In this article we’ll give some insight into how to conceive, construct, and execute a drum solo in a live rock context. For those who’ve never performed a solo, it can be a very scary idea. But when you’re starting out it’s often best to just go for it—at least in the practice room. By letting go of any fears and playing freely, you’re being creative in the moment, and these are often the times when the most interesting ideas spring out.
Once you’re comfortable playing free-form in the practice room, it’s time to start conceiving ways to build a solo with more intention. Here’s one way to go about it.
The Beginning Stage
The first step is to come up with as many licks and themes as you can, so you can then pick and choose the best ones for your solo. Once you have a number of ideas at your disposal, pick out your favorite. I often start with the simplest concept and then build it into a complete solo.
Here’s a basic rhythm to start with—alternating 16th notes.
To create a theme, add some accents. I’ve decided to make a two-bar phrase.
Now let’s combine the first two examples to make a four-bar phrase.
To make the phrase a bit more musical, we’ll add some dynamics.
Building Your Solo
It’s important to think musically when developing a solo. The more natural and logical the solo, the more it will connect with your audience. Every new theme you introduce should make sense with the previous theme, and nothing should feel mechanical or out of place. Drum soloing is like writing a song—you want to tell a story. The audience is listening, so tell them what’s on your mind.
Set a Vibe
It doesn’t really matter what theme you choose; it’s all in how you play it. The next time you sit behind your kit to work on soloing, think about the message and vibe that you want to convey. If you want to let your audience know you’re a serious player, then reflect that persona. The same goes for letting them know when you’re having a good time—smile!
Throw Yourself a Curveball
Sometimes it helps to rearrange your kit so that you’re forced to come up with fresh ideas. The slightest change to your setup can be really inspiring. You’ll also become more versatile by being able to play on different kits. Try changing your setup every other week, and see how much fun you have. I usually switch something every other show. Although my bandmates think I’m crazy for doing this, I enjoy the added challenge of having to play my kit a little differently.
Call and Response
Need help making longer phrases in your solo? Try doing call and-response exercises to generate more ideas. Make sure that each response complements the call in a musical way, even if it’s a completely different idea. After a while, you’ll be able to create longer phrases.
Know Your Audience
When you solo in an actual performance, your audience will let you know if they like what you’re playing. Crowd participation can affect what you play, especially during sections when you’re improvising. Listen to the way the crowd is reacting. If you hear nothing but crickets, move on, unless that’s the response you want in that particular section. You may also want to extend certain sections if the crowd is cheering you on.
After you’ve played your solo, make mental notes on what worked and what didn’t. If you’re going to be performing with the same band often, chances are you’ll be playing in front of similar types of audiences that will like the same kinds of ideas.
It also helps to record your performances and practices, via audio or video, so that you can review what you played and keep track of your favorite ideas. It’s beneficial to transcribe your ideas, as you will gain a better conceptual view of your solo by seeing it written in musical notation.
If you find yourself lacking the inspiration to come up with something new, try writing a solo that’s based on a melody from one of your favorite songs. Or check out some of your favorite drummers to hear what they do during their solos. You could even listen to the sounds of the world around you (cars, nature, TV, and so on). When you pay attention to what’s going on in the background, some interesting rhythms start to appear.
For the middle section of my solo, I’ll often replicate the sounds of a Harley Davidson, using quick single strokes, sextuplets, and 16th notes on the kick drum. I stumbled across this idea when I heard a Harley idling near my rehearsal spot in Chicago.
There are many ways to perform a drum solo. What will determine your arrangements is ultimately up to you. Be creative, have fun, and start with what you already know and what’s already around you. Happy drumming!
Paul Wandtke has toured with the alt-rock band Kill Hannah and has drummed in showcase acts for Carnival Cruise Lines. For more, visit paulwandtke.com.