Along with the lead singer and the flashy lead guitarist, the drummer’s often a focal point in a band. I’ve picked ten of my favourite drummers.
My list is a little different than the standard, for a couple of reasons. Many drumming aficionados vouch for jazz players like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Tony Williams, but as usual I’ve opted for a pop/rock, post-1960 list. I’m also not a fan of the often-loved drummers from 1960s – Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, and Mitch Mitchell are all distinctive and virtuoso players, but I prefer groove based players most of the time.
Along with those mentioned above, drummers unlucky to miss out include Steve Gadd, Jim Gordon, Neil Peart, Clem Burke (Blondie), Mike Portnoy (Transatlantic, Dream Theater), Phil Collins, Levon Helm (The Band), and Stan Lynch (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers).
The Ten Best Drummers Ever (According to Me)
Blaine passed away at the ripe old age of 90, allowing him time to play on an estimated 35,000 recordings. He was so prolific that he had a “Hal Blaine Strikes Again” stamp made to save time on paperwork. He started in jazz, playing with Count Basie, before moving into session work. He played the most iconic pop drumbeat of all time – The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ – and also played on six consecutive Grammy of the Year Records between 1966 and 1971, for Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, and The 5th Dimension.
Bonham and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones were both fans of James Brown. Where 1960s rock drummers like Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon would stamp their mark on a song with their extroverted parts, Bonham would serve the song with thunderous grooves; Jones later said that Bonham was a “bass player’s dream”. His introduction for ‘When The Levee Breaks’ is among the most sampled snippets of popular music.
Bruford played in three of progressive rock’s most notable bands. He was an original member of Yes; the band were never quite the same after losing his jazzy touch following 1972’s masterpiece Close to the Edge. He joined Robert Fripp in King Crimson, where he worked with unconventional percussionist Jamie Muir on 1973’s Larks Tongues in Aspic. Bruford also covered for Phil Collins on Genesis’ 1976 North American tour. Bruford retired from performing and recording in 2009, but went on to earn a PhD in Music.
When King Crimson reformed in the 1980s, Robert Fripp wrote the following rules for Bruford’s drumming:
Bill is really getting to me, so I’m trying to understand how he works.
1. He’s a very busy player, and doesn’t enjoy playing sparsely;
2. His parts have lots of fills and major changes of textures;
3. His fills are dramatic; i.e., they shock.
So I’ve been drawing up the following suggestions:
1. Any existing solution to a problem is the wrong one: absolutum, obsoletum;Robert Fripp, 1981
2. If you have an idea, don’t play it;
3. When a change in the music needs emphasis, don’t play it: the change in the music is emphasis enough;
4. Don’t phrase with any other member of the band unless it’s in the part;
5. Phrasing in the part should include no more than two people;
6. If the tension in the music needs emphasising, don’t. The tension is there because of what you’re playing, not what you’re about to play;
7. If you really have to change your part to build tension, don’t add — leave out;
8. The maximum tension you can add is by stopping completely;
9. If there is space for a fill which is demanded by the music, don’t play it: there are three other people who would like to use the opportunity;
10. If the part you’re playing is boring, stop listening with your head;
11. If this still bores you, listen to the interaction between all the parts;
12. If this still bores you, stop playing and wait until you are no longer bored;
13. Do not be dramatic;
14. Do not be afraid to repeat yourself;
15. Do not be afraid to take your time.
Chamberlin gave up a successful career as a carpenter to join The Smashing Pumpkins. He came from a jazz background, and combines the power of hard rock with the dexterity and precision of jazz. His extroverted fills in the song ‘Muzzle’ are excellent for air-drumming.
Stewart Copeland was born in America and grew up in the Middle East. The incorporation of reggae into The Police’s oeuvre made sense – a middle ground between rock and roll and the Lebanese music that Copeland had grown up with. Copeland’s drumming in The Police is extraordinary – his intricate work on the hi-hat made him sound like two drummers. He incorporated unusual items into his drum-kit, like an Octoban tom-toms and small, crisp cymbals.
Indie rock band Spoon have a minimalist sound, which puts the focus onto drummer Jim Eno’s grooves – not surprising for a band named after a Can song. Eno didn’t take up the drums until his early twenties, and started off playing big band jazz.
Jaki Liebezeit spent a couple of his years in his twenties playing free jazz. In 1968 he joined Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt, two of Stockhausen’s students, in the the experimental German rock band Can. Liebezeit pioneered the Motorik beat, and his monster grooves propelled tracks like ‘Halleluwah’. Liebezeit’s drumming was so precise that he often sounded like a machine, and he was “one of the few drummers to convincingly meld the funky and the cerebral” .
Porcaro didn’t have the career longevity of Hal Blaine, passing away at 38. But he’d already made his mark, playing on Steely Dan’s Katy Lied album in his early twenties. He went onto become a sought after session player, drumming for Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, and Pink Floyd. He’s best loved for his band Toto, specifically the groove for the song ‘Rosanna’, derived from the Purdie Shuffle and Bonham’s drumming on ‘Fool in the Rain’.
The 11th of 15 children, Bernard Purdie started off playing with James Brown and Aretha Franklin. He’s famous for the half-time Purdie Shuffle, show-cased on the Steely Dan tracks ‘Home At Last’ and ‘Babylon Sisters’. The Purdie Shuffle was inspired by the train passing by Purdie’s house. Purdie also stars with Steely Dan on The Royal Scam, one of my favourite drumming albums.
Stevie Wonder’s not primarily known as a drummer, but his first paid gig, at the age of 8, was as a drummer. He plays drums on his landmark 1970s records, and because he played most of the instruments himself, he could arrange the drums like a composer. Like everything he did, his drumming was filled with joy.
“Stevie Wonder has to be the greatest drummer of our time” –Eric Clapton
Did I miss out your favourite drummer? Who would you choose?