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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; Clyde Stubblefield; Jabo Starks; John Starks
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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.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Hal Blaine
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.

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