The Top 10 Drummers of All Time


It seems that the proverbial “spotlight,” so to say, is almost always on the lead singer or the lead guitarist of a band. Although not always the case (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea is arguably the band’s most recognizable member), the rest of the gang is typically overlooked, or underappreciated. I’m not totally surprised that we focus on front men; we hear their voices, we see more of them on stage, and in the case of guitarists, riffs are what usually carry the melody of most songs – so the guitar is rightfully given a lot of attention. But I propose that we’ve been kinda neglecting an entire class of musicians who deserve some Serious Recognition. The drums are like the spine of most any band, or the “backbone” if you will.

They often dictate pace, speed, tempo and beat. They add structure to any band’s sound, and (going back almost an entire century) drummers are historically some of the most virtuosic and innovative musicians ever. Are they as prolific and flashy as monster guitarists like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix? Probably not. Are they as recognizable as lead front men like Jim Morrison, Bono, or Mick Jagger? Naaahhh. There is undoubtedly less fame in being a great drummer than being a great singer or guitarist. But what’s so crazy to me about that is how difficult the drums are to master.

And that’s NOT to say that mastering the guitar or mastering the use of your vocal cords is any easier. But go on YouTube after you read this list of names and search any one of them with the words “drum solo” afterwards. Yeah, that shit is tough. I don’t care who you are, and I don’t care if your voice can move mountains or the strings of your guitar can unite the world. Drumming is hard – it requires immense strength, razor-sharp precision, hand-eye coordination, and an immeasurable amount of stamina. And so without further ado, let’s take a brief look at some of the most gifted guys to ever pick up the sticks.

Number Ten: Ginger Baker from Cream, Blind Faith. I was recently having a conversation with a distant cousin of mine about this article (Top 10 drummers and all) and the first thing he said was Ginger Baker. I knew who he was, but I guess I had never really paid much attention to the percussion on “Strange Brew”. My cousin suggested I listen to “Do What You Like,” off the album Blind Faith, which I did. It was good. Anyway, I gave the guy a more comprehensive look up on YouTube, Wikipedia, the whole basic run-through. Turns out this guy was a hell of a drummer, and so we start the list with him. Peter Edward Baker is known by most as the drummer and co-founder of the English rock group Cream, alongside a man I just mentioned named Mr. Eric Clapton. What some don’t know (myself previously included) was that he also served as the drummer for one of rock’s earliest “super-groups,” Blind Faith.

Eric Clapton played in Blind Faith as well, along with Ric Grech (who?) and Steve Winwood (HEYO! Higher Love, great record.) Anyway, Ginger Baker was the foundation beneath all of those guys, fusing jazz styles with his own unique medley of blues beats. His work with Cream, Blind Faith, and dozens of other acts over the years apparently had people calling him “rock’s first superstar drummer.” Slightly controversial in his own right (the volatility of his relationship with Jack Bruce contributed to Cream’s disbanding, he battled serious drug addiction and married four times) he is a great drummer with an illustrious career. Bonus points for being a pretty extreme red head (in the 60’s). Loud and proud.

Number Nine: Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience. John Ronald Mitchell, like Ginger Baker, was prominent during a revolutionary time in music. The 1960’s (especially in England) were obviously a golden age of rock. English rock in particular was arguably the biggest driving force in the United States’ music scene. English rock drew heavy influence from folk, blues, jazz, and other (mostly American) styles of music. Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, and several others were also at the forefront of a new wave within rock music; a wave that placed drums and drummers into a more leading role, giving them more freedom and flexibility to experiment.

Mitch Mitchell’s claim to fame (in my opinion) was that he played with Jimi Hendrix. His Wiki page summed it up basically the same way I wanted to – the support and structure that Mitchell provided to a guitar player of Jimi Hendrix’s caliber is truly amazing. I’m not going to go into all the detail of his technique and snare drums and bass drums and all the drum lingo right now; if you’re more interested then you can look all that stuff up pretty easily. But Mitch Mitchell is to Jimi Hendrix what Ginger Baker was to Eric Clapton. A much needed platform to bounce off of creatively, providing rhythm and sometimes melody.

Number Eight: Dave Lombardo from Slayer. Switching gears here from English blues-rock to West Coast thrash metal.  David Lombardo’s career as the drummer for Slayer has been a bit of an up and down rollercoaster (he was the original drummer from ’81 to ’86, then left, then returned in ’87 until he left again in ’92, returned in ’01, then finally left again in 2013). He was replaced by Tony Scaglione (briefly) the first time, and then by Paul Bostaph (current drummer) the second and third times. Back to Lombardo, try to keep up. He was actually born in Cuba, so we conveniently have some nice diversity going on here as well. Dave Lombardo has had a huge influence on contemporary metal and its various sub genres. He is called the “godfather of double bass,” with a musical ability that comes flawless and naturally. His sound is fast, aggressive and the worst part is that he makes it look really easy. I’ll be sad when he’s not there this summer at Bonnaroo.

Number Seven: Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is an opinion pick, as you may or may not know from previous blogs I am a die hard Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, so Chadwick Gaylord Smith (yes, that is his real name) has gotta be on a Top 10 Drummers list for me. Aside from being the Chili Peppers’ foundation over the years, and a Will Ferrell doppelganger (or is Will Ferrell a Chad Smith doppelganger?), Chad Smith is an amazing drummer who certainly deserves some spotlight. Standing at something crazy like 6’4” and with a big build, his sound is powerful, and it breaks through on every Pepper’s album (not an easy thing to do competing against Frusciante on guitar, Flea on bass and Kiedis ripping away on the mic). He’s not known for anything wildly innovative, but he helps carry some of the greatest music of the last twenty years.

Number Six: Louie Bellson – Jazz & big band drummer. We shift again over to the smoke filled jazz clubs of the 1940’s and 50’s. Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni (6 freakin names, can you believe it?) was an Italian-American jazz drummer and bandleader. According to Wikipedia he is credited with pioneering the use of two bass drums, a technique that is now used in several other unrelated musical genres. He began playing drums at a very early age, and his inherent technique is undeniable. Modern drumming would not be what it is today without Louie Bellson, who enjoyed a long-lasting life and career that spanned until his death in 2009. His contribution to music and music education is paramount.

Number Five: Ringo Starr from The Beatles. I love Richard Starkey, Jr. What a funny little guy. For various reasons, Ringo gets a bit of an unfair rap where history is concerned. He is perpetually made fun of, he’s the punch line to countless jokes, and he has the unfortunate (or fortunate) role in the back seat with George while John and Paul fight over who drives. But many modern drummers cite Ringo Starr as a huge source of inspiration. As cliché as it may sound, he’s the reason that a lot of them became drummers, or even musicians. His greatness comes from his work with the Beatles, like Mitchell and Baker with Hendrix and Clapton, respectively. He’s truly like the skeletal system of their music. He’s there with foundation and support. The other three are the lifeblood of the music, but without the frame to hold it in place, it’s next to nothing. You’re not a good basketball player if you can’t pass the ball. It’s a team effort, and Ringo is an underrated part of the team.

Numer Four: Rick Allen from Def Leppard. We sail back over to the island of Britain to take a look at one of the most unique drummers of our time. Richard John Cyril Allen is best known as the drummer for English rock band Def Leppard. He actually has one of the biggest fan bases of any modern drummer (his fans gave him the nickname “The Thunder God”). What apparently was less common knowledge about the Def Leppard drummer was this – Rick Allen has only one arm.

His left arm was amputated in 1985 following a severe automobile accident involving him and his girlfriend. I asked a lot of people if they knew that about him, most people didn’t even know who he was. So to give you an idea, it’s not a hugely known story beyond Def Leppard fans. Anyway, Allen continued on drumming for Def Leppard in 1986 and the band subsequently achieved a level of success that it hadn’t previously known in the early 80’s. It seems the story gave the band some recognition and my guess is the fan base grew from there. Rick Allen played drums very well upon his return and he moved on to playing with a customized set created specifically for him. Various pieces were adjusted or removed or added to accommodate Allen’s set-up, and maximize his performance. It does just that, and his sound is true greatness. The story makes it all the more remarkable, but I still give credit where credit is due. He’s a sick drummer, and he belongs near the top.

Number Three: Travis Barker from Blink 182. I’m rapidly becoming more worried that I may have some sort of subconscious “man-crush” on Blink 182’s Travis Landon Barker (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I only say that because I’ve managed to either directly or indirectly mention him 3 times in as many blogs, all here on FDRMX. When I was talking about Lil’ Wayne in the Top 10 Greatest Rappers blog I made a brief comparison about the two based on their prolific body art. Then on the Top 10 Most Artistic Album Covers page I ranked Blink 182’s Enema of the State (1999) as number 7. Coincidence? Probably…I mean I hope so.

Anyway thanks for hearing that little personal anecdote, now on to brass tax. Travis Barker is known for many different things, not just his contribution to Blink’s music. He’s known for his extensive tattoos. He’s known for a solo career (Give the Drummer Some [2010] is his debut solo album, find it) and work with several other acts. He was also one of only two survivors of a severe plane accident in 2008, which took the lives of 4 people. Barker also suffered significant burns from the accident.

He had to have over 15 surgeries, several blood transfusions, and skin grafts. But before all that noise, back in the good old days when he was about my age (he was 24 in 1999. Born November 14, 1975. Yeah, I looked it up), he was mostly just the drummer for Blink 182, although not the original; that was Scott Raynor. But Barker was (and is) a sick ass drummer. Some say he was “punk’s first superstar drummer”. OK, I’ll buy that. His technique is sharp, fast, and virtuosic. And he’s a good guy. He’s one of the best drummers ever for sure.

Number Two: Gene Krupa – Jazz & big band drummer. These next top two musicians are basically interchangeable. Some would say Gene Krupa was the greatest to ever do it. Others will say otherwise. Consider me a member of the latter, but 2nd is still saying a lot if you ask me. Eugene Bertram Krupa is one of the pioneers of jazz and big band drumming. His first recordings were almost 90 years ago in the late 1920’s, to put this into historical context. I’ve heard musicians say that modern drumming would be nothing today without Gene Krupa (among a few others). He is the real deal. He is wildly energetic, and was known for a style of showmanship. He was a fun personality and embraced the spotlight of being a bandleader and innovator. His contribution to music is (nearly) unparalleled, as we’ve yet to reach the top. But he is an icon, and his drumming speaks volumes. Look him up on YouTube. You should be able to find some epic drum battles between him and Bernard Rich, taking us on to our final drummer.

Number One: Buddy Rich – Jazz & big band drummer. I’m no professional when it comes to judging a drummer’s technique, posture, speedyou know, all that crap. I’m just a guy who loves music and thinks the drums are dope. But my amateur ear is the decision-maker around here. And what that ear hears during a Buddy Rich vs. Gene Krupa battle is Buddy Rich triumphing. He brings power and passion to the drums that I don’t see in too many others. I’m just thankful we have videos of the man so I can see him play, not just hear him. Buddy Rich is labeled by many as the “world’s greatest drummer.” I’m inclined to agree.

He was known for a style that was smooth, groovy, and seamless. The details of his technique are written about in great length. I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. But if this list serves as anything, it should be more of a “here are the guys you need to look up and read more about.” I can only write so much here. Anyway, that about does it. Wraps her all up. Thanks as always for the checking us out and the all support! Hope you had fun reading, because I (as always) had fun writing. And now, like an over-extended Academy Award acceptance speech, there’s just a few quick names to mention:

Shout-outs to Neil Peart (Rush), Chick Webb (jazz & swing drummer), Phil Collins (Genesis), Joey Jordinson (Slipknot), Quest Love (The Roots) and Patty Schemel (Hole). *Sorry if that was too many, but this was actually an insanely tough group to select. Thanks again for reading!