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Keith Moon: 5 Reasons Why The Who Drummer Was A Genius

Brandon Toews  /  Dec 4, 2023

“I don’t want to channel all my energy into drumming, or to be a Buddy Rich. I just want to play drums for the Who, and that’s it.”

Keith Moon

Well-behaved people rarely make history – and Keith Moon is no exception! The drummer of The Who tragically passed away at the age of 32, but not before establishing a legendary reputation that would make anyone’s grandma blush.

With a nickname like “Moon the Loon”, it’s no surprise to find out about his over-the-top pranks, his penchant for destroying hotel rooms, and a reputation for instigating shenanigans.

While he undeniably had an explosive personality, why was Keith Moon a drumming ‘genius’? He had an original writing and playing style, always throwing in rolls and fills and cool ‘drummy’ parts – and this is what cemented his influence among drummers of the ’60s and beyond.

One of the earliest rock drummers to use a double bass kit, he helped bring heavy hitters into the spotlight. Here are a few reasons why Keith Moon was one of the greatest drummers in history.

1. The Keith Moon sound

When The Who blew up in the ’60s, Keith Moon couldn’t be contained. He beat the living crap out of the drums and had a frantic and driving feel.

Here’s an example of his tom-pounding triplets from “My Generation”:

my generation by the who - drum notation
“My Generation” by The Who

You can hear more of Moon’s relentless tom assault on “The Ox” – like the Surfaris’ ’60s surf rock classic “Wipeout” but even crazier:

the ox by the who - drum notation

Keith Moon has influenced a ton of modern drummers. Brad Wilk (Rage Against The Machine) and Todd Sucherman (Styx) both cite “Bargain” by The Who as a must-know, kick-heavy track. Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) is a fan of Moon’s cymbal crashes in between fills:

While his over-the-top energy gave the band its exciting sound, Moon was still a master of dynamics. He’d sometimes set up a new section of a song with a dense drum fill, which was especially rare in the early ’70s. Listen for it in “When I Was A Boy”:

Some drummers might need a few bars to make a statement with their fills, but Keith Moon could do a lot with just one bar – like in “Baba O’Riley”:

baba o'riley by the who - drum notation
“Baba O’Riley” by The Who

2. Awesome grooves

Giving songs the “Animal treatment” doesn’t mean saying goodbye to tasteful, simple grooves. Listen to how Moon pulls it back in “Love Is Coming Down”:

love is coming down by the who - drum notation
“Love Is Coming Down” by The Who

You can hear Moon’s great pocket in “Join Together” and “Put The Money Down”:

put the money down by the who - drum notation
“Put The Money Down” by The Who

“Baby Don’t You Do It” opens with a breakbeat-style drum part, and improvised grooves sometimes turn into a full drum solo:

baby dont do it by the who - drum notation
“Baby Don’t You Do It” by The Who

If you’re a fan of triplets, you can hear some classic Keith Moon magic in “I’m One”:

i'm one by the who - drum notation
“I’m One” by The Who

And listen to his trademark triplets in “The Rock”:

the rock by the who - drum notation
“The Rock” by The Who

3. An unconventional approach

Who bandleader Pete Townshend described Moon’s drumming style as “free”. Unapologetic in his approach to both writing and performing, he – as Frank Sinatra would put it – did it his way.

Who needs hi-hats when you’re Keith Moon? He abandoned the kit staple early on, going through a no hi-hat phase in the ’70s – and finding new ways to express himself – before eventually bringing them back.

Another example of his unconventional approach is in the verse sections of “Going Mobile”. Most drummers would play straight through, but Moon chose to drop the snare every few bars:

Listen to how Moon eliminates the cymbals – save for a single china hit once per bar – in “New Song”:

new song by the who - drum notation
“New Song” by The Who

“Sister Disco” also features a tom groove with a single hit on the china in every bar:

sister disco by the who - drum notation
“Sister Disco” by The Who

A true “drummer’s drummer”, Keith Moon knew how to cleverly add a ton of drums into his parts. He double-tracked his drums in “I Can See For Miles”, which means he recorded the drum part twice and layered them to get a fuller sound.

“Out In The Street” and “Glittering Girl” feature busier grooves that most drummers would consider drum fills, but it was standard fare for Keith Moon:

One of his band’s most famous songs, “Pinball Wizard”, became a massive hit with a ton of radio play – even without a standard rock beat!

4. Leading from the drums

Keith Moon wasn’t “drummy” for the sake of being “drummy” – he accented and accompanied the music expressively, much like a jazz or orchestral drummer. Pete Townshend once said, “Keith decorated as he played”.

Max Weinberg (Bruce Springsteen’s drummer) says, “He was as influential in the sixties as Gene Krupa was in the thirties” and “in my view, was the lead instrument in The Who.”

Listen to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – another hit that sacrificed standard drum beats for copious shots and fills. It’s truly a song for drummers!

Moon didn’t overplay for the sake of it. If you pay close enough attention, he was almost always following a vocal part or a detail played by another instrument – like in “Behind Blue Eyes”:

behind blue eyes by the who - drum notation
“Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who

You can also hear his fills and embellishments followed the vocal parts in “My Wife” and “The Real Me”.

His crazy fills in “Cut My Hair” pull back to a casual rock beat, making the chorus that much more impactful:

cut my hair by the who - drum notation
“Cut My Hair” by The Who

5. Theatrics and lunacy

Without his over the top showmanship, Keith Moon’s genius might have gone under the radar. But with energy out the wazoo – much like his idol Gene Krupa – he was impossible to ignore.

“I’d see a big band with a double bass drum setup, twirling the sticks, all the theatrics. They’re the people I really dug growing up.”

Keith Moon

With stick tricks and theatrics pulled from the book of Krupa and his own brand of zany facial expressions, Moon dominated the stage.

You can feel his raw energy and passion in this promo video for “Who Are You”, the title track from their 1978 album:

You can see how his insanity translated on and off the stage in this trailer for The Who’s 1979’s rockumentary, The Kids Are Alright:

Moon’s chaotic energy helped The Who shine as a live band. You can hear it in live recordings of “Summertime Blues” and “Heaven And Hell”:

As if that wasn’t enough, here’s some classic footage of Moon destroying his drum kit:

Moon wrote the track “Bell Boy” where he gets extra silly and puts on a Cockney accent while performing lead vocals:

Don’t mind if we drop a few more examples of his “Moon the Loon” persona. Here’s Keith Moon destroying a hotel room:

And here’s a clip of The Who’s 1967 performance where Moon put explosives in his drums. It went off like a bomb and interrupted the transmission, giving Townshend permanent hearing loss in one ear and resulting in a cymbal injuring Moon’s arm.

No matter how you slice it, Keith Moon was one of the most unique and celebrated drummers in rock history. His unpredictable and chaotic approach to drumming wasn’t just about hitting things; it was full-blown performance art. Whether he was smashing drum kits or pranking people, or taking artistic liberties in his writing, there was only one Keith Moon.

He proved that in the world of rock, sometimes it’s the drummers who steal the show.

Brandon Toews is an author, educator, and performer based out of Vancouver, Canada. Brandon is the author of The Drummer's Toolbox, co-author of The Best Beginner Drum Book, and the Content Director at Musora, home to the award-winning online music education platforms Drumeo, Pianote, Guitareo and Singeo.

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