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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; Tommy Lee
85

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
84

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
83

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
82

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
81

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
80

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."