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

With a dose of humility, a symbol of rock-music pretension becomes a humane, powerful thing.
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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.

“Paicey” is one of the best drummers you rarely hear of. If you think John Bonham on Led Zeppelin's “Moby Dick”—many kids’ first exposure to a drum solo—is as good as the form gets, you should spend some time with any of these versions of “The Mule.” Paice produces rolls from the bass drum as he explodes around his kit, inducing wave of rhythm inside wave of rhythm. The pitch changes, and with each alteration comes new levels of drama, of tension that is resolved by a fusillade of notes, sometimes coming in 2/2 time, standard 4/4, or even in waltz time. This is the drummer as dance master, nimble yet commanding.

The solo in “The Mule” goes on for a while, making it one of the rare rock drum solos that succeeds despite its length. Normally, your best ones are of the short variety, and they’re not so much solos as unaccompanied bursts that work in relation to the music that comes before and after them.

Ringo Starr apparently loved drum solos enough he’d perform them during his (pre-Beatles) Rory Storm and the Hurricane days, in segnments billed as “Starr Time.” Then he joined the Beatles and didn’t solo until the closing medley on the band’s final album. Listen to it.

The Beatles have just rocked perhaps harder than at any post-Hamburg time. The multi-guitar attack stops for a few bars, and in comes Starr with a simple solo, rocking back and forth like a fighter shifting his weight from one foot to the other before charging out of his corner. The solo, and its insistent beat, sets up a three-guitar attack, with McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison taking three solos each, the rhythm and the drama cued by Starr.

It’s the ultimate example of how if you want to measure a drum solo’s success, look at its impact on the rest of its musical surroundings. That’s how you can the difference between pure indulgence and greatness in service of something greater.

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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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