Lately I've been reading a lot of interviews and reading comments on You Tube where drummers themselves say that drum solos are boring! Why is this so? What are we doing wrong? As someone who does solo drum set performances and has done so for many years now I find this to be quite disappointing because I along with many other drummers who also solo frequently know that our instrument is capable of so much if we take the time to explore its possibilities. So, here's my take on how a drummer should approach a solo.
First off, yes you are a drummer but you are also a musician! However, many drummers in my opinion make a huge mistake when it comes to their musical upbringing by only understanding the language of rhythm. In other words, even if they read music, they know nothing about music theory. They can hum the riffs of the song but they know nothing about the key of the song, the scales & modes used in the melodic sections of the song nor do they understand a thing that the other instruments are doing. Meanwhile, we revere musicians like Frank Zappa and Steve Vai who know more about drums than most drummers do yet somehow don't think that the rest of us are capable of knowing just as much about the instruments that they play. This is utter nonsense!
I am a professional drummer with endorsements and other types of recognition and I am proud of what I have accomplished thus far in my drumming career even though I am not known on an international level. However, I am just as proud of the awards & grants that I have earned for my original compositions along with the fact that many of them have been featured on various television shows around the world. This knowledge of music came first from studying music at a local community college while also learning how to play the guitar, bass guitar & piano. I was also never afraid to ask other musicians how they did various things on their instruments, which in turn ended up being an even exchange of ideas as I was also glad to show them things they wanted to know about drumming. I am a decent guitarist and adequate on the bass guitar & piano but most importantly, I can write music without the assistance of other musicians translating what I hear in my head. Perhaps some of you say that you're not interested in writing music because you just want to drum in a band. That's fine but have you not considered what this knowledge will do for your drumming? Look at drummers like Phil Collins & Billy Cobham. Both of them have been recognized as two of the best drummers on the planet and have influenced so many drummers during their amazing careers but the one thing that is not discussed enough is that much of their brilliant drumming has actually occurred in songs they have written themselves! And why are their drumming styles so unique? They speak a musical language that most drummers don't know because they also understand music from a harmonic and melodic perspective, which is something you can actually hear in their drumming and in their drum sound.
Second, don't just focus on drumming gymnastics (yes, I stole that description from American Idol judges who criticize vocal runs). When I first considered the idea of doing solo drum set work the first thing I did was study drum solos and thanks to You Tube I now had access to tons of them. I mostly wanted to see what really caught my attention and why it stood out so much. I studied big band drummers, Latin drummers, rock drummers and drummers/percussionists from world genres playing other percussion instruments and to tell you the truth, it did get kind of boring. Single stroke rolls between the snare and toms, single strokes at high speeds between the hands and feet, groupings around the kit....after while I was like, really? Come on guys! To paraphrase Gene Simmons: it's like watching someone type. Sadly, as I watched more of the recommended videos of a particular drummer I noticed that in most cases it didn't how old the videos were because they're doing almost the same exact thing! Chops, chops and more chops. And, if it's not just chops it is usually the same licks over and over.
Now don't get me wrong. Chops are good and certainly have a place when it comes to a climactic moment of a solo but five minutes of it says nothing in terms of one's musicality. This is where song structure plays a key role in what you're doing. Create some sections that are in fact recognizable to the audience and don't be afraid to repeat them the same way a verse and chorus are repeated in a great song.
While I admittedly get bored watching all of the drumming gymnastics on You Tube I didn't get bored watching performances of some of my favorite songs whether they were renditions of what a musical group has done over the years or different performances that fans from all over the world have shared from the same tour. That is because these songs are great pieces of music that really says something to the listener. Why can't the same thing come from a drum solo? After all, do we not see the same thing in solo piano and guitar pieces?
Third, consider expanding your rhythmic repertoire. Speaking for myself, I am more than burned out on hearing a jazz drummer doing his ding-ding-a-ding groove during a solo. After all, I hear it enough in the songs that they play with the rest of the band so change it up a bit. This is your solo so take the stage! Same thing with rock drummers pounding their syncopated double bass grooves when they start their solos. Change it up man! That's why there is a difference between a rhythm guitar part and a guitar solo. We have to think about how we can take such an idea to our instrument.
Personally, I like playing around with world rhythms because many of those rhythms have melodic lines in them. However, if that's not your thing then work on ideas where you can create melodies around the kit that fit your preferred musical genre and most importantly, your drumming style. Then, record yourself doing it and start piecing things together and before you know it you are ready to take it to the stage.
One of the things that encouraged me to pursue my solo drum set work was when I was asked by a rock band I was performing with to do a drum solo during a two hour set. They needed to kill some stage time since they had a limited set list so they told me to just go for a good five to ten minutes! So I figured, here's a great chance to see if what I've been experimenting with sounds good. I played a Latin based drum solo that I had been working on and it was pretty cool to see a bunch of rivet head rocker fans go crazy hearing something that wasn't a regular part of their musical playlist. It was a solo over the 3:2 Son Clave where I did a Songo groove along with some traditional African drumming patterns that were common over what is called the Kpanlogo rhythm, which is the original name of the Son Clave. It gave the groove a different feel and since I took the Kpanlogo section down dynamically helped me kick the Songo out of the gates each time I went back to that section. Then I maintained the Clave with my feet when I did some soloing before going back to the first part of the...dare I say it...drumming song! Final crash, roar of the crowd, mission accomplished.
Once that happened I knew I had something so I continued experimenting with world rhythms and have been able to create several drum set solos that I have now performed at music festivals, clubs, in master class settings and even as a featured performer at the Music Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ on multiple occasions. I have a blast every time I get these opportunities not just because I have a chance to challenge myself as a solo performer but also because I get the chance to demonstrate what I call the orchestral approach to the drum set.
Of course it's a work in progress and while I've been pretty direct with my ideas on soloing please know that this is also a regular challenge for me as well. I certainly know that there have been great solo gigs and some that could've been much better. There were times when I had some really cool phrases going on over my ostinatos and times when I focused more on drumming gymnastics because the melodic ideas just weren't coming out the right way on that particular day. That's the life of the performer but that's still no excuse, which is why I try to keep various ideas on reserve in order to ensure that my performances are as musical as possible.
Finally, approach this whole soloing thing like a songwriter. Document your ideas regardless if it's from a practice session or a live performance. Try to create your ideas in different places and for a drummer, that doesn't mean that you always have to be sitting behind your drums. When you do take advantage of being in a different room. I always like to get to a gig early because I like some quiet time before it's time to perform. Since I'm usually the first one set up that allows me to take some time to jam on some new ideas. Being in a different setting allows me to feel a little different so it's amazing how that affects my playing. If it sounds good I take out my mobile device and record it. Sometimes you don't even have to be near your drums. Some of my best ideas come from sitting with my drum machine and programming various ideas to see how they sound when I add other parts. If it sounds good then I know it's something worth pursuing.
In conclusion, I know I have some strong opinions about drum solos but that's only because I really love my instrument and want to help my drumming colleagues see more to the art of soloing. I get great inspiration from drummers who are not afraid to break ground because they excite me about what can be done with the instrument. For me a drum solo is more than just trading fours and eights in a band setting. In most cases that's what they are giving us while we give them all the time they need to express themselves. What's up with that? I don't need someone else to create the framework for me to express myself. This is my solo so why don't you go off and have a drink or talk to that pretty lady in the front row. Then again, in their defense, maybe the other musicians have also grown tired of drumming gymnastics and prefer to see the set move forward with a better flow.
You're probably not going not going to make a living playing drum solos because our job in a group setting is to lay down the groove. That's okay because I like doing that, too because it doesn't matter what kind of music one plays as long as it's music that they enjoy. But as an artist, there are no limits. I'm always ready to create music whether it's on the drum set or on another instrument. However, nothing feels better for me than to take my instrument of choice to show the world just how amazing it really is.