Neil Peart: The Drummer’s Drummer

Ask any drummer for their top 5 favorite drummers, and Neil Peart’s name will pop up on a larger percentage of those lists for a variety of reasons.  Peart was a “drummer’s drummer,” so technically spectacular that he was nicknamed “The Professor” for his pure mastery of the craft.

Peart elevated expectations for proficiency of the drums and soloing, often crediting his biggest influences Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich for his inspiration and sheer drive to take his ability to the very top.  While most rock drummers refrained from jazz and opted for louder and heavier beats, Peart trained himself in traditional jazz. However, he was also influenced by the incomparable Keith Moon of the Who, and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. His drumming was renowned for its technical proficiency and his live performances for their exacting nature and stamina. Peart reflected on his influences and inspirations in Modern Drummer: “It will be understood, I hope, that the idea of being inspired by other drummers like that isn’t to ‘get ideas.’ It’s more about listening to great players and thinking to yourself, ‘That’s how good I want to be.’ You get fired up to try to raise your game, and that’s the spirit in which I showed up at the studio.”

Beginning as a blues-influenced rock band in 1968, Rush evolved through the years, borrowing elements of heavy metal and punk music to create a distinctive style that won millions of devoted followers, if not always critical acclaim. When Peart joined the band six years later, just a few weeks before their first American tour, his influence both as a percussionist and as a lyricist shifted the band’s sound from a more traditional hard rock one to a progressive “thinking man’s” rock style.

While the band was overlooked when it came to awards (they never won a Grammy), Peart, personally, was revered within both the Rush fanbase and the larger drummer community.  Peart received numerous awards for his musical performances, including an induction into the Modern Drummers’ “Readers Hall of Fame” in 1983, making him the youngest person ever to receive the honor.

As the drummer for the Progressive Rock band, Rush, Peart was never one to rest on his laurels. As a band, they released nineteen studio albums, with ten exceeding a million copies sold in the United States, alone. It is estimated that they have sold over 25 million albums in the U.S. and 40 million worldwide. Peart was also Rush’s primary lyricist, as well as a published author, having written several memoirs about his travels and philosophies. He is distinguished for playing “butt-end out”, reversing stick orientation for greater impact and increased rimshot capacity. He said, “When I was starting out”, if I broke the tips off my sticks, I couldn’t afford to buy new ones, so I would just turn them around and use the other end. I got used to it and continue to use the heavy end of lighter sticks – it gives me a solid impact, but with less ‘deadweight’ to sling around.”

Like all great musicians, Peart never stopped trying to improve himself. In 1992, Peart was invited by Cathy Rich, Buddy Rich’s daughter, to perform at the Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship Concert in New York City. Peart accepted and drummed for the first time with the Buddy Rich Big Band. Peart remarked that he had little time to rehearse noting that he was embarrassed to find the band played a different arrangement of the song than the one he had learned. Peart walked away from his performance feeling that it had left much to be desired. To make up for what he perceived to be poor work on his part, Peart decided to produce and play on two Buddy Rich tribute albums titled Burning for Buddy: A Tribute to the Music of Buddy Rich in 1994 and 1997.

While producing the first Buddy Rich tribute album, Peart was struck by the tremendous improvement in ex-Journey drummer Steve Smith’s playing and asked him his “secret”. Smith responded he had been studying with drum teacher Freddie Gruber. Grubber was a jazz drummer who became one of the great teachers to great drummers. Under Grubber, Peart felt his playing transitioned to an entirely new and higher level. Peart was so impressed with what Grubber had done for his percussion work that when Grubber passed away in 2011; Peart wrote a biographical obituary tribute that would be posted to Grubber and his label’s websites. 

Variety stated: “Widely considered one of the most innovative drummers in rock history, Peart was famous for his state-of-the-art drum kits – more than 40 different drums were not out of the norm – precise playing style and on-stage showmanship.” An article in USA Today said: “He was considered one of the best rock drummers of all time.”

On December 7, 2015, Peart announced his retirement from music in an interview with Drumhead Magazine, as he had been suffering from chronic tendonitis and shoulder problems. Though bandmate Geddy Lee insisted Peart was quoted out of context, and suggested Peart was “simply taking a break,” it was indeed the end of the road for Rush. In January 2018, bandmate Alex Lifeson ultimately confirmed that Rush was retiring due to Peart’s health issues. After a three and a half year illness, Peart died of glioblastoma (aggressive brain cancer) on January 7, 2020, at age 67.

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected].