The (Occasional, Restrained, Soulful) Glory of Drum Solos

With a dose of humility, a symbol of rock-music pretension becomes a humane, powerful thing.
Animal, the drum solo's No. 1 fan. (Jim Henson Company)

Next to prog’s general existence, there’s no better symbol of rock-musical excess than the drum solo.

Critics have never liked them; old Rolling Stone reviews would rip in-concert double albums whose tedium grew more tedious with the inclusion of a ten minute percussion barrage. But the best knock against them may be that the biggest fans of drum solos are teenage boys, who debate solos’ relative merits while slinging tall tales.

I had a friend who insisted that Ginger Baker of Cream would pass out at the end of his solo on “Toad,” and it was only by passing out—upon which he had to be revived with horse stimulants—that his bandmates Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce knew he was done. Then there were those carnal legends about terrible drummers like Peter Criss of Kiss, undertaking his nightly solo just so the rest of the band could leave the stage and be serviced by groupies for a quarter of an hour.  

So, drum solos: bad rap. But you know what? I like them. I always have. I like the challenge they pose for a listener in having you sift through loads of pointless noise to find good, strong, lean examples of rhythm in its purest and most powerful form.

In jazz, unlike rock, the drum solo is afforded the utmost respect. The genre’s percussionists pore over the work of giants of the form like Art Blakey, and with good reason. Consider Blakey’s solo on “Bu’s Delight” from 1963, a mini-masterpiece of pacing, narrative, and sonic architecture. The cymbals, maintaining the beat from earlier in the track, provide a low-key intro, to which Blakey adds tom rolls that have this spooky, hoodoo vibe to them, something for Macbeth’s witches to dance to. The rolls coalesce into a riff that advances and then retreats, as though feeling out its environment, gaining more confidence in the process, and then giving in to pure and mighty blues funk, a soundtrack to kick up a jig under moonlight.

This is the drum solo at its best. But plenty of jazzers do indulge in the same excess that made so many rock drum solos the kind of thing that Animal skewered on The Muppets, bashing away like a furry Dionysius at the wine fair. Lightyear Entertainment’s recent album of Buddy Rich solos—just solos—illustrates this well. It’s a record meant to blow your mind once and then never be listened to again.

No one soloed like Rich. No one bitched out his band members like Rich either. The same draconian intensity fueled both activities. This is showmanship writ large, and as you listen you wonder how this is one guy and one drum kit. Good luck finding a pianist or, hell, a goalie, with hands that move this fast. Rich is a gauntlet thrower, wordlessly boasting, “You can’t do this, can you?” But it’s Paganini territory, the empty calories of the flashy virtuoso. There’s not a lot of soul here. And, paradoxically, the best drum solos have a lot of soul.

Consider Rhino’s new box of Deep Purple recordings from Japan in 1972. A two-disc set from that run of gigs has long been one of rock’s top live albums, but now we have the full residency, which means a clutch of versions of “The Mule,” a song about the devil hanging out with his buddies and grooving to a drum solo, courtesy of Ian Paice.

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Colin Fleming is the author of Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World Is Asleep and Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories. He also writes for Rolling Stone, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Boston Globe.

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