Hard rock, heavy metal, and punk can trace their roots to the 1960s, when brave, searching bands decided to increase the volume, expanding the possibilities of what rock music could sound like—and at first appealing to a select but dedicated few. The ’70s saw the emergence of many classic groups that would invent and develop powerful new styles of heavy music, and that led the way for the explosion of popularity the genres would experience in the ’80s. As things got faster and louder, drummers needed to keep up with their guitar-shredder bandmates. Sometimes 2 and 4 was just what the doctor (and the radio) ordered. But sometimes a double bass tornado at 280 bpm was necessary, as the technical proficiency of drummers rose to higher and higher peaks.
The first two parts of this feature series focused on the work of new-wave and classic-rock drummers (October 2016) and jazz and fusion players (March 2017). The tracks featured this month are all about the heavy dudes, ranging from straight-ahead rockers laying down time to extreme metal drummers blowing the doors off what was previously thought possible on the instrument. The diversity of the examples proves that hard rock and metal were performed and embraced across the globe, and that the tributaries that resulted from the splintering of heavy styles saw no boundaries. Thrash, hardcore, death metal…the list was endless, and it all started in the ’80s.
“Screaming for Vengeance”
The adrenaline rush that is the title track from Judas Priest’s 1982 record is a study in how to propel a band forward from the drums, without overplaying or drawing attention away from the changes. Dave Holland brings the thunder with an insistent uptempo part using a cool kick pattern that’s busy but not messy, and locks in with guitar and vocals with precision. Check out the wild, tumbling fill before the second verse that arrests the music before everyone somehow comes back in together. Holland whips out some hip tom and kick fills before a very brief guitar breakdown, but for the most part this is a pedal-to-the-metal performance from one of the genre’s tightest bands and a drummer in total control.
“The Number of the Beast”
Clive Burr’s time with Iron Maiden was brief, but he played on the band’s first three records, including its breakthrough, 1982’s The Number of the Beast. The title track is pure new-wave-of-British-heavy-metal urgency, and Burr’s opening 10/8 hi-hat flams ramp up the anticipation, before vocalist Bruce Dickinson’s scream brings the band in with explosive power. The drums have a propulsive punk energy throughout the song, and Burr cleverly syncopates his snare on the “&” of 3 of every other measure when the structure evens out into common time in the verses, giving everything an off-kilter jolt. Burr played trickier patterns on other tunes, but none are more quintessentially Maiden than this lightning bolt. Who said heavy metal drummers had no feel?
“When you’re going to a guitar solo, you want to speed up; it’s just natural,” Stephen Perkins told Modern Drummer in June 1991 when discussing Jane’s Addiction’s style. “If Perry Farrell says something heavy, I want to accent it.” Not much is heavier than the bass line supporting this massive track from the band’s 1988 major-label debut, Nothing’s Shocking. Perkins lays down the perfect accompaniment in the form of a titanic tom pattern that’s as big as a rumbling train, serving the purpose of keeping time in a nontraditional way but also grooving so hard that you could dance to it. Dig how Perkins colors the ends of the transitional bars with a four-note kick-and-crash phrase and a rapid-fire snare triplet lick that locks in with the guitars.
“Caught in a Mosh”
There’s no pumping the brakes on this seminal Anthrax cut from 1987’s Among the Living. As one of the originators of thrash, Anthrax was quite adept at the speedy side of metal. Things start deceptively, though, as Charlie Benante plays quarter notes on just the hi-hat, before a gnarly bass line comes in and we’re off to the races. But even that doesn’t last too long, as Benante whips out a spastic double bass/cymbals fill that signals another drag-race part that raises the hair on your neck. The track then moves back and forth between tempos, with Benante executing the varying beats proficiently and throwing in tight, quick rolls. Check out how the drummer changes things up with some pounding toms under the guitar solo. This mosh is a fun one.
“Kickstart My Heart”
Mötley Crüe may have worn more makeup than its female audience members, but the band hammered home aggressive rock riffs and Tommy Lee steered that ship with big beats and great chops. “I can’t learn enough,” Lee said in the September 1986 issue of Modern Drummer. “My drumming will never be as good as I want it to be, and I hate that.” Lee must have learned some new tricks, because this monster tune from 1989’s Dr. Feelgood has everything from an unconventional snare flam groove in the verses that really moves the song along to his trademark four-on-the-floor kick drum thump in the choruses. There’s also some fun syncopated accenting during the guitar solo and coda tom flurries where Lee lets it fly. Mascara or not, Lee kills on this.
Thrash, a new form of ’80s heavy metal characterized by aggression and lots of speed, was championed by the “Big Four”: Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, and—the most sinister-sounding of the bunch—Slayer. Reign in Blood, from 1986, benefited from Rick Rubin’s cleaner production and lean-and-mean songs that were over in a flash. Dave Lombardo attacks “Raining Blood” with a fury, laying down the law with a double bass barrage that gives way to a manic double-time beat that’s not for the faint of heart. More kick drum madness follows, before Lombardo breaks it down to a heavier half-time feel bringing in some space, until a final, even faster return to double time complete with insane fills.
“Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
At almost fourteen minutes, this 1984 multi-section prog-metal epic is Iron Maiden’s longest song from that era, and it has all the traits that make Nicko McBrain a beloved heavy metal drummer. McBrain plays a nifty open hi-hat lick in the verses and later moves into a tourniquet-tight triplet section with cymbal accents. After a drum-less middle segment, McBrain comes back in with some two-handed hi-hat work and later drives it home under the guitar solo with an insistent ride attack and polyrhythmic bass drum fun. “I always knew that I would be a drummer; it suits my character,” McBrain said in the December 1985 issue of Modern Drummer. “I’m a lunatic. You’ve got to be a little crazy to want to bash things all the time.” Indeed.
“Love in an Elevator”
“Anybody can play fills,” Joey Kramer said in the 1988 issue of Modern Drummer. “But to lock into that groove and really make it say something is the secret.” Kramer certainly proves that on this funky hard-rock classic from 1989’s Pump; his spacious, driving beat holds it all together. The drummer throws in the occasional kick double followed by a snare and crash for a unique flavor ending the verses, and leans in tough on his bell during the choruses. But it’s the dotted ride pattern underneath the guitar solo that’s the special ingredient he spoke about in the magazine, swinging like crazy and so well executed that you can’t listen to anything else. Kramer proved that heavy isn’t in the volume, but the conviction.
Rising out of the ashes of the punk godfathers Descendents, the group All featured intricate material performed by musicians who could play anything. At a mere forty-four seconds in length, “Check One,” from 1989’s Allroy’s Revenge, is a double-time hardcore avalanche of laser-like precision. “Punk rock is supposed to be about playing music, not something you spend four years fixing with Pro Tools,” Bill Stevenson, who served time in both Descendents and Black Flag, said in the June 2004 issue of Modern Drummer. Here he barrels through the changes at ludicrous speed, switching from ride to hi-hats, syncopating crashes, and putting in bizarre stop/start accents. All was as influenced by Mahavishnu Orchestra as by the Sex Pistols, and the Stevenson-penned “Check One” is Exhibit A of an accomplished drummer completely in the driver’s seat.
When addressing the topic of developing speed in the March 1988 issue of Modern Drummer, Lars Ulrich mentioned a warm-up routine that he did right before hitting the stage, running as fast as he could for twenty seconds at a time, to “get the legs moving.” And those legs sure are moving on this game-changing Metallica track from 1988’s …And Justice for All. Ulrich takes his time in the first half of the tune, bringing in snare backbeats and melodic tom fills. Ultimately the mood changes, and the machine-gun guitars are matched with those famous double bass 16th-note triplets, as killer a drum part as there had ever been in heavy metal. Things climax with double-time drums and rat-a-tat snare bullets under the guitar solo. With “One,” Metallica and Ulrich set a new bar.
“I Against I”
As thrash upped the ante on standard heavy metal tempos, hardcore did the same for punk rock, and no band did it louder, faster, or earlier than Bad Brains. In under three minutes, Earl Hudson switches between sections and feels in “I Against I,” from the quick pulse and big cymbal crashes starting the track to the straightforward 8th-note hi-hat groove that follows to an almost-funky hats-and-kick thing in unison with the bass guitar part. Hudson later rocks out again, filling with speedy snare rolls that remind you that some punks had chops in addition to attitude. And though Bad Brains was equally adept at reggae and other styles, it’s these ballsy tracks of bursting energy that influenced a generation of future bands where music sees no color.
Perfect Strangers, from 1984, was Deep Purple’s first studio album in nine years, and the title track featured elements of the band’s earlier eras, as well as a straighter, melodic songwriting approach that fit in with the pop-metal radio fare of the time. Ian Paice strips away everything that’s unnecessary, plowing forward on the mid-tempo title track without budging. It’s the simplest of patterns, hats open, big kicks underneath, and snare coming down strong, but it wouldn’t feel quite so right in lesser hands. Then things veer off into a middle section of alternating bars of 4/4 and 5/4 (or 9/4 if you wish to count it that way) with Paice keeping it locked in with minimal adornment. The ultimate “less is more” tutorial.
“Finesse in heavy metal is not playing the average stuff,” Vinny Appice said in the September 1985 issue of Modern Drummer. “It is being a bit more clever…playing with a bit more feel.” It’s all about space and pocket on this classic track from Dio’s 1983 release, Holy Diver. Appice lays down an anvil of a galloping beat, syncopating kick drum licks and crashes but never playing anything to distract from Ronnie James Dio’s legendary vocal. Dig Appice’s creative tom rolls throughout the track and the wise decision to ride his closed hats underneath the guitar solo, keeping everything clean, tight, and direct. Throw on a pair of headphones to hear all the brilliant outro drum fills as the song fades out.
The first single from Ozzy Osbourne’s post–Black Sabbath solo debut, 1980’s Blizzard of Ozz, is grade-A guitar-rock glory and is still featured as television bumper music and in sports arenas almost forty years after its release. Ex–Uriah Heep drummer Lee Kerslake enters with some spacious tom-tom timekeeping before bringing in a four-on-the-floor kick pattern in the verses that wouldn’t be out of place on a disco record from the era. A bridge allows Kerslake some room for rumbling tom fills, before Randy Rhoads’ guitar solo takes to the sky. The drum recording and overall production is of almost demo quality, but it doesn’t diminish Kerslake’s rock-solid contributions to Osbourne’s earliest solo career material. The drummer’s stint with the band was short lived but iconic.
Guns n’ Roses
“Welcome to the Jungle”
Guns n’ Roses crashed the Los Angeles hard-rock scene in the mid-’80s, bringing in melodic songs laced with a punk swagger to upend all the Spandex and hairspray that was the norm. The leadoff track from the band’s 1987 debut, Appetite for Destruction, is kick-ass rock ’n’ roll and features Steven Adler working through several different sections with controlled power and skill. Whether he’s riding hi-hats or a cowbell, Adler puts in space to let things breathe, keeping time and working the dynamics. He throws in some tribal toms and overdubbed percussion for the trippy guitar section before returning to more cowbell and snare flams at song’s end. Appetite would make Guns huge, thanks in part to the solid work from the drum chair.
“You Shook Me All Night Long”
AC/DC didn’t miss a beat after replacing singer Bon Scott, and the band’s turn-of-the-decade long player, Back in Black, helped it gain mass appeal. “Drumming has always come down to push, shove, and attitude,” Phil Rudd told MD in the August 1996 issue, and there are plenty of those on “You Shook Me All Night Long,” the album’s rocking first single. Rudd’s workmanlike 2-and-4 groove sounds simple but swings like mad, and it’s a fine example of how to ride slightly open hi-hats for maximum effectiveness—not too tight and not too loose. And dig those slick kick syncopations during the guitar solo. “It’s just a pocket thing,” Rudd said in MD, “and when I hit the snare drum I want something to happen. All my energy goes into that.”
England’s Napalm Death is credited with laying the groundwork for the metal subgenre grindcore, characterized by growled vocals, down-tuned guitars, and blistering tempos. “Lucid Fairytale,” from 1988’s From Enslavement to Obliteration, is over in one minute, but in that span Mick Harris explodes with outrageous blast beats and a double-time pattern complete with ride cymbal sticking and fills that whiz by. The recording is not the clearest, and the overall style needed room to develop, but even at this early stage heavy metal was being dragged and pulled into extreme corners. Harris probably wasn’t the first to play the blast beat, but he and Napalm Death raised its profile. This was the rock your parents warned you about.
“Ace of Spades”
The quintessential Motörhead song, “Ace of Spades,” from the group’s 1980 album of the same name, is pure rock bedlam, a double-time adrenaline shot straight to the head. Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor puts a brick on his gas pedal here but also manages to play some very quick 32nd-note-triplet snare fills that increase the urgency of an already incendiary track. Dig the fill Taylor returns to throughout the song, a syncopated crash-and-snare combo that breaks up the smoothness of the beat but brings the drama. Taylor never relinquishes his stranglehold on the velocity, and his move to the ride during the brief guitar solo is one of the only changes in his approach over the course of three jam-packed minutes. Minimal fluff, maximal sneer.
“Cult of Personality”
“My bandmates tease me and call me ‘the jazz musician,’” Will Calhoun said in the January 1989 issue of Modern Drummer. “I love rock ’n’ roll and all that, but I don’t want to approach this band or this music with a ‘rock ’n’ roll’ technique.” Calhoun’s accomplished fusion chops and mammoth fills are on full display on the slamming lead track from Living Colour’s 1988 debut album, Vivid. Calhoun brings a straight-8th-note groove to the verses, keeping the attention on that gargantuan riff, then opens up on his ride before attacking his open hi-hats with fervor during the wild guitar solo. There are also jazzy, syncopated crash fills and a double-time coda where Calhoun brings the noise, so it’s obvious that these guys are not interested in the old metal instructional handbook.
“Trust Your Mechanic”
Plastic Surgery Disasters, from 1982, was the first Dead Kennedys full-length to feature D.H. Peligro on kit, and the drummer wasted no time in bringing a hyperkinetic approach to the San Francisco hardcore punk band’s ever-evolving sound. Peligro spends the majority of “Trust Your Mechanic” playing a charging martial snare beat that sounds like things are going off the rails, the drums (and overall mix) distorted to up the intensity factor. Peligro isn’t just surfing the wave—he’s causing it. The song breaks down a couple of times, allowing the listener to hit the oxygen mask and Peligro to play gentle cymbal swells, before returning to the abrasive urgency of the driving snare. If ever a beat was the perfect complement to the DKs’ sociopolitical lyrical snarl, this is it.
“Still of the Night”
“If you want to make a song a hit record, it’s got to be clean, crisp, and to the point,” Aynsley Dunbar told Modern Drummer in the May 1982 issue. “You can’t have million-note fills all over the place, because people can’t understand it, and so they won’t want to buy it.” Dunbar is familiar with hit records, amassing an impressive résumé of sessions with the cream of the rock crop over a long career. The monolithic “Still of the Night,” from Whitesnake’s self-titled 1987 crossover record, finds Dunbar riding quarter notes on his sloshy hats and playing huge backbeats. But the drummer throws in some unorthodox snare/kick combos during guitar breakdowns and a trippy “Whole Lotta Love”–style middle section with light cymbal play. Whitesnake would go on to sell 8 million copies.
The subject matter of this rock blues is indicative of a freewheeling time in the music biz, when excess was the name of the game. Tommy Aldridge’s drumming, however, is no-frills power playing, enhancing and supporting with enough minor embellishments to keep the track appealing. Aldridge is known for his feet, and he quickly lays a foundation of fancy footwork while leaning in on his ride. Snappy tom fills get thrown in at just the right times, but for the most part Aldridge is trucking through. That is, until the track takes a left turn, leaving the blues progression behind with a funky little bridge featuring a ripping offbeat cowbell part and ending with a big cascading fill that brings the song back to where we started. Rock Drumming 101.
“Killing Is My Business…and Business Is Good!”
Megadeth wasn’t limited to just playing “thrash” music, because the band was made up of musicians who could handle a wide variety of styles, sometimes within the same song. Gar Samuelson had a jazz and fusion background, so his playing wasn’t restricted to just speed and volume. The title track from 1985’s Killing Is My Business… hops back and forth between a grooving section with sweet double bass fills and a blazing double-time section that blows your hair back and assaults your eardrums. The extended up-tempo outro brings Samuelson’s dazzling chops to the forefront, with an awesome combination of colossal cymbal crashing, kick drum mayhem, and airtight fills. Fans of the human, non-mechanical touch in metal drumming should check out this scorching performance.
Faith No More
“Surprise! You’re Dead!”
Along with Jane’s Addiction and others, Faith No More was part of the alternative metal scene of the late ’80s, and this exciting track from 1989’s The Real Thing continued the group’s streak of incorporating diverse styles into eclectic arrangements and writing songs where the musicians could really express themselves. Mike Bordin rocks a tight polyrhythmic pattern over the verses using his trademark snare flams, moving from hats to ride before straightening it out underneath vocalist Mike Patton’s rapping. Then check out how he navigates a proggy section filled with odd times and tricky turnarounds. “I try to play pretty much as hard as I can,” Bordin said in the April 1992 issue of Modern Drummer. “It’s exciting to really hit ’em and get that explosive sound.” The rules for metal, however, were bending.
“The Burning of Sodom”
If you’re not out of breath after simply listening to this searing track from Dark Angel’s 1986 album, Darkness Descends, you’re not paying attention. The breakneck pace of Gene Hoglan’s drum part is a study in hanging on for dear life, and it’s almost as if the band can’t keep up with him. This is insanely fast stuff, and the drummer still finds room to whip out over-the-top fills that up the intensity to code-red levels. The track breaks down for only a brief spell, as if Hoglan needs a few seconds to recharge, before things surge once again. Dark Angel was never as well known as its more famous contemporaries in the thrash scene, but Hoglan threw down the gauntlet here, and all metal drummers took notice.