The music industry is always arguing over who the greatest guitarist ever is. However, you rarely hear this argument adapted to drummers. Drums are a very important instrument in modern music, but they just are not as interesting as the electric guitar. Because of this, the drummer is always forgotten about. This may be because the drummer is not out front. They just sit in the background and do what they need to do to make the song work.
However, without the drums the music does not exist.
What separates each style of music are the drums. Each genre has a different style of drums. This is because drums represent the most basic form of music. Before Bach ever played a note, there were people banging on things to make different rhythmic patterns, making the drum the world’s oldest instrument.
The drums transform different styles of music because they dictate the overall “feel” of a song. Whether a song “rocks hard,” “swings,” “bounces,” etc comes from what the drummer is doing. The band has to pay the most attention to the drummer or everything falls apart.
Because of just how important this often forgotten instrument is to the overall sound of music, a list of the greatest drummers of all time is something the world needs. Though it is sure to cause arguments, it is just something that has to happen out of respect to the instrument. Many of the members of this list are common names, however some are not. This is because unlike guitar, drums are not a highly featured instrument in today’s popular music, as evidenced by how pop music often replaces them with computerized beats.
Though there are many great drummers in rock and roll, the all time greats are typically associated with jazz music. Most of the drummers on this list are more influenced by jazz music than rock music. The only way to really discover for yourself if you believe this list is accurate is to do some of your own research. This means going and listening to these phenomenal talents and understanding their overall contribution to the instrument and music in general. If you are willing to do this, you will find this list is pretty accurate.
15 Ringo Starr
Putting Ringo Starr in a list of the greatest drummers of all time is going to be controversial. A lot of people agree Ringo was a great drummer, but there is also a large number of people who believe his popularity as a member of the Beatles makes him highly overrated. However, a list like this has to include Ringo. His contribution to what the drummer’s role in a band should be still exists today.
Prior to Ringo, a good drummer was judged on his or her ability to pull off monstrous drum solos. Other than that, drummers had no real role in the actual composition aspect of music. Ringo changed this. He began writing songs and using drums as an instrument to add real textures to songs as opposed to simply a rhythm instrument that occasionally took the forefront. His other major contribution is perhaps the most important. He popularized the “Four on the Floor.” This is style of drumming most used in all styles of popular music today. It's basically a rhythm that is straight as opposed to having a swing or some fancy time signature. All rock music before The Beatles had either a jazz or blues swing or a country rhythm behind it. Ringo Starr and The Beatles, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, changed that forever and as a result we have all the different types of music we have today. In other words, without Ringo Starr, the vast majority of the drummers on this list we would have never even heard about.
14 Travis Barker
Travis Barker is mostly known as the high energy drummer of Blink 182. However, Barker has played with a number of big acts since the 1990s. His first band was the Aquabats, who rose to fame at the beginning of the ska/punk era. Blink 182 was the opening act for the Aquabats.
Originally, Blink used Scott Raynor as their drummer. However, Raynor became increasing unreliable during the tour and was falling into addiction. The band would often recruit Barker to fill in during the shows. Slowly, Barker just became the band’s full-time drummer. The addition of Barker into the lineup launched Blink 182 from being just another punk band traveling around the country, to becoming one of the biggest rock acts of the late 1990s and 2000s.
Barker began playing drums at five years old. He was given a pair of sticks and just started banging on pots and pans until he finally got a real drum set five years later. He was originally enamored with jazz and swing music, but as he got older he fell in love with rap and hip-hop. It was not until he started playing in bands that he would get into punk rock. Now Travis Barker is one of the first names we think of when it comes to any punk-rock or rap-rock music.
13 Clyde Stubblefield
Clyde Stubblefield is best known for his work with the “Godfather of Funk” James Brown. Stubblefield set the standards for funk drumming which is highly used in all styles of music. This is important because funk music is entirely based on the interaction between the drummer and the bassist. Without the solid yet strange drum beats, funk music simply is not funky. His drum beat from the James Brown song “Funky Drummer” is one of the most sampled pieces in rap music. Now he plays at funk music festivals with another funk legend, Bootsy Collins of Parliament/Funkadelic.
12 Art Blakey
Art Blakey may be one of the least known names on this list, however he may also be one of the most important. Blakey was the marquise drummer for the bee-bop era of jazz music. He played with some of the biggest names in jazz such as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and many others. He later started his own band called The Jazz Messengers which launched the careers of many of the most popular jazz musicians of the Post-Jazz Era. Blakey began playing drums at a very young age in order to help his mother raise money to feed his younger brothers and sisters. He quickly became known for his aggressive swing and interesting sense of time. In 2005, Blakey was given the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
11 Chad Smith
Since joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1988, Chad Smith has become one of the most well known and highly respected drummers in the world. Smith grew up listening to bands like Rush, Humble Pie, and Led Zeppelin, which all greatly influenced his powerful sound. He began to study funk music after joining his first band which featured a number of musicians from Parliament/Funkadelic. This connection to P-Funk is what ultimately landed him the job with the Chili Peppers, whose early albums were recorded and produced by P-Funk’s lead singer George Clinton. Since then Smith has performed with such acts as Deep Purple, Kid Rock, The Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash, and many others. He is also a full-time member of the rock super group Chickenfoot with Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani, and Michael Anthony. Chad Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2012. Also, his drum battle with comedian Will Ferrell has become one of the most watch viral videos on the internet.
10 Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan
Jimmy Sullivan or “The Rev” was the original drummer of Avenged Sevenfold. The Rev began playing drums at just five years old. He grew up being influenced by progressive rock bands such as King Crimson and Frank Zappa before getting into heavy metal music in high school. He was not only Avenged Sevenfold’s founding member, but also the band’s main songwriter. He quickly became known for his interesting interpretation of time, particularly by increasing the tempo of a song by playing at double speed on the cymbals and bass drums while keeping everything normal on the snare and toms. His method became one of the most copied, yet never successfully duplicated, ways of playing heavy metal music. Avenged Sevenfold has never been the same since Jimmy’s untimely death on December 28th, 2009, despite replacing him with one of the most highly respected heavy metal drummers in the world, Mike Portnoy.
9 Dave Grohl
A list of the greatest drummers of all time just would not be complete without Dave Grohl. Grohl is most well known for his work with Nirvana, but he has played with so many other bands throughout the years. His resume includes work with Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop, Tenacious D, The Zack Brown Band, and so many others. That list did not even mention his rock band The Foo Fighter which features him on lead vocals and guitar. Grohl joined Nirvana in 1990 as the band was about to land a major record deal. He played a major role in launching grunge music to popularity. The band released Nevermind in 1991, which became one of the most famous albums of all time. Grohl was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 as a member of Nirvana. It was the first year Nirvana was eligible for induction.
8 Mickey Hart
Mickey Hart is best known for his work with The Grateful Dead. Along with the band’s other drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, Hart was an integral part of what became known as “The Rhythm Devils.” The Dead would feature extended drum solos from the two at every concert. Hart was used as the band’s auxiliary drummer. Think of it in terms of a lead guitarist versus a rhythm guitarist. Hart took on more of a lead role to add different textures to the music, whereas Kreutzmann took on the more traditional role of a drummer who set the rhythm of a song.
Hart’s career did not stop in 1995 when Jerry Garcia passed. He became one of the most famous musicians in world music. His album Planet Drum was the first album to be awarded the Grammy for Best World Music Album of the Year. It stayed at number one on the Billboard World Music chart for a record 26 weeks in a row. Hart now serves on the board of directors for the Institute for Music and Neurological Functions which is one of the leading developers of music therapy treatments in the world. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 as a member of The Grateful Dead.
7 Gene Krupa
Gene Krupa was the first "celebrity" drummer. He quickly became famous for his highly energetic and powerful jazz drumming style. In 1934, he joined the Benny Goodman Band. In 1937, the band released the song “Sing, Sing, Sing” which featured the Gene Krupa drum solo that immediately made him one of the biggest names in jazz music. Unfortunately, Krupa was never able to make it past the big band and swing eras of jazz music. His powerful drumming style did not adapt well with the bee-bop style of jazz that rose to popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. However, Krupa’s contributions to drumming are just too many to name. One of the major ones however, is his use of cymbal techniques. The techniques are still used today. In fact, Krupa actually named many of the standard cymbals used. These include names like ride, crash, splash, and high-hats. The magazine Modern Drummer, the most well-respected published work on drumming, named Krupa the first drummer in their Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.
6 Mitch Mitchell
Mitch Mitchell was the drummer who backed Jimi Hendrix throughout the infamous guitarist’s entire career. Mitchell auditioned for Hendrix in 1966 after spending a number of years playing as a studio musician for various of jazz bands. His rhythms allowed for the interesting interplay of drums and guitar that helped launch the Jimi Hendrix Experience as one of the biggest live acts in the world. His style was based in jazz and relied on the use of a lot of military-style marching rudiments. After Jimi’s death in 1970, Mitchell went onto to play with a number of big rock acts including John Lennon, Keith Richards, Jack Bruce, Miles Davis, and Eric Clapton. He also took over as the drummer for The Who following the death of Keith Moon. Mitchell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 as a member of The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
5 Keith Moon
As was mentioned in the prior segment on Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon was the original drummer for The Who. Moon was as well known for his fast living as he was for his fast drumming. His off-stage party attitude went along perfectly with his destructive, high energy drumming style. Moon began playing drums at age 12 after joining the local Sea Cadets Corps as a bugler. He thought the bugle was too difficult so he switched to drums, which he quickly mastered. He was highly influenced by early jazz drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, but also loved the early rock and roll stars such as Elvis Presley.
Moon joined The Who in 1964 at the age of 17. Unlike many drummers of the time, Moon hated drum solos. He always felt drum solos were boring and that the role of the drummer was to be a part of the music. In fact, if Pete Townshend and John Entwistle ever stopped playing in order for Moon to solo, Moon would stop playing and yell at his fellow band members.
Aside from playing with The Who, Moon also played with The Yardbirds, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, and the Beach Boys. He passed away on September 7th, 1978. The Who recruited Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix experience to take his place. Moon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 as a member of The Who.
4 Dave Weckl
Dave Weckl is probably the least known name on this list. Unlike Keith Moon or Mitch Mitchell, he was never a member of some legendary rock band. Instead he rose to fame in the 1980s as a member of the jazz fusion band The Chick Corea Electrik Band. He quickly became recognized as one of if not the greatest drummer alive. He began being recruited by companies to endorse every product available for drummers. He has played with Paul Simon, Madonna, George Benson, and Robert Plant. He is currently playing with his own jazz fusion band, The Dave Weckl Band, as well as endorsing drum products and producing instructional drumming videos.
3 Neil Peart
When people think of rock drummers they think of Neil Peart. Peart joined Rush in 1974 after the band had already released its first self-titled album. Before this he floated around Canada’s music scene trying to make a living on his skill behind the kit. Once he became a full-time member of Rush, he was able to launch the band to new heights. He gave the trio the ability to explore different musical styles that they had never imagined playing. He is one of the most highly recruited drummers in the world for endorsing drum products because of how recognizable he is in rock music. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 as a member of Rush.
2 John Bonham
John Bonham has influenced pretty much every single drummer to have come after him. He began drumming at five years old on a collection of different sized coffee cans which he organized to match the drums sets of his heroes Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. He was introduced to the members of Led Zeppelin through lead singer Robert Plant. Bonham was originally reluctant to join the band, but eventually did agree to do so. Originally, he played using two bass drums. He was forced to switch to a single bass drum after the band was forced to throw out their original recording of “Communication Breakdown” because it had too much bass in it. This is where his legendary ability to play bass drum lines with only his right foot started. Bonham then became the world’s most popular drummer when Led Zeppelin released “Moby Dick” on their second album. The song would often feature a drum solo that could go on for half an hour during their live shows. Later in their band’s career, Bonham started expanding his drum set to include congas, tympanis, and gongs. He is noted as the first drummer to ever add synthesizers to tympanis. Bonham passed away on September 25th, 1980. Led Zeppelin broke up after his death. Bonham and Led Zeppelin were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
1 Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich is the greatest drummer of all time. Anyone who tells you any differently has never and probably should never pick up a pair of sticks. He began playing drums professionally at just 18 months old. Rich was a member of his parent’s Vaudeville act under the name “Traps the Drum Wonder.” At just three years old, he was already able to outplay some of the most famous drummers in the world. At the time, Rich was the world’s second highest paid child star. By 14 years old, he was already leading jazz bands. He continued to play with his Buddy Rich Big Band until his death at the age of 69.
Throughout his entire career he was booked as “The Greatest Drummer in the World.” Rich influenced every drummer to come after him. After his death a massive memorial concert was held in which some of the worlds greatest drummers appeared with his band. Rich’s talents have never been equaled. He is to drummers what Jimi Hendrix is to guitarists; however, there is not an argument over it. He makes every other member of this list look like children banging away on noisemakers.
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