Drum Solos

Posted on December 13, 2020

 Drum Solos Summary

So it’s time to distill my thoughts from the Memorial Concert posts. The first thing I want to talk about concerns drum solos since I originally wanted to share a solo from each drummer. I had to can an audible partway through this project, when I realized that notating six solos was not gonna happen.

It started so simple with Steve Gadd: his solo is short and sweet, with a steady sense of time. Gregg Bisonette’s was a little excessive, but it wasn’t too much trouble the figure out the parts I wanted to. Then things kinda fell apart when I got to Vinnie Colaiuta.

I like to think that drum solos can (generally) fit into three categories. First are solos over a vamp, or band hits (e.g. the ending to Steely Dan’s “Aja”). Then there are unaccompanied solos where the drummer gets to fart around for a bit, while keeping steady time (I often refer to these as drum breaks — Gadd and Dennis Chambers’ memorial solos are examples, as are many live versions of “Take Five”). Lastly, we have what I call “Moby Dick” solos, where the drummer plays for an extended solo, often with no strong sense of time or meter.

Vinnie and Dave Weckl both play “Moby Dick” solos; to some extent, so do Gregg and Louie Bellson. These can be very difficult to transcribe, as any combination of subdivisions, tempo markings, and time signatures can be used to get it all down.

The main reason I transcribe is to learn exactly what the drummer is doing, so I can rework the licks into my own playing. Anyone who's played music for more than 20 minutes will know that's the name of the game.

Any time a drummer is playing with a strong groove, the patterns can be of some value in your own playing. But with a “Moby Dick” style solo, things get a bit trickier. It’s already unlikely that your average drummer needs to know how to solo in any capacity, let alone a big, drawn–out performance. In addition, when does the drummer get the opportunity to play with no sense of time?

I could sort of relish in the gratuitous, drummy-ness of the concert, but I think taking a look at such a solo would have diminishing results. You see, many will say the drummer’s job is to keep time — I’d say the drummer’s job is to play the drums, but I can’t help but feel like drums are at their best when they’re grooving.

I can’t say definitively that drums must groove; some of my favorite music doesn't groove… still, I certainly prefer drumming that has a strong sense of time.

Drum solos are a tricky beast. Many people evaluate drums based on how they serve the music around them. That's easy enough when there’s a band playing, or at least when comparing a drum break to the context of the song around it. I do think drums can be musical on their own, but they are inherently limited in what kind of musical statements they can make (no matter what you hear online, drums can’t play real melodies/harmonies).

Listen to something like Keith Jarret’s The Köln Concert — I think the album is the all-time best solo performance of any instrument. Many instruments don’t have the same level of diverse musicality as the piano, and near the bottom of that list is the drum set.

Good drum solos are often admired for storytelling and thematic ability, but ideas need to be fleshed out to be done justice. I think the best way for the drum set to do that is to learn into your rhythm and groove.

I still like Dave and Vinnie’s solos; they’re fun to listen to, but I just can’t earnestly say it’s what I’m into musically. Drum solos can often become self-serving, showing off chops more than anything else. Don't get me wrong, it can be great fun; I love watching “Moby Dick” from the Royal Albert Hall gig, but I have a strong suspicion that drummers are the only ones who make it through the full 15 minutes. Meanwhile, all manner of people can give endless listens to “Whole Lotta Love”.

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