100 Greatest Drummers of All Time – Rolling Stone
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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; Carter Beauford

Carter Beauford

A founding member of the Dave Matthews Band, Carter Beauford is a chops-heavy jazz drummer and Tony Williams fan with pop sensibilities. Though his band depends on groove, he fills out even their most popular tracks with wildly complicated, incredibly busy licks – for example, giving "Ants Marching" an unlikely hi-hat pattern before orchestrally accenting Matthews' vocal stabs, adding tricky bass drum work to "So Much to Say," treating "Dancing Nancies" like a second line that stops at Stewart Copeland's house or using two snares on "Two Step." And, of course, there's the live shows where his monster drum solos explode in double-kick frenzies and songs evolve from night to night. "Every audience is different, so we want to try and speak directly to that audience or deliver a different message every time we play," Beauford told Guitar Center. "If you play the same thing every time, the word will get out."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Jack DeJohnette

Jack DeJohnette

A pianist from age four, Jack DeJohnette didn't take up the drums until 18. That relatively late start didn't hold him back: an early stint with Chicago avant-garde institution the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians led to live work with John Coltrane, a position in Charles Lloyd's chart-topping quartet and eventually a gig with Miles Davis, as the trumpeter was gearing up for the 1970 fusion landmark Bitches Brew. "It was great to play with Miles, because Miles loved the drums," DeJohnette explained to Jazz.com in 2009. "Everything came from the drums. He liked boxing, he was a big boxing fan, and he saw drums in jazz as having similar aspects." As a bandleader and composer, DeJohnette fuses all that he'd learned — A.A.C.M.-honed experimentation, Coltrane's integrity, Davis's pugilistic groove — with his own innate knack for turning a memorable tune.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Ramon “Tiki” Fullwood

Ramon “Tiki” Fullwood

"Man, that was the most hardest foot drummer I ever heard," said Grady Thomas, vocalist in George Clinton's doo-wop crew the Parliaments, of Ramon "Tiki" Fulwood. Legend has it that at a tender 17 years old, Fulwood had to sneak into clubs to perform, and Clinton eventually had to beg his mother to take him on tour. His heavy style — alongside Eddie Hazel's free-wheeling guitar — signaled the end of the band wearing suits, and turning towards a psychedelic potpourri that would change the world. What you hear on drugged-out anthems like "Maggot Brain" are his unique, heavy-handed takes — a rapturous, extroverted execution that would later become sample-fodder for hip-hop producers. "Tiki was the epitome of that showtime shit, with power," said Hazel's mom Grace. "I mean, he was playing that shit like all kinds of bombs was going off back there."

Jim Keltner; Bob Dylan; John Lennon

Jim Keltner

Jim Keltner is one of the most revered session drummers ever, grounding thousands of records including John Lennon's Imagine, Ringo Starr's "Photograph," much of George Harrison's solo output, both Traveling Wilburys LPs, Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and Steely Dan's "Josie"; not to mention work with Harry Nilsson, the Bee Gees, Pink Floyd, Randy Newman, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, the Pretenders, Fiona Apple and Oasis. Born in Oklahoma, he grew up in Pasadena, California and started doing session work in the Sixties, launching a career that's touched pretty much every pop and rock idiom. Keltner is known for his solid backing, easygoing feel, jazz-schooled subtlety and versatility. "He reacts to everything that's going on in the music," said Leon Russell, who has worked with Keltner frequently over the decades. A hallmark of Keltner's style is unshowy casualness. "I've had a lot of people over the years that have said to me, 'You don't look like you're playing when you're playing," he once said, adding, "There's so many different ways to play the drums, just like guitar."

Toto; Michael Jackson; Thriller; Jeff Porcaro

Jeff Porcaro

Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro was a perpetual pop presence in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. His fleet stick work gave Michael Jackson's "Beat It" much of its bite, helped Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin'" simmer wistfully and laid down the "Rosanna Shuffle" on his own band's megahit of the same name. "Jeff always had a huge part in making a song a record," Porcaro's brother and bandmate Steve told Rhythm in 2013. "You felt like you were capturing lightning in the studio. It was never boring. … He always came up with the best parts instantly, like he'd been playing the song for years." Porcaro passed away in 1992, shortly after Toto's eighth album Kingdom of Desire was completed; he'd also played on Bruce Springsteen's Human Touch, and allegedly turned down a million-dollar tour offer from the Boss in order to work with his flagship band.  

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Steve Smith

Steve Smith

Though he's spent most of the last 30 years touring on the jazz fusion circuit and heading up drum clinics, from 1978 to 1985 Steve Smith's superhuman chops held down arena rockers Journey during their peak years – arcade game and all. His part for the inspirational classic "Don't Stop Believin'" is an intricate open handed pattern in which he plays the hi-hat with his left hand while his right moves around the kit. It's as exceptional as Perry's skyscraping vocals. "I remember the final episode of The Sopranos, when they played 'Don’t Stop Believin'' by Journey," drummer Peter Erskine told Drum! "Smith is part of this important watershed moment in American media…. And then here’s Smith in another setting playing Jo Jones on the hi-hat! How many other guys could drive a band like that and also play the hi-hat?"

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Fred Below

Fred Below

Before Motown's Funk Brothers or Stax's M.G.'s, looser collections of label-assembled session musicians shaped the sound of R&B in the mid-20th century — including players like the Aces' Fred Below, whose tasteful, delicately forceful work for Chess Records in Chicago was pivotal in propelling the music of Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Howlin' Wolf to new heights. Starting out as a jazz drummer, Below had to find his own way into blues. "What made blues fascinating with me was because it was a type of music that I wan’t familiar with — and they didn’t teach it in school!" he recalled. "So, I had to play it in a way that it would make sense to me." Listening to Muddy Waters' "I'm Ready" or Chuck Berry's "School Days," Below's range and virtuosic touch are crystal clear; without fuss or flourish, he fueled Chess' electric-blues engine.

Bill Kreutzmann; The Grateful Dead

Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann

Mickey Hart joined founding Grateful Dead member Bill Kreutzmann in 1967, making the Dead one of rock's first double-drummer outfits. No other rock band took percussive symbiosis further. "The language that Bill and I share is not spoken," said Hart. "It's body language, winks and movement … a secret language that we cannot describe." Or as Kreutzmann said: "Mickey hears in more of a straight-16th staccato, and I put a little more dotted thing with it." Hart also employs RAMU, his digital "Random Access Musical Universe," and the infamous "beam," an eight-foot, 13-string "Pythagorean monochord." By 1979 the Dead had replaced their interstellar mainstay "Dark Star" with what tapers referred to as "Drums>Space," a drum duet that evolved into a freely improvised ticket to unexplored musical regions, bringing the avant-garde to fields of rock fans the world over.

Tony Allen; Fela

Tony Allen

"It's incredible," Tony Allen quotes Afrobeat co-inventor Fela Kuti as saying. "The way you play one wouldn't even need a percussionist." A radically polyrhythmic groove machine, this Nigerian-Ghanaian innovator added jazz and funk to local West African genres such as highlife, apala and Nigerian mambo. Allen was playing jazz in Lagos when he met Fela, who hired him as drummer and bandleader — first in Koola Lobitos and then Africa 70 — from 1965 to 1979, when Allen left due to Fela's "dictator ideology" and distracting politics. Fela has admitted there'd be no Afrobeat without Allen, whose influence extended to Talking Heads, Gorillaz and countless afro-fusion outfits. After leaving Fela, Allen continued pushing envelopes in collaborations and hybrid solo syntheses he calls afrofunk. "I'm a cool person," he admits. "I'm playing my drums the way… I behave in life."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; James Gadson

James Gadson

Although he originally hailed from Kansas City, it's hard to imagine a more important drummer in the history of Los Angeles music than James Gadson. He first rose to prominence in the late 1960s as a core member of the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band (of "Express Yourself" fame) and then Bill Withers' band, all the while staying busying as one of the most prolific session players in town. His steady hand held down everything from the Jackson 5's' "Dancing Machine" to the Temptations' "Happy People" to Marvin Gaye's "I Want You." "I mean, he played on 'Let's Get It On.' … Gadson is that sound," Jamie Lidell told Pitchfork. "Whenever I'm playing with him, some crazy lock goes on I've never experienced with another musician, ever. He'll just look over and he's smiling and nailing that fuckin' beat. And when he finished the track, he's like, 'I got it from you!' Fuckin' no ego on him."

Roger Hawkins; Muscle Shoals

Roger Hawkins

Jerry Wexler, the producer who coined the very term "rhythm & blues," called Roger Hawkins "the greatest drummer in the world." Like all the Swampers, as he and his mates in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were affectionately known, Hawkins excelled at adapting his personal style to the needs of a session. Wilson Pickett slapped out the beat he wanted for "Land of 1000 Dances" on his leg and Hawkins took it from there; Paul Simon sought a particular lope for "Kodachrome" and the drummer captured it by tapping on a tape box. The intricate cymbal pattern Hawkins builds up to on Aretha's "Chain of Fools," the wry funk patterns he runs under the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There," the subtle drama he lays out on Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" — it all makes it hard to argue with Wexler.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Clifton James

Clifton James

"When I made the record 'Bo Diddley' in 1955, it turned the whole music scene around," said the eponymous guitar slinger. "Caucasian kids threw Beethoven in the garbage can." While the tom-heavy pattern anchoring the song has been dubbed the "Bo Diddley beat," drummer Clifton James deserves just as much credit for birthing that iconic proto-rock rumble. Born in Chicago with 13 siblings, James learned to play on chairs and tin cans. He played on records for a who's who of Chicago blues legends – Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson – but his biggest contribution has been his role as Diddley's drummer from 1954 to 1970. "That actually was Clifton James’ idea of a beat more than it was Bo Diddley’s at that time," claimed Dixon. "Out of all the different drummer that Bo Diddley ever had, he never had one that pleased him anymore than Clifton James…. By mixing the two of them together, they had such a beautiful thing that one was actually no good without the other."

Carlton Barrett; Bob Marley & the Wailers

Carlton Barrett

Nothing sounds more certifiably reggae than Carlton "Carlie" Barrett's tumbling tom-toms followed by the high, whip-cracking snare that launched a thousand tracks. Arguably the single most influential musician in reggae history, Barrett popularized the music's signature "one drop" rhythm in the Wailers and Bob Marley's solo band. The "Field Marshal" and his bassist brother Aston "Family Man" Barrett decelerated rocksteady's rhythm into the locked-in slow grooves that came to define classic roots reggae. His dry drum sound — heard in tracks like "Duppy Conqueror, "Soul Rebel" and "Small Axe" — and triplet-feel hi-hat served as a tractor beam for skanking fans until his 1987 murder at age 36. "Because drums are from the slavery days and from Africa, it comes from a lot of history," he told Modern Drummer. "[T]he good reggae drummers make playing a spiritual experience."

Carmine Appice; Vanilla Fudge; Rod Stewart

Carmine Appice

A valuable team player as well as a bruising power hitter with an instantly identifiable style, Carmine Appice literally wrote the book on rock drumming: His 1972 text The Realistic Rock Drum Method has been a staple since its release. Appice made his name in the late Sixties with eccentric psych outfit Vanilla Fudge – influencing a young John Bonham with his romping, aggressively funky grooves – before moving on to a heavier blues-rock style with Cactus and Beck, Bogert & Appice. He demonstrated his range in the late-Seventies Rod Stewart band, contributing sassy backbeats and key songwriting assistance on hits such as "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy." (Stewart reportedly called Appice "The Dentist" for employing what he termed "too many fill-ins.") More recently, he's kept busy playing "Drum Wars" shows with younger brother and fellow elite hard-rock beatsmith Vinny (Dio, Black Sabbath). According to Appice, some of his key innovations came from the constraints of playing live rock music during his formative years: "All the stuff we all did – the stuff that I am [credited with] starting was just stuff that I did out of necessity," Appice told Drum Magazine in 2011. "I pioneered the use of big drum sets and played with the butt end of the sticks early on. I did that because there were no P.A. systems."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Grohl

Dave Grohl

Dave Grohl's relentless, brawny drumming – forged in Washington, D.C.'s Eighties punk scene – was the perfect wallop needed to take Seattle's Nirvana from independent grunge band to multi-platinum icons. "Kurt had called me up and said, 'I have the best drummer in the world now. He plays louder and harder than anybody I've ever met,'" Nevermind producer Butch Vig told Grohl biographer Martin James. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, right.' But they were totally right. … There were no mics on [the drums] in this room and they were just as loud acoustically as the amps!" Grohl honed his unique style in the D.C. suburbs playing on pillows with thick marching band snare sticks: "That’s why I started hitting the drums so hard," he told Spin in 1997, "playing on pillows, pushing down and pulling up with these fucking bats listening to 'Violent Pacification' by D.R.I. I’d do that until the windows in my bedroom were dripping with condensation from the sweat in the room. It was like a workout tape."