I just heard the sad news that Neil Peart, the drummer for Rush, died on January 7. Rest in peace, Neil.
You will hear a lot of people saying, correctly, that he was the best rock drummer of all time.
Yes. But why was he? I want to break this down for non-drummers and non-musicians generally, starting with the simpler stuff and working up to the high-level musicianship.
• His speed and ability to get around the toms were top shelf. That is, he could move from one drum to another seamlessly.
• His rhythm was incredibly precise. No one else in rock had the metronome-like precision that Peart had. Rush is a classic example of a “tight” band, one that plays with rhythmic precision and with all instruments exactly in synch with each other.
• He was excellent with non-standard time signatures. Maybe – maybe – there are other musicians in western music right now who are as comfortable in seven time as Peart, but no one was more comfortable, more at home, in that unusual rhythmic structure. And consider the insane syncopation of the 13/8 section of Jacob’s Ladder (starts around 4:53) or that blazingly fast 7/8 time solo section in Marathon (starts at 2:55 and gets really crazy at 3:43). When that album, Power Windows, came out, a reviewer for Rolling Stone spoke of Peart “subdividing the beat into syncopated algebra.”
• The ability to switch between straight-ahead feel and triplet-based feel – this is much harder than it seems when you’re not practiced at it. For an obvious example cue up their shamefully underrated song Available Light from Presto. As the last run-through of the chorus is starting, Peart plays a powerful triplet-based fill over Geddy Lee’s vocal. (At around 4:10, but start listening at 3:55 so you have musical context.) If you’re not a musician it might almost sound like Peart has messed up. Heh, no. What happens is that while the music stays in 4/4 time, each of those four beats can themselves be divided into four beats or into 3 beats. Peart here is switching from the straight-ahead 16-beats-per-measure feel to a triplet-based 12-beats-per-measure feel. Few rock drummers can do that as fluidly, and no one can do it more fluidly.
• He knew his instrumentation, i.e. how to use all elements of a drum set. Some non-standard ones too: on Moving Pictures he used plywood in at least one song. “More cowbell” is a joke now, but Peart knew when to use it. Try Witch Hunt starting around 1:36 here. He taught us (at least he taught me) how to use china boy cymbals, which I at first tried to use like crash cymbals, to distasteful effect. Uh, no. You use them like a high-hat, to mark time. Try Subdivisions starting at 4:50. (Peart isn’t only marking time here, of course; other stuff is going on too.)
• Peart actually listened to the other instruments and played with them (so they sounded like a band and not a bunch of guys who happened to be playing music in the same room. I’m looking at you, Ringo Starr). In the last paragraph I mentioned marking time, but a good drummer rarely just marks time while doing nothing else. Doing something else requires listening to the other instruments so your something else is musically connected to what the other instruments are doing at any moment.
• Limb independence. Common question from non-drummers: “How do you play four different things with your four different limbs?” It can’t be explained in words. You have to just feel it. Something to latch onto: Usually you put two or three limbs on autopilot, and you’re actually thinking about what you’re doing only with the remaining one or two. A good Peart example: The Big Money, starting at 2:08 where he’s doing something… advanced… with the high-hat cymbal while keeping everything else going. (The high-hat is the two cymbals that can be clamped together; you use your left foot to close them together or separate them. Unfortunately it’s hard to hear the high-hat on YouTube.) My reaction on hearing that for the first time was “How the hell is he doing that!?”
• He was so creative. He played fills that I wouldn’t have thought possible if I hadn’t heard him playing them. An excellent example is the classic set of fills in Tom Sawyer, starting at 2:33, those canonical MUST AIR DRUM TO THIS! fills. If you know a drummer, play this song and see if s/he can resist air drumming to those fills. Answer: No.
I don’t always listen to Tom Sawyer, but when I do, so do my neighbors.
And the way he played with rhythm! Yes, he was a supremely intellectual drummer – he always thought about what he was doing – yet there’s unmistakable playfulness in the way he dove in, experimenting, and changed things up to throw you off, just when you thought you knew what he was going to do next.
• But the big thing you noticed but couldn’t articulate, if you aren’t a musician, was his phrasing.
His phrasing is the main thing that made you say, “There’s something about his drumming that’s just so damn cool, but I can’t explain it.”
Phrasing is when a instrumentalist sets up structure on a small time scale. It’s almost creating little sentences or clauses in the context of the music. If composition is structure on a large time scale – over the course of an entire piece of music – phrasing is playing with structure on the time scale of a couple of bars (measures) of music.
For example, the compositional structure of Tom Sawyer is that they open with that slammin’ drum beat over that growling synthesizer, run through a couple of verses, move into a screaming guitar solo, then pound through to the end.
Phrasing is the way that Peart would play fills within a verse or just within a few measures. For example, he establishes a basic beat in the first few measures, then plays with it for the rest of the song.
Or consider Limelight, in which he slyly plays a four-beat across Geddy and Alex’s three-beat starting at 3:14.
Often, in the first run-through of a verse in a Rush song, Peart would play a fill in a certain way (and because it was Peart, it would be a good fill). On the second verse, he’d usually play it a little differently. He’d omit a drum hit, for instance, so there’d be a gap where you expected to hear something. Or he’d stop the fill short of where you expected it to end, or extend it a couple of beats longer. It’s hard to capture in words the sheer energy and intellect in his drumming.
Like all musicians with good phrasing, Peart would set up an expectation in your mind, then sometimes satisfy it and sometimes violate it. He’d establish a theme, then play with it.
By the way, this is an example of what musicians mean when they say “variations on a theme,” but they almost never use this phrase in the context of drumming. That’s because most drummers aren’t Neil Peart, so they don’t even rise to the level where “variations on a theme” is relevant in their drumming.
No else in rock music ever came within a light-year of Neil Peart’s phrasing. It’s retarded. He doesn’t even have any competition. Not in rock.
(The closest is perhaps Stewart Copeland of the Police – a very minimalist drummer, in contrast to Peart’s more maximalist style. Copeland did some crazy, startling, interesting things with phrasing too. And he and Peart were admirers of each other.)
There are some jazz drummers with kick-ass phrasing, by the way, but at this point in history that’s basically a completely different musical universe from rock.
And that is why Neil Peart was, and is, and probably always will be, the best drummer in the history of rock and roll.
Thank you, Neil, for setting the bar so high for the rest of us. We might not be able to rise to the standard you set, but it’s a pleasure to try, and trying has made us all infinitely better drummers.