Ready to get inspired with some of the best rock drummers ever? Each of them brought their unique approach to the drum set and will continue to inspire countless upcoming drummers around the world.
Some of the best rock drummers that have left a lasting impression and influence on the genre can very well be considered the top of the pile due to their influential nature.
Of course, rock is a very wide-spanning collection of sub-genres, and we certainly cannot claim that this is a definitive list!
Countless amazing rock drummers did not make it onto this list, but we had to do our best to list out 15 rock drummers that we think deserve special mention because of their great individual contributions to rock drumming.
It’s incredibly inspiring to watch the performances of some of the best rock drummers that ever lived.
- 1. Neil Peart – Rush
- 2. John Bonham – Led Zeppelin
- 3. Keith Moon – The Who
- 4. Ian Paice – Deep Purple
- 5. Dave Grohl – Nirvana/Foo Fighters
- 6. Ginger Baker – Cream
- 7. Danny Carey – Tool
- 8. Mike Portnoy – Dream Theater
- 9. Ringo Starr – The Beatles
- 10. Roger Taylor – Queen
- 11. Phil Collins – Genesis
- 12. Chad Smith – RHCP
- 13. Alex Van Halen – Van Halen
- 14. Terry Bozzio – Frank Zappa
- 15. Bill Bruford – Yes
1. Neil Peart – Rush
A creative genius with such technical proficiency that his fans often called him “the Professor”.
Neil Peart‘s musicianship was derived from a solid foundation of theory and technique that reflected his immense understanding and control of drumming.
In his long-standing career as the full-time drummer of Rush, Peart was known for his use of flams, triplets, and dynamic playing in which he ‘milked’ unthinkable tones from the cymbals.
His lively playing style also included elements of jazz and swing due to his association with drummers such as Freddie Gruber, Gene Krupa, and Buddy Rich.
A lesser-known fact is that Peart authored 7 nonfiction memoirs recounting his travels and personal anecdotes. Neil Pert was also a lyrical genius who penned most of the lyrics for Rush’s albums. His writing attended the themes of sci-fi, fantasy, and philosophy.
2. John Bonham – Led Zeppelin
Bonham is a drummer of rhythmic sophistication, unrestrained passion, and vivid ideas. While he is the undisputed king of rock drumming, Bonham is often declared the best drummer of all time.
His blinding speed, thunderous projection, and never-dying love for triplets make him stand out.
He never shied away from using every part of the drum kit and could throw in a tasty fill in the smallest of spaces. Many of his contemporaries call him the most innovative and original drummer to have ever existed.
There is no doubt that Bonham’s playing was distinctive and it is very easy to identify his style and sound. Almost all notable Led Zep concerts feature a ‘Moby Dick Drum Solo’ that lasted well over 15 minutes and featured every imaginable part of the kit, especially the floor tom and cymbals.
As an Englishman from that era, Bonham too endorsed Ludwig kits for most of his career. He coupled them with Paiste cymbals and Remo drum heads.
3. Keith Moon – The Who
In his halcyon days, Moon’s was in a league of his own. He was a destructive force on the stage with The Who, a band of virtuosos that was famous for its drive, momentum, and verve.
His style is characterized as energetic, meaty, and brimming with a raw passion that is synonymous with rock ‘n roll. He was intrepid and unapologetic about his unstinting use of tom-toms and cymbal crashes in his beats and fills.
In the latter days of The Who, his drum kit had more than tripled in real estate and he was among the first few drummers who regularly used two bass drums in live performance.
Most of his career belongs to The Who, but he did, on occasion, work with Jeff Beck, John Lennon, and members of Led Zeppelin. Alongside guitarist Pete Townshend, Moon would often destroy his drum kit as a post-gig stage gimmick that he fondly called “auto-destructive art’.
4. Ian Paice – Deep Purple
Ian Paice is part of Deep Purple’s original lineup and the only surviving active member of the band today. Deep Purple’s guitarist, Steve Morse, described Piace as “a heavy-handed Ringo”.
He plays a left-handed Ludwig kit with a match-grip to produce roaring tones and lightning-fast fills. His drumming is powerful, edgy, and fearless, as it should be in a rock setup. He was famous for his single bass pedal speed and superior control of his leading bass foot.
Many drummers have been inspired by his wild single & double-stroke rolls and dazzling cross-rhythmic triplets. Paice has played with an incredulous list of genre mega stars like Gary Moore, Velvet Underground, Jeff Beck, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and White Snake.
Nevertheless, his best work and undeniable groove are most evident in his work with Deep Purple, one of the greatest acts of the genre.
5. Dave Grohl – Nirvana/Foo Fighters
Dave Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana and currently fronts Foo Fighters as a vocalist/guitarist.
On occasion, he has donned the avatar of a drummer to play for Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, and Tony Iommi among others.
He is an equally distinguished lyricist, guitarist, and songwriter – truly a complete package.
As a drummer, Dave ‘Louder is Better’ Grohl was heavily influenced by Ian Piace and Jon Bonham. It should be apparent then that he is as explosive with equally laudable speed, technique, and a highly developed drumming ability.
As a youngster, Grohl would practice single-stroke rolls on his pillow because he didn’t own a practice kit. This led to his aggressive and ‘machine-gun’ single-stroke rolls that can be found in his drumming.
His playing is all about passion and power without compromising dynamics. We wrote an entire article on Grohl’s musical journey that you can check out here.
6. Ginger Baker – Cream
Peter Baker is known to us as Ginger Baker, the drummer who played alongside Eric Clapton and bassist Jack Bruce in the legendary rock band Cream.
Named ‘Ginger’ on account of his red hair, Peter hit the South London scene in the 1960s and formed Cream later that decade.
Cream only lasted for two years and throughout his career, Baker continued to burn through short runs with artists such as Hawkwind, Master of Reality, and Fela Kuti. After Cream, he started various supergroups like Blind Faith, Baker Gurvitz Army, and Ginger Baker Drum Choir before moving on to the next project.
In concerts, Baker never held back. He was flamboyant with the fills, generous with the showmanship, and always willing to dive into a lengthy but captivating drum solo.
His drum set would sport two bass drums and a plethora of brass to accommodate his jazzy ride-cymbal pulse playing. Despite his massive influence on rock musicians, Baker claims he ‘never played rock’.
7. Danny Carey – Tool
The band Tool spans a few genres, one of which is progressive rock, so we think that’s enough for Danny Carey to the list of best rock drummers!
His playing is brimming with creative polyrhythms, odd-time signatures, and various tricks that express his superior technique and creative talents.
While he has the chops, skills, and technique to back up his claim to greatness, Carey is particularly celebrated for his rhythmic phrasing and ability to play insane odd-time signatures with polymetric figures. He attributes a lot of this to his study of the ‘tabla’ –an Indian percussion instrument – under tabla maestro Aloke Dutta to learn ‘taal’ and polyrhythms.
By his own account, Carey spent long hours practicing drum rudiments with his feet to improve his double bass playing and hi-hat playing. He also focused on four-way coordination as is evidenced by songs like Madhouse Clown.
If you’re looking for some amazing and complex drumming, then look to Danny Carey!
8. Mike Portnoy – Dream Theater
Michael ‘Mike’ Portnoy grew up in Long Island, New York. In his teens, Mike would listen to his father’s heavy metal collection that inspired him to become a self-taught drummer.
He was later awarded a full scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music. Portnoy met John Myung and Petrucci in Berklee and they formed ‘Majesty’ – the band that was later renamed to Dream Theatre.
His work with Dream Theatre showcased his extraordinary talent and technical prowess. Portnoy’s chops are impressive and doled out with machine-like precision and superlative power.
He has won numerous awards and is one of the youngest musicians to be inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.
Over the years, Portnoy has been a part of various acts like Flying Colors, The Winery Dogs, and Songs of Apollo. Portnoy quit Dream Theater in 2010, after two and a half decades, to pursue other avenues and ideas.
9. Ringo Starr – The Beatles
Sir Richard Starkey, better known as Ringo Starr, was the British drummer for The Beatles, one of the most well-known bands in music history.
Besides drumming, Ringo has sustained a 50-year long career as a solo artist with multiple albums and tours since the Beatles split in the 70s.
Ringo is best known for his rock-solid backbeat and copious feel and technique. His passionate nature, excellent tom-work, and ability to elevate the ‘feel’ of a song won him a lot of praise in his career.
In his own words, he said “I’m an offbeat drummer with funny fills”. He was referring to his inability to play rolls on a right-handed kit because he was a southpaw.
Ironically, Ringo had auditioned for and played with several bands that failed to take off before he joined Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison.
10. Roger Taylor – Queen
Roger joined the Queen in 1969 and the band went on to become one of the best bands of all time with hits like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Radio Gaga, and ‘We Are the Champions’.
Besides drumming, Taylor was a multi-instrumentalist (bass, guitars, keys) and he wrote lyrics, composed and sang various tracks on Queen’s albums.
Taylor was heavily inspired by John Bonham, Keith Moon, and Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix Experience). His style was rife with jazz technique but also charged at the entire kit with a vicious attack when needed.
His timing, creativity, and fusion-meets-arena sound are uniquely brilliant.
As an Englishman, Taylor was bound to swear allegiance to Ludwig kits. He called them the “Rolls Royce” of drums and played the brand’s kit for the entirety of his career. In 2003, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
If you aren’t aware, Taylor now regularly uploads ‘drum lessons’ to Instagram in the wake of the pandemic to help those in self-isolation.
11. Phil Collins – Genesis
A dominant force that appeared on the progressive rock scene in the ’70s is Genesis, with drummer Phil Collins. Most known for his singing but we cannot avoid his drumming credentials.
Phil Collins, the world-famous and legendary drummer, has sold over 150 million records and is one of the most famed and influential drummers in music history. He was one of those musicians who were behind the 1980s rock sound, utilizing a lot of reverb on his drums.
He was one of the first people to experiment with electronic drums and sounds.
The ’80s reverberated drum sounds that he pioneered with his sound design have opened the door for many different sonically inventive explorations to the 90’s electronic percussion rhythms.
12. Chad Smith – RHCP
We all know the Red Hot Chili Peppers, hence we are very familiar with Chad Smith and the work he has put out for the band and rock music in general.
Chad has a unique style of playing which sits somewhere between John Bonham and Clyde Stubblefield. Both drummers were his idols, so naturally, he drew inspiration from them and succeeded in becoming a very influential and important drummer.
Smith’s playing style is distinctive, to say the least. His ghost notes and heavy-hitting are only enhanced by his unique hi-hat patterns.
He is undoubtedly one of the most important drummers in recent musical history, with his unique and rocky rhythms.
13. Alex Van Halen – Van Halen
Under the shadow of his brother, vocalist, and guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen is frequently overlooked but is definitely a huge staple in rock music and its making.
Alex was famed for his energetic and powerful drumming style. The warm tone of his snare drum and Eddie’s warm guitar tone gave the iconic sound that Van Halen was known and praised for.
His use of tom-toms and fast swing rhythms in songs like Hot For Teacher is legendary, as it demonstrates his mastery.
He was always attentive to the band’s needs, whether it be quick or sluggish with the appropriate accuracy and consistency.
14. Terry Bozzio – Frank Zappa
Going back further down the line, Terry Bozzio, although not incredibly known, had his fair share of influential material during the 70s. A lesser-known yet outstanding drummer.
He was the drummer for Frank Zappa in the 1970s, before joining several other progressive rock acts such as Missing Persons.
He had a distinct playing style with highly melodic, precise, and technical pieces thanks to his huge drum kit with two octaves worth of tuned drums. Hard to imagine someone playing such a huge drum set but as you can see from the video, it’s doable.
He is capable of executing extremely advanced drum solos with odd polyrhythms like 5-7, which are even tough for the audience to follow.
15. Bill Bruford – Yes
Bill Bruford is a legendary drummer and percussionist noted for his work with such great bands as Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson. He employed his sticks to produce some of the greatest music ever written.
He melds technical jazz with the energetic and powerful energy of rock to create a “polymetric funk savant” sound.
With odd rhythms, excellent improvisations, and expert orchestral progressive drum tracks, Bruford is credited for his outstanding control of the drums. He inspired many drummers on this list like Mike Portnoy, Chad Smith, and Danny Carey.
Under some of the most difficult progressive rock albums, including Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red, you can see his signature and therefore see why these albums were a huge smash.
When it comes to the best rock drummers, it takes an enormous amount of skill to handle the job.
Rock music is difficult because of its fast-playing styles, odd polyrhythms, tempo changes, and more. These guys are the best at what they do. They have mastered their instruments beyond comprehension with dedication, effort, and love for their craft.
This list of the 15 best rock drummers features some pretty big names in the rock community not just for their drumming but for their influence, inspiration, and overall connection to the listeners.
I hope this article was informational and enjoyable and that you learned something new!