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How To Craft And Execute Memorable Drum Solos

Brett Clur  /  UPDATED Jun 3, 2024

Drum solos are one of the most exciting things to listen to, right? Well, it actually depends on which drum solo you’re listening to. 

Certain drum solos have you gripping the edge of your seat, while others go on for far too long without sounding exciting or enticing at all. 

As a drummer, you want to be in the first group where your drum solos blow people away and make them want more. How do you do that, though? 

Here are some tips and tricks that I’ve learned through playing drum solos for over two decades. I’ve also pulled ideas from some of the best drummers in the world, including Larnell Lewis, Steve Smith, and Antonio Sanchez. 

Drum Solos Explained

Before I get started with the tips and tricks, it’s important to know what a drum solo actually is. The obvious answer is that it’s when you play drums alone for a short period, but there are various types of solos:

  • Open drum solo
  • Drum solo over hits 
  • Drum solo over a vamp
  • Drum feature solo

Knowing exactly which type of solo you’re playing will help you craft the best one possible. An open drum solo will be long and drawn out, while a drum solo feature in a song will typically only be a few bars. 

I’d approach those two types very differently. The open solo gives you time to build up tension and display a wide range of ideas. The feature solo needs to have something that both fits the song and impresses the crowd at the same time. 

If you do a drum solo over hits, you need to focus on matching with the hits more than anything else. If you solo over a vamp, you have a bit more freedom. 

With that in mind, let’s look at what actually makes a good drum solo.

Drummers doing drum solos.
Drummers doing drum solos. Source: DALL-E-3.

What Makes a Good Drum Solo?

There are a few elements to focus on that set good drum solos apart from mediocre ones. If you focus on these while playing a solo, it will create a much better listening and watching experience for a crowd. 

Storytelling

Storytelling is one of my biggest recommendations to focus on when playing drum solos. I’ve found that most of us jump straight to blazing fills around the toms or play a complicated groove as soon as the spotlight hits us. 

The problem with this is that it gives away a conclusion too soon, and then everything you play afterward doesn’t have as much of an impact. This leads to a fairly boring solo, especially if you drag it on for longer than it needs to be. 

In basic storytelling, you need a beginning, a middle, and an end. You also need some sort of climactic event before the end to resolve the tension you’ve been building to that point. 

Think of it as a framework: 

  • Beginning (entry into the solo)
  • Middle (tell a story with motives and phrases around the drum kit)
  • Tensions (bring in quicker and more impressive patterns)
  • End (resolve the tension by getting softer or cutting the solo off abruptly) 

Check this video of Tony Royster Jr. playing an open drum solo. If you’ve followed him for a while, you’d know just how fast he is with his hands and feet. But I’m so impressed by how much restraint he shows in this solo. 

He’s more focused on telling a good story than he is on playing the fastest notes around the kit. 

Tony Royster Jr. Drum Solo – Drumeo

Technical Skill

My next recommendation would be to show off your technical skill behind the kit. While mindlessly blasting fills around the drums isn’t ideal, playing things that are perceived as impressive definitely is. 

A big aspect of playing a drum solo is showing people how good you are at playing this instrument in a more free way than playing a song. 

I’d argue that the key is to mix technical skill with good storytelling. That’s definitely a recipe for a killer solo. On the other hand, only playing technical things might lose your crowd. 

One of my favorite drummers that does this is Thomas Lang. He’s a well-known drumming machine, capable of playing things with one hand that most of us dream of playing with two. 

He’s undoubtedly one of the most technically skilled drummers out there, and he shows that off when he plays drum solos. However, he does it somewhat tastefully, sticking with good storytelling ideas throughout his solos. 

In the solo below, he comes out guns blazing with quick patterns between his hands and feet. He clearly shows precise technique that allows him to play things like this. 

When I first heard this solo, I was impressed by how clean and articulate he is. However, it just kept getting better when he started playing crazier things as he built everything up. 

Thomas Lang Drum Solo – Drumeo

Crowd Interaction

If you’re playing in front of a live crowd, keeping them engaged is part of playing a good solo. Showing off your technical skill and telling a good story may be enough to do it, but you can take things even further by involving the crowd.

The cool part about this is that it’s actually very easy for drummers to do. It takes quite a bit of skill for a pianist or guitar player to do it, but drummers just need to get the crowd to clap some rhythms. 

If you get the crowd involved, they’ll find your drum solo more memorable because they’ll have fun while listening to it. You should try to do it tastefully, though!  

Check how Benny Greb brings the crowd in when doing his solo for his song Nodding Hill. Before he gets to that part, he plays a whole range of complicated patterns around the kit. 

If he were to do more of that for longer, it’s highly likely that he would lose a lot of the crowd. 

So, he involves them by getting them to clap a repeating rhythmic pattern. He then continues to solo over that pattern, playing it himself every now and then to keep the crowd in check. It’s genius. 

Benny Greb & Moving Parts – Drumeo Festival 2020

Just remember to get the crowd to play some sort of unique clapping pattern. It sounds a bit clichè for them to just clap on the quarter notes.

Stage Presence

The final thing that I would say makes a good drum solo is stage presence. This only matters if you’re playing in front of a crowd, though. If you’re playing a solo for a studio recording, no one is going to see what you’re doing.

The better your stage presence, the more memorable your solo will be. However, it may not be exactly what you’re thinking. 

I’ve personally always struggled with looking excited when I play drums. My personality is very introverted, so I demonstrate that when playing. 

Because of this, I always thought I’d never play solos as well as guys like Aric Improta, who does backflips on stage.

Guitar Center Drum-Off 2012 Finalist – Aric Improta

While that’s definitely one way of playing a memorable solo, it’s not the only way of having good stage presence. 

Let’s look at Tommy Igoe, for example. While he’s not doing anything crazy with his body, he definitely looks like he’s in full control of what he’s playing. He’s exuding confidence behind the kit, which is a perfect example of good stage presence. 

You can also see that he’s “feeling the music” while he plays.

Tommy Igoe (WIM Trio) Performance – Drumeo Festival 2020

Improving my stage presence is still something that I’m constantly working on. Trying not to look like my grandma just died while playing a cool solo, etc. 

The best thing I did was get someone to film me playing a solo once. That alerted me to how bored I looked, even though I was playing some impressive things on the kit. By simply moving my arms and head a bit more after that, it started to look like I was actually enjoying myself. 

Techniques for a Good Drum Solo

Up to this point, we’ve looked at what actually makes a good drum solo, but most of those things are a lot easier said than done. 

To help you work and build on your drum solo abilities, I’m going to give you some more practical tips and exercises. You can take these to the kit and try them out as soon as you’re finished reading this. 

Leave Space

One of the most powerful techniques you can use to play a memorable drum solo is to leave space. 

The space between notes is just as important as the notes themselves. That’s something I learned much later in my drumming path, and it was only then that I started to really understand what musical drumming was all about. 

By leaving space between notes, you’re giving more meaning to the notes that you actually do play.

There are two ways that I love doing this: 

Option 1: Playing Quarter Notes

Playing quarter notes and half notes around the drums. The longer note values mean that you’ll have more space in between each stroke. From there, you can add tension by shortening the note values and playing quicker notes as the solo builds. 

Option 2: Leaving Big Gaps

Playing busy phrases and then leaving big gaps in between them. If you play a few bars of quick 32nd notes and follow that with a bar or two of silence, the crowd will anxiously wait to hear those 32nd notes again. 

Check how Larnell Lewis tastefully leaves a lot of space at the beginning of this solo. He constantly plays the bass drum and floor tom at the beginning of a few bars, but he keeps things empty after that by playing around the cymbals. 

Larnell Lewis’ EPIC Drum Solo

Repetition

Repetition legitimizes. That’s something that anyone who studied at a jazz school will have imprinted in their brain. 

The more you hear something, the more familiar it becomes. So, the more you repeat ideas and patterns in your solo, the easier it is for the crowd to listen to. 

You need to remember that most of the time, you’re not playing to a crowd of drummers. So, I’ve found that it always works incredibly well to play simple patterns over and over to keep them engaged. 

A practical way of doing this is by creating a short melody around the toms. Play that a few times and then continue to improvise however you want to. Just keep coming back to that short melody in between whatever you decide to play. 

As an example, listen to how Antonio Sanchez uses repetition at the beginning of this solo. He starts out by playing a quick single stroke roll idea between the snare drum and ride cymbal. 

It becomes the anchor of the solo at the beginning, giving you something to hold onto when you’re listening. When he plays around the kit and comes back to that pattern, you feel a sense of familiarity. 

He even goes back to that idea at the end of the solo, resolving the solo and making it feel like you just closed the hard page of a finished book. 

This is exactly how you hook a non-musician crowd in when playing a drum solo.

Antonio Sanchez Drum Solo – Drumeo

Own Your Mistakes

Repetition also legitimizes mistakes. The beauty of drumming is that you can’t play wrong notes. You can only play wrong rhythms. However, the crowd doesn’t know that your missed rhythm isn’t part of your solo. 

So, if you just play the mistake again, it suddenly sounds like it’s intentional. 

I’ve made plenty of mistakes while playing drum solos at shows and drum clinics, but repeating those mistakes straight away is always what saves me. 

A good example of this is when drummers hit the rim of the snare accidentally instead of the batter head. If you just keep hitting the rim from that point, no one will actually know that you didn’t mean to do that. 

Understanding that mistakes can be fixed this way takes a lot of the stress of playing a drum solo. We all feel anxious at times, and that leads to mistakes on stage. Using those mistakes to push the solo forward is a really powerful tool!

Consistent Backbeats

Another excellent tool to use is a consistent backbeat throughout your drum solo. This means that you play the snare drum consistently on beats 2 and 4 of every bar. 

By doing this, you’re actually creating a groove, and the groove is what keeps the crowd engaged. However, you then have the freedom to play around the groove by playing patterns in between those consistent backbeat strokes. 

This is often one of the best drum solo methods to use when you play a solo in the middle of a song. It helps to keep the vibe of the song going so that it sounds natural when all the other instruments come back in. 

To practice this, just start with a simple groove and see what you can do with your right hand while your left hand stays on the snare drum. 

To see the perfect example of how well this works, we’re going back to Larnell Lewis. This solo comes in the middle of a tune. 

He has 32 bars to work with here before the band and vocals come back in. So, what does he do? He keeps consistent snare drum strokes on beat 3 of every bar, and it leads to him playing one of the best drum solos I’ve ever heard. 

DrumCam! Larnell’s Serpentine Fire Drum Solo – Drum Fantasy Camp (Aug 2023)

Use Dynamics

If you really want to craft a good story behind the kit, using dynamics is quite an easy way of doing it. You basically have three volume levels – soft, medium, and loud. 

By going through those three volumes in your solo, you’ll naturally create a better story than if you just stuck to one. 

Just note that this doesn’t apply to every single drum solo. If you have 8 bars to work with in a progressive metal song, you should play hard and fast! 

This applies more to open solos, where you have space and more time to build things up. 

You should definitely practice doing this, though, as most drummers struggle to play softly in the early stages. Getting to a point where your quiet notes are just as effective as your loud ones takes a bit of time. 

Check how Scott Pellegrom plays very quietly for the first part of this solo. Since he starts at such a low volume, he has room to get louder and build to a bigger climax later in the solo. 

A lesson to learn from this specific solo is that playing cross-sticks on the snare drum is a great way of keeping the volume down. You can then switch over to rimshots when you want to play at a loud volume. 

3-Piece Drum Solo – Drumeo

Final Thoughts

By understanding these ideas, you should have some direction on how to create a really good solo. Your job now is to put them into practice. 

Hop onto the kit and pick one of the above techniques that stood out to you. If it’s repetition, create a small phrase and then constantly repeat it while improvising. If it’s keeping a backbeat, do your best to play a musical solo while maintaining a consistent groove. 

The more you focus on these things, the more natural they’ll become. Good luck! 


Brett Clur Brett Clur is a drum teacher and has been playing drums for over 20 years. He's passionate about explaining difficult drumming concepts in simple ways. When he's not playing or teaching the drums, he's writing about them. You can find his many videos (over 700) on his YouTube channel or follow him on Instagram.

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