The “Greatest” Drummers and the Bliss of Ignorance

by Russ Miller

I have to admit that I’m not very excited about the whole social network thing. I realize that I didn’t grow up with it, and accepting something new is not always easy. But being involved online has become a necessity in today’s market.

A lot of the jargon used online also throws me for a loop. My assistant is in her mid-twenties and is on top of these things, so I often ask her what different terms mean. A while back I had her explain “trolling” to me. I was well aware of how rude, inconsiderate, and ignorant people can be in their comments on YouTube videos, but I didn’t realize there was a name for such behavior. For this month’s column, I want to give my two cents regarding drummer trolls on social media. I also want to address the common online battle over who’s the “better” drummer.

You’ve probably heard the pearl of wisdom that “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” If everyone followed that mantra, then the world would surely be a better place. Why would you want to spend any part of your life committed to tearing something apart? Build something instead! Unfortunately, the general attitude online is overwhelmingly negative, and here is why I think that’s the case.

Too much time on their hands. The online troll has a lot of expendable time to pick apart the work of others. Drummer trolls could (and should) be practicing and making themselves better. They could be focusing on their long-term preparation so that when it’s their turn to put their skills on display, they might perform better than whomever they just criticized on YouTube. Anytime I see a negative comment, I’m reminded of the following phrase, which I wrote in my practice book: “You will want this minute back at the end of your life, so use it wisely.”

Those who haven’t mastered a skill will never know the difficulty of its acquisition. When you spend time practicing new things, you begin to realize how much more there is to learn. Every skill worth developing requires some type of sacrifice. This is why the greatest players are usually the most humble. They understand just how little they actually know.

One of the key components of a coward is anonymity. The troll who hides behind his/her screen name is full of timidity. Very few people would post negative comments if they also had to include their name, telephone number, and address.

The Greatest Drummer of All Time Is….
If there’s a topic that brings out the drummer trolls in droves, it’s an argument over who’s the “best” drummer. Let’s discuss the ridiculousness of such debates.

First off, being the “greatest” at anything is subjective. Even in sports, where you have statistics to back up your arguments, it’s impossible to say who is definitively the best at any given time. Is the greatest quarterback the one who threw for the most yards in his career? Or is the greatest quarterback the one with the most Super Bowl rings? What about the gifted quarterbacks who were never part of a great team?

When you start debating about art it becomes even more unfeasible to say who’s great and who’s not. I’ve seen paintings that sold for millions of dollars that I wouldn’t hang in my garage. I also hear a lot of songs that don’t have all of the classic attributes of pop music composition (harmony, melody, lyrics, etc.), but they still end up selling millions of copies. No one can explain exactly why he/she likes some works of art more than others, but that’s part of the beauty of it.

I also feel that the term greatest gets used far too often when people begin debating their favorite drummers. Let’s take a look at a list of things that I believe should be considered for someone to be deemed the “greatest” drummer:

Excellent timekeeping
A unique and consistent groove
A recognizable sound
The ability to play convincingly in many styles of music
The ability to read and write music well
A long and consistent tenure in the music business
High-quality documentation (recordings, videos, books, etc.)
Significant contributions to the recorded history of music
Significant contributions to the art of drumming
High proficiency on the instrument

There are many more attributes than those mentioned above, but notice that “fastest,” “loudest,” or “most popular” aren’t included. But given my choices to define “greatest,” which drummers would qualify? There are players who’ve achieved most of the things on my list, such as Buddy Rich, Steve Gadd, and Vinnie Colaiuta. But I can’t think of anyone who can check off everything. That’s why I believe there’s no such thing as the greatest drummer of all time.

It would make much more sense if people would make comments like, “This drummer is one of the greatest technicians,” or “He/she is the most influential drummer in progressive rock.” But labeling a player as the “greatest” is tremendously difficult to defend.

The quote I included this month is from American actress/director Robin Wright, and it resonated with me about the time that’s often wasted thinking, speaking, and writing negatively. We need to stay focused on what makes us better as drummers…and as people.

Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more info, visit