Whose playing endures through the decades? Whose music do we reach for when we want new ideas? When we want to practice? Who inspires and delights us most? Following are the drummers who, regardless of genre or era, are revered by the our community most consistently.
His skills were so extraordinary that more than a quarter century after his passing, we’re still calling him what they called him back in the day: the greatest drummer of all time.
If Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell is right in his famous theory that it takes 10,000 hours, or twenty hours a week for ten years, to master any skill, then Buddy Rich (1917–1987) was even more of a magician than we thought. What would Gladwell make of the eighteen-month-old “Traps, the drum wonder,” the centerpiece of his parents’ vaudeville act and one of the highest-paid child stars of the time? At eleven Rich would lead his own pro group. By twenty-fi ve he was well on his way to appearing with nearly every major big band star of the day, and was inarguably the king of drums.
Ten thousand hours of work? Clearly, in Buddy’s case, it was on-the-job training. Later, while leading his own big bands, he became known as a harsh taskmaster. But his ultimate responsibility was always to the audience, especially a live one. Rich’s commitment to putting his group in front of the people, even in the least financially forgiving times, was total. And he literally took the music to them, often appearing at high schools and colleges.
And what of his drumming? “Buddy was a savant,” Jim Keltner said in a December 2012 Modern Drummer cover story on Rich. “Everything about him was above everyone else.” “His swing was ridiculous,” added jazz great Antonio Sanchez, “and his feel and use of dynamics were remarkable.” “Buddy was a technical genius,” offered contemporary jazz star Terri Lyne Carrington. “His solos were pure composition. And yes, he was a show drummer, but he did it with integrity. Buddy’s important.”
Go check out: “West Side Story Medley,” “Channel One Suite”
In the first thirty seconds of the first track of the first Led Zeppelin album, John Bonham (1948–1980) announces himself as an absolute master, with visionary ideas, a heavy groove, and a supreme right foot that’s able to channel a jazz drummer’s dexterity with the heft of a rocker. And it was only upward from there. Through his sparkling, highly influential career with the mighty Zep, Bonham came armed with fitting concepts for every song, giving each piece its signature ornamentation with playing that felt spontaneous and natural, seemingly just flowing out of him. And in concert, that flow reached tsunami levels, as Bonzo tossed away the thoughtful restraint that made his studio work so brilliant and let his ferocious chops rule unchecked, in dramatic high-wire improvisations with guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones, and singer Robert Plant, and in rollicking “Moby Dick” solos that sometimes flirted with the thirty minute mark.
Bonham died young, at age thirty-two, bringing a sudden halt to one of the hottest acts in rock history, and the fact that he seldom did interviews has only fueled his mystique in the decades since. What we do have of the man, though, is a ton of precious music. Zeppelin’s eight proper studio albums show a highly dynamic, very diverse drummer, defining for the ages streamlined backbeats (“Black Dog,” “Kashmir”); fire-breathing, kick-throbbing rockers (“The Wanton Song,” “Achilles Last Stand”); supercharged slow blues (“Since I’ve Been Loving You,” “Tea for One”); and light-and-shade acoustic-plus numbers (“Ramble On,” “Tangerine”). And the Song Remains the Same film and two-disc Led Zeppelin DVD allow those who never saw the band to join Bonham on his swashbuckling onstage adventures; from the fearsome, sinewy presence of the early days to the stocky, bowler-hatted English rocker of 1979, Bonzo is a drummer’s treasure.
Go check out: “Good Times Bad Times,” “Moby Dick”
Neil Peart (b. 1952) joined Rush in 1974; Ron Spagnardi started Modern Drummer in 1977. Since the founding of this magazine, Peart has inarguably been the most visible, most popular symbol of the modern drummer, making it no surprise that he was voted the highest-ranking active player on our list. This seven-time (and counting) MD cover star is ever hungry to learn and improve, digging into musical inspirations from around the world with great relish and adding these ingredients to his own homemade brew with each Rush release. Taken as a whole, his body of work over the past forty years—including video tutorials on studio tracking, soloing, and playing live—reveals a staggering breadth and depth of percussive exploration both deadly serious and whimsically good-humored. Oh, and meanwhile Neil has also written most of the band’s lyrics; his words and his rhythms have helped Rush become a definer of heavy progressive rock.
With a fierce commitment to making every idea and every note as clear as day, Peart divides his time among the conception of parts, honing and polishing, and, finally, recording. For years he famously left little to chance on stage or in the studio…until he began to embrace the idea of improvisation more fully—yet another example of his dedication to personal and band growth. Indeed, Rush has enjoyed a fruitful period lately, issuing two well-received studio albums and several live releases since 2007. And last year the band toured with a string ensemble behind 2012’s Clockwork Angels.
The Canadian trio is taking a hard-earned rest in 2014, routing Peart’s 360-degree electroacoustic rig—and his well-traveled motorcycle—off the road. But we can content ourselves by revisiting Rush classics and digging, among other delights, Neil’s trademark Latin-style ride pattern (“Limelight,” “Subdivisions”), time-travel grooves (“La Villa Strangiato”), over-the-top song suites (“2112,” “Cygnus X-1”), soloing prowess (Exit Stage Left’s “YYZ”), and get-’em-jumping-outof- their-seats, kit-busting fills (take your pick!).
Go check out: “Tom Sawyer,” “The Spirit of Radio”
Miles Davis snatched Tony Williams (1945–1997) from saxophonist Jackie McLean’s band when the prodigy drummer was just seventeen years old, and immediately made him the focal point of a new quintet, which included Herbie Hancock on piano, George Coleman on saxophone (to be replaced by Wayne Shorter), and Ron Carter on bass. Williams’ debut recordings with Davis, the studio album Seven Steps to Heaven and the live double disc The Complete Concert 1964: Four & More/My Funny Valentine, are the ultimate study in Tony’s superhuman chops, propulsive time feel, and adventurous rhythmic approach. (Good luck keeping up with his right hand on the barnburners “Seven Steps to Heaven,” “Joshua,” “Walkin’,” and “Four.”) The quintet’s subsequent studio albums, E.S.P., Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro, feature Williams prominently, albeit in a more restless, turbulent environment leaning closer to the avant-garde.
As much influenced by the Beatles as he was by Charlie Parker, Williams left Davis’s band in 1968 to lead his own group, Lifetime, which combined jazz improvisation with heavier grooves and electric guitar and organ. Lifetime had a fresh, edgy, modern sound that connected with a younger rock-listening audience. Fellow greats Steve Smith, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Dennis Chambers, among many others, have made reference to the big influence Williams’ heavier fusion-era drumming had on their playing, especially on the albums Emergency!, Believe It, and Million Dollar Legs.
Toward the end of his career, Tony returned to the acoustic quintet format, composing music for his own band, doing all-star reunion dates with fellow Davis alumni, and supporting young lions like Wallace Roney, Branford Marsalis, and Wynton Marsalis during the hard-bop revival of the 1980s.
Go check out: “Seven Steps to Heaven,” Miles Davis; “Red Alert,” Tony Williams
Arguably the most influential jazz drummer, Elvin Jones (1927–2004) turned the drumming world on its head in 1960 when he joined visionary saxophonist John Coltrane’s hard-hitting, spiritually driven quartet. Never before had a drummer played with such a passionate, unbridled beat, and Jones’s unconventional approach to soloing pushed rhythm down a more liberal, expressionistic path that would later become standard practice during the free-jazz movement of the late ’60s. Elvin’s trademark triplets, asymmetrical phrasing, and broken ride patterns made a lasting impact on everyone from jazz greats Jack DeJohnette and Peter Erskine to classic- and prog-rock pioneers Ginger Baker and Bill Bruford. “He showed us that there was more to drumming than keeping a beat,” Bruford told MD in 2004. “He had more to do with the wind and the waves than numbers and click tracks.”
Jones’s recordings with Coltrane remain as modern and evocative today as they were the day they were released, and the various albums Elvin played on as a sideman, with Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Larry Young, McCoy Tyner, Tommy Flanagan, and others, are equally essential. The drummer also put out his own records, including 1961’s Elvin! and his Blue Note debut, Puttin’ It Together, a trio date with Coltrane mate Jimmy Garrison on bass and Joe Farrell on woodwinds. And his band, the Jazz Machine, remained active through the 1990s and rivaled Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as a preeminent institution for aspiring artists, with alumni including trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Kenny Kirkland, and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis.
Go check out: “Pursuance,” John Coltrane
You’d be hard pressed to find a more prolific, well-rounded, and influential drummer in the past thirty years than Steve Gadd (b. 1945). In 1975 alone, he laid down a slinky groove on the disco hit “The Hustle,” defined linear drumming with a unique open-handed intro to Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and swung hard on guitarist Jim Hall’s Concierto. Gadd also ushered in a groovier, smoother, and more nuanced style of fusion drumming through his work with crossover artists like Chuck Mangione, George Benson, David Sanborn, Stanley Clarke, Grover Washington Jr., Tom Scott, and Chick Corea. In the pop world, Steve’s laid-back feel has enhanced albums by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Paul McCartney to Kate Bush, Steely Dan, Eric Clapton, and Jon Bon Jovi.
Informed by a background in tap dance and drum corps, Gadd’s drumming style is characterized by a deep groove and an inventive application of the rudiments, including snare/ tom/kick ratamacues, hi-hat/snare paradiddle combinations, and split-flam Latin patterns. Equally influential is Gadd’s signature fat, clean drum sound (thanks in part to his use of oil-filled Evans Hydraulic drumheads in the early days and thick Remo Pinstripes more recently) and two-up, two-down kit configuration (10″ and 12″ rack toms, 14″ and 16″ floor toms), which is still used by many drummers today. Steve also helped usher in the drum-video age with the classic Up Close and In Session. He has remained active in the new millennium, touring and recording with top pop artists like Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, and James Taylor, as well as leading his own ensemble, Steve Gadd & Friends.
Go check out: “Aja,” Steely Dan; “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Paul Simon
Vinnie Colaiuta (b. 1956) isn’t a drummer’s drummer—he’s the drummer’s drummer. In 1979 Colaiuta established his role as an unfettered explorer of the outer reaches of rhythmic complexity on Frank Zappa’s notorious three-act Joe’s Garage LPs, a reputation later sealed with releases by Randy Waldman, Allan Holdsworth, Jing Chi, and dozens of others, as well as a 1994 self-titled solo album. Beyond his highly intelligent approach to time manipulation and rhythmic illusion, what really grabbed people’s attention was Vinnie’s fearlessness—many a drummer has described witnessing him go so far out on a limb that they were convinced he’d fall to a tragic musical death, only to marvel at his feline ability to land safely on the 1. Perhaps just as impressive is Colaiuta’s pop prowess, which he’s proven on mainstream releases by Sting, Faith Hill, Joni Mitchell, and Barry Manilow.
Go check out: “Keep It Greasey,” Frank Zappa; “I’m Tweaked/Attack of the 20lb. Pizza,” Vinnie Colaiuta
The playing of the Who’s Keith Moon (1946–1978) was extremely different from that of most drummers, because Keith Moon was extremely different from most drummers. Logic defying, energetic—no, tidal—Moon was an extreme bundle of contradictions: He battled loneliness at home but was always the life of the party; he symbolized drumming excess on stage but never took a solo on record. In his autobiography, Who I Am, Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend upends common misperceptions by stating that Moony kept time along to sequences like the one on the Who classic “Baba O’Riley” (new ground in 1971) better than any drummer he’d ever witnessed. Unlike his personal life, Keith had control of his playing—he just loved letting out the reins and stepping over boundaries. All those shockingly offbeat crashes and rambunctious double bass triplet runs…repeated listening reveals an artfulness and orchestral sense that’s rare, but so right.
Go check out: “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Love, Reign O’er Me”
Once Ringo Starr (b. 1940) joined the Beatles as the final member, the band’s recipe for success was complete. Ringo drove the early music hard, with a gleefully bent but solid sense of swing and a tireless right hand. His puppy-dog eyes and dry wit meshed with the image and demeanor of the other Mop Tops, ensuring the group would be followed by deafening screams for years to come. As the Beatles left the stage for the studio and pushed their songwriting into new and unexplored areas, Starr unfailingly found fresh sounds, clever orchestrations, tasty beats, and imaginative, wonderfully off-kilter fills. “It’s been mentioned that I am a songwriter’s drummer,” Ringo told MD in November 2005, “and I think it’s because of this principle: If the singer’s singing, let’s listen to him or her.” The beloved drummer has kept the peace and love alive, sharing that ’60s spirit via his All-Starr Band well into the twenty-fi rst century.
Go check out: “All My Lovin’,” “Rain,” Abbey Road medley
Buddy Rich might have captured people’s imaginations, but before that, Gene Krupa (1909–1973) won their hearts. With his Hollywood good looks and warm demeanor, Krupa made drumming, and jazz music, more acceptable to the masses. As he danced across his tom-toms with exaggerated arm movements, influenced by Duke Ellington drummer Sonny Greer’s approach, he tapped into the dark nature that drumming represented in the Western world’s collective subconscious. But he did it with such sophistication and joy that musicians, dancers, and plain ol’ regular folk got the message. Heck, they even made a movie called The Gene Krupa Story while the man was still in the thick of his career. Krupa’s innovations in the 1930s and ’40s—from popularizing the live “drum feature” to establishing the basic drumset configuration—remain staples of our craft to this day.
Go check out: “Sing, Sing, Sing,” Benny Goodman
- Mike Portnoy
Like one of his heroes, Neil Peart, Mike Portnoy (b. 1967) inspired legions with a drumming style that was complex, active, and creative yet comprehensible, and he did it with a band, Dream Theater, that was the most popular heavy progressive act of its time. Portnoy, who has won numerous awards in Modern Drummer’s annual Readers Poll, left Dream Theater in 2010, after twenty-fi ve years as its de facto leader. If anything, his output has only increased and improved, including work with Adrenaline Mob, Flying Colors, and the band he’s currently focused on, the hard-rock trio Winery Dogs.
Go check out: “A Change of Seasons,” Dream Theater
- Stewart Copeland
Born in the States and raised in the Middle East, Stewart Copeland (b. 1952) took a veritable planet’s worth of drumming influences and distilled them down to a thrilling spark-plug style that’s uniquely and utterly personal to him—and one of the most recognizable sounds in pop. Copeland’s range helped the Police convincingly blend rock, punk, new wave, and reggae, with sophisticated songwriting and musicianship. His amply caffeinated feel and firm touch brought urgency to the music, from the group’s ’70s inception to its 2007-8 reunion. The unstoppable Copeland also helms movie soundtracks, has formed the bands Animal Logic and Oysterhead, and lately hosts improv sessions at his Sacred Grove studio.
Go check out: “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Walking on the Moon”
- Max Roach
The most prominent bebop drummer of the 1940s and ’50s, Max Roach (1924–2007) is credited with solidifying the streamlined style of modern jazz, thanks to his longtime association with groundbreaking artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker. Roach also redefined soloing, whether improvising over forms (“Now’s the Time”) or bass lines (“Jodie’s Cha-Cha”), or composing pieces for solo drumset (“The Drum Also Waltzes,” “Blues for Big Sid”). “[Max] established that a drummer was just as important as any other instrument,” Jack DeJohnette told MD in 2007. “When he soloed, you heard the song.”
Go check out: “The Drum Also Waltzes,” Max Roach; “Cherokee,” Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet
- Jeff Porcaro
Hailing from a musical family, Jeff Porcaro (1954–1992) was both a band guy, as a founder of Toto, and a prolific studio ace, with Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, Dire Straits, Eric Clapton, and Michael Jackson, to name but a few of his collaborators. He had wicked chops but kept them mostly under wraps, serving the song with steady, snapping time and a mastery of all sorts of shuffles. “No matter what he played,” Vinnie Colaiuta told Modern Drummer in a 2002 tribute, “the time just felt so good.” Twenty-plus years after his premature passing, Porcaro is still cited as an inspiration in nearly every issue of MD.
Go check out: “Rosanna,” Toto; “Doctor Wu,” Steely Dan
- Billy Cobham
Perhaps the first true fusion drummer, with Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, George Duke, and others, Billy Cobham (b. 1944) combines the finesse and vocabulary of a jazz player with the power and groove of a rocker, burning up his expansive kit
with flaming rolls in any direction. Explaining his left-hand-lead style in the July 1986 Modern Drummer, the right-handed Cobham said, “The ride and hi-hat being on the same side opened up my concept to add as much as I wanted to.” In November 1998, Gary Husband told MD, “[Billy] has the ferocity of a Mike Tyson, in terms of how hard he’ll fight to play creative music.”
Go check out: “One Word,” Mahavishnu Orchestra; “Stratus,” Billy Cobham
- Papa Jo Jones
Often referred to as the father of modern drumming, Jo Jones (1911–1985) elevated the role of the hi-hat within jazz timekeeping and brought an unprecedented sense of style to brushwork—in contrast to his demeanor, which could be brutally frank, given the right circumstances. He was a hero to many famed jazz drummers who revered the wit, subtlety, and grace of his playing, which can be heard across numerous classic Count Basie recordings of the ’30s and ’40s, and on his own albums as a leader.
Go check out: “Sweet Georgia Brown,” Jo Jones
- Bill Bruford
Even among the revolutionary drummers who emerged from the original prog-rock era, Bill Bruford (b. 1949) stood out. With Yes, the British group that he cofounded in 1968, Bruford’s unique sound, featuring a distinctly high-pitched snare, was apparent from day one. On albums like Fragile and Close to the Edge, his unexpected punctuations and penchant for toying with the backbeat fascinated observers, while his subsequent work with King Crimson and with his own bands, including Earthworks, integrated African infl uences, electronics, the melodic incorporation of Octobans and Rototoms, and acoustic jazz elements in fresh and fascinating ways.
Go check out: “Heart of the Sunrise,” Yes; “Indiscipline,” King Crimson
- Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes (b. 1925) was a key player on the NYC jazz scene when bebop was invented, serving as saxophonist Charlie Parker’s drummer from 1949 to 1952, and he’s remained on the cutting edge of modern jazz ever since, supplying his trademark dancing swing feel and mambo-influenced solo vocabulary to dozens of artists, including legendary beboppers Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell; post-bop leaders Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, and Andrew Hill; and contemporary giants Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. Haynes’ discography as a leader also spans nearly six decades, from his 1954 debut, Busman’s Holiday, through 2011’s Roy-alty.
Go check out: “Matrix,” Chick Corea
- Philly Joe Jones
“Try to play like Philly Joe,” said the notoriously blunt trumpeter Miles Davis to anyone who came into his jazz groups after Philly Joe Jones (1923–1985) left in 1959. Jones, who got his nickname so as not to be confused with Count Basie’s famous drummer Papa Jo, is the quintessential hard-bop drummer, combining the streamlined swing of Max Roach with the drive of Art Blakey, along with a penchant for employing rudiments on the kit in ways that sounded fresh and unquestionably hip. Jones was also a master of the brushes, and the now commonly placed rimclick on beat 4 is forever branded “the Philly lick.”
Go check out: “Billy Boy,” Miles Davis
- Art Blakey
From the ’50s until the late ’80s, the legendary hard-bop band the Jazz Messengers was the most important jazz institution—the place where young instrumentalists cut their teeth alongside Art Blakey (1919–1990), one of the genre’s greatest ambassadors and one of drumming’s hardest swingers. Blending classic bebop vernacular with the groovier sounds of R&B and the deep folkloric rhythms of African and Afro-Cuban music, Blakey played with fire and grit, always from the heart. As he stated many times in lectures and interviews, “Music washes away the dust of life.” And nobody played a better crush roll. Go check out: “Roll Call,” Hank Mobley; “Moanin’,” Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
- Phil Collins
His string of solo hits in the ’80s made Phil Collins (b. 1951) a superstar. But it’s his recordings with Genesis that drummers venerate. Collins’ style, a marriage of R&B soulfulness, fusoid flair, and proggy oddness, is immediately recognizable for its Motown inspired time feel, dramatic concert-tom fills, and nimble kick work. Early Genesis efforts like Selling England by the Pound feature Collins’ stellar approach to outlandish long-form compositions, while later cuts, including freelance work with Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Philip Bailey, Howard Jones, Adam Ant, Tears for Fears, Frida, Band-Aid, and ex-bandmate Peter Gabriel, are quintessential examples of slinky big-beat nirvana.
Go check out: “Supper’s Ready,” Genesis; “In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins
- Dave Weckl
When Dave Weckl (b. 1960) landed the gig with Chick Corea’s Elektric band in 1985, the international drumming community took notice. (Those already in the know were familiar with Weckl from his work in the NYC studios and with Simon & Garfunkel.) Not only did the twenty-five-year-old drummer have the virtuosity to match Corea’s challenging new material, but his technique was smooth, his drumkit sounded crystal clear, and he was adept at blending electronic and acoustic tones in a fresh and musical way. Weckl’s first album, 1990’s Master Plan, was a full-on exposé of a super-slick style that’s equal parts precision, flair, and inventiveness.
Go check out: “Rumble,” Chick Corea Elektric Band; “Festival de Ritmo,” Dave Weckl
- Ginger Baker
Currently enjoying a resurgence on the heels of the riveting 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, Ginger Baker (b. 1939), despite myriad health issues, is still sporadically logging time at the kit, exploring the gritty, plodding, jazz- and African-influenced style he forged with Cream in the’60s. His flat-angled drums, spread-out double bass rigs, and pounding tom fills remain the stuff of legend. Unrepentantly cantankerous, Baker has made enemies the world over yet befriended many of his jazz idols and has enjoyed successful, inventive collaborations with artists as diverse as John Lydon, Fela Kuti, and Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden.
Go check out: “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room”
- Terry Bozzio
Think of the hallmarks of history’s greatest drummers, and you find that Terry Bozzio (b. 1950) bears all of them. With Frank Zappa, Missing Persons, the Brecker Brothers, Jeff Beck, and others, he’s made stellar music even better by his very presence, through transcendent chops, a fertile imagination, a deep time feel, riveting showmanship, and a disregard for genre boundaries. Bozzio, with his searcher aesthetic, has made breakthroughs in ostinato education, cymbal development, and, given his impossibly huge rack-mounted rigs, drumset construction. Terry has also gamely filled in with acts like Korn and Fantômas and explored solo and orchestral chamber-type works. The guy never slows down.
Go check out: “The Black Page,” Frank Zappa; “U.S. Drag,” Missing Persons
- Bernard Purdie
Rather than recapping his recording credits with Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Miles Davis, and a zillion others, it might be quicker to list the artists that groover extraordinaire Bernard Purdie (b. 1939) hasn’t worked with. When Purdie, brimming with confidence, hits his namesake half-time shuffle or any other finger-snapping rhythm, he locks in super-tight, with a strong anchor on the bottom and a buoyant lightness on top. “He always had some unique stylistic thing that you would never imagine in advance and that nobody else would do,” Steely Dan’s Walter Becker says on the Classic Albums: Aja DVD.
Go check out: “Rock Steady,” Aretha Franklin; “Home at Last,” Steely Dan
- Hal Blaine
If you hired Hal Blaine (b. 1929) and his group of L.A. studio heavies, the Wrecking Crew, during pop’s ’60s and ’70s golden age, there was a great chance you’d see your record go straight up the charts. America, the Association, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Carpenters, Cher, the Crystals, Diana Ross, Dion, Dick Dale, Dusty Springfield, Elvis—we’re not even a quarter of the way through the alphabet yet, you dig? And Blaine’s single-headed “Monster” kit might’ve started a craze, but really it was the confi dence, class, and creativity that Hal brought to bear that made all the difference.
Go check out: “The Boxer,” Simon & Garfunkel; “Hurting Each Other,” the Carpenters
- Steve Smith
A small number of drummers get to lead the double life of pop star and shredster icon—on this list, Vinnie Colaiuta and Phil Collins come to mind. Rivaling them for the remarkable range of his credits is Steve Smith (b. 1954), whose refined and efficient approach to Journey’s pomp-rock has garnered him as many accolades as his dense, Indian-inspired flights of rhythmic fancy on his many jazz-fusion gigs. Smith’s relaxed but studious disposition is the picture of control, making him an obvious role model for thousands of drummers who’ve admired his flawless technique and absorbed his popular educational materials.
Go check out: “Enigmatic Ocean, Parts I–IV,” Jean-Luc Ponty; “Separate Ways,” Journey
- Mike Mangini
With the prog-metal band Dream Theater, which he joined in 2010 after acing an audition competition with six other top-tier drummers, Mike Mangini (b. 1963) finally found the ideal forum for his freakishly complex, imaginative, and precise playing. A hard-hitting, ambidextrous superdrummer who played with Extreme, Mike Keneally, and Steve Vai before DT and has held several World’s Fastest Drummer records, Mangini is also a highly respected educator, sharing his Rhythm Knowledge method and four-way-independence concepts through clinics and a decade-long teaching stint at Berklee. His new DVD, The Grid, focuses on expanding drummers’ creativity and improv skills.
Go check out: “Egg Zooming,” Mike Keneally; “Outcry,” Dream Theater
- Dennis Chambers
A child prodigy, Dennis Chambers (b. 1959) began playing clubs in his hometown of Baltimore at age six. At eighteen, he was nabbed by funk legend George Clinton for Parliament Funkadelic, a gig he held until the mid-’80s before becoming the go-to guy for various electric jazz artists, including Special EFX, George Duke, and John Scofi eld. It was with Sco that Chambers made his most significant impact, laying down hard-hitting grooves and blazing fills on the guitarist’s ’80s fusion classics Blue Matter, Pick Hits: Live, and Loud Jazz. Chambers also toured with Steely Dan in the ’90s, and he’s supplied the backbeat behind Latin-rock great Carlos Santana for over ten years.
Go check out: “Give Up the Funk,” P-Funk All-Stars; “The Nag,” John Scofield
- Jack DeJohnette
Though steeped in tradition, Jack DeJohnette (b. 1942) has always approached music without limitations or boundaries, whether playing light and airy Latin-inspired textures with saxophonist Charles Lloyd (Forest Flower); dense, abstract fusion with Miles Davis (Cellar Door Sessions 1970); post-bop with Pat Metheny (80/81); or impressionistic piano-trio music with Keith Jarrett (Setting Standards). DeJohnette has also led his own genre-bending ensembles, Directions, New Directions, and Special Edition, and released several genre-less albums under his own name, including 1977’s Pictures and 1997’s Oneness. A fine pianist as well, DeJohnette takes a compositional approach to the drumset that reflects that aesthetic—full of color, contrast, and melodic/rhythmic/ harmonic interplay.
Go check out: “Nardis,” Bill Evans; “Picture 1,” Jack DeJohnette
- Dave Grohl
Dave Grohl (b. 1969), the youngest player on our list, unleashed to the masses an infectious combo of relentless punk energy and catchy, bombastic beats when Nirvana hit it huge with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the first single off the 1991 album Nevermind. Grohl’s fills in that song are as air-drum-worthy as they come, with other notable hooks including the fat flam/kick assaults and triplet fi lls of “In Bloom” and the syncopated kick-driven chorus beat of “On a Plain.” Grohl continued to crank out memorable parts with his own band, Foo Fighters (“Everlong,” “My Hero”), as well as on records by Queens of the Stone Age, Juliette and the Licks, and Them Crooked Vultures.
Go check out: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana; “No One Knows,” Queens of the Stone Age
- Jim Keltner
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith has called Jim Keltner (b. 1942) “a real Southern gentleman,” a description that could apply equally to his warm, giving disposition and his mysterious, dripping-with-personality feel. A member of the individual Beatles’ inner circles—he’s appeared on classic albums by George, John, and Ringo—Keltner is the ultimate song drummer, but he can rise to seemingly any occasion, such as longtime collaborator Ry Cooder’s more esoteric soundtrack work. In all situations, though, Keltner’s secret weapon is really no secret at all: Always seek to elevate the music, not yourself—and have fun doing it.
Go check out: “Dream Weaver,” Gary Wright; “Josie,” Steely Dan
- Mitch Mitchell
Not merely holding his own behind Jimi Hendrix but pushing the guitarist ever higher with his feverishly active—and reactive—drumming, Mitch Mitchell (1947–2008) ensured his rightful place on any roster of great timekeepers. Influenced by jazz drummers like many of his 1960s rock peers, he had a deep bag of rudimental chops and was equally adept at playing furiously burning beats and airier, more settled grooves. Mitchell’s onstage duels with Hendrix, with fills escalating into the stratosphere, brought even more fl mes than the bottle of lighter fl uid that Jimi doused his axe with in Monterey in 1967.
Go check out: “Fire,” “Little Wing”
- Gavin Harrison
Gavin Harrison (b. 1963) is the most highly regarded drummer to come out of Britain’s ’90s prog-rock wave. His work with the genre leader Porcupine Tree is marked by an immense sense of control, complex hand/foot combinations that feature the astoundingly accurate incorporation of toms and small cymbals, and demanding linear-type beats. In addition to his acclaimed work with Porcupine Tree, Harrison appears on more than a dozen albums by Italian superstar Claudio Baglioni and has toured with King Crimson. A multiple award winner in Modern Drummer’s Readers Poll, Gavin performed during the magazine’s 2008 Festival Weekend.
Go check out: “Anesthetize,” Porcupine Tree
- Charlie Watts
You won’t find bigger fans of Charlie Watts (b. 1941) than his Rolling Stones bandmates past and present—and the fact that Charlie continually fi res up his comrades says a lot about the man’s drumming. Watts grew up a jazz fan and found his rock ’n’ roll/R&B style together with the Stones, which helps explain the way band and drummer breathe together as one. His very earthy, organic style—he plays a vibe more than a part—is marked by a laid-back yet steady gait and a deep sense of swing. Watts also often has one of rock’s tastiest snare sounds.
Go check out: “Honky Tonk Women,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Shattered”
- Jojo Mayer
Swiss-born Jojo Mayer (b. 1963) first broke on the international jazz scene when he joined pianist Monty Alexander’s group at age eighteen. But it was his five-year live drum ’n’ bass party, Prohibited Beatz, which began in 1996 in New York City, that solidified Mayer as the world’s preeminent electronica specialist, thanks to his “reverse engineering” approach to executing seemingly impossible DJ-style drum programming on an acoustic drumset. Mayer also played in the modern fusion group Screaming Headless Torsos, and his own band, Nerve, has been actively touring and recording since 1997. In 2007, Jojo released the epic DVD set Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer.
Go check out: “Catachresis,” Nerve
- David Garibaldi
Whereas James Brown’s drummers branded the displaced backbeat in the ’60s, David Garibaldi (b. 1946) flipped funk upside down with the ear-twisting permutations he created with the powerhouse R&B band Tower of Power, beginning on the 1970 album East Bay Grease, which features an airtight, ghost-note-heavy beat on “Knock Yourself Out.” It’s the band’s 1973 self-titled release and 1974’s Back to Oakland that showcase Garibaldi’s sophisticated funk approach best, however, with choice cuts being the feverishly funky vignette “Oakland Stroke” and the backbeat-avoiding groove to “Soul Vaccination.” Garibaldi has also published several method books, including the modern funk classic Future Sounds.
Go check out: “Soul Vaccination”
- Joe Morello
How many drummers can claim they appeared on a million-selling instrumental hit? That features a drum solo? In 5/4 time? If that were all Joe Morello (1928–2011) accomplished—the track in question is “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet—it would have been remarkable. But Morello’s illustrious career, which included overcoming near blindness to become one of the most sublime soloists and most proficient technicians in history, was distinguished by dozens of other hit recordings with Brubeck, many featuring his uncanny ease with odd times. And Joe displayed a lifelong dedication to drum education, authoring the classic text Master Studies and teaching a number of players who would earn fame themselves.
Go check out: “Take Five,” “Blue Rondo a la Turk”
- Clyde Stubblefield
When James Brown appeals to “give the drummer some” on “Cold Sweat,” that’s Clyde Stubblefield (b.1943) doling out the groovy, oft-sampled break. Legend has it that when Stubblefield joined Brown in 1965, he was the band’s sixth drummer. Soon, only the finest two timekeepers remained: Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks. Clyde lay back further in the pocket and worked the funky ghost notes, while Jabo was the shuffle king. “Did he mean to put one drummer who was the summation of the past several decades [Starks] together with a guy ready to play the sound of things to come [Stubblefield]?” RJ Smith asks of Brown in the fascinating biography The One.
Go check out: “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feeling,” “Funky Drummer”
- Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine (b. 1954) is a drummer that drummers love to love. He oozes wisdom, and a conversation with him about music always inspires one to think more and, usually, to play less—but better. Listening to him on the drums, of course, has the same effect, and as there are several hundred albums in print featuring him, there’s ample opportunity to be schooled. Tellingly, not only has Erskine been employed by jazz and rock luminaries like Bob Mintzer, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, John Abercrombie, Gary Burton, and Joni Mitchell, he’s continuously hired back—the mark of a true great.
Go check out: “Northern Cross,” Steps Ahead; “Comes Love,” Joni Mitchell
- Carl Palmer
There aren’t many drummers who can rationalize touring with an engraved stainless steel drumset weighing more than two tons. But Carl Palmer (b. 1950), whose Buddy Rich–inspired drumming with the British art-rockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer was the very definition of outrageous, got away with it—and much more. ELP’s unprecedented mash-up of classical, jazz, and rock was hugely popular, and Palmer’s restless, dazzling playing on classic 1970s albums like Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery was more than ballsy enough to support ELP’s audacious directive of selling Mussorgsky, Bartók, and Aaron Copland to stadiums full of rock fans. Excess? Bah—success!
Go check out: “Karn Evil 9”
- Lars Ulrich
As a cofounder and all-around driving force of the massively influential, hard-touring band Metallica, Lars Ulrich (b. 1963) helped to create the thrash style of drumming in the group’s early years, on progressive LPs such as 1986’s Master of Puppets. Metallica ingeniously stripped away much of the orchestrated complexity for 1991’s self-titled “black album,” and this reinvention resulted in its best-selling release. “I wanted to have more fun with the drums and be more of the backbone of the music, set up the guitars more, and put more swing, groove, and attitude into the beats,” Ulrich told MD in 1996.
Go check out: “Master of Puppets,” “One,” “Enter Sandman”
- Simon Phillips
British drummer Simon Phillips (b. 1957) is renowned for his precise, exciting work with many of the biggest names in classic rock and electric jazz. Though he’s revered for his ability to lift the music with blazing double bass and remarkably accurate, full-set fi lls bearing the influence of jazz-rock greats like Tony Williams and Billy Cobham, Phillips can tailor his sound to nearly any musical environment, from the grandiose rock of the Who to the slick pop of Toto to the complex fusion of Hiromi. Simon’s famous attention to detail is perhaps best witnessed on his solo albums, on which his composing and production abilities also shine.
Go check out: “Space Boogie,” Jeff Beck; “Face the Face,” Pete Townshend
- Danny Carey
It was the crazy opening fill and sludgy disco-metal groove on the song “Sober” that announced the arrival of Tool’s Danny Carey (b. 1961) to alternative rock drumming fans in 1993 (even though he played with the comedy rock band Green Jellÿ a few years earlier). Tool may have released only four full-length studio albums, Undertow, Aenima, Lateralus, and 10,000 Days, and one EP, 1992’s Opiate, but each possesses a lifetime’s study in smart and challenging progrock drumming, whether it’s quick double bass licks (“Crawl Away”), barline-crossing grooves (“Eulogy”), polyrhythmic tribal battery (“Aenima”), or odd-time featurettes (“Schism”).
Go check out: “Aenima”
- Alex Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen may have changed guitar forever, but drummers love his big
brother, Alex (b. 1953). With his heavy galloping feel and signature sound— ringing snare, beefy bass drums, and thick, pingy ride—Alex has brought sonic heft, cool beats, and imaginative fills to Van Halen the band across forty years and three lead singers. His enormous tricked-out kits have been ever-changing (remember the rows of Rototoms in the “Jump” video?) but unfailingly make drummers drool and provide a fun focal point for audiences.
Go check out: “Hot for Teacher,” “Everybody Wants Some!!”
- Louie Bellson
Swing great Louie Bellson (1924–2009) rose to national prominence at age sixteen, when he won Slingerland’s prestigious Gene Krupa contest. Shortly thereafter, he landed in the hot seat with the famed bandleaders Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James. Bellson’s biggest gig came in 1951, when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra; with that group his feature composition “Skin Deep” would bring widespread acclaim. Combining genial charm with the fiery chops and showmanship of his heroes Chick Webb, Jo Jones, and Gene Krupa, Bellson remained a leading spokesperson for drumming until his final days. Oh…and he pretty much invented double bass.
Go check out: “Skin Deep,” Duke Ellington
- Carter Beauford
Through his twenty plus year association with the genre-crossing pop group Dave Matthews Band, Virginia-born drummer Carter Beauford (b. 1957) has done much to introduce adventurous funk/fusion-style techniques—double bass flourishes, 32nd-note tom fills, hi-hat diddles, displaced grooves—to a broad mainstream audience. For proof, listen to the slick splash/tom break at 2:26 on the band’s 1995 smash “What Would You Say,” as well as the surprisingly musical bass drum 16ths during the outro of the mellow hit “Crash” and the massive 32nd-note fill played with rods in the intro to “Say Goodbye.” Who says pop drumming has to be simple?
Go check out: “Ants Marching”
- Steve Jordan
“Good music makes you think about the musicians, but great music makes you think about yourself. Steve Jordan [b. 1957] makes great music.” That quote, from Billboard’s Timothy White in the introduction to Jordan’s instructional DVD, The Groove Is Here, sums it up perfectly. Whether swinging with Sonny Rollins, shuffl ing with Eric Clapton, or sitting in the pocket with Boz Scaggs, Jordan plays with a level of authenticity and humanity that transcends technique and shakes you at your core. His trademark groove has also helped propel hits by John Mayer, LeAnn Rimes, Bruno Mars, and Bruce Springsteen, among many others.
Go check out: “Big Enough,” Keith Richards; “Who Did You Think I Was,” John Mayer Trio
- Tony Allen
As the inventor of Afrobeat along with bandleader Fela Kuti, Tony Allen (b. 1940) stands among the world’s fi nest funk drummers. With his percolating bass/snare interplay and a swinging right hand that pays tribute to jazz heroes like Max Roach and Art Blakey, Allen animated Fela’s sharpest unit, Africa ’70, in the 1970s. The Nigerian drummer now lives in France and has issued some of his best work in recent years, including 2009’s Secret Agent. “I’m playing different things at the same time,” Tony told MD in 2009, “and the only way to get it is to be cool. I’m a cool person; I’m playing the way I behave in life.”
Go check out: “Open and Close,” Fela Kuti; “Secret Agent,” Tony Allen
- Carlton Barrett
Carlton Barrett (1950–1987) was the longtime drummer with the international reggae superstar Bob Marley. Barrett’s innovations were honed in the mid to late ’60s alongside his bass playing brother, Aston, in legendary Jamaican producer and singer Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Upsetters. Barrett’s idiosyncratic, deceptively simple approach to popular Jamaican beats like steppers and one-drop are immediately identifiable by his copious use of three-against-two hi-hat punctuations, his famously laid-back groove, and his super-high-pitched snare and bone-dry single-headed toms. Though Barrett was tragically killed more than twenty-five years ago, his playing remains a major influence on nearly every drummer to subsequently experiment with Jamaican rhythms.
Go check out: “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown,” Augustus Pablo; “Jamming,” Bob Marley and the Wailers