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; Manu Katché

Manu Katché

Artists like Peter Gabriel and Sting refused to sit rhythmically still in the late Eighties and the early Nineties; and they called upon wildly dynamic French-via-Ivory-Coast drummer Manu Katché to translate their expansive worldbeat visions. Instantly recognizable thanks to his nuanced splash cymbal work and stuttering beats, he provides the West African pulse of Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" and the trip-hop groove of the singer-songwriter's "Digging in the Dirt." For Sting's schizophrenic "Englishman in New York," he vacillates between reggae lite, a jazz break and some mid-Eighties hip-hop boom 'n' pound with the smoothness of a DJ. "When we did the Amnesty tour [in 1986], I asked Manu Katché if I could sit down behind him and watch," said U2's Larry Mullen Jr. "He was freaked and didn't know what I was doing, but I just wanted to see what real drummers get up to!"

Richie Hayward; Little Feat

Richie Hayward

As drummer for surrealist boogie band Little Feat, Richie Hayward tended to play over, under and around the beat. After answering Lowell George's L.A. Free Press ad ("Drummer wanted — must be freaky"), Hayward stuck out the Feat's critical success and commercial failures. As the band's prime mover, he made Little Feat the colorful, swinging and fun dancehall version of the Band's serious, sepia-toned proto-Americana. According to Phish drummer Jon Fishman, "The easiest way to predict what he might play on the set at any given point was to listen to the phrasing of the lyrics." Hayward navigated the Feat's discombobulated prog-boogie and unorthodox song structures on his drums while adding high vocal harmonies. He brought a swampy Louisiana slide to their sound, instigating the second-line funk that would make fans of future employers like Robert Plant and Bob Dylan.

Max Weinberg; The E Street Band

Max Weinberg

In the spring of 1974, Max Weinberg saw a notice in the Village Voice that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were looking for a new drummer, cautioning would-be applicants that they didn't want any "Junior Ginger Bakers." Weinberg was a steady-handed pro schooled in the pits of Broadway shows: in other words, the complete opposite of Cream's wild-man drummer. He blew Springsteen away at an audition and was hired just as work began on Born to Run. It's impossible to imagine how that album would have sounded without Weinberg's taut pulse — closer in spirit to the Sixties studio kings than the Seventies arena giants — and after its success, the drummer found himself working with everyone from Meat Loaf to Bonnie Tyler. When the E Street Band split in 1989, he found work as Conan O'Brien's bandleader, though when the band reformed in 1999, he managed to fit both jobs into his busy schedule. "Max found a place where Bernard Purdie, Buddy Rich and Keith Moon intersected, and he made it his own," Bruce Springsteen said during his 1999 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech. "I ask, and he delivers for me night after night."

Questlove; The Roots

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Ahmir Thompson has taken on many roles — neo-soul superproducer, polymathic author/raconteur, talk-show bandleader, Broadway musical consultant, celebrity superfan — but those opportunities arose because he's foremost a wickedly versatile drummer whose playing has consistently upended expectations. Jaws that had previously been set skeptically against "live-band hip-hop" first dropped at that moment in the Roots' "You Got Me" when Thompson's steady pulse skitters into a simulation of the frantic breakbeats that drum 'n' bass producers had been stitching together electronically. The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon could be an easy money gig, but he accepts it as a nightly challenge to add new pages to his ever-expanding encyclopedia of rhythm, blending seamlessly with the style of any guest who shows up. "That's what's so cool about Ahmir," guitarist Charlie Hunter, who worked with Thompson on D'Angelo's classic Voodoo LP, told The New Yorker. "He can sit in that pocket and drive it and think in terms of a wider landscape."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Jimmy Chamberlin

Jimmy Chamberlin

According to Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin showed up for his first rehearsal "wearing a pink T-shirt, stonewashed jeans and a mullet haircut. … We were thinking, 'This is not the guy.' [But] he'd learned all our songs, and within one practice, we were ready to play. He's that good." Unlike grunge-era Zeppelin-ites like Nirvana's Dave Grohl or Soundgarden's Matt Cameron, Chamberlin played like a deadly serious, jazz-indebted muso, suggesting deep familiarity with the fusoid likes of Dennis Chambers and Return to Forever's Lenny White. Filling 1993's Siamese Dream with tight snare rolls and 1995's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness with orchestral fervor, he became as intricate to the band's sound as Billy Corgan's pedal chain. "You can't just grab somebody and say, 'Play drums on this Smashing Pumpkins song,'" Corgan told USA Today. "Jimmy's drum parts are so incredibly technical and nuanced that it's a very rare class of people that can step in and play."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Matt Cameron

Matt Cameron

More than any other drummer, Matt Cameron laid the rhythmic foundation for the Nineties rock revolution, reconciling proggy technicality with overwhelming force. He aptly characterized his rotary-blade rhythms on the 1991 Soundgarden track "Jesus Christ Pose" as "a pure assault of the senses," but that efficient brutality wasn't necessarily characteristic of Cameron's work with the band – his drumming on Superunknown is as thoughtful as it is heavy, from the fluid asymmetry of "Spoonman" to the unshakeable backbeat of "Fell on Black Days." Twenty years after its release, Dave Grohl was still raving, "Nobody played drums like Matt." When Soundgarden suddenly disbanded in 1997, Cameron wasn't out of work for long: Pearl Jam invited him on tour the following year. "They didn't try to tone me down at all," he told an interviewer near the beginning of his ongoing stint with the band. "I'm kind of known for playing weird, crazy fills and sometimes playing things I shouldn't be playing, but they loved it — at least that's what they told me."

Alex Van Halen; Van Halen

Alex Van Halen

Alex Van Halen's arena-sized ambitions and jazz-influenced nimbleness made Van Halen one of rock's most vibrant bands — millions of young drummers all over America drove themselves nuts in the Eighties trying to replicate the skip-stone tom-tom work and galloping swing he brought to "Hot for Teacher" or the tricky opening groove of "Finish What You Start." His devotion and toughness were pretty impressive too: A 1984 Rolling Stone feature described a show opening for the Rolling Stones where Alex played the entire with his hand broken in four places. "He couldn't even hold a drumstick," journalist Debby Miller wrote. "So he tied the stick to his wrist with a shoelace and went on with the show." Van Halen ascribed his career choice to his childhood: "[My father] was a musician, and it's hard to put into words, but musicians are different than the 9-to-5ers," he told MTV's Kurt Loder in 1991. "It's a different mentality … the whole planet is your home."

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