In an art form whose life dates back centuries, it is obvious there are more than 9 great drummers.
But, TheNationalParksMusic.com loves debates and had to marshal nine of the greatest drummers in music history. It wasn’t easy, but we tried anyway. 🙂
We also looked at:
- What makes a contender for the best drummer of all time?
- How do you compare genres for drummers?
- What do you look for in the best drummer of all time?
So, let’s dive into our list of the nine best drummers of all time.
Our Top 9 Drummers of All Time?
- John Bonham (Our Top Pick)
- Neil Peart
- Buddy Rich
- Keith Moon
- Stewart Copeland
- Ringo Starr
- Steve Gadd
- Benny Benjamin
- Danny Carey
What Makes A Contender For The Best Drummer of All Time?
The hottest debate about becoming a great drummer is whether talent or hard work plays a more important role. Simply put, a great drummer plays in a way difficult to duplicate. A combination of hard work and talent is a prerequisite for good drummers. But great drummers have that little extra musical combination of dedication, raw talent, and genetics.
Like most art forms, drumming is more than squeezing notes or doing the best chops. It boils down to a part of our human element different for each individual. If we look at Ringo Starr, for example, he had an excellent career with The Beatles, but was he the best in chops? We don’t think so.
Ringo brought wholeness to music, and it was not about drumming. His beats were crucial, a bit conventional, but they were still part of the musical recipe. He knew the entirety of music was more than traditional techniques, and ability was key.
Fame was something we debated but later agreed on as a crucial factor. It is questionable to add a rising talent in a realm full of movers and shakers. We consider plays on the billboard charts, presence in the hall of fame, worldwide reach, and more.
Plus, to be considered a great drummer, you must pass the test of time. Imagine a stereo system that remains relevant for 10 years, despite innovations. That’s what a great drummer looks like. The ability to adjust to trends while maintaining your sound is something learned through experience and skill.
What Are The Different Types of Drummers We Considered?
Drummers are known for their execution of different styles of drumming. One drummer can be good at chops, while the other can perfect the art of grooving with subtle changes in the music metronome.
But these drummers have shown several approaches, now taught in plenty of music schools. The drumming styles have a unique sense of rhythm and control. Here are a few types of drummers we considered according to drumming styles and technique.
Free-form drumming is the least popular technique in this list as it does not follow the normal music tempo. It is unique to each band and conforms to the meters to which other band players are playing along.
Free-form drumming was first popularized in the 1960s during the Free Jazz era. Drummers like Pharaoh Sanders successfully broke the familiar rules of Jazz and used free-form drumming styles The free-form drummer is well-known for his passion for expressing emotion rather than making predictable rhythms.
Odd Time Signatures
Some drummers like to play around with time signatures and play anything other than the 4/4 we’re used to. You may find odd numbers such as 5, 3, or 7 that sound stranger than they are. In fact, many popular hits have odd-time signatures.
Learning this technique requires lots of practice and listening to songs in the same time signature. They are easier to comprehend when you’ve familiarized yourself. Drummers who understand playing in odd time signatures have risen to fame as it is easy to create a unique sound.
Open-handed drumming is a technique that involves an arrangement of the drum kit. It is a way of setting up your drums and hi-hats so that the hands don’t cross each other.
It can mean placing all hi-hats and cymbals on the left and the drum set on the right. All this will depend on your dominant hand as sometimes you might find arrangements of hi-hats in unusual positions.
Open-handed drumming may not be as popular, but several drummers have made their name with this technique. They include Steve Smith, Deen Castronovo, Marco Minnemann, and more.
Matched Grip Drummer
Matched grip is the most popularly used style of handling drum sticks. It has a natural feel when you grab it, almost intuitive to holding any similar-shaped material. There are a few variations of the matched grip from American, French, to British, although the general guidelines are the same.
The matched grip drummer holds the drum sticks while palms facing down, and the stick is in between the nest of the hands. The position allows you to perform different drumming techniques like downstroke, upstroke, tap stroke, and full stroke. Ringo Starr is well-known for his match grip skills from years ago.
Traditional Grip Drummer
The traditional grip was invented by marching drummers out of necessity. When march drumming started, there were no harnesses, so drummers used to place drums on one side. It was challenging, if at all possible, to play with the drums in the front and center.
With the drum to the side, the matched grip was almost impossible, and the marching drummers had to find a way to play without fatigue. In the traditional grip, one hand holds with a matched grip while the other palm faces up as the stick lies across the hand.
Though the invention of harnesses overshadowed this technique, you’ll still see some jazz drummers using it.
How Do You Compare Genres for Drummers?
Full kit drumming started with Jazz and Blues, but nowadays nearly every genre of music is played with drums. It’s critical to look at how these drummers interact with different genres and how they became great at playing them. Here’s how you compare genres for drummers.
Rock and Pop
Rock is a world-renowned genre as it covers every era of music from the 1950s to the modern day. The uniqueness of rock music was spurred by the use of backbeat. A backbeat is a pair of snare hits placed on the second and fourth beat of a standard 4/4 bar. The energy a backbeat gives a song is undeniably infectious.
While most critics may identify rock music with heavy drumming, more variations may have a lot to do with the snare. You can have funk rock, blues rock, straight rock, metal rock, and more.
In pop, the drumming technique and guidelines are almost the same as in rock music. Lots of rock songs have made it to the billboard simply because they were ”pop” songs which makes comparing the two a bit irrelevant. However, pop music today is more radio-friendly and may lack a few loud rock music kicks.
The swing effects of drumming were all birthed from jazz music. A perfect example of swing is the legendary Pink Panther movie soundtrack, where the swing patterns are played on the ride cymbal.
It is easy to play swing patterns on jazz music and can be played on a cymbal or drum. Yet jazz drumming is one of the most complex styles of music to play as it requires plenty of discipline. Take a look at Gene Krupa who played with the biggest jazz legends like Tiny Bradshaw and Benny Goodman.
Reggae drumming involves some kind of relaxed playing prevalent from R&B and Funk with its timekeeping method. Reggae has less emphasis on beat 1, and most drummers avoid or play beat 1 at very low tones. Reggae drumming is more popular on beats 2, 3, and 4.
A common style of reggae, “1-drop” is utilized on beats 2 and 4, filling beat 3 with a bass drum and rim click together. Reggae drummers may play arrhythmic beats (syncopation) on the hi-hats to accent the whole music. Famous reggae drummers include Sly Dunbar from Peter Tosh Band and Carlton Barret from Bob Marley.
Latin music can be tricky for any drummer unfamiliar with the genre. Since it has a main clave, you need to learn the Latin clave to know how to work around the rhythm. Since Latin music is high in energy, it relies on plenty of percussion instruments such as timbales, congas, and cowbells. Some famous Latin drummers include Mongo Santamaria, Candido Camero, and Tito Puente.
What Do You Look For In The Best Drummer of All Time?
If you’re new to drumming or have an issue understanding how The Beatles are considered one of the great bands, keep reading. Drummers are versatile and spread all over the globe, but great drummers almost always share a few qualities. These include:
Persistence is crucial in every form of art and unlocks so many possibilities. Anyone truly passionate about drumming will keep on going until they reach the highest possible point. Great drummers never give up, and in our list, you’ll find people who dedicated their life to drumming. We consider them great because they overcame the hurdles and adversity to become who they are.
Since habit is human’s second nature, it is difficult to master adaptability. Learning to be flexible prepares you for any shortcomings that may happen in practice or performance. Great drummers don’t quit when faced with unfamiliar drum kits; they play with a style that best suits them. It is a habit you’ll often see with great drummers.
We consider this as a soft skill for drummers because they need to listen to a song to learn how to accent its instruments. Building transitions is almost like music production, and drumming is a crucial part of it. Even though the crowd may not realize clumping fills and crashes are not acceptable among the greats.
Music is better appreciated when there is more than one person. The experience hits harder at the communal level. As such, any great drummer ought to share his passion with the public. They don’t wait to be “discovered.” Instead, they try to work with a band and understand how to work with a larger group. Great drummers are never alone and most of them are associated with some of the best bands of all time.
Best Drummers of All Time
John Bonham (Our Top Pick)
It was obvious we had to include the maestro of rock n’ roll at the top of this list. Also known as the man on fire, or Bonzo, he indeed brought in a unique, ferocious sound that confused fans for years. His style had different emotions, and his fast kick drumming had a weighty power on rock music.
John Bonham was the drummer behind Led Zeppelin, a famous rock band behind hits like “Rock n’ Roll” and “Good Times, Bad Times.” He spearheaded so many variations of rock music with chops and licks no one would replicate during his time.
Most famous for: Solo play of “Moby Dick” that lasted over 20 minutes in front of a live audience.
Best technique: Unique bass drum triplets
Where are they now? John Bonham died in 1980 at the age of 32.
If John Bonham was the greatest of his time, then Neil Peart is the hero of modern-age drumming. Peart was known as the professor because he was so meticulous and technical with the sound that you could see his passion on stage.
He worked with the band Rush in 1974 and produced great hits that swept the billboard charts. Though his style is mainly influenced by British drummers, he would play plenty of genres. You can feel his prog-influenced time signatures in almost all music he plays which was always possible with his ridiculously large drum kit.
Most famous for: Versatility. Apart from drumming, he wrote lyrics, and themes, and was the creative engine in the band Rush.
Best technique: Prog-influenced time signatures
Where are they now? Neil Peart died in January 2020
No one knew the self-taught kid from Manhattan would become one of the highest-paid child entertainers at 15. Bernard “Buddy” Rich grew to become an influence in the jazz world and was an inspiration to bands like Led Zeppelin, John Bonham, etc.
Buddy knew how to utilize power and speed without compromising his traditional or march gripping technique. He was true to his craft and had plenty of solos when drummers were so comfortable. He played with almost everyone during his time, including the legend Louis Armstrong.
Most famous for: Leading his bands (was at times a bit temperamental)
Best technique: Made drums the star of the show.
Where are they now? Buddy Rich died in April 1987.
One of the wildest drummers in history was Keith Moon. His music style was powerful, sewn in chaos, and always kept his guitarists and bassists on their toes. Any amateur with Keith Moon would easily go off tempo.
Moon was a performer, and you could feel his emotions when he banged doors in hotel rooms or threw television sets out of windows. His outrageous antics may not be something to celebrate, but he became a rock’n’roll legend who owned his actions.
Most famous for: Throwing televisions out of hotel rooms and driving a big Rolls Royce.
Best technique: Melodic drumming.
Where are they now? Keith Moon died on September 7, 1978.
The multi-talented drummer brought The Police sounds that would turn the band into a multi-million dollar franchise. The post-punk drummer is well-known for his fusion of punk and reggae drumming that stood out in the already successful band.
We could notice the hard-hitting backbeats in their 1973 single Roxanne and the perfect fusion of punk drumming in “Message in a Bottle.” Steward is a colorful drummer, and his love for music is unmatched. Even as the band split, he continued to play solo and has written plenty of soundtracks for movies and TV shows.
Most famous for: Releasing Roxanne. The Police claimed they did it in honor of his passion and style of drumming.
Best technique: Accenting foreign hi-hat patterns
Where are they now? Copeland still performs all over the world and has tours to continue the legacy of his former band, The Police. He is also a film composer and is set to premiere in an Italian soap opera later this year.
We had a long discussion about this one! But if you could remove the fame, there was something about Ringo Starr; and how he played for The Beatles, that you can’t dismiss. Perhaps his dependable backbeats later brought the basic patterns of rock music. Or the way he switched instruments between the chorus and verses.
Ringo Starr’s simplicity brought a lot of debate to the music atmosphere, but it was still home to some of the best beats of his time. Grooves like “Come Together” and “Ticket to Ride” are some iconic beats under his name.
Most famous for: Playing for one of the world’s greatest bands, The Beatles
Best technique: Percussionist
Where are they now? Ringo Starr likes to keep his life private and stays in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles with his wife Barbra Bach.
We can’t pass without mentioning the legend, Steve Gadd. His sound is noticeable from a mile away, and within the first five bars, you’ll know it’s him. Steve Gadd likes to take linear patterns and place them straight into a song. He knew how to separate his skills from the song structure, as his ride-along technique was incredible.
He was the lead drummer in the hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”. The song isn’t simple, but you’ll notice how each note is carefully placed, and for a good reason. He knew how to come in and out of a song in the smoothest way possible.
Most famous for: Versatility. He played with almost every legend across the musical spectrum.
Best technique: Contemporary drumming
Where are they now? Since 2014, he has been in a soul-jazz trio with Dan Hemmer and Michael Blicher.
Apart from being a drummer for Tool, Danny Carey is a great drummer and hailed for his mathematical approach to music, polyrhythms, and his incredible kit. The hit “Pneuma” is a masterclass because the intro and choruses were made based on the Fibonacci sequence: where the following number is a sum of the two numbers before it.
Danny had mythical drum fills full of mixed groupings, hand-foot combos, and unmatched drum skills.
Most famous for: Writing songs based on mathematical formulas
Best technique: Odd time signature
Where are they now? Danny is still playing for Tool, and they’re currently touring the world after releasing “Fear Inoculum” in 2019.
Although Benny Benjamin seems too far down the list, he is the only drummer who single-handedly invented the Motown beat, earning the name “Papa Zita.” He knew how to incorporate various rhythms at once and was steady with the tempo better than a metronome.
After working with Berry of Motown beats, he also showed prowess in tracks such as Barret Strong’s “Single Money” and The Temptation’s “Get Ready.” Benny always had a groovy presence, and he inspired popular artists like Stevie Wonder.
Most famous for: Staying on tempo better than a metronome. Invented Motown beat.
Best technique: Multiple rhythm execution
Where are they now? Benny Benjamin died in April 1969.
Final Thoughts On Best Drummers of All Time
We can all agree this list contains some of the biggest names in drumming history. Some may shift views in order of greatness but what is important is the inspiration these drummers brought to our generation of music.
As we move forward, more drummers will arise, causing changes in the world of percussion, and these folks will surely have a place in the hobby for a long time.