Going for It: Steve Smith

The Art And History Of Drum Soloing

By Don Zulaica, Photography By Paul Haggard Originally Published In DRUM! Magazine's October 2000 Issue

You’ve probably felt it. The finger points in your direction. Heads nod. The chart marks off eight, sixteen, maybe thirty-two bars. Hairs stand up on the back of your neck, and it all comes down to what you’ve got to say.

What are we talking about? How about the moment when most rock fans go to the lobby to buy that crucial brewski. Or the few frozen seconds during a concert over which drummers will argue about the tiniest fragment of that radical thirty-second note triplet roll.

Of course, we’re talking about drum solos, and no one is better suited to discuss the subject in depth than Steve Smith. The rock world probably wasn’t ready for such a well-versed Berklee alumni when he joined Journey in the late ’70s. And the jazz scene is undergoing a one-man fusion revival with Smith’s ongoing flurry of releases with the likes of guitarists Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale, bassists Stu Hamm and Victor Wooten, and his own group Vital Information.

Plus, Smith just loves a good drum solo, which puts him in pretty select company these days, even among his peers. “I guess soloing isn’t for everybody,” he smiles. “But I find you don’t need to be an incredible technician in order to play music. A solo is just playing music by yourself. “I guess the whole thing comes down to having a solid foundation – learning about how music is constructed, having good technique and studying the masters,” he continues. “But everybody teaches themselves how to play music. Nobody can teach you how to take your technical drumming ability and then communicate with other musicians successfully. That’s a self-taught process, even if you take a million lessons.”

A Jazzy Birth. The musical foundation Smith refers to can be traced back before there were any solos as we know them today. “Most of the early jazz drummers didn’t play extended solos,” Smith explains. “If we go back, say, before Gene Krupa, to Baby Dodds – he is probably the most famous today of the early drummers of this century. He did the major part of his work in the late teens, ’20s and ’30s. He didn’t really play drum solos, but he was good at breaks. And that’s the way they thought of it back in New Orleans, ’Can the guy play good breaks?’ So all the musicians had to be able to communicate and play some breaks, play some interesting music.

“Chick Webb was the drummer who brought more of the flashy and technical-sounding chops and exciting fills. He didn’t play extended solos, but he had extended breaks in the tunes that he did. And there were other drummers at the time, like Dave Tough, Zutty Singleton and even Big Sid Catlett. They were great players, but didn’t really solo much. But they were musicians, so that if they played by themselves, they could continue to make music and make things feel right.”

But when it comes to pure soloing, Smith gives credit to the ace who first brought the kit to the forefront. “I do think modern drum solos as we know them now really started with Gene Krupa,” he says. “If you see any of his old clips, he’s very entertaining to watch. He played solos with a very strong beat, which communicated to the public. He was playing with a certain amount of show biz, like spinning his sticks and tossing his hair, which looked cool and brought a lot of attention to drum soloists. But it’s important to remember that all of jazz was into show biz back then, and it was music for dancing. It hadn’t made a cross into concert halls yet, or it was just beginning to. So the early guys were swinging, keeping the beat, playing for entertainment. All those guys – from Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, and Duke Ellington – they were entertainers as well as great musicians.”

According to Smith, the art and spectacle of drum soloing elevated quickly when Buddy Rich appeared on the scene, and cranked up the heat. “He was faster, his ideas were better, and his execution of those ideas was incredible,” he says. “He had amazing control from triple pianissimo to triple forte, and was really the first virtuoso of the instrument. His solos are incredibly exciting, and unique to him and the way he plays. He doesn’t play the thematic type of drum solo. It’s an offshoot in some ways of Gene Krupa, but with free-flowing, drum-istic ideas that swung. He just tells a great story.”

Rich’s dominance was undeniable, but subtlety, feel and sheer musicianship also found footholds. “Then we had drummers like Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones and Tony Williams,” Smith says. “Max was a great accompanist, and a great soloist. Even though he didn’t have anywhere near the chops Buddy Rich had, he didn’t need them to make music, because he was a great musician. And Shelley Manne could play really nice solos, too. Again, not an amazing technician like Buddy, but a great drummer, great musician.”

The Solo Will Rock. Everything got heavier as rock and roll became popular, though many early rock drummers based their style on the swing drummers who preceded them. Like other aspiring drummers of the day, Smith appreciated both styles. “My background was in playing jazz and rock simultaneously, really, but my earliest training was in jazz,” he says.

“At age nine, my first teacher, Bill Flanagan, was a big band drummer in his mid-fifties. So the whole swing and jazz approach was very natural to me. Then I studied with Gary Chaffee and Alan Dawson at Berklee College in Boston. Alan really stressed soloing over the form of songs. It made sense for me later on to do a rock drum solo that had form – like I did in “La Do Da” [from Journey’s Captured] – yet there was improvisation. But on the other hand I saw other drummers when I was on tour with Journey. They usually opened for us, and the drummer would literally play the exact same solo night after night. It wasn’t improvised at all. I can understand [why they did] that – they’re not coming from a jazz background, so they have to learn the solo.”

With that observation, Smith shares a glimpse into his own soloing philosophy. “Let’s look at a big band, and let’s look at the lead alto player, and the first tenor player,” he says. “They read music and they can play in the section, but when it’s time for them to blow they can stand up and blow. But the second alto player and the second or third trombone player, those guys play parts, and for the most part they usually don’t solo. They read music really well and they function within the section really well. That’s a good musician, but to me it’s not complete.

“So to be a complete musician, just in my opinion, you would be able to play in your section, and then you would be able to solo as well. And so I see it from that old jazz perspective, in a way. Even though a lot of the drummers I’m talking about may not have played extended solos in the tradition of Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa, they were capable of playing very musically in solos, because they were really well-rounded musicians.”

While early rock drummers such as Sandy Nelson adopted Krupa’s tom-tom approach to soloing, late-’60s rock drummers like Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, Ron Bushy and Carmine Appice emulated the muscular improvised solos coming from Rich, Elvin Jones, Louis Bellson and Art Blakey. “That’s really the prototype of what rock drummers are generally based on,” Smith says. “Those early [rock] drummers were still very close to the jazz tradition. They probably for the most part grew up listening to as much jazz as rock. Because in the ’50s, rock was on the radio. There was Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. But also the heroes of the instrument were all jazz musicians. If you bought your Downbeat magazine, you weren’t going to see an ad with a rock drummer. There really weren’t any rock drummers or rock endorsers back then, so the heroes everybody looked up to were Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Elvin or somebody like that.

“Young drummers at the time probably did what I did,” Smith continues. “They went to a teacher who taught them to play spang-spang-a-lang on the ride cymbal, and how to play some jazz time. But back then rock was mostly shuffle, coming right out of swing. So guys had a good sense of touch with swing time, even though a lot of players were starting to switch over to matched grip. They weren’t bashing the drums that loud.

“Musicians like Ginger Baker, John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell could still do what I’m talking about. They could entertain people. Whether they’re accompanying people or whether they’re playing the solo, it still sounded like music. And that’s the most important thing for me – when it comes down to what makes a solo interesting, it should sound like music. I guess that’s going to be different for everybody, but for me, I want to hear that it feels good, that the guy is communicating something to me that I relate to. And I guess what I would relate to is some form or structure, and some interesting and well-played ideas, which have no bearing on how fast or slow or intricate the playing is. It’s more of a feeling.”

Now For Four Faves. As promised, the following transcriptions feature four of Smith’s favorite solos, culled from both jazz and rock idioms. But despite the obvious differences in the approach taken by each performer, you might notice one shared characteristic – they’re all played in tempo.

Of course, because of that, our selection ignores an entire subcategory of the drum solo: the freeform out-of-time solo, which we ruled impractical for transcribing purposes. “I’ve seen some attempts at [transcribing free solos],” Smith points out, “where the transcriber tries to write a phrase in the best way they can. If it sounds like the phrase is sixteenth-note triplets, they’ll write the sixteenth-notes on whatever instrument is played, but without using bar lines. Sometimes phrases will be rhythmically approximate by having some notes close together and some notes spread apart.”

While we chose to exclude such solos from the following transcriptions, the free-blowing sound has influenced Smith’s soloing. “The first free solo that comes to mind is from a record called Interstellar Space by Rashied Ali and John Coltrane,” he says. “It’s just drums and sax. This was in Coltrane’s later period, early 1967, right before he died. There’s some beautiful free drumming on that. He plays solo a lot to set something up for Coltrane. I would say that stuff is utterly untranscribable, because it’s so dense.

“Then there’s a great free drum solo by Jack DeJohnette on the Miles Davis album Live Evil, which came out in 1970. One of the things that makes that solo so cool is that it sounds like the floor tom has a broken head, and he just goes nuts with that. He incorporates the flappiness of the floor tom into the solo.”

Smith says that he has no preference between playing solos in or out of time. “Most of the time I solo in time, because it’s usually the most appropriate thing to do with the music I play. I’d like to do a little more out of time soloing.” Even when he does solo out of time, Smith still wants to convey a feeling of continuity. “You can play out of time [in such a way] that is basically BS,” he says. “I don’t like that. It’s just somebody who doesn’t have a lot of ideas. Maybe they can play time decently, but they’re not really good at soloing in time, so they solo out of time as a default. That’s not what I’m talking about.”

Okay. Read on to find out what Smith really is talking about.

“Dr. Demento”

Soloist: Steve Smith
Year of Release: 2000

Steve Smith

So there’s soloing in time or out of time. Then there’s creating the illusion that you’re completely messing with the time when you really aren’t. This is exactly what Smith does on the metrically modulated solo drum intro to “Dr. Demento,” a funk tune with a James Brown-flavored beat from the forthcoming Vital Information album Live Around The World Where We Come From Tour ’98-’99.

“That was recorded live in June of 1999 in Sydney, Australia,” Smith says. “The original recording is on the studio album Where We Come From, but on that version I didn’t stretch out too much. Live, we used it as the first tune to open the show.”

Smith explains how to count the darned thing. “With a ching-ring on my hi-hat, I start playing in 6/8, so you get a sense of where the pulse is. And then I start implying different tempos that are all related to the original pulse. It’s implied metric modulation. I don’t end up at a different tempo, but you hear these different tempos go by, as if it’s speeding up or slowing down, and in reality it’s not at all. The ching-ring helps you keep track of the whole thing.”

Uh-huh. Maybe if your name is Dave Weckl or Virgil Donati. But for the rest of us Earthlings, Smith tries hard to chart the solo’s subdivisions: “I start out by subdividing the beat into sixes, playing six-note subdivisions relative to the pulse. Then I go into what sounds like a little slower groove, but I’m actually implying five over the six. When I move to a five-note rate, I subdivide the five into four by phrasing in four-note phrases. When you hear a four-note phrase within the five, your reference is going to be the four-note phrase because our ears are so accustomed to four-note or sixteenth-note phrases. I also do some phrases in a seven-note rate where I simply play paradiddles with my hands to get the four-note phrasing.

“So in other words, the listener is really thrown off. You can’t really hear the tempo until the guitar comes in, unless you’re sitting there counting it out. The tune is in four, but by subdividing the beat into six, five, seven and eight, you can create these rhythmic illusions.”

“The Drum Also Waltzes”

Soloist: Max Roach
Year of Release: 1966

Max Roach

Long before Terry Bozzio dropped jaws with his seemingly inhuman ostinato-based solos, there was the original: “The Drum Also Waltzes” by Max Roach. “It has an ostinato, much like what Bozzio is doing now, but simplified,” Smith says. “It’s a really nice one to use to work on the idea of soloing over an ostinato. A really nice motif goes over it, and Max plays pretty freely.

“Terry plays unaccompanied drum solo pieces generally over a foot ostinato, and that’s exactly what ’Drum Waltzes’ is. Max plays an ostinato with his feet – with the bass drum on 1 and the hi-hat on 2, nothing on 3 – and plays the motif over it with his hands. I’ve actually attempted a couple of Terry’s ostinatos – they’re so hard for me just to play the ostinato with the feet! I can’t even play that, let alone solo on top of it! So I think ’The Drum Also Waltzes’ opens the door to ostinato soloing ideas. Max leaves space and plays beautiful phrasing.”

Plenty of solos preceded Roach’s, including Krupa’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” and Louis Bellson’s “Skin Deep,” but Smith remembers “Waltzes” as “the first unaccompanied solo drum piece that I know of that was ever recorded. An unaccompanied drum solo is very different from a drum solo that’s part of an arrangement, which is what you found on recordings at the time.”

Smith was only 12 in 1966 when “The Drum Also Waltzes” was first released. He didn’t actually get into it until the late ’70s after he saw a transcription of the solo. “I messed around with the transcription. Then I heard different versions of it, and saw Max play it live quite a few times.

“When he plays it live, it’s radically different. The tempos are different, the melody/motif he plays changes. He’ll play it on different drums with different phrasing. I’ve heard him do it on a small drum set, really light. Other times I’ve heard him do it on a big drum set, really loud and hard the whole time. He takes a lot of liberty with it every time he does it. As I listened to it more, I really wanted to develop those types of ideas as a part of my repertoire. Not just that tune per se, but that style – Max’s style – of soloing.”

“Topsy II”

Soloist: Cozy Cole
Year of Release: 1958

Cozy Cole

Before Max, there was Cozy Cole. “’Topsy II’ was a really big hit in 1959,” Smith exclaims. “I have a Billboard compilation, and it was one of the top songs of the year. I also have the single of that record from when I was a kid.” But Smith knows that “Topsy II” was hardly original. In fact, it was only one of a long line of drum solos that derived from Gene Krupa’s work on Benny Goodman’s classic 1937 recording “Sing Sing Sing.”

“When Gene Krupa’s solo from ’Sing Sing Sing’ became popular, most of the other big bands had to have some kind of tune like that, which featured the drummer in a similar way,” Smith says. “That started in the ’30s and continued through the ’50s, even though the big bands weren’t as popular as they had been. But then with ’Topsy II’ Cozy Cole did it, and it was almost like a retro-throwback. The cutting edge of jazz at the time was Miles and hard bop, not big band.

“So the tune seemed pretty timeless. It’s a great solo, and it’s a great arrangement, and it just became a hit. It totally crossed over into the pop world, where everything else on the charts at that time was basically early rock and easy listening – Pat Boone, Fats Domino, Patsy Cline, people like that. But it really crossed over into pop culture. And that’s when Sandy Nelson picked up on it. Sandy was a session drummer with a jazz background, and he did a couple versions of a ’Topsy’-like drum solo with ’Teen Beat’ and ’Let There Be Drums.’ But his version of it sounded more like surf music. Same type of drums, but with surf guitars behind it.”

“Topsy II” might have been a classic Krupa big band solo, but the arrangement had an unusual twist: a Hammond organ. “Cozy has kind of a stiff feel on the hi-hat, and there’s some nice interaction between the band and Cozy,” Smith remembers. “It swings really hard, maybe even a little harder than Gene Krupa himself, even though Gene originated the style. Cozy Cole had a great feel, and remember, he and Gene had a drum school a long time ago in New York City. So I’m sure they were really good buds.”

“Toad”

Soloist: Ginger Baker with Cream
Year of Release: 1968

Ginger Baker

One of the definitive jazz/rock crossover drummers of the ’60s, Ginger Baker has long been remembered for “Toad,” his landmark solo from Cream’s 1968 album Wheels Of Fire. “I think that solo is more amazing than what people thought back then,” Smith says, shaking his head. “It had so much in it. First of all, Ginger’s feel was so dirty and nasty. When I listen to his feel, it sounds like Elvin and Art Blakey – a really swinging African drum feel. It’s based out of a swing pulse, but it’s done in a real swampy-voodoo kind of way.”

Smith agrees that Baker is utterly identifiable on “Toad.” “He plays some really nice double-bass drum ideas that are uniquely his,” he says. “I think the closest anyone was to anything like this was Louis Bellson, where he plays the ride cymbal with the right hand and phrases with the feet like a pair of hands.” Indeed. Baker came from a jazz background, and surely appreciated Bellson’s groundbreaking double-bass work. But Baker also drummed with a ferocity that was second to none.

“I would say Ginger Baker is really more of a jazz drummer than a rock drummer,” Smith continues. “’Toad’ sounds African. He implies a six feeling, superimposing a six over the four. And then he does a lot of jazz drumming things where he keeps the hi-hat going on 2 and 4, and plays over it, which is a jazz concept. And then he actually plays the beautiful double-bass drum and snare drum phrases underneath the swing-time jazz ride feel, phrasing over the bar lines. It was really ahead of its time.”

Like every other teenager in the late ’60s, Smith dug Hendrix and Cream, but his drumming avocation preferred Rich’s explosive solos over Baker’s ponderous polyrhythms. “I’d say that the ’Toad’ solo is actually a little more influential now,” Smith admits. “I appreciate it more today than I even did back then. He’s just got such a beautiful slop,” he laughs. “It’s real sloppy, but in a beautiful way, and it swings like mad. He doesn’t have to hit the drums hard to get his sound out of them. ’Toad’ is a musician playing great music.”

And playing a lot of music. Because of the sheer length of the solo (here taken from Wheels Of Fire by Cream), we chose to transcribe excerpts from each predominant motif played by Baker.