[There are a lot of videos in this post. I apologise, but I felt it was the only real way to get my point across. You don’t have to watch them all]

Ah yes, the drum solo. Please don’t leave, don’t use this number to go to the bathroom and get a drink. I promise you it’ll be interesting.

Really it’s not surprising why drum solos get a bad rap. There’s enough negative press about guitar solos as it is, and that’s the one that makes squiggly exciting noises that can be bent by ungodly amounts of pedals, computer processing and any other form of electronics conceived by man. And when your audience is bored of some long-haired jock playing with electricity, well, how does a drum solo begin to compare?

I’ll admit, it doesn’t really. Rock drum solos do have a reputation for excessive wankery. It’s the 10 minutes of the concert where the drummer’s years of toiling away behind a kit (or with even more humility; a practice pad), developing advanced rhythmic structures with extreme discipline and intimate knowledge of the functions of one’s limbs, actually attempts to garner some degree of accord and recognition to which it no doubt deserves. Yes of course, a good drummer makes themselves known without having an explicit platform; one does not need to be told that Keith Moon or Neil Peart is a fantastic drummer. But the environment of a solo is completely different to that of playing behind a band, and even the most audacious drummer does have to conform to some sense of structure.

That doesn’t really occur in a solo. Stripping away the melody, chords and lyrics, one is left with pure rhythm. Unadulterated rhythm, supposedly. Yet, it’s silly to deny tonality. It’s hard to listen to Moby Dick and not hear Bonham’s efforts to wring certain sounds of the toms (to the extent that he used his hands). Yes, of course it’s highly rhythmic, but that isn’t the crux of it. While he’s playing rhythms, only a fool would argue that there’s no overarching direction or intentional evocation. A drummer’s hands and feet are never stuck in pure repetition, and neither is his brain.

Although here’s someone who really should be using his more (and I don’t recommend you listen for longer than a minute).

Now of course, Matt’s got excellent chops and is a talented drummer (somewhat underrated too; the fills in November Rain and Live And Let Die are great), but his solo here is exemplary of the typical stadium rock drum solo. It’ll start off with a rock beat, because everyone loves rock beats at a rock concert, which will repeat for a while, before it gets increasing faster, with a few fills thrown in here and there. And then after a bit of wacky-wavy fill work, they’ll begin a new beat. Crescendos and decrescendos will continue, until the solo has lasted a good deal longer than most of the band’s songs, the crowd will cheer here and there, and finally it’ll end after about seven-nine minutes of mediocrity.

But how did the modern day (rock) drum solo emerge from a tradition that looked a bit more like this:

Drum solos in the jazz tradition are much more sensible. They’re never pieces in and of themselves. They can be integral to the piece; many explosive big band charts are drum features, but no performer was ever as naive to consider that nine minutes of beats/time with flourishes here and there would ever be much fun.

Except for Buddy Rich

Even in writing that, I realised straight away that even when Buddy is playing by himself (his solos can last for ten minutes on the snare drum alone) he’s still creative as all else, as evident in this great clip with Jerry Lewis (who must have learnt drums at some point; he can actually play):

So are jazz drummers just better than rock drummers? Well on the whole, yes. However, considering that jazz is a music form largely based upon one’s ability to play as opposed to rock’s focus being upon songwriting, this isn’t really surprising or indeed anything to be ashamed of (and there are many rock and metal drummers of phenomenal talent; not to mention the increasingly large field of those who play both with utter precision). Still, this doesn’t answer much.

Is it because of the way solos are structured? Jazz solos are played within a group setting, and while they aren’t frequently backed up chords or bass, there are occasional hits from the band, and the drummer does often follow the melody and the structure as any good soloist does. Rock solos on the other hand are just pure free form, so it’s understandably much harder to generate an interesting piece, especially given that stadium solos last for at least five minutes, compared to jazz solos which may last for a two minutes at the max. Jazz solos aren’t pieces or songs; they’re part of the tune, and they’re just soloing like any other member of the band does. Few guitarists and bassists feature on their own background-less extended solos in rock.

I think such a claim is reasonable; drummers do limit themselves in such open-ended formats. While Buddy Rich made himself interesting no matter what he’s playing, few people can actually play like Buddy. It’s refreshing to hear a drum solo as part of a rock song, not in lieu of one (the solo starts at 2:30):

Ultimately, solos polarise people as it is, so it’s understandable that anybody who is indifferent or worse to jazz will have little enthusiasm for any type of drum solo. But that said, I really can’t imagine rock music without them. Yes, they’re overblown, yes, they last too long, but hasn’t a cascading waterfall of tom-toms ever excited you?

And to finish us off [if you haven’t watched any of the other videos I do suggest you watch this one], in what I consider to be probably the finest rock solo recorded, here’s Neil Peart’s (unfortunately embed-disabled) rhythmic, melodic, unstoppable onslaught on YYZ