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If you’re a musician or play in a band you know that the solo is often the best part of the show. From the Grateful Dead to Phil Collins, drummers have the greatest seat in the house, although though they are in the background.
Drummers have one of the band’s roughest and most physically demanding responsibilities. They may not be in the spotlight, but they are the ones who cannot afford to make mistakes. The lead singer singing in the wrong key or the guitarist playing a few wrong notes can all be fixed, and in some cases, no one will even notice. A drummer, on the other hand, can never miss a beat, as they hold the entire rhythm in their sticks. That’s why drum solos are some of the most heart-pumping moments in a song.
The drum solo is a one-of-a-kind performance that allows the drummer to display their talents and abilities. In recordings drummers are usually the backbone and backbeat of the song. In live performances drummers, are able to let loose and really feel their inner emotions. This list is going to contain a combination of both recorded drum solos and live versions.
This list was chosen based on multiple factors. The first factor when choosing these solos was the artistry and flair the drummer used during the performance. Secondly, I determined the difficulty of each solo, and the different techniques needed to perform it successfully. These solos will not be ranked, but you will see a short pro’s and con’s list at the end of the description.
“Moby Dick” – Led Zeppelin (John Bonham)
- Impressive length (12 minutes), impressive stamina, out of this world technique, heart and soul
- Lacks simplicity, violent
People think of John Bonham’s “Moby Dick” when they think of rock drum solos. The most famous version is the (above) 12-minute version from a 1970 Royal Albert Hall concert, in which Bonham demonstrates both his rapid patterns and his ability to shape an entire song.
No list of drum solos can be complete without the song Moby Dick or drummer, John Bonham from Led Zeppelin. While the solo on the album is only about two minutes long, Zeppelin would often extend it in concert, giving John upwards of twenty minutes for him to work his magic.
The solo reaches its highpoint with a pattern known as “Bonham Triplets.” The “Bonham Triplets” were a specific style of beat named after John himself. This trio of notes has since become a popular lick among rock and jazz drummers.
John Bonham is often referred to as the best drummer of all time. For years, Bonham, nicknamed “Bonzo,” misled fans by convincing them that he was playing two bass drums when, in fact, his approach was simply violent, and loud. This isn’t to say that he didn’t have superior technique however, as John was a classically trained musician.
He took Zeppelin’s compositions soaring with his incredible technique and large open tone. He is the embodiment of honest, emotive rock drumming straight from the heart.
Tragically, Bonham died at the age of 32 from a result of over-intoxication and a serious alcohol addiction. Afterwards Led Zeppelin chose to separate, which goes to show how much Bonham meant to the group as a drummer.
“Toad” – Cream (Ginger Baker)
- Impressive length/stamina, melodic patterns
- Lacks feeling in this performance
Ginger Baker is another drummer who plays with intention and skills out of this world. Specifically his performance at Royal Albert Hall features one of those works of art that every drummer admires and attempts to imitate. It has wild fills and quick playing, but the composition is really technical.
While the track on the album is a five minute long instrumental, primary focused around the drum solo, the live version extends to a little over 13 minutes long.
This is partially owing to the fact that, despite Cream’s focus on blues and rock, Baker’s solo is heavily influenced by jazz. His playing is melodic, and the way he plays various patterns with each limb demonstrates Baker’s virtuosity — but the solo also demonstrates his heartfelt, hard-rock abilities.
Baker performs a series of drum beats that are built up, altered, and then dropped, allowing a new pattern to emerge. Baker used the ride cymbal, hi-hat, tom-toms, and double-bass drums to create complementing rhythms throughout the composition.
“Drums,” Grateful Dead (Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart)
- Unique technique, improvisational skill, soulful
- Trancelike, can be too much ‘groove’
The third solo on this list is creatively titled “Drums”. To me, it seems as if no music list should complete without at least one mention of the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead was unique at the time for having two drummers: Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.
Mickey Hart and Kreutzmann, formed a unique and complicated interplay that balanced Kreutzmann’s solid beat with Hart’s interest in percussion styles. Hart tended to use a specific styles that were outside of the rock tradition, specifically using majority of international sounds. Hart added an 11-count measure to his drumming, giving the band a new dimension that became an integral component of their sound.
The song “Drums” changed throughout time, as it began as a two or three minute passage into “Not Fade Away”. Later in their career, the song changed into a lengthier journey of international percussion in the mid-’80s and ’90s.
Using call and response, Kreutzmann and Hart take turns performing the lead and supporting beats throughout the almost eight-minute duet, all while establishing the “groove.” This is remarkable given that it’s all abstract; they’re not actually keeping time, but riffing off each other as if they’re in a trance. Despite their constant movement around the stage and back and forth, the two never stomp on each other’s toes and keep their voices from mixing into a muddy cacophony of noise.
It’s the type of drumming that can only be achieved by years of performing together. It more of live performance art than recorded music, which is what the Dead are so widely known for.
“O Baterista,” Rush (Neil Peart)
- Difficult technique with time signatures, precision, endurance
- Lacks heart and soul, feels like Peart is too heavily focused on precision
Many consider Neil Peart to be the best drummer of all time, and his incredible drum solos, particularly his “O Baterista” solo demonstrate why. Peart seamlessly transitions between a 3/4 waltz on the toms, a Latin-influenced solo on his electric kit and ultimately an energetic jazz solo commemorating two of his heroes, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, on his electric kit and auxiliary percussion.
Peart’s endurance and precision are on display in this solo. The independence between his hands and feet, though, is possibly the most important feature. Not only is he playing several time signatures (three with his feet, four with his hands) in one section, but he’s also playing at distinct tempos. Peart employs this ability to generate a wide range of sounds and textures that, rather than sounding sloppy or overwhelming, fit together like puzzle pieces to form a single unified song.
As Peart plays an eight minute, strenuous and challenging solo, he was discredited for being overly rehearsed. In direct contrast to the Grateful Dead, Peart had an orchestrated transitions and notes he was hitting, he was well practiced and received backlash for it. Either way, Peart’s playing changed the way drum solos were performed and created forever. Peart’s solos helped popularize prog (a 70’s rock style that incorporated Jazz) which influenced some of the best drummers in years to follow.
“Drum solo”- The Who (Keith Moon)
- Heart and soul, unique fills
- Precision feels a little chaotic
Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, was a truly unique drummer. During this live performance, Keith Moon, plays drums for the TV show “Wide World in Concert: Midnight Special.” Keith Moon was known to be an emotional musician, and used to drum kit as an extension of himself.
Where Moon excels is his ability to get the crowd off their feet. With his enticing fills, passionate kicks, and heavy bass, the crowd gets off their feet, and starts dancing.
Moon holds a four on the floor beat on the bass drum for almost the entire solo, but the whole thing is a little chaotic. He crashes erratically, and instead of flashy fills, he opts for a chaotic and raucous primitive beat. Moon thumps on the snare drum and crash cymbals, delivering a forceful solo that isn’t really melodious.
Moon inspired drummers such as Neil Peart, John Bonham, and Ginger Baker, all in the running for the title of best drummer of all time. Moon’s style could be described as tribal, primitive, and impulsive. He’s known for slamming his wall of toms and stomping the bass drums like a monster. His drumming, on the other hand, was frequently surprising and always left an impact. It could be described as an almost improvisational sound.
“Orchestralli” – Stewart Copeland
- Unique jazz and rock crossover, new age rhythms
- Again lacks soul for precision
Stewart Copeland is an American dummer and composer, most known for his work with The Police. Other than his reggae-rock band though, he has written music for video games, orchestras, and ballets. He learned to play at a difficult, four year jazz school.
It can be seen, that Copeland drew a lot of inspiration from Ginger Baker of “The Cream.” Copeland has a major advantage over many other drummers, that is he can play in many different style. He was trained in Jazz, but performed in a rock band for the majority of his career. He travelled to Africa, and spent time there learning the rhythmic patterns and beats. After The Police disbanded, Copeland moved towards classical music for operas, ballets, and orchestras.
He knows both the jazz drummer stance, which he uses frequently, and the timpanist posture, which he uses seldom . In this posture he can reach the right drum with the drummer-handled strip with his left hand without issue, most often used in rock.
Stewart Copeland may place scientifically purposefully changed rhythms during any of his live performances, which were always different. These live sessions frequently overtook the studio version.
“The Black Page” – Frank Zappa (Terry Bozzio)
- Difficult technique, complete mastery of drums, precise
- Lacks melody, again chaotic (although the song is made to sound chaotic)
One of the most difficult drum solos to perform is Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page,” which got its name because the sheet had so many notes on it that it appeared like a black page. In this performance Terry Bozzio conquers The Black Page with no apparent difficulties.
This isn’t an improvised performance; rather, it’s a display of perfect skill. Many of the lines in the song were written in an unconventional manner, resulting in some strange rhythms and patterns. Bozzio, on the other hand, is at ease with strange time signatures and nails every one of Zappa’s off-the-wall percussion runs.
Playing this in the studio is one thing, but playing it live — as seen in this version from a Zappa Plays Zappa gig from 2008 — is quite another feat. Bozzio, on the other hand, doesn’t skip a single beat. Frank demanded nothing less than perfection from his musicians (he allegedly forced drummer Vinnie Colaiuta sight read “The Black Page” during an audition), and Bozzio continued to uphold that standard long after Frank’s passing.
Bozzio played an impressive 38 different drum setup kit dubbed “The Big Kit”. Bozzio’s style is distinct from that of most other drummers. His drum kit features almost two octaves of tuned drums, resulting in a precise and lyrical sound.
2008 Drum Solo – Steve Gadd
- Incredibly precise, unique timing, unique instruments
- Lacks complexity, rather simple
Steve Gadd is regarded as being one of the greatest studio drummers of all time. But he’s also a fantastic live drummer who ripped some incredible solos, notably one from a 2008 show.
Steve Gadd was introduced into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1984, and is known for having some of the most rhythmic, on-beat, time changes of all time. He has played on songs such as “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and “Late in the Evening” by Paul Simon.
Gadd is continually tinkering with the feel of the solo. The fluidity with which Gadd executes linear drumming (where neither snare, cymbal, or surface is hit concurrently) across portions of the solo is the most important lesson.
Gadd’s style is very different from many other drummers on this list. While many of these legends pound their drums and often lose control, Gadd is timely and precise. He is known to keep the beat while changing rhythms over and over again. He enjoys building his solos from the ground up, starting with minimal patterns and slowly working in different sounds, such as cowbells, snares, and cymbals.
Concert of the America’s Solo – Buddy Rich
- Innovative technique, out of this world soul
- Basic patterns with added flair
Buddy Rich is the one drummer whose performances have affected every drummer on this list. His solo from the 1982 Concert for the Americas is unquestionably his best. At the time of the concert Buddy Rich was 65, one of the oldest drummers playing during the concert. Even though he was old his skill, soul, and rhythm shine through during his performance.
Buddy Rich’s solo is groundbreaking in every way. Countless rock drummers have benefited from the virtuoso’s passion and technique, from Steve Gadd to Steve Smith and Neil Peart (all of whom are included in this list).
Without the need for a question, Rich’s hi-hat work is by far the most remarkable part of the solo. Rich takes the hi-hat with his left hand, hooks his thumb on the upper cymbal, then rolls his left stick on the underside of the hi-hat with his remaining four fingers. While doing so, he mutes the cymbal with his left hand. Its sheer brilliance, and his artistry is unmatched.
Techniques, such as the cymbal move mentioned above, are incredibly challenging to accomplish during a live performance. Watching Buddy Rich use his skills demonstrates his greatness, especially at his old age.
“Khanda West” – Steve Smith
- Uses different techniques for simple patterns, creates a challenge for himself
- Basic patterns, lacks soul
Steve Smith, the drummer from the popular 80’s and 90’s band Journey, is a well-practiced, classic rock musician. Under ‘Modern Magazine’, Smith was named the best all-around drummer five years in a row.
Steve Smith began his career at Berklee College of Music, playing mostly jazz and recording with many other artists. He joined the band Journey in 1978 and continued to play for the group. He left and rejoined Journey multiple times, each time playing countless different albums and songs with his rock groove.
Steve Smith joined Neil Peart (from the band Rush) to commemorate the life of influential drummer Buddy Rich. What made Steve such an accomplished drummer was his mastery of beat and power.
His role in the inspirational classic “Don’t Stop Believin” was one of his most noteworthy achievements. He devised an elaborate, open-handed pattern that has always captivated audiences. He’s playing the hi-hat with his left hand while moving his right around the drum kit, a challenge for many drummers.
Steve’s innovation, challenge, and ability to find new patterns and ways to beat his kit are some of the things that make him such an impressive musician. His legacy lives on as a solo musician after leaving Journey.
Drum Solo – Carl Palmer
- Jazz techniques used for rock drumming, incorporates multiple styles
- Other music playing, lacks power
This performance by Calm Palmer was taken in Alexandria, Virginia, at the National Harbor. Palmer’s claim to fame is not only as one of the Rolling Stones’ Top 10 Drummers, but as a founding member of the rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Asia.
Palmer has made quite a name for himself in the Prog Rock world. He makes it sound like he has twice as many drums as he actually does. Palmer’s dexterity is perhaps the most astounding feature of the solo; he just keeps going.
Palmer’s own drumming approach was originally inspired by jazz rather than any genre. Palmer was known for his technical prowess, but he also incorporated solos into several of his concerts. Though he began playing double bass drums increasingly regularly in that period, his early work in Asia had a much more basic approach to drumming.
His astonishing speed and command of the drums, along with his contagious stage personality, have earned him a well-deserved reputation as one of Rock and Roll’s best drummers.
“There Comes a Time” – Tony Williams
- Soulful, powerful, quick rhythms
- Not a lack of technique, but rather basic technique
Tony Williams’ debut with Miles Davis as a 17-year-old in 1963 is one of the most stunning debuts in all of 20th-century music. It wasn’t just that he was 17, but the fact that Williams could play as if he had 40 years of experience. He had heart, soul, and power, and used his skills together in a combination that was other-worldly.
He had already made significant contributions to the jazz vanguard alongside saxophonist Jackie McLean and others by the time he entered Miles’ band. But it was his role in Davis’ so-called Second Great Quintet that cemented his reputation. Williams, with his spinning ride-cymbal rhythms, eruptive accents, and dramatic tempo distortions, would be more than glad to gratify Davis’ willingness to work with guest musicians who weren’t afraid to beat him around.
It’s only natural that when he left Miles in 1969, he formed the magnificently gnarly Lifetime with legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist John McLaughlin and keyboardist Larry Young, beating the trumpeter to the jazz-rock hook. Williams re-committed himself to acoustic jazz in the decade leading up to his untimely death in 1997, performing with the same ferocity as before.
During Tony’s lifetime, he played mostly blues and jazz. His soul seemed to connect with these genres and his heart could be felt in his playing. His Trio of Doom and work with Miles Davis have gone down in the history books.
“Abbey Road” – The Beatles (Ringo Starr)
- Poweful, exciting rolls and kicks, soul
- Artistic flair, short
Ringo Starr, drummer of the world’s most famous band, The Beatles, was not known to play solos. From interviews with the band, Ringo always mentioned that to him, there was no joy in playing alone, that joy in music comes from creating with others.
This performance, however, was in January of 2008 at the People Capitol, shows Ringo opening the show with his only live drum solo. He plays open rolls, snares, and hard kicks with power, precision, and strict musicianship.
Ringo not only grounded the greatest band of any and all time, he also helped to give their music form as well as focus. It can be heard in the overjoyed rolls that start “She Loves You,” the crunchy fluidity of “Ticket to Ride,” the slipping cymbal work and graceful clarity of “Rain,” or the way he decided to throw sweet, menacing riffs into “Rain”. All of this, but Ringo was frequently underappreciated during the showy mid 1960s and early 70’s.
Ringo was a true believer in love and peace. He developed his own distinctive style of delivering snappy, enthusiastic fills. He was a left-handed drummer playing a right-handed kit, and his steady reliability earned him an early gold standard for no-nonsense rock performers, serving each song with feel, swing, and unwavering reliability.
Ringo has a strong instinct for the tunes he plays and knows exactly how to enhance them without going overboard. Ringo’s drumming was simple yet powerful during the Beatles’ early years. Even without interfering with the voice and instruments, it provides motion and dynamics.
Ringo knew how to accompany a song while including his artistry. He was truly a team-player and worked to make the Beatles a better band, not just a better drummer. Ringo understood that he was one part of a whole unit and his playing displayed that.
Drum Solo – The Rolling Stones (Charlie Watts)
- Uses unique kit, heart and soul
It is said that when the Rolling Stones formed, they couldn’t obtain Charlie Watts as a drummer as he was too expensive. Once they finally won him over, Watts created the sound the Rolling Stones had been pursuing all those early years.
Watts has complimented Jagger, Richards, as well as the rest of the band with swinging rhythms, precise four-on-the-floor beats, and quiet impressionism for more than five decades, seldom showing off.
Charlie might not have had the best technique or style for classical drumming. Where he lacked in technique, though, he made up for it in passion and power. Charlie could keep a beat for minutes upon minutes of songs, and seemingly never tired.
Watts was never the frontman for the Stones. He acted as a backup, keeping the band moving, the wheel turning from behind the scenes. While he was always on stage, and still had incredible fame, his name was never as well known as Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. It was all the same though, as Watts played with passion and kept the beat going for the Rolling Stones’ career.
Drum solo with Jimi Hendrix (Mith Mitchell)
- Psychedelic tones and beats, open-minded sound
- Often simple (seeing that it was psychedelic)
An often overlooked and forgotten drummer who should be on the list of best drummers and solos of all time is Mitch Mitchel, most known for his work with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Mitch looked up to many jazz drummers and worked to perfect the sound that he only knew how to listen to.
Mitchell’s brisk, jazz-influenced playing complemented Hendrix’s open-ended, groundbreaking approach to the electric guitar. Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland are the three best-selling Experience studio albums that Mitchell collaborated on with Hendrix.
Mitch Mitchell fused jazz, R & B, and pop influences with a level of feeling and originality that is still unrivaled in popular music. He was able to map a drumming path through the totally unexplored oceans of Jimi Hendrix’s music.
We all know that Jimi Hendrix is mostly known for his electric guitar and the psychedelic elements within his music. It was the hippie, Woodstock era that Mitchell played in, and he brought a new voice to Jimi’s music.
It takes a particular drummer to grasp the experience’s sound and know how to support, adapt, reinterpret, and create it, and Mitch never lost track of his own style and uniqueness. He brought a special taste to the band, and his fruits of labor are noted in the albums that he created.
In the Air Tonight – Phil Collins
- Innovative, singing and drumming
- Simple technique and patterns
The most recent live performance, or song, on this list was done by Phil Collins, the English drummer and singer. He is one of the only performers that plays the drums and sings at the same time.
His performance of In the Air Tonight is mostly vocal until about three-quarters of the way through, when he sits down at his kit and lets loose. Collings plays with passion, as if there is something inside him trying to escape.
Phil Collins is one of the best drummers in the world. He may be classified as a member of the elite. During the Gabriel years, his drumming for Genesis was incredible. Phil Collins is above most drummers in terms of all-around proficiency, with several time signatures, complex fills, off-beat rhythms, and remarkable timing.
Unfortunately, Phil suffered from chronic nerve damage and could no longer grip his drum sticks, making it virtually impossible for him to play the drums anymore. During the 70’s, it was his peak of his drumming career and he has mentioned that listening back he is impressed with what he used to play.
Drum Solo – Alex Van Halen
- Power, soul, intricate
- Basic patterns used for majority of playing
Alex Van Halen, from the band Van Halen, was a classically trained musician, along with his brother Eddie Van Halen. Alex Van Halen’s excellent drumming ability and understanding of how to manage one of the biggest bands in history is severely under-appreciated. With his extremely quick and intricate playing, he has influenced drummers and percussionists alike.
This solo is comprised of a five-minute long drum fill with snares, hi-hats, and cymbals. He can seemingly play for endless amounts of time without tiring and stopping his play.
Van Halen, like other drummers, was inspired earlier on by jazz legend Buddy Rich. With one of the largest rock bands in the world, Van Halen became one of the heavyweights of the arena music scene. Despite the fact that his brother, Eddie, received most of the attention, Alex’s accuracy and punctuality were crucial to Van Halen’s success. Perhaps his best work with the band was on the 1984 smash “Hot For Teacher.”
All of these drum solo’s are out of this world. Each drummer on this list is a major inspiration, and role-model for making new, upcoming drummers. That being said, in my opinion, the best drum solo on this lis is, Moby Dick by Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. Not only is his technique, power, and soul shining through during this performance, but it also goes on for 12 minutes, going to show his stamina and capabilities. Feel free to pick you own favorite and listen to them all!
Answer: They begin at minute 4:57 in the song In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins.
Answer: This is a question that is mainly up for interpretation but songs with incredible drum solos are: Moby Dick (Led Zeppelin), Tom Sawyer (Rush), Ram Jam (Black Betty), In the Air Tonight (Phil Collins), Hot For Teacher (Van Halen), and Aja (Steely Dan).
Answer: The hardest drum solo is either Moby Dick by Led Zeppelin or The Black Page by Frank Zappa.
Answer: The longest drum solo is the live version (on CD as well) of “How the West Was Won” which has a version of the song “Moby Dick” where John Bonhman plays for over 17 minutes.
Answer: The drum solo in Whiplash is Caravan. The solo is played by actor Miles Teller.
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