Drum solos, yuck, am I right? So boring. Even Keith Moon reportedly disliked them, though he played a few in his day. Can we argue with Moon’s polyrhythmic assaults? His aversion was a contrarian hot take: The Who peaked at the same time the rock drum solo did, thanks to a handful of celebrity drummers led by Moon and, of course, John Bonham, who broke up live versions of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” with 13-minute solo triplet jams.
These were times, claims Drum! magazine, “when every rock drummer worth his salt had to whip out an extended solo at a moment’s notice in order to be considered competitive.” Yet “by the mid-‘70s, rock drum solos had devolved into pointless, derivative displays of flashy chops and histrionic posing that had little in common with actual musicianship. Even worse, in concert the drum solo became little more than a noisy intermission that sent the audience running to the bathroom or bar. No wonder the art form suffered such an inauspicious death.”
No wonder so many people exhaled when punk came along and ripped out two-minute, two-chord songs that made drum solos look even more pretentiously indulgent. But the writers at Drum! aren’t rejecting the solo (a useful skill for drummers in many situations). In pointing out how the drum solo became “humiliated by its own excesses and reduced to a mere parody of itself,” they only aim to show how “creative drummers used their solos to test the limits of rock drumming.” In the right hands, and feet, the live rock drum solo is a musical experiment or a trance-inducing communal experience.
Moon makes Drum!’s list of mad scientist rock drum soloists, as do “two of the top rock drummers of the day, Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell.” These are three distinctive players, yet all part of the same classic cohort, and all inspired by jazz drummers like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams (destroying every other drum solo just above). Who else belongs in the fantasy Rock Drum Solo Hall of Fame? Who—that is—not in one of the great lumbering beasts of the British Invasion or backing Jimi Hendrix?
Rush’s Neil Peart (RIP) will be on the tip of many tongues, as will Terry Bozzio, Frank Zappa’s ridiculously talented drummer. Some might say the rococo antics of Peart and Bozzio sped the decline of the drum solo into parody. Some might prefer, say, the bashing of Clash drummer Topper Headon. But let us not forget that Headon started as a jazz drummer and could rip out a smart solo when he needed. (Below, Bozzio reimagines solo drum performance as a one-man drum orchestra.)
The phrase “drum solo” may have become synonymous with boring overplaying—at least to people raised on punk, hardcore, and other self-consciously minimalist forms. But great soloists remind us that rock drumming derived from jazz, where solos are syntactic structures, not bunches of excitedly busy adverbs unnecessarily crammed together. If you needed a refresher on great drum solos to remind you of how serious they can be, see some of the finest examples in the clips here, concluding with two legendary players, Phil Collins and Chester Thompson (another Zappa drummer), below.
These are two drummers among many who emerged in the early-to-mid-70s and who continued to elevate the drum solo after Moon and Bonham left the scene. Share your picks for the Drum Solo Hall of Fame in the comments.