Chris McHugh: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Chris McHugh Interview

Photograph by Tyler Lord ©  – courtesy of Chris McHugh.

Those who have tuned into modern county radio at any point throughout the past 20 years are almost undoubtedly familiar with the driving, propulsive drumming of Chris McHugh. With an indelible groove and timing as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, McHugh has established a reputation as one of the top session musicians in Nashville over the course of his decades-long career.

In addition to his work with superstars such as Peter Frampton, Garth Brooks, and Blake Shelton, McHugh has contributed substantially to some of the most well-known material from artists including Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood, and Keith Urban, the latter for whom he served as musical director for a number of years.

Taking time away from his busy session schedule, McHugh dialed in from Nashville with ClassicRockHistory.com to discuss his musical beginnings, some of his greatest influences, the nature of creativity, and much more.

When did you get started on drums?

“I was around 7 or 8 when I started, then I played all through middle school and in high school. I would say I’ve played professionally since I was 19.”

Did you start out with any sort of lessons, or did you just pick it up and go about putting the technique together on your own?

“I have an older brother, Danny who is five years older than I am, and he took up drums first. We would play on boxes set up on the sofa like a drum set, and I just sort of copied him. What was great about public school at the time is that you had a choice between band and choir. Of course, I chose band, and I got some basic instruction at that time on how to read music. I wouldn’t say that I’m a schooled musician though. I’ve had some training off and on, but nothing consistent, and I didn’t go to college for music or anything. I actually quit school in the early part of the 11th grade and got my GED. I don’t have any formal training. I learned everything by asking questions to those that knew, and then through trial and error.”

A pretty common aspect of early musical development seems to be the incorporation of existing ideas into one’s own playing and putting new spins on those things, with the resulting composite acting as a stylistic foundation of sorts. One example in drumming would be the Levon Helm technique of pulling off of the hi-hat on the backbeat, which would subsequently be picked up by Jim Keltner, and then Charlie Watts with whom the technique would become prominently associated. Are there any of those sorts of little tricks that you’ve pulled from players you admire over the years that have stuck with your playing?

“Oh man, absolutely. One that specifically comes to mind right away is a technique I was first made aware of by [Toto drummer] Jeff Porcaro, for when you’re playing a side-stick – where you’re not hitting the head of the drum but you’re hitting the rim with a cross-stick sound – which can be heard on something like “Use Me” by Bill Withers. There’s a technique in which you use the hand that is usually palmed down on the [snare drum] head while you’re holding the stick to make the cross-stick motion. You then use the fingers of your hand to play subdivisions.

There was also John Bonham’s ability to get multiple strokes out of the bass drum pedal, as well as the initial choice for any drummer of whether you’re going to use a traditional grip – which is the way that guys like Levon Helm and Charlie Watts played – or a matched grip the way Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, and John Bonham played. The guys that I emulated all played matched grip, which is what I chose to play. Stewart Copeland plays traditional while Dave Grohl plays matched, for example. It’s the choice of whether you’re going to hold the stick in your left hand in the traditional manner, which kind of looks like a chopstick, or with both hands holding the sticks the same way.

For the most part in rock & roll – which is really what I loved as a kid, and still do – most of the drummers play matched grip. Traditional grip changes the tonality of the drum in a way, and of course it’s mostly viewed as being what players use in jazz. But man, there’s a lot of jazz players who played matched, as well as guys who switch on and off depending upon what they were doing.”

The concept of using one’s fingers to play snare subdivisions to augment what the wrists are doing is pretty incredible in that you can create your own counterpoint in real time. It’s something I’d never even considered!

Yeah, man! And nowadays, especially with digital audio, you can split a snare signal out and treat each dynamic individually. You can get almost a light 808 dynamic from the tapping of the snare head, and the side-stick will act as the heavier dynamic. But what’s funny is it’s a very old school thing. Guys have been doing it forever. James Gadson [drummer for Bill Withers,] who I was talking about earlier, he did it. I came across it with [Toto drummer] Jeff Porcaro, as well as Bernard Purdie.

What’s great about Gadson and Bernard is that you can find videos of them doing that. Any clip you see of Bernard where he goes to side-stick, he does it. He was probably out at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants showcase) just this past weekend. So, it’s an old thing. Its origin might even be in New Orleans, but I don’t necessarily know that for sure. But like you said, it goes into, ‘how can I, as a single drummer playing in a band, create a sound as though there were percussion playing along with me?’”

Bernard Purdie is truly a master of the craft. He’ll just look you straight in the eyes and play the coolest thing you’ve ever heard, and it’s like, ‘how does one even begin to play that way?’

“Oh yeah, everything just feels great and so greasy. You know, he’s a phenomenon. Because he’s the creator of a lot of that language, too. Of course, some of that he picked up too. Just as you said, with any musician, you’re mostly the combination of all of your influences. It’s about the spin that happens when you do it, because no two players do it exactly alike. So even if you’re copying somebody, it’s different, because we’re all human. I found that Bernard carried those things into the modern realm. Obviously, you would say that the height of him in the recorded sense is probably [Steely Dan’s] “Babylon Sisters” where he’s playing his halftime shuffle. It’s just great. He is to that as Steve Gadd is to the “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” groove.

What’s interesting about Steve is you can really tell the influence comes from a place more based in actual technique; paradiddles and things that he learned in marching and playing in the military band. That’s what’s really cool about the “50 Ways” thing is it’s really based off of that. So, it comes kind of specifically from the influence of him taking these paradiddles and paradiddles and saying, ‘well, how can I transfer these into the the modern drum set?’” Again, just as you said earlier, you’re just pulling from all of your influences, and it’s something that you actually do practice. It’s well executed, and it has a plan to it, if you will, as opposed to just stumbling onto something.”

In music especially, it seems almost as if nothing is truly original. You’ll often hear of guitarists believing they’ve stumbled upon something brand new only to find that Robert Johnson had already done it 90 years prior. But in many ways, that’s what’s so neat about the art form.

“Totally, yeah. That’s where you get into the importance of the tone that you’re able to get out of your instrument, as that is really what draws people to what you’re doing. Because it really all has kind of been done before. So, it’s your individual talent and the way that you’re able to emote to the music in the moment that makes you who you are, right? You often wonder, ‘is this something that only the music fan understands? Does the general population get that too? Does everyone understand the brilliance of Miles Davis?’ But I’m sure that even the general population is moved by it, because that’s how one becomes world renowned, I would imagine. No one really knows, right? You could look at Mick Jagger and go, ‘well sure, everybody knows who he is,’ because man, that guy is an incredible front man.’ He’s not necessarily the greatest singer, but he projects a certain amount of energy.

This is what’s been brought up to me a few different times, as to why someone who may not be technically the best singer is popular. Because when you put a Rolling Stones record on you could sing along, then go ‘hey, I almost sound as good as that guy.’ But I don’t know if there’s actually something to that. We really all know who Mick is also because of something in the tone of his voice. But the biggest tell and what cements that kind of status is when you see somebody live and go, ‘oh man, holy smokes. That guy’s the real deal. He is really performing and putting on a show.

Of course, he took elements of Tina Turner and Little Richard, but also mainly James Brown. But it was the energy and the delivery of what was going on; he was a great communicator. That’s really the thing about Mick Jagger. But my point to all of that is that if he was just up there copying James Brown, people would be like, ‘well, that’s just a copy of James Brown.’ Due to the fallibility of being a human being and him being a white guy from England, you’re like, ‘oh man, whatever’s going on there, that’s actually really cool.’ Geddy Lee has a great quote about how your own personal style comes from you emulating the 10 or 15 guys or gals that you love the most. You play any given song it’s like, ‘okay, on this first part I’m really copying so and so, and this is me trying to do my best Ringo in the chorus.’ But because it’s you, it turns out to be something else.”

It’s not dissimilar to how The Beatles themselves created what they created by trying to emulate Elvis, Little Richard, and those types of guys.

“Yeah, which is how everyone kind of comes upon their thing. Like that [Beatles] song “Oh! Darling,” that’s just McCartney trying to sing like Fats Domino. As far as drums, I think it’s Earl Palmer who played on the early Fats Domino and Little Richard recordings. These grooves that we play all the time in modern music didn’t exist before those guys were doing it. That’s what’s so absolutely amazing. I’ve read a couple of interviews with Earl, and he was saying that they had, of course, the New Orleans stuff, along with plenty of jazz and second line stuff. But, in terms of rock & roll, it was all new territory.

It was him just reacting to the way that Fats Domino and Little Richard were playing the piano and the dynamics of what was going on with their left hand. Then of course you had the backbeat on the right hand of where the count changes were falling and the pulsating rhythm. That was all going on inside of those guys’ piano parts, and that’s really where the groove is. Now, we take all that for granted. You just assume when you hear those parts that that’s exactly what you would play, but there was a time when that language didn’t even exist at all.

Much in the same way someone today can hear The Beatles, Elvis, or Little Richard, or even Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin and perceive it as maybe being basic or minimal in execution. Because a lot of what came after would attempt to expand upon those forms. But that was only possible because these were the points of reference by which everything that would come after was informed. This stuff was life changing at the time of its release.

“Dude, totally, it really was. Going back to my comment about the perception of your influences – that’s really the mystery and the thing that makes it really cool. Because obviously, with the music of Robert Johnson, there are no drums or anything on that. Then you take a band like Led Zeppelin who, in some cases took what he did note for note and put a rhythm section to it. But the actual energy exists on those Robert Johnson records. You can hear that stuff and go, ‘oh man, this was just custom made to have a rhythm section like John Bonham and John Paul Jones playing along with it.’ So, it makes sense, right? It doesn’t take a scientist to hear the natural progression. Had there been Les Pauls and Marshalls in the 1930s, Robert Johnson probably would have been playing through them. It’s in there, and that’s what’s really cool, that the intent is the same.

What’s beautiful about music is that you’ve got guys in the Delta and in a San Antonio hotel room where some of those Robert Johnson recordings took place. Then all the way across the world, all those decades later, the impact and the shared experience of how those songs hit your soul and the performance of them, these four guys in their 20s hear that and say, ‘yeah man, I totally get it.’ They’re white, they grew up in England, and they’re sharing the same human experience as a guy who lived most of his life in poverty.

I think that’s an important aspect. Because in the context of historical perception, it’s hard not to view these pioneering figures almost as deities for their foundational contributions to music as we know it today. But at the time these musicians were creating this invaluable work, they weren’t widely known. Many of them were young, destitute, and struggling with various issues. A lot of these artists wouldn’t see any proper recognition until much later.

“Right, they were going around playing juke joints. But that’s why there has to be something more, right? There has to be a meeting at the crossroads. The thing is, it happened more than once, it wasn’t just Robert Johnson. It was these other guys too, and a lot of it was local. For it to now have worldwide significance is truly incredible. But that’s what’s great about the blues, it’s this shared human experience of how life can be. It’s why the genre can continue because it’s each individual person’s take on what that is, from Led Zeppelin to Stevie Ray Vaughan; you know, a lot of what John Mayer does is based in blues.

He’s really well-rounded, and you know, there’s very likely more to come. Of course, it’s always a troubling thing when someone has gained success in pop because generally, your shelf life is pretty low. It’s rare that someone who has a pop hit today is going to wind up having a 30-year career. Whatever the risk might be, there must have been some amount of risk to for him to go, ‘well, I’m going to play guitar with the Dead now.’ for sure. It’s all about perception.”

Absolutely. Just as many might have a perception of you based on your having played on innumerable successful records in the country genre. Some might be surprised to learn that you’ve amassed such a wealth of knowledge on the history of blues and rock & roll.

“I moved to Nashville from New Jersey. I grew up in Oakland in a little borough in Kenton County, pretty close to Camden and right across the Delaware River from Philly. I didn’t really know anything about country music, and certain things you just have to learn. But ever since I was a kid, I’ve just been a huge fan of music too, no matter the genre. But as a kid growing up, I primarily listened to The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. I love prog music too. I’m a huge Yes fan and a Genesis fan. I kind of loved everything and I still do. I’m not necessarily drawn to a particular genre at all.”

One thing that’s always stuck out in your playing is how deep the pocket is and just how reliable the tempo seems to be: never rushing, never dragging. Is that sort of time management something you worked specifically to develop, or did it just come about naturally?

“Well, I think there’s a bit of it that comes naturally, but I think it’s also something you work on. My older brother, Larry who passed away a couple of years ago, he was in bands. He was 14 years older than me, and when I started playing drums and I got to the point of seriously considering it as a career path he was like, ‘this is what it takes. You’ve got to be dead on with the click, and that’s how you get to play on records. Not only that, but it’s also the consistency in your velocity.’ So, when I was about 14, it was the first time I ever went into a studio. At that time, everything was analog recording. It was a session for some friends, and it was not high pressure, but I took it very seriously.

What was nice about it was that the owner of the studio, which was called Veritable Recording in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, he’s the one who showed me. He said, ‘okay, let’s look at your snare drum on the meter bridge. You see where your velocity is hitting here? You need to make that the same all the time.’ It was that, along with my brother’s awareness of, ‘he’s got to start playing to a click;’ All of that was happening at the same time when I was about 14 or so. So, I was already aware of the difference between just a drummer and a session drummer.

I do think you’re born with a certain sense of being able to hear it. You have to hear your own playing and recognize where your weaknesses might be. Then I think once you get past that, it is something you can improve upon. It’s a little easier now because it’s so much easier to record yourself, and it’s moderately affordable. Most everyone has access to GarageBand, so you can record yourself playing to a click and hear, ‘oh man, I’m really off. I need to work on that,’ or you can notice that while playing quicker tempos maybe you rush or drag. You’re able to notice that. For someone like me with the experiences I’ve had, it was much more high pressure. But some of that is good, you know. You either sink or swim in that. But I do like when young players are asking me, ‘how can I improve this?’

It’s so great now because almost everybody has access to GarageBand or something like that on their or computer, and there’s a microphone built in and all of that. It’s a craft, you know, like anything. Because there are times when a producer or artist is looking for something that ebbs and flows a little bit more. Like if they want it to feel more like those records by The Band or the Stones where it isn’t as confined. They’re not wanting that level of consistency, they want it to move around a little bit, but as a band – and that’s an art form too. There’s a lot of those records that were made in the 60s and 70s where they weren’t under the microscope so much, they were more maybe in the singer/songwriter kind of genre. It’s a little gritty, a little off sometimes, but that’s good. It still has to feel good regardless of what you’re doing, but there’s a little more liberty being taken in the actual tempo. It’s not like you’re actually recording to a click.

A good example of what I’m talking about would be Nigel Olsson on a song like “Rocket Man.” You can hear that there’s tension in those pre-choruses leading into the chorus, and once it gets to those places it sits at that tempo in that pocket. He’s not rushing or dragging or anything, but those records wouldn’t be the same if they were cut to a click and they were the same tempo from top to bottom. They have that type of loose thing. It’s like Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner, Porcaro was an absolute master of that too. Jeff never liked playing to click. None of the Toto stuff, to my knowledge, was ever cut to a click. He didn’t like it. Like “Rosanna,” that’s not cut to a click track, that’s just Jeff.

He’s the click and he’s solely reliable, and everybody you’re making the music with at that moment has to be entrusted with that. It’s all about the singer, too. Specifically in the case of someone like Elton John. Elton’s pocket and timing are great, and those recordings are very minimal. They’re basically just bass, drums, guitar, and Elton John on piano. Of course, there are overdubs and stuff, but you can see what a tight unit they were because of how minimal they were. James Taylor is another good example too; those songs have a motion. The click thing really took prominence, I would say, in the disco era.

But to kind of wrap the whole question up, I do think that you’re born with a sense of time, and I’ve always heard groove inside of time. You know what I mean? Those aren’t separate to me. But there are some guys that just don’t see any value with playing with click, it’s all human for them. I’m actually a really huge fan of trying to play as humanly possible, as tight as possible, and leaving it at that. I think the pursuit of that is great, and those are the records that I really love. What’s funny is, like with Phil Rudd in AC/DC, those records weren’t cut to a click. That’s just Phil’s internal pocket, but it’s pretty amazing. John Robinson is another great player in terms of tightness and technique.”

You’ve sang the praises of the Dave Weckl muffling system in helping to get a certain tonality without having to sacrifice attack. How much time and experimentation have you put in with regard to the inner acoustics of your shells and getting the sound you’re after?

“Tons, tons, tons of time. It never ends, but in a good way. I’m always looking for anything from a new sound color to improving what I’m already doing. It’s funny, man. You just pick up things. That’s one thing that’s great about the Internet – and there are a lot of negatives to the Internet. But when I was a kid, if you were lucky enough to find an interview with a session player where they were sharing some of these tips and stuff, that was amazing! Now you have access to all of it.”

The internet can now act as an almost infinite resource.

“Yes, a huge resource! Like with friends of mine who were drummers, we all love certain eras of recording. We would be trying to figure out what Jim Gordon was doing in the 70s and how he was tuning his drums. Now you can pull those pictures up and you can see what drum set Jeff Porcaro was playing on Steely Dan’s Katy Lied, you know? You have to do a little detective work and figure out what year you’re looking at, but that’s one of the reasons the exploration never ends, because the options are tremendous. Like, when I was a kid, you had your choices of drum heads: either clear or coated. Now there are all of these heads that have muffling built in and different plies. There are all of these different companies, while there really was only Remo and Evans when I was a kid. It never really ends, and I enjoy that part of it, I really do.

Specifically, my biggest passion is really on the recording side and exploring what you can do with drums to make it even more efficient. There are some things I’ve been using lately. There’s a product called the HHHusher, which is a sort of device that sits underneath your hi-hat cymbals and shields the snare drum microphone from picking up the hi-hat signal. It actually is able to cut it back by about 20 DB. I’ve been carrying that thing around with me for the last couple of years because it really does work. Then there are always the different shell options – what certain woods do and how they sound; maple versus birch; metal versus wood on snares; stuff like that. I’m always looking for new sounds.”

What are some of the things you’ve been working on recently?

“There’s a singer, Mackenzie Carpenter, who I’ve been playing with and that’s been really fun. She just put out her first EP, which is self-titled, this month. It’s country stuff and it’s really good. She’s great. I’ve also been recently working with a singer named Caroline Jones who’s in Zac Brown Band, and that’s been particularly fun. That stuff is really cool. She has one song out right now called “Lawless” which was released in March.”

Chris McHugh Performing With Keith Urban

Chris McHugh: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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