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.

Tommy Ramone

Tommy Ramone

"He gave punk rock its pulse": so read the obituary headline from The New York Times, remarking on the 2014 death of one Tamás Erdélyi — better known by his stage name, Tommy Ramone. With his furiously metronomic eighth notes and tribal floor-tom bombs, he provided the speed-freak beat on the Ramones' groundbreaking first three albums, matching tempos with Johnny Ramone's buzzsaw guitar. ("Not unlike a fast drill on a rear molar" was how Erdélyi characterized his style.) He also made key songwriting contributions to the band's immortal canon, even penning "Blitzkrieg Bop," which Joey Ramone called a "call to arms for everyone to start their own bands." That would include artists from the Clash and Metallica to pretty much any band that has ever played Warped Tour; indeed, Erdélyi's signature thump still resonates as loudly as ever.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Dale Crover

Dale Crover

"A drummer like Dale Crover, you can tell when Dale is playing in Nirvana because he's the best drummer in the world," said no less an authority than Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. "I've always thought if things didn't work out [with me], they could always get Dale." Though he can be heard bludgeoning on nine officially released Nirvana Bleach tracks and B-sides, Crover's main gig is his ongoing 30-year-plus stint in unstoppable art-sludge institution the Melvins — equal parts earthquake machine, hard-sticking showman and ad hoc mathematician following the ebb and flow of Buzz Osborne's Beefheart–ian riffs. Fueled by his love for Kiss and Zeppelin, Crover's distinct sound comes from tom-toms that explode like cannons, metal slats that sizzle, double kick that sputters and a sweat-soaked attack that still hits harder than your favorite teenage punk.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Bigfoot Brailey

Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey

In 1975, when George Clinton first heard David Bowie's "Fame" on the radio, he turned to his new drummer and said "Remember that beat for me." Jerome Brailey, the fresh recruit to Parliament-Funkadelic, proceeded to filter the style of JB stickman Jabo Starks through Bowie's hazy cosmic jive on "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)." Brailey would remain aboard the mothership till 1978, driving many of P-Funk's biggest hits with his steady kick drum, shifty hi-hat action and intricately unpredictable snare pattern, before distrust of Clinton's accounting techniques lead him to form Mutiny, a group whose own funk hit hard enough to let you know why they called him Bigfoot. "Doing funk is really simple," Brailey told an interviewer in 2010. "It's about the thrill of the time. Funk is from within. … I've done shows with Parliament where I was so funky I could feel it inside my bones and that's when the audience can feel it too."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Greg Errico

Greg Errico

Greg Errico was all of 17 years old when Sylvester Stewart invited the San Francisco native to join his new group Sly and the Family Stone. Errico would help helm one of funk music's most important rhythm sections from their first recordings through the epochal There's a Riot Goin' On. In 2015, Errico told Rolling Stone that at their height, playing with the Family Stone "made my hair stand up, where that stage lifted off like a 747 and flew." By 1971, with the Family Stone entering into disarray, Errico was the first to peel off and ended up working with the likes of Lee Oskar, Betty Davis and Funkadelic as not just a drummer but a producer and arranger.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Kenny Aronoff

Kenny Aronoff

Best known as John Mellencamp's hard-bashing drummer from 1980 to 1996, Kenny Aronoff is fully capable of banging out flashy fills — let's not forget the tumble that leads into the bridge of "Jack and Diane." But he's equally at home sitting in the pocket and keeping a sturdy beat. "[As the drummer], I'm the employee," he told Esquire. "My job is to listen, learn, lead. And I understand I'm not the boss." With a sixth sense for what makes music pop and the patience to take direction, he's ended up as a go-to studio beatsmith for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, Sting, the Smashing Pumpkins, Lady Gaga and tons more.

Sly Dunbar; Bob Marley

Sly Dunbar

Nearly ubiquitous reggae drummer Lowell Fillmore Dunbar played with everyone and, due to how frequently his riddims have been sampled, is quite possibly the world's most recorded musician. Nicknamed for his devotion to Sly Stone, Dunbar recorded his first track, "Night Doctor," with the Upsetters at age 15. His 1972 introduction to bassist Robbie Shakespeare led to a life-long working relationship, notably in Peter Tosh's and Black Uhuru's bands as well as the Rolling Stones' 1978 Some Girls tour. Sly and Robbie translated dub reggae to the stage better than anyone. "Me and Robbie didn't realize what we were doing until Jamaican music went dubwise and the bass and drum would come right in your face," he explained. The distance between Carlton Barrett's relaxed swing and Dunbar's fierce metronomic playing marks the place where roots reggae evolved into its dancehall successor.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Chad Smith

Chad Smith

Since debuting with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1989, Chad Smith has consistently mixed the quick-footedness of classic funk with an arena-rocker's power and volume. "He plays hard, man," said Sammy Hagar, who recruited Smith for his band Chickenfoot. "The guy's from Detroit, for God's sake!" After first working with RHCP, Rick Rubin was so impressed with Smith's versatility he began utilizing the drummer's "mighty power and great vibes" on his other productions. Former Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez calls him "a monster virtuoso … with a sophisticated, well-honed sense of what's appropriate." And Anthony Kiedis credits Smith with inspiring his own idiosyncratic full-body gyrations: "All I have to do is close my eyes and listen to Chad. It'd be acting if I didn't do it."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Dennis Chambers

Dennis Chambers

Coming from the same Parliament-Funkadelic school that birthed Ramon "Tiki" Fulwood and Jerome Eugene "Bigfoot" Brailey, Dennis Chambers combined those players' funk acumen with the fusion of Tony Williams, in turn inspiring countless gospel and hip-hop drummers. Working as a house drummer for the Sugar Hill label (Chambers played on "Rapper's Delight") and alongside funky jazz guitarist John Scofield, the Baltimore native honed a style built around bombastic grooves and scorched-earth Buddy Rich–esque fills that seemed to defy time. (Blink-182 showstopper Travis Barker concisely summed up his appeal: "I've always liked Dennis Chambers, he's real flashy.") Since the Nineties, Chambers has gigged extensively with Carlos Santana, Steely Dan and John McLaughlin, while staying busy as a bandleader. Chambers' solo albums — such as Big City, Getting Even and Outbreak — are sadly ignored examples of his mighty wallop and adroit compositional sense.

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone;

Tony Thompson

Tony Thompson laid down the merciless four-on-the-floor grooves for Chic, the hardest-rocking band of the disco era. His reputation ballooned in the Seventies but his influence poured into the Eighties, playing on pop juggernauts like Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" and Madonna's "Like a Virgin." Thompson was even considered as a replacement for the late John Bonham when there were talks of Led Zeppelin revival. And, of course, he laid down the groove for the original "Good Times," the Chic song replayed by multiple drummers as the bedrock for the first wave of rap records and cut up in "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel." "All these years, people wanted to sample me. Everyone always assumed that there was some kind of special knobs turned, Thompson told Modern Drummer. "All it basically was, was a brand-new Yamaha kit in a very live, brick recording studio. I hit the drums very hard. That's it!"  

Clem Burke; Blondie

Clem Burke

Blondie's Clem Burke brought unexpected rhythm to the raw punk and New Wave roaring out of Seventies New York clubs like CBGBs. The band did name their breakthrough album Eat to the Beat, after all — and Burke's combo of crisp backbeat and kinetic, Keith Moon-influenced bluster helped set Blondie apart from the pack. With Burke behind the kit, Blondie put everything from disco grooves and reggae to hip-hop beats into the group's smash hits. And he had a presence and charisma beyond your typical sticksman. "He was into jumping over his drum kit fairly regularly," lead singer Deborah Harry told the Chicago Tribune. "Clem showed up, and he was a real star. He could play, and you could tell that it was his life."

Mick Fleetwood; Fleetwood Mac

Mick Fleetwood

Along with steady rhythm-section mate John McVie, Mick Fleetwood has remained a constant through his namesake band's many stylistic shifts, from the late Sixties blues-rock of Peter Green to grown-up pop of the ongoing Stevie Nicks–Lindsey Buckingham lineup. Fleetwood's rhythmic personality shines through on every cut from the band's classic best-seller Rumours: The stylish fill that introduces "Dreams" is as hooky as any chorus, and the gut-punch tom-tom counterpoint he provides to Buckingham's rhythm guitar is integral to "Go Your Own Way." Buckingham has praised Fleetwood's "instinctive" style and tells a story about the distinctive cowbell break the drummer added to the band's first single, "Oh Well." "Mick did that real off the cuff and then when he tried to repeat it, he couldn't do it! It took him a week of rehearsals to learn what he'd done in an instant." As a performer, Fleetwood's instinctive flair and childlike glee behind the kit remain intact to this day.

Jim Gordon

Jim Gordon

Hal Blaine's protégé was among the top session players of the Sixties, drumming on everything from Pet Sounds to "Classical Gas." While touring with Delaney & Bonnie, Gordon met Eric Clapton, who enlisted the drummer (and several of his bandmates) to form Derek and the Dominoes. Gordon's combination of bluesy feeling and professional finesse powered the classic double LP Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Gordon went on to record with the likes of Randy Newman and Steely Dan, and became an unlikely figure in the rise of hip-hop once DJ Kool Herc started inspiring Bronx dancers with Gordon's drum break from the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache." "Everybody started searching for the perfect beat, trying to beat that record," Herc recalled. "They still can't beat that record until this day."

100 Best Drummers; Rolling Stone; Sheila E.

Sheila E.

Born Sheila Escovedo, daughter of percussionist Pete Escovedo, Sheila E. was a drum-kit prodigy playing at a young age with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. She came into fame bringing her crisp, pristine, polyrhythmic style to Prince's post-Revolution band in the late Eighties, helping shape the decade's rock, pop and R&B. Sure, she also sang on her own solo hits like 1984's "The Glamorous Life," but it's her eminence as a still-in-demand drummer that's secured her musical legacy. "It's pretty interesting everyone says how [Prince] influenced me, but actually I influenced him first," she told Fox News. "When I went to introduce myself he already knew who I was, which I was shocked, and he said, 'I know who you are already. I've been following your career for a long time, and you're amazing and I'd love for you to play in my band.'"

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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