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Best Drummers Of All Time: 20 Iconic Musicians Who Can’t Be Beat
Simon Meaker
List & Guides

Best Drummers Of All Time: 20 Iconic Musicians Who Can’t Be Beat

From rock’n’roll riot-starters to formidably funky floor-fillers, the best drummers made music history by moving our heads and our feet.

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Far from disappearing into the background as the lead guitarist steals the spotlight, the best drummers have often played a vital role throughout music history. From jazz and rock’n’roll all the way through to prog-metal, the men and women behind the kit revel in giving metronomic support just as much as they embellish the rhythm with ornate fills and explosive hi-hat outbursts. Here, then, is our list of the best drummers of all time…

20: Sheila E

Known for playing in stilettos, Sheila E is a fierce and ferocious female drummer who worked as musical director for Prince in the late 80s. As a solo artist in her own right, her musical prodigiousness knows no bounds. “There’s not a lot of female drummers out there,” she once said, “and I guess I appreciate being able to maybe help and encourage other girls to do it.”

Following hot on the heels of Prince’s collaboration with The Revolution, the Purple One’s close association with Sheila E allowed her to experiment with clean-sounding polyrhythms that bridged the sonic gap between mid-80s hip-hop beats and early-90s New Jack Swing-style R&B. Breaking into mesmerising drum solos and often mixing live percussion with drum machines, Sheila E paved the way for other female drummers, such as Cindy Blackman, to forge their own path.

Must hear: U Got The Look

19: Alex Van Halen

Overshadowed by the flashy hard-rock showmanship of Eddie Van Halen, it’s easy to miss the important role the late guitarist’s elder brother, Alex, played as Van Halen’s drummer. Churning out countless feel-good grooves, Alex Van Halen thumbed his nose at the late-70s trend for disco by bringing rock’n’roll back from the brink of extinction.

From his solo in Light Up The Sky to the mega-busy hi-hats on Girl Gone Bad, Alex was just as crucial as his brother to Van Halen’s sound. For a scintillating showcase of his drumming abilities, listen to marching double-bass drum intro to Hot For Teacher – one of the most iconic song openings of all time. As one of classic rock’s most underrated talents, Alex Van Halen easily deserves to be considered one of the best drummers in rock history.

Must hear: Hot For Teacher

18: Chad Smith

After joining Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1988, drummer Chad Smith immediately took the group on a journey that saw them transcend their scrappy funk influences to become fully-fledged stadium-rock icons. Bolstering a rhythm section that included feisty bassist Flea and quirky psych-rock guitarist John Frusciante, Smith gave the band a solid grounding in funk-rock while unleashing fills that fused the fieriness of Led Zeppelin with the eclecticism of Parliament/Funkadelic.

From Give It Away to Can’t Stop, Smith’s unique spin on 4/4 time and grace notes are nothing short of wondrous. The drummer is often compared to Anchorman comedian Will Ferrell in looks, but Chad Smith’s musical abilities are far beyond a joke, rising above most of his alternative-rock contemporaries to become one of the best drummers of his era.

Must hear: Can’t Stop

17: Danny Carey

Tool’s drummer, Danny Carey, is a giant of a man. Standing at six foot five inches tall, he makes for a towering presence in alternative metal and modern-day progressive rock. From the group’s debut album, 1993’s Undertow, to the polyrhythmic marvel that was 2019’s Fear Inoculum, Carey’s full breadth of percussive skills toy with unusual time signatures, peculiar meters and hard-hitting drum patterns.

Today, Carey has firmly established himself as one of the best metal drummers in the world, living up to the legacy of King Crimson’s Bill Bruford and Rush’s Neil Peart. From power-metal grooves to Eastern-inspired Mandala soundscapes, his exemplary drumming skills have cemented Tool’s standing as one of the most influential prog-metal groups of the last 30 years. To watch Carey perform is jaw-dropping – as evidenced by his performance on the 11-minute epic Pneuma.

Must hear: Pneuma

16: Mike Portnoy

It wouldn’t be fair to leave Mike Portnoy off our list of the world’s best drummers, given the exceptional role he has played for progressive-metal stalwarts Dream Theater. After co-founding the group in 1985, Portnoy spent 25 years on the drum stool, establishing himself as a pioneering force in prog-metal, influenced by the likes of Queen, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden[link to best Maiden songs] and Rush.

For Portnoy, being a great drummer isn’t just a way of life, it’s an academic pursuit. Having completed a scholarship at Berklee College Of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts, his percussion IQ is bursting at the seams. Messing with odd-meter time signatures (The Dance Of Eternity) and letting rip with aggressive fills that nearly threaten to overpower his bandmates (Constant Motion), Portnoy has amassed an incredible body of work with Dream Theater, and will no doubt remain an inspiration to future drummers.

Must hear: Constant Motion

15: Bernard Purdie

With his impeccable R&B grooves, legendary session musician Bernard Purdie left an indelible mark not just on the development of 70s funk and soul music, but also on 80s soft rock. Following a short spell working with “The Godfather Of Soul”, James Brown, Purdie spent five years, from 1970 to 1975, as Aretha Franklin’s drummer and musical director.

Purdie’s mastery of ghost notes, half-time backbeats and his use of triplets pioneered what became known as “The Purdie Shuffle”, a sound that was later emulated by Toto on their 1982 hit, Rosanna. From R&B to yacht rock, even Purdie himself got in on the action by joining Steely Dan in 1980, playing drums on the Gaucho album’s opening track, Babylon Sisters. To hear his unique drumming style at its best, however, look no further than Rock Steady, a hit for Aretha Franklin that peaked at No.9 on the US Hot 100 in 1971.

Must hear: Rock Steady

14: Mick Fleetwood

Along with bassist John McVie, Mick Fleetwood is one of Fleetwood Mac’s only remaining founding members, and is arguably the group’s driving force and one true constant. The drummer’s steadying presence not only provided anchorage to guitarist Peter Green’s bluesy proficiency, it also underpinned the bohemian-minded songwriting genius of Lindsay Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie.

Weathering the changes from the British blues of Oh Well to the new-wave-era synth-pop of Little Lies, Fleetwood was one of the best drummers at providing a solid bedrock for the musically tight arrangements of his immensely talented bandmates. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album, Rumours, particularly on the classic-rock radio staple Dreams, whose rhythm may sound minimalist at first, but the magic is all in Fleetwood’s hypnotic, reverie-laced restraint.

Must hear: Dreams

13: Dave Grohl

As one of the most iconic of all grunge bands, Nirvana provided a cultural-watershed moment with their 1991 breakthrough hit, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Along with Kurt Cobain’s anguished vocals, Grohl’s love of disco flams, utilised by The Gap Band and mixed with the hyperkinetic hardcore punk of Bad Brains drummer Earl Hudson, dragged a new breed of rock’n’roll out of the underground and into the mainstream.

Grohl would later ditch the drumsticks to front Foo Fighters, but he occasionally likes to remind us of his status as one of the world’s best drummers – from guesting on Queens Of The Stone Age’s Songs For The Deaf album to forming Them Crooked Vultures, a supergroup comprised of guitar god Josh Homme and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. We wish he’d do it more often.

Must hear: Smells Like Teen Spirit

12: Benny Benjamin

The Alabama-born session drummer who single-handedly invented the Motown beat, Benny Benjamin defined “The Sound Of Young America” like no other musician. Nicknamed “Papa Zita”, the drummer began flaunting his feel-good fills on Barrett Strong’s 1959 single Money (That’s What I Want) and soon found himself holding things down on hits for Smokey Robinson And The Miracles (Shop Around) and The Temptations (Get Ready).

Always a groovy and jiving presence, Benjamin also played on Stevie Wonder’s early hit single Uptight (Everything’s Alright), pushing the singer on with his flawless time-keeping. Motown founder Berry Gordy even regarded Benjamin as his favourite session drummer. “He has a pulse,” Gordy said, “a steadiness, that kept the tempo better than a metronome.” Benjamin died of a stroke aged 43, in 1969, but the mark he left on the rise of R&B and soul music cannot be denied.

Must hear: Get Ready

11: Ringo Starr

The British Invasion-era’s first superstar drummer, Ringo Starr helped The Beatles shine thanks to his deadpan wit and dependable backbeats. It would be easy to praise contemporaries such as Mitch Mitchell (The Jimi Hendrix Experience) or Keith Moon (The Who) for being more flamboyant, but Starr’s understated approach, from his steadfast Merseybeat accompaniment to the more complex psychedelic clamour of Rain or Tomorrow Never Knows, was more subtle in its innovations.

Starr deserves a great deal of credit for popularising rock’n’roll and inspiring a whole generation of Beatlemaniacs to see the role of drummer as a galvanising force. Very much considered a “drummer’s drummer”, Starr’s isolated drum tracks prove his ingenuity in choosing complex yet minimalist feels that perfectly complemented John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s songwriting output.

Must hear: Rain

10: Al Jackson, Jr

In the same way that Benny Benjamin was woven into the fabric of Motown, Al Jackson, Jr, was an integral part of the DNA of Stax Records. As an experienced session drummer referred to as “The Human Timekeeper”, the Memphis soul sensation performed with R&B legend Otis Redding (Try A Little Tenderness), nocturnal proto-funkster Wilson Pickett (In The Midnight Hour), blues idol Albert King (Born Under A Bad Sign) and seductive lothario Al Green (Let’s Stay Together).

Not only that, but Al Jackson, Jr, was also a founding member of Booker T And The MGs, who scored a US Top 10 hit in 1962 with Green Onions and provided the backing to Sam And Dave’s iconic hit Soul Man. When he was shot and killed in 1975 at age 39, the world of soul, R&B and funk lost a key talisman and guiding spirit.

Must hear: Soul Man

9: Charlie Watts

With snare hits that cracked like a whip, the late Charlie Watts helped transform The Rolling Stones into one of the world’s greatest rock bands. Though he started off as a jazz drummer and modestly felt playing rock’n’roll excluded him from being considered among the world’s greats, Watts was nevertheless a beacon of poise and self-composure, harnessing the raucous noise of vocalist Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards into a rebellious, era-defining racket.

“I wanted to play drums because I fell in love with the glitter and the lights, but it wasn’t about adulation,” Watts later said. “It was being up there playing.” After spending 58 years touring the world with the Stones, Watts’ death, aged 80, in August 2021, led to tributes venerating him as one of the best drummers of all time. As accolades go, it was long overdue.

Must hear: Honky Tonk Women

8: Stewart Copeland

The post-punk power trio of The Police – singer/bassist Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland – took the US by storm with their mix of punky energy and syncopated reggae rhythms. Naturally, it was Copeland’s drumming that lay at the heart of the group’s virtuosic mastery, providing iron-clad backbeats to their 1978 single Roxanne and an off-beat wooziness to the following year’s Walking On The Moon.

Formerly a prog-rock drummer with a penchant for jazzy grooves, Copeland utilised hi-hats, floor toms and snare hits as if in the grip of demonic possession, creating an erratic sound that quickly elevated The Police above most of their new wave contemporaries. Drawing upon a wide range of genres to generate a wholly unique sound, and going on to sell over 75 million records worldwide, the group owe much of their success to Copeland’s drumming style.

Must hear: Roxanne

7: Clyde Stubblefield

Funk bandleader James Brown was notorious for working his musicians harder than anyone else – so much so, he even had two drummers from 1965 to 1970. Between them, Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks laid down the foundations for funk drumming, leading to future innovations that would include jazz-fusion, disco and even hip-hop. However, it’s Stubblefield’s seminal work which earns him credit as one of the best drummers of all time.

James Brown’s 1967 US Top 10 hit, Cold Sweat, proved a showcase for Stubblefield’s herky-jerky percussive beats; meanwhile, 1970’s Funky Drummer birthed a drum break that has become one of the most sampled recordings in hip-hop. Quite honestly, those who cherish Brown’s influence on the development of rap music should really be thanking Stubblefield. Without him, breakbeats as we know them wouldn’t exist.

Must hear: Funky Drummer

6: Phil Collins

Emerging from the 70s prog-rock scene as the drummer for Genesis, when it comes down to it, Phil Collins deserves to be considered one of the best drummers of all time for practically inventing the sound of 80s rock, pioneering the gated-reverb drum sound that would dominate the decade from 1981’s In The Air Tonight onwards.

From the iconic drum break that kicked open the door to a new decade, to tinkering away with Roland TR-808 drum machines, Collins embarked on a solo career that boldly redefined the way percussion could be produced. As a fantastic – and remarkably powerful – drummer and fearless studio innovator, he recalibrated the sonic possibilities of drumming, even going on to influence 90s hip-hop and R&B.

Must hear: In the Air Tonight

5: Buddy Rich

If there is one jazz drummer who can truly claim to have influenced a tsunami of rock’n’roll musicians, it’s Buddy Rich. Despite surfacing from the golden age of jazz, the New York City-born drummer’s awe-inspiring solos predicted a future in which time-keepers ventured beyond the backbeat with improvisatory fills and ultra-busy drum patterns. The beauty of Rich’s playing is that he made drums the star of the show without ripping up the rhythmic roots of his brass section.

Officially the only drummer to beat Animal on The Muppet Show (yes, seriously!), Rich’s sheer power and showmanship inspired the likes of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, Queen’s Roger Taylor and Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward, all of whom tried to emulate their hero’s mix of uncompromising ferocity and jazz-influenced professionalism. Easily one of the best drummers of any era, Buddy Rich was a legend in his own time.

Must hear: Caravan

4: Neil Peart

As a drummer who evolved from a Keith Moon-inspired harbinger of chaos to an eclectic and precise percussionist with scholarly attention to detail, Neil Peart, of Canadian prog-rock outfit Rush, was the creative engine room of the group. Not only did Peart play drums, he also wrote lyrics and developed the overarching themes of the band’s concept albums while musically infusing Rush’s hard-rock style with his elaborate but meticulous beats.

From the madcap ambition of Xanadu – which saw Peart use everything from tubular bells to glockenspiel – to experimenting with reggae influences on The Spirit Of Radio, Peart was a diverse and irrepressible talent, easily going down in history as one of the best drummers of all time. Drawing upon bizarre, prog-influenced time signatures and crazy, mind-melting fills plucked from The Who’s playbook, he had it all.

Must hear: The Spirit Of Radio

3: Ginger Baker

The flame-haired British drummer for supergroup Cream, Ginger Baker fired up guitar legend Eric Clapton and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce with his red-hot mix of jazz-inspired time signatures and heavy rock grooves. Notoriously cantankerous, Baker always stuck to jazz tunings on his drum kit, even though the blues-rock sensibilities of his fellow musicians helped turn him into a rock’n’roll superstar.

As forefathers to the sound of hard-rock behemoths such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Cream birthed many musical offspring, even if Baker himself disavowed them. “People say Cream gave birth to heavy metal,” the drummer said. “If that’s so, we should have had an abortion.” By later venturing into African-style rhythms – including collaboration with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti – Baker’s commitment to jazzy experimentalism boosted his status as one of the world’s best drummers, proving just how hard he was to pin down.

Must hear: White Room

2: Keith Moon

The wild dynamo at the heart of The Who, Keith Moon was easily one of the greatest rock’n’roll drummers of all time. Powerful and anarchic, his drumming was busy and chaos-strewn, sweeping across the kit like a freak weather occurrence with frantic fills that always threatened to push guitarist Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle off-tempo (Pinball Wizard, I Can See For Miles).

Bringing things to the brink of musical mayhem suited Moon. Not only did his over-elaborate style define The Who’s sound, he became just as famous for his outrageous offstage antics. From driving a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool to throwing television sets out of hotel windows, Keith Moon became a rock’n’roll legend, courting calamity right up until his untimely death in 1978, aged 32. His iconic status remains unchallenged.

Must hear: Who Are You

1: John Bonham

Easily topping our list of the best drummers of all time, John “Bonzo” Bonham was the rhythmic powerhouse behind hard-rock legends Led Zeppelin. His thunderous proto-metal grooves (Whole Lotta Love) and echoey, cacophonous breaks (When The Levee Breaks) caused a tectonic shift in rock’n’roll that instantly made him a near-mythical figure in drumming circles. Even before his death in 1980, aged 32, Bonham’s heavy-handed fills and high-octane energy it the touchpaper for an army of metalheads.

“You have to play with dynamics to make it sound good,” Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl said. “That’s the beauty of what John Bonham would do.” By experimenting with his use of triplets on a bass drum, Bonham’s speedy pedalwork helped plant seeds that would soon flower into thrash metal, even wowing crowds with his Buddy Rich-inspired soloing on Led Zeppelin’s instrumental epic, Moby Dick.

Must hear: Moby Dick

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