From rock n’ roll master blasters to the jazz and funk geniuses, there are many great drummers who shaped music history.
The question of what makes a great drummer is always an issue of discussion among musicians and fans. Some care about technical skills, while simplicity and feel are more important for others. But everybody agrees that each of the drummers here in this list played a vital role throughout music history with their unique approaches.
I have taken into account many factors such as technical ability, timing, feel, achievements, contributions to music, and so on. But I can honestly say it is impossible to create a definitive list; that is why I have added some extra honorable mentions.
All these incredible drummers behind the kit inspired many musicians with drumlines and songs we still listen to and play today.
Their metronomic support, along with their rhythm embellishments, amazing beats, ornate fills, explosive attacks, hi-hat outbursts, and unique ways of playing their instrument, created the lines of music history that move our feet and heads.
- 1. John Bonham
- 2. Neil Peart
- 3. Keith Moon
- 4. Ginger Baker
- 5. Buddy Rich
- 6. Dave Grohl
- 7. Danny Carey
- 8. Charlie Watts
- 9. Stewart Copeland
- 10. Phil Collins
- 11. Dave Lombardo
- 12. Chad Smith
- 13. Ian Paice
- 14. Alex Van Halen
- 15. Terry Bozzio
- 16. Mike Portnoy
- 17. Clyde Stubblefield
- 18. Ringo Starr
- 19. Bill Bruford
- 20. Max Weinberg
- Other Notable Mentions
1. John Bonham
The first drummer on the list is the king of rock drummers, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. Considered the best drummer or most significant drummer of all time, John “Bonzo” Bonham is a legend with his instinct and feel of the groove, incredibly fast kick drumming, impressive dynamics, and love for triplets.
He is one of the most innovative drummers who changed the course of rock drumming. His unique way of approach with using every part of the drum kit, cacophonous echoey breaks, thunderous grooves is easily recognized the moment you hear him playing.
He inspired many musicians, which led him to be recognized as the best drummer of rock and even music history. Although he was a rock drummer, he added Latin and funk influences to his playing. Just to give you an idea how great he was, listen to his iconic solo in the song Moby Dick in which he kills the drum with amazing drum licks and frills, especially on the toms and cymbals.
2. Neil Peart
Nicknamed as “the professor” for his mindblowing technical capability, Neil Peart is known as the exceptional drummer of Rush. He is possibly the most technical and meticulous drummer of rock history who creates wonders with his gigantic 360-degree drum kit.
His unique playing style consists of flams, triplets, and dynamic playing with influences from many different genres like reggae, jazz, Latin, and swing. His playing in odd, prog-influenced time signatures with crazy mind-blowing fills is simply inspiring. Along with the acoustic drums, he also used electronics, orchestral, and tuned percussion in his massive set.
Besides being a drummer, Neil Peart is the lyricist and the mind behind great concept albums. He also is a writer of seven books about his travels and personal life. In the video of his drum solo, you can see his unique mind-melting playing style, along with his great 360-degree drum kit.
3. Keith Moon
One of the greatest rock n’ roll drummers of all time is undoubtedly Keith Moon with his destructive, unpredictable, and eccentric drumming style. He is the dynamo behind The Who with his energetic, chaotic, and crazy fills.
He is one of the first drummers to use double bass drums on his set. He liked to play with tom and cymbal emphasis creating odd beats and fills, directing the band like an orchestra chef. The musicians playing with him always have to be top-level as Moon could anytime catch them off-beat.
Moon often destroyed his drum kit at the end of the shows, reflecting his personal life as he was a crazy, anarchic person destroying hotel rooms and everywhere he went. This guy hated drum solos, so I am linking the isolated drum track of Who Are You to listen to his great skills of attacks and frills.
4. Ginger Baker
Known for his flame colored-hair along with his jazz-inspired time signatures and heavy rock grooves, Peter Ginger Baker is the drumming force behind Cream, Blind Faith, and many different bands. He is one of the favorite drummers of Eric Clapton.
He was a great showman and the pioneer of many things such as double bass drums, lengthy drum solos, and heavy metal drumming. Even though he did not play heavy metal and stuck to jazz drumming style with jazzy ride-cymbal pulse playing and mixing it with blues-rock beats, his approach inspired many musicians later like John Bonham, Neil Peart, and many more.
One of the most famous drum solos of Ginger Baker that shows his showmanship and desire for lengthy drum partitions is his tremendous drum solo with the Cream song, Toad.
5. Buddy Rich
According to a considerable number of musicians and fans, Buddy Rich is the greatest drummer of all time, the virtuoso jazz drummer who has influenced many rock musicians. He was a legend from the golden era of jazz with his speed around the kit without sacrificing technique.
He used super busy drum patterns with lots of improvisation and light-speed attacks and fills. He was a self-taught talent who had been on the stage since he was a kid. He could not read music and learned everything by heart and ear. He is a master of complicated arrangements with his natural talent.
His awe-inspiring solos inspired many drummers to come and earned him legendary status. You can see his speed and masterful control over the kit in this outstanding solo from 1970.
6. Dave Grohl
The multi-instrumentalist musician Dave Grohl is one of the most influential drummers of the ’90s. Before leaving the sticks aside for playing guitar and singing as the leader of Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl elevated to the legendary status for his drumming skills with Nirvana.
Grohl likes to play loud with unique triplet-based fills with precise execution and fast single-stroke rolls without sacrificing dynamics. His drum intros are amazing with iconic flams, which can be heard in many Nirvana songs.
Although he does not play drums often anymore, he occasionally takes the stick with the band Queens Of The Stone Age or jamming around with iconic musicians like Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger in special events. He is a passionate, energetic, and creative drummer as well as a genius multi-instrumentalist musician.
7. Danny Carey
One of the best modern-day progressive rock drummers is Danny Carey from The Tool. He has a very peculiar drumming style with awe-inspiring polyrhythmic and odd-time signature drumming patterns based on sacred geometry.
Carey uses custom Mandala pads which reflect his love of sacred geometry, the basis of his polymetric rhythm patterns. He heavily studied tabla, the Indian percussion instrument, for better hand coordination along with many drum rudiments with his feet to master double bass and hi-hat playing.
He is one of the most creative drummers with his masterful skills and complex playing style, which can be seen in this video compilation of his best drum moments.
8. Charlie Watts
Often remained in the shadow of the legends, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Charlie Watts was the unseen hero behind the success of The Rolling Stones. His excellent whip-like snare hits and elegant and precise playing style pumped blood to the band giving huge freedom to other members.
Watts started as a jazz drummer, which can be seen in his playing style perfectly. He played softly and elegantly with unique approaches like the idiosyncratic use of the hi-hat. When he was grooving on the snare drum, he typically did not use the hi-hat. This technique resulted in a more isolated whip-like snare drum sound which gave a unique character to his drum sound.
He used minimum motion when playing and always had a good posture, unlike other rock-hard-hitting drummers full of sweat. He was not technically perfect, but he deserves to be among the most influential drum players with his unique approach and playing style.
9. Stewart Copeland
The most successful reggae-rock band throughout history is, without a doubt, The Police with Sting’s deep amazing vocals, Andy Summers’ great guitar riffs, and Stewart Copeland’s distinctive drumming style. Copeland’s jazzy grooves with off-beat syncopated playing style were the heart of The Police sound and feel.
Copeland’s sound is easily recognizable as he accents the ride bells and hi-hat grooves anything but 2 and 4. He used reggae-esque accents and embellishments, mixing them with rocky grooves. He also uses the cross-stick sounds and melodic tom partitions very often.
Another interesting fact is that he is left-handed but uses a right-hand-oriented kit. His off-beat drumming style is unique and distinctive, as can be heard on this compilation.
10. Phil Collins
Sold over 150 million records, the superstar drummer Phil Collins is one of the most famous and influential drummers in music history. He was the drummer of the 70’s progressive rock band Genesis before starting his solo albums career. He is one of the musicians who invented the sound of 80’s rock with his heavy use of reverb drum sound.
Along with his proficient drum skills and technique, Phil Collins is well-known for his great drum tones. He is one of the early users of electronic drums and sounds. He often used Roland CR-78 with Genesis before starting using the iconic Roland TR-808, which redefined the percussion production styles.
Collins is an explorer who opened the gates of many different sonic possibilities, from the 80’s reverb drum sounds to 90’s electronic drum beats.
11. Dave Lombardo
Known for his ultra-fast double kick bass grooves, Dave Lombardo is the drummer and co-founder of the thrash metal band Slayer. He is called the godfather of the double bass and has a very aggressive, speedy playing style with double-time heavy beats.
Lombardo likes to add spices of Cuban and tribal-influenced rhythm patterns to his grooves which is not usual for metal drummers. Although he is an aggressive and hardcore drummer, he still maintains the dynamics. Also, he is left-handed but plays with a right-handed drum kit.
12. Chad Smith
Chad Smith is the driving force behind the funk-rock icon, Red Hot Chili Peppers. He has a unique style of playing which sits somewhere between John Bonham and Clyde Stubblefield, both of which are Smith’s idols.
Smith’s playing style is characterized by his unique use of ghost notes, heavy-hitting, and tasty 4/4 grooves with non-straight eighth hi-hat patterns. With his funky and rocky rhythms, he is undoubtedly one of the most influential drummers of late music history.
13. Ian Paice
The hard rock giant Deep Purple’s legendary drummer and co-founder Ian Paice perhaps is not the most technical but surely one of the most impressive players in rock history. His incredible speed and great hand-foot combinations inspired many rock and metal drummers after him.
His double-kick bass intro in the 1971 song Fireball is the first double-bass intro ever. Furthermore, his grooves in songs like Balck Night are considered the first examples of blast beat technique that is commonly used in hard rock and metal. He was the fastest player of his era as his single strokes and light-speed use of the single kick pedal were unmatched.
14. Alex Van Halen
Famous for his dynamic and powerful drumming style, Alex Van Halen is often an overlooked musician under the shadow of his brother, singer, and guitarist Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen’s iconic “brown sound” was provided by the warm tone of his snare drum along with Eddie’s warm guitar tone.
His use of tom-toms along with busy swing grooves in songs like Hot For Teacher is iconic partitions that show his ability. He was always doing what the band needed, getting fast or slow with the right precision and consistency. In a show in 1984, when his hand was broken in four places, he tied the drumstick to his hand and played with the same precision.
15. Terry Bozzio
Terry Bozzio is a lesser-known yet amazing drummer. He was the drummer of Frank Zappa during the 1970s before playing with several other progressive rock bands like Missing Persons.
With his enormous drum kit with two octaves worth of tuned drums, he had a unique playing style with highly melodic, precise, and technical partitions. He is capable of playing extremely complex drum solos with odd polyrhythms such as 5-7, which are even hard to tap along with for the audience.
16. Mike Portnoy
When talking about best drummers, it would be a shame not to mention Mike Portnoy, the co-founder and the former drummer of the successful progressive metal band Dream Theater. Having received tons of awards for his extreme drumming skills, Portnoy achieved to make people listen to the challenging music.
Portnoy likes to play odd meter rhythms, aggressive and fast-paced frills, complex drum solos, and progressive beat patterns. He is a highly creative and innovative drum player as well as musician, academician, and lyricist who actively took part in the compositions of many songs of the bands he was in.
17. Clyde Stubblefield
Behind James Brown’s funky beats, there was always a great drummer. Among them, the best ones were John Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield, who created the foundations of funk drumming style. Clyde Stubblefield is one step forward as his work was more creative and innovative, which influenced many genres like hip hop, R&B, and jazz fusion.
His playing style is heavily characterized by his funky beats and brilliant use of the snare drum. Stubblefield’s amazing rolling rhythms, snapping pops on the snare, and hot kick use made him an iconic drummer. His beats are commonly used as samples in hip hop today.
18. Ringo Starr
One of the most influential drummers of all time is Ringo Starr of The Beatles. His skills and contribution to the band are often underrated, but Starr is a highly dependable, extremely consistent drummer with a simplistic approach that popularized rock n’ roll and inspired many drummers.
Ringo Starr is generally considered a pop drummer with his simplistic style. To appreciate Ringo Starr’s brilliance, you can listen to the isolated drum tracks of the songs like Rain or Tomorrow Never Knows, in which his subtle, consistent and reliable drum work is clearly heard. No wonder why these songs are Starr’s favorite The Beatles songs.
19. Bill Bruford
Known as one of the best progressive rock drummers, Bill Bruford is a master drummer and percussionist who used his sticks for great bands such as Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson. He fuses the technical aspects of jazz with the dynamic and powerful energy of rock, creating the style of what he calls a “polymetric funk savant.”
Bruford is known for his great control over the drum kit with quirky rhythms, great improvisations as well as masterful orchestral progressive drum tracks. He inspired many drummers like Mike Portnoy, Chad Smith, and Danny Carey.
His signature is under some of the most challenging albums of progressive rock albums like Lark’s Tongue In Aspic, Starless And Bible Black, and Red.
20. Max Weinberg
One of the most reliable drummers of rock history is Max Weinberg, who played Bruce Springsteen for years before playing for the Late Night Show with Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was selected to the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame, too.
He is not the most technical or flamboyant drummer, but his bluesy style with steady beats and precise grooves is respectable. His influences are simplistic drummers like Ringo Starr and Buddy Rich, which is clearly shown in his drum work.
Other Notable Mentions
One of the greatest punk drummers is Travis Barker of Blink-182. He took punk drumming to a new level with his eccentric style with great stickwork.
Dave Weckl is one of the most proficient jazz-fusion drum virtuosos. He is a technical monster who can play any genre effortlessly and precisely.
One of the pioneers of heavy metal drumming is Bill Warf of the heavy metal legends Black Sabbath. His style can be described as powerful, energetic, heavy, orchestrational, and as loud as it can be.
One of my personal favorite drummers is Marco Minemann, who is known for his works with The Aristocrats and Steven Wilson. He has released many albums as a solo drummer and performed in over 100 albums for different bands.
His technical capability and aggressive yet smooth stickwork are outstanding, with which he can effortlessly play the most complex drum patterns and solos.
The drummer of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mitch Mitchell, is yet another master drummer known for his jazzy stickwork and the energy and aggressiveness of rock. He liked to play many great complex rudiment patterns in line with the melodies and riffs of the song.
The drummer of the famous American rock band Toto, Jeff Porcaro, is one of the drummers who deserves to be mentioned in this list. He created his own version of drumming called Half-Time Shuffle Groove, inspired by Bernard Purdie and John Bonham. He was a technically capable, creative, and innovative pop drummer who brought something new to every song he played.
It is impossible to satisfy musicians and fans with any “best of” list as everybody has a different taste and criteria. However, everyone would agree that all of these drummers on the list had a huge influence on music history and still inspire many musicians. This is not a definitive list but a show of respect to all of these exceptional drummers.