Here is a showcase for some of the finest drummers I’ve come across in two decades of musical discovery. It isn’t definitive by any means, but I do hope it provides any drummers, and music fans, with new influences and music to listen to. I played for 12 years and should point out drumming is very difficult. Those who can play with such prowess deserve the highest praise. For the rest of us, watching them in action is a real privilege.
10. John Bonham
Led Zeppelin’s hard hitting maestro. His playing style was characterised by monstrous grooves thumped out by his bass pedal. There was a controlled insanity to his thunderously powerful playing, which ditched Keith Moon’s showmanship for technical prowess.
His Moby Dick drum solo (which ranged from 20-30 minutes) was his defining stage act and rocketed him, and Led Zeppelin, to super stardom. A legend.
Finest Moments: When The Levee Breaks, Moby Dick live at Royal Albert Hall 1970.
9. Keith Moon
Moon’s natural flamboyance saw him crashing around his kit spectacularly with inventive, furious playing. He ditched a high-hat and doubled up on tom toms, an extra bass drum, and a crash cymbal as a time keeper. This all made his live performance legendary.
Although legend has him down as a lunatic behind the kit, The Who’s albums display a more restrained Moon (at least in the studio). On The Who Sell Out and Tommy he’s controlled and precise, whilst his soulful drumming on the band’s debut album is brilliant.
Finest Moments: The Who Sell Out, A Quick One, and any time he went on stage.
8. Mitch Mitchell
One of the new range of ‘60s drummers inspired by Ginger Baker and Keith Moon. Mitchell auditioned for Hendrix in 1966 and got the job, the pair forming a close musical partnership over the next four years. As with many ’60s drummers, his jazz background made way for rock drumming with great effect, and Mitchell took Keith Moon as an inspiration and added technical polish. This enraged Moon, and the two never got on. However, he impressed Jimi Hendrix enormously, and Mitchell’s work with the guitarist is legendary.
Finest Moments: Hey Joe, Voodoo Child (Slight Return).
7. Gene Krupa
One of the first drummers to show real showmanship, Krupa’s stick twirling antics inspired Keith Moon and endeared him to the music world. A highly accomplished jazz and big band player, in later years he teamed up with Buddy Rich for drum battles which have gone down in legend. A huge inspiration to future drummers, Krupa was the first to be entered into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.
Finest moments: The Buddy Rich drum battles, his solo abilities.
6. Buddy Rich
Rich’s incredible drum solos never disappointed. Slumped forward in concentration, his nimble hands could send his sticks flying around his kit with spectacular over and under passes, rolling around snares and taking in cymbals in the process. A jazz legend, he’s still considered the best drummer ever by many critics.
Finest Moment: Those staggering drum solos.
5. Ginger Baker
Wild haired, wild armed, and wild in every other facet, Ginger Baker wasn’t the easiest musician to work with. Whilst in The Cream he managed to terrify band members Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, yet after all these years they consider him the best of his generation.
Relying heavily on inventive tom tom playing, drum solos, and perfect timing, Baker also pioneered double bass drum kits (later adopted by Keith Moon). Despite his success as a rock superstar, he insists he’s a jazz drummer.
Finest Moments: Toad, The White Room, pioneering rock drum solos.
4. John Densmore
Densmore was hidden being charismatic singer Jim Morrison during the The Doors’ heyday. Forty years after they disbanded, looking back on Densmore’s drumming it’s clear to see his brilliance. Relying on jazzy fills, perfect timing, and controlled aggression, he could have played for anyone, and would have always made his mark.
Finest Moments: His live performances, Light My Fire.
3. Levon Helm
The Band’s multi-talented main drummer doubled up as their lead singer. A fantastic stage presence, his drumming matched the jazzy fills of peers such as Buddy Rich. A humble man, he would always dismiss his exceptional skills as nothing special.
The highlight of The Band’s career came at the very end in The Last Waltz, a documentary filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1976. As live footage of the group is rare, this is the perfect example of Helm’s abilities.
Finest Moments: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, pioneering singing drummers, an epic beard.
2. Jaki Liebezeit
The experimental Krautrock band Can were way ahead of everyone in terms of song quality, structure, and innovation, with Jaki Liebezeit playing an integral part. Renowned for his exceptional metronomic style, he could create a robotic, pulsating beat to drive the band’s music. This was accompanied with jazzy fills, and a unique complexity few drummers can match.
As Can didn’t hold traditional concerts (instead performing spontaneous “instant compositions”), Liebezeit’s ability to second guess band mates and lead a concert became vital. An incredible drummer and an all time great.
Finest moments: Halleluwah, Oh Yeah, any live moment.
After seeing him play at a gig in 1984, The Who’s Pete Townshend wanted the 20 year old for his solo work. Reni refused, going on to record dozens of classic songs with The Stone Roses.
He “played the drums like Hendrix played the guitar”, with a spectacular natural talent. His unnerving energy levels mixed with a stunningly accomplished fluidity and complexity, which left many fans turning up to gigs simply to see him play. Another singing drummer, his constant backing harmonies were vital to the band’s songs. A genius.
Finest Moments: Elephant Stone, Daybreak, I Am The Resurrection, any live moment.