In most popular discourse and high-brow philosophizing about the virtues of any given song, the percussion section is often woefully overlooked, relegated to the murky shadows of a musical arrangement.
They say that unless you are uncommonly perceptive you don’t notice oxygen until it is gone.
We’d wager the same is true of drums – take them out of the composition and the whole tent collapses, the legs fail, the rounded becomes flat.
The above may hold true for many songs, but not the following.
In this list we’ll be exploring the thirty best drum solos in the canon; solos that command attention, court awe, and challenge previously held conceptions.
These sonic gems re-center the drums, elevating them to a raucous, emboldened, revelatory plane.
After imbibing you won’t be able to listen to a piece of music the same way, and you may even end your enduring love-on for the guitar.
Let the drums spirit you away, and prepare to be exposed to uncharted terrain.
Enjoy our list of the best drum solos of all time!
1. “Moby Dick” by Led Zeppelin (John Bonham)
Celebrated for introducing the hot lick, a three-note combo that came to be known as the Bonham Triplet, “Moby Dick” is dirty, electric, pure classic rock.
Bonham’s drums come to us like a hermetic, ritualistic echo, retaining a kind of organic, animalistic vitality throughout.
The solo feels unscripted, and the immediacy and candid realism of the percussive arrangements are arresting to modern ears weaned on auto-tune and crisp stadium acoustics.
2. “One of These Days” by Pink Floyd (Nick Mason)
“One of These Days,” released on their luminous 1971 album Meddle, is a feat, an architectural synthesis of sound that rises like a wild, untamed bird to its jolting, dizzying crescendo.
It is nothing short of intoxicating, a jarring, gripping instrumental trip that grabs you by the throat from the second one.
It is surreal, potent, and at times, unsettlingly nightmarish, as though all of the carnal elements of nature are coming together for an industrial-age debauch.
After the 3:30 minute mark, you’ll be treated to a nail-biting example of how drums can single-handedly raise the stakes and create pained, vital tension.
3. “Toad” by Cream (Ginger Baker)
“Toad” is a veritable mash-up, a complication of alluring bass, high-pitch feedback, unfazed guitar, and Ginger Baker on percussion with a galloping, harried drum solo that is so out of the left field that it catches you breathless.
The solo begins with a relentless, pitter-patter pace before Baker overlays the tempo with shimmering cymbals and rapid-fire reports.
When the bluesy, trippy guitar rears its head again, you’ll wonder if you’re stuck somewhere Down the Rabbit Hole.
Released in 1966, it embodies the fervent experimentalism that was hypnotizing and influencing the visionaries of the age.
4. “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins
The drum fill to end them all, the tension-release of Collins’s percussion has reached legendary proportions and might be the most famous climax in classic rock.
This song more than makes the grade when it comes to steadily ratcheting up the tension and creating a dreadfully immersive gloom-scape.
The drums pound against our skulls, taxing our nerves and beckoning us forth to an unflinching, wild release.
The atmospheric, alluring instrumentals have crossed the threshold into legend, in no small part due to Collins’ mastery of drums.
5. “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris (Ron Wilson)
Any drummer worth their mettle will have learned the surf-rock anthem “Wipe Out” while they were perfecting their craft.
Wilson’s vivacious, energetic drum solo catapulted the instrumental California ballad to international fame and cemented the song as a campy romp of gratuitous fun.
Before the first notes of that oh-so-ubiquitous guitar chord, we are invited to the party with a satisfying percussive intro and given a morsel of what’s to come.
Throughout the playful sixties anthem, we are greeted by a rapid-fire, marching-band drum cadence that lifts the spirits and syncopates the action.
6. “Aja” by Steely Dan (Steve Gadd)
At first glance, “Aja” is a smooth, serene, classic rock ballad, but listen closely, for she contains dimensions, and she reveals her secrets coyly.
Unlike your garden variety rock solo, “Aja” contains sparkly, sprightly percussive notes which bring a fairy-like lightness, and a certain folkloric levity, to this emotive ballad.
The percussion possesses a disarming sincerity and an unpackaged spontaneity that provokes a response of curious delight and general deliriousness.
The drums in “Aja” are benign, but that in no way sullies their power.
7. “YYZ” by Rush (Neil Peart)
Neil Peart is one of the giants of percussion, and his inventive and academic technical wizardry elevated Rush to peculiar, untouchable prog heights.
The ambitious space-age prog opera “YYZ” is an exceptionally strange and transformative piece of music, and Peart’s signature ride pattern structures the song without sacrificing any of its thrills.
Here is some uncommon rock trivia for ya: the tempo of “YYZ” was constructed to be the rhythmic equivalent of the Morse code of the Toronto airport location identifier.
8. “6:00” by Dream Theater (Mike Portnoy)
Much ink could be spilled extolling the instrumental audacity and compositional bravery that informs Dream Theater’s vigorously strange metal narrative, “6:00.”
The song plays by no rules and eschews normative bounds, soaring to puzzling and unpredictable heights.
The song opens with Portnoy’s inviting, inoffensive solo, generating intentionally false expectations for the delightful sonic carnage and flights of fancy to follow.
The percussion serves as a heady dose of materiality throughout the song, grounding the guitars, which threaten to lose full touch with reality at any point.
9. “Fred” by The New Tony Williams Lifetime (Tony Williams)
An evocative song that possesses a potent, nostalgic whimsy and an ethereal dose of pathos, “Fred” is quietly and modestly cinematic.
It is lush and haunting, with a romantic, generous dance between the drums and the rhythm section.
The jazz fusion bliss comes courtesy of Williams and his ability to riff off iconic guitarist Allan Holdsworth.
“Fred” allows one to feel the gracious, sinuous optimism of two masters at work and provides us a glimpse of how vital drums are to the jazz-fusion mission.
10. “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck (Joe Morello)
The reigning classic of mid-century jazz, “Take Five” has a near-total ubiquity from bar room to jazz club to prohibition-style basement and beyond.
Sophisticated and elegant, with a dash of sensual charisma for good measure, Morello’s gratifying drum solo retains all of its urbane, mischievous magic, even as jazz has (tragically) become something of a niche genre.
“Take Five” emancipates the drum from being a sheer time-keeping tool, allowing it to flirt, provoke, and saunter about, unfettered from polite constraints.
11. “Painkiller” by Judas Priest (Scott Travis)
The tectonic intensity and live-action speed-trip vigor of “Painkiller” owes much of its scathing velocity to Scott Travis and his rapacious tempo on drums.
The album of the same name was the first featuring Travis on drums, and he brought an unflinching, aggressive ethos to the table.
If you didn’t have a headache before you pressed ‘play’ you will afterward – the first 17 seconds are like getting an unrelenting smack on the head by a sharp metal object.
The hyperactive method and manic pace are nothing short of mythical and
“Painkiller” drags it to the center of the action.
12. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who (Keith Moon)
The Who always had audacity in spades but the seventies saw them embracing a totally uncaged, arena-ready ethos akin to a Brit-rock shock and awe campaign.
This anthemic ode to resistance in the face of power was no easy feat for Moon to pull off, as he had to synchronize his drum tempo to that of the synthesizer, which, tricky as it was, gave the song its gregarious flair.
Moon’s drum is spirited and unrepentant, embodying the singularity of vision that guided The Who’s stadium-sized anthems.
13. “The End” by The Beatles (Ringo Starr)
Ringo Starr was central to the swinging, immersive, generous sixties sound that confirmed the fab foursome’s position as the best band in history.
Off of 1969’s Abbey Road, “The End” did things differently, beginning with a gregarious vocal intro before descending into a cluttered, tribalistic fifteen-second drum solo.
Despite the manic pace, Starr has the precision of a man possessed, and he retains the lightest suggestion of creative playfulness, adding to the whimsy of this oft-overlooked song.
14. “Chocolate Chip Trip” by Tool (Danny Carey)
Here we have a mystifying song with a killer drum solo and some luminous, unsettlingly placed percussive chimes to boot.
Danny Carey used his stainless-steel Ludwig kit for a feverish, heady sound and paired a machine-age synthesizer behind the drums to cultivate an eerie, surreal soundscape.
The result is a zinging, electric, throbbing percussive intro blended with a robotic, space-age synth.
The result is like Hal 9000 from 1969: A Space Odyssey being knocked on the head by untamed extra-terrestrials.
Yes, the song is that weird.
15. “Tom Sawyer” by Rush (Neil Peart)
We couldn’t skip this early-eighties prog masterpiece, could we?
“Tom Sawyer” is a rebellious, devilishly attention-grabbing anthem about individuality and the romantic heroics of a modern-day, well, Tom Sawyer.
Peart’s technical mastery of ‘quads,’ a technique featuring a syncopation across toms and kick drums, gives the song a dominating, compelling pace.
Peart’s famous match grip precision and cerebral obsessiveness with form and content elevated Rush’s songs to modern sagas.
16. “Eleven” by Primus (Tim Alexander)
An eclectic funk metal staple with a groovy melody and a kitschy, heady dose of offhand fun, “Eleven: is asymmetrical and out-of-sync.
The very name of the song is a nod to the off-kilter 11/8 time signature.
Ultimately, the strangeness enhances the jam’s cult qualities, and much of the unusual power comes from Alexander’s brash and emboldened drums.
Thrashing and slashing up his drum set, Alexander inspired a legion of early-nineties delinquents to take up the instrument and he has become something of a low-key anti-hero.
17. “Mama” by Genesis (Phil Collins)
This magisterial gothic anthem is like an Edgar Allen Poe fever dream, and its alluring, unhinged currents are staggeringly accomplished.
More like a drum fill than anything else, the short percussive bridge after the four-minute mark serves a rogue timekeeping function and propels the song forward with formidable, unyielding confidence.
The disruptive, volcanic potential of the drums is foregrounded throughout the 6:50-minute song, and we are left slightly unmoored and in need of a muscle relaxant once the whole lush, urgent spectacle is through.
The electronic drum machine flourishes don’t hurt either, raising the stakes ever higher.
18. “Night in Tunisia” by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (Art Blakey)
A reigning jazz standard, “Night in Tunisia” embodies the elegance and optimism of its early 1940s provenance.
Blakey’s grand drum solo heightened the song’s alluring, enigmatic chord progression and atmospheric, textured quality.
The upbeat dexterity of Blakey’s hand reconciles the luxuriance of mid-century jazz with the adaptive, non-linear sensibility of the sixties
19. “Lover/Leave Us Leap” by Gene Krupa & His Orchestra (Gene Krupa)
An up-tempo swing staple, “Lover/Leave Us Leap” is a generous, big-spirited arrangement where every instrument can sparkle and enjoy a dose of narcissistic attention.
The drum solo is best experienced on live recordings, where drummers play spontaneously and swiftly for an indeterminate amount of time – even upwards of 10+ minutes.
Listening to this grand composition now is like mainlining nostalgia, and much of the dashing romance and gregarious chaos come courtesy of Krupa’s thumping, epileptic, banshee-esque drum solos.
20. “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly (Ron Bushy)
A late-sixties psychedelic trip with a maddening title, this song is truly more of an epic novel, and at 17 minutes, it certainly rewards patience and attention.
Ron Bushy’s two-and-a-half minute drum solo cuts the song in half and reorients us, almost like a signpost on a surreal and whimsical journey.
The song was written after organist-vocalist Doug Ingle drank a gallon of wine, and when you parse the bizarre, biblical lyrics you’ll agree that a sober mind was not responsible for its construction.
21. “Forty Six & 2” by Tool (Danny Carey)
Industrial rock giants Tool has always approached songwriting and composition with a philosophical, psychological raft of references, and this dark, unsettling gem is no exception.
Carey steals the show with his four measures of ⅞ on his ride cymbals, offering a tight and sculptural contrast with the drowsy, phantasmagoric guitar and bass.
The song is haunted and doom-laden, the melodic equivalent of an impending nervous breakdown, and Carey’s drums, restrained and unrestrained in turn, contribute to its dense, hypnotic impact.
22. “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes (Meg White)
Perhaps most famous for its droning, authoritative guitar riff, the modern rock anthem would be legless without Meg White’s sturdy, demanding drums.
Indeed, White demonstrates the heavy-hitting impact of a simple, forceful drum beat and points to the ability of the instrument to make a lasting impression without centering itself as the main attraction.
Heralded as one of the most ubiquitous melodies in the rock canon, it brilliantly marries a garage sensibility with stubborn, rebellious posturing.
23. “Karn Evil 9” by Emerson Lake & Palmer (Carl Palmer)
This bizarre gem is a campy, uncompromisingly strange ode to carnival culture that could only have been released in 1973 by psychedelic pioneers ELP.
It contains a jam band methodology and the surreal tangents of the post-sixties counterculture, but most of all, it features a propellent solo by Carl Palmer in a blink-and-you-miss-it segment at the 2:56 minute mark.
This song throws up metaphors, allusions, and futuristic insinuations like it’s a piece of ambitious fan fiction – you need this in your life.
24. “Jack & Diane” by John Mellencamp (Kenny Aronoff)
Everyone and their uncle-twice-removed knows this classic American ditty, but few stop to reflect upon the contribution of the drums to its enduring legacy.
Aronoff does his best work past the 2:30-minute mark as he ratchets up the volume, intensity, and vigor in keeping with the song’s rising action.
If we were to compare the stages of the song to a novel, it would be fair to say that the melodic climax and thematic zenith of the narrative would fall flat without Aronoff’s intuitive, untamed drums.
25. “Tribute To Johnny” by The Smashing Pumpkins (Jimmy Chamberlin)
This stirring ode to Ramones guitarist Johnny Ramone is as heartfelt in messaging as it is ponderous in tone (a compliment, we swear!)
The droning, gritty, self-assured instrumentals are pure Pumpkins and serve to set the stage for Chamberlin to carve out meaningful, meticulous four-bar beats that really drive the pathos home.
The garage-tinged guitar riffs give way to a rapid-fire solo after the 1:50 second mark which serves as both a call to arms and a palette cleanser.
Ultimately, the quick-shot solo expertly refocuses and reinvigorates the taut guitar riff.
26. “Hot For Teacher” by Van Halen (Alex Van Halen)
Why should Eddie Van Halen have all the fun?
With Alex’s thirty-second drum solo opening for “Hot For Teacher,” he positions the percussion as the center of the action and the debauchery.
The dizzying pace and high-voltage instrumentals are hair-raising and wickedly good fun, and Alex keeps the pace taut yet frenetic.
Critic Chuck Klosterman referred to Van Halen’s drums as “athletic,” – an apt description for a musician who can toss out flexible, acrobatic beats like it’s a walk in the park.
27. “Rat Salad” by Black Sabbath (Bill Ward)
An instrumental early metal send-up from British mavericks Black Sabbath, “Rat Salad” is a scorching Bacchanal, a devilish blend of established instrumental conventions and animated drums, lacerating guitars, and tumultuous rhythms.
Pungent title aside, the song is one of the best expositions of Ward’s fearless, cocksure approach and his flagrant disregard for the norms of old.
Beginning at the 1:15 minute mark, we are treated with a compositionally elaborate, insatiable solo where the different tones and pitches of Ward’s drum kit form a veritable symphony.
28. “Grebfruit” by Benny Greb
A whimsical, eclectic romp that would go down well in any deviously weird Portland coffeehouse or at your elusive bohemian neighbor’s place post-drinks, “Grebfruit” is wonderfully unconventional.
It is mellow and down-to-earth, with open-hearted, simple one-dimensional drums and a tame pace.
The drums calmly add density to the arrangement and infuse the sonic mood with a tribal, organic verite.
29. “Black Betty” by Ram Jam (Peter Charles)
The original “Black Betty” was an early 20th-century African-American work song, but the tune that comes to us now is typically the rollicking, tongue-in-cheek hard rock anthem from seventies ruffians Ram Jam.
You know the audacious, swaggering intro from film scores, comedy clubs, and your local baseball team’s games, but give the song your full attention, and you’ll be treated with a rowdy and impolite riot of a time.
While drums keep the pace loose and dirty throughout, we get a heady, unhinged solo dose around the 1:45 minute mark, which serves to sustain the reckless dynamism of this deliciously crude anthem.
30. “Drain You” by Nirvana (Dave Grohl)
One of the best buildups and tension releases in the grunge canon, Dave Grohl captivates with an escalating drum that hits its zenith with infectious verve and furious ambition.
While the droning hum of the guitar contributes to the minute-long suspense after the 1:45 mark, the ratcheting up of the listener’s collective nerves is all down to the breathless, frantic, carnal drums and cymbals.
The glee and destructive fervor offer us an insight into the psychology of grunge itself: a genre that finds thrills and dark vitality in the psychosomatic madness.
31. “Overkill” by Motörhead (Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor)
Released in 1979, “Overkill” embodied the growling, charismatic ferocity that English metal giants Motörhead peddled like second nature.
Paired with a scathing double bass, Taylor’s relentless, frenzied opening drum pattern set the tone for a fierce and uncompromising song.
Indeed, “Overkill” came to be regarded as one of the band’s best due to the band’s maverick, daresay conceited approach to instrumentals.
Legend has it that the inspiration for the song came when Lemmy overheard Taylor messing around on the drums trying to get his timing right.
32. “The Mule” by Deep Purple (Ian Paice)
Deep Purple were no lightweights when it came to live performances, and one song rises above the rest for sheer electric wow-factor: “The Mule.”
The song would invariably include Paice’s extended drum solo, and the intrinsic spontaneity and improvisational texture would hold the spectators rapt.
With his echoing kettle drum and disruptive glee, Paice often went off on a six-minute tangent, battering ear drums and absolving the band of any allegiance to mid-century rock conventions.
33. “One” by Metallica (Lars Ulrich)
A metal classic that casts an unflinching eye on themes of warfare, trauma, and civilized violence, “One” is a heavy, unremitting arrangement that doesn’t bode well with dinner parties or polite company.
It’s unyielding in its confrontational approach, and Lars Ulrich’s battering drums frame the evolution of the song from its distorted chorus to its crisp intervals.
Approaching the 4:20 minute mark, we are assaulted with an explosive, volcanic display of unmediated rage and the full weight of Ulrich’s technical acumen.
34. “Funky Drummer” by James Brown (Clyde Stubblefield)
If you know drums, you know this number – the drum break remains one of the most frequently sampled solos of the seventies, and it lends the song a bighearted, joyous intensity.
The improvised, sporadic nature of the song is a nod back to the live jazz shows of old, where enthusiasm and words of encouragement become central to the music itself.
The funk-tinged vamp remains a refreshing, groovy taste of the early seventies and highlights the serendipity that occurs when every instrumentalist gets their moment in the sun.
35. “Rope” by Foo Fighters (Taylor Hawkins)
Off of their acclaimed 2011 album Wasting Light, “Rope” is proof-positive that the ethos of the nineties never died and that Grohl et al are ripe and ready to carry its torch forevermore.
The angular chords and unorthodox rhythm lend the song a curious mystique, and the addition of tambourines and drum machines further contribute to the strange brew.
Taylor Hawkins (RIP) was his usual self on drums, playing from a deep, potent well of alt-rock references and exploratory cues.
Raw, unpolished, and granular, “Rope” brings you back to the Seattle days and proves that rock’s reluctant heroes weathered the storm of the new millennium with grace and focus.
Best Drum Solos of All Time – Final Thoughts
If you’ve finished this list, go get yourself a well-earned painkiller.
The best drums in the business throb, writhe, thrash, and slap, and if you’ve been listening closely, you’ll forever be disabused of the notion that drums merely fulfill a time-keeping function.
The best drum solos of all time are ripe, ready, and yours for the taking.
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