10 Favourite Drummers

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)

Hal Blaine

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.

John Bonham

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.

Bill Bruford

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;
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.

Robert Fripp, 1981

Jimmy Chamberlin

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

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.

Jim Eno

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

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” .

Jeff Porcaro

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’.

Bernard Purdie

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

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?


  1. Interesting one, Apho.
    Hal Blaine, yes, he was ubiquitous if not often outstanding (should a drummer be outstanding? That’s another conversation). Bernard Purdie, yes, including his Steely Dan contributions.
    But for me it is
    1. Ginger Baker
    2. Ginger Baker
    3. Ginger Baker
    Nobody else comes near him. I could listen to some of his drum tracks without the rest of the music. White Room, for instance. And while Sunshine of Your Love is usually lauded for its guitar riff, what really makes it is Ginger’s native-American drum pattern. Put a straightforward 4/4 on it and it’s dead.
    He was well aware of his superiority, in what I see as an objective way. While I love Keith Moon’s ability to decorate in the heat of battle, he wasn’t in the same league, and as for John Bonham: heavy hands and he didn’t do that much with them.
    I like Simon Kirke, esp with Free, while Clive Bunker (early Tull) had a nice way with a flam, i.e. both sticks hitting the same beat but ever-so-slightly out of sync. I refer you to 1:06 in Sweet Dream and 0.9 in Living in the Past.
    There’s another great flam at 3:17 in She Sells Sanctuary (The Cult) courtesy of Mark Unpronounceable.
    How about Billy Ficca of Television? I love the way he wraps up The Fire on Adventure. Tidy.
    Just like Ginger, in fact, who had a way of bringing order to improvisational chaos with just a biddlybop on the toms to put it to bed.

    • I think I’m realising as I read peoples’ comments that I don’t really enjoy dominant drummers like Baker and Moon. I prefer drummers who play interesting things but don’t dominate the band so much.
      I remember reading that Ficca and Television wanted a really dry drum sound, and they had trouble finding a producer who’d give that to them.

  2. As to Mitchell, Baker, and Moon, I can only say you should go listen to them again. Collectively, they were powerhouses. As to your list, I like it quite a lot although I don’t know Eno or Jaki. Is Fripp praising Fripp or blasting him? As to Stevie Wonder, never thought of him in terms of drumming but yeah, he is a multi-talented guy, no question.

    • I just don’t like the style of 1960s drumming where the drummer is an extroverted showman. Can’t think of many other rock bands where that happens.
      I think Peter Gabriel’s 1980 album Melt/III was very influential on the sound of the decade. He didn’t use cymbals on that, and I think Fripp was trying to get Bruford up to speed.
      Did you watch that Wonder video – pretty amazing. Always amazes me that a blind person can play at all – must require a precise and identical setup each time.

  3. With your parameters, Mick Fleetwood and Steve Gadd would be up there for me. Stevie Wonder is a very good choice…
    Of course, mine would be…Keith Moon. I’ve listened to his isolated tracks and I was even more of a fan after that.

      • What impressed me about Bonham the most
        is his fills in a live setting in places where many drummers would fear to tread.

          • I’ve wondered about that also. I’ve seen different answers on that and people arguing back and forth.
            It’s a cool combination regardless. The drums, the music and Roberts phrasing.

  4. So many good ones that fly under the radar. Too many to mention. Out of your list I listen to Bruford the most. Because I listen to a lot of jazz (Bruford, Baker roots) I have so many drummers come to mind. One of the first for me was Billy Cobham. Back to my early experiences with rock, Carl Palmer was one that i really liked.

    • I feel like Mahavishnu Orchestra have generally been hard done by in my best of lists. I like them, but I haven’t spent that much time with the albums I have, but there are obviously some top-tier musicians in there.

      • Both Billy and John are tops in my book. The band had a great synergy and Goodman’s Violin was a great touch. Unique band that i absolutely dig. They had a hard edge that grabbed me back in the day. Cobham has some excellent solo albums.
        Your “Best” takes get a good response. Like that your followers go their own way and don’t just go with the flow. Levon Helm has a nice touch also.

        • I think any general post that covers multiple artists gets a better response than posts on one specific artist. And a post on one specific artist generally gets more response than a post on one specific album/song. Just how blogging works really.
          Good call with Helm. I added him to my unlucky to miss the cut list.

  5. Excellent call on Jimmy Chamberlin & the song Muzzle especially – my favourite SP track and one of my favourites period. The drums on tonight, tonight are equally terrific!

  6. I agree with Chris Morvan that Ginger is up there with the all-time best, if not the best, if for nothing more than what his musician peers say (Clapton included). John Densmore is one of my faves. I also like some of the proggers, like Carl Palmer, Phil Collins, David Coughlan (Caravan), and Pip Pyle (Gong and Hatfield and the North). Then there’s “Snoopy” of Love. Terrible drummer, and a bit of an ass, but I still love the guy.

  7. Some good drummers there and good shout on Chamberlin and Eno. Naturally, my favourites are largely from the 90’s… when I started really discovering music. Missing? I’d be another calling for Baker, but I get why you haven’t included him. Favourites for me… those I enjoy hearing are: Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction), Jakob Scott (Causa Sui), Mario Rubalcaba (Earthless), Matt Cameron (Soundgarden), Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age), Abe Cunningham (Deftones), Tim Mooney (American Music Club), Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees, Barrett Martin Group, Walking Papers), and I love Paul Buchignani’s work on The Afghan Whigs’ Black Love.

    • The 1990s are a good era for drummers to shine – heavier, longer songs are good showing grounds for drummers. I don’t even know about Causa Sui or Earthless – are they alt-rock bands as well?

      • The alternative 90’s definitely allowed drummers to express themselves a wee bit. Or at least bring in all the influences they got from other types of music.
        Causa Sui and Earthless are alternative, but with psychedelic leanings. Both almost exclusively instrumental. Causa Sui’s Return to Sky is a good introduction, while I always recommend Earthless’ From the Ages as a great example of what they do.

    • Thanks for writing in! I don’t actually know The National super well – partly because one of my irrational music preferences is that I don’t really like deep baritone voices (see also: Johnny Cash).

  8. Good lists all.
    Many serous music people/ musicians believe these two drummers to be amongst the greatest of all time.
    1. Neil Pert (Rip big fella)
    2. Travis Barker. – Blink 182.
    The best drummer ever in new/Indy Rock. Even though they aren’t recording now, Travis is a massive figure in the alt rock scene and also now a music producer.
    Download “ bloody valentine” by Machine Gun Kelly. – TB produced it and drums in it. He’s instantly recognizable and also Mesmerizing. As well, it’s an amazing/fun song and Megan Fox is in the video.

    • I know that Peart’s a popular choice – I’m just not a big Rush fan, although I did include Lee in my favourite bassists. Travis Barker has it tough, in a band that doesn’t get a whole lot of respect.

  9. Only two you left out for me.

    1. Neil Pert (Rush). Widely considered to be one of the greatest ever.

    2. Travis Barker (Blink 182). Also a genius producer who is still everywhere today.

    • Favorite drummers

      John Bonham (Led Zeppelin)
      Ringo Starr!!!! (Beatles)
      Stewart Copeland (Police)
      Dave Clark (The Dave Clark Five)
      Ginger Baker (Cream)
      Tony Thompson (Chic)
      Jim Keltner (session guy)
      Greg Errico (Sly & the Family Stone)
      John Densmore (The Doors)
      Bobby Elliott (The Hollies)


      Russ Kunkel (session guy)
      Bev Bevan (Electric Light Orchestra)
      Bill Bruford (Yes)
      Jim Gordon (session guy)
      Les Lester (Los Straitjackets)

      • And these ones too

        Al Jackson (Booker T. & the MG’s)
        Dino Danelli (The Rascals)
        Vince Ely (Psychedelic Furs)
        Joe Butler (The Lovin’ Spoonful)
        Bernard Purdie (session guy)
        Danny Seraphine (Chicago)

      • Jim Gordon is someone I would have liked to fitted in. Starr is pretty divisive sometimes – I like him and he was the right drummer for The Beatles but not in my all time top 10. Thompson and Keltner are great calls. I’ve never really noticed the drumming in The Hollies.

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