Flip on the radio or randomly select any song on Spotify, and chances are that you’ll hear the same old thing. Boom-chick-boom-chick. Well, golly gee willakers, the drummer’s playing a 4/4 backbeat. What a surprise!
The fact is that 4/4 (and ¾ and 6/8, I guess) beats are just the standard beats that pretty much everyone is used to. From K-Pop to Death Metal, this is just what most people are used to. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Well, except that for drummers, it can get pretty boring. So, some musicians strike out on a different path. Playing with speed, polyrhythms, odd time signatures and changes, and precise stops and starts. Honing their technique until they’ve created the craziest, hardest songs to play on the drums.
What Does “Hard” Mean on the Drums?
Good question. Is it all about tricky stick work? Is it extreme speed and endurance on the kit? Or is it keeping time in a swirling melee of changing signatures?
If you answered “All of the Above,” I think you’re right. You can play a boring beat super-fast. You can also play a ridiculously complicated beat slow. But what’s really hard to do the drums is to segment your brain. Getting all four of your limbs to play different things is something. Getting them to play in different rhythms is something else.
Playing multiple rhythms at once. Knowing where beats should fall and keeping your appendages essentially working independently is an incredible skill. Some drummers can play four parts with their hands and feet that would confuse four individual people playing separately.
Counting is also crucial. Drummers that can speed up, slow down, stop and start, and even play noisy fills but always know where the beat is are amazing. Whether that’s soloing during an odd time signature or playing a song with 100 changes, some drummers are surely nothing less than superhuman.
Here are some of the hardest songs to drum to, for different reasons, but by no means is this an exhaustive list – be sure to add your favorites.
Take 5 – Dave Brubeck Quartet (Joe Morello)
Let’s start by going a ways back in time. Back to a simpler time, maybe, but one full of experimentation and creativity. Dave Brubeck, like other hep jazz cats, was trying out compositions in weird time signatures. By weird, I mean 9/8, 7/4, and 13/8, for example. But “Take Five,” in 5/4 time, is by far his most famous recording.
In the Dave Brubeck Quartet, legendary drummer Joe Morello keeps an incredibly tight 5/4 beat going through the whole song. Even when he takes some solo time, you know he’s just got this weird beat going on in his head that lets him go anywhere.
The basic beat isn’t all that tricky. But playing around it, creatively, sometimes even by dropping his sticks and playing bare-handed, is what made Morello’s work here infamous. Try playing along and see how long you last before getting lost in the hypnotic rhythm.
One of a kind…
Joe Morello is a jazz drumming legend, taking complex stick work and swinging rhythms to a whole new level. And he’s a bit of a powerhouse, too. Check him out in this incredible solo where he lets loose for seven solid minutes. Oh, and did I mention he was pretty much blind as well?
Caravan – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Art Blakey)
It’s not all that common for a drummer to be a bandleader. But when you’re as talented as Art Blakey, it only makes sense that you take the reins. The 1962 album Caravan by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers shows off his incredible skills within the hard bop genre.
Take a listen to the title track, “Caravan.” Blakey plays some incredible polyrhythmic delights through parts of this track. He drives his band forward with an incredibly dexterous right hand on the ride and pounds out tom and kick booms that seem to be from a whole other song entirely. At the same time, of course.
Then Blakey alternates between mallets and sticks as he rips through a solo that seems to defy human ability. And back to more crazy polyrhythms as the end. Go ahead, try to play along.
Meeting of the Spirits – Mahavishnu Orchestra (Billy Cobham)
Once the 1960s had blown open the door for creativity, thanks in no small part to massive experimentation with drugs (but that’s a whole other story), the 1970s became an era of expansion. New electric and electronic instruments became popular, and so did more straight-ahead, heavy rock styles.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra is composed of masters of their instruments. Guitarist John McLaughlin, keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird, and violinist Gerry Goodman formed a jazz, folk, rock fusion band.
They played spacey, psychedelic, jazzy compositions that showed off their individual skills. But drummer Billy Cobham was the glue that held things together.
A fusion master…
In “Meeting of the Spirits,” just one of their epic tracks, he maintains control of 6/4 time. All while filling and soloing all over the place, yet still letting the other members shine.
Cobham plays with a power and certainty that has allowed him to go on to be the top fusion drummer out there. Check out this live version of the song to hear Cobhams massive beats.
777-9311 – The Time (Jellybean Johnson / David Garibaldi)
Now here’s a somewhat unexpected song on this list. 777-9311 (that’s eleven, not one-one) is a track produced by Prince for the band, The Time, back in 1982. This is a time when funk had gone mainstream and electronic instruments were cropping up in popular music all over the place.
The beat on this cheesy-funky track was actually written on an early drum machine by David Garibaldi from Tower of Power. But we don’t know if he ever played it. However, The Time drummer Jellybean Johnson certainly did. And what a feat.
This beat is weird…
With a basic kick pattern but some very off-putting hi-hat rhythms. It feels like it should be impossible for a person to play it, hence the drum machine composition, but humans have and do.
Jellybean Johnson, lefty drummer extraordinaire, plays it live here, showing himself to be at least half machine half man. As a note, don’t put your real phone number in a song. Maybe your Insta handle, but not your number. Trust me.
La Villa Strangiato – Rush (Neil Peart)
At the same time that jazz was turning to fusion and funk was headed the way of pop, rock was still growing. And arguably the greatest Canadian rock band of all time, Rush, was hard at work creating complex compositions of their own.
One of these, the over nine minute “La Villa Strangiato” (An Exercise in Self-Indulgence), is possibly the one where drummer Neil Peart shines brightest. This song starts floaty before getting down to some serious rock grooves. This is Rush’s “Prog Rock” at its best, weaving through 12 different parts of this song based on guitarist Alex Lifeson’s dreams.
Meters come and go. Peart plays complex polyrhythms where needed, simple straight-ahead rock when it counts. This song is an exercise in memory and counting as much as any technical drumming work. But having an awesome mustache probably helps, too.
The Dance of Eternity – Dream Theatre (Mike Portnoy)
There’s no way we can talk about difficult drumming songs without talking about Dream Theatre. If Rush is Prog Rock, then Dream Theatre is Progressive Metal. And by progressive metal, I mean it’s hard and heavy but full of complexity and ultra-creative composition.
“The Dance of Eternity” has got to be one of the hardest songs for any drummer to play. The guitar work doesn’t look too easy either. In just over six minutes, super-human drummer Mike Portnoy rips through time signatures like they’re going out of style. It’s truly an unbelievable exercise in memory. Here’s a sample part of the sequences of time signatures:
4/4, 3/4, 7/8, 5/8, 3/8, 7/16, 2/4, 5/4, 6/4, 12/8, 5/16, 9/8, 15/8
No problem, right? Fine, go ahead – I want to hear you play it. All the way, with no mistakes. If you can, congratulations, you mastered one of the hardest songs to play on the drums. Me, I’d forget my name if it wasn’t written on my underwear.
All Things Dead – Origin (John Longstreth)
Alright, let’s get heavy. After Dream Theater, there are a lot of contenders for rip-roaring, screaming, fast metal drumming. I think that Origin’s drummer John Longstreth throws down a pretty solid challenge to all contenders.
On the track “All Things Dead,” the opening track from the 2014 Omnipresent album, this heavyweight drummer tears through an onslaught of rapidly changing time signatures. He does everything so blisteringly fast that it may all just sound like machine gun fire. But trust me, he’s technically brilliant.
Here’s a drum-focused version of the song if you want to focus on his sick beats rather than the screamy vocals. Longstreth’s blasting abilities must be up there as some of the fastest in the world. And this tank-like drummer plays in what can only be described as combat boots. Intense!
Don Caballero 3 – Don Caballero (Damon Che)
Don Caballero may not be a household name like many of the other bands we’ve seen so far. But that doesn’t mean they’re not extraordinary. This progressive post-rock group is known as one of the original inspirations for the math rock genre. And drummer Damon Che was the focus of this band.
Che’s style was as eccentric as his setup. He played with the lowest snare I’ve ever seen, crouched over it like a gorilla. He used mostly cheap, broken cymbals (or he broke cheap cymbals), and smashed away on a rack of giant toms and even rototoms.
A drummer of destruction…
He basically broke every set-up and technique rule in the book and still played masterfully, which makes me wonder. Did he set up his kit so badly just to add an extra challenge for his drumming genius?
In “Don Caballero 3”, Che blasts through complex tribal-like polyrhythms as though they’re nothing. This epic 9-minute song has plenty of rhythmic and time signature changes, but he rocks through them effortlessly. Creating transitions that make perfect sense but no one else would think of.
Biblical Violence – Hella (Zach Hill)
If Don Caballero was like the grandfather of math rock, then Californian band, Hella, is the spawn of a few generations. The duo of Zach Hill and Spencer Siem shred through fast and furious compositions that make very little sense to the average passerby.
“Biblical Violence,” off Hella’s 2003 album Hold Your Horse Is, is a perfect example of their frenetic style. Parts of this song make sense and even fall into what would classify as “beats.”
However, other parts are so fast and blurred that it’s like being caught in a tornado. Perhaps that’s what the reference is for. But I doubt you’d survive if the hand of god or Hella blows your house down.
Playing this song requires biblical stamina…
This track, at just over three minutes, is an absolute marathon. I can’t imagine being able to keep up with this rate of drumming for any more than a minute tops, and I’m fooling myself about even that one minute.
Zach Hill, also known for his work with Death Grips, is an athlete, pure and simple. His beats are so fast and complicated and herky-jerky, I doubt they can be replicated. This is why it’s easily one of the hardest songs to play on the drums.
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Hardest Songs to Play on the Drums – Final Thoughts
So there’s my list of what I think are the hardest songs to play for drummers. Some of them are simple counting problems. Others are complex polyrhythms that pit your limbs against each other in an eternal battle. Still, others are epic marathons of drumming skill, speed, and memory.
If you can play along with even one of the songs on this list, I’d say you’re a pretty top-rate drummer. If you can handle a few of them, you should be famous. And if you can get down to all of these insane beats, you’re not human. So better try to figure out which planet you’ve come from.
I’m sure there are other blazing fast, ripping-hard, and terribly complex songs that could be added to my list. But for now, my brain hurts. I’m going to go lie down and listen to some nice, simple 4/4 beats for a while.
Until next time, may the beat go on.