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.

Mickey Waller; Jeff Beck; Rod Stewart; 100 Greatest Drummers; Rolling Stone

Micky Waller

A jazz-trained fixture on the London blues scene, Waller came into his own when he joined the Jeff Beck Group in 1967. His distinctive "Waller wallop" powered much of Beck's Truth, the missing link between hard blues and heavy metal. Waller also drummed on Rod Stewart's earliest solo albums, his finest moment arising from a 1971 session he showed up to sans cymbals. Rod couldn't afford to blow the studio time so he recorded "Maggie May" anyway, with Waller's bashing so fierce and steady that critic Greil Marcus quipped that he deserved the Nobel Prize in physics. "We overdubbed the cymbals later, so you hear them more faintly," Stewart recalled. "Micky forgetting to bring his cymbals actually gave 'Maggie May' a sharper beat."

Moe Tucker; The Velvet Underground

Moe Tucker

Hers was the off-kilter thump that spawned a million bands. That's how influential the deceptively primitive, artfully sophisticated pocket Maureen "Moe" Tucker brought to the Velvet Underground's classic lineup was, impacting artists ranging from Patti Smith to R.E.M. to Galaxie 500 to Nirvana. Indeed, Tucker held her own with the Velvets leaders Lou Reed and John Cale when it came to Sixties-era avant-garde sonic iconoclasm — standing instead of sitting behind the kit, playing with mallets instead of sticks, avoiding cymbals unless absolutely necessary or unexpected. On VU classics like "Heroin," Tucker seems to dispense with keeping time altogether, swelling and stuttering with the emotional ebb and flow of the song. "I think Maureen Tucker is a genius drummer," Lou Reed said in 2003. "Her style of drumming, that she invented, is amazing."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Young

Earl Young

In 1973, on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' Number One R&B hit "The Love I Lost," Earl Young invented the disco beat — all four beats of a bar played on the kick drum. This endlessly adaptable rhythmic pattern was the pulse of a decade and is still omnipresent wherever dancers are getting down. As part of session crew MFSB, Young also laid the musical framework for Philly Soul, contributing to records by the O'Jays, the Spinners and his own band the Trammps — but his singular contribution lives on the loudest, predicting more than 30 years of house music still filling festivals. "I don't have a drum machine," he said. "I was the drum machine back then."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Earl Hudson

Earl Hudson

Ferocious D.C. hardcore band Bad Brains started life as a jazz fusion crew, and Earl Hudson kept his superb chops when the tempos were cranked up to light speed and hurled against a wall. Nirvana’s Dave Grohl admits to swiping his moves for the intro to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and told Modern Drummer, “I would learn all of [his] licks verbatim.” When hard rock drummer Chad Smith joined the punkified Red Hot Chili Peppers, frontman Anthony Kiedis told him to get familiar. Eventually Bad Brains slowed down, stretched out into metal, reggae and funk, giving Hudson more room to flaunt his supple versatility. But he’ll always be best known as the chief architect of American hardcore.

Mike Shrieve; Santana

Michael Shrieve

When Santana took the stage on the second day of the Woodstock Festival, sandwiched between Country Joe McDonald and John Sebastian, they faced an ocean of listeners who had never heard a note of their music, since the group's debut LP had yet to hit shelves. But from the opening note of "Waiting," the audience was mesmerized by the band's unique fusion of infectious Latin rhythms and explosive psychedelic rock. Holding it all together was 20-year-old drummer Michael Shrieve, the youngest performer at the entire festival. With conga player Michael Carabello on one side and timbales player Jose "Chepito" Areas on the other, Shrieve laid down a tumbling, jazz-infused solo midway through "Soul Sacrifice" that remains absolutely stunning nearly 50 years on. Santana would shed nearly all of his original bandmates just two years later when he embraced fusion and other non-commercial styles, but Shrieve stuck by his side and even co-produced 1973's Welcome and 1974's Borboletta. The drummer went on to work with everyone from the Pat Travers Band to the Rolling Stones, showcasing his formidable range. "Michael Shrieve turned me onto Miles Davis and John Coltrane," Carlos Santana said in 2013. "He opened a whole new dimension for my heart." (Fittingly, the collaboration continues: Shrieve will appear on Santana IV, out April 15th, which reunites the majority of the lineup last heard on the group's 1971's self-titled LP.)