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We asked high profile Australian
drummer, music educator Gordon Rytmeister
to answer the following question...

Gordon Rytmeister

March 2009

The Question:
What makes a good drum solo?

Response by Gordon Rytmeister share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

A good drum solo; some might say that’s an oxymoron. However, I have to say I’ve seen the most cynical of music critics be moved by a truly good drum solo. So what is it that makes it truly good?

The short answer is that it’s the same factors that make any solo a good one on any instrument. A good solo uses musical devices, such as theme and variation, dynamics, rhythmic density, melodic exploration, tension and release, sonic beauty and so on, to take the listener on a journey. The journey can be of any “genre” such as exciting, beautiful, colourful, playful, interesting, dense, spacious, dynamic or a combination of any of the above. Although the drum kit is not usually pitched, we drummers have a huge range of sounds, dynamics, timbres and tones to draw from to create our solos.

Like any good composition or arrangement, a good drum solo should tell a story. It should have a beginning, a middle, a climax and an end. The climax does not necessarily have to be at the end, however, the solo should have a musical shape of some kind. For instance, the most common shape of a drum solo is to begin with sparse phrases at a lower dynamic, building in intensity, volume and density to a rousing climax. It’s also very effective and far less common to reverse that order, starting with “all guns blazing” and gradually decreasing to very quiet, spacious phrases. This invites the listener on a musical journey that can be very compelling. An example of such a solo is played by the great Buddy Rich on the tune “Brush Strokes”, live at the Montreal Jazz Festival. The solo, played entirely on brushes, starts with a series of rhythmically dense and exciting phrases, gradually decreasing to a whisper and culminating in a bentle cymbal sweep with the butt end of the brush to bring the band back in. Exciting stuff!

Just as a saxophonist’s improvisation “writes” a new melody over the chords and form of a tune, a good drum solo should reference the sections of the tune and stick to that form. I once took part in a drummer’s festival where a number of drummers were to perform solos for an audience of... well, more drummers. “Wish I was there” I hear you say! One of the international performers played what should have been a very good solo but unfortunately, I found that his performance didn’t really move me. In analysing what it was about the solo that didn’t appeal to me I realise that the performance was more like a series of licks and patterns... very good licks and patterns but with no story to connect them. Like a good composition, a good drum solo should also have a theme with variations, always returning to a central idea as does the chorus of a pop song. A string of unrelated licks and fills will soon get pretty boring to the listener.

What, then, should we play if not “licks” and “patterns” to make up a good drum solo?

I don’t know of any drummer who doesn’t play patterns of some kind. Even Jack Dejohnette and Elvin Jones play stickings and use motifs around the drums but it’s really all about how these “patterns” are strung together and the inspiration behind them rather than the actual patterns being the end unto themselves. With Jack, for instance, it’s not the pattern that matters, but the idea that inspired the pattern, and also where the “pattern” takes him. By that I mean he might play a sticking pattern that you could recognise to be, Right, Right, Left, Left orchestrated over two different drums which could constitute a “lick” or a “pattern”. However, what he has created is a sound or a phrase which further inspires him. So in a good drum solo, the inevitable patterns become subservient to the sounds and phrases rather than the other way around. This is true of most good drum soloists from Buddy Rich, and Philly Joe Jones to Steve Gadd and Vinnie Colaiuta.

Another thing that often ties the theme and patterns of a solo together is a strong pulse. Although not all solos have to be “in time”, a good solid pulse helps to give the audience a reference. I personally prefer soloing in time and over a form of some kind. It gives me something to play off and allows the space to speak as strongly as the notes. Steve Gadd’s mighty solo from Tom Scott’s “Apple Juice” live recording is a classic example of a solo played off a strong pulse with deeply intense results.

Another thing that affects the solo is what came before and what is to follow. A good solo should musically carry on from what preceded it and bridge the gap so as to logically connect to what comes after. Tony Williams does this spectacularly on the track “Snake Oil” from his “Believe It” recording.

As I mentioned above, good drum solos, like all good solos on any horn, should employ all the same musical devices as a good composition. A great example is Joe Morello’s classic melodic solo over the 5/4 vamp in Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”. Joe employs shifting rhythmic phrases, dynamic bursts, subtle syncopation and lots of space to create an intriguing and haunting masterpiece.

So what makes a good drum solo? The same things that make any good solo: good phrases and ideas, strung together musically while telling an interesting, exciting or beautiful story.

© 2009 Gordon Rytmeister

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