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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; Jack DeJohnette
40

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
39

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
38

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
37

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
36

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
35

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
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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
33

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
32

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
31

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
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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
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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
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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
27

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."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Danny Carey
26

Danny Carey

Coming off an inauspicious late-Eighties stint drumming in novelty band Green Jellÿ (under the pseudonym Danny Longlegs), Danny Carey joined future alt-metal juggernaut Tool in 1990. In the years since, the 6' 5" Kansas native has established himself as the natural heir to Seventies prog giants such as Neil Peart and Bill Bruford, and one of the most widely admired rock drummers of his generation. Carey's style combines brainy ambition – and a knack for polyrhythms and odd meters – with uncompromising force and a fluid, natural feel. His gift is making the experimental sound natural. "It doesn't mean anything if you just hear the drums doing tricky things," he says. "I don't want to have people say, 'That guy is burning.' I would rather hear them say, 'That reminds me of the Moors running down the hill, or Scotsmen attacking with their heads on fire, butt-naked in the middle of winter.'"

Earl Palmer; Fats Domino; Little Richard; Wrecking Crew
25

Earl Palmer

One of the most recorded drummers in history, Earl Palmer was an artist-craftsman who defined the role of sideman. An expert reader, improviser, pocket player and accompanist, the New Orleans–based Palmer played on region-defining songs like Little Richard's "Good Golly, Miss Molly," Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" and Professor Longhair's "Tipitina." After moving to California, he promptly became one of the most sought-after session musicians around. As his fellow Wrecking Crew member Carol Kaye said, "Earl took over … he was the greatest drummer I'd ever heard." The sheer volume of his recordings means his rhythms have helped define the beat of America: Richie Valens' "La Bamba," Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" are just the tip of an iceberg that even includes novelty fare like the Flintstones theme. "When the pulse of rock & roll grabs you and won't let go, it becomes the Big Beat," said Max Weinberg. "That's how it was when Earl Palmer laid into Little Richard's 'Lucille,' sounding as if he were using baseball bats and kicking a 30-foot bass drum."

Steve Gadd; Steely Dan; Paul Simon
24

Steve Gadd

British jazz drummer Pete Fairclough said that Steve Gadd "doesn't play a groove, he digs a trench." At the peak of his work in the New York session scene in the 1970s, he claims he playing three sessions a day, giving a decade of rock music a deep and gentle funkiness. His best known works are the brain-bending syncopation of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and the slurping hi-hats and monster fills on Steely Dan's "Aja," but Gadd has breathed giddy groove into hundreds of recordings including Van McCoy's Number One disco sensation "The Hustle." "Every drummer wants to play like Gadd because he plays perfect," said Chick Corea. "He has brought orchestral and compositional thinking to the drum kit while at the same time having a great imagination and a great ability to swing."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Elvin Jones
23

Elvin Jones

Born in 1927 to a musical family in Pontiac, Michigan, Elvin Jones was among a handful of players who changed the definition of how a drummer is meant to function in his seismic five-year stint with the John Coltrane Quartet. An impeccable timekeeper with tremendous delicacy, Jones is best remembered for pushing Coltrane into the stratosphere with his elemental power, dispersing and displacing the beat among all four limbs. "There is nothing new about timekeeping, it's just that some people can keep better time than others," Jones told Down Beat in 1977. "Some people are more sensitive to rhythmic pulses, and the more sensitive you are, the more you can utilize the subtleties of timekeeping." The early hard-rock drummers that he influenced – Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham – would surely agree.

Levon Helm; The Band
22

Levon Helm

In his 1984 book The Big Beat, Max Weinberg paid apt tribute to Levon Helm, the Band's legendary singing drummer: "The muffled cadence of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,' the tumble-down tom-toms of 'Up on Cripple Creek,' and the weary yet determined backbeat of 'The Weight' show Levon to be one of the rare breed of drummers that are able to set not only the beat but the scene of a song's story as well." Born in tiny Marvell, Arkansas, Helm spent the late Fifties and early Sixties playing dives all over North America as a member of Ronnie Hawkins' backing band. By 1965, Helm and his fellow Hawks were backing Bob Dylan on his first electric tour; by 1968, they had re-dubbed themselves the Band and begun cutting original songs that often revolved around Helm's inimitable deep-pocket groove and proudly drawling vocal style. Despite his bitterness toward Robbie Robertson's decision to end the group with 1976's "Last Waltz" performance in San Francisco, the Martin Scorsese film of that all-star Thanksgiving show stands as a monument to Helm's charisma and rhythmic authority. In the drummer's later years, as his health was declining along with his finances, he held concerts in a barn on his own property in Woodstock. Night after night, even when throat cancer treatments turned his voice into a soft rasp, he joyously played tunes old and new, keeping the spirit of the Band alive at these so-called Midnight Rambles. "He was my bosom buddy friend to the end," Dylan said of Helm after his death, "one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation."

Ian Paice; Deep Purple
21

Ian Paice

Without Deep Purple's only continuous member, Ian Paice, there would be no heavy metal drumming. A epic rock legend who has "never played with ear plugs," Paice is an old-school pro who plays fast, furious and full-on. A fan of Frank Sinatra, Ringo Starr and Count Basie drummer Sonny Payne, Paice imbued hits like "Hush" and "Smoke on the Water" with a studied, infectious swing. Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse told Drum!, "He has a swing that feels just right. And his dynamics are great. The drummer in my trio, Van Romaine, calls him the 'Steve Gadd of rock.' … It’s like a gigantic locomotive thundering down the tracks with everything totally in sync."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Bernard Purdie
20

Bernard Purdie

Even though Bernard "Pretty" Purdie had gone by the nickname "Mississippi Bigfoot," this prolific studio player grew up in Maryland before moving to New York in the early 1960s where he got his start doing sessions with jazz artists like Nina Simone and Gabor Szabo. Known for his intricate hi-hat "ghost notes," Purdue soon became one of the most in-demand drummers in the entire industry, serving as Aretha Franklin's musical director for several years when he wasn't busy recording with everyone from Steely Dan to Mongo Santamaria to Bob Marley. The question isn't who Pretty Purdie played with; it's who he hasn't. “Bernard always some unique stylistic thing that he did that you’d never imagine in advance that nobody else would do,” Steely Dan’s Walter Becker recalled.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Tony Williams
19

Tony Williams

A 17-year-old Tony Williams' 1963 debut with Miles Davis stands as one of the most shocking emergences in all of 20th-century music. "Man, just hearing that little motherfucker made me excited all over again," the trumpeter wrote in his autobiography, Miles. "I could definitely hear right away that this was going to be one of the baddest motherfuckers who had ever played a set of drums." By the time he joined Miles, he had already made serious contributions to the jazz vanguard with saxophonist Jackie McLean and others. But his role in Davis' so-called Second Great Quintet was what made him a legend. Davis loved working with sidemen who weren't afraid to knock him around, and Williams, with his dizzying ride-cymbal patterns, eruptive accents and radical tempo distortions, was more than happy to oblige. It's only fitting that when he left Miles in 1969, he beat the trumpeter to the jazz-rock punch, forming the gloriously gnarly Lifetime with future Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. In the decade before his untimely 1997 death, Williams re-committed himself to acoustic jazz, playing, as ever, take-no-prisoners intensity. His inspiration cuts across genre. "To me, not only was he a master technician, a master drummer, the innovator of the age, but also, he was a sound innovator," Cindy Blackman has said of Williams. "He had so many things that elevated the sound and the level of skill required to play this kind of music."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Zigaboo Modeliste
18

Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste

Rolling Stone reporter Joe McEwen once described Zigaboo Modeliste's drumming technique as throwing "standard technique to the wind… punching out rollicking… rhythms with a stiff-armed attack." That pugilistic style, a powerful hallmark of Modeliste's work with the Meters in the early 1970s, solidified his status as one of the most lyrical funk drummers of all time. Modeliste’s style was steeped in the second-line tradition of his native New Orleans, where generations of drummers blueprinted a linear, almost melodic style of syncopation. On Meters' songs like "Cissy Strut" and "Just Kissed My Baby," Modeliste's stick work practically makes the trap set sing. After leaving the Meters in the mid-Seventies he continued to prove his talent for bringing a homegrown approach to the wider musical world by working with rock luminaries like Keith Richards and Ron Wood.

Terry Bozzio; Frank Zappa
17

Terry Bozzio

"I'm not really interested in the circus act part of it at all," Terry Bozzio told Rolling Stone in the midst of a solo tour with what he billed as "the world's largest tuned drum and percussion set." The statement might seem counterintuitive coming from Bozzio – who made his name working with Frank Zappa in the mid-to-late Seventies, at one point mastering the composer's fiendishly difficult percussion-centric work "The Black Page" – but this veteran drummer has always been much more than a technique-crazed virtuoso. Following his stint with Zappa, Bozzio became an integral part of post-prog supergroup U.K. and later, with then-wife, Dale, a co-architect of the trailblazing Eighties New Wave band Missing Persons, in which he adapted his thrilling chops to a streamlined pop framework.  Though in recent years he's been heard most often as a clinician and solo performer, or with a variety of rarefied supergroups, his stints with bands ranging from Korn to Faith No More singer Mike Patton's outré Fantômas stand as proof of his surprising range.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Bill Bruford
16

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
15

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
14

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
13

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
12

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
11

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
10

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
9

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
8

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
7

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
6

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
5

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
4

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
3

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
2

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
1

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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