The 20 Best Drummers of All Time
Keith Moon circa 1975.
Photo by Jim Summaria via Wikimedia Commons
As anyone who's ever started a garage band knows, you can get away with only knowing three chords and two basslines — but if your drummer can't keep a beat, you're never making it out of that garage. Behind every great band lies an even greater drummer, and hidden away behind all those cymbals and high-hats, many of the greatest ones never get their due.
So in the words of the immortal James Brown, let's give the drummer some! Here are L.A. Weekly's picks for the 20 greatest drummers of all time, in any genre.
20. Tommy Lee
The comedian Dane Cook once said of Tommy Lee: "He's the only guy in the world who fucks as often as he uses the word fuck." So what does Lee’s sex life have to do with his drumming? Well, when it comes to banging (the drums), voraciousness counts for a lot. Lee’s actual skill level can be questioned, sure. But with the exception of maybe Keith Moon, no other drummer gives off the giddy mojo of his grooves in quite the same way, even amidst pyro, props and his bandmates’ attention-whorish antics. Beyond the rotating stage contraptions and roller-coaster-riding solos of later-era Crüe, Lee’s shameless charisma and ear for dancier rhythms gave both his band’s sound and showmanship something special… and not just Dirk Diggler special. — Lina Lecaro
Max Roach in New York, circa 1947.
Photo by William P. Gottlieb, via Wikimedia Commons
19. Max Roach
Known for his work with every member of jazz’s high nobility and for his role in creating bebop, Roach not only advanced the art of drumming, he pretty much invented it. Before he came around, bands used drummers exclusively as beat and time-keeping machines. But the teen prodigy, needing space to create in the '40s, changed the entire game. By moving the driving beat to the ride cymbal, rather than the bass drum, he made room to innovate on the rest of the kit while maintaining flow and rhythm for his bandmates — in effect turning drummers into four-limbed artists. While this seems like a no-brainer today, it was like shifting from tintype to HD overnight. — Paul T. Bradley
Neil Peart in concert with Rush, 2004.
Photo by Enrico Frangi/Wikimedia Commons
18. Neil Peart
In his 40-year run with Canadian prog-rock legends Rush, Neil Peart has taken the virtuosic excesses of rock ’n’ roll to amazingly absurd extremes. His intricate flourishes and complex time signatures match his lyrics about philosophy, mythology, fantasy and fame. His oversized drum set has compelled an untold number of gear heads to blow their savings on extraneous cymbals and toms. His extravagant, eight-minute-plus concert solos — in which his kit has been known to literally rotate mid-beat — are as delightful as a Six Flags thrill ride. Peart and his bandmates have gotten a lot of guff from critics over the years, but among multiple generations of musicians and fans, the 62-year-old drum maestro remains a deeply inspiring figure, always rocking as hard as he can in his trademark kufi cap. — Peter Holslin
Now that The Roots are The Tonight Show's house band, it's easy to forget that back in their early days, the notion of a rap group with live instruments was practically hip-hop heresy. That they eventually won not only acceptance, but reverence, was thanks largely to their drummer, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, a Philly kid with jazz training, a spectacular 'fro, and a prodigious gift for reproducing hip-hop's looped, syncopated rhythms with fluid, muscular precision. Questlove does with his sticks what a great DJ does with his record crate, distilling 50 years of popular music down to a few indelible grooves, serving up history in a snare hit. And on relentless Roots classics like "The Seed" and "Here I Come," it's history you can shake your ass to. — Andy Hermann
Alex Van Halen behind his kit, 2012.
Photo by Craig ONeal via Wikimedia Commons
16. Alex Van Halen
He’s responsible for some of the most exceptional drum rock intros of all time (“Hot For Teacher,” “Everybody Wants Some”), but that’s not all that sets Alex Van Halen apart from the smack pack. Like his brother Eddie, Alex Van Halen is a bona fide virtuoso, a drummer possessed of equal parts technical chops and playful enthusiasm. Using his kit, sticks and body in ways others never quite pulled off, Alex’s audacious assaults were the perfect backdrop for Eddie’s dizzying guitar work and Diamond Dave’s frontman flamboyance. He didn’t have to do as much during the Van Hagar era, but it’s the early material’s crazy snare patterns, speed-metal tempos and ingenious kick drum arrangements that prove the band name is as much in homage to him as his brother. — Lina Lecaro
15. Tony Williams
When someone like Miles Davis says: “There ain’t but one Tony Williams when it comes to playing the drums. There was nobody like him before or since. He's just a motherfucker.” Well, that’s really all that need be said. Williams, a man possessed by demons of beat and the skills to make nice with them, elevated jazz drumming beyond what anyone had previously thought possible. Recruited by Davis as a teenager, he already had the chops to be make a nice name for himself in the already-established bop scene. But with an unhinged fury through the ‘60s and ‘70s, he went cosmic distances on a fusion drive built on polyrythmic complexity and powered by psych-rock voltage. Even if his jazz fusion remains (unjustly) uncool, metalheads can still revel in the blast beats that likely wouldn’t exist without him. — Paul T. Bradley
14. Chuck Biscuits
Known for his use of huge marching band sticks and even huger kits, Biscuits is the beast-like standard-bearer of ‘80s hardcore drumming. Starting out as the core of Vancouver’s D.O.A., he took his skills to Black Flag and the Circle Jerks — where much of his recorded work remains (sadly) unreleased — and then on to Danzig and Social Distortion. From his early live performances, he looks and sounds like a man taking all of his generation’s collective frustrations out on his drums, smashing the shit out of them like they killed his grandma. Even in those tinny recordings and blurry old videos, Biscuits comes through clear and ferocious. While he faded from the public in 1999, rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated (and completely fabricated). — Paul T. Bradley
Danny Carey at the Modern Drummer Festival, 2005.
Photo by Holomorph via Wikimedia Commons
13. Danny Carey
At 6' 5" and built like a mythological Norse warrior, Danny Carey commands his kit like a Viking sailing into battle, transporting every ounce of his being into Tool's complex evocation of everything from King Crimson to ancient geometry. He has all the elements of a trained jazz drummer and prog-rock master, able to improvise on smaller setups with his band Volto!, while taking Tool's visceral spirit from "the manifestation of matter into the physical world." Just listen to his unreal tribal attack on "Ticks and Leeches" for a better understanding of why Carey is the drumming equivalent of Magic Johnson: hard rock's most complete drummer, grooving like Bill Bruford (King Crimson/Yes), attacking like Dave Lombardo (Slayer), and pounding his cast-bronze kit like a Shawn Kemp roundhouse drunk. — Art Tavana
Janet Weiss drumming with Wild Flag at Coachella, 2012.
Photo by Rock Cousteau via Wikimedia Commons
12. Janet Weiss
With beats so solid “you could practically bang your head against" them, according to her bandmates, Janet Weiss has plowed through the last two decades of rock. Rhythmically beating the hell out of a kit in acts like Steven Malkmus and the Jicks, Wild Flag, Quasi, and the recently reunited Sleater-Kinney, Weiss has come to be known as one of the best, and most fun, performers to watch. Stints with the Shins (for their 2012 album Port of Morrow), Bright Eyes and Conor Oberst’s solo work show off a softer side to the typically aggressive Weiss. But it’s her forceful, attack-mode drumming (and her gorgeous, signature, circa ’73 Ludwig kit) that we love her for. — Artemis Thomas-Hansard
Dave Lombardo of Slayer, circa 2009.
Photo by Stueymedia via Wikimedia Commons
11. Dave Lombardo
On their crushing epic, 1986's Reign in Blood, Slayer's former speed demon drummer Dave Lombardo earned the right to be called "Godfather of Double-Bass." Twenty years later, on 2006's Christ Illusion, he took it to another level by showing off his scary fast technique. Playing with Metallica during the 2004 Download Festival, Lombardo's double-bass brutality on "Battery" sounded like a muffed machine gun — which made Lars' drumming seem more like a hobby shop BB gun. But he's not just fast; on tracks like "At Dawn They Sleep," off 1985's Hell Awaits, Lombardo shows off his ability to play slow-burn and grungy, as well as lightning fast. In other words, he was Slayer's most versatile part, and probably the most influential metal drummer of the last 30 years. — Art Tavana
10. Phil Collins
Listen to Phil Collins on 1971's "The Musical Box," where his kit carries the 10-minute Genesis masterpiece through a precisely crafted prog drumming showcase, to understand how skilled he was. Fast-forward to the 1980s to understand how great he was. In 1980, working on Peter Gabriel's third solo album, Collins added reverb to his drums on the opening track "Intruder," followed by “gating,” or cutting short, the echo on his snare. The effect produced what would become his distinct sound: gated drum reverb. Combined with his love of both tribal beats and Motown soul, Collins created a sound that evoked the grandiosity of the era. On his first solo single, "In the Air Tonight," it all came together on the sleekest, most melodramatic drum break in history. — Art Tavana
9. Buddy Rich
No drummer from the jazz world had more influence on rock percussion than Bernard "Buddy" Rich. His arrival in the late '30s was without precedent: a flashy, aggressive, self-taught Jewish kid from Manhattan, taking extended solos that showcased his dazzling speed and intricate stick work at a time when most drummers were content to be timekeepers. Over the years, he recorded and performed with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Louis Armstrong, but he was best-known for leading (and berating — he was famously ill-tempered) his own high-energy bands. After his death in 1987, everyone from Neil Peart to Max Roach paid tribute to the man who probably did more than anyone to unlock the drum kit's full potential as an endless source of both polyrhythms and showmanship. — Andy Hermann
Josh Freese performing with Devo in 2008.
Photo by xrayspx via Wikimedia Commons
8. Josh Freese
He gives Devo a pogo-dancing backbone. He’s delivered full-body rhythmic workouts with Nine Inch Nails. He’s proven himself a kick-ass punk drummer as a longtime member of Orange County staples The Vandals. Oh yeah, and he co-wrote the title track to Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy. Josh Freese comes from humble beginnings — his first gig, at 12 years old, was playing with a Top 40 cover band at Disneyland. But this celebrated drummer-for-hire has become a ubiquitous presence in the world of rock, having thrown down with everybody from A Perfect Circle to Weezer to, uh, Puddle of Mudd. The fact that he can maintain his hectic schedule at all is a small wonder, but what’s truly extraordinary is his ability to deliver solid beats no matter who he's working with. — Peter Holslin
7. Dave Grohl
Dave Grohl may be our favorite Valley Dad (sorry, Kanye), but he’s also been behind the drum kit in some of our favorite bands: Queens of the Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails, Them Crooked Vultures and, of course, Nirvana, inarguably one of the most influential rock acts of our time. As one of the most skilled multi-instrumentalists in the industry today, Grohl's musical resume runs deep (he's even played guitar with David Bowie). But it’s his refined yet sledgehammer style that makes him one of the best drummers of all time, a title he earned even before he achieved rock-god status as the leader of Foo Fighters. — Artemis Thomas-Hansard
6. Sheila E.
While most of us are barely figuring out our lives in our early twenties, Shelia E. had already been discovered by Prince and performed with Herbie Hancock, Lionel Richie, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. Growing up around countless musicians — her father Pete and uncle Coke were percussionists for Santana, and her godfather was the great Tito Puente – Sheila E. was influenced by Latin jazz, funk and rock, each of which contributed to making her drumming style the amalgam of awesomeness she’s praised for. Whether she’s playing on Purple Rain, with Ringo Starr (and Beyoncé, Gloria Estefan, Kanye West… you get the point), or living “The Glamorous Life” as a solo artist, Sheila E. has kept the beat to some of the most important music of the last four decades. — Artemis Thomas-Hansard
5. Stephen Perkins
Jane’s Addiction’s deep, guttural rhythms are as vital to the band’s sound as Perry Farrell’s cosmic wail and Dave Navarro’s ravaging riffs. And though Eric Avery’s basslines might grab more attention on track lead-ins and chorus breaks, it’s the drums that hold down all the good stuff in between. Stephen Perkins has not only held down this signature sound for the L.A. band’s two-decade-plus career, he’s elevated it and evolved with it. With the Jane’s side project Porno for Pyros, he explored more tribal-style percussion and proved he didn’t need sticks to conjure entrancing beats. He’s a badass on the bongos and the congas, too. Then there’s Banyan, a project formed with bassist Mike Watt and guitarist Nels Cline to showcase his more experimental leanings. But whomever he's playing with, Perkins’ highly recognizable tumbling and pummeling never ceases to be riveting. — Lina Lecaro
Keith Moon circa 1975.
Photo by Jim Summaria via Wikimedia Commons
4. Keith Moon
Keith Moon never practiced a lick. He never trained his left foot to lead, while he jumped off his throne and fell into a whirlwind of fills — in and out of time, like a spider on speed. No, "Moon the Loon" conducted the Who like Jackson Pollock splattering through a self-destructive existential crisis. As a result, he gave The Who their high-flying, uncontrolled style. To contain his exploding palette, Moon's kit would mutate into a war-like apparatus that expanded the arsenal of the rock drummer. The big-kit setup of metal and prog was popularized by Keith Moon in the '60s and '70s. His work on "I Need You" and "I Can't Explain" cannot be replicated by human hands, so in a way, Moon was like a cosmic apparition. He came and went (dead at just 32), so if you missed it, you missed the kit's most beautiful natural disaster. — Art Tavana
Charlie Watts in Switzerland, 2010, with his other band, The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie.
Photo courtesy of Poiseon Bild & Text via Wikimedia Commons
3. Charlie Watts
While it’s been said that his bandmate Keith Richards cannot be killed by conventional weapons, Charlie Watts is simply immortal. A self-taught jazz fanatic with an insane work ethic, he makes 50 years of anchoring the world’s most prolific rock band look like he just rolled out of bed that way. For someone with the skills to unleash an insane fury of beats, it’s Watts’ groove-tinged restraint that makes his stick work so phenomenal. While the energy of “Paint it Black” or the complexities of “Dandelion” show off his genius, the tight perfection he displays on Some Girls elevates him to the pantheon. It’s hard to say that he alone invented rock and roll drumming, but it’s quite easy to say that without him, Jagger and Richards would be just two pub-trampled Kentish blokes and not the Rolling freakin' Stones. — Paul T. Bradley
2. Clyde Stubblefield
Watching Clyde Stubblefield break down the drum pattern from "Funky Drummer" is akin to watching Leonardo da Vinci give a Bob Ross-style lesson on how to paint the Mona Lisa. As James Brown's timekeeper from 1965 to 1971, Stubblefield is one of the most sampled drummers in history, the man whose uncanny ability to deconstruct pop music's simple 4/4 rhythms into a thousand different sly syncopations laid the foundation not only for funk, but for most of hip-hop, as well. Next time you find yourself in a club or at a wedding reception dancing uncontrollably to "Cold Sweat," "Mother Popcorn" or, for that matter, "Mama Said Knock You Out," just remember that you're getting down with your bad self to what Questlove once called "a marksman’s left hand unlike any drummer['s] in the 20th century." (Honorable mention to John "Jabo" Starks, who took Stubblefield's signature style and ran with it on later Brown hits like "Sex Machine" and "Super Bad".) — Andy Hermann
1. John Bonham
Most can agree that “Stairway to Heaven” has been played to death, but what about John Bonham’s mammoth groove on “When the Levee Breaks”? It’s been 43 years since it dropped on Led Zeppelin’s landmark fourth album — and 28 since the Beastie Boys lifted it for “Rhymin & Stealin” — but that beat still bangs like a mofo. And that helps explain why, after all these years, amidst the rise of DJs and electronic music and the waning of guitar-driven rock ’n’ roll, Bonzo is still the best. Nobody handles rhythm like he did. Nobody else has brought quite that balance of muscle, groove and showmanship.
In the time before his death in 1980, Bonham sounded as hardy as a lumberjack. But he also had soul, and for all the mind-bending timpani runs and hiccupping, single-foot bass-drum triplets he could pull off on those never-ending “Moby Dick” solos, it’s his most compact beats that make him the ultimate drum god. “Stairway” runs for eight minutes. The “Levee” break lasts less than eight seconds — and yet it holds strong, able to be looped for time immemorial. — Peter Holslin
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