It is always fun to list some of the biggest icons in the music industry. Everyone knows how essential drummers are, especially in Rock n’ Roll. Most of the world’s most iconic drummers have inspired the new age ones to express themselves just like they did and be the life of every music concert and project.
In 2016, Rolling Stones published a list of the top 100 drummers of all time. The list features names of classic drummers, including Jack De Johnette, Steve Smith, James Gadson, Christian Vander, Larry Mullen Jr., etc. Today, big names like Travis Barker and more have also made names and given drummers a great look. Rolling Stones called him “Punk’s first superstar drummer.” Barker is best known as the drummer for the rock band Blink 182 and the founder of the bands +44 and Box Car Racer. He has frequently collaborated with other artists, especially Hip Hop artists. In no particular order, here are the top 20.
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At 17, Tony Williams debuted with professional trumpeter Miles Davis in 1963. Davis said in his autobiography, “I could definitely hear right away that this was going to be one of the baddest motherfuckers who had ever played a set of drums.” He became legendary for his role in Davis’ Second Great Quintet.
Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste
Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste’s technique was described by Rolling Stone reporter Joe McEwen as throwing “standard technique to the wind… punching out rollicking… rhythms with a stiff-armed attack.” He is known as one of the most lyrical funk drummers of all time. His work with The Meters made him a legend to remember. He also worked with big names, including Keith Richards and more.
Also known as Mississippi Bigfoot, Bernard Purdie grew up in Maryland and moved to New York in the early 1960s. He started doing sessions with Jazz artists, including Nina Simone, Gabor Szabo, etc. He served as Aretha Franklin’s musical director and is known for his intricate hi-hat “ghost notes.” Purdie recorded and played with the biggest names in the industry, including Bob Marley, Steely Dan, and more.
Dubbed “the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath” by Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich is a self-taught drummer who is known for his mind-blowing hand speed and impressive technique. Linking up with Frank Dorsey, he met Frank Sinatra, who became a significant part of his life. Sinatra would deliver his eulogy four decades later. His influence reaches across the globe. He made fans of many, including Jon Bonham and more. He was a big inspiration for Phil Collins.
Bill Bruford is a percussionist who is known for his many talents. Rolling Stones described him as possessing “a classical musician’s technical prowess, a jazz improviser’s subtlety and spontaneity, and a rock drummer’s emphatic drive.” With Yes, he garnered all the attention. Later on, he gained even more recognition after joining King Crimson. After a successful time in the spotlight, Bruford retired in 2009 and completed his Ph.D.
In the mid-1970s, Terry Bozzio began working with Frank Zappa. His work with Zappa gave him significant recognition. He later became a member of the group, U.K., and in the 80s, started the New Age band Missing Persons with then wife, Dale. Lately, he has flown solo or linked up with several other supergroups. Still, he remains one of the world’s most iconic and well-talked-about drummers.
Best known for being a member of the most famous band of all time, The Beatles, Ringo Starr ruled the world. McCartney said about the band’s first time playing with him, “I remember the moment, standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like, ‘Fuck you. What is this?'” Dave Grohl described him as “the guy we all tried to play like in the studio.”
Benny Benjamin was admired by the great Berry Gordy. He would refuse to record, except Benjamin was in the studio. The Motown Records founder said of Benjamin, “He had a distinctive knack for executing various rhythms all at the same time.” He is known for his work on Barrett Strong’s hit “Money (That’s What I Want),” The Temptations’ “My Girl,” and more.
Charlie Watts is best known for his work with Blues Incorporated and, later on, the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards revealed that they couldn’t afford Watts initially, but he asked to join the band after they won him over. He had commented that they needed “a fucking good drummer.” He is also known for his occasional work in Jazz.
Dominic Joseph, best known as D.J. Fontana, gained recognition for his work with the legendary Elvis Presley. Levon Helm is quoted saying that “he had incredible technique and fast hands, so he could deploy those Buddy Rich press rolls whenever he wanted to. He played like a big-band drummer — full throttle,”
Legendary drummer Stewart Copeland is best known for his work with Sting and the Police. He showed no interest in playing the snare. He was known for his intricate hi-hat patterns, especially on Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain.” Primus’ Les Claypool, who jammed with him, spoke highly of his techniques which he said were hard to imitate. He said, “it’s all about how he attacks his drums, how he plays.”
In a 2015 chart with NPR, Neil Peart called Krupa “the first rock drummer, in very many ways.” “He was the first drummer to command the spotlight and the first drummer to be celebrated for his solos… He did fundamentally easy things but always made them look spectacular,” said Peart. He inspired a generation of drummers, including Keith Moon and John Bonham.
Mitch Mitchell has been praised by some of the greatest drummers of all time. Stewart Copeland said of him, “All of this stuff I did that I was rather proud of, I thought I came up with it. But no, I got it from Mitch.” Roger Taylor of Queen praised his “fusion of jazz technique and wonderful riffs,” saying, “He played the kit like a song, it was just wonderful,” He is also known for his work with Jimi Hendrix.
Clyde Stubblefield and John “Jabo” Starks
Starks started his career backing Jazz and Blues players. Later, he and Stubblefield joined Brown’s band a few weeks apart. Starks and Stubblefield, an R&B player, complemented each other in many ways. In a chat with Rolling Stones, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson called Clarks “the Beatles to Clyde’s Stones.”
Neil Peart began the ride of his life in 1974 when he auditioned for Rush. In a chat with Rolling Stones, guitarist Alex Lifeson recalled, “We were so blown away by Neil’s playing. It was very Keith Moon-like, very active, and he hit his drums so hard.” He gained fame as the band began to dominate, and he looked to Stewart Copeland for inspiration.
Al Jackson Jr.
Al Jackson Jr. was best known as the session drummer for Soul label Stax. Jackson was referred to as “the Human Timekeeper.” He passed at the age of 40. He also co-wrote several songs, including “Let’s Stay Together” with Al Green. He worked with R&B stars like Eric Clapton and more. Sam Moore of Sam & Dave said, “I put him in the same bag with Ray Charles or Billy Preston, in a class all his own,”
Hal Blaine is a legend with a resounding name. He is known for working with the Beach Boys, Elvis, Sinatra, the Supremes, and more. Max Weinberg is quoted saying, “If Hal Blaine had played drums only on the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” his name would still be uttered with reverence,” He is the most recorded drummer in history. He is famous for adapting to any session.
Keith Moon described himself as the “greatest Keith Moon-type drummer in the world,” He has been described as being more of a performer than a mere “sticksman” in Rock. Moon refused to play drum solos and opted to play with everyone at once. Bassist John Entwistle told Rolling Stone that “His breaks were melodic because he tried to play with everyone in the band at once.”
Ginger Baker was known for his incredible talent and towering temper. The London-born drummer constantly clashed with his Cream bandmates, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. He moved to Nigeria for several years in the seventies after the band, Blind-Faith broke up. Afrobeats co-creator Tony Allen said about him, “He understands the African beat more than any other Westerner,”
The legend John Bonham gained fame following the release of Led Zeppelin’s first LP. Speaking on the impact that the hit song “Good Times Bad Times” had, Jimmy Page said, “Everyone was laying bets that Bonzo was using two bass drums, but he only had one.” Sadly, Bonham passed in 1980. Very inspired by his work, Dave Grohl said, “I spent years in my bedroom – literally fucking years – listening to Bonham’s drums and trying to emulate his swing or his behind-the-beat swagger or his speed or power, not just memorizing what he did on those albums but getting myself into a place where I would have the same instinctual direction as he had.” Rolling Stone ranked him “greatest drummer of all time” in a list of 100 in 2016.