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.

Ralph Molina; Crazy Horse; Rolling Stone

Ralph Molina

Neil Young has played with a lot of drummers during the past 50 years, but he always comes back to Ralph Molina, whom he first met during the Buffalo Springfield days, when Molina was a member of the Rockets. Like his Crazy Horse compadres, Molina is the furthest thing imaginable from a cookie-cutter virtuoso. "I can start playin' the guitar, and Ralph can pick it up on the wrong beat and play it backwards," Young told biographer Jimmy McDonough. "That happens all the time. Never happens with professional groups." He doesn't mean that as an insult. It's that kind of raw, from-gut-playing — and a knack for earthy backbeats that lope along with elemental grace underneath Young's signature fuzz-toned flights — that helped Molina lay the foundation of "Down by the River," "Cinnamon Girl" and other timeless classics. “We don’t know the songs; we don’t have charts," Molina said of in 2011 of his work with Young. "We just start playing. The magic just seems to happen … " The proof is clear on any Crazy Horse recording from 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to 2012's Psychedelic Pill.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Brian Chippendale

Brian Chippendale

"All our stuff is a way to get us to something that's maybe a new part of something musical," said human thresher Brian Chippendale. "Or just this feeling of, 'I'm not gonna stop. I'm gonna keep drumming for as long as I can.'" Chippendale's long-running duo Lightning Bolt treats noise-rock like body music, his bass drum expertly throbbing alongside Brian Gibson's fuzz-gush bass, and his high-velocity snare machine-gunning through a Day-Glo fog. Absolutely deafening on a simple four-piece kit, completely locked in when fans are falling over his gear, he's a study of extremes that you can dance to — and the unofficial ambassador for a generation of trailblazing 21st-century avant-rock percussionists that includes Zach Hill (Death Grips, Hella) and Greg Saunier (Deerhoof). "Lightning Bolt went through a few years ago and performed in England [at] All Tomorrow's Parties, and there was this little snippet that I think all my friends sent me," Björk told Pitchfork about tapping Chippendale for 2007's Volta. "I've watched it so many times, and I never on earth thought that I would work with someone like that."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Janet Weiss

Janet Weiss

"Janet made up a drum part, fierce and solid, we could practically bang our heads against it," Corin Tucker told Drum! about how Janet Weiss came to join Sleater-Kinney. "Then we were three." Since teaming with Tucker and Carrie Brownstein in 1996, Janet Weiss has been the ferocious foundation of the alt-rock institution as well as contributing her biting talents to Bright Eyes, the Jicks, the Shins and more. But her work with Sleater-Kinney has proven the most influential, providing a constant balance of song-serving and primal aggression. "Music, to me, is the most immediate of all art forms. Maybe because I'm physical. … I bang on things. There's a physicality to our music. We're using every part of our body," she told Paper in an interview about her supergroup Wild Flag. "Women aren't often allowed to be animals. And we are."

Bill Stevenson; Black Flag

Bill Stevenson

Bill Stevenson provided the raging backbeat for two strains of groundbreaking SoCal punk. In 1977, as a pimply 14-year-old, Stevenson co-founded the Descendents, whose heartbreaking proto-emo anthems — tattooed with Stevenson's signature machine-gun snare rolls, and often written and produced by him too — laid the groundwork for the likes of Green Day, Blink-182, Fall Out Boy and Weezer. And starting in the early Eighties, he served as the drummer for iconic L.A. punk brutalists Black Flag during the band's arguably most creative phase; as heard on albums such as My War and Slip It In, his steady yet mutable pulse fueled guitarist Greg Ginn's exploration of everything from monolithic art metal to spastic punk-gone-jazz. Stevenson, who maintains a busy touring with Descendents, their offshoot band All and the Black Flag tribute project Flag, attributes the hyperactive character of his playing to an everyday influence: caffeine. "In our band, we would drink a bunch of coffee, or I'd eat 50 Snickers bars, before we played," he said in 2014.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Jon Theodore

Jon Theodore

Jon Theodore is the contemporary rock world's most visible superdrummer, a player who has internalized the styles of key Seventies touchstones — the otherworldly facility of Billy Cobham, the elephantine swagger of John Bonham — and updated their approaches to fit the demands of the modern arena show. Theodore first turned heads in the early 2000s, playing dazzling Latin-infused prog with the Mars Volta. "I saw some of his first performances as a member of the Mars Volta," said Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha, who would later play with Theodore in the sinewy guerilla-funk outfit One Day as a Lion. "It was clear that music in L.A. was never going to be the same now that he was here." But it was a recommendation from Dave Grohl that led to Theodore's most high-profile role yet. "Dave was, like, 'You know, the guy who really blows me away is Jon Theodore,'" recalled Queens of the Stone Age leader Josh Homme, who brought Theodore into the QOTSA fold in 2013. The gig apparently isn't exclusive: When Skrillex, Diplo and Justin Bieber gave "Where Are Ü Now" a live-band makeover at the 2016 Grammys, Jon Theodore was behind the kit.

George Hurley; Minutemen; fIREHOSE

George Hurley

Hardcore punk barely existed when San Pedro, California's monumentally innovative trio the Minutemen made their recorded debut in 1980, but they'd already transcending it, fusing funk, avant-rock and folk into beautifully abbreviated blasts of knotty revelation. The band's frenetic and counter-intuitive — yet weirdly natural-sounding — music might've blurred into chaos without George Hurley, a jazz fan whose impossible speed, versatility and nuance made him the most inventive drummer to emerge from the American indie-rock scene of the 1980s. A few examples among dozens: the biting swing on "Search" and "The Big Foist," the fleet syncopation on "I Felt Like a Gringo," the jagged jazz tumble of "Split Red" and the pummel of "East Wind/Faith," which features of punk rock's rare drum solos. "I like R&B music," he said. "I like the space and the relaxation of it. At the same time, I like things jerky and piecey too, so I try to put the two together. I guess it's kind of like corn nut soup!"

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Phil Rudd

Phil Rudd

Longtime AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd has recently has received more ink for threatening to kill a former employee and for possessing meth and weed than he has in all his 29 years of simple, rock-solid beats and immaculate timing. That's a shame, since Rudd's economic style and monster groove helped pave the way for the iconic band's stardom. One of the most consistent minimalists in hard-rock drumming, Rudd influenced a wave of international players from Rammstein's Christoph Schnieider to Kiss' Eric Singer. "He lays it down in the most economical, yet effective way," Singer said. "His feel is really the heart and soul of the band." Rudd joined AC/DC in 1975, replacing Peter Clark, and played on seven studio albums before vocalist Bon Scott died from "death by misadventure." Following a bout with substance abuse and a physical altercation with rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, Rudd was fired in 1983. He returned to AC/DC in late 1993 and played on another four albums — his lean, mean trademark feel remained gloriously intact on 2014's Rock or Bust — before derailing in his recent scandal.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Tommy Lee

Tommy Lee

Tommy Lee's gravity-defying drum solos and penchant for wearing as few clothes as possible made him one of metal's truly great showmen. But his bashing in Mötley Crüe was just as important as his star power. Lee's frenetic clatter helped define the glam-punk appeal of Mötley's debut Too Fast for Love, while the earth-shaking beat that powered Dr. Feelgood's title track sounded as menacing and overwhelming as that song's tales of drug-fueled Eighties decadence. His "dream drum kit," which he took on Mötley Crüe's final tour in 2015, is in line with his stripped-down aesthetic: "I have a fully see-through kit now so people can check out exactly what I'm doing," he said. "Most drummers are covered with a million drums and everyone is like, 'What are you doing back there?'"

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; John Stainer

John Stanier

"When you’re playing with loops, the loop is really the drummer," John Stanier said in a 2011 interview, speaking to the high-tech approach favored by his band Battles. "That really, indirectly, is kind of running the show." Still, there's no question that whenever Stanier is onstage, he's the one in charge, powering the performance with lean, pulverizing, furiously danceable beats. When Nineties alt-metal kingpins Helmet burst into the mainstream in 1992 with their million-selling album Meantime, they redefined the sound of heavy rock — and their rise owed a lot to Stanier, whose meaty yet mathematical approach to the kit pushed Page Hamilton's sculpted riffs into new realm of precision pummel. Reared on Neil Peart and drilled in drum-corps technique, Stanier distilled rock drumming to its bare essentials, a trend that would reached peak austerity in Battles. "It was in reaction to the multi-instrumentality and complexity of the other guys," he said of his stripped-down kit, outfitted with one towering crash cymbal, "but also to what I had done before and what drummers of the time were doing." Stanier's gift is making the minimal feel monolithic.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Ronald Shannon Jackson

Ronald Shannon Jackson

If Ronald Shannon Jackson had done no more than play with avant-garde jazz icons Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor during a span of 12 years between 1966 and 1978, his stature would be secure. But Jackson, who incorporated parade-drumming patterns, African rhythms and funk into a singular, instantly recognizable style, went on to form his critically acclaimed Decoding Society, from which emerged Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs. "He synthesized blues shuffles with African syncopations through the lens of someone who gave vent to all manner of emotions," Reid said of the late drummer-composer in a 2003 Fort Worth Weekly article. "I feel that the collision of values in his music really represents American culture." Jackson's seismic rumble also drove sessions led by John Zorn and Bill Laswell, and reached peak extremity in Last Exit, a take-no-prisoners punk-jazz quartet featuring Laswell, saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and guitarist Sonny Sharrock.

Glenn Kotche; Wilco

Glenn Kotche

Surrounded onstage by what bandleader Jeff Tweedy calls his "in-Glenn-tions," Glenn Kotche brings Wilco an orchestral percussionist's sensibility, an indie rocker's experimental urges and some solid dad-rock chops. Kotche, who joined the band in time for their sea-change album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, has outfitted his kit with a vibraphone, MIDI effects, gongs, a hubcap, tuned antique cymbals, pellet-filled ping-pong balls and an air tube connected to his floor tom. He sometimes "prepares" his drums by laying chains on them or scattering beads and rice across drumheads. In his own compositions, Kotche explores accidental and coincidental rhythms (i.e., unintentional polyrhythms) in collaboration with So Percussion and other adventurous contemporary music ensembles. "I think he's one of the world's greatest drummers," said Tweedy, "and we have an incredible musical trust." To which the Jim Keltner–John Cage hybrid would reply, "I'm there to serve the songs."

JR Robinson; Michael Jackson

JR Robinson

John "JR" Robinson calls himself the "Most Recorded Drummer in History," which should give you some sense of the voluminous discography of one of pop's go-to slammers: the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited," Steve Winwood's "Higher Love," Rufus and Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody," a chunk of Daft Punk's Random Access Memories and no song less titanic than "We Are the World." Most importantly, Robinson laid the disco-rock-funk-pop concrete of Michael Jackson's tectonic-shifting Off the Wall. Robinson's perception of drummers as timekeepers only helps his innate ability to supercharge songs with subtle gestures. "He's the only drummer I could ever in my life ask to do a bar introduction on Michael Jackson's 'Rock With You,' Quincy Jones said at the Montreux Jazz Festival's celebration of his 75th birthday. "I said, 'I want a drum lick that the whole world can sing' … and they sang it."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Steve Jordan

Steve Jordan

Raised from a strong tradition of R&B and soul, Steve Jordan was in his teens when he started playing with Stevie Wonder and soon evolved into a versatile performer equally skilled in extemporaneous jazz fusion and sparse, straightforward, soulful rock. A decade younger than most Sixties rock royalty, he's been the man to provide some juice for a second act — he's a member of Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos, played for Eighties Neil Young, toured extensively with Eric Clapton and even was part of fictional reunion band the Blues Brothers. (He has also established strong ties to a younger generation, anchoring John Mayer's signature trio.) Loose and confident, Jordan became a master of all trades, imbuing whatever he played with his quintessential swing. "If you're a rigid person, I don't think you can swing or make other people swing," he said of his technique. "I would take a drummer who has no technique any day of the week over a more efficient drummer, if he swings better."

Mick Avery; Kinks

Mick Avory

"If it never got beyond the hard-hitting things, I wouldn't have been very suitable," said Kinks drummer Mick Avory. It might be one reason the Kinks' used a session drummer on their proto-metal missile "You Really Got Me" (though Avory contributed tambourine). But as Kinks' frontman Ray Davies matured as a songwriter, Avory would emerge as one of the Sixties more quietly innovative drummers. "I don't know if Ray's writing blended into my way of playing or if I blended into the way he was writing." With his jazz-tutored versatility and witty drum cadences, Avory, who'd been courted by the Rolling Stones in 1962, was indeed the ideal rhythmic foil for Ray Davies' sardonic, mature style. While Avory's playing was refined and low-key, his onstage fights with guitarist Dave Davies were the stuff of legend; when Dave trashed Avory's drum kit to close off a 1965 Cardiff gig, he got a drum pedal launched at his head in return. Yet, somehow Avory managed not to get kicked out of the band until 1984.

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."