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Neil Peart on Drum Solos
Words: Neil Peart
Photos: Joby Sessions
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In the first of a two part feature on his approach to soloing, Rush's Neil Peart breaks down one
of his Clockwork Angels solos and explains why it's 'all about the drumset'
When I wrote to a friend that I was
working on a story about my drum
solos on the Clockwork Angels Tour
DVD, and about drum solos in general,
his comment was to send me an Alice
Through The Looking Glass illustration
(see over the page). Too perfect!
I fear that is how all drum solos sound to many
people, and that's too bad. However, I believe most
humans can be stirred to their cores by rhythmic
drum patterns - it is surely the oldest music. If a
drummer can combine that primal instinct with
structure, conversation, invention, and a touch of
theatre, the audience will be reached, even moved.
Since my first-ever performance on the drums at
a high school variety show in 1967, I have played
drum solos in every band I was part of. My solos
have evolved as I have — even fed that evolution, as
the experiments and technical exercises of soloing
increased my drumming ability in every application.
So... I hope we can agree that drum solos can be
good for the drummer, good for the audience, and
good for other musicians. (Break time!)
Right from the rehearsals for the Clockwork
Angels tour, in the summer of 2011, I was excited to
find myself with three completely different 'frames'
in which to solo - opportunities to explore separate
interpretations of what drum solos can be. It was
also a healthy change from previous tours, in which
I always performed one 'extravaganza'. For the past
17 years the band played two long sets with an
intermission, and my solo was always in the middle
of the second set. This would shake up that habit
The first 'seed' of these changes came about when
we were mixing the Clockwork Angels album. Here's
how I described it for DW's Edge magazine:
In the recent past I had always performed a long
solo, around nine minutes, somewhere in the middle
of the second set. But... during the mixing of
Clockwork Angels, our co-producer, Nick Raskulinecz,
an irrepressible 'enabler,' insisted that I had to do my
solo out of the drum break in 'Headlong Flight'. It
happened that that song would appear around the
middle of the second set, but - ¡Jesu Christo! -
'Headlong Flight' is a fast-paced seven-minute song,
in the middle of a fast-paced hour-long performance
of the Clockwork Angels songs, with another 30 or
40 minutes still to go. Plus coming out of that drum
break I will still need to drive through a long guitar
solo, another verse, bridge, and a double chorus, all
at a fast tempo.
To say the least, it was daunting. But... once
again I applied some 'polyrhythmic thinking'.
What if I did two shorter solos, one in each set?
Ooh, yes - that had possibilities. Eventually that
notion evolved into three 'excursions'. The first was a
more traditional solo in the first set, in the middle of
an instrumental called, 'Where's My Thing?' (Thus the
solo is smilingly titled, 'Here It Is!')
In the middle of the second set, I would take an
extended drum break in 'Headlong Flight', for which I
incorporated samples of the bass and guitar parts
- wanting to create a version of one of my most
admired soloing approaches, as exemplified by Steve
Smith or Dave Weckl, for example. I speak of 'soloing
over the changes', where the solo holds the tempo
and structure, while the band joins in on specific hits
or phrases. I have not yet convinced my bandmates
to help me create that exact 'set-up', but this is a fun
approximation. One superior element is that because
I trigger the 'accompaniment', I can improvise freely
against a set of changes that is random, rather
Finally, late in the second set I would perform
a stand-alone piece on the electronic drums,
combining more melodic synthesized sounds
from a Roland V-Drum patch called 'Melodious',
and another array of sampled sounds selected
by me and the band's longtime programmer, Jim
Burgess, which was more 'cinematic' in concept.
(We called that set-up 'Steambanger'.)
Here is a more detailed look at each of those
solos, beginning with comments by Rhythm's
'WHERE'S MY THING?'
'HERE IT IS!'
Very much a powerhouse drumset solo in
the more traditional sense (band leaves the
stage in 1960s/'70s style - and need a
strong cue to come back in), but with the
electronics, effects, and triggering adding a
sonic and dramatic boost, perfect for
stadium-sized shows. So this is the drum
solo expanded by electronics, while never
losing sight of the fact you obviously love
playing the acoustic drumset (perhaps still
first and foremost?).
Yes, everything is all about the drumset for
me, in several ways. The 'line on the riser' was drawn
clearly for me in the '80s, when I first started
experimenting with electronics. I realised right away
that they would have to be 'satellites' around the
main kit, and would never replace a single one of my
acoustic drums or cymbals, just augment them.
(That is what led me to the rear kit, and the
rotating riser, around 1984.)
This solo absolutely focuses on the voices and
traditions of acoustic drums. The electronic effects
only add atmosphere, or unusual sound textures.
And, even those are all still played by me, on a
V-drum or Dauz pad, the MalletKat, or Kat foot
trigger. Every sound you hear originates with a stick
or a pedal, randomly triggered at will.
Over the past few years, improvisation has been a
major aspiration for me, both in creating drum parts
for songs, and in soloing. In that spirit, this solo was
approached without any plan other than the above theme: traditional solo with 'extras'. I would simply
launch into it from the song, and let the dynamics
rise or fall into whatever 'frame' next occurred to me.
I don't think I even consented to attempt it until the
final few rehearsals, determined to keep it as fresh
as possible. I just demonstrated the cue to come
back in to Alex and Geddy, and the rest would be...
(Lighting director Howard was disconcerted by
that - accustomed to my usual 'composed' solos,
where he could program fixed cues for lighting
changes. But if I could wing it, I figured he could!)
Right away I loved building out of the triplet-feel
snare fill in the instrumental (thank you Terry Bozzio,
who in turn thanks Tony Williams!). I sometimes held
that jagged, tension-building pattern as long as
mind, hands, and feet could keep it together. Riffing
out from there, that fill dictates the initial feel and
tempo, and after that, I just let myself go.
That felt dangerous at first, all right, but that's
what I wanted. ('Danger is my middle name' - well,
actually Ellwood is, but never mind about that!) I
wouldn't have attempted that even five years ago,
but I hoped experience would be my guide. Not just
experience in playing solos, it is important to relate,
but experience in listening to them.
It didn't hurt that my first inspiration to play
drums was the movie The Gene Krupa Story, in
which the man himself performed so wonderfully,
and was even pretty well 'lip-synced' by actor Sal
Mineo. In retrospect, I could hardly have chosen a
better starting point.
I count myself lucky to have learned to play in the
mid-'60s, and - of all places - in Southern Ontario. It
is true that compared to now, it was hard to 'see' live
music (rare on television, and no instructional DVDs,
websites, or apps). However, on the plus side, there
were so many bands around in that time and place,
and they were remarkably 'musicianly'. (Seems the
only word.) Pretty well every drummer performed a
solo, and I noticed some things. There were
drummers I liked a lot when they played with their
bands, but not on their own. They would have the
technique, all right, but, I realise now, no sense of
phrasing, structure, dynamics, tension and release,
or telling a story. All I knew at the time was that while
I admired their drumming, I didn't enjoy their solos.
Other soloists of the time were brilliant and
inspirational. Two unforgettable Canadian examples
were Skip Prokop with Lighthouse, and Jerry Mercer
with Mashmakhan. Skip was a brilliant technician - a
champion rudimental drummer, I recall - and
delivered a superbly musical solo, while Jerry's live
solo in 'Letter From Zambia' had all the primal power
and drama the title suggests, and seemed to tell a
story. Decades later, their influence remains in
my ideal of what a solo ought to be.
My only other exposure to real rock music (as
opposed to radio pop) in that primitive time was
records, and Ginger Baker certainly opened the
floodgates with 'Toad' - the vehicle for my own
first solos. Other worthy recorded solos from
rock drummers of the time were Carmine Appice
with Vanilla Fudge, Peter Rivera with Rare Earth,
and Michael Shrieve with Santana. (Woodstock,
Then there was The Tonight Show and Buddy
Rich's many appearances. Well... I freely confess
that back then I couldn't even understand what
Buddy was doing - it was way over my head. But
I certainly felt something like Louie Bellson once
said, 'There are all the great drummers in the
world — and then there's Buddy.' I did not ever
expect to attain that level of mastery. Still don't...
It occurs to me that the movements of the
'Here It Is!' solo actually came to represent
something of a drumming autobiography. I don't
think it's too much of a stretch to say that drum
soloing, at its best, is a kind of storytelling.
I learned that very vividly at one point in my
life, as recounted in my book Ghost Rider. After a
long, difficult period in which I hadn't played the
drums at all for about two years, I arranged to
have a quiet, private place where I would be able
just to sit down and play. (Not to see if I could -
to see if I wanted to.) As I got going, just riffing in
what I thought was an aimless fashion, I realised I
was telling my story. Thinking back over the patterns
and moods I had wandered through, I thought, 'This
is that part, and that was that part,' and so on. It was
a remarkable insight, and helped me become
'reinspired' on the instrument.
In analyzing my solo from the R-30 Tour (2004)
for the instructional DVD Taking Center Stage, I
discovered that it actually had a chronology to its
story - roughly the history of drumming from Africa
and Europe, and where they combined into
American music. Even the big-band finale seemed a
fitting conclusion to that 'history'. I had not planned
that structure for the story, but something was going
on subconsciously, I have to believe.
In the 'Here It Is!' solo, the 'chapters' have
their own stories to tell. Right off the top, I have
loved the opening motif of freestyle snare work
over driving bass drum since I was a kid, and it still
'works' for me.
And here's a profound axiom I will offer for free:
'In drum soloing, what is exciting to play has a good
chance of being exciting to listen to.'
That is a deep observation. In more recent
drumming explorations, the ostinatos are a big part
of my storytelling technique. Max Roach's 'The Drum
Also Waltzes' has served me for practice and
improvisational soloing for about 20 years, while the
Brazilian xaxado ("shashadoe") rhythm is a more
recent fascination - only attempted in the past two
or three years. It took a long time to get 'free' over
the waltz time, but now I can flail around at will, in
any tempo or time signature. I'm not there yet with
the xaxado, but am happily working on it.
ALL ABOUT THE DRUMSET
Here is another way in which it's 'all about the
drumset' for me. In the late '70s and into the '80s,
whenever I dabbled with keyboard percussion or -
in the '90s - hand drums, and thought of getting
serious, I would reach an automatic turning point.
Realising the dedication it would take to try to
master those instruments, I would 'retreat' to the
drumset. Because musically, that mix of four-limbed
expressions already represents a lifetime of study,
and of rewards. Glad to say that after 48 years of
devotion to the drumset, it remains completely
fulfilling - challenging and exciting - for me.
For example, when our year-long Clockwork
Angels Tour ended recently, I was happy to lay aside
the sticks for a while. For the past 10 years or so, my
bandmates and I have been on a near-constant cycle
of touring and recording, and during that time, I
never thought about having drums at home. (It is
especially complicated living in Southern California,
where basements are rare, so you have to get very
elaborate not to be 'anti-social'.) Whenever I needed
to rehearse for a tour, the Drum Channel studio was
only an hour up the Pacific Coast Highway.
Sometimes, on a longer break, I even went there just
to play for the fun of it. Not rehearsing, performing,
or recording, just freeing my mind and body to
express whatever emerged.
This October, barely two months into my self-
styled 'sabbatical' from drumming and lyric-writing,
my friends at Drum Workshop invited me up to the
factory to try out some new shells, and I jumped at it.
Once again, an opportunity just to play.
(During the hour's drive up there, I also laughed at
myself for having a lyrical idea. 'You're not supposed
to be doing that yet!')
Returning to the 'Here It Is!' solo, the 'floating'
snare section of delicate rudiments is also a longtime
personal favourite. (It occurs to me that it is played
not to a tempo, but to a pulse.) Then, laying down a
rapid single-stroke on the snare, I bring up the bass
drum and hi-hat for the Brazilian xaxado ostinato.
Again, the delivery of that section changes radically
from night to night, often introducing new figures
worked out on my warm-up kit before the show.
Sometimes that would resolve into jagged,
staccato phrases, with double-pedal triplets and
odd syncopations. Other times I would resolve with
another device going back to my earliest solos, the
double-hand crossover between the snare and floor
tom. (Inspired by my first teacher, Don George, who
once told me that those and four-way independence
would be my hardest challenges. He wasn't wrong.)
Like the previous passages, those are never easy,
and each of those sections could vary greatly from
night to night - depending on my oh-so-human
peaks and valleys, mentally and physically. As
Somerset Maugham said, "Only a mediocre man is
always at his best."
Best of all is when the phrases flow out - never
effortlessly, but when my labour is repaid by my own
excitement about what I am 'getting at'.
I repeat, 'In soloing, what is exciting to play has a
good chance of being exciting to listen to.'
Next month: Neil breaks down another Clockwork
Angels solo and considers the drum solo's future.
Click HERE for Part Two of this feature
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