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A Drummer’s Guide To Prog

Brandon Toews  /  UPDATED Nov 1, 2023

This is an excerpt from The Drummer’s Toolbox: The Ultimate Guide To Learning 101 Drumming Styles. The book goes into even more detail about prog drumming!

Prog: A brief introduction to the genre

Progressive (or prog) refers to music that pushes the boundaries of a particular genre. Two of the most popular progressive music genres include progressive rock and progressive metal. Some notable characteristics of these styles include complex musical arrangements, the use of odd time signatures and time signature changes, the fusion of multiple musical styles, and the incorporation of conceptual lyrical content relating to one central theme or story.

The early years
In the late 1960s, popular rock bands like the Beatles, the Yardbirds, and the Beach Boys began to venture away from writing predictable three minute, radio-friendly songs. They began drawing influence from other genres of music (“Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys and “Love You To” by the Beatles), writing music that exceeded the standard radio length (“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” by the Beatles), and pushing the boundaries of rock music into unexplored territory – lyrically, rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically. This is what laid the foundation for progressive (or prog) rock music.

The golden years of prog rock
By the early to mid 1970s, prog rock had developed into its own distinct musical subgenre. This music featured complex arrangements, the use of odd time signatures and time signature changes, the fusion of many musical styles (like jazz, classical, and folk music), and conceptual lyrical and musical content relating to one central thematic idea (check out concept albums like “2112” by Rush and “Tales from Topographic Oceans” by Yes). During this era, prog rock bands like Rush, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer defined the sound of progressive rock music.

The rise of prog metal
With the rise of other rock and metal subgenres like punk rock, heavy metal, and glam rock during the 1970s, very few new prog rock bands emerged from the late ‘70s until the mid 1980s. However, in the mid ‘80s, metal bands like Queensrÿche, Fates Warning, and Voivod began fusing elements of prog rock with heavy metal – resulting in a subgenre known as progressive metal. “Operation: Mindcrime” (Queensrÿche) and “Perfect Symmetry” (Fates Warning) are notable examples of records that paved the way for early prog metal music.

During the 1990s, prog metal also developed into a distinct metal subgenre. Bands like Meshuggah, Dream Theater, and Tool were releasing iconic prog metal albums like Chaosphere (Meshuggah), Ænima (Tool), and Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (Dream Theater). These records were milestones in the subgenre’s development that helped shape the prog metal sound into what it is today.

The current state of prog music
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, some of the leading prog rock and metal bands have included:

Animals as Leaders - The Joy of Motion (2014)

Animals as Leaders

Periphery - Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal (2012)


The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath (2008)

The Mars Volta

Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet (2007)

Porcupine Tree

TesseracT - Altered State (2013)


Between the Buried and Me - Colors (2007)

Between the Buried and Me

Because of the innovations that rock musicians made back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, progressive rock and metal music have evolved into some of the most unique, creative, and technical subgenres to ever exist.

Learn prog rock drum beats

Because prog rock and metal music are so diverse, it’s impossible to create a list of essential beats, fills, and techniques required to play this style. Nevertheless, one of the best ways to start approaching prog rock and metal is to learn from the drummers who play it. And why not learn from the masters like Neil Peart, Bill Bruford, and Gavin Harrison?

Let’s take a look at five transcriptions played by some of the world’s greatest prog rock drummers:

Yes – “Heart of the Sunrise”  (0:49)
Drummer: Bill Bruford

yes e1503442317872

Genesis – “Supper’s Ready”  (18:17)
Drummer: Phil Collins

genesis e1503442400147

Frank Zappa – “Keep It Greasy”  (0:36)
Drummer: Vinnie Colaiuta

zappa e1503442276810

Rush – “La Villa Strangiato”  (4:30)
Drummer: Neil Peart

rush e1503442374913

Porcupine Tree – “The Sound of Muzak”  (0:00)
Drummer: Gavin Harrison

porcupinetree e1503442579684

Learn prog metal drum beats

Just like prog rock, one of the best ways to learn how to play prog metal is to learn from the subgenre’s masters like Danny Carey, Matt Garstka, and Mike Portnoy. The examples in this section will introduce you to the style.

For anyone wanting to take their prog metal drumming to the next level, you should start working on your double bass playing (Intermediate), polyrhythms and polymeters (Intermediate/Advanced), as well as becoming comfortable with subdivisions like quintuplets and septuplets (Advanced). Check out TesseracT’s “Concealing Fate, Part II: Deception (double bass, polyrhythms, and polymeters) and Periphery’s “Habitual Line Stepper (quintuplets) for some examples.

Now, let’s take a look at five transcriptions played by some legendary prog metal drummers:

Tool – “Right in Two”  (3:01)
Drummer: Danny Carey

tool e1503442601768

Dream Theater – “The Count of Tuscany”  (2:06)
Drummer: Mike Portnoy

dreamtheater e1504204714261

Animals as Leaders – “Another Year”  (0:07)
Drummer: Matt Garstka

animalsasleaders e1503442636562

TesseracT – “Hexes”  (1:19)
Drummer: Jay Postones

tesseract1 e1503442696862

tesseract2 e1503442708210

Periphery – “Flatline”  (4:01)
Drummer: Matt Halpern

periphery1 e1503442748260

periphery2 e1503442757174

Drumeo Live Prog Lessons

Here are 6 incredible drummers teaching prog during theirDrumeo Edge live events.

How To Create Amazing Drum Parts
Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree, King Crimson, OSI, The Pineapple Thief)
Progressive Rock Drumming Tips
Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard, Big Big Train)
Exploring Quintuplets
Anika Nilles (Independent, Nevell)

Utilizing Systems & Methods For Efficient Practice
Matt Garstka (Animals as Leaders)

Progressive Drumming Concepts
J.C. Bryant (Scale The Summit)
Drummer’s Tools To Enhance Musicality
Adam Marko (Special Providence)

The Equipment

In general, the drum sets used in progressive rock and metal music are much larger than standard four or five piece ‘rock drum sets.’ The same goes for cymbal setups. Rarely will you see a prog drummer only using one crash cymbal, one ride cymbal, and a pair of hi-hats. They often have an array of cymbals (crash cymbals, Chinese cymbals, splash cymbals, cymbal stacks, etc.) which allows them to create the specific sounds needed for this music. The availability of many different sound sources allows drummers to play melodic parts around the drum set. This concept of melodic drumming is evident in the playing of many prog drummers. Check out this Terry Bozzio solo and you’ll hear exactly what we mean.

  • DSC 0120 4 1

Back in the 1970s – the golden age of progressive rock – drummers were incorporating tons of additional sound sources into their setups. Neil Peart was using a glockenspiel, mark tree, wood blocks, and chimes, Carl Palmer was using gongs and timpanis, and Bill Bruford was using rototoms. While these are by no means instruments that every prog drummer is required to incorporate into their setup, it’s important to realize that these instruments played an important role in the classic sound of early prog rock music.

Just like the music itself, there are no rules when it comes to choosing equipment for playing progressive rock and metal. While there are definitely similarities between equipment used by certain drummers, every prog drummer will have their own unique setup.

Remember that prog rock and prog metal are subgenres of rock and metal music. We recommend checking out “A Drummer’s Guide To Rock” and ““A Drummer’s Guide To Metal” for specific gear recommendations and requirements for each of these styles.

The Greats

Here is a list of ten legendary progressive rock and metal drummers. Some of these drummers are prog pioneers from the 1970s while others are modern progressive rock and metal drummers. You can click on each name to watch a performance by each drummer!

neil peart

Neil Peart

matt gartska

Matt Garstka

mike mangini

Mike Mangini

mike portnoy

Mike Portnoy

danny carey

Danny Carey

bill bruford

Bill Bruford

gavin harrison

Gavin Harrison

carl palmer

Carl Palmer

terry bozzio

Terry Bozzio

marco minnemann1

Marco Minnemann

The Records

Here are fifteen essential progressive rock and metal albums that every drummer should check out. As you listen to each album on this list, you’ll hear how progressive rock and metal music has evolved over the past few decades.

Yes - Fragile (1971)

“Fragile” (1971)
Drummer: Bill Bruford

Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Trilogy (1972)

Emerson, Lake & Palmer
“Trilogy” (1972)
Drummer: Carl Palmer

Genesis - Selling England By the Pound (1973)

“Selling England By the Pound” (1973)
Drummer: Phil Collins

Rush - Hemispheres (1978)

“Hemispheres” (1978)
Drummer: Neil Peart

Frank Zappa - Joe’s Garage (1979)

Frank Zappa
“Joe’s Garage” (1979)
Drummer: Vinnie Colaiuta

U.K. - Danger Money (1979)

“Danger Money” (1979)
Drummer: Terry Bozzio

Rush - Permanent Waves (1980)

“Permanent Waves” (1980)
Drummer: Neil Peart

Tool - Ænima (1996)

“Ænima” (1996)
Drummer: Danny Carey

Dream Theater - Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999)

Dream Theater
“Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory” (1999)
Drummer: Mike Portnoy

Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet (2007)

Porcupine Tree
“Fear of a Blank Planet” (2007)
Drummer: Gavin Harrison

The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath (2008)

The Mars Volta
“The Bedlam in Goliath” (2008)
Drummer: Thomas Pridgen

Periphery - Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal (2012)

“Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal” (2012)
Drummer: Matt Halpern

TesseracT - Altered State (2013)

“Altered State” (2013)
Drummer: Jay Postones

Animals as Leaders - The Joy of Motion (2014)

Animals as Leaders
“The Joy of Motion” (2014)
Drummer: Matt Garstka

The Aristocrats - Tres Caballeros (2015)

The Aristocrats
“Tres Caballeros” (2015)
Drummer: Marco Minnemann

Prog Listening List

Recommended tracks as curated by Brandon Toews

Wow! You made it to the end!

Even though it’s the end of the article, it’s not the end of the great content we have available. If you want to become the best drummer you can be, check out Drumeo Edge.

We bring in the world’s best drummers to teach you how to play the drums.

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Includes song breakdowns for:

  • Porcupine Tree – The Sound Of Muzak
  • Tool – The Pot
  • Pink Floyd – Money
  • Rush – Tom Sawyer
  • Boston – More Than A Feeling
  • Tool – Sober

Drumeo Edge exclusive courses by:

  • Gavin Harrison
  • Anika Nilles
  • Gavin Harrison
  • Marco Minnemann
  • Matt Garstka
  • Nick D’Virgilio

Check out Drumeo Edge »

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Brandon Toews is an author, educator, and performer based out of Vancouver, Canada. Brandon is the author of The Drummer's Toolbox, co-author of The Best Beginner Drum Book, and the Content Director at Musora, home to the award-winning online music education platforms Drumeo, Pianote, Guitareo and Singeo.

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