Neil Peart played a number of different kits during his forty years of touring with Rush. Here we discuss the major evolutionary changes his kit went through by focusing on the setups he sported during the first three, classic Rush live albums plus the unique approach he took during their R40 tour.
All the World’s a Stage (1976)
The 2112 album gave Rush their first taste of success, and their newfound fans were willing to go wherever the band took them. Recorded in their hometown of Toronto in 1976, All the World’s a Stage is maximum rock ’n’ roll; Rush is running their involved tunes with an accuracy and ferocity many veteran acts couldn’t approach. Peart’s parts aren’t yet written in stone, and he’s able to really rock out on tracks like “In the End” and “Something for Nothing,” whipping out tidal wave tom rolls and go-for-broke cymbal crashes. Geddy Lee introduces Peart as “the Professor” before the drum solo inside “Working Man/Finding My Way,” and all the flavors he’d return to time and time again are already present, from the sprightly rudimental snare work to those melodic cowbell phrases. This earliest live document proved Rush were a force to be reckoned with in the concert arena, and it capped off the first phase in what would be a long career. By the time they released another live set, Rush would be internationally championed rock royalty, and their stage work would achieve a new level of authority.
The kit Neil used during the concerts documented on All the World’s a Stage was a maple-shell Slingerland with a chrome finish, lovingly referred to as “Chromey.” Prominently displayed on the album cover, this seven-up, one-down layout had certain unique characteristics that would not carry over to later setups.
The four concert-tom sizes lasted through several subsequent tours, but the three main toms in front of Neil were a bit smaller than ones he eventually would employ. For a drummer who played lots of long and involved fills, it’s interesting that Neil only used one floor tom during this era, and would do so until later adding a timpani to his right for color.
Of note was Neil’s reliance on his Slingerland Artist snare drum, referred to as “Old Faithful,” which would grace many future studio recordings and live shows. Neil played Zildjian cymbals for a long time, and the basic setup here would remain the same for years, with 13″ hi-hats, two crashes to his left, a splash in front, and a crash, splash, and ride configuration to his right side. China cymbals were not yet present during this time, and Neil’s percussion was minimal, including a small array of orchestra bells, cowbells, and wind chimes. Promark 747 Rock model sticks and Ludwig Speed King pedals rounded out the equipment.
Exit…Stage Left (1981)
Recorded during tours supporting 1980’s Permanent Waves and 1981’s Moving Pictures, Exit…Stage Left presents Rush at the height of its powers, at the crucial intersection where their most ambitious material meets their newfound superstardom. All three musicians play with an increased level of assuredness—check Rush’s touring itinerary from this era for an eye-popping amount of road work—and Peart’s drumming in particular has developed a razor-sharp edge honed over time. Where the raw All the World’s a Stage clobbered the listener with a hard rock approach that owed much to Peart influences like the Who’s Keith Moon and King Crimson’s Michael Giles, here the drummer further shows off the refinements featured in his recent studio work. Peart weaves in and out of the twisting “Jacob’s Ladder” with confidence, while album gems like “A Passage to Bangkok” truly crackle with life on an airtight recording with very little crowd noise. Epic studio showcases like “Xanadu” are imbued with the taut quality of the band’s current work, as was Peart’s solo in “YYZ,” which underwent fine-tuning and became a real Rush concert highlight. If their first live album was an opening salvo of energy and chops, Exit…was Rush finding its concert sound, with Peart leading the way.
Exit…Stage Left saw Neil’s switch to Tama drums, with the 1980 and 1981 tours featured on the album presenting a few significant changes to the equipment. The Tama Superstar kit in custom Rosewood finish was “vibrafibed,” with the inside of the shells treated with a thin coat of fiberglass, and the bass drums went up a size to 24″. Neil would also add timpani, brass timbales, and, later, Tama gong bass drums. The “Old Faithful” 5.5×14 Slingerland snare was retained, however. In the April/May 1980 issue of Modern Drummer, Neil says of the drum, “Every other snare I’ve had chokes somewhere, either very quietly or if you hit it too hard. This one never chokes. You can play it very delicately or you can pound it to death. It always produces a very clean, very crisp sound. It has a lot of power, which I didn’t expect from a wooden drum.” Neil used head models made by a variety of manufacturers, including Remo Clear Dots on his snare and bass drums, Ludwig Silver Dots on his concert toms, and Evans heads on his rack and floor toms. As Rush’s music grew more expansive, so did Neil’s percussion setup, by now including crotales, tubular bells, and temple blocks in addition to what was already present earlier. Brass-plated Tama hardware was a final detail.
The Evolution of a Stick
Neil Peart used Promark drumsticks throughout his career. To see a forty-year photographic history, from the 1975 Rush tour to the 2015 R40 trek, check out neilpeartdrumsticks.com, where you’ll also find a collection of Neil’s Promark print ads, as well as a fan gallery.
A Show of Hands (1989)
The last of Rush’s “classic era” live offerings was assembled using shows mostly from the Hold Your Fire tour of 1988, and while the resulting sound and setlist varies greatly from their first two concert discs, this is still Rush bringing their A game to fans who couldn’t get enough. Featuring Peart’s self-actualized mastery of combining his acoustic drums with an electronic kit and percussion, the noise Rush made with three guys onstage was huge. The drummer’s verve on dynamic tracks like “Marathon” and “Manhattan Project” is a marvel to hear, his parts formulated as if by a machine to be performed by a machine, and the mix has an almost too-perfect, antiseptic studio quality. Peart, though, is very human, and here he combines flawlessness with a bead of sweat. Peart’s drum solo, “The Rhythm Method,” further advances on previously developed accented snare work with the addition of electronic marimba and triggered horn hits. There would be many more tours yielding more live recordings, but none more essential than these first three.
For the 1988 Hold Your Fire tour that provided the majority of performances on A Show of Hands, Neil once again chose to make a change in drum manufacturer, this time settling on a set of Ludwig Super Classics in a white/pink sparkle finish. The “Vibra-fibing” process returned, and most of the concert toms were replaced with double-headed drums for uniformity. The big leap from the Exit…Stage Left setup was the prominent addition of electronics. A MalletKAT controller, which now allowed Neil to recreate many of the percussion sounds like temple blocks, was added to the Simmons electronic modules he’d introduced a few years earlier. Also present were Yamaha MIDI controllers, Akai samplers, and a swanky rotating drum riser.
“The song ‘Mission’ had a syncopated marimba, bass guitar, and snare drum solo,” Neil told MD in his December 1989 cover story. “I originally recorded the snare and overdubbed the marimba. Live, I assigned both the snare and marimba sound to the same pad—so I can have both sounds! Through the wonder of electronics, I was able to manipulate the pitches of the temple blocks on ‘Time Stand Still,’ so I got the sound I heard in my head.” Neil was now surrounded 360 degrees by toys of all sorts, and he was able to reproduce the band’s increasingly electronic-oriented sounds faithfully in the concert space.
R40 Live (2015)
Rush embarked on their final tour knowingfull well that it would be a summation of all the group had achieved and then some. Documenting the Peart/Lifeson/Lee trio’s fortieth year together, R40 Live, recorded in 2015, again in their hometown of Toronto, boasted a unique setlist that worked backwards chronologically. Beginning with Peart’s hammering tom work on “The Anarchist” and double kick flourishes in “Far Cry,” this was the band proving that their latest material was as strong as the stuff they put out during their classic period, and that Peart was still up to the challenge of creating imaginative drum parts. For the second set, Peart switched from his modern kit to a replica drumset he’d played in the late 1970s, and he rips on deep fan wish list numbers like “Natural Science” and “Hemispheres” with still-brilliant technical prowess and trademark power. Before the show concludes with the band’s early riff songs like “What You’re Doing,” we hear Peart swim in the odd-time sea of rarities like “Losing It” with the maturity of a player with years at the game. Not merely a nostalgia cash-grab, R40 Live showcases a still-able band, and puts an exclamation point on an incredible career.
For the R40 tour, Neil pulled out all the stops, adopting a more-is-more attitude by featuring not one but two full kits used throughout the course of the unique, “backwards in time” performance. The set list would begin with Rush’s recent repertoire, as Neil would play the “modern kit,” a beautiful DW Black Pearl–finish monster made from a 1,500-year-old Romanian River Oak tree.
“The first kit in the first set is evolved as an instrument of perfect comfort,” Neil said in the January 2016 issue of MD. “I can play it with my eyes closed. The musicality through the cymbals and the toms. Everything is carefully chosen and put where it should be. I tell people, don’t look at those 47 drums. It’s a four-drum setup. Look at the middle, everything spins off from there.”
Rounding things out were assorted Sabian Paragon cymbals, various electronics including Roland V-Drums and MalletKATs, and Ableton Live running on a MacBook Pro. The hardware was even gold-plated. But the great surprise was a totally separate second kit, nicknamed “El Darko,” used later in the show for all the material from Moving Pictures and before. This was a DW replica of Peart’s classic Slingerland kit from the late 1970s, and it featured two bass drums as well as four “open” concert toms used for the first time since the mid-’80s Power Windows Tama kit. This black chrome-finish beast, also made from that 1,500-year-old tree, sounded great, but was tougher to tame for the older, wiser Peart.
In the 2016 MD piece, Neil shared, “I had the notion that, wouldn’t it be great if instead of having the rotating set I’ve had for years that kind of contrasts the acoustic and electronic drums, I went to a whole second drumset. I always say this about old cars and old motorcycles, I love them, and old drums, I love them, but new ones are better. The ergonomics of it all [were tough]. I used to make everything so close and under me. But it was counterintuitive thinking. I used to think the closer it is, the more power I can get on it, but that’s not true. You have to get it the right distance. Close or near doesn’t matter. And the way the set list works out, I had to solo on that set.
“I’d much rather solo on my modern set in every sense,” Peart went on, “musically and physically. But there are cool things as well. I used to have timbales on my left side and I got those again, and playing two bass drums again was fun.”
Neil and Rush went out on the highest of notes, giving fans a concert experience filled with music spanning the band’s entire career, still played at peak level. Peart would hang up the sticks and put down the pen with no regrets.
THE STORY OF CHROMEY
In 1987, Modern Drummer held a contest where entrants were instructed to send in a two-minute, unaccompanied drum solo on cassette, to be judged by none other than Neil Peart himself. The 1,776 entries received were whittled down by MD’s editors to 46, from which Peart chose the winners. And the prize? It sounds too good to be true, but the three top winners would each receive a kit that Peart had recorded with and used in live performances throughout Rush’s career. (Unable to keep his winners to three, Neil asked his cymbal company at the time, Zildjian, to put together a fourth prize package, a set of new cymbals.)
Perhaps Neil’s most famous kit, the Slingerland Chrome set he used on the recordings and tours for Fly by Night, Caress of Steel, 2112, and All the World’s a Stage—yes, the drums on the cover of that seminal live album—were won by a drummer named Mark Feldman. Now cut to sometime in 2009, and MD photographer John Fell, who at the time was a partner in Brooklyn music store Main Drag Music, was visited by Feldman, who wanted to sell the kit on consignment. Fell, who’d worked in museums prior to entering drum retail and repair, discussed with his colleagues what to do with the kit and how to sell it. “The enemy of conservation is restoration,” says Fell. “But since we were selling it, we decided to keep it as is—not even conserve it, let alone restore it. It was even in Neil’s tuning.”
There was a long, intense eBay auction, which resulted in some Rush fans asking to see and touch the kit, and the store decided that it needed to be put on display. In one particularly odd wrinkle to the story, Fell received multiple phone calls from an anonymous shadow figure calling himself “the High Priest from the Temple of Syrinx,” who insisted that the kit wasn’t authentic. The bidding price froze at $2,112 (of course), and then $21,012, and the drums eventually sold for around $25,000.
And who showed up to pick up the kit? A collector named Dean Bobisud, who drove all the way from Chicago. “He owned a pizzeria, and he sold a Corvette to do this,” says Fell. “He was a serious Rush fanatic, with a shrine of Peart’s sticks and guitar picks. He arrived in a van with a bunch of matching drum bags, and was very excited. He even put a chicken suit on for the photo—the actual chicken suit that Rush’s crew used onstage during their tours. They’d have rotisserie chickens turning onstage, and techs wearing these suits would come out and baste them.” The kit was eventually restored and has since made the showcase rounds, as documented on the internet.
It seems that, indeed, all the world’s a stage, and some of us are merely players… wearing chicken suits.