The Reinvention Of Neil Peart

By William F. Miller, Modern Drummer, November 1996, transcribed by pwrwindows

"Yes, that's 'old faithful,'" Neil Peart says proudly, pointing out the Slingerland snare drum he's called his number-one drum for years, It's lined up with about eight other snare drums on the studio floor behind a beautiful new DW kit. Neil's in between takes at Bearsville studios in upstate New York, where he's right in the middle of recording tracks for an educational video.

Although he should be cooling out before the next take, Neil's just bubbling over with excitement about all things drum-like. "Let me show you my new setup." "This is my snare drum arsenal," and "It's traditional grip for me from now on," are just a few of the comments flowing from Neil as we walk around the spacious studio. No doubt about it, a passion for drumming has been reborn in Neil Peart.

Last May I was invited up to Bearsville to see Neil record a video for DCI. The video is loosely based on Peart's recording of the new Rush album at Bearsville a few months earlier: He decided to "show by example" what he does with Rush-how he comes up with parts and how it all boils down to the end result. The title, A Work In Progress (Neil jokes that A Jerk In Progress might be more appropriate), refers not only to how he creates within Rush, but also to how Neil's own playing is evolving-especially in recent years.

"Why don't you call this article 'The Reinvention Of Neil Peart.'" Neil suggests at one point during our get-together. "I've spent the last couple of years totally revamping my playing style." It's true. Today. you might even be startled to see Neil play if you were at all familiar with his old style. There's more of a flowing. above-the-drums motion coming from him now; his stroke is much more fluid.

Neil has obviously devoted hours of practice to this new direction, and that, along with the guidance of master teacher Freddie Gruber, has smoothed out Neil's once rather jagged style. Gone is the matched-grip, butt-end-only power chop that Neil employed. He's not boxing anymore-he's dancing on the drums. (To hear just how far Neil has come, I keep an ear out for Burning For Buddy 2, on which the drummer recorded new tracks with Buddy's big band.)

Don't worry, Rush fans. Sitting in the control room listening to Neil re-record his parts from the new Rush album for his video, it still sounds like Neil Peart. The tracks are creative, well-constructed, and played with a gusto we've all learned to expect. But watching him do it is another matter. It's almost like you're looking at a different drummer.

Neil's right. He has reinvented himself.


When you first got together with Freddie Gruber, what did he think was wrong with your playing?

He never specifically said-and I think that's an important part of his method: He's very reactive to the individual he's dealing with.
He watched me play for about a minute. I sat down, played some time and a couple of little figures, and he stopped me and said, "Okay." He then proceeded to show me a few things on a pad-different hand movements. But he never said, "Your motion is too stiff and linear. I'm going to fix that. I'm going to lead you down the path of righteousness towards circular motion."

And you had enough confidence in him to just go with his suggestions?

I did because of his attitude. He said, "You've been doing what you do for a long time, so it obviously works. Don't mess with that. Consider my suggestions as options." So it was always carefully handled on his part. Plus, Freddie gets so fired up-his enthusiasm is infectious and somehow it inspired trust in me to just surrender and say, "I don't know where were going but it's a trip worth taking."
The concepts and exercises Freddie showed me took a long time to master, but once I learned them I really learned them inside out and could apply them to the next step. And that's something I stressed in the video; it's going to take more work for some of us to accomplish things than it will for others. There is such a thing as a natural player. I've noticed some drummers say that they don't practice or that they didn't take lessons, yet they are very good players. Well, how did they get so good'? They are naturals.

I think a lot of people would consider you to be naturally talented.

They'd be way wrong! [laughs] It's always been hard for me. Anything that I wanted to learn I really had to work at. Drumming has always been a long, slow process for me, but I just stay at it.

Now that you've had several lessons with Freddie and you've worked on his exercises, how has all of it affected your playing?

For me, I think it all adds up to an enhanced time sense. One of the first exercises Freddie gave me was a simple triplet ride pattern. It's a swing pattern with the snare and the hi-hat playing in unison and then the bass drum interposing beats between them. As simple as that is, the concept behind it is deep. I discovered that it is the source of time-it is the pulse.
The analogy that I used in the video is that music shouldn't be thought of as dots on a line, but rather as points on a circle. So by working on this exercise I began to get this time sense where, even when I'd move from that exercise into rock and funk beats, the pulse would remain. But it took a lot of practice to get to this point.

It's funny to hear you talk about being so into practicing. because when you and I did our first interview together seven years ago you weren't into it at all. In fact, you seemed a bit burned out on the drums.

Somebody actually gave me that issue of MD to autograph recently, and I took a minute to look over some of the things that I was saying back then. It's really interesting because the way that I was feeling was perfectly sincere, I was frustrated with my musical improvement and I said I wasn't willing to sit in the basement for hours every day to develop a faster paradiddle. And that remains true. but at the same time to sit in the basement every day and explore a whole new time sense and a whole new approach to rhythm is much more value-packed for me.

You've obviously been energized by Freddie, but can you be a bit more specific about what he's worked on with you and how it's affected your playing?

There have been a few things. I'm now sitting a hit further back from the bass drum than I used to, and I'm not burying the beater into the head. My snare drum is now set radically higher than it used to he to accommodate traditional grip playing, which I'm trying to use exclusively.
So some things about my playing have changed radically, but that created a conflict in my mind: Would I really have the discipline to put in the time necessary to make all of these changes happen? When I left New York after my first set of lessons with Freddie I thought, "Well, to do this I have to be disciplined and I have to put in some serious work. Will I really be able to develop this discipline?" Bat I was reborn in an evangelical sense: Deep down I really wanted to improve. I made sure that I practiced at least an hour on the drumkit every day. and in addition to that I also sat in front of the TV with a practice pad and sticks working on all these little physical motions that Freddie had given me.

These hand exercises were not specifically designed to enhance your chops, though, were they? It seems to be more of a feel and motion thing.

That's what Freddie, to me, is really the expert on. I recently met Richie Hayward, the drummer in Little Feat. He was working in a rehearsal hall near me when I was preparing for the video, and we got to talking and he mentioned he was trying to find a teacher. He said he really wanted to learn more about technique, and he asked me about Freddie. I said. "Well. I don't think Freddie is the guy you need because you've already got what he teaches."

Richie has such an incredible feel.

Oh yeah. He would be better off studying with a technical Master, like Joe Morello. I think that's what Richie wants to improve in his playing.
Kenny Aronoff went to Freddie, but there probably wasn't enough of a pay-off for him, because Kenny has that looseness and that great time sense. For other guys, like Dave Weckl, Ian Wallace, Steve Smith-and me-I think Freddie's been just revelational.
That was the thing about Steve Sntith's drumming that really struck me when he recorded his tracks on the Burning For Buddy sessions. If Steve had just become a technical virtuoso, that would not have been nearly as impressive as how musical his playing had become and how well it sat with the music while still being very active and adventurous. That's what made me do a double take on Steve's playing.

Although Freddie doesn't teach technique, per se, he has gotten you to move away from matched grip. And you used to play matched with the butt ends of the sticks!

That's right! But that gave me a way to get the power I needed. I did start with traditional grip thirty years ago and then left it behind in favor of matched. It's been said-even in the pages of your magazine-that matched grip is a physically superior approach. I still believe that's true. However, that's not the whole story. What I've realized is that traditional grip can be a more musical approach to playing the drums. It all has to do with the rotational effect it creates and the way it affects the time.

But, as you said, you need a lot of power for Rush. Were you concerned that you just couldn't make traditional grip work for the band'?

I did have a certain amount of doubt, I put off the band for a year so I would have time to let these things develop and mature in my playing, And then, coming back to the band. I realized that all of the work on my "new direction" might be completely irrelevant to Rush music. During the writing of the new record last October we were out in the country, and I still kept up my practicing every day. I had my little PureCussion kit out in the hallway, so if I was working on lyrics and I needed a left-brain break, I could go out in the hall and practice for a while. And sometimes at night, if the other guys were out, I could get in the studio and play on the real drums. I just concentrated on power at that point, knowing that was the element I needed to get together. I felt I had developed a lot more finesse and a lot more fluidity, and simply practicing every day also developed a lot more tools.
I felt I had improved in all sorts of ways, and I could feel it when playing with the other guys. Of course, some things weren't as far along as I would have liked. My left hand still isn't what it needs to be, but it will be a superior instrument one of these years. [laughs] But I was able to make do and get through the tunes with a strong thumb and that Stewart Copeland sort of open-handed approach to traditional grip. I was able to get a big backbeat and still have the subtleties of finger control and hand control for subtler spots in the music.

I noticed while watching you play in the studio that you're not beating down on the drums like you used to. You used to have a stiffer approach with a lot of downward motion.

I'm playing above the drums now. An analogy that Freddie has about drummers is that a lot of us play like golfers: We're hit-ting "through the ball," meaning we tend to aim at the floor and play right through the drums.
You're right-I played that way. Freddie has me concentrating on my movements above the drums, so that the bottom of the stroke is actually the bottom of a circle. That's where I'm hitting the drum. That was an important change for me.
Playing with the butt ends of the sticks with matched grip tor power became unnecessary, because I learned how to get that sound with a flick of the wrist-Freddie calls that spanking the drum. Just make it the briefest of contact but the most forceful, at the fullest extension of the snap of your wrist-it's like the crack of a whip. I haven't totally mastered it yet, but I'm working on it.
The title of my video, A Work In Progress, is very appropriate, not only because ifs about the record being made but also because it's about me as a thirty-year veteran who's still completely rebuilding himself. Like I said, my grip's not quite what I want it to be, but I'm happy with where it's taken me and the new approach to the drums. I still have much more to learn from Freddie on footwork and getting the soft-shoe approach-you know, the dancing approach to pedal action-but I'll get there.

Let's talk about your feet a little bit. In fact, that was something that really stood out about your playing while I was sitting in the room with you while you were recording your tracks. I've seen you play several times in concert-from a few hundred feet away-but I had no idea that you played the bass drum with that much power.

I like playing hard, although I think my technique suffered a bit, because I set up with my knee almost directly over the pedal so that I could get the whole weight of my leg into the stroke. Freddie suggested I move back just a bit so I could get more of a dancing motion on the pedals, but as I do that I will continue to play hard, when necessary. The power won't go because it's an honest reflection of me.

You mentioned that another thing you changed is the shoes you wear.

That's one of the things that Freddie was dogmatic about. He said, "Don't wear sneakers while playing drums." And that's something I'd been instinctively drawn towards because I thought, "I want the shoes to stick. I don't want them slipping off the pedals." But Freddie feels that your feet need to be able to move freely and be relaxed, like a dancer on the pedals. So I thought, "Why not try dancing shoes?"' I picked up a pair of those suede-soled dancing shoes, and they work great. In fact, one day I went down to practice and I was too lazy to change my shoes so I just started playing with sneakers on, and it was horrible. I couldn't play.
The broader principle here is that instincts aren't always right. What seems right is so often not-the sticky shoes is one example. And I mentioned before that I used to try to get all my drums underneath me so that I could be hitting down on them. I also figured that it would put me less off balance if I could have everything positioned as close to me as physically possible. It seemed right, but it was totally wrong.
What Freddie had me do was push the drums away so that my bass drum was farther away and my snare and toms were all at arm's length. The easiest way to play has nothing to do with how close the drums are. What's the most fluid way for me to get from the snare to the floor tom or from the snare to the ride'? It all has to do with the motion.

With all of the work you've done and all this improvement to your playing, when you actually did get together with Alex and Geddy to work on new material, was there any kind of a look on their faces that said. "Wow, what's happened here?"

It's a perfect question that has a great answer: They hardly noticed a difference!

Was that upsetting?

Well...yes! [laughs] Let me tell you how it developed: At first they gave me some demo tapes so I could start sketching out drum parts. When they heard some of my ideas they said, "Yeah, but we don't heat much of a difference in your playing. Do you have new hardware or something?" And when Peter Collins. our co-producer, came in. I told him the story of what I'd been doing for the past year in regard to my drumming. But when he heard me play he said. "Well, it still sounds like you."
Eventually I realized that was the highest of compliments. If I can change everything about the way I play, from the way I hit things, to my hopefully improved time sense, to the drums themselves, even to the drumheads-I went with white Ambassadors for the first time just for the most complete change possible-and our co-producer doesn't notice a difference, I must have a style of my own. Whatever passes for my "style" is strong enough to transcend all of those changes.
One thing that was noticed by the others was the change in the time sense. As we passed tapes back and forth while developing the parts for the new songs, both Geddy and Alex said they had to change their own time sense to sync up with me. Things just felt a bit better, so we all benefited from it.

I only heard you record a couple of the tunes, and while I could hear a slight difference, it was easier to notice a difference by watching you than by listening.

I'll be very surprised if listeners can put their fingers on it, because it isn't that different. It's still me! It's still my approach to playing-still very active with a whole lot going on. And yet, something like the first track on the album. "Test For Echo." is a song that I could not have played two years ago. In fact, I mentioned that to Geddy when we were recording it, and he said, "I find that hard to believe." It is just beats, figures, and tom rolls-the usual elements-but I came at them from such a different point of view and applied them with such a different level of facility.

I want to get your general thoughts on the new album.

The title of the record, Test For Echo, is from the title of one of the songs. The lyrics of the song came about from a collaboration between me and a writer named Pye Dubois. He and I have collaborated Before, on "Tom Sawyer" and a few other things. He is a very interesting character who works part time in a mental institution and has written lyrics with other artists. He rambles around the city [Toronto] from donut shop to donut shop with a little exercise book that he fills up with ideas and then sends to me. I impose some shape on them and add a few images of my own, and it comes out being something that's better than both of us. He had the title of Test For Echo, which I took to mean. "Hello, is any-body out there?"

I think Rush fans were beginning to wonder if you guys were coming back, due to the length of time between albums.

It was a year and a half between the end of the Counterparts tour and the starting of the songwriting for the new one. As I pointed out before, a lot of that was at my instigation, you know, just wanting to have more time to get my drumming together.

Was there a certain amount of freshness in the band after taking such a long break?

There was a lot of enthusiasm on everyone's part. Alex had been in the same position as me, playing every day-he had put out a solo album. Alex was as totally wedded to his instrument as I was. So the two of us came back with that enthusiasm. and that encouraged Geddy to start practicing again to put his own tools in top shape.

Did all this individual work result in any new directions on Test For Echo?

It's impossible for me to say. I always find I only have a perspective on a record after we make the following one. But one thing I did notice was that we have all kinds of odd meters showing up throughout the record, although I hardly know what any of them are. [laughs] I know they are odd, but I just learned the music and never counted them out. For the filming of the video I did figure a few out just so I could explain them.

I got to hear you record the instrumental track for the record, "Limbo."

We always love doing instrumentals, and the few times that they haven't appeared on an album was because we stole sections for other songs. This time we had a lot of really good bits that got cut from various songs or that Geddy and Alex had written but never found a place for. So at the end we had all these great bits and set out to stitch them together into something.
I got the engineer to make me sixteen bars of click and I went in and just started playing-not counting bars or anything-just playing a lot of this new stuff that I hoped to get on the record. I gave that tape to Geddy. While he was assembling the pieces of "Limbo" he took my bits, cut them into four-bar pieces, switched them all around, and pieced them into the song. So I got exactly what I was after-something totally fresh and spontaneous, played that way only once, and in fact, in the context of the song, never played that way.

Let's talk about your video. I understand there's a bit of a history between you and DCI, in terms of their being after you to make an educational video for quite some time.

Yeah, they had been after me for a while to do one, and I kept putting them off, saying, "Look, I'm not a teacher. If there is anything I have to teach people it's best taught by example." So I just kept putting them off.
And then, just before we were going to start recording the new Rush album, the DCI guys-Rob Wallis and Paul Siegel-teamed up on me: "Look, you're going to be doing this recording, so why don't we just bring cameras in and film you at work? That can be a way of teaching by example." And I thought, "You bastards!" [laughs] They had me. As soon as I thought about it in those terms I realized that, yes, that's exactly the kind of teaching that I am interested in doing-showing me doing my job and illustrating the whole higher part of it, not just the licks and the chops.
I wanted to show what I do, being faced with a blank sheet of paper of a demo with a drum machine part and having to create something fresh and exciting that will work for the song and the listener. So I realized there was a lot that could be taught by example in that sense. And I could also stress the ongoing apprenticeship that I'm going through-hence the title, A Work In Progress. But the video is based, in general, around our new album.

I only saw you recording complete Run-throughs of tunes from the album. Did you actually break things down and play certain parts?

To a small degree. I was really determined to stay away from teaching people to play like me. But I did break down some of the neat little things I've discovered in the last couple of years. Then I said, "Here's one idea that I use twelve different ways, and here are some of the ways I could use them." I basically tried to stress imagination and the application of these things.

What other ideas did you want to cover in the video?

I used to think that other videos had introduced drummers to the studio environment. So I had planned to just let that be the atmosphere for this and not dwell on it. But I found out that other videos haven't really discussed the studio. I thought that someone like Steve Gadd would have gotten into it-showed drummers how to deal with it, how microphones might be handled by the engineer, and so on. When I found out that hadn't been covered, I thought we should do it. We had the album's engineer interviewed on camera about miking the drums, what he wants from a drummer, and so on.

That's a nice idea.

Well. I figured I wanted this to be as different from other videos as possible. I also didn't want it to look like it was shot in a tiny little studio with all the lights of a sitcom kitchen shining on it, like some videos I've seen. I wanted it to be, first of all, darker and more dramatic within the needs of being a drum instruction video. You want to be able to see the sticks and the feet and all that, so you need a certain blend of light.

Speaking of wanting the video to look a bit different, I liked your idea of filming the spoken sections in different locations.

I wanted to get some other scenes into the video. Do you know the TV show Connections? It's on the Learning Channel. I got the impetus from that, where the guy just keeps popping up in different places around the globe and illustrating this really interesting story of how civilization came together. I tried to take it that way. We have shots of me in different outdoor locations.

When I first interviewed you back in 1989 there was a Rush concert video that had recently been released, and I was very excited to talk to you about it. You sort of brushed me off by saying you felt awkward with the cameras, and that you didn't like the idea of even seeing yourself. Now that you've done your own video?

I still don't like seeing myself! I don't like to hear myself talk, I don't like to look at myself, and I'll probably never watch this video. [laughs]

But I was wondering what your thoughts were on just being so revealed by the camera.

Well, it was a tremendous challenge. Rob and Paul had suggested that I talk right to the camera, which is something that I had never done before. If I'd done interviews on camera I'd always been talking to the interviewer, so I thought this might be a big leap for me that would be hard. I told them I would try, but I didn't really know if it would work for me.
Making the video was one of the biggest challenges I've ever had. It was definitely some of the hardest work I've ever done. To be on camera twelve hours a day, with the last couple of days being all talking, was a challenge. The spoken parts were especially tough, being that focused and that clear so that you're not only addressing the camera but making sense. [laughs] You can't just ramble on and hope to edit it later. There were concepts that had to be on there, so I made really copious preparations and I had eleven lesson chapter heads, one for each of the songs, and I kind of drew I one important illustration from each.

For the video, where you are playing along to the new Rush tracks, you were not lip-syncing to the drum tracks that are on the record. These were new performances by you on the same tunes. With that in mind, was there a little less pressure on you since the record was completed and these performances were just for the video?

No. for me it was no different from the pressure of recording. One reason I love going to a professional recording studio as opposed to what a lot of groups do-you know, recording in their rehearsal room or in a house-is that I love the sense of heightened importance. I love all the rehearsing and demo-making too, but I never quite rise to the level that I do in the studio. So there is a certain amount of pressure, but it's good pressure. I was most aware of trying to capture a good performance, and the cameras just happened to be there.

I noticed that when you were listening back to your tracks after a take, you weren't looking at the TV monitors. Your eyes were closed and you were focused on the playing.

That's a perfect indication. Beyond seeing what the drums looked like and all that, I wasn't too interested in how I looked. But here's an interesting thing that I did notice when we were reviewing some of the edits: I was struck by how easy my playing looked. I had a camera shooting me from behind, and from that view I saw my shoulder and wrist movements-just my overall approach-and it looked pretty smooth. When I'm actually playing it seems so grindingly difficult. And yet I looked at this video and thought, "Who is this guy?"