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Top 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time

Updated: Mar 4

Top 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time

(Pictured - Carl Palmer 2009)

The twentieth century saw a dramatic evolution in percussion use, with the creation of trap kits, eventually morphing into what would now be considered a drum set. The explosion of big band and jazz music in the 1920s marked a new role for drummers as the world shifted away from classical music. Throughout the coming decades, the role of a drummer as the anchor of an ensemble became more established, turning into something completely different from how "drummers" were perceived in the decades beforehand. Once rock bands borrowed the bass and drum sounds of jazz combos but straightened out the beat away from swing, the game changed. As the years went by, the unique styles and sounds of drummers emerged, with some shining brighter and becoming more memorable than others. In diving across genres through rock, jazz, funk, punk, metal, and just about any other contemporary style, we have compiled what we believe to be the 100 greatest drummers of all time. Our list will include exclusively drummers, characterized by their drum-set playing legacy and will exclude other disciplines of percussion playing. Our criteria are a mix of chops and the legacy the drummer has created, including how a style has been popularized, modified, or perfected by a drummer. For a look at guitarists, check out The 100 Greatest Rock Guitarist of All Time.

1. Buddy Rich

The legacy and life of Buddy Rich is as impressive as it is bizarre. Buddy Rich was an incredibly talented child, performing on Broadway as a drummer at the age of four and was touring as a drummer and a band leader by the time he was a teenager, having already played drums since he was two. Aside from his youthful talents, his chops, primarily his speed as a jazz drummer, are second to none, but the shocking fact is that he was notorious for never practicing very much. Rich simply had a gift, which was enriched by frequent performing. Buddy Rich has performed on hundreds of recordings, much of which as a bandleader, but also alongside Count Basie and Charlie Parker. His abrasive personality attained almost as much legacy as his talent, with him being described as short-tempered and violent, along with his vocal distaste for rock music. Regardless, Buddy Rich as a jazz drummer is simply unworldly; he could put drummers to shame with just his hi-hat and is not just the best drummer of all time but, at least in the style of jazz, he's the best by quite a big margin.

2. Neil Peart (Rush)

The late, great Neil Peart delivered some of the world's most impressive drumming performances as the drummer for the incredibly talented progressive rock trio, Rush. Neil Peart showcased a distinctive style of drumming, rarely playing what would be considered a standard drum beat. Most rock drummers base their performance on variations of a money beat (think of Billie Jean), but Neil Peart diverged from this norm. He employed unusual drum patterns, seldom repeating himself, and executed complex, technical drum breaks throughout Rush's uniquely structured songs. Luckily for Peart, Rush was the perfect platform for his style, crafting some of the most challenging yet sonically pleasing music for rock musicians. This is evident in tracks like YYZ, La Villa Strangiato, and the 22-minute opening track to 2112, which display an astounding level of skill. Even Rush's more radio-friendly '80s hits, such as Tom Sawyer and Subdivisions, elevate Peart's drumming prowess to new, even broader heights.

3. John Bonham (Led Zeppelin)

Last year, we ranked Led Zeppelin as the greatest rock band of all time, and a large part of that title comes from the creative might of John Bonham. When Led Zeppelin burst onto the rock scene in 1969, the world didn't quite know what to make of them, but it was clear they were something special. John Bonham blended blues playing with hard rock, crafting some of the most powerful drum lines and breaks of his generation. He used his bass drum essentially as another tom, borrowing from the jazz drummers of the bebop scene to create a more rounded sound on the drums. This approach, along with incorporating another limb into his patterns, was something most rock drummers had not yet mastered. Bonham's impressive chops and melodic ear can be heard to perfection in early tracks like Dazed and Confused and How Many More Times. Over the next decade or so of Zeppelin's existence, Bonham proved he could remain equally impressive as the band ventured into new sonic territories with groove-oriented tracks like Fool in the Rain, the mixed meter track The Ocean, or, of course, Moby Dick and its four-and-a-half-minute-long drum solo.

4. Max Roach

Following Buddy Rich, the next jazz drummer on our list is Max Roach. Roach's recording credits go beyond being an esteemed bandleader, including collaborations with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, to name a few. Credited as a pioneer of the bebop style of jazz, Max largely eliminated the bass drum from the traditional timekeeping duties of a jazz drummer, instead using it as a completely separate drum. This allowed him to accentuate the band's rhythm and even contribute to the melody of the group. This separation of the bass drum from the beat broke down barriers, paving the way for John Bonham to revolutionize how the bass drum was used in rock, drawing from the bebop style. In the jazz world, Roach's innovative style liberated drummers from being mere timekeepers, enabling ensembles to become smaller and drummers to take more prominent melodic and soloist roles. His drumming style has been cited by countless artists, from Ginger Baker to Billy Cobham. John Bonham even acknowledges The Drum Also Waltzes, a Roach tune, in Moby Dick.

5. Carl Palmer (Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Asia)

Carl Palmer made up one-third of the progressive rock trio Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. His early style could primarily be classified as jazz, but it was the style he developed once he started playing in rock bands that became most astounding. Similar to Neil Peart, Palmer generally avoided what would be considered traditional drum styles, steering clear of the money beat. Palmer incorporated unusual bass and snare drum patterns alongside tom drum usage in his lines, often emphasizing speed in his drum breaks—a quality that truly set him apart from other drummers. His fundamental knowledge and chops enabled him to create speedy, unique-sounding fills across his drum set. Later in his career, when he formed the supergroup Asia with Steve Howe from Yes, Palmer's skill was again on display. This time, however, it centered around more traditional, pop-sounding rock tracks which, although not as technically demanding as the ELP releases, were equally memorable.

6. Elvin Jones

What Max Roach was to bebop, Elvin Jones was to the more avant-garde styles of jazz. Coming up as a drummer in the '50s, Jones played with Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus before establishing himself as an indispensable member of the John Coltrane Quartet in the early '60s. By this point, he and Coltrane were venturing beyond bebop into modal and avant-garde jazz, expanding his role as a drummer in a more melodic direction. Jones utilized all the sounds he could get from his drums, adding new color to jazz drumming, while also experimenting with polyrhythms. His grooves and solos carried over measures, resulting in the concept of "the beat" becoming looser. His irregular drum patterns often seemed to do away with the pulse of the tune, while at the same time, Jones knew exactly where it was, a feat that is incredibly challenging to achieve as a drummer.

7. Tony Williams

Although Tony Williams emerged on the scene after Elvin Jones had already established himself, their styles as drummers are relatively similar, both endowed with extraordinary rudimentary ability, allowing them to play with the pulse of a song. Born on December 12, 1945, in Chicago, Illinois, Williams was a prodigy who began playing professionally at the age of 13. By the age of 17, he had joined Miles Davis, contributing to some of the most influential jazz recordings of all time, including Miles Smiles and Nefertiti. Tony Williams had an unparalleled ability to play a melody with his right hand across his drum set, while still producing a rich sound from his snare drum with his left hand. In addition to his talent with his hands, Williams possessed an impressive speed with his bass drum foot, enabling him to crisply incorporate back-to-back bass drum hits into his drum breaks. Later in his career, Williams excelled in the jazz fusion style, establishing himself with equally strong rock abilities fitting in seamlessly alongside musicians such as Carlos Santana.

8. Keith Moon (The Who)

Known just as much for his destructive nature as for his drumming, Keith Moon has become one of the most lauded and respected drummers in the world of rock and roll. His innovative approach to rock drumming, notably popularizing the use of two bass drums, became impactful in the development of arena rock in the '70s. Alongside his binary bass drums, the level of energy Moon brought to the drums was deeply desired in rock music. Moon was able to play complex fills, maintaining rhythm and flair in his performances, often in tandem with his destructive nature. It's safe to assume that a drummer quite like Keith Moon is inseparable from an over-the-top, pernicious nature, both on and off stage. Regardless, explosive drum performances on songs like My Generation (especially the live 1967 version where he literally blew his drums up), Won't Get Fooled Again, and I Need You have deeply contributed to his complex and impressive legacy before his premature death at the age of 32.

9. Ginger Baker (Cream)

A pattern has seemingly emerged in our top ten with the greatest drummers of all time frequently having explosive and rash personas, often leaving behind reputations as memorable as their musical ones. This pattern continues with Ginger Baker of Cream. Baker helped popularize the double bass drum technique, just as Keith Moon did, and was revered for his power and confidence within his playing. Baker incorporated jazz and blues influences into his iconic rock drumming. The instrumental track Toad, released by Cream in 1966, was one of the first extended drum solos in rock music, and in 1968, Baker expanded on the song, turning it into the live 16-minute-long behemoth rendition for their album Wheels of Fire. The 1968 version of the track included a now 13-minute-long drum solo, which has been cited as one of the finest drum recordings in rock music. Although Ginger Baker is seldom known as a kind person, that has not taken away from the fact that he is held in incredibly high regard by musicians extending well beyond just drummers.

10. Topper Headon (The Clash)

Topper Headon of The Clash is perhaps the most underrated drummer on our list, ranking higher here than on similarly titled lists. The reason why Topper is not often cited as one of the finest drummers of all time is a mystery, as he has proven himself masterful across multiple styles in a way most drummers never will, and that's not just for his work on London Calling. Topper Headon brought an advanced style of drumming to punk rock, which had been predominantly characterized by only speed and energy. He introduced rudimentary knowledge, complex rhythmic patterns, along with reggae and jazz influences to punk rock, largely shaping the conceptions of what would become post-punk—a more musically innovative approach to punk. Without Headon's versatile drumming, London Calling might not have been praised as extensively as it has been for being genre-bending and ahead of its time. Aside from his work with The Clash, Headon's dexterity as a jazz drummer could put a lot of jazz drummers to shame. It's not that he isn't often revered as a great drummer; what's puzzling that he is not more frequently referred to as one of the best drummers.

11. Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix Experience)

12. Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown)

13. Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste (The Meters)

14. Bernard Purdie

15. Hal Blaine

16. Jeff Porcaro (Toto)

17. Benny Benjamin (Motown House Band)

18. Michael Giles (King Crimson, Giles, Giles and Fripp)

19. Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater)

20. Danny Carey (Tool)

21. Billy Cobham

22. Carlton Barrett (Bob Marley)

23. Art Blakey

24. Stewart Copeland (The Police)

25. Ian Paice (Deep Purple, Whitesnake)

26. Carter Beauford (Dave Matthews Band)

27. Carmine Appice (Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Vanilla Fudge)

28. Roy Haynes

29. Levon Helm (The Band)

30. Al Jackson Jr. (Booker T. & The MG's)

31. Bill Ward (Black Sabbath)

32. James Gadson (Bill Withers, Temptations, Marvin Gaye)

33. Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Herbie Hancock, Jeff Beck)

34. Lenny White (Miles Davis, Chick Corea)

35. John Densmore (The Doors)

36. Clifton James (Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy)

37. Joe Morello

38. Peter Erskine

39. Steve Smith (Journey)

40. Jabo Starks (James Brown, BB King)

41. Rick Marotta

42. Bill Kreutzmann (Grateful Dead)

43. Pick Withers (Dire Straits)

44. Steve Gadd

45. Roger Hawkins

46. Barriemore Barlow (Jethro Tull, Robert Plant)

47. Jimmy Chamberlin (Smashing Pumpkins)

48. Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa)

49. Shelly Manne

50. Bill Bruford (King Crimson, Yes, Genesis)

51. Rick Allen (Def Leppard)

52. Mike Shrieve (Santana)

53. Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones)

54. Butch Trucks & Jaimoe (Allman Brothers Band)

55. Gavin Harrison (King Crimson)

56. Jack DeJohnette

57. Dave Lombardo (Slayer)

58. Kenny Clarke

59. Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac)

60. Jim Keltner

61. Steve Jordan (Blues Brothers, John Mayer, Don Henley)

62. Gene Krupa

63. Jimmy Sullivan "The Rev" (Avenged Sevenfold)

64. Ringo Starr (The Beatles)

65. Papa Jo Jones

66. Alex Van Halen (Van Halen)

67. Ramon "Tiki" Fulwood (Parliament, Funkadelic)

68. Fred Below (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf)

69. Matt Helders (Arctic Monkeys)

70. Virgil Donati (Planet X)

71. Greg Errico (Sly & the Family Stone, David Bowie)

72. Matt Cameron (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam)

73. Jojo Mayer

74. Mike Mangini (Dream Theater, Steve Vai)

75. Louie Bellson (Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie)

76. Travis Barker (Blink 182)

77. John Dolmayan (System of a Down)

78. John French (Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band)

79. Damon Che (Don Caballero)

80. Nigel Olsson (Elton John)

81. Paul Motian

82. Jon Fishman (Phish)

83. Cozy Powell (Rainbow, Whitesnake)

84. Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello)

85. Tommy Lee (Motley Crue)

86. Philly Joe Jones

87. Dave Grohl (Nirvana)

88. Phil Collins (Genesis)

89. Thomas Lang (stOrk)

90. David Garibaldi (Tower of Power)

91. Keith Carlock (Steely Dan (Touring Member))

92. Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel)

93. Sid Catlett (Louis Armstrong)

94. Moe Tucker (Velvet Underground)

95. George Hurley (Minutemen)

96. Larry Mullen Jr. (U2)

97. Nick Mason (Pink Floyd)

98. Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa)

99. Alphonse Mouzon (Weather Report, Herbie Hancock)

100. Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers)


2000's alternative & indie rock playlist cover 2.JPEG
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