12 days of Christmas: Mike Portnoy on drum solos

Mike Portnoy: "When I used to do the big drum solos I was completely flying from the seat of my pants each and every night."
Mike Portnoy: "When I used to do the big drum solos I was completely flying from the seat of my pants each and every night."

After building a reputation as a formidably powerful soloist with Dream Theater, prog master Mike Portnoy has left solos behind. He tells Rhythm about his drum solo heroes, why he switched from busting chops to entertainment, and why he has moved on despite the pressure from fans and bandmates alike who want him to steal the spotlight one more time.

What were the drum solos that first inspired you?

"When I was a kid, John Bonham's 'Moby Dick' solo was the first time I'd ever heard a drummer just go off for fifteen minutes, and he did the whole thing of playing with his hands which was pretty cool.

"In the late '70s I was a big KISS fan. Hearing Peter Criss do his big solo on KISS Alive I, on the song 100,000 Years, that was one of the first drum solos I ever learned note for note and actually knew as a musical piece.

"The next big one for me was when I discovered Neil Peart and Rush. One of the things that blew my mind about Rush was the drum solo. It was a centrepiece for their concert. The first time I saw him do one in person, it was one of the only times I've ever seen the whole audience with all eyes on the stage.

"If I had to list one more it would be Tommy Lee. With him it was never about the technical chops - he took it as far as it could go as entertainment. On the latest Motley Crüe tour they had a rollercoaster on stage. That's taking it to a whole other level visually."

Who was your biggest influence as a soloist?

"I went through two phases. In the '80s and '90s I was more of the Neil Peart type of soloist. I was into the chops and the playing and the spectacle with the huge drum set. I actually stopped doing drum solos in the mid-2000s just because I felt like it was redundant.

"My last couple of years of soloing - 2002, 2003, 2004 - I was going more for the Tommy Lee approach. I would start by myself and then I would actually take a tom-tom and walk out to the front of the stage playing on the tom, playing on the floor and the microphone stands, and then walking up to different drummers in the front row that I saw playing air drums. I would have them play on the tom with me. Whoever was the best I would bring up to my double drum kit and let them solo with me on stage. That was taking a solo spot and doing something that was more a form of entertainment than anything else."

How much does the size of your kit impact your solo?

"The kits absolutely dictate what you play. When I had the giant mammoth Dream Theater kit, it gave me a lot of options. I could fiddle around on the octobans then go to the gong drum and play on the wood blocks, similar to the way Neil Peart's solo would be where he could get around the kit and utilise lots of different things.

"Now I'm on tour with The Winery Dogs and I'm playing a five-piece kit. Even though I don't do a true drum solo, I do have a little 30- to 60-second spot before one of the songs where I do a little spontaneous burst of energy, which I guess could be called a drum solo. It's very short, but I have to redesign my style and my playing and my chops on a five-piece kit. I have to go more for the John Bonham approach."

"I'm not interested in drum solos any more. This is my personal taste as a listener and as a player. I think I've grown out of it."

When you had the monster kit, did you plan your solo in detail like Neil Peart?

"As much as we often get compared or thrown into the same boat, actually we really could not be any more different from each other stylistically. Yes, we both play in prog bands and played big kits, but realistically, I've always been a very spontaneous drummer and he's a very methodical, orchestrated drummer.

"When I used to do the big drum solos I was completely flying from the seat of my pants each and every night. I would have no idea how it was going to start, how it was going to end and what was going to be in the middle. It was always just a spontaneous reaction to the moment from night to night. I'm like that even to this day with everything I do onstage. Every fill I play in every song in every band is in the moment and different from show to show."

Watching you playing on the floor and the stands brings to mind the great jazz showmen. Were they an influence?

"My influences are all the rock guys. That came from the drummers that are entertaining on stage - people like Tommy Lee, Keith Moon or Lars Ulrich. People that have that connection to an audience, keeping something fun to watch.

"We drummers play on everything. If you're a drummer you're likely to be the sort of person that is always sitting in the classroom tapping or driving your car tapping on the wheel. I've always said that we drummers can carry our instrument with us everywhere because our instrument is basically our two hands and our two feet. Taking the tom out to the front of the stage and playing on the riser and on the mic stand is just showing that. Anybody can be a drummer; you don't need a drum kit to be a drummer. You just need a sense of rhythm."

Do you feel any pressure from fans to have a solo spot?

"Yeah, I get that not only from the fans but I get it from a lot of my bandmates. There have been a lot of bands I've played in where the guys go, 'Oh man, you've got to do a drum solo!' And it's like, 'Ah, I don't know. I'd rather do a song in that five minutes'.

"I'm not interested in drum solos any more. This is my personal taste as a listener and as a player. I think I've grown out of it. Maybe that will change. Most musicians go through changes and phases, so that's just where I'm at in this particular moment."

Mike Portnoy drum solo on his large kit

Mike Portnoy solos on a five-piece kit