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Neil Peart: Everything You Need To Know About Rush’s Drummer

Brandon Toews  /  UPDATED Nov 17, 2023

If anyone is a household name with drummers, it’s Rush’s Neil Peart.

Known lovingly as ‘The Professor’, Peart was an innovator on the kit, a prolific writer and lyricist, and an absolute legend. But why is he considered one of the greatest drummers of all time?

Here’s everything you need to know about Neil Peart and why he still tops drummer polls around the world.


Who was Neil Peart?

  • Neil Peart was the drummer and primary lyricist for Canadian prog rock legends, Rush.
  • He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 alongside the band.
  • Peart wrote several books detailing his travels (he was an avid motorcyclist) and personal experiences.
  • Before he was a full-time drummer, Peart had his fair share of odd jobs “from weeding potato fields to selling tractor parts.”
  • How do you pronounce “Peart”? It’s PEERt: like “peer”, with a “t” at the end.

Neil Peart’s early years

Born on September 12, 1952, Neil Peart fell in love with music by listening to a transistor radio his Mom and Dad gave him. He was soon drumming on household objects and, after some not-so-enjoyable piano lessons, received drumsticks, a practice pad, and drum lessons for his 13th birthday.

He made a deal with his parents: if he stuck with the drums for a year, they’d buy him a set for his 14th birthday.

They both kept their ends of the bargain, and Peart began studying with Don George.

At 18, Peart headed to London, England, hoping to become a pro drummer. He landed some session work and a few gigs but had to supplement his income by working at the legendary rock ’n’ roll jeweler, The Great Frog.

When he wasn’t making enough progress as a drummer, the disheartened Peart headed home to Canada.

How Neil Peart joined Rush

While working for his father selling tractor parts – and playing bars around Southern Ontario with the band Hush (coincidence?) – he auditioned for Rush. The band had a record deal and a debut album, and was about to start a tour, but they were looking for a new drummer to replace John Rutsey.

Remembering the audition, Geddy Lee said, “My first impression was that he was kinda goofy,” and Alex Lifeson added, “I remember thinking he’s not nearly cool enough to be in this band.”

According to Peart, “I was kind of weird looking” and he didn’t think he’d played well enough to get the gig. But according to Lifeson, “he pounded the crap outta those drums. He played like Keith Moon and John Bonham at the same time” while Lee remembered, “I was blown away as soon as he started playing. He was so good.”

Having landed the gig, the new Rush lineup had just two weeks to prepare for their first show: opening for Manfred Mann and Uriah Heep in front of 11,000 fans.

They’d go on to tour relentlessly across the US for the next few years, building the foundations of a remarkable career.

Neil Peart’s influences and style

Nicknamed “The Professor,” Neil Peart was a technical master who played intricate patterns and razor sharp fills with hard rock power. His huge kits weren’t just for show; he used every drum and integrated electronic pads into songs and his famous solos.

Peart cites Gene Krupa as his first influence, and joked that his first six favorite drummers were all Hal Blaine (referencing how so many records on the radio in the ’60s featured Hal Blaine on the drums).

He was later inspired by The Who and Keith Moon’s way of connecting his drum fills to the rhythm of the vocals, which – as chief lyricist for Rush – Peart would incorporate into his own parts.

Bill Bruford and Phil Collins opened the gateway to prog, while rock legends Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, and John Bonham were all mentioned in interviews throughout his career.

Peart performed at the Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship Concert in 1991, but he wasn’t happy with his performance. He had poor sound on stage, and having learned the tracks by ear he relied on being able to hear the orchestra. He’d also had little time to rehearse with the other musicians.

To set the record straight, Peart produced two Buddy Rich tribute albums called Burning For Buddy, where he curated a list of guest drummers accompanied by the Buddy Rich Big Band.

Having seen Steve Smith’s performance at the recording sessions, he was inspired to reinvent himself as a jazz drummer and study with the same tutor, Freddie Gruber. He continued studying under Peter Erskine and performed at another Buddy Rich memorial show in 2008.

His drum solos were legendary. They became integral to Rush’s live shows, which evolved with the band and drummer through the years and tours. Peart pushed the boundaries of drums as a solo instrument through improv, structured compositions, hybrid performances with triggers, sequencing, and fully electronic sections.

Peart explains his approach to soloing in the DVD Anatomy of a Drum Solo, examining his methodical and musical approach to these sections. His solos are featured on every live Rush record.

Neil Peart’s drum kit

Peart was creative with both his drumming and his gear, always exploring sound options and incorporating electronic elements into his setup.

Throughout his career, he played Slingerland, TAMA, and Ludwig drums before endorsing DW, who built the iconic “Time Machine” kit.

The revolving rig had two snares, eight toms, a 23″ kick drum, and a second kit of Roland V-Drums built into matching drum shells. He also played Sabian Paragon cymbals (his signature line) with custom artwork.

Neil Peart’s legacy and influence

Peart was made an Officer of the Order Of Canada and was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame, and Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. He was the youngest ever inductee to the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1983, was featured on the cover a record 10 times, and won numerous awards from the magazine. He was voted the Music Radar Greatest Drummer of All Time, and he ranked 4th behind his heroes Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, and John Bonham in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 list.

Peart wrote most of Rush’s lyrics, drawing from various literary influences and guiding themes in the band’s songs. He was also the author of seven nonfiction books documenting his travels at different stages in his life. These books covered cycling through Africa, Rush’s 30th anniversary tour (where Peart traveled between shows on a motorbike), but most poignantly in Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, Peart took an 88,000 km trip across America on a BMW motorcycle reflecting on the tragic loss of his daughter and wife.

He has also co-written fiction books, novelizing Rush album Clockwork Angels. A sequel, Clockwork Lives, won the 2016 Colorado Book Award for science fiction. These have been developed into graphic novels.

Neil Peart died in 2020. It’s hard to overstate the influence he had on the drumming world. Rush created the perfect platform to push the boundaries of his progressive rock drumming. His creativity and precision were the driving force behind a band that had a career spanning four decades and selling over 40 million records.

So many of today’s great drummers list him as their inspiration, and he never stopped learning, reinventing, or trying to improve his playing. The spirit of adventure in his books is evident in his musical career; he never stood still or took the safe option, and left a body of work that cements him as one of the greatest drummers of all time.

Here are 5 reasons why Neil Peart was a drumming genius:

1. He was an inventor

During his 40 year career with Rush, Peart developed signature riffs that are recognizable even in the playing of the drummers he influenced.

One of the most obvious examples is the ride cymbal groove that can be heard in songs like “The Spirit of Radio”, “YYZ”, “La Villa Strangiato”, “Subdivisions”, and more. Peart described it as something he’d use at medium tempos to bring forward motion to the music. He actually created the pattern by accident when trying to learn something completely different!

We can’t mention Peart’s signature riffs without talking about his massive drum fills. Cascading down his entire kit in songs like “2112” and “Lakeside Park” – not just because he could, but because it totally worked in the context of the tune – set him apart from other drummers of the time.

2. He was a ‘designer”

There was always a purpose for every drum part, and that was to support the music. Peart was adept at building tension in one section and releasing it in the next. Listen to what he plays through Alex Lifeson’s guitar solo in “Tom Sawyer” or during the choruses in “Limelight” (that shift between a relaxed 3/4 groove and a driving 4/4 groove is a work of art!).

3. He was a virtuoso

In the ’70s, Peart was already pushing boundaries with technically proficient drumming, like his intricate parts on “La Villa Strangiato” and “2112”. His independence on “Bravado” was next level, and his double bass playing on tracks like “Anthem” and “One Little Victory” was incredible.

4. He was an explorer

Peart wasn’t just interested in the traditional drum kit. He loved experimenting with sounds as a whole, whether it was percussion or electronics. In Rush, he went beyond simply playing rock by incorporating other styles into the music (especially in songs like “Xanadu”, “Closer To The Heart” and “The Trees”).

He embraced modern technology as it entered into the music space, which meant using Simmons pads, a MalletKAT MIDI controller, Roland pads and more. In “Mystic Rhythms” he used a Simmons electronic tom and triggered sounds with a pedal. Most rock drummers don’t push sonic boundaries like Peart did.

5. He was a ‘mathematician’

If you aren’t convinced of Peart’s genius yet, imagine combining all of the above points with challenging time signatures. “By-Tor And The Snowdog”, “Cygnus X-1 Book I” and “Book II”, “Xanadu”, “La Villa Strangiato”, “YYZ“…the list goes on and on and could wrap around the globe twice.

Even though his nickname ‘The Professor’ came from a Gilligan’s Island character, Neil Peart has taught drummers so much over the years. He was also a constant student and his legacy will live on even longer in his work.

His story is one for the books. More than just a legendary drummer, Peart was a real-life poet and a master storyteller, touching lives far beyond the drum set. His commitment to his art, his journey of self-improvement, and his deep influence on music and writing are nothing short of amazing. Though he’s no longer with us, his legacy is like a beat that never stops.

For music fans and budding drummers everywhere, “The Professor” will always be an icon of brilliance, innovation, and the pure joy of following your passions. Peart’s life is a reminder that with grit, creativity, and perseverance, you can make a lasting mark on the world.

So here’s to Neil – for the beats, the words, and the endless inspiration.

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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