Alongside Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, the Canadian drummer Neil Peart rewrote rock history as a member of Rush. Nicknamed “The Professor,” Peart influenced generations of drummers with his mathematical, expansive, and technically proficient approach to the instrument. But what was it that made Peart’s drumming so distinctive?
While Peart passed away in 2020 at the age of 67, his influence continues to live on. Peart was both perfect and inventive, professional and exploratory.
To further go in-depth on how great Neil Peart is as a drummer, I suggest you check out this amazing video by Drumeo called “The Genius of Neil Peart”:
If you’re a Rush fan then it’s definitely worth checking out Drumeo. They have every single Rush song transcribed for you note for note, and you can jam along with interactive sheet music. They’ve also got some great lessons that explore Neil Peart’s signature sound.
Sounding like the great Neil Peart sure is a challenge, but the following tips should give you a good idea of where to start.
1. Understand His Signature Sound
A good way to start sounding like Peart is to, well, try to play like him. That can be hard even for experienced drummers, but there are plenty of lessons to be learned just by trying to mimic some of The Professor’s most classic grooves and drum passages.
If you’re still new to the instrument, you may want to attempt these using a steady click track and a slow tempo.
Master Peart’s iconic ride cymbal groove
Invented by sheer chance, Peart’s signature ride cymbal groove was part of what made his drumming so special. This sound is present in many of Rush’s most classic tunes and is all about filling in the empty spaces. Peart used his ride cymbal grooves to create distinctive drum parts in Rush songs, sometimes altering the groove completely from measure to measure.
Whether you’re composing or improvising, try to make use of the ride cymbal more often to get a little bit of The Professor’s charm into your own playing.
Go crazy on the double-bass pedal
As a bonafide drum virtuoso, Peart knew practically every technique in the book. His complete mastering of the instrument included knowing how to rock the double-bass pedal like few in history. All it takes is one listen to a song like “One Little Victory” to realize that Peart’s double-bass playing put many modern-day metal drummers to shame.
Attempt Peart’s challenging drum fills
Making use of his gigantic drum set—which he interestingly called “Mean Mean Stride”—Peart conceived some of the most challenging drum fills that have ever made it into the rock-history books. Trying to play some of his classic fills is a great way of learning more about how The Professor approached drums, composition, and groove.
This Drumeo video on five iconic Neil Peart licks makes for a great starting point:
2. Know your left from your right
Drumming is a game of limbs. It takes great coordination to know your left from right and to find a balance between your hands and feet. Peart was, of course, a complete master at this. He was able to play complex, completely separate patterns on his upper and lower limbs and was undoubtedly skillful at performing incredibly fast and precise L/R patterns.
For an example, just listen to how The Professor approaches drumming in Rush’s brilliant song “Bravado:”
One of the best ways of knowing your left from right as well as Peart did is to practice rudiments. Rudiments are incredibly important for drummers of all levels because they help developing technique, stick control, and coordination. Practice enough rudiments and your movements will flow more naturally while you’re playing the drums.
3. Be a storyteller
There’s no question that Peart was a great storyteller. More than just the drummer of Rush, he was also the band’s lyricist. And more than just a musician, he was a great person with a lot of good experiences to share. Did you know, for example, that he once published a book about a one-month cycling trip he took to Cameroon?
While cycling won’t help you to get better at the drums (at least we think so), learning from Peart’s storytelling ability surely will. Even though he was a beast of a drummer, Peart always worked to serve the song; he wasn’t trying to show off, but simply trying to make every Rush tune as brilliant as possible.
Take “Tom Sawyer,” arguably Rush’s best-known song. Part of what makes this track so great is Peart’s understanding of the concepts of tension and release. This is less about knowing how to play and more about understanding how one should play to tell a compelling story. Keep that in mind at all times, especially while composing for the drums.
4. Think sounds, not drums
Another great lesson to take from Peart’s drumming is that drummers shouldn’t think about drums; they should think about sounds. More than the man with the biggest kit on stage, Peart was an innovator, a sonic sculptor, and a tireless student of his craft.
His job wasn’t just playing the drums, but making music. Because Rush was a three-member rock act, Peart was often forced to take on a more melodic approach to his instrument. Rather than limiting him, this allowed him to have the space he needed to fill with sounds that went beyond the traditional rock drum-kit stereotype.
Contrary to many rock purists, Peart fully embraced the digital age in music, incorporating tools such as Roland and Simmons pads and even a MalletKat MIDI controller in his drum kit from early on. While it’s important to learn the basics of drumming before taking on more expansive approaches to the instrument, you should learn from The Professor and never be afraid to go outside the box.
Many Rush songs prove that Peart was a genius at incorporating percussion and electronic sounds into his playing, from “The Trees” to “Xanadu.” However, I believe the example that best shows why he was a sonic sculptor first and a drummer second is a little-known solo track he produced in the ’80s. It’s titled “Pieces of Eight” and features a marimba:
5. Record like a perfectionist
Peart was such a virtuoso on stage that many people tend to ignore his approach to recording. But as stated by pretty much every record Rush ever made, The Professor was as much of a perfectionist in the studio as he was in front of his fans.
Contrary to many great drummers, who insist on the importance of “being loose” and “free” while recording, Peart was never afraid to assume that he respected the basics of modern drum recording, i.e., playing with a click track and recording the drums in separate, before the rest of the band.
So, the next time you hear an obnoxious drummer stating that “playing with a click is for noobs” or that the whole band needs to record together because “of the feeling,” think about The Professor!
In one of his many interviews, Peart stated that he loved to record and practice with a click track because that meant he had “one less thing to think about.” He spoke of the metronome as a friend, a tool that allowed him to have more freedom; because he wasn’t thinking about keeping a straight tempo all the time, he could focus on more advanced techniques. Additionally, he “learned to work with the click—pushing and pulling against it deliberately.”
Rush also started recording the drums separately from the other instruments in the 1985 album “Power Windows.” According to Peart, this was good for “greater control sonically, but also for greater focus on each performance.”
Peart was known to be a workaholic, and this showed in more than just his drum playing. The Professor gave it all to his fans and warmed up religiously before every show. If Peart did it, that means you should too!
Peart recommended practicing for a good 20 minutes using a smaller set. His warm-up consisted of exploring different grooves and tempos, often by improvising, to get his muscles and mindset ready ahead of each live and studio performance.
7. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope
Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato” is the definition of pushing the envelope in rock music. The 10-minute epic was so ambitious that, in an interview with The Guardian, Geddy Lee himself called it “a song where I would have to say our ideas exceeded our ability to play them.” All things considered, Rush still did a great job at it.
While “La Villa Strangiato” isn’t the most famous tune by Rush, it’s one of the most beloved by their die-hard fans. That’s because it’s a symbol of the band’s attitude towards music. They were never afraid of trying something new, they were always pushing themselves to the limit, and they practiced, composed, and performed with unmatched ambition.
The song is also a great example of Peart at his very best; the tune incorporates everything that makes his drum sound so unique but takes it even further by incorporating a myriad of technical complexities that include a masterful exploration of interchanging odd time signatures. If you want to become a student of The Professor, “La Villa Strangiato” should be your Bible:
It’s no coincidence that he’s called The Professor: after all, the great Neil Peart has many lessons to teach all musicians. Playing like the great Rush genius is not easy, but incorporating some of his techniques into your own playing is a certified method for getting better at drums.
As a final incentive to get some Peart into your drum practicing and composition, check out this great Drumeo performance featuring a whopping 175 Rush songs: