An old drummer joke has been circulating all week:
Q: How many drummers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Five. One to do it and four to talk about how much better Neil Peart would have done it.
There’s so much truth in that. Peart’s skills were among the best — maybe the best — the drumming world has ever seen.
I discovered Rush as a nerdy high schooler. When me and some buddies sat down one lunch hour to discuss forming a band, I went first, renouncing my time with the accordion and demanding to be the drummer. I took lessons, eventually acquired a stupidly large kit, and became a drum teacher during my university years. And the guy I tried to emulate the most? Neil Peart. It was always Neil.
I and millions like me studied his style, envied his precision, and marvelled at his coordination. How did he do all that?
But if you’re not a drummer or a musician of any kind, you may not understand why people made such a big deal about his abilities. Let me try to break things down for you.
Neil’s drum kit
The most important job of a drummer is to keep the beat. Neil did that, of course, but because he was part of a group with just three members, he had a lot of space to fill. But rather than bang on a lot of drums really, really fast like Keith Moon (one of his heroes), Neil approached the drums with scientific meticulousness.
His playing was melodic, featuring an insane number of percussion instruments with different and distinct timbres. Let’s just look at the drums he used.
At the top of his massive kit, you found drums known as concert toms of various depths and diameters. These had no bottom skin (or head), which gave them a sharp attack and quick decay. They were carefully tuned (i.e. the tightness of the head across the drum shell) to give each a very specific sound. Think about the drum fills Neil played in songs like Tom Sawyer. Those higher-pitched drums were the concert toms.
Farther down his kit, he had tom-toms, which had heads bolted to the bottom end of the shell. Tom-toms have a boomy, resonant sound that can be tweaked by tightening both the top and bottom heads. Again, Neil and his drum tech were very careful in making sure each tom-tom was exquisitely tuned to a specific set of frequencies. It’s not the same as tuning a guitar or a piano, but it’s close.
Neil also employed things like an extra snare drum (or two or three). The snare is the main drum you hit with a stick when keeping time (it sits between your legs). Snares are made of metal or wood and come in different depths but all have a distinctive crack that’s created by a set of wires stretched across the bottom head. When playing, he’d sometimes flip a lever to disengage those wires, giving his snare an additional sound.
From the very beginning, Neil employed two bass drums (the ones on the floor lying on their side) to create complex beats and fills using pedals manipulated with the feet. In later years, he brought things down to just a bass drum but used a special foot pedal that still allowed for double-bass drumming.
Surrounding Neil was an array of cymbals with names like crash, ride, hi-hats, sizzle and China-type, each with different sonic characteristics. Neil was a big user of splashes, small cymbals usually between eight and 10 inches in diameter that had a high pitch and a fast decay. They are very good for emphasizing shifts in the music or the beat.
Then came all the other percussion instruments: woodblocks, Rototoms, octobans, chimes, timbales, tambourines, tubular bells, cowbells, glockenspiels, an occasional gong and (especially after the Signals album in 1982) electronic percussion devices.
Neil was always experimenting with different setups using drums from different manufacturers (Rogers, Slingerland, Tama, DW, etc.), using different woods for the shells and orientations for playing. Each album and tour required a new kit. And no piece of equipment was unused, wasted or overplayed.
Now that you know what to look and listen for, take a look at this performance in Rio. Neil is not just thrashing about. He’s performing a carefully composed musical opus. Listen for the rumble of his bass drum work and then watch for him to break into a big band section. Stunning.
Neil respected what the audience came to hear
When Rush was writing and recording new music, Neil believed that his parts should be every bit as permanent as what Geddy and Alex were playing. That meant whatever he played on the record should be what he played live. And 99.9 per cent of the time, that’s what the audience got.
The first piece to captivate me was the Overture/Temples of Syrinx section from the 2112 album. What we hear in this performance is exactly what was on the record — just like it should be.
A highlight of every Rush gig was Neil’s solo. Very little was improvised. He constructed each one like he was writing a symphony and followed that script night after night. To make things more interesting, his kit grew into a 360-degree monster, featuring something at the back called the “B-kit.” This was a drumset within a drumset that came into play during the solo. When it came time to switch from A to B, Neil’s drum riser rotated so the B-kit was out front.
Neil understood that people were interested in studying what he did. To accommodate that, Rush adopted an overhead camera from above Neil’s position so everyone could see what he was doing. His kit was so massive that it could only be captured with an aerial shot.
With these solos, you can see how each of Neil’s limbs operate independently. He was beyond ambidextrous, always displaying otherworldly coordination and atomic clock-level timing.
Study this solo and note how Neil makes use of virtually every piece of equipment. Note, too, how he changes the grip on his sticks.
Neil was always trying to get better
Although he’d been acknowledged as one of the greatest drummers in the known universe, he wasn’t about to coast. Peart never stopped learning, never stopped trying to get better. They called him The Professor, not just for his brainy lyrics but for the way he attacked the art of playing drums.
In 1994, almost 20 years into his career with Rush, he went back to taking drum lessons, basically throwing out everything he had learned and started from scratch. He enlisted a jazz teacher named Freddy Gruber who taught Neil new techniques when it came to everything from holding his sticks to the most efficient ways to use his body. As he was a supremely athletic drummer, this probably added years to Neil’s career.
He also shared what he had learned through a series of instructional DVDs like this one in which he explains some of what he learned from Freddy.
Peart was a drumming talent unlike anything we’d seen before. Even other superstar drummers with supernatural chops — Stewart Copeland of the Police, Mike Portnoy, Danny Carey of Tool — tried to learn from The Professor.
And now he’s gone. It may be a long time before we see another of his calibre. If ever.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.