Neil Peart on the 3 Elements of Drumming Mastery

In this edition of “The Thinking Drummer” we’re going to take a different view of the levels of mastery as explained by Neil Peart.

I recently posted a clip of a Neil Peart interview on social media. In it, Neil discusses why the Rush song “Tom Sawyer” is so difficult to play. That, on its own, is fascinating. Watch the clip for his take on it. But even deeper and more important was Neil’s thoughts on the multiple levels of mastery, which follow the discussion of “Tom Sawyer.”

Part of what is really interesting about Neil’s thinking at the time of this interview is that he’s got a long view of his journey as a drummer. The interview was conducted in 2012 and Neil Peart joined Rush in 1974. That’s 38 years.

Neil talks about playing the songs from “Moving Pictures” after having recorded that album in 1980. The interview was just prior to Rush going out on tour to celebrate the release of the album. Neil is well-known as a drummer who always worked to get better. And here in this interview, we get to hear his thoughts on his development as a drummer over time.

His comments are profound.

Why not have a look and listen? The video is only 60 seconds. His wisdom is well worth the time.

Peart explains that as a drummer in a band like Rush, he wants to be able to play with “Strength and smoothness,” which is a truly elegant way to describe being able to play rock music. As a rock drummer, you generally need to be able to hit hard but you want that power while maintaining finesse. “Strength and smoothness” is the perfect way to describe that and I’ve never heard it said that way until I saw this video.

That combination of two elements that Neil covets was the result of him pursuing three things:

1) Technique
First, the technical facility is required in order to execute on the drums with power and finesse. The difficulty of this step can not be overlooked. I’ve found that one of the hardest things in drumming is developing a fluid technique that allows for power, looseness, speed and flexibility. Much patience is required in this undertaking.

2) Accuracy/Control of Time and Subdivisions
Next, Neil describes needing to be able to play to a click and be accurate in executing his parts in the studio. This control over timing and switching between rhythms with precision is important for all drummers (and all musicians). Again, this takes time and a lot of practice. Can you play all your fills without speeding up? Can you switch back and forth between triplets, sixteenth notes, eighth notes etc effortlessly while maintaining the tempo perfectly?

3) Feel
Once the two elements described above are in control, you’ve got a lot happening, but it’s not enough. The music has to feel good and a stiff feeling drummer who doesn’t groove is going to have problems. So, Neil, with the self-awareness and wisdom he had, realized he needed his feel to be developed too. With that in place–in addition to the first two–any drummer is well on his or her way to being great.

Where Are You In All This?
A good thing to consider is where you are in this hierarchy of skills. What are your weaknesses? These three elements are critical, so make sure you have the self-awareness and maturity to make that evaluation or get some help from a trusted outsider to help you figure it out. And then, do the work required and evaluate again.

And let’s thank Neil Peart for such an elegant way of looking at all this and being such a great role model as a drummer.