What makes for a great drum solo? This obviously varies from song to song and musical genre to musical genre, but in general, it takes some skill because the drum solo can serve as the ultimate form of talent and musical expression for the drummer. Just think about your favorite drum solo, have you noticed that sometimes these, when played live, can vary a bit from the pre-recorded versions? This is because the drummer is improvising, and it’s through this improvisation that the best drum solos are born. In this guide, I’m going to show you some of the best, most iconic drum solos ever made!
I love music, and as a result, I play more than five different instruments including the guitar and drums. I love a great solo – to me, a solo adds another layer to the final composition and can make a middling song into one that’s truly memorable. When it comes to the drum solo, skill is the backbone of the greatest ones – I remember my teacher telling me to not even try my own solos until I had gained some expertise, and I completely understand now – drum solos are a showcase for advanced drumming skills and are a great way to add some personality to a performance.
In this guide, I decided to do some research and look into some of the best drum solos in the music world – the selections I picked span genres, so you may find that you’ve been exposed to some new music while listening to the selections. Of course, the music that you’ll find in this guide isn’t definitive – some of the list consists of my favorites and others are songs that are known for their iconic drum sections, but I do urge you to have a listen and see what the fuss is about. Before we get to the meat and potatoes of the article, let’s take a good look at the drum solo and the instruments themselves.
When you think about some of the musical classics, most people have a favorite section that brings home the iconic nature of some of these songs. For me, I may love the closing solos of certain songs because of their unique musical structure, and a good example of this would be how much I love the piano closer of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In any situation, solos and unique hooks can be amazing, and in the hands of the right drummer, drum solos can make a great song even better.
The Drums in a Nutshell
While it’s easy to think of drums as simple tools to pump out a beat, there are usually several components to the standard drum set. Here’s a list of some of the standard components:
Hi-Hat Cymbals – Hi-hat cymbals are two cymbals positioned atop of each other kind of like a clamshell. There’s a lot of dynamic functionality with a hi-hat because simply changing the position of the cymbals relative to each other helps produce you to produce different sounds. For example, if you hold them half open using your foot, when you hit the top cymbal, the cymbals will make a swishing sound. Usually, the cymbals are controlled with a foot pad, and playing them with your left foot produces a fairly loud crash that’s useful in solos.
Hi and Mid Toms – Also referred to as tom-toms, the hi, mid, and sometimes low toms are designed to produce steady beats during a solo. These drums are almost always cylindrical and are a key drum type for solos. Usually, the tom-toms are mounted onto metal stands in a stationary position and are required for the standard drum rolls that are so common during drum solos.
Ride and Crash Cymbals – Have you ever heard “Shadowplay” by Joy Division? This song is a perfect example of a great way to use a ride cymbal – throughout the song you hear a steady cymbal beat, which is what this type of cymbal is for. When you hear the loud splash of a cymbal, this is what the usually smaller crash cymbal is for – accentuation.
The Bass Drum – Also known as the kick drum, the bass drum is the large central drum that you see in drum kits. These are played by using a foot pedal and produce a very deep and powerful drum tone. This is the drum component to master, and it was the hardest for me to learn at first, but a good solo requires it.
The Snare Drum – If you’re going to be playing a backbeat, then the snare drum is your go-to. This is the most centralized drum, and it’s usually a little over a foot in diameter. This is also a drum with a lot of varied playability, so you can expect this also to be a common drum for advanced drummers to incorporate into a good solo.
Electronic versus Acoustic Drums
Not every famous drum solo is done on traditional acoustic drums. If you consider one of the greatest drummers in the world, Rick Allen of Def Leppard, you’ll realize that the majority of his drumming is done on an electronic set since he lost his arm in a car accident. Still, the experience is definitely different between the two drum types, and each type of drum has its benefits. In this section, I’m going to show you how each drum type measures up when it comes to its ability to craft amazing solos.
Acoustic Drums – Many musicians love the analog sound that a pair of acoustic drums can produce, and with a set, you can get a very varied tone due to the drum heads having a wide area to attack. Additionally, it’s just amazing and iconic-looking when you see a top-tier drummer beating the skins and cymbals on a traditional drum set.
An acoustic drum set also requires precision because the drum heads are so much more sensitive than an electric set. Additionally, there’s no upward limit to how many drum components you can incorporate into your solo kit, which some of the more accomplished drum soloists will certainly confirm.
One of the features that a kit like this has that can help with solos is the rebound that a traditional drumhead provides; skin or membrane heads bounce back when you strike them, which in turn will reduce the fatigue of your drum playing. This is particularly useful when playing longer drum solos.
Electronic Drums – One of the best features of an electronic drum set is its ability to provide multiple voices for your playing. Simply put, when you play with an electronic drum set, you can expect to explore various tones using the kit since all of the tones you produce have been prerecorded. This means that you can create some tones that simply aren’t available on an acoustic set.
Additionally, these sets are very customizable, which is one of the reasons that the aforementioned Def Leppard drummer opted to select this style of drum as his go-to. While it’s a common misconception that electronic drums simply don’t have the rebound of acoustics, this is patently untrue – mesh heads provide some great springiness and rubber heads may have a little more rebound than acoustic heads.
Another great solo-friendly feature of electronic drums is how easy they are to amplify compared to acoustic sets; you simply plug them into an amp and they can be amplified over great distances. You can even control the volume output of a drum set of this type, which can help you vary the sound of the solo.
Songs with Amazing Drum Fills, Breaks, and Solos
1) Tom Sawyer – Rush
Neil Peart is an amazing drummer, and his skill can easily be heard in this song. The drum line can be heard throughout the song, but he breaks out his skills during the guitar and drum solo that can be heard at about 2:35 minutes into the song. The amount of cymbals and drums that he uses in this short solo is amazing, and then he goes right back into the rhythm of the song as the chorus starts up again. If you have the chance to see a video of this song being performed, an aerial view of the drum kit will give you an idea of how much talent this drummer has.
2) Moby Dick – Led Zeppelin
If you are looking for an epic drum solo, then the song “Moby Dick” by Led Zeppelin will not disappoint. Drummer, John Bonham, varies his drum solo each time the song is performed, so in the single, the solo was about two full minutes, while the album had a solo that was nearly four minutes long. During live performances, the solo could last up to 20 minutes, and each moment was just as amazing as the last. The solo begins near the beginning of the song, and when Bonzo was ready to close it up, the band joins back in. As the king of improv, the version that the band played at London’s Royal Albert Hall was a true masterpiece. Take the time to listen to this 14-minute solo that was performed by his son, Jason Bonham, as a tribute to this event; you will be glad that you did.
3) Beast and the Harlot – Avenged Sevenfold
One of my favorite drum solos can be heard in the song “Beast and the Harlot” by Avenged Sevenfold. Jimmy Sullivan, who was also known as the Reverend, really rocks the drums during this entire song, but his skills can be seen at the beginning of the song. He starts with a steady cymbal roll that increases until about 20 seconds into the song when he nails it on the snares. At about 45 seconds into the song, he kicks it up a notch by adding in the bass drums, and the solo only improves from there. The drums can be heard throughout the entire song; in fact, the intensity of the drum solo goes throughout the song, and the last thing that you hear in the song is the cymbals.
4) In the Air Tonight – Phil Collins
We have all heard the song “In the Air Tonight,” and one of the reasons that it is so well known is the drum solo that kicks in at about 3:15 minutes into the song. You may have noticed that the drums in this song have a slightly different sound than other songs that we have listened to in this guide, but the reason that he was able to create such a unique sound is because of the reverse talkback option that was available at the recording studio. It was accidentally discovered, but the sound really made this drum solo stand out from the rest of them at the time. Originally, this song was made without the background drums that you hear in the song, but they were added to make the drum solo stand out more at the end of the song.
5) YYZ – Rush
If you love solos, this is a great song for you to enjoy. Not only is there an amazing guitar solo in the middle of the song that shows some extreme skill, but the drum solo that comes right afterward will tear your socks off. At 3:23 minutes into the song “YYZ,” Neil Peart does it again by adding another epic drum solo to one of Rush’s songs. The solo does not end until over six minutes into the song, so for over three and a half minutes, you will be in awe at the mastery that he has over the drums. The drums can be heard until the end of the song, but other instruments will be heard as well. “YYZ” is a great song, but a major part of its popularity came from this solo.
6) Painkiller – Judas Priest
“Painkiller” is a song that was released on September 3rd during the year 1990. It was the band’s 12 studio album, and the opening track was one that fans would not soon forget. The intro of the song was amazing, and the drum solo that was played by Scott Travis rocked live audiences around the world. The solo goes a full two minutes before the band comes in playing in the key of E minor. There are also a few guitar solos that can be heard during this song, so the song is worth exploring if you are looking for solos in your music.
7) The End – The Beatles
The Beetles are an iconic band that helped pave the road of rock and roll. This song “The End” was the last song that was recorded by all four band members, and it is one that features solos from every member of the band. Ringo Starr, who was the drummer for this band, was not fond of playing drum solos during their performances. However, this solo was recorded with 12 microphones positioned around the drum set to give it that iconic sound that we have all come to love. The song is only about 2:21 minutes long, but the drum solo can be heard pretty early into the song at the 21-second point.
8) Hot for Teacher – Van Halen
If you love drum solos, the one that you can hear in “Hot for Teacher” is a unique sound that you will not hear in many other pieces of music. The drums at the beginning of the song sound layered; this is not an easy sound to create with one or two bass drums, so the drummer, Alex Van Halen, decided to string together four bass drums to create the double drumming during the solo. The drums that you hear were designed to sound like fireworks, but throughout the song, the bass drum was cut down to two so that the tone was a bit mellower.
9) In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida – Iron Butterfly
“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which is a song that was originally intended to be titled “In the Garden of Eden,” was released in 1968. The entire song is legendary, but if you love drum solos, then Ron Bushy’s solo is one that you will not want to miss. It starts at the six and a half minute mark and continues to play for two and a half minutes, which means that it ends at about nine minutes into the song. The original song was approximately 17 minutes long, but the edited version of the song, which cut out the solos, is only about three minutes long.
10) Rock and Roll – Led Zeppelin
While many consider John Bonham’s solo in Moby Dick to the be the go-to drum solo that highlights Led Zeppelin’s skilled performers, for me, it’s the drum solo in Rock and Roll that stands out the most. This is one of my favorite songs that STARTS with a nuanced and a unique drum solo, so it’s a winner. Combine this with the drum solo at the end, and you have a nicely bookmarked song that anyone would love. While this isn’t the longest song in their catalog, it has some bright and quick drums, so fans of the band are sure not to be disappointed.
11) Highway Star – Deep Purple
While I love the percussive “click” of the guitars on this song, it’s the drum solos in here that signal the changing of the music. Ian Anderson Paice performed the drumming for this song, and his constant beats make the song shine. Also, the crash cymbal is used throughout the song to great effect, which makes this one of my favorite songs from the era.
12) Aja – Steely Dan
It can be hard to catch the drum solo in this, especially since there are tenor sax, overdriven guitar, and piano solos throughout the song, but once the drummer, Steve Gadd, gets a chance to shine in his solo sections, the song takes off. This is one of the first Steely Dan songs to even feature a drum solo, and for such an uncommon occurrence, it sounds great. Of course, one of the solo sections is in the last minute of the song, but its strong percussive beat is absolutely unforgettable. This initial drum solo also comes in a part of the song that’s designed to highlight the instruments as well as the musicians, and critics of the era considered it one of the best solo drum sections of the decade. You can check out the main part of this drum solo around the 4:45 mark of this eight-minute song.
13) My Generation – The Who
There are few bands from the 60s and 70s that are as iconic as The Who, and out of their catalog, no song is as well-known as their 1965 hit “My Generation.” This song has a percussive sound even in its guitar segments, but once the song reaches the 2:21 point, a drum-laden solo section brings it all together. Keith Moon was particularly spectacular for this solo, and if you’ve ever seen the recordings from their live performances during this era, you’re sure to have been amazed. Unfortunately, we lost Mr. Moon back in 1978, but you can rest assured that his amazing solo skills will live on forever. Did you know that he sometimes used gunpowder in his shows so that there was a little bit of explosiveness in his drum routines?
14) Toad – Cream
If you’re looking for complexity, then look no further than Ginger Baker’s full drum performance for Toad’s “Cream.” In fact, it’s very rare for a drummer to replicate the intricacy of the solos in this particular song. Personally, every time I listen to the song, I’m a little more blown away by how precise it is when it comes to the drumming, which must be why it’s often considered one of the best examples of excellent drumming available. In fact, this song works as a great example of how complex a drum solo can be – it goes on for the majority of the song, and it seamlessly transitions from a snare-heavy piece to one where the ride cymbals carry the listener through a winding road of percussion.
15) Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes
To this day, it amazes me that Meg White wasn’t really a dedicated drummer until she got together with her ex-husband Jack White. In fact, she started playing drums with Jack on an impulse and has a straightforward playstyle that I really enjoy. Seven Nation Army can definitely be called the band’s magnum opus, and it’s also a song that has some heavy duty drum sections that start near the very beginning of the piece. Meg White typically loved to perform extended drum solos during live performances of the song, and the closing segment truly brings the house down.
16) Wipe Out – The Ventures
I am a fan of surf rock, and I have varied tastes that range from Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” to the Beach Boys. Still, it’s hard to find a group that’s more influential in this genre than The Ventures, and for my money, the song that has the best drum solo is their song “Wipe Out.” The drum solo is absolutely crucial to this song, and you can find solos played several times throughout the song’s runtime. This part of the song was traditionally played by The Venture’s drummer, Mel Taylor, but after his death, many drummers such as Max Weinberg had their chance to perform their versions of the iconic solo. To me, this is the definitive sound that a surf rock drum solo should have – it just sounds so increasingly frantic and is set perfectly by the guitar solos that surround it.
17) The Brazilian – Genesis
This is a song that’s packed with percussion and really highlights Phil Collins’ love for electronic drum sets and tones. This is also a song that is entirely instrumental, and the most iconic drum solo begins around the three-minute part of the song, and it’s actually performed by Collins himself. This song is filled with synth sounds, and the tininess of the drums in this section really makes the whole song sound as if it was created in the distant future. It helps a lot that Phil uses both acoustic and electronic drums in this piece, but for my money, the electronic pads that he uses outshine the traditional drums – at least by a little bit. Trust me, this is a song worth listening to, and if you can find the 1987 Wembley performance, you’re in for a treat.
18) Girls on Film –Duran Duran
Duran Duran’s Roger Taylor is a legend in the field and his drum solo, which happens about a minute and 50 seconds into the song. The toms, snare, and the various cymbals ring out with regularity in this part of the song, and it goes on for about thirty seconds before transitioning with a hit of the crash. This section of the song provides a great example of how adept Roger Taylor can be with a set of drums, and this particular solo really sets the tone for the song in general. While it only takes up a small section of the three and a half minute song, many modern drummers consider it to be a reason why they became drummers in the first place. In addition to the solo, this is also a great example of a song that has a near-perfect beat.
19) Hysteria – Def Leppard
The drum solo in this song begins around 3:10, and it’s definitely a memorable one despite it being relatively short. One of my favorite aspects of the video from this song is how prominently it displays Rick Allen playing the drums throughout and his electronic drum set rings out so clearly throughout the music. While this song may be the essence of the 80s power ballad, it’s still definitely memorable for having a great drum section and a strong solo. It’s also all the more impressive since Rick plays the entire song with a single arm and his feet.
20) Por Ti Volare – Will Ferrell and John C Reilly
I know what you’re thinking, “But isn’t this just a solo from a movie?” Well, it definitely is, but John C. Riley has been playing the drums since his childhood, and it comes out in this unlikely drum solo that’s set to an operatic pop piece. This song is memorable because it puts a unique spin on a song that’s typically sung by Andrea Bocelli, and the solo section begins around the 3:13 point. From here, there’s a ton of bass drum as well as several trips to the ride cymbals as well as the toms. The song finishes with John hitting the ride and crash cymbals in a finishing beat that’s accompanied by Will Ferrell’s final sung note.
A good drum solo makes fairly standard songs into truly memorable ones, and all of the drum solos that I have featured here add a high degree of enhancement to their respective songs. Do you have a favorite drum solo that you love to hear over and over? Tell me about it in the comments!
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