Analysis Of Nicko McBrain's Iron Maiden Licks

nicko mcbrain

In the 30 years since nicko McBrain replaced Clive Burr as the drummer for Iron Maiden, his pocket playing, incredible single-pedal bass drum work, and ability to handle complex rhythmic figures and time signatures have impacted countless fans and fellow drummers. Here we break down some of the highlights of McBrain’s playing over the years.

PART 1: Grooves Of The Beast

Prior to playing with Iron Maiden, McBrain played with various musicians of all styles. That is what gives his pocket such a unique feel among metal drummers today.

Ex. 1 “Powerslave”
(Flight 666 [DVD], 2009)
Guitarist Adrian Smith once said members of the band thought that McBrain might in fact be too funky for Maiden. This excerpt from the song “Powerslave,” off the documentary DVD is right after the guitar solo section when McBrain kicks the band back into the main riff of the song, and is in fact one of McBrain’s funkier performances with the band.

DRUM! Notation Guide

nicko mcbrain

Ex. 2 “The Wicker Man”
(Brave New World, 2000)
McBrain’s single bass playing means he approaches metal drumming in a different way from most double bass drummers, who tend to put the bass drum under just about everything. This example from the opening groove of “The Wicker Man” demonstrates his unique approach as he allows the ride bell to support the guitar riff, which gives the groove an almost Latin flavor.

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Ex. 3 “Face In The Sand”
(Dance Of Death, 2003)
The one and only song McBrain used a double pedal on, and it’s a phenomenal performance. It’s a 12/8 time signature with a feel that is not common in 12/8 meter songs and features not only a driving-engine–type bass drum part but also some nice ride work over the groove in a way that would be challenging for a regular double bass player. This excerpt is from the point when McBrain adds the ride cymbal to the groove.

nicko mcbrain

PART 2: That Amazing Right Foot

McBrain is a legend among drummers for his right foot. Not only is it fast and consistent, but it also helps drive the band along with Steve Harris’ bass lines in a way that is not common among heavy metal rhythm sections.

Ex. 4 “Where Eagles Dare”
(Piece Of Mind, 1983 )
The song where Maiden’s new drummer announced his arrival. McBrain’s opening performance on his first album with the group is still one of his best ever. Not only does it display his amazing foot technique but also the swing in his groove that very few rock drummers have.

nicko mcbrain

Ex. 5 “Sea Of Madness”
(Somewhere In Time, 1986)
The beat alone is complex, but the tempo of this song is what makes McBrain’s performance that much more amazing. McBrain displays both amazing foot speed and consistency as the tempo never moves and the dynamics are very consistent.

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Ex. 6 “Dance Of Death”
(Death On The Road [DVD], 2007)
Of all of Maiden’s 21st century tracks, this one, filmed during Maiden’s 2003 Dance Of Death tour, has to be one of McBrain’s finest performances. During an up-tempo Celtic melody that is moving all over the place, McBrain supports it with one of his most amazing displays of bass drum speed, which not only doubles the melody, but also pushes it to sound harder than it would be if it didn’t have his powerful drumming underneath it. This is the part that kicks off the quarter-note snare groove that drives the melody to the end of the song.

nicko mcbrain

PART 3: Odd Figures, Meters, And Time Changes

One of the lesser-known facts about Iron Maiden is the band’s progressive side, which includes several odd meters and elaborate time change-ups. When they take this direction the fury never lessens and McBrain handles all these tricky meters and patterns beautifully.

Ex. 7 “Alexander The Great”
(Somewhere In Time, 1986)
This is from the beginning of the guitar solo, which is in 12/8 time. Then there is an odd-meter break that actually sounds like it is in common time but is actually in 9/8 time. The very human feel of the rhythm section is phenomenal.

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Ex. 8 “Sign Of The Cross”
(Rock In Rio [live])
There is a beautiful march-type section that comes after the soft guitar and bass part that is just so powerful. In typical Steve Harris fashion, he didn’t write a straight-ahead part, and McBrain shines on this part of the song. McBrain drops the bass drum in the most perfect spots and plays right-handed ghost notes on the snare that double the bass drum part, similar to how he plays the ride cymbal on “Where Eagles Dare.” This is the beginning of that section.

nicko mcbrain

Ex. 9 “The Longest Day”
(A Matter Of Life And Death, 2006)
After the second chorus, the band goes into an amazing 7/4 riff that really sings. The tempo also changes and McBrain handles it all very well with a nice snare part that doubles the riff while ending each run through with a short fill before leading the band back into a common-time groove.

nicko mcbrain