What Guitarists Can Learn from Neil Peart Rush’s Legendary Drummer Wasn’t Just an Instrumentalist, He was a Consummate Artist
By Michael Molenda
The massive onslaught of tributes, tears, salutes, and shock that trended all over social media following Neil Peart’s passing from glioblastoma on January 7, is indisputable evidence of not just his formidable talents as a drummer, musician, author, and lyricist, but also of his quiet but titanic imprint on popular culture.
But it wasn’t easy to win such impassioned and world-wide respect.
It all worked out just fine, thank you, but Peart’s tenure in Rush wasn’t always cheers and parades. Non-fans derived the band as pompous prog for a predominantly male audience of geeky nerds. Peart’s lyrics were savaged in some quarters. His elaborate drum kit—which eventually expanded to the size of a feudal estate—was certainly worth a chuckle or outright guffaw. The meaner of the musical cool kids even slammed Peart’s much-acclaimed drum technique, tagging it as fussy, maddeningly intricate, or just too damn much.
And yet, Peart and bandmates Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, stuck together throughout the ebb-and-flow of commercial fortunes and pop-culture relevance to become rock legends, as well as to achieve a level of adoration far surpassing that of many arguably hipper acts and rock stars who wore more fashionable clothes.
However, this is not a story about a maligned band of brothers battling all obstacles to success to win big just before the credits roll. It’s not even a real obituary for Peart, who died much too young at just 67 years old. Finer and more comprehensive eulogies have been penned elsewhere, as a simple Google search will prove.
Instead, we’d like to honor Peart by examining how his fervent commitment to excellence can—and should—inform the actions of creative thinkers. Specifically, in this instance, the feisty community of often-impractical dreamers, ruthless critics, unhinged egotists, ambitious obsessives, and, at times, ne’er-do-wells. We’re talking about guitar players.
During his time in the limelight (apologies—just had to toss in the title of one of Rush’s beloved songs), Peart honed an elegant curiosity into a fastidious work ethic—traits that could fuel an entire seminar on self-realization, productivity, and joy. As a result, many aspects of his artistic life as a drummer and writer can be deployed to help guitar players evolve their craft. I selected a few of my favorites to share as “teaching moments.”
So rather than solely honor Peart for the many amazing triumphs of his life, let’s take a little bit of his wisdom with us, and let him inspire our lives.
Small Events = Lasting Rewards
Sometimes, fate gives us little gifts, and the trick is to recognize when a brightly wrapped package drops into your lap. When Peart was just beginning his journey with the drums, he tended to break off the tips of his drumsticks. The bummer was that, at the time, he couldn’t afford to go out and buy new sticks whenever he trashed a pair.
“I would just turn them around and use the other end,” he told the Backstage Club Newsletter in 1994. “I got used to it, and I continue to use the heavy end of lighter sticks. It gives me a solid impact, but with less dead weight to sling around.”
Ultimately, a solution to a less-than-bountiful bank account opened up a new performance technique and improved ergonomics for Peart. In much the same way, some guitarists have purchased lighter-gauge strings than they prefer because that’s all a music store had in stock, and they discovered the resulting ease of string bending opened new vistas of expression. Or how many times has a piece of gear imploded during a set, forcing a player to instantly try something else, or make the sound happen using their fingers alone? Solving a challenge can be more than simply outwitting a musical pratfall—the action can point to new and exciting creative possibilities.
Never Stop Learning
A truly dangerous moment that can arise at any point in a guitarist’s career is when he or she stops asking “What’s Next?” and chooses to be satisfied with where they’re at. They stop learning new chords or exploring unique scales. They quit listening to different music. They lose interest in playing with new guitar tools or keeping up with music technology. (“Ah, who needs that crap!”)
Peart could have enjoyed his success in Rush and coasted the rest of his career. But that didn’t happen, did it? Instead, Peart seemed obsessed with acquiring knowledge and tormenting the concept of comfort zones.
“Everything I could possibly change, I changed,” he said to John Sakamoto in 1996. “I started all over again. I set up my drums differently. And with my teacher’s urging—as well as my own wish to really go out and reinvent things—I switched from playing matched grip after 30 years to using a traditional grip.”
The first thing you might notice in the above quote is that Peart mentions a teacher (at the time, this was jazz drummer Freddie Gruber, and he later took lessons from Peter Erskine). Why would someone as accomplished and technically ferocious as Peart need a teacher? Well, whether he “needed” continuing education to maintain his career in Rush is beside the point. Peart wanted to evolve his craft. He wanted to get better. While he was performing with Rush, he never considered himself done. All guitarists should follow Peart’s lead here. No matter how awesomely you can burn across your strings, no matter how much experience you’ve reaped, no matter how much your current facility works just fine with the music you’re performing, you should respect your craft enough to want more.
Trip Yourself Up
This bit is admittedly a part two to “Never Stop Learning,” but it deserves further elaboration. In the ’90s, Peart became involved in a Buddy Rich memorial concert, which ultimately lead to him producing and performing on two Buddy Rich tribute albums. One of the stories is that he was impressed with Steve Smith’s improved technique on one of the projects and discovered Smith’s “secret weapon” was teacher Freddie Gruber—who Peart then sought out for his own guidance. Although Gruber coached Peart on many elements, the lessons inspired a switch to traditional grip on the drumsticks after he had played matched grip (mostly for the physical power he felt Rush’s music required) for decades. This was not an insignificant change—it was almost a complete reinvention of Peart’s style. It took a long time to master traditional grip to his exacting standards, and the move came with enough doubts, second guesses, and other concerns to fill an oil tanker. But Peart stuck with it, and his technique, creativity, dynamics, and stylistic flexibility shot up to the stratosphere as a result.
Guitarist Richie Kotzen undertook a similar stylistic “tumble down the stairs” when he stopped using a pick. What started out as a personal challenge afforded such a wider dynamic and emotive authority to his playing that Kotzen never went back to using a pick.
Few people are comfortable with change—especially if there’s a volcanic transformation—but, for all musicians, having the courage and commitment to really f**k with your usual approach can deliver untold benefits.
Get Into the Groove
When he studied with Peter Erskine, Peart was instructed to “own the time.” You’d think that would be Job One for any drummer. But “owning” time is somewhat different than “keeping” time.
“I practiced for six months just on the hi-hat alone with Peter,” Peart told Modern Drummer in 1996.
It’s no big secret that many guitarists are drawn to the crowd-cheering, ego-expanding delights of ferocious soloing, and tend to dismiss the intensive study of rhythm-guitar playing. Studio legend Steve Lukather has, on many occasions, counseled guitarists to focus on rhythm, as becoming a solid rhythm player can get you gigs. I’ve interviewed many famous guitarists who have said much the same thing in their own way. Do guitarists listen? Well…
Peart was obviously a connoisseur of timekeeping before he sat down to study with Erskine, but, again, it wasn’t enough for a musician so compelled to always improve. I’ll paraphrase the great British poet William Blake here: “Don’t CALL yourself a rhythm guitarist.” Nah. Ya gotta walk the talk, and put in the time to truly “own” the time.
I recently wrote an info tidbit for my Michael Molenda Musician Producer Facebook page citing instances where guitarists, when first running through a song for stage or studio, just blast all over the tune—performing fast and/or noisy licks that have nothing at all to do with the vibe and intent of the composition. It’s writing parts by physicality and habit, rather than, say, putting the damn guitar down for a spell and listening to the harmony and arrangement to craft an appropriate part.
Peart, on the other hand, could not have contributed as brilliantly to Rush’s music if he acted like one of “those” guitarists.
As he told Guitar World in 2012: “Rush songs tend to have complicated arrangements, with odd numbers of beats, bars, and measures all over the place. Much of my preparation time would be spent just learning all that. I don’t like to count those parts, but rather play them enough that I begin to feel the changes in a musical way. Playing it through, again and again, those elements became ‘the song.'”
Whether you like Rush’s music or not, it’s difficult to deny that Peart’s drum performances flow with the songs and the other instruments. There are so many instances of this: tom patterns that pulse around guitarist Alex Lifeson’s arpeggios without obscuring them, kick impacts that alternately lock into and dance around bassist Geddy Lee’s punctuations, cymbal work that recognizes the frequency ranges in play, employing space (or even silence) as a musical part, and so on. None of this is truly possible unless a musician takes the time to assess everything that’s going on in the arrangement, all of the frequency ranges being utilized by the other instrumentalists, and the narrative unfolding in the song.
Peart even listens throughout the bombast of live performance. “When I’m playing live, if I’m worried that a song is a little bit too fast or slow, I listen to the singer to see of the phrasing is falling comfortable,” he stated during a Guitar Center seminar in 2010.
You can probably count the number of guitarists who listen to singers in much the same way on maybe four sets of hands. It’s not just about the vocalist’s phrasing, either. Listen critically to make sure you aren’t at war with the singer. Are you too loud? Too overdriven? Playing sharp accents when a more sensible path would be palm muting on your bass strings? We could go on forever, so let’s just say this: If you can LISTEN with at least 65 percent of Peart’s sympathetic ears, you’re probably going to be a hero to your bandmates.
Peart didn’t restrict his creative output to drums and lyrics, he was also a published author of fiction and non-fiction. I believe that everything undertaken within the creative sphere feeds your musical brain, but some guitarists resist listening to new music—much less seriously embrace another artistic endeavor such as painting, photography, dance, cooking, or anything else of interest. Peart didn’t seem to be the kind of person who would go brain dead as soon as he stepped off stage, or exited the studio door. His output suggests that he always had writing projects going, and he found the time to actually finish them. His creative intensity was unbound. So should yours. Being a one-trick pony—even if you’re the most magnificent “guitar pony” in the stable—still means you are choosing to do just one thing.
Share Your Gift
Given the popularity of Rush, Peart didn’t do a lot of interviews during the band’s long stroll in the spotlight. However, he was incredibly sharing about music and drumming techniques when he did agree to an interview. Check out his Modern Drummer and DRUM! interviews, his instructional DVD, and the numerous interview, performance-breakdown, and educational clips on YouTube. Peart may have been reluctant to be the “media darling” of Rush, but he certainly embraced opportunities to instruct other players.
I can’t say the majority of guitar stars are any different, really. I’ve interviewed scores of accomplished players in my career, and 99 percent of them were as open and transparent as Peart. The disconnect is usually with guitarists just coming up, who would sometimes decline to share gear, recording, or performance details because these things were “their little secrets.” Really? There are no secrets. Everything has been done. What is unique is how a player interprets technique, gear, and the recording arts in their own way. That data is what can inspire, excite, and educate the musician community. Peart “played it forward” by telling his story with passion and honesty.
Perhaps because the guitar community can be so mean, critical, and jealous, many guitarists lock themselves into the activity of “aiming to please.” They react to audience behavior, freak out over low YouTube views, go nuts if their bookings diminish, and drive themselves bonkers taking the advice of people promising more popularity, consistent streams, and heightened brand awareness. None of this stuff tends to strengthen—or even highly value—one’s belief in themselves. There’s always stuff you can do to be successful that requires jettisoning most everything you love about your own music, your style, your voice, and perhaps even your clothes. Peart was pretty clear about his take on “gaming the music business,” so it seems appropriate to finish up with another shot of his wisdom…
“Some musicians try to second-guess that instinctive response, and ‘design’ their music to appeal to as many people as possible,” he told Jon Wiederhorn for an R30 promotional interview in 2005, “but I have to think that must get confusing. It’s hard enough to decide what you like, and figure out how to do it, never mind trying to please everybody.”