; the song introduced Aronoff’s hard-hitting style to the world with a thunderous lead-in as iconic in rock history as Phil Collins’ on 1981’s “In the Air Tonight.” Aronoff backed Mellencamp, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, for a total of 17 years, appearing on 10 Mellencamp albums.

Session work

In the mid ’80s, Aronoff began doing session work for other artists during his time off from Mellencamp’s band and since then he’s become a first-call studio cat, playing on albums by a multigenred assortment of legends and household names. Among them are Bob Dylan, Jon Bon Jovi, Bob Seger, Belinda Carlisle, Indigo Girls, Meat Loaf, Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie RaittThe Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lenny Kravitz, Kid Rock, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Slash, Eric Clapton, Dave Grohl, Jack White, Garth Brooks, Alanis Morissette, Johnny Cash, Avril Lavigne, B.B. King, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Beyonce, Mick Jagger, Ray Charles, Alice Cooper, Santana, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Celine Dion, Alice Cooper and Willie Nelson.

Touring, Teaching

Since the late 1990s, Aronoff has performed and/or toured with a host of top names including Melissa Etheridge, Bob Seger, John Fogerty, Richie Sambora, Smashing Pumpkins, BoDeans and Joe Cocker, and he’s taught as an associate professor at Indiana University – which now offers a Kenny Aronoff Percussion Scholarship – while hosting drum clinics and producing instructional videos. In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine put Aronoff at #66 in its “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” list and several times he’s been selected #1 Pop/Rock Drummer and #1 Studio/Session Drummer in Modern Drummer magazine readers’ polls. Aronoff owns a recording studio, Uncommon Studios LA, in North Hollywood.


In 2016, Backbeat Books published Aronoff’s autobiography, Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll! The Hardest Hitting Man in Show Business, with a forward written by Neil Peart, former drummer and primary lyricist of famed Canadian prog-rockers Rush. “Talent, energy, dedication, discipline, passion, innovation, education, drive, mind, body, spirit, vision, honor, truth, and drums make the man: Kenny Aronoff,” Peart wrote.

(by D.S. Monahan)

Published On: October 26, 2015