Neil Peart: Progressive Progress
Geddy Lee: Musings On A Groove
By Diane Gershuny
Few marriages have endured as long as Rush’s long-lasting partnership. Celebrating three decades together this year, Geddy Lee laughs when describing the musical chemistry that exists between he and Neil Peart. “It works simply because we’ve been playing together so long — and because we’re both interested in being hyperactive and slightly obnoxious!” But in all seriousness, he explains how the pair have developed a shorthand, an intuitive sense of the way the other plays and knowing how to compliment that.
Their rapport, however, has not been a predictable one by any stretch. “A number of years ago Neil reinvented his style after studying with Freddie Gruber, and he took a very groove-oriented attitude to a lot of what he was doing,” Lee remembers. “He was actually, in my view, playing a little softer even though he swears he was hitting harder and more accurately. That took some getting used to for me. At times, I loved that he could go into this circular groove that was a great addition to his ability to play groove-oriented stuff. But I kind of missed the old bombast — the fire in his old style of playing — where he would flip the sticks and smack the skins with the butt of the sticks.”
But as Peart’s style began to integrate a new set of influences, Lee’s bass approach began to shift as well. “As he got more groove-oriented, that came simultaneously to my interest in writing our songs in a more groove-oriented way. And that was a transformation that started several albums ago — around Counterparts  we stripped it back a bit. Although there was a different kind of groove starting to rear its head around Hold Your Fire [’87].
“We’d experimented on songs like “Scars” [Presto; ’89] and “Red Sector A” [Grace Under Pressure; ’84] to a certain degree, as well as on albums before that. Some of those songs were using electronics, electronic bass, to groove with the drums, whereas ’Animate’ was the culmination of Neil’s groove-oriented drumming and my more groove-oriented electric bass playing — together.
“I think he’s evolved to a place where he can combine all of that and is a much more complete drummer now. He’s got a light touch when he wants, he can groove when he wants, but he’s also not afraid to pull out the old rock vibe and whack those tom-toms in a flurry! He can use all that he’s learned from Freddie, and all the great strides he’s made in playing a groove without, as Freddy would put it, ’laying down on it.’ He’s a total rock drummer.”
Lee explains how Rush’s songwriting approach has also evolved over the years. “Originally, songs were written largely on bass and acoustic guitar, and we came full-circle to that on this one. Alex and I would put the songs together, then Neil would work on his drum parts, and then there would be the back and forth as the parts would evolve.
“But this recording was more spontaneous. Whenever a song didn’t feel dynamically like it was grooving, our producer would make us get away from the computerized performance-capturing and have it be more like three guys jamming. Just to have me playing live rather than playing to a part that I had maybe laid down to a click-track would suddenly elevate the whole rhythm section immensely. It would spark him and made a huge boost in the energy and spontaneous feel. I do think our evolution has been echoes of each other, and we definitely influence each other back and forth. I think it greatly benefited all the tracks on this album.”
A Study In Control
There are many great drummers in the world, yet few become legends in their own time. But with his precise technique, penchant for complexity, and monumental chops, Neil Peart long ago earned such a distinction. Admittedly, we aren’t the first to put his drumming under the microscope, and we certainly won’t be the last, but any feature story on Neil Peart is conspicuously incomplete without an analysis of his many contributions to the drumming vocabulary. So here are a handful of examples for you to savor, drawn from his back catalog, in addition to one selection from Rush’s newest release, Snakes & Arrows.
From Caress Of Steel
This track reveals Peart’s funky side and has a couple of impressive fills that are well worth checking out. The tune starts with a short fill that sets up the funky groove on the verses. About a minute into the tune Peart plays a cool fill that makes effective use of rests and his quick five-stroke rolls around the kit. A bit over the two-minute mark he offers another extended fill that, while very melodic, still manages to make good use of his quick singles. If these fills feel a little odd it could be the extra two beats that are tagged onto the end.
“Spirit Of Radio”
From Permanent Waves
This tune has one of those peculiar intros that has etched itself permanently into the psyches of drummers around the world. Peart plays this with a rubato feel against the strict guitar arpeggio, which imparts tension to the performance and makes its notation more challenging. The last couple of lines lead into the first verse and reveal one of Peart’s favorite ride cymbal patterns, which is played 1 & ah (2) e & with the snare played on count 2.