10 hardest songs to play on drums

27.02.2022 Ben Maloney Drums

Mastery of the kit: easy to appreciate, difficult to attain. Such is the physicality that’s involved in advanced drumming, to execute it players have to match high-level musicianship with polished athleticism. Neither’s simple to come by. 

But that formula makes for a spectacle that’s almost unique in the world of instrumental music. Seated at a drum set, with an array of percussive tools in their arsenal, a drummer can create a mesmerising display - one that undermines the subservient role of the drums in most genres. 

From swing-era anthems to titanic works for the concert hall, the ten hardest drum parts below are strongly marked by both of the ingredients in that formula. Any performance of any of them will doubtless inspire awe in the listener, not just for the player’s ability, but for the wondrous art of drumming that this music celebrates.
 

Hard songs to play on drums
 

  1. ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ by Benny Goodman
  2. Århus Etude No. 9 by Bent Lylloff
  3. ‘Basket Case’ by Green Day
  4. Fell by Enno Poppe
  5. ‘Toxicity’ by System of a Down
  6. Eleanor by Olga Neuwirth
  7. ‘Anthem’ by Rush
  8. Solo No. 3 by Emmanuel Boursault
  9. ‘...And Then There Were Drums’ by Sandy Nelson
  10. Another Town by Jonathan Haessler

1. ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ by Benny Goodman

When it comes to the great drummers, Gene Krupa rarely fails to rank highly. A stalwart of bandleader Benny Goodman’s jazz orchestra in its heyday, Krupa reeled off scintillating performances like it was nothing - tune after tune, night after night. But he arguably never recorded a finer and more difficult drum part than on the recording of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’.

Written and first performed by the great Louis Prima, Goodman’s version of 1937 took things to an entirely new level. Disregarding the three-minute recording format, his cover straddled both sides of a ten-inch disc, making room for a series of dazzling solos, each underpinned by drumming of unmatched agility, energy and finesse. 

It was Krupa that played on during a rehearsal of the tune, encouraging the group to expand the composition. He opens it with the iconic Tarzan action on the toms. And it’s he who elevated the status of his instrument with a truly historic solo. Learn to play the part and a range of others by Krupa in the Método para bateriá title.

2. Århus Etude No. 9 by Bent Lylloff

Anointed the ‘Dean of Scandinavian Percussion’, Bent Lylloff’s reputation for playing drums can be matched by few. Between drumming in a Boy Scout marching band to composing and performing some of the most challenging drum music of all time, Lylloff lived a life with the sticks, and his works are testament to his mastery. 

None more so than Århus Etude No. 9. From a set of percussion studies for ensembles as well as soloists, No. 9 - for snare drum only - really stands out for its brutal technical demands. Who knew it was possible to produce such a whirlwind of sound from one drum? Clearly Lylloff did. 

Complex left-right articulations, awkward rhythmic changes, odd time signatures, rapid shifts in dynamics - every tool in a drummer’s arsenal will have to be sharpened like never before if this study is going to be navigated. The title’s published by Edition Wilhelm Hansen, as are the other hair-raising works in the series that are available on nkoda.

3. ‘Basket Case’ by Green Day

Needless to say, if a song is on this list, then it’ll feature a drumming performance for the ages. But ‘Basket Case’ goes a step further, staking a strong claim for one of the finest drum fills ever played. The architect of fill and part is Frank Wright, better known as Tré Cool, who has been drumming with Green Day since 1990.

Skipping an intro, the track fires straight into the first verse, which features guitar and voice alone - Billie Joe Armstrong doing his usual thing. Soon we hear a hi-hat, closing repeatedly to the beat. Then, from out of absolutely nowhere, comes the most perfectly sculpted blend of rhythmic punctuation and flair on the snare. 

You’re unlikely to hear a better fill. In fact, this song is all about the fills. Sure, the rest of the material isn’t a walk in the park, but it’s not enough to get a song in this top ten. All of which speaks to the sheer standard of these little passages, and how crisply Tré is able to execute them.

4. Fell by Enno Poppe

Ever since the 1990s, when his works started making waves on the German avant-garde scene, Enno Poppe has been among the most captivating figures of modern European music. A highly adaptable composer and educator, Poppe has turned his hand to myriad instruments and styles, drawing a range of stylistic influences into his artistry. 

No surprise, then, that he’s one of few composers who have welcomed the drum kit - so closely associated with popular music - into the concert hall. He did that with Fell, a 2016 composition that asks any soloist brave enough to play it to sustain a percussive cascade that twists, shifts, rolls and spirals - for ten minutes straight.

Putting virtuosity aside, so much of the frenetic movement stems from constant time changes and pervasive irregular rhythms. Drumming is so often about generating a reliable pulse, but that’s totally absent here. It’s impossible for the ear to get a foothold. Check out this electrifying performance of Fell by drummer Dirk Rothbrust.

5. ‘Toxicity’ by System of a Down

With a distinctively intense and subversive take on alternative metal, System of a Down captured the hearts, minds and irreverence of a generation of head-bangers in the early 2000s. Few tracks typify these hallmarks - as well as the band’s top-drawer musicianship - better than ‘Toxicity’.

Of course, we’re looking at the drums here, on which John Dolmayan gives one of the performances of his career. Throughout the song, he darts between rapid, layered beats on the one hand, and blazing fills marked by flawless precision on the other. Although there are a few moments of respite, that’s pretty much ‘Toxicity’ from top to bottom.     

In stark contrast to Poppe’s Fell, here we find Dolmayan not only giving it his all, but also reinforcing the basic rhythmic framework that the kit has to maintain. It’s one thing to be technically gifted, but it’s another to demonstrate those gifts, while being as solid as your bandmates need you to be.

6. Eleanor by Olga Neuwirth

Eleanor: the bluesiest piece of classical music? Could be. Scored for an hybrid ensemble that’s half-band, half-orchestra, Olga Neuwirth’s totally unique artwork is a Black-feminist statement inspired by the life of Billie Holiday. It features allusions to iconic blues tunes, as well as recordings of text written and read by Martin Luther King and June Jordan.

It also happens to feature a massively demanding drum part, whose expectations can’t be summarised easily. Between the work’s gently drifting ambient textures, the drummer has to supply every sort of gesture imaginable - from lone stingers that require clockwork timing, to complicated flourishes that need as much wild energy as technical precision.

Then there’s the extended techniques. Here you’ll find drum notation the likes of which you’ve probably never seen before, denoting motions on the kit you never knew existed. You’d better make the performance instructions your bedtime reading. Make no mistake, it’s a real page-turner.

7. ‘Anthem’ by Rush

The name Neil Peart is synonymous with awesome drum music. With the legendary rock band Rush, Peart recorded countless jaw-dropping parts, many of them on his signature 360-degree drum kit. His performances on tracks like ‘YYZ’ and ‘Tom Sawyer’ get a lot of attention, but ‘Anthem’ might be the connoisseur’s choice.

Peart is revered for his stylistic versatility and technical proficiency, but most amazing is his ability to compose and play intricate and multi-layered percussive textures. In Rush’s music, these then ground, envelop and interact with the equally impressive material of Peart’s bandmates, singer-bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson.

All of that is in total abundance on ‘Anthem’. Right from the get-go, Peart constructs a patchwork of rhythmic units, which he handles with a coordination and tenacity that few drummers could match. There’s such creativity about his ideas, too. Nothing begins to even approach the ordinary or the formulaic - it’s just liquid drumming genius.

8. Solo No. 3 by Emmanuel Boursault

In the mid-1990s, master-players and pedagogues Emmanuel Boursault and Guy Lefèvre teamed up to compose a collection of educational pieces for jazz drummers. Released by the great Parisian publishing house Alphonse Leduc, Tempo-Jazz compiles their works - it’s a comprehensive course in whittling all the techniques needed to be a cat of the kit.  

Concluding the selection are Boursault’s so-called ‘solos’. Inspired by the jazz drum solo, these pieces are broader in scope and freer in structure than your usual study, but they’re typically succinct and no less heavy on craft. No. 3 is the toughest of the bunch, combining swung hi-hat rhythms with spread-out but precise snares, toms and kicks. 

Persistent triplet rhythms cut across not only the prevailing 4/4 time but also each other, as they occur simultaneously at a range of metric levels. All serious players will encounter polyrhythms at some point, and this is a piece that’ll help you master them. Oh, and it has to be played at high speed - 132 beats per minute, at least. Steely nerves are essential.

9. ‘...And Then There Were Drums’ by Sandy Nelson

Sandy Nelson settled into a real niche on the 1960s popular-music scene. There was no shortage of expert drummers at the time (Ginger Baker, John Bonham, etc.), but none of these players were stars of the kit in their own right, releasing music that showcased the instrument and appealed to the market’s growing taste for virtuoso drumming.

A track that showcases exceptional percussion-playing in a bitesize three-minute format, ‘...And Then There Were Drums’ typifies what Nelson’s artistry was all about. On the tune, which was released on his 1962 studio album Compelling Percussion, Nelson whips up a storm of a solo.

It’s bookended by syncopated passages on the toms - not a million miles from Krupa’s - for which the drummer’s joined by an electric guitarist. He strikes out alone for the solo though, which gathers material, complexity and tempo as it advances. But all the while it’s anchored by footwork - on-beat hits of the bass drum and depressions of the hi-hat. 

10. Another Town by Jonathan Haessler

Another Town places us in a tribal universe from the first bar.’ So says the site of Éditions François Dhalmann, specialists in percussion music and publishers of this tremendous work by composer-drummer Jonathan Haessler. That tom-heavy tribal sound seems to come as a warning: this work will be raw, visceral and completely intense.

Most distinctive about the piece is the tangling of contrapuntal, polyrhythmic parts. Total independence of the limbs is essential if each of these is to be articulated, and the overall texture assembled. It’s hard to imagine more being asked of a drummer. Haessler seems to know the utmost extent of what’s humanly possible, and pushes right to that limit.

Voicing is absolutely fundamental. The player must not only sound all the layers of this texture, but balance them, just as a pianist must balance the four lines of a fugue. Each one has to come to and recede from the foreground at the appropriate time. It’s all so complicated that it’s written across two staves - and it’s often played by two drummers.

Your next steps for drum music


There’s a whole world of difficult songs to be discovered, and so much of it deserves to have made the top ten. So don’t stop here - discover the percussive art of Led Zeppelin, Cindy Blackman, Alfred Schnittke, Buddy Rich, Steely Dan, Van Halen, and countless bands and artists that sadly can’t all be named. 

If you’re not quite ready to go further afield, then there’s more than enough to meet your drum-music needs right here on the blog. Have a read of easy drum songs for beginners, best drum songs, and best drummers of all time. Still need to learn how to engage with all this material? Check out how to read drum sheet music

And then there were drums. Make like Sandy Nelson and get on it.

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