Today we’ve decided to celebrate some of the best and most famous drummers that are sadly no longer with us.
Their legacy, style, musicianship, skills, and technique will continue to inspire drummers for generations to come.
We have been privileged to witness such a vast array of talented drummers over the years. This article is just a selection of some of the greats. As such, this is not a definitive list, and this list is not written in any particular order.
1. Ginger Baker
Eric Clapton may be the best-known member of the rock band Cream, but Ginger Baker was – and is – just as influential when it comes to drummers. He is widely acknowledged as one of the best drummers ever, and was described by Modern Drummer magazine as “one of classic rock’s first influential drumming superstars of the 1960s” and “one of classic rock’s true drum goads.”
Baker is considered to be a pioneer of heavy metal drumming and was one of the first drummers to perform extended drum solos. He combined jazz training – he preferred to be viewed as a jazz drummer – with African rhythms and is considered to also be a pioneer of jazz fusion and world music. His drumming is remembered for its style and showmanship, and he used two bass drums instead of the traditional one. He died in 2019.
2. John Bonham
Best known as a member of the rock band Led Zeppelin, Bonham is considered to be one of the most influential rock drummers in history. Bonham’s playing style is noted for the way in which he broke the rhythm with triplets, a technique that was inspired by jazz music and integrated his unusual drumming style with the rest of the band’s instruments.
In the music he made with Led Zeppelin, he is best known for the speed and power of his drumming, his skill at fast bass drumming, and distinctive sound. While he was mostly a rock drummer, he was also influenced by funk and Latin music in later Zeppelin music. Though his best-known drum solo, ‘Moby Dick,’ was officially only about four and a half minutes long, it could often last for up to 20 minutes when performed live and was a staple part of Zeppelin concerts. His death at age 32 in 1980 was the catalyst for the band’s break-up.
(Moby Dick drum solo)
3. Buddy Rich
A jazz drummer and bandleader, Buddy Rich was a self-taught musician who played on Broadway at age four and toured the U.S. and Australia in his teens. Some of his main collaborators were Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Count Basie, and was a friend of Frank Sinatra’s, who helped financially support him after the Second World War.
His technique, power, and speed are still considered some of the best ever, and Gene Krupa called him “the greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath.” His style influenced drummers from Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham to Phil Collins (who started playing the hi-hat because of him) to Blink-182’s Travis Barker.
4. Tony Williams
First finding fame as a member of Miles Davis’ band – he debuted at age 17 – Tony Williams is considered to be one of the best jazz drummers of all time and one of the pioneers of jazz fusion.
Williams’ drumming helped reshape the role of the jazz rhythm section with his use of polyrhythms and metric modulation.
His playing is still remembered for his skill at the cymbals and the radical tempo distortions in his play. Williams left Davis’ band in 1969, forming the Tony Williams Lifetime with John McLaughlin and Larry Young. The band, with Williams’ influence, was one of the pioneering bands involved in the development of jazz fusion.
5. Gene Krupa
Called “the first rock drummer” by Neil Peart, Gene Krupa was a jazz drummer, bandleader, and composer. His drum solo on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is considered to be one of the main compositions that elevated the role of the drummer to being an important soloist in a band. It was also one of the first extended drum solos to be recorded commercially.
Buddy Rich was a friend and opponent in several drum battles, including ones at Carnegie Hall and on a variety of television broadcasts. He also collaborated closely with the Slingerland Drum Company and Avedis Zildjian Company (which manufactures cymbals) and helped create the standard modern band drummer’s kit. Modern Drummer magazine considers him “the founding father of the modern drumset.”
6. Elvin Jones
Starting as a sideman for musicians like Charles Mingus, Teddy Charles, Bud Powell, and Miles Davies, Elvin Jones is best remembered for his stint as a member of the John Coltrane Quartet from 1960 to 1966.
He is best known for his complex, ever-changing style, which made it seem like it was the product of two or three drummers performing simultaneously. His sense of polyrhythms, timings, dynamics, timbre, and legato phrasing is credited with helping to bring the drumset to prominence, and he was often called the “most polyrhythmic drummer in jazz history”. His style influenced a variety of drummers, including Janet Weiss, Mitch Mitchell, and Ginger Baker.
7. Keith Moon
Described as being “to the drums what Jimi Hendrix was to the guitar” by author Nick Talevski, Keith Moon is best known as the drummer for English rock band the Who.
Moon’s drumming style emphasized tom-toms, cymbal crashes, and drum fills. The Who’s first two albums were built around Moon’s drumming – Jon Landau noted that he played the parts that were usually the domain of the lead guitar. For him, the drums were the lead instrument, not the support act. Moon has been cited as an influence by a variety of rock drummers, including Neil Peart, Dave Grohl, and Elvin Jones.
8. Hal Blaine
Born Harold Belsky, Hal Blaine is one of the most recorded studio drummers in music history, boasting over 35,000 sessions and 6,000 singles. His drumbeat on the Ronettes’ single “Be My Baby” is one of his most recognized and imitated, and he also recorded with popular artists like Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, and Elvis Presley, among others.
Blaine was a core member of The Wrecking Crew, a group of Los Angeles session musicians, and was regarded as one of the most in-demand drummers in rock and roll music. Among the songs he played on are 150 U.S. Top 10 hits, 40 of which hit number one. He is also widely credited with making the “disco-beat” popular, after his recording on Johnny Rivers’ Poor Side of Town. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018 and died in March 2019.
9. Neil Peart
Best known as the drummer and primary lyricist of the Canadian rock band Rush, Neil Peart joined the band in 1974, six years after its formation and two weeks before the group’s first United States tour.
British hard rock drummers like Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and John Bonham, as well as jazz and big band musicians Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, influenced Peart’s playing.
His drumming was known for its precision and technical ability and was considered some of the most precise percussion ever seen. He remains one of the best-regarded live drummers in rock history, and his live performances were noted for their exacting and tiring nature, as well as their effect as show-stopping solos.
10. Tony Allen
Called “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived” by Brian Eno, Tony Allen was a Nigerian-Ghanaian drummer who was part of Fela Kuti’s band Africa ’70 from 1968 to 1979.
He is considered to be one of the primary co-founders of Afrobeat alongside Kuti, who once said, “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.” As an innovator, he added jazz and funk to local West African music genres to create a new sound. After leaving Africa ’70, Allen worked to create a hybrid sound by deconstructing Afrobeat and fusing it with electronica, dub, R&B, and rap. He called the resulting synthesis afrofunk. He continued recording and innovating until his death in April 2020.
We’ve taken this as the opportunity to honor some of the best and most influential drummers that are no longer with us. The drummers that we’ve talked about today made a mark that will influence and inspire drummers for generations to come.
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