What makes a drummer great? How can someone’s music survive over the decades? How can someone’s music be so good that we reach for it for inspiration or new ideas? It takes more than just technical prowess to be the kind of drummer who leaves his or her footprints in the sands of time, the type admired by the world consistently.
Though we cannot overlook the skills, it is also about showmanship. Every great drummer we know today never envied the spotlight. Instead, they selflessly gave themselves to the service of music. Since the art entails being heard and not seen, all they needed to do was sit backstage and allow the rhythm, melody, and message of the song to flow.
Although most top drummers in history are into jazz and heavy metal, my list is going to cover all genres. Factors like influence, importance to culture, and other factors beyond drumming were considered in putting these names together.
John Henry Bonham
John Henry Bonham of the English rock band, Led Zeppelin, was born on 31st May 1948. He was mostly a self-taught drummer as he started learning how to play drums at the age of five, making a kit of containers and coffee tins. Drummers like Max Roach, Gene Krupa, and Buddy Rich influenced him a lot. Features like fast bass drumming, speed, power, and distinctive sound made him stand out as one of the greatest and most influential rock drummers in history.
In the year 2005, Bonham ranked number 1 on Classic Rock’s list of 50 Greatest Drummers in Rock. AllMusic has also described him as one of the most important and influential drummers in rock. The managing editor of Modern Drummer, Adam Budofsky, described Bonham as the king of rock drumming.
Bonham passed away at the age of 32, halting one of the hottest acts in rock history.
Neil Ellwood Peart
Neil Ellwood Peart was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in the year 1952. He was a Canadian musician best known as the drummer and critically acclaimed lyricist of the rock band, “Rush.” Growing up, Peart joined some regional outfits in Canada in pursuit of a career as a full-time drummer. When he was 18 and tired of the struggle to be a successful drummer in Canada, he traveled to London, England, hoping to further his career as a professional musician. Yet, it never worked out for him.
In 1974, Peart decided to return home and joined Rush, a Toronto Band, and that was where he kick-started his career as a drummer. While serving as the band’s primary lyricist, he addressed themes like science, fiction, fantasy, philosophy, as well as secular and humanitarian issues.
The band ended up releasing nineteen studio albums, with ten of them exceeding a million copies sold in the United States.
As a young drummer, Peart’s performance style was mostly rooted in hard rock as he drew most of his inspiration from drummers like Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and John Bonham. These drummers were at the forefront of the British hard rock scene. With time, Peart started imitating prominent band musicians like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. When he finally became a friend and pupil of jazz instructor, Freddie Gruber, his playing style changed as he incorporated jazz and swing components.
Peart was the youngest person ever to be honored by Modern Drummer Readers Poll Hall of Fame in the year 1983. The technical proficiency of his drumming and the nature of his live performances made him stand out as a great drummer. He died on 7th January 2020, in Santa Monica, California after being diagnosed three and half years earlier of Glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Peter Edward “Giger” Baker
Born on 19th August 1939, Baker was an English drummer and a co-founder of the rock band, “Cream.” The fact that he fused jazz and African rhythms, as well as pioneer both jazz fusion and world music, earned him the reputation of “Rock’s first super start drummer.”
Baker started playing drums at the age of 15 and later began taking lessons from an English jazz drummer, Phil Seamen. In 1966, he founded the rock band Cream with Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton. Before breaking up in 1968 due to Baker’s and Bruce’s volatile relationship, the band released four albums.
Because of his deep interest in African music, Baker decided to move to Nigerian and set up a recording studio, Batakota (ARC) studio in Lagos, in the year 1973. He was always recording with Fela Kuti, a famous Nigerian instrumentalist, musician, composer, and pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre.
In his early years, Baker’s style, showmanship, and the use of two bass drums instead of the conventional one attracted more fans. He became famous during his time with Cream for his wild, unpredictable, and exuberant performances.
You cannot talk about great drummers of all time and leave Baker out as he was one of the first drummers to move his left foot between his left bass drum pedal and hi-hat pedal to create different combinations.
Unfortunately, Baker struggled with heroin addiction throughout his life and eventually passed away on 6th October 2019 at the age of 80.
Keith John Moon
Moon, who was born on 23rd August 1946, was an English drummer known for his unique drumming style and being a member of the rock band, “The Who.” One of the loudest contemporary drummers, Screaming Lord Sutch’s Carlo Little, helped Moon hone his drumming skills while he was growing up. He charged him 10 shillings per lesson.
Moon joined the band, “The Who,” in the year 1964, after playing with a local band, the Beachcombers. While with The Who, his bandmates considered his style of drumming as unique even though most times, they found his unconventional playing frustrating.
Moon stayed with the band during their rise to stardom, and aside from that, his drum kit increased. He was regarded as one of the earliest rock drummers to employ double bass drums in his setup regularly, which is proof of how excellent his drumming skills were.
Aside from his talent as a drummer, Moon also developed a reputation for smashing his kit on stage and destroying hotel rooms on tour. He was genuinely interested in blowing up toilets with cherry bombs or dynamite, and in destroying television sets.
One of the problems Moon had was an addiction to alcohol. And while trying to combat it in 1978 by taking Heminevrin, a drug intended to treat or prevent symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, he passed on. He took an overdose of the drug. Despite all, Moon’s drumming skills keep receiving praise from critics and musicians. In 1982, he was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame, making him the second rock drummer to be chosen.
David Eric Grohl
Born 14th January 1969, Grohl is an American musician, singer, and songwriter. Aside from that, he is known for being the most lasting drummer for Nirvana from late 1990 to early 1994. During his early years, Grohl played in several local bands, and it was during this period that he taught himself how to play drums by listening to Rush records and Punk Rock.
Grohl’s drumming career kicked off when he was 17. He had auditioned to join the band, “Scream”, when one of the drummers, Kent Stanx departed. Even though Grohl lied about his age claiming that he was years older, the band still accepted him. To show how desirous he was at becoming a drummer, Grohl dropped out of high school in his junior year. He was with the band for some years and toured with them, recording a couple of live albums and two studio albums.
In the early 1990s, Grohl joined the band, Nirvana, which later disbanded following the suicide of one of the drummers, Kurt Cobain. As a result of the disbandment, Grohl became the founder, lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist and primary songwriter of the rock band “Foo Fighters.” The band’s first single was written in a Dublin hotel room while Grohl and his first wife, Jennifer Youngblood, were on honeymoon in Ireland in 1994.
Grohl started lending his drumming skills to other artists during the early 2000s as he has already established himself as a highly respected drummer with Nirvana.
Bernard “Buddy” Rich
Bernard “Buddy” Rich was born in Brooklyn, New York on 30th September 1917. He was an American jazz drummer and bandleader. Aside from that, he is considered one of the most influential drummers of all time, and he was known for his virtuoso technique, power, and speed.
As a kid, Rich used a knife and fork in a restaurant as drum sticks, and when he was two years old, he was part of his parents’ act on vaudeville. But that did not stop him from sneaking into the orchestra pit during breaks to get drummer’s sticks.
There was something about Rich’s drumming style that made him stand out. He usually held the drumming sticks with the traditional grip. He equally used a matched grip when playing floor toms around the drum set. One of the techniques he employs to impress the crowd while playing was the stick-trick, which is achieved by slapping two drumsticks together in a circular motion using “taps” or single-stroke sticking.
Rich’s drumming technique was exceptional due to his speed, smooth execution, and precision.
He died on 2nd April 1987 after an unexpected respiratory and cardiac failure after his treatment for a malignant brain tumor.
Stewart Armstrong Copeland
Born 16th July 1952, Steward Armstrong Copeland is an American musician, composer, and the drummer of the British rock band, “The Police.” He kick-started his drumming career when he started working as a road manager for the progressive rock band during 1975 and 1976.
Copeland founded the band “The Police” in early 1977. But he did not do it alone – he had guitarists like Sting and Henry Padovani, and together they became one of the top-bands of the 1980s. Most of the band’s tracklists were mostly Copeland’s compositions, including the band’s first single, “Fall Out.”
While growing up, Copeland listened more to a combination of Lebanese music, rock, and roll, jazz, and reggae. But instead of imitating these styles, he selected what he needed. One thing that made Copeland stand out in his career was that when many musicians were looking for bigger sound from more drums, he added Octobans, which consisted of eight six-inch drums in the shape of narrow tubes.
Although left-handed, it never stopped Copeland from playing the drums with his right hand. He usually placed the hi-hats on his left and ride cymbals with floor toms on his right. While playing, he uses a wide dynamic range and demonstrates the proficiency of jazz-style articulation.
Engaging only the hit-hat with the bass drum was one thing Copeland was known for during his years with “The Police.” His drum sound and uniqueness made him one of the most famous drummers ever to get behind a drum-set, and when compared to most of his 1980s contemporaries, his snare sound was bright and cutting.
Aside from being recognized for syncopation in his drumming, Copeland is one of the few rock drummers to use traditional grip rather than a matched grip.
John Graham “Mitch” Mitchell
Mitchell, an English drummer, best known for his work in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was born on 9th July 1946. As a drummer, his key influences were Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. Soul Messengers was one of his bands, which was formed at the Ealing Club with saxophonist Terry Marshall. In the year 2009, Mitchell was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame, and in 2016, he was named the eighth greatest drummer of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine.
Chad Gaylord Smith
Chad Gaylord Smith, who has been a drummer of the band Red Hot Chili Peppers since 1988, was born on 25th October 1961. During his early years, Smith, who grew up listening mainly to bands like “Rush” and “the Rolling Stones,” never received a formal drum lesson as the only drumming experience he gained was by playing in school bands. He started playing drums at the age of 7, and while in high school, he joined his first band called “Paradise.”
When the band “Red Hot Chili Peppers” was on the lookout for a replacement for one of their drummers, Smith went for the audition. From all ramifications, Smith was a wrong fit as he looked more hair-metal than punk. Yet, the band was impressed at his performance, and in December 1988, Smith became a member of the group. Within the next few months, he recorded his first album, “Mother’s Milk,” with the band.
One feature that made Smith stand out in his drumming career was his use of ghost notes and his fast right foot. People like Buddy Rich, John Bonham, Ian Prince are his influences when it comes to drumming.
Sir Richard Starkey
Sir Richard Starkey, who is known professionally as Ringo Starr, was born on 7th July 1940. He is an English musician, singer, and songwriter who became famous as the drummer for the Beatles. Though Starr was afflicted by life-threatening illness with prolonged hospitalization periods while growing up, it never affected his drumming career. He co-founded his first band, The Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group, in 1957.
The band earned Starr and his crew several prestigious local bookings before he gave way to rock and roll in early 1958. Later, he joined the Beatles in August 1962.
One thing that made Starr stand out in his drumming career was the fact that his playing style influenced many drummers to reconsider playing from a compositional perspective. In addition to that, he also made contributions to other modern drumming techniques like matched grip, tuning the drums lower, and using muffling devices on tonal rings.
He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in the year 1999, and in 2011, Rolling Stone readers named him the fifth-greatest drummer of all time.
Alexander Arthur Van Halen
Born 8th May 1953, Alex is an American musician and drummer who started his musical career as a guitarist. He always practiced with his brother’s drum, and after doing that for a while, Alex became more skilled at the drums than his brother Eddie.
Alex, whose key influence was Ray Philips, is also a co-founder of the hard rock band “Van Halen.” He formed the band in 1974 together with his younger brother, Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony. In 1977, Warner Brothers, which is one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, signed the band. They released their debut album in 1978.
Since its formation till date, the only members who have been in the band are Alex and his brother Eddie Van Halen.