How to Play Drums Like Mike Portnoy

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When you think about influential drummers in the rock and metal scene, it’s hard to gloss over Mike Portnoy. His drumming contributions over the years have really had a profound effect on the way metal drumming is perceived. 

He has been renowned for his capability to sound musical with his drumming while still satisfying the requirement to create a fleshed-out sonic space. Being influenced by the likes of Rush, Queen, and Led Zeppelin, he has set a precedent for what lively drumming sounds like. 

Not only this, but his production experience has also set a standard for a great drum sound. One that few drummers in the industry have been able to capture with skill and deftness alone. 

Recognizing his drumming is easy. Sometimes, as soon as the first drum roll is played, you can be pretty sure it’s Portnoy behind the kit. But, although it’s easy to recognize his drumming; it can be hard to recreate it. There are so many elements that intermingle to create Mike Portnoy’s iconic style. 

For those who aspire to play like Portnoy, here’s a basic breakdown of his playing. This will help you peel back the layers to get a good sense of where his drumming head is at. 

Mike Portnoy’s Style Over the Years

Although he’s known for a very particular style of playing, Mike Portnoy is far from being a one-trick pony. His ability to adapt to his bandmates’ musical style is what has given him such a great knack for playing well. 

Mike’s style and genre shifts over the years have injected his style with the personality that it has today. You can even track his playing tendencies from a certain era and noticing threads that tie into his projects that came after it. Here are some of the notable moments of his career.

Dream Theatre: Complex and Energetic

Despite his unceremonious departure from the band, the fact remains that Portnoy was one of the founding members of Dream Theatre. It was his first band and defined his playing style from its origins. 

In total, he’s played on 10 albums and countless live performances with the band over a record spanning 20 years. During his earlier performances, his style is faintly noticeable behind a veil of Rush influences and experience at Berkeley. 

From there on, he starts to progressively own his style from Images and Words onwards. His style here can be best described as epic, raw, and complex yet musical.  

This is also the time during which Mike was able to get his drum production chops together. You can pick this out from his snare sound in particular. It was tightly tuned to a Db above B standard and post-processed to add a tighter sound than normal.

During each song, he is able to lock in with other instruments creating rhythmic flow. But even so, you can still pick out any of his unique drum rolls and fills as a masterclass in skill and technique. 

Avenged Sevenfold: Primal and Heavy

Having left Dream Theatre, Mike Portnoy sought to fill in with Avenged Sevenfold following the death of the band’s drummer. Although his stint with A7X was brief, it opened up new creative horizons for him. 

Most of Portnoy’s time playing with Sevenfold was dedicated to filling in The Rev’s shoes. But he still had ample opportunity to elevate his playing style during this time. 

Avenged’s style required him to play straight metal grooves with enough room for the occasional blast beat. His playing style was sharpened to produce a visceral and powerful sound by controlling his hits on the drum kit.

This contrasted with the progressive style of drumming from Dream Theatre, where the focus was on being unconventional. accuracy and timing

Winery Dogs: Rock and Roll Inspired

When looking at Mike’s career, it’s easy to remove Winery Dogs from the equation as another revival band. But this is the band that gave him the chance to break out of his metal shell for a bit. 

Portnoy’s drumming for Winery Dogs was modeled after the ’60s and 70’s style rock and roll influences that made the band’s sound. This allowed him to go back to his Rush and Zeppelin influences with a newfound appreciation. 

Mike Portnoy’s style with Winery Dogs was opened up to using more melodic playing. He started utilizing more tom fills and using classic rock openers. This all affected his playing to be a little less chaotic and a little more focused on supporting the band with a simple groove. 

Neal Morse Band: Hybrid Cross Style

The Neal Morse band is another stepping stone to Mike Portnoy’s style and one that proves that he isn’t just stuck playing one kind of style. 

When you hear his playing with the band, it’s clear that Neal Morse makes him play a hybrid style. It comes off as a mix of his Dream Theatre and Winery Dogs days. 

Most of the drumming is poised to fit a standard singer-songwriter format with rock elements. But there are breaks and moments where he is allowed to launch into an all-out fury of drum and cymbal hits.

This cross-breeding of his different playing elements into a cohesive whole is the perfect bookend to the evolution of his style. And this is where his modern-day playing habits rest at currently.

Playing Drums Like Mike Portnoy

Mike Portnoy’s great drumming skills are a testament to his long-standing playing career. He not only has a strong grasp on fundamental concepts, but his execution is second to none. Playing with his style isn’t an impossible feat. But it does require mastery over a few key aspects. 

Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to emulate his playing style. 

Master the Bass and Tom Roll

Drum fills can be attempted in a number of different ways. You can go for a buildup, a breakdown, or even a crescendo. But they all serve a basic purpose; to create rhythmic interest in the middle of a beat. Mike Portnoy takes this concept with his own little twist.

For starters, Portnoy avoids the classic ‘hands-only’ approach to his drum fills by incorporating his feet into the equation. Here’s a very standard fill from the Images and Words album:

RL KK

Here, he starts a basic right-left pattern on the snare and follows it up with two kicks on his double bass. But this is just the start of things. He takes this concept further by involving the toms this time:

RL KK RLRLRL KK

This creates a unique texture that sounds as well as it plays. Especially when played as a fill-in pre verse sections. 

You can incorporate the bass drum and tom roll fairly easily to add some interest to an otherwise boring beat. The best part about this technique is that it builds on a fairly simple marching band pattern that’s easy to learn but fun to execute. 

Use Your Kit…All of It

With the exception of a few shows, Mike Portnoy isn’t known for having the largest or most decked out kit. But this doesn’t stop him in the least. In fact, it powers him up to make it as large and open as he possibly can.

Mike’s ability to sound big comes from his time with Dream Theatre. The need to create a drum sound that fills the complex arrangements drove him to chase a tight and full sound. 

Songs like Dance of Eternity showcase his ability to sound larger than his kit. With just a few extra cymbals than normal, he’s able to project a sound that towers over his normal playing. 

This is all thanks to his ability to work with what he has. Instead of using several pieces of his kit to make a few sounds, he uses a few pieces of his kit to make several sounds. All this is done by creating different style switches and even transitioning into mini drum solo passages. 

You can adopt this approach by trying to add different elements of your kit into the main beat. Switch out an open hi-hat with a crash or a kick with a tom. It’s all about building confidence through creativity.

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Utilize Cymbals to Create Depth

Another common element in Mike Portnoy’s drumming is the use of cymbals to create a wide-open soundstage. Especially in songs where there is a lot of cluttering in the mix from different instruments. 

Portnoy tends to favor wide cymbals for this approach. His usual lineup consists of standard 14 to 18-inch crash cymbals. But he has been known to go towards 20 inches and beyond for some tracks. The cymbals are usually mirrored on his kit to provide some decent left and right panning. 

Alongside his equipment, he also uses an impeccable technique to drive the depth of this sound. During the intro sections of Dream Theatre songs, he’s known for creating big cascades of cymbals by mixing crash, china, and rock ride cymbals. This can be followed up by a snare roll to start the song.

An easy way to imitate this technique without buying extra cymbals is to experiment with long release times on your crash cymbal hits. Hit your cymbals a little harder and let them ring out a beat and a half more than you normally would. 

Play Loud, Not Hard

For someone that plays in metal bands, you would expect Mike Portnoy to thrash his kit. But he’s not really using his beefed-up arms to drop Thor hammers on his kit. It just sounds that way. 

Believe it or not, there is a way of sounding loud without playing hard. And no one other than Mike could be such an expert on it. His time with Dream Theatre had given him the unique experience of playing a style of metal that favors technique over being brash.

As a result, he has learned the art of dishing out surgical hits on his drums that hit the right spot with the right amount of force. Every single time. This enables him to sound loud without cranking up the intensity.

Increasing your finesse over your strength may not sound impressive, but it’s a necessity if you want to keep the speed and stamina to pull off Mike Portnoy’s playing style. Start by tracking your hits and aiming for consistency with your hits and playing dynamics. 

Make Your Own Sonic Space

A classic Portnoy technique is creating space in the song for his drumming, even if there doesn’t seem to be any. The song could be in a closed space with many different elements, and he will still find the room to add in his own playing/style.

In a typical song, the drums are usually tied with the bass in terms of priority. After all, their job is to support the band, not stand out on their own. Anyone else would just stick to playing in the pocket. But Mike Portnoy clearly has other ideas. He instead emphasizes the beat around him. 

It’s hard to understand this approach if you just listen to it at face value. But instead of listening to the drums themselves, notice when the other instruments start and stop. 

Mike Portnoy doesn’t just fill in the spaces; he creates them by starting a fill within a space and carrying it through until it hits the next space. 

Try to get in this mindset by practicing subdivisions of beats and using them to double time and half time your main groove. You can also try to play ahead of the beat to avoid locking yourself in.

Use Dynamics to Build Interest

The dynamic variance in Mike Portnoy’s playing is a thing of beauty. And one that the rock or metal world does not take for granted. The true test to sounding like Portnoy is to make this less of an ability or skill and more of a habit. 

You can chase some of this sound by adopting a riff-like-approach to drumming. Take a drum beat and cut it up into different sections for each repeating element. Then write an alternative beat for each section and swap them in and out as you improvise. 

The idea here is to build up a creative approach and establishing a drum groove. You don’t want a standard drum pattern if there’s room for variety. Think of it as an extension of following the song while adding in your own personal touches. 

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