Drum Solos

by Roy Burns

Most people, including most drummers, like a good drum solo. By good, I mean a solo that is rhythmical, musical, well constructed, well executed, in tempo and relates to the musical context in which it is played.


There are several groups of people who profess not to like drum solos, no matter how well played or who the player is. Music critics very often know so little about drumming that the only safe position is for them to be critical. It is always easy to put down the drummer. Critics criticize drummers for having too much technique, or too little. If the solo is short they say the drummer did not develop his ideas. If it is a long solo they put it down by calling it a tasteless technical display. Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that all drum solos are a musical waste of time.

My attitude towards critics is a simple one. They usually can’t play any instrument well, if at all. Secondly, they don’t sign your paycheck and they don’t get you a job. Some critics are knowledgeable and sincere, but when it comes to drumming, most are woefully inadequate and uninformed.

The second group of people who put down drum solos are other musicians. All they seem to want in a drummer is a human time machine or a breathing metronome. They want the drummer to “just keep time.” No variation, no cre ativity, don’t think, “just keep time.”

Fortunately, this attitude is on the way out with most younger musicians. The drummer today is expected to be a musician who can contribute musically, both as a timekeeper and as an ensemble player. They also respect the drummer who can solo effectively and intelligently.

The last group of people who put down drum solos, I am sorry to say, are drummers. Drummers with no technique or who simply lack the confidence to solo often seem to act as if they are above it. This is especially sad when the drummer in question is successful and well known.

This attitude can be summed up this way. “If I can’t do it then I ‘ l l pretend I didn’t want to do it anyway, and I ‘ l l put it down.” A more healthy attitude would be simply to say, “I liked that solo, or I didn’t like it.” We really don’t need any more defensive philosophizing on whether there should or should not be drum solos. If you can’t do it, don’t knock it. Now let’s take a look from another point of view.

“The majority of drum solos played today are boring and musically uninteresting.” Remember, I like drum solos when they are well played. Why are there so many solos that just don’t make it? Let’s consider some of the problems that confront the drummer who wants to solo effectively:

1) A drum solo is played with no accompaniment. No bass line, no chords and no one else to keep time for the drummer. Other players have a lot of support when they solo, but the drummer is all alone. This in itself is a great challenge. Most piano players regard solo piano playing as the ultimate test on their instrument. (By solo piano I mean no accompaniment.)

2) The drummer has less to work with than the solo piano player. He has rhythms, dynamics, textures and various sound effects. It is much like making a great pen and ink drawing. Because of the lack of color, each stroke of the pen becomes more critical. The same is true for the drummer. Without chords and melodies to work with it becomes more difficult to keep the solo musically interesting.

3) Drum solos are technically and physically demanding. This is partly due to the first two problems. Playing alone and working within the limitations of the instrument require that the drummer have good control over the drumset.

This does not mean that the drummer must have blazing speed to solo well. It does mean that he needs control over his body, his mind, and his instrument.

Some Common Faults

1. Playing too much. After being a human rhythm machine for several hours, the drummer sometimes sounds as if he was suddenly launched from a cannon and is hitting everything in sight. This is partly the result of having very few chances to solo and trying too hard to be impressive.

2. Playing to impress other drummers. Drummers who practice a lot and develop technique to a high level often can’t resist “showing off” when other drummers are listening. You can usually tell when this is happening because the tempo falls apart when a difficult pattern is attempted. Another indication is that the drum solo will often have little or nothing to do with the tune, or the arrangement.

3. Having no conception of musical form. A drum solo can be a few short choruses. This is not a big problem in terms of form because the tune is the form. However, a long, feature type solo can be a disaster if the solo has no form. Drummers sometimes play like mad until they run out of gas and the band has to rescue them. This type of solo is anticlimactic and is usually a great relief to everyone when it’s over. “Thank goodness he stopped” is the comment both the audience and other musicians are inclined to make.

Ideas for Effective Solo Playing

1. If you are playing choruses on a tune (a short solo) sing the melody of the tune in your mind as you solo. This way you don’t have to count measures and your solo will fit the form of the tune. When the other musicians can tell where you are in the song, you are playing musically.

2. Remember that everything you play sounds faster and more complicated to someone who is listening than it does to you. Tape record some of your solos and play them back. You will notice that it sounds more impressive than it did when you played it. Keeping this fact in mind will help you to avoid playing too much and trying too hard. Better to play something interesting than something that is difficult.

3. A long drum solo must have a beginning, a middle and an end. This does not mean a memorized routine that is the same everytime. Just have a general idea of how you want to start the solo. Play a certain rhythm and develop it. Play a figure or an idea that’s in the tune. If it’s rock, start with some rock patterns. If it’s a bossa nova or a jazz waltz, develop some of those rhythms.

In the middle of the solo you might change the tempo or change the sounds you are using. Go to tom-toms or hi-hat or whatever, as long as some contrast is created. Use dynamics by playing softly or by changing to mallets or brushes. Then build to some sort of ending for the finale.

Once you have this basic form in mind, improvise within it. Now you can play freely and the solo will have some kind of form. This is only one possible form, but it is a good way to start. With practice you will develop your own approach to playing solos with different musical forms.

4. Play in tempo. This is not to say that a free form solo isn’t effective. But you must learn to play in tempo before attempting free form solo playing. Walk before you run is an old saying but a true one.

Tape record your solos and listen to hear if the pulse is steady. Many young drummers rush the tempo because they are trying too hard. Relax, keep the tempo together and play musically. With more experience you will develop your own style and your own way of doing things.

Some Final Thoughts About Solos

There are many styles of drumming and many styles of solo playing. Solo playing is much more than technique and rudiments. It is a mirror of how you think and feel about drumming and music. There is no way to hide when playing a drum solo because you are all alone.

If you want to improve your solo playing, then examine your own thinking. Change some attitudes and re-evaluate your approach. Listen to drummers who solo well in other kinds of music. Indian, oriental, South American and Latin mu sic are brimming with a wealth of ideas you might not have explored.

Let’s not forget that the drum set is basically an accompanying instrument. No matter how well you solo you won’t get into nor remain in a band unless you compliment the other members of the band. No one wants a great solo drummer who can’t keep time or play with other people. The solo is the frosting on the cake. The cake is playing well with the group or band.

When all is said and done, there is nothing more exciting than a dynamic, experienced drummer who can inspire a band and then top it off with a powerful and intelligent solo.

For me, that’s baking the cake, putting the frosting on and lighting the candles.


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