Greatest All-Time Rock Drummers

Stewart Copeland, The Police

Stewart Copeland of The Police — with content of his own inscribed on his tom heads.

Is drumming “content”? Heck yeah. Forthwith, as a Digression, my all-time rock drummers. This list is based on four criteria:

  • Considerable body of work
  • Technical proficiency
  • Combination of power, groove and musicality
  • Clear list of memorable beats and/or fills

But perhaps the biggest criterion is this: These drummers have left some sort of creative mark on the drummer in me.

10. PATRICK CARNEY, The Black Keys
There’s a lot of sonic room to fill in a small garage rock outfit, and Carney does it with swampy beats, uptempo rave-ups and semi-intricate but repeating variations on basic drumbeats. Quintessential performances: “Chop and Change”; “Hell of a Season” and “Dead and Gone,” El Camino; “Howlin’ for You,” Brothers; “Set You Free,” Thickfreakness

A highly versatile drummer who is the major contributor to the funkiness at the heart of some of Beck’s very best work — Odelay, Mutations, Midnite Vultures, Sea Change, Guero and Modern Guilt. Quintessential performances: “Where It’s At” and “Novacane,” Odelay

8. ALEX VAN HALEN, Van Halen
Versatility falls somewhere between John Bonham’s power and Neil Peart’s flash; ably keeps pace with arguably the greatest rock guitarist of all time. Quintessential performances: “Outta Love Again,” Van Halen II; “Hot for Teacher,” 1984; “You’re No Good,” Van Halen II

Embraced drumming in the hard-edged punk/new-wave era in a way that was soulful and musical. Unique hi-hat, off-beat cymbal crashes, and percussion accents. Quintessential performances: “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Helicopter,” and “Millions,” Drums and Wires; “Living Through Another Cuba,” “Towers of London,” and “Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins),” Black Sea; “Senses Working Overtime,” English Settlement

6. SIMON KIRKE, Free | Bad Company
Son-of-Bonham; booming Ludwigs drove two power-pop groups; masterful mix of nuance and power. Quintessential performances: “All Right Now,” Free; “Ready for Love,” Bad Company; “Young Blood,” Run With the Pack

Off-beat kick, snare-and-cymbal punctuation; fused punk, pop and, prog-rock and reggae. Quintessential performances: “Message in a Bottle,” “Walking on the Moon,” “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” “No Time This Time,” Reggatta de Blanc; “Driven to Tears,” Zenyatta Mondatta

4. RINGO STARR, The Beatles
Rock’n’roll drummers were practically aural and visual wallpaper until Ringo; highly distinctive style; always on tempo and rhythm; musicality allowed him to progress along with his ridiculously talented band. Quintessential performances: “Ticket to Ride,” Help!; “Rain” (which Ringo considered his best recording); “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolver; “Dig a Pony,” Let It Be

First to really fuse prog-rock drumming with accessible radio rock; unusual time signatures; uses acoustic and electronic drums and a wide range of cymbals and percussion. Quintessential performances: “The Spirit of Radio,” Permanent Waves; “YYZ,” Moving Pictures; “Anthem,” Fly By Night; “2112,” 2112

2. URIEL JONES, The Funk Brothers
From the early 1960s through the early 1970s — the height of Motown’s popularity — Jones was the backbeat of the unheralded studio band the Funk Brothers. His discography is a virtual college-level course on how to drive a pop song with powerful drumming without overwhelming it. Quintessential performances: “You Can’t Hurry Love,” the Supremes;  “I Can’t Get Next to You,” the Temptations; “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye; “War,” Edwin Starr; “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” The Undisputed Truth

1. JOHN BONHAM, Led Zeppelin
An unequaled blend of power, finesse, funk and precision; triplets on the kick drum; powerful kick drum sound came from mic-ing both the front and batter heads. Quintessential performances: “The Rover” and “The Wanton Song,” Physical Graffiti; “Whole Lotta Love” (live), The Song Remains the Same; “Misty Mountain Hop,” Led Zeppelin IV

Dave Grohl, Nirvana | Them Crooked Vultures | Queens of the Stone Age
Rick Buckler, The Jam
Jody Stephens, Big Star
Vince Ely, Psychedelic Furs
Phil Selway, Radiohead
Charlie Watts, The Rolling Stones
Patrick Keeler, The Raconteurs
Alan Myers, DEVO
Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix Experience
Ian Paice, Deep Purple
Tommy Ramone, The Ramones
Steve Gadd, Steely Dan
Topper Headon, The Clash
Roger Taylor, Queen
Paul Cook, Sex Pistols
Joey Kramer, Aerosmith
Ralph Molina, Crazy Horse
Stan Lynch, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Chris Frantz, Talking Heads
Larry Mullen Jr., U2
Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix Experience
Meg White, The White Stripes
Doug Clifford, Creedence Clearwater Revival
Bill Ward, Black Sabbath
Bill Bruford, Yes | King Crimson
Ginger Baker, Cream
Keith Moon, The Who
Phil Rudd, AC/DC
Neal Smith, Alice Cooper
David Robinson, The Cars
Peter Criss, KISS
Tré Cool, Green Day
Don Brewer, Grand Funk Railroad
Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, David Bowie
Cedric Sharpley, Tubeway Army | Gary Numan
Bev Bevan, Electric Light Orchestra
Bun E. Carlos, Cheap Trick
Nick Mason, Pink Floyd
Mike Gibbins, Badfinger
Ric Menck, Matthew Sweet
Stevie Wonder
Chad Smith
, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Adrian Young, No Doubt


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