A Look Back At The Heyday Of Rock Drum Solos

It’s undeniable. Humiliated by its own excesses and reduced to a mere parody of itself, the rock drum solo is as extinct as the brontosaurus in the 1990s. But it doesn’t seem so long ago 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.

In retrospect, that was part of the problem. 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.

But let’s not forget that there was a time when creative drummers used their solos to test the limits of rock drumming. Indeed, many of their ideas have lingered in the vocabulary, and can still be found in the grooves, licks, and fills of rock drummers in the ’90s.

It all started in 1958, with the unlikely single “Topsy II” by Cozy Cole, who is remembered by many as a big band drummer. His solo became a hit on pop radio, and was the third highest charting song of that year. It begins with a spooky Hammond organ melody over a descending chromatic chord progression. Then Cole breaks into the solo with an eighth-note ostinato on a single tom, reminiscent of Gene Krupa’s work in “Sing Sing Sing” with the Benny Goodman band, then opens up the pattern around his toms using subtle accents. After 32 bars, Cole explodes with sharp snare-drum triplet figures (see Ex. 1 below) – another Krupa staple – accented by occasional tom strokes for 28 bars before he brings in the band to trade fours with his kit. After swinging through the bridge and restating the melody, Cole lays syncopated breaks over horn stabs, leading the song to its frenzied climax.

DRUM! Notation Guide

rock drum solo

Ex. 1

While “Topsy II” is hardly the quintessential rock drum solo, it set the stage for the first golden age of rock soloing and its foremost star, Sandy Nelson, who released “Teen Beat” in 1959. Nelson’s solo on “Teen Beat” is oddly similar to Cole’s “Topsy” solo – relying heavily on eighth-note snare and tom ostinatos – and is even taken at almost exactly the same tempo. Truth be told, Nelson’s chops weren’t quite up to Cole’s standard, but somehow he more accurately captured the emerging rock and roll attitude, perhaps due to the single’s stark arrangement that teamed his booming drums with heavily reverberated electric guitar and bass.

rock drum solo

Ex. 2

Nelson perfected the sound with his dark 1961 solo “Let There Be Drums,” which again was based on a eighth-note tom ostinato (see Ex. 2). Only this time Nelson turned up the heat by injecting eighth-note triplets and rumbling tom and snare grooves into the equation. “Let There Be Drums” reached #7 in the U.S., soared to #2 in Britain, and hit #1 during an 18 week chart run in Australia, of all places. Nelson released a string of albums throughout the ’60s, but “Let There Be Drums” remains his crowning achievement.

rock drum solo

Ex. 3

As much as Nelson’s solos inspired new legions of young rockers to take up the drum set, the Surfaris’ “Wipeout” became the real acid test for aspiring drummers upon its release in 1963. The band’s drummer Ron Wilson tossed subtlety out the window for this track, hammering an unwavering sixteenth-note roll through the song’s many solo breaks (see Ex. 3). Frankly – considering Wilson’s primitive technique – it’s a little hard to admit that drummers took this track so darned seriously back then, but it did introduce a freshly unrestrained rock and roll spirit that broke the mold of Cole’s and Nelson’s more controlled soloing styles. However, for the sake of accuracy, “Wipe Out” wasn’t entirely original. In fact, it was lifted practically note-for-note from “Bongo Rock,” a mostly overlooked novelty bongo drum solo single released by drummer Preston Epps in 1959.

After 1963, the onslaught of rock drum solos dissipated for a couple years as the British invasion redefined the sound of rock music. The concise pop tunes of bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Dave Clark 5 left little room for extended drum solos, reducing the drummer’s role to a time-keeping element. But then along came the Who in 1965 with Keith Moon, who quickly established himself as the most manic rock drummer yet. During the closing bars of the band’s breakthrough single, the outrageous up-tempo shuffle “My Generation,” Moon flails eighth-note triplets around the kit at what was clearly an unprecedented volume in its day, while accenting the barrage with cymbal crashes on the downbeat of each measure (see Ex. 4).

rock drum solo

Ex. 4

But on the Who’s second album A Quick One (originally released in 1966 as Happy Jack) Moon pushed the envelope with his overtly silly solo on “Cobwebs And Strange,” one of the few compositions he wrote for the Who. After leading a rag-tag marching band through a downright silly verse and chorus, Moon trades four-bar breaks with Pete Townshend’s pneumatic rhythm guitar. On each ensuing trade-off, Moon and Townshend increase the tempo, daring the other to play faster and faster, until, predictably, the entire thing implodes. To date, “Cobwebs And Strange” is the most hilarious rock drum solo on record.

But the hilarity ended abruptly as the second – and perhaps greatest – era of rock drum soloing was ushered in with the psychedelic experimentation of the late ’60s. In quick succession, two of the top rock drummers of the day, Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell, redefined the rock drum solo as an extended improvisation that had roots in the work of jazz drummers like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams.

Among the most notable was Baker’s ferocious “Toad,” which first appeared on Cream’s 1967 debut album Fresh Cream, though the most celebrated version can be found on Wheels Of Fire, recorded live at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1968. Here Baker tackles a 14-minute extemporization that winds its way through countless thoughtful variations based on his revolutionary opening snare and double-bass patterns (see Ex. 5). It’s really worth listening back to this one. His playing is savage, yet melodic. His note placement is at once precise and loose as an open flam – sounding like an entire troupe of West African drummers. And on “Toad” Baker virtually spells out the building blocks of contemporary double-bass technique, including the now-hackneyed lightning fast sixteenth-note bass-drum ostinato.

rock drum solo

Ex. 5

“Toad” was by far the most musically complex rock drum solo to date. But while Baker approached a solo like a lumberjack felling a giant redwood, his contemporary, Mitch Mitchell, assumed a lighter touch and more free-form style with Jimi Hendrix. On “If 6 Was 9” from 1967 and the live “Voodoo Chile” from 1968, Mitchell solos over repeating guitar and bass lines, alternating between patterns that adhere to the tempo and others that soar beyond bar lines, oblivious to any metric obligations. In both cases, Mitchell was happily breaking rock soloing rules left and right, and pointing out to every drummer of the day that their possibilities for musical expression were limitless.

The cat had been let out of the bag. Now every rock drummer wanted to experience the type of freedom that Baker and Mitchell exemplified, and all but demanded the right to play long, involved solos both on stage and in the studio. Perhaps the most enduring of this period is 1968’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” the title cut of Iron Butterfly’s 1968 album that took up the entire second side of the vinyl record (which somehow seemed significant at the time). Ron Bushy’s drum solo has since borne the brunt of countless jokes, but, like “Wipeout,” became a touchstone for young drummers. And listening back, one must admit that it was a well-constructed, neatly executed solo based around an eighth-note bass drum ostinato, over which Bushy laid countless pseudo-African tom patterns using a call-and-response technique (see Ex. 6).

rock drum solo

Ex. 6

It was catchy and piqued the public’s curiosity, including none other than Ringo Starr, who lifted a few of Bushy’s ideas when the Beatles recorded “The End” for Abbey Road in 1969. On his one and only recorded drum solo with the Beatles, Starr sets up the very same “In-A-Gadda” eighth-note bass drum foundation and plays melodic snare and tom patterns over the top that are strikingly similar to Bushy’s, though not precisely the same – close enough, though, to thoroughly validate Bushy’s contribution.

One particular rock drum solo from the late ’60s influenced drummers both with its visual impact and technical expertise. When Michael Shrieve came on screen during the Woodstock movie, soloing on “Soul Sacrifice” with Santana, it sent a jolt of adrenaline down every drummer’s spine. Here was a young man, barely out of his teens, baring his soul before hundreds of thousands of onlookers. Though he looked scared – and who could blame him? – Shrieve made up for it with sheer intensity. After an initial display of sixteenth-notes around the kit, he increases the speed with blazing fast sixteenth-note triplets for one bar. After a few sparse phrases he again lets the sixteenth-note triplets rip, only this time for four consecutive bars. He follows that with a lick between his toms and bass, and then lets all hell break loose, thumping the bass drum, picking up the tempo, and letting his hands fly all over the place (see Ex. 7), before cuing the band to come back in.

rock drum solo

Ex. 7

Another notable solo from this period is Don Brewer’s muscular endurance test on “T.N.U.C.” from Grand Funk Railroad’s debut album On Time. By far, Brewer was the best musician in the band, and used this opportunity to stake his claim as a hot-shot technician. But while he proved his point, his solo also rambled and was short on nuance. However, “T.N.U.C.” did introduce the time-tested soloing trick in which the drummer speeds up and then slows down a repetitive triplet lick between the toms and bass drum (see Ex. 8). It’s impossible to say how many drummers have used this trick in their solos ever since. Thousands?

rock drum solo

Ex. 8

A powerhouse entered the rock drum soloing arena when John Bonham recorded “Moby Dick” in 1969 for Led Zeppelin 2. Now, in this writer’s humble opinion, Bonham’s most inventive licks are embedded in the many deep, heavy grooves that he tracked in his short lifetime, and soloing wasn’t exactly his finest medium. However, he did show creativity on “Moby Dick” by playing much of the solo with his hands, and for a few bars, he even sounds as if he is slapping conga drums.

But such gimmicks weren’t enough. Unlike Baker or Mitchell, Bonham’s and Brewer’s solos seemed to grasp at straws for new ideas, and boiled down to a series of flashy licks whose only real purpose was to glorify the drummer instead of make music. It was a signal that the rock drum solo was running out of steam, though there remained one ray of light glimmering at the end of the tunnel.

“Frankenstein” was released in 1972 and became one of the biggest hits for the Edgar Winter Group. And while he may not have had the most otherworldly chops on record, drummer Chuck Ruff deserves an honorable mention for constructing an intelligent solo that featured all the right elements: He introduced ideas, developed them efficiently without overstatement, and had the good sense to get the hell out of the way before risking redundancy. Within a matter of 12 bars, Ruff – accompanied by Winter on timbales – devises a musical framework that sensibly modulates the time signature from 4/4 to 6/8 and increases the tempo without sounding clumsy or self-conscious (see Ex. 9). It was a tight and smart solo.

rock drum solo

Ex. 9

But that really was about all, folks. Sure, Neil Peart dazzled with his technically flawless solos on live versions of Rush’s “YYZ” and “Working Man,” and Peter Criss inspired legions of prepubescent drummers to ram triplets on Kiss’ “100,000 Years.” But they were pinpoints of light in a sea of darkness. In truth, audiences had already grown bored with long drum solos by the late ’70s. And when punk and new wave took over in the early ’80s, drum solos disappeared entirely from the landscape, except at occasional heavy metal shows.

The problem is that rock soloists forgot how to play with soul and musicianship. Though Sandy Nelson could barely move his arms at half the speed that Peart could, and probably never performed in front of a tenth as many concert goers as Criss has, he created solos that were evocative and cinematic, which led the listener along a linear line of thought that had a beginning, middle, and ending. And when he was done, you felt satiated, as if you had polished off an elegant meal.

Rock drum soloing can come back. Hell, it should come back, only not as a muscle-flexing sideshow, but as a form of musical expression. The question is: Are there any young rock drummers out there who are willing to take the challenge?

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