You might know him as the vocalist of the Foo Fighters, the drummer for Nirvana, or the nicest guy in rock. No matter how you slice it, Dave Grohl is one of the most influential drummers in rock history. He’s also been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice!
He’s been a bona fide music icon since Nirvana burst onto the alternative rock scene in Seattle almost 30 years ago. His memorable drum parts on hits like “Come As You Are” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” provided a soundtrack to the ‘90s for angst-ridden teens around the world.
As if that weren’t enough, his second act as the front man for Foo Fighters showed off his impressive musical versatility and rock star personality.
Whether it’s pounding drums, mean guitar riffs or singalong anthems, Dave Grohl is one of the most influential musicians on the planet.
Let’s take a closer look at how a teenager hitting pillows with drumsticks in his bedroom became a rock and roll icon.
Who is Dave Grohl?
Dave Grohl is the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter of the band Foo Fighters.
He was the drummer of Nirvana.
Grohl was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of Nirvana in 2014 and as a member of Foo Fighters in 2021.
He has recorded albums with multiple artists, including Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, and Nine Inch Nails.
He directed “Sonic Highways”, “Sound City”, and “What Drives Us”.
He topped the New York Times bestseller list with his book, “The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music”.
How did Dave Grohl get into music?
Did you know the former Nirvana sticksmith learned to play drums on a pillow?
Born January 14, 1969 in Warren, Ohio, Dave Grohl developed his love for music by listening to the AM radio in his mom’s car. His ear for melody developed further when a twelve-year-old Grohl began teaching himself guitar with a Beatles songbook.
He spent a summer with his older cousin Tracey, who introduced him to punk music and steered him toward drums. After one failed lesson with a local jazz teacher, he taught himself to play by ear by arranging pillows like a drum kit and playing along to Bad Brains records.
Around age 15, he discovered Led Zeppelin and John Bonham and “became obsessed”.
How did Dave Grohl join Nirvana?
In 1986, a 17-year-old Grohl responded to an ad for hardcore band Scream. Grohl lied about his age to get the gig, but suffered a crisis of confidence and turned them down after it was offered to him.
A few months later, having watched them at the famous 9:30 Club in Washington DC, Grohl convinced them he’d made a terrible mistake and talked his way into the band. During this time, he toured the USA and Europe and made two studio albums.
In 1990, having watched Scream live, Kurt Cobain allegedly said, “That’s the kind of drummer we need” and invited Grohl to Seattle. His first record with the band, Nevermind, was a critical and commercial hit, selling over 30 million copies. Nirvana is widely considered the most influential band of the 90s, and Grohl’s drumming is the foundation of that success.
Cobain died tragically in ’94. During an interview on The Graham Norton Show, Grohl spoke about life after Nirvana. “When Kurt died and it all ended, I didn’t know what to do with my life,” he said. “I couldn’t listen to music anymore because it hurt too much, so I tried to escape and went to Ireland to soul search.”
“I was trying to figure out my life when I picked up a hitchhiker who was wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, and I thought, ‘Even in this remote place, I can’t outrun life’, so I went home and started over with the Foo Fighters. I needed to survive and get on with life.”
Later in 1994, Tom Petty asked Grohl to perform on Saturday Night Live, soon inviting him to become a full-time member of his band, The Heartbreakers. After much deliberation, he decided to pursue his own vision, entering the studio to record what would become the Foo Fighters’ first record.
Grohl tracked every instrument except one guitar part, intending it to be an anonymous release that sounded like a band of several members.
He assembled the first lineup to tour in what would ultimately become one of the most successful groups of all time, earning 15 Grammy Awards, headlining festivals, selling out stadium tours worldwide and a 2021 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Grohl may be the frontman of the Foo Fighters, but he’s continued to contribute rhythmically to the band from the debut album to their latest release.
In 2022, Foo Fighters bandmate and legendary drummer Taylor Hawkins passed away while the band was on tour in South America. An all-star lineup performed two tribute concerts in London and Los Angeles.
At Wembley Stadium, during a blistering Foo Fighters set featuring several guest drummers, Grohl wept while playing “Times Like These” in an emotionally charged performance. Critics described the album that followed – But Here We Are – as a “brutally honest and emotionally raw response to everything Foo Fighters endured over the last year.”
Those years of playing along to Led Zeppelin left a clear mark on his playing, and you can hear Bonham’s swagger and power in Grohl’s drumming. Hard-hitting beats with fun, inventive fills make him one of rock’s greatest, and there is also that frantic punk energy that he can call upon when required. His wide range of influences and ear as a songwriter make him a tasteful player, which you can hear across his vast discography.
Grohl has said that when he wrote the drum parts for Nevermind, he was heavily inspired by disco beats. To this day he can’t read music, but his natural ear has more than compensated:
Recordings, collabs and other projects
Dave Grohl has a long list of albums; too many to list here! But there are some iconic performances. Nirvana’s Nevermind, Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape, Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age, and the eponymous Them Crooked Vultures record are classic Grohl cuts.
He’s worked with acts ranging from Nine Inch Nails to Halsey, side projects such as a Bee Gees tribute album (“Hail Satin” by Dee Gees), and a metal project, Probot, featuring various iconic heavy metal vocalists.
Grohl has made some fun movie appearances, like Tenacious D’s Pick of Destiny, The Muppets, and Bill & Ted Face the Music, as well as the horror-comedy Studio 666.
He also directed the series Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, documenting the making of that album, as well as the movies Sound City and What Drives Us.
As natural storyteller, Grohl released a memoir of his life and career titled “The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music” in October 2021, which became a #1 New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller.
What drum kit does Dave Grohl play?
During his time in Nirvana, Dave played TAMA drums. A broken piece of the bass drum from his Granstar series kit (which he trashed at the Cabaret Metro to force the tour manager to buy a new kit) sold at auction for almost $10,000 in 2011!
The specs of the kit were:
14×15″ TAMA Granstar rack tom
16×18″ TAMA Granstar floor tom
16×24″ TAMA Granstar bass drum
8×14″ TAMA Superstar birch snare
18” Zildjian A Custom crash
20” Zildjian A Custom crash
22” Zildjian A Custom ride
15” Zildjian A Custom hi-hats
He would go on to play a red Granstar II, and finally a black Artstar II (pictured below) which he played at some of Nirvana’s iconic shows.
Grohl now endorses DW Drums. During his time in Them Crooked Vultures, he played a DW Jazz Series kit consisting of:
9×13″ rack tom
16×16″ floor tom
16×18″ floor tom
16×20″ gong drum
16×24″ bass drum
6.5×14″ aluminum snare drum
Honors and achievements
Grohl was awarded the key to the city of Warren, Ohio, where there’s a roadway named “David Grohl Alley” (and it’s home to the world’s largest drumsticks at 23 feet long and weighing 900 lbs). He has twice been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with Nirvana and Foo Fighters) and has won multiple Grammy Awards.
Why is Dave Grohl so awesome?
1. His drum intros are legendary
If you hear someone trading flams on the snare with open hi-hat hits and kicks placed in between, you don’t even need the music accompaniment to know that it’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. It’s one of the most recognizable drum parts of all time.
Grohl’s flams are iconic. You’ll also hear his legendary style in the intros of Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice”, “Song For The Dead” by Queens Of The Stone Age, and “My Hero” by Foo Fighters.
2. His fills are unique
Whether it’s Nirvana, Them Crooked Vultures or Grohl’s early band Scream, Grohl’s rhythmic vocabulary and precise execution are easily recognizable. The flams he adds to fills (in songs like “In Bloom” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) come from his influences in disco music!
If you’ve heard “No One Knows” by Queens Of The Stone Age, you probably air drum that triplet-based fill. You can also hear Grohl’s hand-to-foot combos on tracks like “You Know What You Are” by Nine Inch Nails, “Binge” by Scream, and “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I” by Them Crooked Vultures.
Grohl tends to use three beat phrases and loves playing them over the bar like (like in “Everlong” by Foo Fighters). And you can’t deny that he loves creating tension with huge tom builds (like in “Breed” or “Aneurysm” by Nirvana).
No matter what he does behind the kit, he’s always playing to support the music. If the song doesn’t need chops, he stays simple – and that’s noticeable on tracks like “February Stars” by Foo Fighters, “Heart Shaped Box” by Nirvana, or even “Tribute” by Tenacious D.
Listen to “Elephants” by Them Crooked Vultures, the intro from “Hanging Tree” by Queens Of The Stone Age, or the chorus of “My Hero” by Foo Fighters.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget what an awesome drummer Dave Grohl is. His parts are inventive and unique and he always plays what’s best for the song. Everyone remembers the hits, but deeper cuts like “Stay Away” from Nirvana’s 1991 Nevermind album really showcase what he’s about.
The tone of the drums is fat and beefy (like his idol John Bonham) and Grohl’s parts perfectly complement the guitar lines. The verses, choruses and solo sections have different tone colors to give the song variety and move it forward.
His later work with Nirvana shows his musical growth and relentless drive to get better. His drumming on the hit song “Dumb” from the band’s 1993 album In Utero is subtle and grooving, showing that Grohl is far more than just a rock basher.
The intro and verses are played on the rims of the drums along with cross-stick and a sparse bass drum part built around the vocal melody. When the chorus kicks in, he plays the snare on beat 2 and the toms on beat 4 and the “and” of 4, almost like a slower version of a mambo. This is a bold creative choice since he could have just played a straight backbeat (which he saves for the end of the tune). However, this tonal variation makes the chorus so much more interesting! The feel is also excellent – he plays laid-back but not sloppy. This tune is only 2 minutes and 30 seconds long, but Grohl’s musical choices give it a wonderful arc. This is some killer drumming.
4. He’s fearless
History has shown that creating great art requires taking risks, and Grohl has never been afraid to put himself out there and try new things. Nirvana’s iconic 1994 MTV Unplugged performance is a perfect example, and it almost didn’t happen. Kurt Cobain was unhappy with how the drums sounded when Grohl played with sticks in rehearsals. After a lot of tension and stress, someone ran to the music store for hot rods and Grohl delivered one of the most memorable drumming performances of all time. He was clearly out of his comfort zone, but he played with sensitivity and touch, giving the music exactly what it needed. In the process, he made it okay for rock drummers everywhere to turn down the volume and play “acoustic” sets.
He took another huge risk by creating the Foo Fighters. After his time with Nirvana, Grohl could have had a long and successful career as a sideman with groups like Pearl Jam or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (both of whom wanted him). Instead, he started from scratch and created something that was uniquely his. He did exactly what he wanted to do, and without that fearlessness, Foo Fighters and all their hit songs would never have existed.
Kurt Cobain always spoke highly of Grohl’s songwriting and was beginning to involve him more in Nirvana’s creative process at the time of his death. This faith proved to be well-placed, as Grohl has written some of the biggest smash hits of all time such as “Everlong,” “My Hero” and “Best of You.”
Besides drumming and songwriting, he sings, plays guitar and fronts the band. This versatility and musicianship is a great quality for drummers to emulate. Playing other instruments and writing songs will help you become a better drummer.
6. He makes everyone around him better
Nobody is perfect and Grohl is no exception. But his bandmates clearly enjoy working with him and he’s always been known as a team player who strives to lift up the people around him. He doesn’t take himself too seriously (wearing a wolf suit on SNL, having a drum battle with Animal from the Muppets or (allegedly) writing one of the funniest tour riders in history).
He’s also keenly aware of his power as a public figure. Look no further than his friendship and mentoring of 11-year-old drumming phenom Nandi Bushell. Grohl didn’t have to invite her onstage to play “Everlong” with the Foo Fighters, but did so because he recognized her special talent and wanted to elevate her. He seems to genuinely enjoy helping others, a quality that can serve all drummers well musically and personally.
7. He’s resilient
Like anyone, Grohl has faced his share of adversity, and the untimely death of bandmate Cobain at such an early age was a huge blow. Grohl had to recover from that while starting his own group, writing the songs and playing all the instruments himself on Foo Fighters early recordings until he found the right lineup.
In 2015, he broke his leg but still fronted the band from a giant custom-built throne. Most musicians would have been at home resting, but Grohl didn’t even miss a show.
And with the passing of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins in 2022, he’s still opted to move forward rather than call it quits. The band is continuing on with Josh Freese – a longtime friend of Grohl – on drums, which will hopefully help maintain a family feel in the Foo Fighters camp.
Dave Grohl has had an extraordinary career as a drummer, songwriter, bandleader and public personality. He’s truly one-of-a-kind and he’s inspired so many people to start playing drums or guitar.
Dave Grohl’s career so far is a remarkable story. From humble beginnings, he taught himself to play and became the drummer in one of the most essential bands of his generation. He then did it all over again as a frontman.
He’s made countless incredible records, directed music documentaries, and wrote a bestseller to tell the tale. Never taking himself too seriously, and often referred to as “the nicest guy in rock”, we salute you, Dave!
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