The Greatest Drummers Of All Time
So who are the greatest drummers of all time, and why? I realize this is a very subjective topic and certainly not the most exhaustive list out there. That being said, for me these are the greatest drummers of all time in their respective eras. Please keep in mind, there is more to a drummer than just drumming. In order to make this list you have to be of the mindset of "music first."
So without further adieu, I give you:
The Greatest Drummers of All Time
This was the era of jazz and big band and delivered to us some of the most prolific and legendary drummers the world would ever see. The most famous, or infamous if you will is literally in my opinion the greatest drummer of all time; that is Buddy Rich. Buddy Rich took the instrument to new levels and blew open the door for just about every drummer to come. He was also an incredible bandleader. Buddy's technique is still being studied today. Along side Buddy Rich there were numerous incredible players on the jazz scene. The other great drummers that dominated this era were: Louie Bellson, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, and Gene Krupa. Of course guys like Max Roach and Rufus Jones come to mind as well. There are certainly many more but for me these guys were the most influential at the time.
As music began to transition to more Pop and Rock, the greatest drummers of all time mainly rooted in jazz began to take a back seat to the more boisterous playing of the Rock drummers by the late sixties. However, during the early part of the sixties drumming legends such as Tony Williams and Joe Morello still dominated the jazz game. As music changed and Rock music arrived it was Ginger Baker and Keith Moon that rocked people's worlds. Ginger Baker was famous for taking his jazz drumming background and fusing it into the blues/rock style of Cream at the time. Whereas Keith Moon was just a monster behind the kit, literally slaying the drums and being a great showman as well as player. Other notable drummers coming out of this era would be Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and right at the end of the decade John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, who would become the poster boy for Rock drummers.
The 70's was the era that changed drumming for ever. The greatest drummers of all time emerging from this era would be quite a long list, so I'm going to try and keep it brief. Fusion, progressive rock, and avant garde genres emerged like wild flowers, spawning drummers from all walks of life. For me the greatest drummers of all time from the 1970's has to begin with Billy Cobham. Billy Cobham essentially single handedly created an entirely new drumming style, which at the time had people's jaws dropping to the floor. If you've ever wondered where "chops" comes from- check out Billy Cobham. In addition to the great Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford would be the drummer that pushed the limits again by making syncopated drumming cool and palatable. He did it with Yes, and then again with King Crimson. Carl Palmer of Emerson Lake and Palmer was another monster player that could drop jaws whenever he took the stage. These guys were all showstoppers, but there was another great drummer doing his thing behind the scenes who would turn out to be for some, the greatest drummer of all time. That drummer would be Steve Gadd. Steve Gadd is certainly one of the greatest drummers of all time because the guy can do it all. Gadd would go on to become the most in demand session drummer of all time.
The greatest drummers of all time that dominated the 1980's were playing arenas, as well as small jazz clubs. Steve Smith of Journey comes to mind when we think about a magnificent player who was touring the world to sold out shows every night. Steve Smith is actually a jazz drummer and in the last decade or so has really brought a younger audience back into jazz. Neil Peart for some is the greatest drummer of all time. His work with Rush combined rock, fusion and jazz into a truly unique playing style. Neil Peart goes down in history most definitely as the greatest drummer of all time for progressive rock. Another drummer that gained an enormous following and has reached legendary status is Vinnie Colaiuta. Vinnie Colaiuta is perhaps one of the most versatile and tasteful drummers to ever play the instrument.
When I think of the greatest drummers of all time in the 1990's 3 names come to mind. First Dennis Chambers. Dennis Chambers did to drummers in the 90's what Billy Cobham did in the 70's. The guy could just rip it up no matter what style of music, and essentially laid the ground work for an entire new breed of drummers in the coming ages. Virgil Donati gained lots of attention for being one of the greatest drummers of all time, especially in the 1990's where his unique style of syncopated beats coupled with unrivaled technique secured him a spot on every aspiring drummer’s list of favorites. And then there is Dave Weckl, a primarily jazz drummer who became a fixture for what a pro successful drummer should be like. Dave Weckl is certainly one of the greatest drummers of all time for too many reasons to mention. But if I had to name a few, his technique is flawless and his phrasing a force to be reckoned with.
In the last 20 years there have been more fabulous drummers than every emerging on the scene. With social media and Youtube taking center stage, many unknown players got their chance to be in the spotlight. While I can easily name dozens of drummers who I think are superb musicians, I’ll drill down on several for the purpose of this list that you most likely have heard of. For starters Jojo Mayer would have to be one of the most inspirational players of the 21st century. His approach, technique and delivery of quality educational materials and drum products put him in a league of his own. Jojo brought to the masses some of the coveted drumming secrets in his first video, “The Secret Weapons of the Modern Drummer. “ His actual modern drummer performance dazzled pretty much everyone as he whipped his left hand into an abyss. Tony Royster Jr. would be another drummer that clearly ranks in the greatest drummer s of all time list. Tony’s ability to virtually play any style at any tempo makes him a true phenomenon. Danny Carey of Tool makes the greatest drummers of all time list for his incredible musicality in a hard rock band. Carey’s tasteful playing and cutting edge sound have made him a household name in the drumming world. Of course I can expand into the genre of metal drummers, but for this list to be concise I think Danny Carey represents the cream of the crop.
Last but not least I’m putting Dave Grohl on this list as one of the greatest drummers of all time. You see, there’s more to a drummer than just the drumming. As a drummer, you are first and foremost a musician. Dave Grohl is exactly that- a solid Rock drummer for sure, but a phenomenal musician. The combination make him one of the greatest drummers of all time. There are many other drummers on and off this list that are excellent composers and musicians outside of their drumming prowess. So it’s important to note that music always comes first, and as drummers our job is to compliment the music we are playing to, and the musicians we are playing with.
I hope this helps give some insight into the greatest drummers of all time.
If you happen to be a drummer and are looking to take your playing to the next level, I encourage you to take a look at my books on hand technique here.