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Best Female Drummers: 20 Hard-Hitting Legends In Music
List & Guides

Best Female Drummers: 20 Hard-Hitting Legends In Music

Beating their own path through music history, the best female drummers have proven they have as much power as the men in the game.

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“No one has ever really asked me questions about drums and drumming,” Debbi Peterson said in a 1986 interview, at the height of The Bangles’ fame. Recounting experiences that would make most of the women in this list of the best female drummers sigh in weary recognition, Peterson continued: “I mean, I get a lot of questions about The Bangles. But no one ever wants to know about what kinds of things I do when I play, what equipment I use – you know, those sorts of questions that drummers ask other drummers.”

Drumming is a highly technical as well as instinctual instrument, and the best female drummers have all mastered the formal art as well as channelled their emotional impulses into their music. Witness, for instance, this bravura performance by Chaka Khan. The concentration on her face is clear, yet so is the flow and direct channel of her heart to her arms.

Khan was primarily a singer rather than a drummer, and many of the women here also sang, or were multi-instrumentalists. But they did not forget the lessons that drumming taught them, and the sheer joy that the instrument brought. The late Karen Carpenter would often be at her happiest when hitting the skins; appearing on television in 1976, her brother, Richard, asked her why she played the drums. “Two words,” she replied, tapping with her sticks on his arm. “Why not?”

Why not, indeed? This list of the best female drummers of all time is full of women who, if anyone tried to put them in a gendered box, would simply beat their way out of it!

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our best female drummers, below.

20: Honey Lantree (1943-2018)

The drummer in 60s British beat group The Honeycombs, Honey Lantree was learning the guitar when she found that her talent suited the drums much better. She was treated as something of a novelty by the media at the time, and the group were constantly asked whether she really played on their records. “How can it be a gimmick just because we have a girl, Honey, on drums?” an exasperated Dennis D’ell, the band’s singer, said in 1965. “Honey plays with us purely and simply because she is the right drummer for the job. If she wasn’t any good, she wouldn’t hold down the job.”

Must hear: Have I The Right

19: Tobi Vail (1969- present)

The 90s punk phenomenon of riot grrrl put female and marginalised experiences front and centre, and its radical influence continues to be felt today. As well as being one of the best female drummers of her generation, Tobi Vail, drummer with one of the first riot grrrl bands, Bikini Kill, was also a fanzine writer and activist, and her playing style is vital, urgent, unbowed. “We really upset people, especially misogynist guys, and it could be incredibly dangerous,” Vail said in 2012. “I think if a band today was doing what Bikini Kill did back then, they would face a similar response because when you challenge the status quo, you are not met with approval.”

Must hear: Rebel Girl

18: Denise Dufort (1958- present)

Denise Dufort was a founder member of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal band Girlschool – the longest-lasting all-female rock band of all time – and she remains part of the group today. Like their close contemporaries Motörhead, Girlschool were able to straddle both the punk and metal worlds, and a huge part of their power comes from Dufort’s drums. Girlschool were notable not only for their longevity in a macho genre, but also for neither exploiting their sexuality, nor ignoring its importance. The sexist comments and requests to strip off often rained down on them at concerts, but Girlschool were always prepared, as Dufort remembered in 2020: “Kim [McAuliffe, singer and guitarist] used to shout back, ‘You fucking get ’em off!’”

Must hear: Emergency

17: Gina Schock (1957- present)

Gina Schock joined The Go-Go’s a year after they formed (after a short stint in Edie And The Eggs, a punk band led by Pink Flamingos star Edith Massey), replacing original drummer Elissa Bello. One of the best female drummers of the new-wave scene, Schock epitomised the creative space The Go-Go’s inhabited as the 80s dawned. “We were a punk band and we are a punk band and we always will be,” she said in 2021. “But we had these great pop melodies.” On tracks such as We Got The Beat, Our Lips Are Sealed and This Town, Schock’s drumming creates a new form of power-pop: restive, unpolished, exuberant. Her influence continues to reverberate: she recently drummed with teenage rock band The Linda Lindas.

Must hear: This Town

16: Patty Schemel (1967- present)

Hole was a band riven and driven by addiction. Their best drummer, Patty Schemel (whose work can be heard on the group’s breakthrough album, 1994’s Live Through This), has been brutally honest about her addictions to heroin and crack cocaine. “I was born recovering,” she writes at the start of her memoir, Hit So Hard. “I don’t remember a time before I knew the concept.” Schemel’s drumming in Hole was unique in the grunge sphere: as well as her clear hard rock and punk feeling, she also channelled her admiration for the drone-led, space-rock music created by bands such as Galaxie 500 and Spacemen 3. She found – and still finds – drumming cathartic for her demons. “I was drawn to music, and drums were the thing I wanted to do, because I didn’t see a lot of girls doing it,” Schemel has said. “It was physical, and it was loud. I felt that I was being heard, literally because it was loud.”

Must hear: Violet

15: Palmolive (1954- present)

Drummer in both The Slits and The Raincoats, Spanish drummer Palmolive (born Paloma Romero) arrived in London at the age of 17 to “learn about life”. She formed The Slits with fellow teenager Ari Up, but left just as the band signed their first contract with Island Records (her drumming can still be heard on the group’s 1977 and 1978 Peel Sessions). However, in many ways The Raincoats were a better fit for Palmolive’s deconstructed style of drumming, her refusal to keep to rock norms, and her gorgeous experimentation. Her career was short but enormously influential, a beacon for misfit girls and expectation-defiers everywhere.

Must hear: In Love

14: Sandy West (1959-2006)

A drummer from the age of nine, when her grandfather bought her a drum kit, Sandy West learned to play via rock’n’roll classics. This became an essential grounding for The Runaways, the band she founded with Joan Jett and producer Kim Fowley when she was just 15. At the vanguard of the best female drummers in 70s rock, West was the pulse driving The Runaways’ greatest hits, from Cherry Bomb to Queens Of Noise. Strong personalities brought The Runaways together – but they also ended the group. West had a very difficult time after the band folded (in 1998, she said she “went crazy” and was “very upset and sad”), and she died at the age of 47, in 2006.

Must hear: Cherry Bomb

13: Karen Carpenter (1950-1983)

“I picked up a pair of sticks, and it was the most natural-feeling thing I’ve ever done.” Karen Carpenter considered herself a drummer who sang, rather than vice versa. Though she began her musical career in order to get out of gym class (she joined the school marching band), Carpenter was drawn to the drums, soon swapping her glockenspiel for skins. She played drums and sang on early Carpenters tracks, but – in one of the many terribly sad moments of her short life – was persuaded to largely abandon her instrument of choice in favour of concentrating on her vocals and stage presence. Yet her spirit lives on. Many of the early Carpenters’ television appearances feature Karen beating her drums with absolute relish, and she can be heard letting loose as part of the pre-Carpenters outfit The Richard Carpenter Trio, on Battle Of The Bands: Hollywood Bowl 1966. Her performance alone makes the various-artists album one of the rarest vinyl records of all time.

Must hear: All I Can Do

12: Kate Schellenbach (1966- present)

New Yorker Kate Schellenbach knows the power of seeing women behind a drum kit. “I remember there was a time after junior high and before high school during that summer,” she said in 2013. “A bunch of girls were like, ‘We’re going to see this band at CBGBs and the singer is really cute and we should all go!’ We all went and there was this band, Student Teachers, and the drummer was a girl. Seeing this band made me think, Oh, I could do that!” Schellenbach drummed in an early incarnation of Beastie Boys before joining the brilliant Luscious Jackson. That band’s mid-90s work epitomised the super-cool, graffiti-spattered culture of the era, and Schellenbach’s drumming propelled their boldness to infinity.

Must hear: Deep Shag

11: Cindy Blackman (1959- present)

“In the past, there were a lot of stigmas attached to women playing certain instruments,” Cindy Blackman said in 2018. “Any woman, or anyone facing race prejudice, weight prejudice, hair prejudice… if you let somebody stop you because of their opinions, then the only thing you’re doing is hurting yourself. I don’t want to give somebody that power over me.” Easily one of the best female drummers in late-20th-century jazz, Blackman is well known for being Lenny Kravitz’s touring drummer (and the undoubted star of the Are You Gonna Go My Way? video, even though she did not play on the track itself), and for her enormous, seriously impressive list of jazz collaborations, Pharoah Sanders, Ron Carter, Sonny Simmons, Cassandra Wilson and Ravi Coltrane among them.

Must hear: In The Now

10: Janet Weiss (1965- present)

“After intense deliberation and heavy sadness, I have decided to leave Sleater-Kinney,” Janet Weiss announced in 2019, ending the perfect dynamic of one of the greatest power trios in rock. Weiss could punk out with the best of them – such as on early band highlight I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone – yet her fierce power could also be harnessed into Sleater-Kinney’s later work of great emotional heft. Weiss is also a member of Quasi and has performed as a guest drummer for countless members of the alt-rock aristocracy, including Stephen Malkmus and Elliott Smith. “I’m a pretty individual drummer,” she said in 2003. “I like to kind of make things sound like me.”

Must hear: One More Hour

9: Evelyn Glennie (1965- present)

Evelyn Glennie is a multi-award winning Scottish percussionist. One of the best female drummers Great Britain has produced, her finest hours include being part of the 70s teenage collective Cults Percussion Ensemble and leading 1,000 drummers at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. “I feel that music, for me, is a language,” Glennie reflected in 1994. “It’s something I can communicate with. I get as much enjoyment out of playing music privately, to myself, as I do to a thousand, two thousand, however many people.” Profoundly deaf since the age of 12, Glennie has argued that “my hearing is something that bothers other people far more than it bothers me… For me, my deafness is no more important than the fact I am female with brown eyes.”

Must hear: 2017 improvisation

8: Meg White (1974- present)

“I’ve always kind of lived in my own world,” Meg White said in 2011. “Everything else outside me seems far, far away.” Keeping the are-they-aren’t-they? riddle of The White Stripes going (co-founder Jack White claimed they were siblings, but really the duo were a divorced couple who sat in a long lineage of bands in relationships), Meg White is the Sphinx of modern rock. Her economy and self-possession gave The White Stripes humour, heart and liberation – she has a stripped-back style, and her rhythms are at home both in indie clubs and football stadiums. She was the necessary balance to the sweat-drenched emotion of Jack White, yet Meg rarely speaks publicly about her music, her drumming, or herself.

Must hear: Seven Nation Army

7: Terri Lyne Carrington (1965- present)

A child prodigy among the best female drummers, Terri Lyne Carrington began playing drums at the age of seven and earned a full scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College Of Music at the age of 11. She released her first album, the brilliant (and ridiculously rare) TLC And Friends, in 1981 and, from that point on, has worked with an enormous breadth of jazz talent in her decades-long career. Carrington has collaborated with Pharoah Sanders, Wayne Shorter, Cassandra Wilson and Stan Getz – and was part of Herbie Hancock’s touring band for a decade. She proactively works for inclusivity and diversity in jazz, arguing that “the music will never reach its full potential until there’s equity in terms of who is creating it”.

Must hear: La Bonita

6: Mimi Parker (1965-2022)

The wonderful Mimi Parker, whom the world lost in 2022, was a mesmeric vocal and musical presence in her band, Low. When the group formed, the trio of Mimi, her husband, Alan Sparhawk, and original bassist, John Nichols, shared the idea of a band that was “slow and quiet”, as Parker put it in 2001. Before Low, Parker had only played in a marching band at school, and she never sat behind a drum kit, preferring instead to stand. Her equipment, as well as her style, was sparse, and over the years her work only deepened in emotional impact. “The songs were slow, there was a lot of space,” she said of Low’s work in 2021. “It’s introspective, sober music and a lot of people don’t want to be introspective or sober. They’re at a bar, they probably want to hang out and listen to loud party music. We weren’t that.” Parker’s humanity, skill and subtlety live on through every recorded drumbeat – not least in their beloved 1999 album, Christmas, which remains one of the best Christmas albums of all time.

5: Debbi Peterson (1961- present)

“I used to go into my room and listen to records,” Debbi Peterson said in 1986, “and sort of air drum along with them. I loved music so much and I really wanted to be a performer.” It was the sort of education that would make Peterson one of the best female drummers in history: she was 15 and would soon be invited by her guitarist elder sister, Vicki, to be part of the band Aisha. The Peterson sisters went on to form The Bangles in 1981 and created some of the most enduring pop classics of their era. As well as playing their primary instrument, all the band members sing, and Be With You, on which Debbi leads, is one of The Bangles’ finest moments.

Must hear: Be With You

4: Viola Smith (1912-2020)

“In these times of national emergency, many of the star instrumentalists of the big-name bands are being drafted,” Viola Smith wrote in 1942, during the Second World War. “Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?” Smith was a true pioneer among the best female drummers, and a highly experienced musician, even by 1942 (she had been playing since the 1920s in a range of all-female and mixed-gender orchestras and swing bands). Her fame spread, particularly after the war: she appeared several times on The Ed Sullivan Show, with her 13-piece drum kit (featuring two distinctive shoulder-height tom toms). Smith lived to the ripe age of 107. “Since age 13. I’ve never missed a show, or anything,” she said shortly before her death. “I always was right on the dot.”

Must hear: Snake Charmer

3: Bobbye Hall (1950- present)

“My mother said that I had a dream. I would play on her pots and pans, I’d beat on the garbage cans in the alley. I’d whack on them with sticks and my hands or whatever. I didn’t talk very much as a child… I just picked up the drums and that’s where I spoke from.” One of the greatest of all session drummers, the versatile Bobbye Hall played bongos, congas and a variety of other percussion instruments on many of Motown’s 60s smashes, among them hits by The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. She has drummed for Bob Dylan, Gene Clark, Chris Ethridge, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin, among dozens upon dozens of others. Hall relishes being “behind the scenes creating the product before it hits the street”, yet she doesn’t view herself as a gun for hire. “I don’t play other people’s music,” she said in 2013. “I play the music that I’m called to do. And that’s how I built my career, on that understanding.”

Must hear: You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio (with Joni Mitchell)

2: Moe Tucker (1944- present)

Moe Tucker’s playing style, with the bass drum on its side, underpinned The Velvet Underground – and therefore some of the most influential rock of the 20th century. Tucker developed her style in the band’s early days, when “we began doing a lot of long, 20-minute jams”, and she found, with this setup, she could sustain not only her playing but the growling, scuzzy mood that was so integral to the Velvets’ genius. She also used a mallet in one hand and a stick in the other (and sometimes two mallets, as on the song Heroin). Tucker knew that “I couldn’t play a perfect roll for a million dollars. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t want to know how,” yet her instinct, greatly influenced by Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, perfectly balanced the others in the band, which ranged from the classically trained John Cale to doo-wop and jazz nerd Lou Reed. “On tour, there are many young people who say things like, ‘I started playing drums because of you,’” Tucker said in 2005. “To me that’s a great reward.”

Must hear: I’m Waiting For The Man

1: Sheila E (1957- present)

“It’s a multicultural sound,” Sheila E says of her drumming. “I think that was the blessing of being born and raised in the Bay [Area, California], [using] the multicultural sounds of bands to create your own thing.” Born Sheila Escovedo, but now known as the “Queen Of Percussion”, Sheila E has played with The George Duke Band, Lionel Richie, Herbie Hancock and Diana Ross, but it is for her lengthy creative partnership with Prince that she will always be most lauded. During Prince’s Sign O’ The Times era, she was not only the drummer but also the musical director for the accompanying tour. She is also a successful artist in her own right, with eight solo albums under her belt. Sheila E would know that her place at the top of this list of the best female drummers is deserved: “I got to the point where I was like: ‘You can’t tell me anything,’” she said in 2020. “I know I’m good. I’m going to play, let’s do this.’”

Must hear: The Glamorous Life

Looking for more? Discover the best female guitarists of all time.

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