What constitutes a great drummer is up for debate. But it’s agreed that they’re the musicians who give a song its backbone, aiding a great track and lending the head-banging sound to a set. Whether its flashy showmanship combined with loud beats or simple rhythms accompanied by classic sounds, drummers are masters of feeling and technical skill.
From Led Zeppelin’s rock legend John Bonham to the founding father of the modern drumset, Gene Krupa, the greats are scattered through history and genres. Cue the drum roll, please, here is a list of some of the most talented drummers of all time.
Every Artist Wanted Phil Collins To Play On Their Albums
Phil Collins was one of the most dynamic drummers of the 1970s. He worked with groundbreaking acts such as the Peter Gabriel-led band Genesis before he took over as the frontman. It was even during one of Gabriel’s shows that Collins’ found his trademark ‘gated snare’ sound. If you’re not familiar, listen to his hit “In the Air Tonight.”
After that single released in 1980, artists such as Eric Clapton were pulling Collins’ into the studio for him to play percussion on their albums. Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, says, “Anyone who wants to be good on the drums should check [Collins] out – the man is a master.”
Neil Peart Was Able To Change His Sound With The Times
Neil Peart’s style is considered to be “the most precise and meticulously plotted percussion that the genre has ever seen.” When Peart auditioned for Rush in 1974, his future bandmates compared him to the great Keith Moon, hitting the drums with a lot of force while moving around his kit at a quick pace.
As Rush’s style changed over the years, so too did Peart’s drumming. Knowing that music changes with time, Peart looked towards more mainstream artists for inspiration, incorporating electronic persuasion into some of the songs. He’s one of the most air-drum worthy drummers of all time.
John Bonham’s Instincts Were Unparalleled
John Bonham changed the way people looked at rock drumming after the first Led Zepplin LP hit the shelves in 1969. Dave Grohl, the long-time drummer for Nirvana, said, “I spent years in my bedroom listening to Bonham’s drums and trying to emulate his swing or his behind-the-beat swagger or his speed or power.”
As Grohl commented in Rolling Stone, Bonham’s instincts were unparalleled to other rock drummers of the time. People even used to bet on whether he was using one or two bass drums! Bonham is considered to be one of the most influential drummers in rock history.
D.J. Fontana Gave Elvis A Foundation For Some Hit Songs
Even though D.J. Fontana is best known as the drummer for Elvis Presley, he is a legend in his own right. At a time when country and bluegrass music wanted nothing to do with a drummer, Fontana made southern music swing with his fun sound. It’s said that his drumming gave Elvis a foundation to work off of, giving The King some of his best hits, such as the remake of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
Stan Lynch, the original drummer for Tom Petty, said that Fontana was “Armed with accuracy, power, swing, dynamics, great time, and the biggest compliment of all, simplicity whenever it was best.”
Gene Krupa Is The Father Of The Modern Drum Kit
Many say that Gene Krupa was the first drummer to demand the spotlight. In 1937, he single-handily moved the role of the drummer from the background to a position people respected because of his solo on the song “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Modern Drummer magazine even called him “the founding father of the modern drum set,” setting a standard for a band’s typical kit.
In terms of style, he did fundamentally very easy things, but in doing so, shaped a new generation of rock drummers, including John Bonham and Keith Moon. The arena-scale drum solos would not have been possible without the influence of Gene Krupa.
Keith Moon Is Known As One Of The Greatest In History
Keith Moon, aptly nicknamed Moon the Loon, was the drummer of The Who and known for his unique style. It emphasized the use of loud cymbal clashes, tom-toms, and, of course, his resistance to play solos, instead using his kit as a lead instrument. During his time with The Who, Moon increased his kit size, incorporating a double bass into the mix. He was one of the first rock drummers to do so.
Moon was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1982, the second rocker to receive the honor. Then, in 2011, a Rolling Stone‘s reader poll named him the second-greatest drummer in history.
Tommy Lee Is All About Showmanship
With influences such as John Bonham and Alex Van Halen, it’s no wonder ‘Mötley Crüe’s drummer Tommy Lee turned into a powerhouse and showman. He brought gravity-defying drum solos to shows while representing the epitome of glam-punk appeal. Having his drum kit rotate, spin, or float above the stage while he was still playing complex beats is one of the many reasons Lee is known as one of the greatest.
His fast-paced drumming has also led people to wonder what goes on behind his kit. So, in 2015, he finally showed them, having a fully see-through kit so the crowd could marvel at his antics even more!
Paul McCartney once said in an interview, “I remember the moment, standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like, What is this?'” He was talking about playing with Ringo Starr for the first time, crediting the moment as when the Beatles offically became a band.
Ringo was a left-handed drummer, so playing on a right-handed drum kit made him come up with a unique style all his own. His sound is considered to be crisp with a lot of feeling, a steady style that had other drummers going into the studio wanting to mimic.
Elvin Jones Was The Ultimate Time Keeper
Elvin Jones is a 60s jazz drummer best known for his work with the John Coltrane Quartet. He’s famous for being the ultimate timekeeper and for changing the way drummers function within a group. When people think of Jones’ drumming, rhythmic complexity and independence, a relation to Coltrane’s style tends to come to mind. He was a master of the instrument, no doubt.
Due to his contributions to the music industry, Berklee College of Music awarded Jones with an Honorary Doctorate of Music. In 1995, Jones was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.
Ian Paice Is Considered The Forefather of Metal Drumming
Ian Paice is Deep Purple’s only continuing original member, and without him, fans of metal music wouldn’t have the heavy metal drumming they hear today. Some even consider him to be the forefather of the sound. He’s known for playing furiously fast with a 100 percent commitment at all times.
Paice says, “Purple is a very demanding band to drum for. They are a loud band, and it makes you play hard all the time. It’s no good turning down at all.” The sound he produces is crisp and clean but with an added power and speed that is unique to both the past and future generations of drummers.
Travis Barker Took Blink 182 To The Next Level
Before Travis Barker joined Blink 182, they were punk rockers with no rhythm. After Dude Ranch was a minor hit, the band added Barker and released Enema of the State. The album was a massive success, in large part due to the drummer’s non-stop energy.
Considered one of the greatest drummers of his generation, Barker cites Animal from The Muppets as one of his biggest influences. He also says the song “Jump” by Van Halen was the first one he learned to play on drums.
Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste Is Well Respected In The Industry
Described as one of the most lyrical funk drummers of all time, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste takes standard drumming techniques and throws them all to the wind. His work with The Meter’s in the 70s showcased his New Orleans style of drumming, something that is called a “linear, almost melodic style of syncopation,” by Rolling Stone.
Modeliste is known for being one of the most respected drummers in the industry. His drumming has been sampled by many famous artists, including the Beastie Boys, Ice Cube, and even Queen Latifah. In 2018, he, along with The Meters, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.
Meg White From The White Stripes
Meg White, the drummer for the American band White Stripes, demands attention when she’s on stage banging away at her drum kit. In 2014, Jack White, the lead singer of the band, told Rolling Stones, “She was the antithesis of a modern drummer. So childlike and incredible and inspiring. All the not-talking didn’t matter, because onstage? Nothing I do will top that.”
White’s drumming is known to be primal because of her lack of formal education with the instrument. Even though the uncontrolled nature of her drumming has drawn criticism, it hasn’t stopped her from winning various awards, including four Grammy’s.
Mitch Mitchell Meshed With Jimi Hendrix
In 1966, Mitch Mitchell joined The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and from there, no one could argue his natural talent. Mitchell’s jazz-influenced style meshed well with Hendrix’s new-age electric guitar, giving the band a revolutionary sound that made it all the way to the summer of 69 and Woodstock.
He went on to shape many up-and-coming drummers, such as Stewart Copeland of the Police. Copelands says, “All of this stuff I did that I was rather proud of, I thought I came up with it. But no, I got it from Mitch.” Michell was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2009, and rightfully so!
Hal Blaine Has OVer 35,000 Recording Sessions
Known as one of the most recorded studio drummers in music industry history, Hal Blaine is estimated to have 35,000 recording sessions and 6,000 singles. Blaine dominated the studio scene in the 60s and 70s, recording for top acts such as Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Elvis, and Simon & Garfunkel.
Even though his recording numbers are astounding, it’s said that Blaine’s true legacy lies in his adaptability during each session. Instead of using a typical kit, Blaine would bang on water jugs or drag chains across the floor. Blaine once said, “I’m not a flashy drummer; I just wanted to be a great accompanist.”
Stewart Copeland Has Played Drums For Multiple Productions
Stewart Copeland is a versatile drummer, known for playing with the British rock band the Police, as well as his compositions for film and video game soundtracks. He also wrote many pieces for ballets, orchestras, and opera productions. The website MusicRadar, says, “[Copeland’s] distinctive sound and uniqueness of style have made him one of the most popular drummers.”
He’s famous for his use of space, aggression, and the oh-so-popular ‘Copeland snare’ and ‘Copeland hi-hat sound.’ Copeland was inducted into the Classic Drummer Hall of Fame, the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Police.
Charlie Watts Had Rhythm, Style and a Heart Of Gold
Drummers Tony Chapman and Mick Avory played in the Rolling Stones for a year each, but Charlie Watts brought his sound to the band for six decades. Watts is not only recognized as one of the most talented drummers of all time, but his style also set him apart.
A lover of jazz music and roots in British rhythm and blues, Watts had the unique ability to freestyle and flow while keeping the band in perfect time. Even though he was in one of the biggest bands on the planet, Watts was also humble with a simple four-drum set-up and not one to flaunt his stuff with drum solos.
Dave Grohl Used To Drum On His Pillows
Dave Grohl’s sound was forged in the ’80s punk scene. He is known for taking the underground band Nirvana and turning them into a must-see, multi-platinum band. The late Kurt Cobain once told his producer, “I have the best drummer in the world now. He plays louder and harder than anybody I’ve ever met.” He wasn’t wrong!
Grohl honed his skills, not on a drumset, but rather pounding away on pillows! By pushing down and pulling back up with marching band snare sticks, Grohl was able to train himself to drum harder than any rockstar on the scene. He says, “[Playing like that,] it was like a workout tape.”
Cindy Blackman Is The Queen Of Improv
Cindy Blackman is one of those skilled drummers who can shift her sound from jazz to arena-ready rock. As a member of Lenny Kravitz’s live band, Blackman has been able to experiment and fine-tune her improvisational skills, switching back and forth between styles depending on the mood and rhythm. In an interview, Blackman’s stated that she “loves to show her versatility.”
Although she returned touring with Kravitz in 2014, Blackman has since gone back to her jazz roots. She’s said, “To me, jazz is the highest form of music that you can play because of the creative requirements.” Blackman’s creative genius marks her as one of the greatest drummers.
Steve Smith Went From Rock To Jazz
Steve Smith has been drumming since the age of two, so it’s no wonder he’s considered to be one of the greats. He’s best known for his time with the rock band Journey during their peak years, particularly for the part he played in the classic song “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Aside from his rock roots, Smith is one of the more talented modern-day jazz-fusion drummers, playing in the scene for the past 30 plus years. Smith was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2002, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
Maureen “Moe” Tucker Would Play Standing Up
In the 60s, Maureen “Moe” Tucker was the unconventional drummer of the New York City rock band the Velvet Underground. For easier access to the bass drum, Tucker opted to stand rather than sit while playing, something that is not exactly ‘normal’ for male drummers.
Her simplistic way of drumming caught the attention of many, specifically because she rarely used cymbals, choosing instead to focus on keeping time and emphasizing the other instruments. Rock critic Robert Christgau says, “Mo was a great drummer in a minimalist, limited, autodidactic way that I think changed musical history. She is where the punk notion of how the beat works again.”
Mick Fleetwood Is Instinctive Yet Disciplined
Mick Fleetwood has been praised by bandmate Lindsey Buckingham for his instinctive style, saying that he would perform things off the top of his head and not be able to recreate the sound during the next rehearsal. Eventually, he would get it, but it would take Fleetwood a few hours to remember what his brain was transmitting to his hands on the drum kit. The original rhythms would jut come to him.
Even though he’s instinctive, Fleetwood is also known for being a disciplined and straightforward drummer. In 1998, Fleetwood was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.