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.

Roger Hawkins; Muscle Shoals
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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."