100 Greatest Drummers of All Time - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Lists

100 Greatest Drummers of All Time

From rock thunder machines to punk powerhouses, we count down the kings and queens of slam

Clem Burke; Sheila E; Ginger Baker; Questlove; Al Jackson Jr; Ringo Starr; 18 Drumbo

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty, Lloyd Bishop/NBC/Getty, Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty

Bruce Springsteen once said of Max Weinberg, his impossibly reliable drummer for over four decades, “I ask and he delivers for me night after night.” Leave it to Bruce to come up with the perfect tribute to music’s true working-stiff warriors — the guys way in the back, behind all that stuff, giving the music its spine and drive, its cohesion and contour and a huge chunk of its personality, often without getting the credit they deserve. Ever hear any dumb-guitarist jokes? Exactly.

So this is our epic chance to give the drummer some. In coming up with our list of the 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time, we valued nuance and musicality over chops and flash, celebrating players who knew the value of aiding a great song more than hogging up a show with a silly solo. That means that along with master blasters such as John Bonham, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon and Neil Peart, and athletic soundpainters like Stewart Copeland and Bill Bruford, you’ll find no-frills-brilliant session guys you’ve been loving on the radio for years like Jim Keltner and Steve Gadd, early rock & roll beat definers like Jerry Allison and Fred Below, in-the-cut funk geniuses and brickhouse disco titans like Clyde Stubblefield and Earl Young, and unorthodox punk minimalists like Maureen Tucker and Tommy Ramone. Bill Berry of R.E.M. once told Modern Drummer magazine, “I guess I’m not really a Modern Drummer drummer.” But the unshowy contribution he made to the band he played in is worth more than a pile of dusty VHS drum-instruction tapes (not that we couldn’t watch that YouTube video where Jeff Porcaro explains how he came up with the “Rosanna” groove until our eyeballs turn to ash).

One important caveat: we used rock and pop as our rubric, so a drummer’s work needed to directly impact that world (as we define it, of course) to make the list. This meant leaving out dozens of essential jazz artists such as Max Roach and Roy Haynes, whose innovations inspired many of the players you’ll read about below. That list is its own monument we hope to build someday soon. For now, let the arguments start. If you want to throw a cymbal at us, please do so in the comments section.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Bill Bruford

Bill Bruford

A percussionist with a classical musician's technical prowess, a jazz improviser's subtlety and spontaneity, and a rock drummer's emphatic drive, Bill Bruford was a fully formed artist when he first came to the public ear on the first five albums by Yes. In 1972, with that band on the brink of global superstardom, Bruford jumped ship for King Crimson, for the next two years showing how a rock drummer could find fresh angles in set-list staples, night after night, while also conjuring new music out of thin air. In two more stints with King Crimson – "my spiritual home, albeit with a bed of nails, for a quarter of a century," he wrote in his 2009 autobiography – Bruford reinvented himself as a polymetric funk savant (1981–84), and as a chaos agent in a double-drummer lineup (1994–96), while reserving plenty of time for his postbop passion project, Earthworks. Retired from the stage since 2009, he completed his Ph.D. in February – you can call him Doctor Bruford now.

Buddy Rich

Buddy Rich

A self-taught childhood vaudeville star, Rich's unrivaled technique and unsurpassed hand speed allowed him to quickly overtake reigning big-band drummer Gene Krupa, who dubbed him "the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath," and land a career-making gig with Tommy Dorsey, where he met rival/friend/benefactor Frank Sinatra, who delivered his eulogy four decades later. But Rich's influence extended far beyond the big-band era or even jazz: He was the first American drummer that many of the earliest British rockers ever heard, teaching fans like John Bonham and Bill Ward to blast past a simple backbeat toward hard-hitting improvisational patterns, encouraging Phil Collins to abandon a two-bass-drum set-up and focus on his hi-hat work, and just plain flooring Roger Taylor. "I would say of just sheer technique he's the best I've ever seen," recalled the Queen drummer. "I remember he did a sort of press-roll thing which lasted for about five minutes. It started off as a whisper, which you could barely hear, and it got so it filled the whole room of about 3,500 people and it was like thunder."

Ringo Starr; Beatles

Ringo Starr

"I remember the moment, standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like, 'Fuck you. What is this?'" said Paul McCartney, looking back on the Beatles' first time playing with Ringo Starr. "And that was the moment, that was the beginning, really, of the Beatles." Though he was often underappreciated during the flamboyant late Sixties that produced Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell, Ringo didn't just ground the greatest band of all time, he helped give their music shape and focus — listen to the ecstatic rolls that open "She Loves You," the crisp buoyancy of "Ticket to Ride," the slippery cymbal work and languid concision of "Rain," or the way he threw cute, memorable "rhythmic hooks" into many more of the Beatles beloved tunes. Personally, his good natured geniality made him the band's most approachable member. "John would go up and down and all that," said Yoko Ono, "but Ringo was always just very gentle. And he really believed in peace and love." As a left-handed drummer playing a right-handed kit, Starr came up with his own unique style of creating crisp exuberant "funny fills," and his steady reliability became an early gold standard for no-nonsense rock players, serving each song with feel, swing and unswerving reliability. "Ringo was the the king of feel," Dave Grohl has said. Says Jim Keltner, "He was the guy that we all tried to play like in the studio."

DJ Fontana; Elvis Presley

D.J. Fontana

On hundreds of early Elvis Presley recordings, Dominic Joseph "D.J." Fontana was the cutting edge of rock & roll­ drumming, making hillbilly music swing at a time when country and bluegrass groups were shunning drums altogether. He pioneered a litany of oft-imitated licks from the jumpy snare hits of "Blue Suede Shoes" to the waves of punchlines that made "Hound Dog" howl. "He had incredible technique and fast hands, so he could deploy those Buddy Rich press rolls whenever he wanted to. He played like a big-band drummer — full throttle," Levon Helm once said. "Now Elvis had a real foundation, some architecture, and he made the most of it. D.J. set Elvis free."

Charlie Watts; Rolling Stones

Charlie Watts

Keith Richards once said that when the Rolling Stones formed, they "couldn't afford" drummer Charlie Watts, who was already the rock-steady sticksman for Alexis Korner's more established Blues Incorporated. Eventually, the Stones won him over and he asked to join. "You're great, man," he told Richards, "but you need a fucking good drummer." Other than the occasional sojourn in to jazz side projects, Watts has perfectly complemented Jagger, Richards and the rest of the gang with swinging grooves ("Brown Sugar"), taut four-on-the-floor rhythms ("Satisfaction") and understated impressionism ("Sympathy for the Devil"), rarely showing off, for more than 50 years. "When we got Charlie, that really made it for us," Richards said. "Charlie can rush like mad and still make it feel great. That's his style," Jim Keltner told Drum! "He can't explain it and I don't necessarily like going into too much detail with him about it. I just marvel at it."

Benny Benjamin; Motown

Benny Benjamin

For years, Berry Gordy refused to record unless the hard-swinging Benny Benjamin was in the studio. "He had a distinctive knack for executing various rhythms all at the same time," the Motown founder has said of his label's key session drummer. "He had a pulse, a steadiness, that kept the tempo better than a metronome." Benjamin held down tons of Motown hits, from Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" to "The Temptations' "My Girl," alongside session mates who he dubbed the Funk Brothers and called him "Papa Zita."  Addiction frequently kept him out of the studio before he died of a stroke in 1969, but Benjamin mentored the young Stevie Wonder, who credits his own drumming style to the older musician. "I learned from just listening to him," Wonder said in 1973. "Man, he was one of the major forces in the Motown sound. Benny could've very well been the baddest."  

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Steve Copeland

Stewart Copeland

It may be Sting's melodies that have become ubiquitous, but the Police sounds the way they do because of Stewart Copeland's use of space, subtlety and aggression. He's surely the major drummer least interested in playing the snare (which is still uncommonly bright and cutting) and his signature parts often involve intricate hi-hat patterns (that's his hat-work on Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain"). His father Miles was a diplomat who brought his family to live in various spots in the Middle East, and that unique upbringing invested the Police with rhythmic accents far from their native England. Despite their sustained antagonism, Sting allowed that the band's "first record was entirely a tribute to Stewart's energy and focus. "All these years I've spent trying to get that Stewart Copeland snare drum sound or that Stewart Copeland hi-hat sound," said Primus' Les Claypool, who began jamming with him in 2000, "and he sat down at this [drum kit] that was laying around with old heads on it… And all of a sudden there was that Stewart Copeland snare drum sound. It made me realize it's all about how he attacks his drums, how he plays."

Al Jackson Jr; Booker T; MGs; Stax

Al Jackson Jr.

Al Jackson Jr., the session drummer for the legendary soul label Stax, was known as "the Human Timekeeper" until his death in 1975 at the age of 40. During that era, Jackson's distinctively swinging but crisp grooves propelled legendary sides from Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Al Green (with whom Jackson co-wrote the hit "Let's Stay Together"); and as his reputation grew, superstars from outside the R&B world like Eric Clapton began demanding Jackson's percussive genius. As a co-founder and key member of Booker T. & the MGs, Jackson's helped pave the rhythmic future for both funk and hip-hop. "I put him in the same bag with Ray Charles or Billy Preston, in a class all his own," Sam & Dave's Sam Moore said of Jackson, who played on chestnuts like "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Coming." "I'll tell it to you straight: He could make shit smell good."

Mitch Mitchell; Jimi Hendrix Experience

Mitch Mitchell

"He played the kit like a song, it was just wonderful," said Roger Taylor of Queen, praising Mitch Mitchell's "fusion of jazz technique and wonderful riffs, but with this rolling ferocious attack on the whole kit … Total integration into the song. Not just marking time." And Stewart Copeland of the Police has admitted "All of this stuff I did that I was rather proud of, I thought I came up with it. But no, I got it from Mitch." However, in 1966, when it came time to choose a drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the decision was literally a toss-up — a coin was flipped to pick between Mitch Mitchell and Aynsley Dunbar. Mitchell won out and this hard-hitting Elvin Jones disciple brought a heavy improvisatory quality to Hendrix's power trio, typically constructing a tense, heavy groove then veering off into a fluid yet structured counterpoint to Jimi's guitar.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Gene Krupa

Gene Krupa

"He was the first rock drummer, in very many ways," Neil Peart told NPR of Gene Krupa in 2015. "He was the first drummer to command the spotlight and the first drummer to be celebrated for his solos… He did fundamentally easy things, but always made them look spectacular." Krupa's flailing attack, four-on-the-floor bass-drum tattoo and manically funky cowbell work – influenced by New Orleans drummers Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton – drove Benny Goodman's innovative Thirties big band to new heights and in the process inspired a generation of future rock giants, including Keith Moon and John Bonham. Along with Buddy Rich, his opponent in epic drum battles that inspired today's "Gospel Chops" drum videos, Krupa is the godfather of drum-set artistry as sport and spectacle. The still-thriving tradition of the showstopping, arena-scale drummer star turn, from Bonham's "Moby Dick" to Peart's "The Rhythm Method," is unthinkable without him.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Clyde Stubblefield; Jabo Starks; John Starks

Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks

At the height of his band's rhythmic revolutions, Brown's percussion section was anchored by not one but two master drummers: the woefully underrated John "Jabo" Starks and Mr. Funky Drummer himself, Clyde Stubblefield. Starks began his career backing jazz and blues players, Stubblefield was an R&B man and, by coincidence, the two started with Brown's band just weeks apart. Each brought a distinctive style that complemented the other. Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson once told Rolling Stone that "Starks was the Beatles to Clyde's Stones. A clean shuffle drummer to Clyde's free-jazz left hand." Together, their partnership would help shape some of Brown's greatest songs, including "Cold Sweat," "Superbad" and of course "Funky Drummer." Their innovations would be felt again as they dictated the entire feel of hip-hop's Golden Era.

hal blaine

Hal Blaine

“If Hal Blaine had played drums only on the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” his name would still be uttered with reverence,” Max Weinberg once said. But the drummer born Harold Simon Belsky did so much more, recording with Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Elvis and the Supremes, to name just a few. Leader of the Wrecking Crew, the group of L.A. session players that dominated the studio scene in the Sixties and Seventies, Blaine is the most recorded drummer in history. (He lost count of his titles around the 35,000 mark, but among those are 150 Top 10 hits and 40 Number Ones.) As the percussionist behind Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound,” Blaine laid down one of the most recognizable beats in popular music, but Blaine’s true legacy is his chameleon-like adaptability to any session – and not only behind a conventional kit. For the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No,” he banged Sparkletts water jugs, and on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” he dragged tire chains across a concrete floor. “I’m not a flashy drummer,” he reflected. “I wanted to be a great accompanist.” Mission accomplished.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Neil pert

Neil Peart

When Neil Peart auditioned for Rush in 1974, his bandmates heard in him a chance to embrace their die-hard Who fandom. "We were so blown away by Neil's playing," guitarist Alex Lifeson recalled in an interview earlier this year. "It was very Keith Moon-like, very active, and he hit his drums so hard." Ironically, Peart's great contribution to rock drumming would turn out to be the exact aesthetic opposite of Moon's: the most precise and meticulously plotted percussion that the genre has ever seen. As Rush's high-prog ambitions flowered in the mid-to-late '70s, Peart revealed himself as both an obsessive craftsman and wildly ambitious artiste – traits that also surfaced in his fantastical lyrics – using esoteric implements such as orchestra bells, temple blocks and timpani to flesh out his baroque parts for songs such as "Xanadu" and "The Trees." As the band's music streamlined in the Eighties, through transitional masterpieces such as Moving Pictures and on to a more pop-oriented sound, so did Peart's playing; he began tastefully incorporating electronic percussion and looking to mainstream innovators such as Stewart Copeland for inspiration. Rush's recent work, such as 2012's Clockwork Angels, features some of Peart's best work on record: a stunning unity of brains and brawn. Meanwhile, despite his recent retirement from touring, Peart remains perhaps the most revered – and air-drummed-to – live sticksman in all of rock, famous as the architect of literally showstopping set-piece solos.

Ginger Baker; Cream

Ginger Baker

Gifted with immense talent, and cursed with a temper to match, Ginger Baker combined jazz training with a powerful polyrhythmic style in the world's first, and best, power trio. While clashing constantly with Cream bandmates Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, the London-born drummer introduced showmanship to the rock world with double-kick virtuosity and extended solos. Following the breakup of the short-lived Blind Faith, Baker moved to Nigeria for several years in the Seventies. "He understands the African beat more than any other Westerner," declared Afrobeat co-creator Tony Allen. In the years since, Baker has kept busy with an impressive array of projects, flaunting his signature bravura, intricately braided grooves in undervalued mid-Seventies venture Baker Gurvitz Army, jazz combos featuring star soloists like Bill Frisell, and compelling collaborations with Public Image Ltd and Masters of Reality.

Keith Moon; The Who

Keith Moon

The "greatest Keith Moon-type drummer in the world," as he described himself, abhorred the repetition of rote rock drumming – as well as the repetition in life in general. Moon, the inspiration for the Muppets character Animal, smashed drum kits and hotel rooms with a ferocity suggesting he was more performance artist than mere rock "sticksman." He famously refused to play drum solos and instead treated drums as the Who's lead instrument. "His breaks were melodic," bassist John Entwistle told Rolling Stone, "because he tried to play with everyone in the band at once." Moon the Loon fit drum rolls into places they were never intended to go and only the synth tracks used on Who's Next stabilized his constantly wavering sense of tempo. "Keith Moon, he’s really orchestrated, like a timpani player or a cymbal player in an orchestra," said Jane's Addiction's Stephen Perkins. "He’s making you know that this is an important part, even though it might not be exactly at the end of the four bars. I love that drama, that theater and I love the emotion." Moon's favorite stunt, though, was flushing powerful explosives down hotel toilets, a trick he pulled until 1978, when he died from a drug overdose at age 31.

John Bonham; Led Zeppelin

John Bonham

On the very first cut of the very first Led Zeppelin LP, John Bonham changed rock drumming forever. Years later, Jimmy Page was still amused by the disorienting impact that "Good Times Bad Times," with its jaw-dropping bass-drum hiccups, had on listeners: "Everyone was laying bets that Bonzo was using two bass drums, but he only had one." Heavy, lively, virtuosic and deliberate, that performance laid out the terrain Bonham's artful clobbering would conquer before his untimely death in 1980. At his most brutally paleolithic he never bludgeoned dully, at his most rhythmically dumbfounding he never stooped to unnecessary wankery, and every night on tour he dodged both pitfalls with his glorious stampede through "Moby Dick." "I spent years in my bedroom – literally fucking years – listening to Bonham's drums and trying to emulate his swing or his behind-the-beat swagger or his speed or power," Dave Grohl once wrote in Rolling Stone, "not just memorizing what he did on those albums but getting myself into a place where I would have the same instinctual direction as he had." This was a course that nearly every post-Bonham rock drummer would follow at one time or another, a quest that allowed the greatest to eventually find their own grooves.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.