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Passion for Our Favorite Drummer

by Omar on March 26, 2010

in Drummers, Editorials

My, how we love our drummers of choice.

At different stages in our lives, we cling to our favorites for different reasons.  When we were really young, say, five or six, we might have really liked the drummer of our big brother’s (or sister’s) favorite band.  As we got a little older, we made up our own minds and either stayed with that one, or started liking someone else.  This time, though, we might like the drummer because of the actual drumming, not because of the band as a whole.

For example, when I was very young, my favorite drummer was Peter Criss.  Was he a great drummer?  I think it instead more likely that he fit (perfectly!) what Kiss needed him to be more than that he was a great drummer.  There were other drummers around that time (we’re talking the ‘70’s in this case) that could run circles around Mr. Criss as far as technique goes, such as Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, and of course, Buddy Rich.  But that didn’t matter to me – Peter Criss was ‘the best’!  And I was passionate about it, even at a young age.

Fast forward a few years and I was introduced to Neil Peart, and he became to me what I now call my ‘reference drummer’:  my base, my foundation, my main inspiration.  That remains the case to this day, even though I am greatly inspired by many other drummers, for diverse reasons.

And so it is that through the years, we change, and so do our preferences.  As far as our favorite drummers go, there are as many reasons to have a favorite drummer as there are drummers.  I’ve seen, however, that some take their passion a little too far.

Ok, I’m not talking violence.  It’s a lot of fun to banter about who our favorite drummer is, or who we think is ‘the best’ (even though I think there’s no such thing).  That kind of debate is rampant in sports, and it’s never-ending.  I’ve been to several drum forums where threads have been opened such as ‘Who’s the best drummer?’, or threads that are started about specific drummers.  In the latter, you see all kinds of posts.  Typical are:

  • debates comparing the drummer in question to another drummer
  • why the drummer in question isn’t good at all
  • why the drummer in question is the best

The ‘end is listless’.  You might be able to guess the age of some of the posters.  If you see really short posts saying things like “Mike Portnoy is no doubt the best drummer on the planet!”, you may assume that that’s a younger poster (hm, ‘no doubt’?).  Sometimes others will go into long spiels extolling why this drummer is better than that one, and even have polls comparing, say, Mike Portnoy vs. Danny Carey, or Dave Weckl vs. Vinnie Colaiuta, etc.  Pretty interesting to say the least, because those who’ve followed these drummers closely get very specific as to the technique of these players, and the result is an education on the drummers in question that we may not see elsewhere.

I personally consider any ‘vs.’ debate to be futile.  There are just too many variables to consider when comparing drummers.  I think of all musicians, drummers are the most different from each other.  It is very unlikely that two drummers will have the exact same influences, so in addition to their innate ability, they’ll adapt their unique ability to try to imitate what their favorite drummer plays.  What results is a completely unique drummer, shaped by their aforementioned ‘reference’ (or references), their musical taste, their talent, and their drive to reach whatever musical goals they have.

Not only that, but the drum kit is the most configurable of all instruments.  Consider some of the variables:

  • number of shells
  • snare preference
  • tom positioning
  • cymbal placement
  • throne height

And that’s only the beginning!  How many stick sizes are there, head thicknesses and materials, pedal configurations – gads, my head’s spinning (think I’ll stop now).  The point is, even if two people are the same age, go to the same music classes, and listen to the same music – they’ll still be two different drummers.

So really, how comparable are drummers?  There are certainly ones that can do certain things better than others, but that does not necessarily mean that one is better than the other in a general sense.

Let’s take a case in point.  This is my opinion; you’ll have yours, but this is how I see it.  I have a short list of favorite drummers.  On it are Neil Peart (if you’ve followed my blog that’s obvious) and Thomas Lang.  I’m very familiar with Neil’s work (as evidenced, for example, by my rating of his solos), but only recently (relatively speaking) have I been exposed to Thomas’ playing.  But I’ve seen enough of his playing that, well, he’s at least one of the best drummers in the world.  (If you’re subscribed to The Paradiddler’s newsletter, you would have received a sample of this.  :))

These two drummers couldn’t be more different.  To me, Neil Peart is about composition; Thomas Lang is about technique.  Does Neil have technique?  Of course, but Thomas has more.  Can Thomas compose a good drum piece?  Certainly, but I think Neil is more creative that way.

As far as composing drum parts, Neil is a master.  If you haven’t already, I recommend spending a few hours watching Neil’s DVD “A Work In Progress”, where he breaks down in verbose detail how he composed the drum parts to every song on Rush’s Test for Echo. Sure there’s technicality explained and demonstrated (even some exploration solo footage), but this is textbook Neil:  drumming to suit the song, not the drummer.  To me, that’s what makes a drummer shine.

As far as technique goes, Thomas Lang’s best selling “Creative Control” and “Creative Coordination” DVDs demonstrate Thomas’ absolute mastery of the kit.  His drumming is so fluid and effortless, hands and feet.  I watch in awe every time I see this guy play.

So I don’t consider either of these drummers better than the other.  They both have tremendous talents to display, and no matter what genre of music we prefer, they certainly can give us a lesson or two on how to play.

Sometimes a great drummer (even a legendary one!) will get criticized when compared to someone’s favorite.  I’ve read on certain posts that Neil is a boring drummer, with not much technicality, and that the solos are boring.  When I read posts like that, I tend to think that the poster is missing the point.  Sometimes the drummer simply won’t display certain technical chops because the solo or song doesn’t call for it.  It’s very likely that when he practices, he’ll play certain rudiments and patterns for practicing’s sake.  If something interesting comes up that he can use in a song or solo, it’s in.  If the pataflafla doesn’t fit in the solo or song, it’s out, even if he knows how to play it.

Sometimes (actually, almost every time), it’s in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.  What are you looking for in a drummer?  What excites you?  Many drummers cite Tré Cool (Green Day) and Travis Barker (Blink 182) as their favorite drummer, and sometimes passionately exclaim that they are the best.  Like I said, the best doesn’t exist, so don’t bother!  They are the ‘best’, though, because they personify what the beholder expects to see and hear in a drummer.  In some way, these drummers inspire their drumming fans in a specific way, hence the adulations.

Sometimes the age of the drummer (meaning the pro drummer) is a factor too, and at what developmental stage they are in their career that inspires certain fans.  When you’re young, who you thought was the best may stick with you as you get older, even though you may consider others just as good later on.  I started to notice Neil Peart when he was a young drummer and he became my favorite, so the same thing may happen to any youngster who notices a drummer when they’re young.  A young person can have the same passion for the drumming of a young Neil Peart just the same as a young person towards a young Tré Cool or Travis Barker.

Drummers of the caliber of a Neil Peart, Steve Smith, and others, tend to not stay with the same style throughout their career.  These drummers evolve, one reason being is that they get restless when they take a certain style to it’s limit based on their ability, or just being bored playing the same style, and wanting to move on to something else.  Neil Peart’s current style of play may not appeal to a generation used to speeds as exhibited by Thomas Lang, Marco Minnemann and others, even though they may recognize him as a drumming legend.  I strongly recommend watching Rush’s live DVD Grace Under Pressure Tour, which was recorded in 1984.  There you will see Neil display an incredible amount of speed, power, creativity, and limb independence (check out particularly “The Weapon” – the ‘Professor on the drum kit’ indeed!).

Drummers like Neil and Steve Smith move on.  As good as Neil was in 1984, it might be boring if he still played like that.  Steve Smith ‘scratched that itch’ when he finished playing rock with Journey, to go back to his more jazzy roots.  Even as good as he is in this genre, he’s been messing with Indian rhythms as of late, just to challenge himself.  These are the types of drummers that appeal to me.

At the opposite side of the spectrum, you have drummers that tend to sound and play the same throughout their career, such as Joey Kramer (Aerosmith) and Tico Torres (Bon Jovi).  To me, these drummers sound the same throughout the tenure of the band they play in.  That’s not to say that they’re bad drummers.  It’s even possible that some cite them as favorites.  They play what’s required for the music they play, and ultimately, especially if you play in a band, that is what’s most important.

So what’s the bottom line?  This:  ‘best’ is in the eye of the beholder.  If you think Travis Barker is the best drummer in the world, and he inspires you, then more power to you.  If you think that Phil Rudd is the best drummer because he lays down a fat four and gets out of the way, then more power to you too.  If you think “Gadd is in the details”, then good for you too!

As for me, I’m staying out of the ‘this drummer vs. that drummer’ debate.  They all have something to offer.  Fortunately, drummers don’t mind having their ideas stolen (for the most part).  So let’s study our favorites, forget about who’s best, and just enjoy the performances and individuality of these great drummers.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Joe Slant April 3, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Hi Omar,
Neil is definitely a superb drummer, but have you heard Dennis Chambers (my personal favourite), or Simon Philips, and lately Ronald Bruner jr.?
All the best, Joe

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