We Got the Beat: Great Drummers in Music

Drummers. Every song needs a good, driving, solid beat. But the oft-asked question is “who did it best?”

It’s truly all about individual perspective. Music is subjective. Opinion as to who is the “best,” or who is your favorite varies with each individual. So, we took a poll, to see who the favorites were. Many great musicians and music fans weighed in and gave us some very interesting results.

John Bonham

Almost universally, those polled stated that John Bonham from Led Zeppelin has to be in the top 5, if not #1. Modern Drummer magazine (who ranked him #2 of all time) had this to say about Bonzo, “In the first thirty seconds of the first track of the first Led Zeppelin album, John Bonham 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.” Many of those I questioned felt that Bonham’s riffs were far superior to other drummers, and virtually not reproducible in many of his sets. In fact, a few even thought there was only one other drummer who even came close — none other than Bonham’s progeny, Jason Bonham. John was truly a master, and fun to watch. And taken from us far too soon.

Buddy Rich

Another great drummer, who others really seemed to feel should be in the top 5 was the incomparable jazz drummer, Buddy Rich. He is considered one of the most influential drummers ever and was known for his virtuoso technique, power, and speed. Modern Drummer magazine placed him at #1 all time. Rich preferred to concentrate on jazz and held a low opinion of both country and rock music. Interestingly, Rich was widely known to have a very short fuse. In fact, as the story goes, Singer Dusty Springfield slapped him after several days of “putting up with Rich’s insults and show-biz sabotage”. Rich’s temper also was documented in a series of secret recordings made on tour buses and in dressing rooms by pianist Lee Musiker, who concealed a Walkman in his clothing while on tour with Rich in the early 1980s. However, even those who he had a rivalry with, such as Frank Sinatra, held his talent in the highest esteem. No matter how much they fought, he and Sinatra would remain friends until his death in 1987. Ol’ Blue Eyes even delivered Rich’s eulogy.

Neil Peart

No list of great drummers would be complete without Neil Peart. His drumming has been known for its technical proficiency, and his live performances for their exacting nature and his stamina. Peart was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1983, making him the youngest person ever honored. Peart has often listed his influences as Keith Moon and John Bonham, players who were at the forefront of the British hard rock scene. In 1994, Peart decided to revamp his playing style by incorporating jazz and swing components, after meeting jazz instructor, Freddie Gruber. While producing the first Buddy Rich tribute album, Peart was struck by the tremendous improvement in ex-Journey drummer Steve Smith‘s playing and asked him his “secret.” Smith responded he had been studying with drum teacher Gruber. Peart’s drumming skill and technique are well-regarded by fans, fellow musicians, and music journalists.

Keith Moon

You simply cannot have a list of great drummers without mentioning the incomparable Keith Moon. As the drummer for The Who, Moon was known for his unique style and his extremely eccentric, often self-destructive behavior. Moon was quickly recognized for his innovative drumming, which emphasized tom-toms, cymbal crashes, and drum fills. Throughout Moon’s tenure with the Who, his drum kit steadily grew in size, and along with Ginger Baker, Moon has been credited as one of the earliest rock drummers to regularly employ double bass in his setup. His penchant for destroying hotel rooms, and stage sets became legendary. Sadly, he became heavily addicted to alcohol, particularly brandy and champagne, and acquired a reputation for decadence and dark humor. Friends have said “The drinking went from being a joke to being a problem.” His nickname was “Moon the Loon”, from his unpredictability, which may have stemmed from many personal setbacks. His severe alcoholism would be the disease that took his life at the young age of 32, dying in September of 1978 from an overdose of Heminevrin, the very drug prescribed to help him conquer his alcohol addiction. His legendary drumming continues to be praised by critics and musicians.

Ginger Baker

We would be remiss if we didn’t include the great Ginger Baker in this group of musicians.  Baker is an English drummer, and one of the founders of the rock band Cream. Although he is generally considered a pupil of Phil Seamen, Baker himself has stated that he is largely self-taught. His work in the 1960s earned him the reputation of “rock’s first superstar drummer,” while his individual style melds a jazz background with African rhythms. Baker is credited as a pioneer of drumming in genres like jazz fusion, heavy metal and world music. Baker’s drumming is widely regarded for its style and showmanship, and for his use of two bass drums instead of the more conventional single kick drum. According to Baker, “Every drummer that ever played for Duke Ellington played a double bass drum kit. I went to a Duke Ellington concert in 1966 and Sam Woodyard was playing with Duke and he played some incredible tom-toms and two bass drum things, some of which I still use today, and I just knew I had to get a two bass drum kit. Keith Moon was with me at that concert, and we were discussing it and he went straight round to Premier and bought two kits which he stuck together. I had to wait for Ludwig to make a kit up for me, which they did – to my own specifications. So, Moonie had the two bass drum kit some months before I did.” His influence is widely cited by other drummers as their inspiration.

Ringo Starr

This list would also feel incomplete if we didn’t mention Richard Starkey aka Ringo Starr of Beatles fame. It’s surprising … actually, rather astonishing at the amount of people who feel he doesn’t belong on this list. However, our survey poll indicated the number that do feel he deserves a mention far surpasses the ones who do not. Early on, his friend Ray Trafford introduced Ringo to skiffle, and he quickly became a fervent admirer. For Christmas 1957, Starkey was given a second-hand drum kit consisting of a snare drum, bass drum and a makeshift cymbal fashioned from a rubbish bin lid. Although basic and crude, the kit facilitated his progression as a musician.  An ardent music lover, Ringo brought a pure and simplistic approach to the craft. Ringo played with several small bands, honing his craft until his friend John Lennon invited him to join the Beatles in 1962. While Starr’s drumming has received praise from other notable drummers. Starr himself has said: “I’m no good on the technical things … I’m your basic offbeat drummer with funny fills … because I’m really left-handed playing a right-handed kit. I can’t roll around the drums because of that.” Beatles producer George Martin stated: “Ringo hit good and hard and used the tom-tom well, even though he couldn’t do a roll to save his life. But he’s got tremendous feel. He always helped us to hit the right tempo for a song and gave it that support – that rock-solid back-beat – that made the recording of all the Beatles’ songs that much easier.” High praise, indeed.

One other notable name that ranked highly both in our poll, and on others we sampled are jazz drummer Gene Krupa, who is known for defining the standard drum kit used today in collaboration with brands Slingerland and Zildjian. Krupa is considered “the founding father of the modern drum set” by Modern Drummer magazine. Many percussionists often list him as one of their early influences.

A personal favorite would be Sheila E, who’s solo performances helped cement her name in history, and helped influence other women to become drummers. She is often commonly referred to as “The Queen of Percussion”.

Others who made the top 15 are Phil Collins (Genesis), Roger Taylor (Queen), Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones), Stewart Copeland (The Police), Dave Grohl (Nirvana), Rick Allen (Def Leppard) and Terry Bozzio (Missing Persons).  All have offered fresh, innovative and energetic performances to help round out our list.

I could go on for hours, regarding the individual styles of each and every drummer, and the contribution they bring to music. Suffice it to say, each one mentioned, and many not mentioned have given us many memorable moments in music history. Special thanks to everyone who participated in the poll or messaged me their responses – very much appreciated. Until next time, cheers!

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected].