Drum Solos: A Brief History… And Can You Keep It Down A Bit?

Drum kits - excellent for a big drum solo
A lovely kit.

Drum solos. They’re pretty divisive (but are back in the public’s mind following the film Whiplash), with some saying they’re dull, others narcissistic, and diehard fans often considering them a glorious demonstration of genius.

For us, it really depends on who’s behind the kit. For, you see, the act of a drum solo sees a drummer (usually just the one) taking over from the rest of the band and thrashing about in wild abandon. It can be spectacular, exhilarating, fun, pretentious, or flat-out tedious.

The thing for us about drum solos is this—unless the person behind the kit is a genius, the whole thing can be pretty self-indulgent and boring.

Even if the drummer is a genius, it can still be this way. Take Mr. John Henry Bonham of Led Zeppelin who is regarded as one of the best drummers of all time, but after you’ve seen one 30 minute Moby Dick you’ve seen them all.

We must postulate quite sincerely then, does the drum solo have any place in drumming? We discuss, with fun YouTube clips!

Jazzy Beginnings

Swing and jazz drummers really kick-started drum solos in the olden days. Like, proper decades ago and everything!

You had the likes of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Joe Morello, Jo Jones, and that other guy. You know the one.

We’ve started things off with Mr. Morello in action below for your edification.

Incredible stuff, but the flow of music from America steadily led to a shift towards rock and roll.

This left drummers facing a quandry—stick to the traditional role, or shake things up a bit and come to the fore.

In the late mid-to-late 1960s various drummers emerged—several from England—to change the world of drumming forever.

Ginger Baker Arrives

Suitably inspired, Ginger Baker popularised rock drum solos with his, frankly, exhilarating efforts with Toad in the 1960s.

At a 1968 Californian gig you can hear him apologising after one almighty effort for being “hungover”—have a gander at our Beware of Mr. Baker review.

Baker (who to this day insists he’s a jazz drummer) prompted others, most notably Bonham with Led Zeppelin, to indulge in the practice.

Ever since, drummers the world over consider it something of a right of passage to reel off an endless drum solo.

This has advantages and disadvantages, as some drummers have simply used the drum solo as an opportunity to show off.

In fact, the further from the origins of the rock drum solo we get, the more self-indulgent drum solos seem to have become, highlighting whether we need them anymore (more on this later).

The heyday, in our opinion, is the ’60s and ’70s with Baker and Bonham mixing it up alongside traditional jazz drummers.

Art Blakey even had a famous drum off with Baker, and at Woodstock in 1969, 19-year-old Micheal Shrieve (see above) merged the traditional grip drumming style with one heck of a groovy romp along.

Compared to his contemporaries, he kept it super short, which helps this one stand out against Bonham’s epics.

Keith Moon Doesn’t Do Drum Solos

Interestingly, The Who’s Keith Moon flat out refused to perform drum solos, and as far as we’re aware there’s only one 5 minute recording of him doing a solo.

Given the band’s extensive recorded history, this is pretty remarkable. Indeed, if The Who’s members ever stopped playing to encourage him to solo he’d immediately stop and announce solos to be “boring”.

Some would argue, however, his playing style was one long drum solo, but there you go.

The aforementioned solo occurred in 1974 and is typically bizarre. With strange markings all over his face (erm… lipstick?), and goldfish in his tom-toms, he takes to the stage for a dramatic demonstration of his legendary skills.

At the end of the solo, when asked about the goldfish by an audience member, he quipped, “Even the best drummers get hungry.”

Power Cuts

On other occasions, drum solos are an interesting necessity. Experimental Krautrock band Can suffered a power cut at one gig in the 1970s.

The others called upon their remarkable drummer, Jaki Liebezeit, to keep the crowd entertained with a solo (drum kits don’t usually need electricity to work, you see—fact of the day).

Liebezeit was a genius of the highest order—an absolute master of his craft. However, he didn’t normally use drum solos.

His playing during the band’s songs, at once minimalistic, complex, and pulsating, was a monumental enough statement in itself.

You can hear his style on tracks like Oh Yeah from Tago Mago.

He will be sadly missed, having passed away in January 2017.

Modern Drummers

The rest of the time we can’t help but feel drum solos are a narcissistic project, unless they’re kept under five minutes.

Anything above has to offer serious groove and excitement to keep people interested.

This is why we’re bemused by the popularity of Rush’s Neil Peart. Although technically brilliant, his solos offer little of interest to us, yet the band’s followers worship him as a deity. This is called a “difference in opinion”, we believe.

Whilst many and varied drummers indulged in a drum solo, there are plenty of top drummers who largely ignored them.

There’s Mr. Keith Moon, Jaki Liebezeit, The Band’s Levon Helm—he was also a singing drummer, often providing lead vocals whilst doing his thing with the sticks.

And then there’s The Stone Roses’ genius drummer Reni—one of the most naturally gifted drummers we’ve ever come across.

The latter kept his solos to rehearsal studios, but they were recorded for posterity.

Into the 2010s and beyond, drummers are as integral as ever to music. There may well be drumming machines and computer software to replicate it, but that can never beat a genius at work.

And the likes of contemporary jazz greats such as Keith Carlock are pushing the drumming world forward.

YouTube is helping to spread the word, too, with channels such as Drumeo helping to put the spotlight on the world’s best drummers.

And they can teach us all a thing. As drumming, whether you’re a genius or otherwise, is a wonderful activity.

It’s therapeutic, great exercise, and will provide you with a much welcome adrenaline rush.

A Percussive Conclusion

A drummer doesn’t need a drum solo to show off his skills. And it can be pretty boring to sit through a solo if someone is merely plodding along.

However, in the right hands a drum solo can be positively exhilerating, whether that was Ginger Baker pounding away or a jazz aficionado strutting their stuff.

A thunderous drum solo kept under five minutes is perfectly acceptable—it can be a great complement to any set.

But, be warned, just keep it around five minutes! Consider the following our official Drum Solo Time Scale. Study this and remember it whenever you take to the stage:

  • 5 minutes or under: Great!
  • 10 minutes: Okay, that’s pushing it a bit…
  • 15 minutes: Erm, is this ever going to end?
  • 20 minutes: Oh dear Christ, we’ve got one of those.
  • 30 minutes: Does this drummer have a narcissistic personality disorder?
  • 40 minutes: This drummer has a narcissistic personality disorder.
  • 50 minutes: Oh… god! I can’t stand it anymore!
  • 51 minutes: Right we’ve set the fire alarm off, everyone run for your lives!

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