April 24, 2018

FTV: Drum Solos


    In the interest of brevity, I decided to not use “To solo or not to solo” as the title of this FTV.  Reading Phil Collins’ memoir “Not Dead Yet” got me thinking about all the drummers I have had the pleasure to hear over the years.  Listening to various types of music means one gets to hear a lot of drumming styles, but the one thing that I always seem to take note of is whether or not a drummer will choose to take a solo turn.  Whether they do or don’t isn’t the yardstick I use to measure their skill. What interests me is how they go about structuring their solos. Of course, finding a way to make one’s own attempts at soloing better by borrowing the best bits and pieces of others is a tried and true method of upping one’s game.

    Growing up and learning to play the drums in the era of the Iron Butterfly classic In A Gadda Da Vida album was interesting.  There was no way I could not learn Ron Bushy’s tribal beat drum solo and call myself a drummer, yet I found over the years that many drummers steered a wide berth around this song.  When the band East of Orange played a two band bill at Marquette’s Armory with local pop band sensations The Excels, I got to hear both bands play the song.

    The East of Orange had a great drummer before the late Les Ross took over the throne but you will have to pardon me for not remembering his name.  What I do know is he had the same basic set that I played with two tom toms, one mounted on the bass drum and one on the floor. In the earlier years of the Iron Butterfly, Bushy used his snare drum (with snares unhitched), two mounted toms and two floor toms to help construct his iconic solo.  E of O’s drummer was able to do a credible job of recreating Bushy’s sound using only three drums.

    At the time of the double band billing at the Armory, I had heard the Orange’s version enough times to know which parts were true to Iron Butterfly’s version and which parts he added to put his own spin on it.  In a move that defied any logic, The Excells began their set with In A Gadda Da Vida right after the Orange finished their set with the full album version of the song.  Then to notch up the strange even further, they played the 45 RPM version where the drum solo is reduced to three bars of bass drum and snare beats with the fourth bar roll taking them back into the last verse.  I told my buddies, “That’s it, let me on the stage and I will show him how it really goes,” and it wasn’t just me bragging. Whatever the reason they choose to whittle the song down to four minutes left us wondering if they just weren’t up to the task.

    The first professional drummer I heard solo in a live concert was the drummer for The Letterman.  Armed with a pair of day glow sticks and a set of black lights, he ran through every trick in the book.  He changed the tempos from molasses slow to hand blurring speed while tossing one stick to the rafters of the double gym across the hall from NMU’s old Hedgecock Basketball Arena.  If he missed a beat or dropped a stick, it didn’t register with me because my jaw was sitting on my lap. I tell people that I went home and quit drumming after that performance, but the truth be told, any doubts I had about my skills pushed me to practice even more.  I would not have been able to rob too much from this guy because his skill level was off the charts.

    Larry Zack from Savage Grace was another drummer with extraordinarily fast hands, but the only solo I ever saw him take was on the bongos during the song Lenore.  Fast hands indeed, so it is ironic that Zack found himself in California just in time to play on some Jackson Brown’s and Warren Zevon’s earliest hits (which are not exactly drum heavy tunes).  Dave Bidwell took over the drum duties for Savoy Brown after Roger Earl and the boys departed to form Foghat. If there is a word to describe Bidwell’s drumming it would not be ‘flamboyant’. He was a rock solid time keeper, but he barely used any fills and definitely no flash.  As the opening band the night they played at Hedgecock, they weren’t alloted enough time for a drum solo. The second band on the Savoy Brown bill was Fleetwood Mac. Mick Fleetwood spent most of his drum solo spot slapping some form of early drum pads he had inserted into pockets on a vest.  He seemed quite pleased with his pioneering electronic drum vest solo, but I was disappointed. I wanted to hear this legendary drummer play the drums, not his chest. A good concert overall but the two drummers didn’t shine enough for me.

    I absolutely loved the Canadian band Triumph both times I caught them live.  Their drummer, Gil Moore, shared a good deal of the vocals with guitarist Rik Emmett, but he played a drum solo that relied more on a flanged drum sound than technique.  Flanging makes a kind of ‘whooshing’ sound out of whatever instrument is run through the effect. Hearing the same drum rolls around the toms of a huge set over and over while the sound guy makes them ‘whooshy’ sounding was not my cup of tea.  I would rather hear some actual drumming, not just ‘whooshing’. Save a couple of reunion gigs, Moore pretty much retired from drumming in 1993, but that was because he happened to be spending most of his time with his baby, Metalworks Recording, one of Canada’s premiere recording facilities.

    Interestingly enough, the J. Geils Band’s drummer (Stephen Jo Bladd) played an excellent solo, but the fact he stepped out front to share the spot with keys player Seth Justman made it sound and look good.  With Bladd playing two concert toms and Justman playing timbales side by side at the stage front, they displayed a great deal of coordination as they matched licks, traded sticks, and in some cases, crossed over and played each other’s drums.  This no doubt took a lot of rehearsal and they seemed to enjoy showing off a bit. I know I loved it and maybe some of that came from it not being a traditional drum solo.

    Not all drum solos utilizing technological tricks come off flat.  Blue Oyster Cult’s original drummer (Albert Bouchard) used one of their most clever tunes, Godzilla, as his drummer’s showcase.  Again, he did more than a passable job getting the audience involved, but when the stage lights went down, there was a brief moment when it looked like a power failure.  When the strobe lights fired up, his solo was reduced to a lot of arm waving rolls. Upon further scrutiny, this was probably necessary as Albert had donned a large Godzilla head and in the flashing strobes, the rocking motions he was making were very reminiscent of an old black and white Japanese film starring you-know-who.  Maybe it wasn’t the greatest drum solo of all time, but it certainly was a memorable one.

    Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Winery Dogs) gets the prize for “most interesting drummer doing a solo while playing a monster kit’.  Over the years that he was the time keeper for Dream Theater, his set grew with each tour. Near the end, he had what amounted to two sets side by side and depending on what the song needed, he would stand up and switch to the right set or left set without ever missing a beat.  In fact, both sets shared some of the cymbals and hardware so it was hard to tell where one kit ended and the other began. Even playing stripped down sets that he now favors with the Winery Dogs, Portnoy knows how to rock a solo. Mike Mangini, his replacement in Dream Theater, has an even larger set than Portnoy’s monster.  It is built around an overhead rack system and has every gadget known to man hanging here and there. There might even be a kitchen sink. He is also an excellent drummer, but the massive sets seem to give way to very ho-hum soloing style.

    The king when it comes to soloing and drum set trickery has to be Neil Peart of another Canadian band, Rush.  In their earlier incarnations, he featured ever growing double bass drum sets with a host of wood blocks, chimes, and other assorted paraphernalia.  His most innovative set looked like his roady would need an engineering degree from MTU just to put it together. The whole set up of racks and drums was mounted on a turntable.  The front half of the set was a zillion acoustic drums with a side order of drum pads used to make various percussion sounds. During his solo spot, he would hit a chime sound on the drum pad and the whole kit would rotate to the back while a mostly electronic set would swing to the front.  As with Portnoy’s monster set, there were some shared elements between the two sets. I often wondered; if I sat behind this kit, how long it would take before I would be able to figure out what to hit in order to just play a simple beat. During Peart’s solo spot, he uses pre-recorded big band horns and large screen video projections to run the gamut from rock to jazz and back again.

    When the guys in the pit orchestra for our high school musical Bye Bye Birdie would warm up with a few loose jams, we used to play a version of ‘stump the band’.  One of us would name a song just to see anybody knew a riff or snippet of the tune in question.  One of the girls hanging at the edge of the stage told Ron the bass player, “I bet you don’t know In A Gadda Da Vida at which point he started playing the bass line.  We joined in, warbled a little bit of the verse sans microphones (and organ).  When we got to the appropriate spot, I started the thump, thump, thump bass drum introduction to Ron Bushy’s solo.  It didn’t take much encouragement for me to play as much of the solo as I knew at that point. This grew into a little ritual that meant the rehearsal couldn’t start until I played a snippet of the solo just before the director snapped everyone to attention.  She must have gotten a little tired of hearing it because at one rehearsal she casually commented, “that better not end up in the show.” I think she was kidding, but I wasn’t about to try anything funny with her show!

    I stopped in at the Great Lakes Room at the NMU University Center one evening to see some band from Wisconsin that had been booked to play a weeknight show.  They were a good cover band and it was a lot of fun. The drummer got to the obligatory solo and well into it, he began hitting anything and everything he could reach.  When he couldn’t reach anything else, he stood up and (drumming on the stage and floor as he roamed) visited every table in the room while playing an assortment of riffs and patterns.  There were bowls of in the shell peanuts at each table and when he got to ours, he proceeded to play the inside of the bowl. As the peanuts went flying in all directions, he screamed “peanut butter” and he was off again.  This must have been the band’s time to make a bathroom run as they literally had to race him back to the stage before he got back behind his kit. I have seen drummers do variations of this ‘roaming solo’ in other venues, but this one sticks with me because it was the first time I had seen it done and he did it very well!

    As for me, the one thing I noticed about drummers playing solos is the amount of dancing that usually takes place during a drum solo:  namely – very little. I thrashed around for ideas a bit until I decided I could do two things with a solo. The first was to incorporate at least a little bit of Ron Bushy’s Iron Butterfly solo and the second was to keep people dancing.  It takes little more than a good steady beat to keep people dancing so if it doesn’t become a stare fest, then I always figure it was a good solo! I won’t take credit for creating a drum solo from scratch because every bit that gets tossed in came from other drummers.  Let me take a minute to say ‘thanks for sharing’ to each and everyone of them.


Top Piece Video:  Albert Bouchard with his brother Joe with Dennis Dunaway performing as Blue Coup – the solo is better than the one he did with BOC, but sadly the Godzilla head is a lot cheaper looking . . . but he does a little bit of the ‘roaming drum solo’ thing while he is at it – so double bonus!