15 of the Best Drummers That Have Died

Some of the best and most famous drummers like Ginger Baker, John Bonham, and buddy rich 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 how 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 his 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.

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 the 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 of 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 in ’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 afro-funk. He continued recording and innovating until his death in April 2020.

11. Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan

James Owen Sullivan or Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan (short for the Reverend Tholomew Plague) was best known for being the drummer for the heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold. He was and still is a huge influence on many modern drummers. Apart from playing the drums, he also provided backing vocals.

Jimmy’s drumming style hugely involved the use of the double bass pedal at an incredibly fast pace. He would often use it in conjunction with accented ride cymbal plays or as he called it “the double octopus” technique. Sadly, he passed away on December 28th, 2009 at the young age of 28.

12. Mitch Mitchell

John Graham “Mitch” Mitchell was an English drummer best known for being a part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. His legendary Woodstock performance is enough to cement his legacy in stone and he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.

Mitchell was an incredibly talented drummer who employed jazz complexity with precision and accuracy that would astound most. He sadly passed away on November 12, 2008, at the age of 62, leaving behind a legacy that will stand the test of time and will continue to inspire upcoming generations of drummers.

13. Vinnie Paul

Vincent Paul Abbott, better known as Vinnie Paul, was the drummer behind the legendary heavy metal band Pantera. He employed a unique style that fairly contributed to the huge success of the band. He is among the greatest metal drummers of all time.

Vinnie was known for his energetic and powerful performances. He played the double bass drum pedal with lightning speed and employed cool patterns. After Pantera, he co-founded Damageplan and was part of Hellyeah. He passed away on June 22nd, 2018.

14. Jeff Porcaro

Jeff Porcaro, born Jeffrey Thomas Porcaro, was an American drummer best known for his work with the legendary band Toto. As the son of a renowned session jazz drummer, Jeff followed in his footsteps and cemented his own legacy with a band that is highly regarded as one of the best in history.

Jeff was known for his accurate and accented beats which led him to be one of the most recorded session musicians in history, being a part of hundreds of records and albums. He passed away on August 5, 1992, at the age of 38.

15. Tommy Ramone

Thomas Erdelyi, better known as Tommy Ramone, was the first drummer for the punk rock band the Ramones (first four years). Being part of the legendary band is enough to include him on this list and he was, in fact, the longest-surviving original member of the Ramones.

Tommy Ramone may not have used complex techniques but he was very good at what he did. He was very good at steady beats and faster-tempo songs without missing a beat. Most importantly, his energy contributed to the powerful live performances the band had. Tommy passed away on July 11, 2014, at the age of 65.

Summary

I’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 I’ve talked about today made a mark that will influence and inspire drummers for generations to come.

Image credits for featured image:

John Bonham image by Dina Regine / CC BY-SA
Neil Peart image by Weatherman90 at en.wikipedia / CC BY

Mike O'Connor
Mike O'Connor

I've been playing drums for over 18 years. I work as both a session drummer and a drum teacher, and I love to share my knowledge and tips on this site. You can also find me on the Electronic Drum Advisor YouTube channel.

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