Neil Peart Biography
Who Is Neil Peart?
Drummer and main lyricist for progressive rock band Rush, “The Professor” has unquestionably set high standards in the world of drumming with his well thought out and challenging drum parts, as well as with his magnificent sculptured drum solos. He’s one of the biggest drum heroes in the world of rock music, and one of the main reasons many of you have picked up a pair of drumsticks.
Born Neil Ellwood Peart on the 12th of September of 1952, Neil Peart would be the first of four kids his parents wound up raising. For the first couple of years of his life, he logged with his parents on their own farm in Hagersville, on the outskirts of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Eventually, they moved to St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada the largest city in the Niagara Region.
Glen Peart, Neil’s father, became parts manager at Dalziel Equipment, an international harvester dealer. A year after moving to St. Catharines, his first brother Danny was born. The following year, the Pearts welcomed Judy to this world. In 1956, the Pearts moved to a house on Dalhousie Avenue, St. Catharines. Neil’s grandma lived nearby, so she would look after him and his siblings from time to time, especially when his mother started working at Lincoln Hosiery. Neil recalls his grandmother playing hymns on the family’s pedal organ for him and his brothers. Neil Peart went to kindergarten at MacArthur School, and from grades 1 to 5 he attended Gracefield School.
It was not until he was around 12 years old that Neil Peart first started feeling the need to play drums. It all began after watching The Gene Krupa Story. The dramatization of Gene’s life was so powerful, as well as his inspiring drum solos, that it made Neil perceive the life of a drummer as being a very exciting one. Neil Peart’s love for music would start to blossom around this time also, when his parents gave him a transistor radio. This episode also served as a catalyst for his willingness to start learning to play drums.
“…I used to lay in bed at night with it turned down low and pressed to my ear, tuned to pop stations in Toronto, Hamilton, Welland, or Buffalo. I still remember the first song that galvanized me: “Chains”, a simple pop tune by one of those girl groups, with close harmonies syncopated over a driving shuffle.” – Neil Peart in Peart, Neil “A Port Boy’s Story.” St. Catharines Standard 24/25 June 1994.
The rhythm of the tune really awoke something inside of Neil Peart. Another great influence on him was his uncle Richard, who was only one year older than him. He drummed in a band called The Outcasts, playing Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and James Brown songs. Listening to them play was a really powerful thing to Neil Peart. At the time, R&B was considered more of an underground style of music, so Neil wasn’t used to listening to it.
It didn’t take a while for him to start tapping on stuff all the time – on tables, his knees, and with a pair of chopsticks on his baby sister Nancy’s playpen. His parents saw something in this new interest of his, and so they offered him drum lessons, drumsticks and a practice pad for his thirteenth birthday.
Some years before, Neil had had some piano lessons, but showed no interest in the instrument. With the drums, things were different, he had a genuine interest in them. Neil’s parents promised him that if he kept his interest up, and was still having lessons one year from then, they would offer him a drum set for his fourteenth birthday. Neil Peart’s desire to have a set of drums was so strong, that he would set drum magazines across his bed to create a fantasy drum set. He would then proceed on beating the covers off of them as if they were a real drum set.
From that moment on, every Saturday morning, Neil Peart would go to the Peninsula Conservatory of Music to have lessons with Don George. The lessons were on a set of drum pads and muffled cymbals. Don ended up being a very important influence to Neil. He really built a solid foundation for him, teaching him basic technique, rudiments and sight reading, as well as some fancier stuff like the crossovers Neil is so fond of using in his solo work. With that being said, Neil feels that Don’s most important influence on him was his encouragement. Telling Neal that he would definitely become a drummer was one of the most important things anybody ever said to him.
One year after he began taking drum lessons, Neil Peart was still a faithful student of the drums and therefore received his first drum kit as promised. After lecturing Neil on a weekly basis for about 18 months, Don George quit teaching at the Peninsula Conservatory of Music. Neil continued having lessons with Don’s successors for a while. He eventually quit the lessons, since none of the new teachers was as inspiring as Don.
Since Neil Peart was already used to practicing on a daily basis at home after school, he just continued studying on his own, learning from all the drummers he heard on the radio or in local bands. He was totally obsessed with drumming, needing no one to encourage him to practice or play. At the time, the Pearts lived on Gertrude Street, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The neighbors next door – The Kyles – were surprisingly tolerant of Neil’s after school afternoons of drumming, which further helped him spend the needed time to hone his skills.
One of Neil Peart’s early major influences was non other than the great Hal Blaine, drummer on a lot of the hits of the 1960s. Without knowing about it, Neil played along with the top hits Hal was featured on. Neil feels the time he spent playing along to the radio with Simon and Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, Johnny Rivers, The Byrds, Roy Orbison, The Association, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Mamas and the Papas, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, and The Carpenters as being a great learning experience.
Neil Peart supported his drumming by working the odd job here and there – newspaper delivery, cutting lawns, and by working at his father’s farm equipment dealership. This way, he could buy drumsticks and a new LP every now and then. At the time, he was listening to a lot of The Jimmy Hendrix Experience, The Who, Cream, Blue Cheer, Moby Grape, Traffic, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson and Led Zeppelin, among others.
It was at this time that Neil Peart started being influenced by progressive rock drummers. Keith Moon is and was his greatest influence on the drum set. To Peart, Keith represented a rock version of everything he had enjoyed about Gene Krupa when he first saw him in his movie. John Bonham from Led Zeppelin, Michael Giles from King Crimson, Bill Bruford and Alan White from Yes, Phil Collins from Genesis, Billy Cobham and Steve Gadd, were also huge influences.
Neil Peart debuted playing live at St. John’s Anglican Church Hall in Port Dalhousie, during a school Christmas pageant. In 1967, and with only 15 years old, Neil made his second public appearance by playing drums for a trio called The Eternal Triangle. They played three songs, with one of them being an original called “LSD Forever” which featured a drum solo at the end. Their performance was at the Lakeport High School variety show, and the drum solo was a complete success. It was through this show that Neil Peart got into his first actual rock band – Mumblin’ Sumpthin’. In the following years, Neil Peart would also play for the bands The Majority, J.R.Flood, and Seventh Wave.
In 1970, an 18 years old Neil Peart packed his things and moved to London, England in search of fame and fortune. Neil got to play in some bands, picking up occasional session work. However, in a few months he saw himself with no money and with his drumming career going absolutely nowhere. He was able to secure a job selling trinkets to tourists at a souvenir shop in Carnaby Street, London called The Great Frog, and in another shop at Piccadilly Circus, London.
It was during this time that Neil got acquainted with the writings of novelist Ayn Rand. Her study of individualism and objectivism really spoke to Neil, and inspired some of the lyrics he would write with Rush – “Anthem” from Fly by Night (1975) and “2112” from 2112 (1976), for instance. His drumming was also influenced by his stay in London. In one of the places he worked at, Neil and his coworkers took turns in choosing the music to play in the shop. One of his colleagues always liked to hear an instrumental record called Movements by an arranger/conductor named Johnny Harris, with British session musician Harold Fisher on drums. The drum parts in that album were intricately designed and elegant, something that really attracted Neil Peart.
Seeing his musical career was going nowhere in England, eighteen months after he started his European adventure, Neil Peart called it quits and returned to Canada. Upon returning to St. Catharines, Neil started working as parts manager for his father’s company, Dalziel Equipment.
“I went to England with musical motivations and goals. But when you go out into the big world, as any adult knows, you’re in for a lot of disillusionment. So while I was there I did a lot of other things to get bread into my mouth…When I came back from there, I was disillusioned basically about the music business. I decided I would be a semi-pro musician for my own entertainment, would play music that I liked to play, and wouldn’t count on it to make my living. I did other jobs and worked at other things, so I wouldn’t have to compromise what I have to do as a drummer.” – Neil Peart in Fish, Scott K. “Neil Peart.” Modern Drummer Magazine April 1984.
After returning to Canada, Neil began drumming for a band named Hush, who played on the South Ontario bar scene. Shortly after, he got a phone call where he was invited to audition for Rush, since their drummer had just quit.
“Neil actually had to think it over. He was working full time at his Dad’s business, and had recently returned disappointed after trying to “make it” as a drummer in England. At the time, Hush members saw Rush as merely a Led Zepplin clone band – ‘You’re making a big mistake, Neil,’ one of us sagely opined at a band meeting.” – Brian Collins in Peart, Neil “A Port Boy’s Story.” St. Catharines Standard 24/25 June 1994.
Eventually, Neil Peart decided to show up for the audition, which would be overseen by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson from Rush. He showed up driving a beat up car and carrying his drums in trash cans. To this day, Neil thinks the audition was a complete disaster.
“It was funny because Geddy and I hit it off right away. Conversationally we had a lot in common in terms of books and music…so many bands that we both liked. Alex, for some reason, was in a bad mood that day. So we didn’t have much to say to each other. Playing together, we did what eventually became ‘Anthem’. We jammed around with some of these rhythmic ideas. I thought, ‘Oh this is awful’.” – Neil Peart in Banasiewicz, Bill “Rush Visions:The Official Biography.” 1988.
Geddy convinced Alex in letting Neil join the band. Neil Peart officially joined Rush on July 29 of 1974, two weeks before the group’s first United States tour. His first gig with Rush was as an opening act for Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann in front of over 11,000 people at the Civic Arena, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 14, 1974. And the rest as they say, is history.
Career Highlights & Musical Projects
Neil Peart has been the drummer for Rush since 1974. His drumming is featured on nineteen of their twenty studio albums, on eight live albums and ten compilation albums. The band has sold more than forty million copies of their albums worldwide, having obtained twenty-four gold certifications and fourteen platinum certifications, three of which have gone multi-platinum – 2112 (1976), Moving Pictures (1981), Chronicles (1990). If you want to know more about Rush’s music, you can check their full discography on their website.
Rush has been nominated for various awards, including six Grammy nominations for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. They have also received prestigious awards and honors due to the contributions they have made to the world of music. The awards and honors include:
- Juno Awards
- 1975: Most Promising Group of the Year;
- 1978, 1979: Group of the Year;
- 1990: Artist of the Decade (1980’s);
- 1991, 1992: Best Hard Rock/Metal album – Presto and Roll the Bones respectively;
- 2004: Music DVD of the Year – Rush in Rio.
- Miscellaneous Awards
- 1990: Mayor’s Award at the Toronto Music Awards;
- 1992: Harold Moon Award by the Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN);
- 1997: Concrete/Foundations Outstanding Contribution to Music Award.
- 1993: Inducted into the Harvard Lampoon and named “Musicians Of The Millennium”, Recipient of the Toronto Arts Award;
- 1994: Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame;
- 1996: Rush are made Officers of the Order of Canada;
- 1999: Inducted into Canada’s Walk Of Fame in Toronto;
- 2000: Best Canadian Musicians of All Time from JAM! Music’s online poll;
- 2003: Inducted into the Canadian Music Week (CMW) Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame;
- 2009: The song “Tom Sawyer” ranked number 19 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs;
- 2010: Inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Aside from his work with Rush on various albums and DVDs, Neil has developed some projects of his own. The first one came in 1995 when he was invited by Paul Siegel and Rob Wallis, founders of the Drummer’s Collective in New York City and of Hudson Music, to create an instructional video. The idea behind it was to document the way Neil Peart approaches drum part composition. The video was tentatively named A Work In Progress (1996).
In 2005, Neil Peart developed his second instructional product – Anatomy of a Drum Solo. The whole video walks you through Der Trommler (the drummer), a solo developed for the 2004 R30 Tour. Neil deconstructs the whole solo, and shows how and why he played each section of the solo like he did.
The following year saw the release of another DVD, a five-hour documentary called The Making of Burning for Buddy. The product documents the recording sessions that took place in the 1990s for each of the two Burning for Buddy: A Tribute to the Music of Buddy Rich albums, which were produced by Peart himself.
Neil Peart has developed several products with the companies he endorses. In 2004, and in tandem with Sabin Cymbals, Neil developed the collection of cymbals known as Paragon, for the Sabian Vault series. In 2011, the Paragon family got even bigger with the release of the Paragon cymbals in brilliant finish.
Drum Warehouse (DW) is famous for not having signature drum sets or snares for any of their artists. In 2011, they opened an exception by introducing the limited edition Neil Peart Evolution – DW Snare Drum Collection. This collection features the four snare drums that have been part of Neil’s historic DW drum sets used while touring with Rush. Pro-Mark has been producing Neil Peart’s signature drumstick since 1991.
Throughout the years, Neil Peart has won a series of awards from various high profile drum magazines such as DRUM! and Modern Drummer. His awards include:
- DRUM! Magazine
- 2007: Best DVD (Anatomy Of A Drum Solo), Best Drumming Album (Rush – Snakes & Arrows)
- 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010: Drummer of the Year;
- 2007, 2009: Best Progressive Rock Drummer;
- 2008, 2010: Best Progressive Rock Drummer (Runner-Up);
- 2007, 2008: Best Live Drumming Performer;
- 2010: Best Live Drumming Performer (Runner-Up), Best Mainstream Pop Drummer (Runner-Up).
- Modern Drummer Magazine
- 1980: Most Promising New Drummer;
- 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 2006, 2008: Best Rock Drummer;
- 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986: Best Multi-Percussionist;
- 1982: Best Percussion Instrumentalist;
- 1983: Hall of Fame;
- 1986: Honor Roll – Rock Drummer & Multi-Percussionist, Best All Around Drummer;
- 2006: Best Instructional Video for Anatomy of a Drum Solo;
- 2007: Best Drum Recording of the 1980s for “YYZ” from Rush’s Exit…Stage Left;
- Best Recorded Performance: Permanent Waves (1980), Moving Pictures (1981), Exit…Stage Left (1982), Signals (1983), Grace Under Pressure (1985), Power Windows (1986), Hold Your Fire (1988), A Show of Hands (1989), Presto (1990), Roll the Bones (1992), Counterparts (1993), Test for Echo (1997), Different Stages (1999), Vapor Trails (2002), R30 (2004), Snakes & Arrows (2007).
Neil Peart is not your normal rock superstar. Besides writing lyrics and playing drums for Rush, Neil has been developing his skills as a writer throughout the years. His first book was published in 1996 – The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa. The book details Peart’s month-long bicycling tour through Cameroon’s towns and villages, accompanied by four of his friends in November of 1988.
In 2002, Neil launched his second book penned Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. This book is a first-person narrative of Peart’s 55,000 mile journey by motorcycle across much of North America, down through Mexico to Belize, and back again, in an effort to put his life back together after a series of tragic events.
In 2004, Neil Peart released his third book – Traveling Music: The Soundtrack Of My Life And Times. In another first-person narrative, Neil describes his reflections and emotional associations and stories behind each album he plays in his car, through his road trip from Los Angeles, California to Big Bend National Park, Brewster County, Texas.
His next book – Roadshow: Landscape With Drums, A Concert Tour By Motorcycle (2006) details the 30h anniversary tour of Rush on both the stage, and on the road while driving his motorcycles in between shows. Neil Peart’s next book – Far and Away: A Prize Every Time” is due to be published in May of 2011.
When The Sports Network (TSN) acquired the rights to the Hockey Night in Canada, they decided to revamp the theme song for that very special television program. Neil Peart was invited to arrange the drum part for the new version of the theme song in 2009. He was able to inject some of his own traits and personal touch into the drum parts while remaining true to the original theme. You can watch behind the scenes footage of Neil working on this new version in the DVD Neil Peart: Fire on Ice, The Making of “The Hockey Theme” (2009).
In 2010, “DrumChanel.com” released a master class conducted by Neil Peart entitled Frontiers of Composition and Articulation.
What Can We Learn From Neil Peart?
For more than 40 years now, Neil Peart has been honing his skills behind a drum set. He’s pretty well known as a prolific player when it comes to drum soloing and drum part writing. However, he’s also an experienced professional musician that has been able to keep the original line up of Rush since first entering the band. So there’s obviously a lot to learn from the man, even when it comes to subjects not directly related to drumming.
When you think about it, keeping the same members in a band may be a very hard task at times. We’re talking about maintaining a working relationship with people that have very different takes on life, have different personalities, experiences and ambitions. Believe it or not, for Rush to be able to endure more than 30 years with the same three members, and being very popular and successful at the same time, requires the same as any other relationship that stays as healthy and long as this one. First and foremost, you and your band members have to be respectful of each other. Respect is the definite basis under which relationships will keep on growing.
“We always are careful with each other’s ideas to be respectful, you know. You can’t go, “That sucks!”. You can’t maintain a 33-year relationship, or any kind of relationship in life, by being coldly critical. You have to be enthusiastic and supportive too, as we always are with each other.” – Neil Peart in “A Conversation With Neil Peart.” Drumhead Magazine September/October 2007.
Another thing you have to think about is how to handle each one’s visions for a song or future directions for the band. This can be a great source of altercations, since everyone has his own vision for how things should be done. It’s only natural that you don’t like certain ideas your band mates are pretty stoked about. Some bands run on democracy to sort this kind of issues out, however, Neil Peart finds that the best way to go for is consensus, so that in the end everybody’s happy.
“I described it to people: you can’t run a band, even of three, on a democracy, because you’re going to have one unhappy person. And that’s not good, so we find a way that gives all of us a sense of consensus, that we’ve all been involved in it, and we’ve made the best possible deal. If I want a certain song to open and the other guys want another song to open, then we settle on one we can all agree on and go with it, and stop the fight.” – Neil Peart in “A Conversation With Neil Peart.” Drumhead Magazine September/October 2007.
Likewise, you need to really enjoy the music you’re creating with the band you are playing with, and make sure all members are committed to it. Like any relationship, if you’re the only one working for it, it won’t take long until the boat you’re all sailing in sinks. Another very important factor, which can sometimes be overlooked is that you have to like the musicians you’re working with.
“There’s no easy answer for that, and yet it is basically a simple relation: We like each other, and we like working together.” – Neil Peart on how Rush has managed to stay together in Wanderman, David “Neil Peart Interview.” Ugo.com 2005.
Playing drums solos is a great way of improving the way you move around the drum set, as well as improving your overall creativity and improvisational skills. With that being said, soloing however is not for everyone. This means that not everybody likes soloing, and that is OK. There is not a written rule that says you’ve to solo. But if you like soloing, you have to check Neil Peart’s work in that field of drumming.
Neil Peart is one of great masters of the art of drum soloing. One of his first experiences with soloing came even before he started playing drums, with the solos played on The Gene Krupa Story. So for NEil Peart soloing has been with him since day one. He uses a lot of variety when it comes to rhythmic and dynamic phrasing. He also likes creating and adding interesting new textures, with his large array of cowbells and use of electronic percussion like the MalletKAT and Roland V-Drum pads and sound modules.
Neil has been developing his solo work in a very artistic way. As you listen to his solos throughout the years, you’ll notice that he tends to revisit a lot of different textural and rhythmical aspects of previous solos. The fact is that he orchestrates his solos and plans them beforehand, always making sure to leave some space to improvise. This gives the solo a set structure, making it a lot more enjoyable to listen to. This way, he avoids playing random ideas on the drums without any meaning whatsoever, and without any connective tissue to make it progress in a meaningful way. This of course makes the solo way more enjoyable to watch and listen to.
The improvisational bits he plays tend to help him come up with new ideas that he can later work on to add to his solos. So, you can think of his solos as a work in progress, a piece of art he’s molding and perfecting as time goes by. The coolest thing about this all is that Neal as a soloist is nothing more than the juxtaposition of all his favorite soloists and drummers. By working on other drummer’s solos, “stealing” ideas from them, their solos and their playing, and then adding some of his own ideas results in the amazing soloist that is Neil Peart. So, learning how to play your favorite drum solos, taking ideas from drum beats and drum fills, or of small portions of solos, and incorporating them into your own solos will help you define your own identity as a soloist. Don’t forget to experiment and use different instruments, you never know what you can come up with.
One last point we’d like to focus on is on Neil Peart’s heavy use of odd time signatures in Rush’s songs. If you ever want to learn some odd time beats and fills, Rush tunes are a great way to go, having a great wealth of cool ideas for you to get some inspiration from. Next, we present a small list of Rush tunes for you to check out, with information about the album where you can find them and the time signatures used:
- “Circumstances” from Hemispheres (1976) – the song is mostly played in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 3/8, 5/8, 6/8, and 7/8;
- “Jacob’s Ladder” from Permanent Waves (1980) – the song is played in 5/4, 6/4, 6/8, and 7/8;
- “YYZ” from Moving Pictures (1981) – the song is played in 5/4, 6/8, 4/4, 2/4, 5/8, and 3/4;
- “Losing It” from Signals (1982) – the song is mostly played in 11/8;
- “Subdivisions” from Signals (1982) – the song is mostly played in 7/8;
- “Kid Gloves” from Grace Under Pressure (1984) – the song is played in 5/4 and 4/4;
- “Superconductor” from Presto (1989) – the song is played in 7/4 and 4/4.
With odd time signatures, as you start learning them, you’ll need to count them out. This will ensure you’ll begin playing and feeling them correctly from the get go. Neil Pearl started this way, and through practice he naturally evolved to feeling odd time signatures as naturally as 4/4. The more you practice odd times the more naturally you’ll feel them when playing around with them.