Backstage Secrets with Ken Owens:

Steve Smith: Technical Precision is Key to Mastery of Music and Art

When you hear the name Steve Smith, everyone instantly connects him to being the drummer for Journey.  However, that is just one facet to Steve’s long career as a legendary drummer.

Steve started taking drum lessons at age 9, and by his early teens, both he and his family knew music would be his career path.  His early music teachers drilled into him the importance of technique and technical precision for each beat of the drum.  His career started in the genres of Jazz and Blues; both requiring great musical skill and precision.

Interesting Note: During my interview and evening spent with Steve; he mentioned that musicians skilled in both Jazz and Blues are really the only ones who can sit together and make amazing music without ever having met or rehearsed.  Those two fields of music are much more fluid, with a soul based on technical mastery of each musician’s instrument.  Rock and other forms of music require many hours of rehearsals to produce a polished show.  The true heart and soul of music is only attained after one’s technical mastery.

So kids….practice, practice, practice – and listen to your music teachers while paying particular attention to form and technique!

In 1978, Steve joined Journey as their drummer; he has come and gone on 3 different occasions (1978-1985, 1995-1998, 2015-Present).  Even though Journey has had 7 different drummers to date since they formed in 1973, Steve Smith is the one most associated with the band.  He told me it is because the group’s biggest hits were during those time periods when he was with the band.  That fact is true, but I also think it has something to do with his heart and soul as a drummer – that special ‘spark’ he lends to the group; or in the words from the Austin Powers movies…it’s his mojo!

Steve left Journey in 1998 to get back to his roots of Jazz and Blues.  However, he found his technique had been shot to hell from the years of banging rock music on the drums.  He searched for a new teacher who could bring him back to proper form and technique.  Steve was reminded during his lessons the importance of the movement which a drumstick makes in-between each beat on the drum.  The silence between each beat and the flow of a stick during this silent moment is just as important as when the stick hits the surface of a drum.

Good Tip: No matter how big of a success you may be or think you are; a true professional will always be humble to search out additional education!

While practicing his technique alone in front of a mirror, Steve started playing around on a pair of drumsticks with different colored lights in the tip.  As the room would become dark when night fell, Steve noticed an interesting pattern which the lights made as he watched in the mirror.  He saw different effects made by the lights as he changed the rhythm and tempo of the varying drum movements.  Those dark nights alone, in front of a mirror with lighted-tip drumsticks launched the inspiration for his new artwork; a project which captures those drumstick patterns on canvas using long exposure cameras. 

Steve Smith’s Drum Art is called The Fabric of Rhythm and can be seen at his website  Steve captures this rhythm of music through his drumsticks in a rather stunning way.  When you look at the whole collection, you can see both Jazz and Rock influences, and those differences are truly visual.  This visual form of his music would not have been born without his devotion to practicing correct technique; which is a good lesson for everyone.  No matter what you do – mastery in any field comes from true dedication and practice of your craft.

Earlier this year, Steve along with the other members of Journey, were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  For many years, Steve has been known as one of the top drummers of ALL time.  Modern Drummer Magazine has voted Steve Smith the #1 drummer five years in a row.  All of that notoriety would not have become a reality if it wasn’t for Steve’s dedication to the mastery of proper drumming techniques.  As well, his new highly successful artworks would not have happened, had it not been for his hours of practicing; and the fluke of trying out a pair of lighted drumsticks.  Check out Steve’s website which I previously mentioned and you can see how he has captured the phrase: Music is Art and Art is Music!