What would rock n’ roll be without the drums? Sitting at the back of the stage, drummers are often the unsung heroes of music, the guardians of time and groove, and the ones who decide if people actually dance or not. We’ve seen some truly legendary drummers grace the stage over the years — but who’s the greatest? Moreover, where does your favorite drummer fall on our ranking?
25. Levon Helm
Levon Helm was one of the only drummers who could make you cry. When one thinks about the iconic music of The Band, it could be argued that its very soul stemmed back to Helm’s sturdy backbeat. The rest of the group were geniuses in their own regard, but Helm set the tone like no other.
He wasn’t just about laying down a backbeat and calling it a night. He introduced unique rhythmic patterns that gave each song a soul — and in the process, found a way to evoke just as much emotion from listeners as vocalists and guitarists could. From songs like “Up On Cripple Creek” to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, to countless others, Helm’s contribution to music is a true part of American history.
24. Carmine Appice
Many consider Carmine Appice to be one of heavy rock’s earliest pioneers, through his early work with psychedelic rockers Vanilla Fudge, Cactus, and backing such legends as Jeff Beck, and, later on, Ozzy Osbourne and KISS’s Paul Stanley. He even wrote a book on the subject, a 1972 novel called The Realistic Rock Drum Method. But his writing was nothing compared to the influence his actual drumming had on his peers and fans alike.
In fact, Appice was known to be a major influence on Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham himself. In Appice’s own words: “I pioneered the use of big drum sets and played with the butt end of the sticks early on,” he told Drum Magazine in 2011. “I did that because there were no P.A. systems.”
23. Dave Grohl
Dave Grohl embodied the face of rock drumming in the early ’90s. His brutish, eccentric style and unstoppable energy were the exact ingredients that grunge gods Nirvana needed to catapult themselves to superstardom. As Butch Vig (producer of Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind) put it: “Kurt [Cobain] had called me up and said, ‘I have the best drummer in the world now. He plays louder and harder than anybody I’ve ever met.’”
Grohl’s unique style has his childhood to thank. When he was young, he’d practice on pillows, thus requiring him to hit much harder and work up quite the sweat. “That’s why I started hitting the drums so hard,” Grohl said in a 1997 Spin interview. “I’d do that until the windows in my bedroom were dripping with condensation from the sweat in the room. It was like a workout tape.”
22. Danny Carey
After a brief stint with a relatively unknown band called Green Jelly, Danny Carey’s big break came with the alternative metal band Tool. Through the music of Tool during the ’90s, Carey quickly began to establish himself as an emerging legend of the scene.
He was a big user of polyrhythms and loved to push the musical envelope, picking up where prog rock predecessors Bill Bruford and Neal Peart left off. But it’s not all about technical mastery for him: “It doesn’t mean anything if you just hear the drums doing tricky things. I would rather hear them say, ‘That reminds me of the Moors running down the hill, or Scotsmen attacking with their heads on fire.’”
21. Ian Paice
While Deep Purple had members constantly flitting in and out, there was one musician who held down the fort — drummer Ian Paice. His heavy metal sound was incendiary at the time, and he paved the way for countless others to follow in his footsteps.
As far as praise from his peers go, his own bandmate and guitarist Steve Morse said this about him: “He has a swing that feels just right. And his dynamics are great. The drummer in my trio, Van Romaine, calls him the ‘Steve Gadd of rock.’. It’s like a gigantic locomotive thundering down the tracks with everything totally in sync.”
20. Steve Gadd
Celebrated jazz drummer Pete Fairclough once said that Steve Gadd “doesn’t play a groove, he digs a trench”. Think back to songs like Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, Steely Dan’s album Aja, or Van McCoy’s disco hit “The Hustle”. Gadd always provides a sturdy house upon which all music can breathe, a place where it won’t worry about ever falling.
Chick Corea also offered his words of bountiful praise: “Every drummer wants to play like Gadd because he plays perfect. He has brought orchestral and compositional thinking to the drum kit while at the same time having a great imagination and a great ability to swing.”
19. Roger Hawkins
Roger Hawkins was once called “the greatest drummer in the world” by none other than Jerry Wexler, the very inventor of the term “rhythm & blues”. A prominent studio drummer for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section back in the ’50s, Hawkins helped create the fabric of rock n’ roll as we know it.
Hawkins had a particular knack for adapting his own personality for the precise needs of the artist, from Paul Simon to Aretha Franklin to Wilson Pickett. Listen to his masterful cymbal dance on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools”, and it’s almost impossible not to be swayed by the delicate drama inflicted by his music.
18. Tony Williams
When Tony Williams first debuted in 1963 with Miles Davis, no one in their right mind expected a mere 17-year-old to shock them the way he did. Davis himself spoke about his drummer’s brilliance: “Man, just hearing that little mother-(expletive) made me excited all over again.”
Davis continued, “I could definitely hear right away that this was going to be one of the baddest mother-(expletives) who had ever played a set of drums.” Williams had a razzle-dazzle style, with kaleidoscope cymbal patterns, wacky tempo distortions, and accents that spoke another language. He was able to evoke great imagery with his playing, and that’s why he’s held to such a high regard.
17. Terry Bozzio
Considering how complex the music of Frank Zappa is, it’s no surprise that Terry Bozzio is on this list. A technical virtuoso in all senses, Bozzio redefined what it meant to be a progressive rock drummer. Although he was often surrounded by what was dubbed “the world’s largest tuned drum and percussion set”, it wasn’t all about the bells and whistles for him.
The music itself always had to come first. As Bozzio told Rolling Stone magazine, “I’m not really interested in the circus act part of it at all.” His passion for music has defined his career in an industry where it’s so easy to get lost in the limelight shuffle.
16. Earl Palmer
Earl Palmer earned his way into the stratosphere of drummer greats simply by being one of the most recorded drummers of all time. Hailing from New Orleans, Palmer played on some of rock n’ roll’s most defining songs in the ’50s, from Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” to Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly”.
It wasn’t long before his reputation grew as one of the world’s best session players, and all the big names wanted to work for him. As legendary bassist Carol Kaye put it, “Earl took over…he was the greatest drummer I’d ever heard.” His sound simply popped — there’s no other way to put it.
15. Bill Bruford
Just from a technical standpoint, it’s not hard to see why this list would be filled with progressive rock giants. They are the musicians who pushed the envelope beyond the conventional, fearlessly diving into the musically chaotic abyss. With King Crimson and Yes, Bill Bruford was one of the leading sherpas on this musical mountaineering quest of exploration, and his followers never wavered.
He went through many phases of his career, but he always gave off a sense of adventure. Bruford reminded drummers to leave no stone unturned in one’s quest for artistic perfection. And for those who love that style of music, he’s a complete legend.
14. Al Jackson Jr.
Anyone who receives a nickname like “The Human Timekeeper” should know that they’ve done something right. Al Jackson Jr. was the session drummer for iconic soul music label Stax, where he played with legends such as Otis Redding, Al Green, and Wilson Pickett.
Jackson was also one of the founding members of Booker T and the MGs, a band which he incorporated with such an inspired fusion between funk and the genesis of hip-hop that music was never the same afterward. Eventually all kinds of rock stars were requesting that Jackson play on their record, including Eric Clapton. Sam Moore from R&B group Sam & Dave added that Jackson was in a class of his own — and he was right.
13. Buddy Rich
“I would say of just sheer technique he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said Queen drummer Roger Taylor of Buddy Rich. Indeed, Rich had a masterful technique and was also one of the fastest drummers on the planet. Mix that up with a professional attitude and an ability to transform anything he heard, and you had a musical powerhouse.
Big band drummer Gene Krupa also lauded Rich by calling him “the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath”. Perhaps Rich was so legendary because he managed to paint a seamless bridge from early rock n’ roll records to the new generation of heavy rockers looking for a new path to follow.
12. D. J. Fontana
Imagine being the drummer for the King of Rock himself. In fact, D. J. Fontana played drums on literally hundreds of Elvis Presley recordings, and changed the musical landscape as we know it in the process. From “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Hound Dog”, he provided Elvis’s rebellion with an earth-shaking backdrop.
“He had incredible technique and fast hands, so he could deploy those Buddy Rich press rolls whenever he wanted to,” said Levon Helm. “He played like a big-band drummer — full throttle. Now Elvis had a real foundation, some architecture, and he made the most of it. D. J. set Elvis free.”
11. Ringo Starr
Ringo Starr was far, far more than just “The Beatles drummer”. Sure, he definitely lucked out by landing in a band with songwriter extraordinaires John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison — but Starr’s contributions to the band should not be taken lightly under any circumstances.
He treated each song with care and precision, with diverse and innovative grooves setting the atmosphere for songs like “Come Together”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, and many more. He didn’t care about unnecessary fills; rather, he only wanted to serve the song. Dave Grohl called Starr “the king of feel”, while another fellow drummer, Jim Keltner, added, “He was the guy that we all tried to play like in the studio.”
10. Stewart Copeland
When one listens to The Police’s music, it’s unique for a handful of reasons, but one of those reasons has to do with space. Stewart Copeland made just as much of an impact with what he didn’t play than with what he did play. And yet, his grooves aren’t so simple and easy to copy — and that’s the trick that Copeland manages to pull off better than most.
Similar to other British rockers from his era, his complicated yet sparse grooves added to his band’s sound in a subtle yet powerful way. Flashes of his genius can be observed on Police songs like “Roxanne”, “King Of Pain”, and “Walking On The Moon” — but he’s also lent his talents to many other artists over his career.
9. Charlie Watts
Charlie Watts put the “roll” in “Rolling Stones”. When they were still in their early stages, Watts was a well-known and respected drummer in London — and they actually couldn’t afford to hire him. But once the Stones’ buzz got too big to ignore, they had won Watts over. It’s amazing how easily people overlook how important he was to their sound.
With a steady backbeat rhythm with a yo-yo swing that seemed to just back with ease, Watts provided support on stage like no other. As the band’s guitarist Keith Richards himself put, “When we got Charlie, that really made it for us. Charlie can rush like mad and still make it feel great. That’s his style.”
8. Mitch Mitchell
With Jimi Hendrix as your frontman, you need to be able to get weird. However, the trick is getting weird while holding down the fort, and Mitch Mitchell was a pro at it. Stewart Copeland from The Police said of this ’60s drum legend, “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.”
And Copeland wasn’t the only classic rock drummer who followed Mitchell’s style quite closely. Roger Taylor of Queen said, “He played the kit like a song, it was just wonderful. But with this rolling ferocious attack on the whole kit. Total integration into the song. Not just marking time.”
7. Gene Krupa
Neil Peart, one of the all-time great drummers, once said that Gene Krupa “was the first rock drummer, in very many ways”. Peart continued to explain that Krupa was one of the first drummers to both “command the spotlight” and also “be celebrated for his solos”.
Krupa truly would transform when he took the big band stage, looking like an evil genius intent on banging those drums into oblivion. It’s not hard to see how his playing influenced the likes of Keith Moon and John Bonham. But the fact that he came before them gives him a different kind of reverence in the drum community.
6. Benny Benjamin
Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, had an in-house studio band called The Funk Brothers who would play on all the records. The drummer and maestro of this group was the musical genius Benny Benjamin. “He had a distinctive knack for executing various rhythms all at the same time,” said Gordy. “A pulse, a steadiness, that kept the tempo better than a metronome.”
Songs like The Temptations’ “My Girl” and Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” were made possible thanks to Benjamin’s expert hand — and even Stevie Wonder was influenced by him! Said Wonder, “Man, he was one of the major forces in the Motown sound. Benny could’ve very well been the baddest.”
5. Hal Blaine
Hal Blaine played for the Wrecking Crew, a group of Los Angeles session musicians who played on many of the hit records in the ’60s and ’70s. He played with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Supremes, and even The Beach Boys on their legendary album Pet Sounds. In fact, there are some tallies that say that Blaine is the most recorded drummer in history.
Blaine was also responsible for helping producer Phil Spector create his “Wall Of Sound” on hits like The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”. As Blaine put himself, “I’m not a flashy drummer. I wanted to be a great accompanist.” He managed to achieve that goal — and then some.
4. Ginger Baker
Ginger Baker was yet another enigmatic talent thrust into the perfect storm. Teamed up with virtuoso extraordinaires Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, Baker was given room to play to his heart’s desire — and play he did. Coming from a jazz background, he entered the psychedelic jam rock scene with a vengeance, leading his Cream power trio to heights never quite seen before.
He was especially into African beats as well, as was stated by Afrobeat co-creator Tony Allen: “He understands the African beat more than any other Westerner.” Ginger Baker’s inhibited passion for music and his unhinged, mesmerizing ferocity were unmistakably present every time he took the stage.
3. Neil Peart
There is simply no discussing modern rock drummers without talking about Neal Peart. “We were so blown away by Neil’s playing,” said Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson when Neil Peart first auditioned for them. “It was very Keith Moon-like, very active, and he hit his drums so hard.” However, while Peart’s complex wildness reminded them of Keith Moon in many ways, it also defied him on some level.
Moon was more of a free-spirited improviser on stage, whereas Peart was a lot more methodical, almost mathematical, in his approach. Peart was one of the only drummers to bring his own compositions to the table, elevating his status to more than just a drummer, but an arranger and composer as well.
2. Keith Moon
Watching Keith Moon is liberating on so many levels. He utterly refused to follow the same rules that other drummers do. When he joined The Who, they were already a chaotic group. With him backing them, the four became a circus both on stage and behind the scenes. Moon was essentially a “lead drummer”, and he still managed to provide proper foundation for the band.
The late Who bassist John Entwistle said about Moon, “His breaks were melodic. Because he tried to play with everyone in the band at once.” Moon was also known for his on-stage antics, like blowing up his drumset (occasionally on live television). While such fun and games will always be part of his legacy, it was his invaluable contribution to drumming that gave him his legend status.
1. John Bonham
The first time listeners heard “Whole Lotta Love” blasting through their speakers, it was apparent the new guard of rock had arrived. A thunderous sound with no regard for human life, John Bonham was to thank for much Led Zeppelin‘s brilliant madness. They were a four-headed monster, but Bonham was something else.
Dave Grohl professed that he spent literally years trying to imitate Bonham’s “swing or his behind-the-beat swagger or his speed or power”. His sound and speed cut through like no one else’s, and yet he still managed to make it look easy. Since his untimely passing, critics and fans alike have hailed Bonham as the greatest rock drummer of all time.
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