When it comes to blending a rock solid sense of groove and some of the heaviest hitting the rock world has seen in recent decades, there aren’t many drummers who come close to Deftones drummer, Abe Cunningham.
Abe has been locking in with - and cutting through - a brick wall of low-tuned guitar (Stephen Carpenter), bass (late, founding bassist, Chi Cheng and current bassist Sergio Vega), keyboards and turntables (Frank Delgado) to lay the foundation for vocalist Chino Moreno for decades, all the while maintaining his unmistakable feel.
While Deftones may well have been lumped-in with the rap/rock of nu-metal, Abe’s playing has always powered the band in a much more intelligent way than simply recreating sampled hip-hop beats under distorted seven-strings.
A self-taught player, Abe’s incorporates a double pedal in his setup - which has largely consisted of Tama drums and Zildjian cymbals throughout his career - but not in the traditional metal sense, using it more to embellish his beats and fills rather than making it the basis of his parts and leaning more towards traditional rock and funk influences, telling us in 2016, “I love metal, but I’m not really a metal drummer. I don’t really possess the skills to do a lot of [that stuff]”.
Not that it shows, with Abe’s self-developed style, distinct drum sounds and inventive parts coming together to create the backbone of Deftones and their hugely influential sound. For the unfamiliar, here are five tracks that give you a taste of Mr C’s playing, and we’ve only just scratched the surface.
If you want a perfect cross section of Abe Cunningham’s style, Digital Bath from 2000’s White Pony is it. Not only did the album deliver one of the all-time great heavy drum sounds (in particular that snare drum which is sampled and available for us to play in Steven Slate's sample pack with Deftones producer, Terry Date), but the now-iconic intro and verse groove sees Abe pounding out a thick, sleepy linear beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a funk record.
The ghosted snare blends seamlessly with the hi-hats, while the crack of the backbeat is enough to slice your eardrums. Finally, Abe turns it round with a tom and double splash fill that would make Copeland blush. It’s essential to the Cunningham canon, and an excellent toe-dipper into the world of linear drum beats.
My Own Summer (Shove It)
You know you’re doing something right when you’re able to send an entire festival into meltdown by introducing a song with a simple fill between your rack tom and snare.
My Own Summer might be from Deftones’ second album, Around The Fur, but it was the band’s greeting to the wider world back in 1997. With a bone-dry drum sound featuring a popping snare and one of the purest-sounding 10” toms we’ve ever heard, the minimal main beat actually requires a lot of restraint and confident placement to make the groove fully match up.
It’s kick and snare-heavy, while the squashy nature of the overall sound really makes the hi-hats ping, almost like Abe is playing them on the bell. The choruses demonstrate Abe’s ability to place his fills without letting the groove get lost, weaving around the backbeat and vocals. Guitarists love it for the riff, but there’s just as much for us to get stuck into.
Debut album, Adrenaline (the first of five LPs the band would release on Madonna’s Maverick label) laid the foundation for Abe’s sound - he’s barely strayed from the cranked snare sound ever since. But 7 Words shows a different side to Abe’s playing.
The first verse starts with a snare-based, marching-style pattern accenting the rhythm guitar part underneath Chino Moreno’s spoken-word vocal. Second time around Abe moves it to a more traditional kick/snare/hat orchestration, and finally keeps the theme going on the hi-hats, each time exploding with flams into the kick-driven chorus.
The comparatively sludgy halftime breakdown, meanwhile, sees him slow things down while interspersing some frenetic fills. It’s a simple but effective way of keeping things interesting, rather than opting (as many might) to just play variations on the same groove for each verse.
Listen to that snare drum! Swerve City from Koi No Yokan is a masterclass in Cunningham’s restraint, once again proving that chops aren’t everything in heavy genres. Indeed, he barely deviates from playing the groove with most of the fills played as cymbal accents and only a few of his trademark 32nd-note bass drums thrown in for good measure. It’s short at 2:45, and simple, but achieves exactly what is required.
In all honesty, we could have chosen five songs from White Pony to fill this list. Upon its release, the more ambient style album confused fans who expected more of the accessible detuned heaviness of Adrenaline and Around The Fur, but it quickly became a modern classic.
Passenger features a guest vocal from Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan (and many others in live performances) during the choruses, but it’s Abe’s playing that keeps us coming back. The syncopated bass drum/hi-hat part of the verse and chorus keeps the slow tempo from dragging too much.
He then resolves the busyness with a sparse and straightforward ride pattern before hammering out some huge fills back into the choruses. Passenger is another great example of Abe’s ability to make ‘slow’ sound powerful and full of confidence. Learn it, and you’ll have a lot of fun while giving your bass drum foot a good workout too.