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Saturday, December 2, 2023

The first great rock ‘n’ roll drum solo

Rock music has long been bedfellows with the drum solo. From the likes of John Bonham on Led Zeppelin’s elemental ‘Moby Dick’ to the searing live solos of Turnstile’s Daniel Fang, it’s a familiar element of the modern genre, and it is strange to imagine life without it, even if sometimes it can be unwelcome overkill.

Like the guitar solo, the quality of a drum solo in rock depends on who is playing it and in what context. Prog and metal drummers can get away with languishing in the pocket of a percussion solo, often providing cover for costume or stage changes, while punks sat behind the kit attempting such a feat would likely be drenched in spittle within seconds.

Undoubtedly, hardcore legends Turnstile’s in-house master of the kit, Daniel Fang, is the supreme contemporary player to utilise the drum solo successfully. In doing so, he demonstrates to audiences just how visceral and flawless his playing is, all the while doing so with a massive grin on his face, showing that he is doing so for a love of the craft and nothing more. It also gets the crowd going, who are already pumped from the breakneck pace of the Baltimore band’s set.

Whilst Fang has undoubtedly put a modern twist on the drum solo and made people reappraise it as a musical decision, its history with rock music started many moons ago. It was via the jazz and big band era that it made its way into the genre and became a familiar aspect of it. Namely, this came through the influence of the greats like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich on prominent rock drummers such as John Bonham, who confirmed it as a tool with his performance on ‘Moby Dick’ and cited Krupa as “God”.

However, the rock drum solo’s first great flourish, which showed fans the future, came via another legendary player. Cream pioneer Ginger Baker was another lover of jazz music, and on the psychedelic supergroup’s 1966 instrumental ‘Toad’ delivered the pivotal moment. It established that aspects of jazz, such as the drum solo, could be repackaged in the rock paradigm and be just as, or even more effective than before. Essentially a five-minute drum solo, the force of Baker’s playing was resounding on the track and was incredibly ahead of its time. It fused jazz panache with the elemental nature of the rock, and without it, all drum solos we know and love, from ‘Moby Dick’ to Rush’s ‘YYZ’ probably wouldn’t have existed.

“People hadn’t taken much notice of drums before Krupa,” John Bonham explains in the book In Their Own Words. “And Ginger Baker was responsible for the same thing in rock.” Regarding the importance of the Cream drummer, he added: “[Baker] was the first to come out with this ‘new’ attitude — that a drummer could be a forward musician in a rock band and not something that was stuck in the background and forgotten about.”

Listen to ‘Toad’ below.

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