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Tommy Lee: 5 Reasons Why He’s A Drumming Genius

Brandon Toews  /  Jun 9, 2023

Is Tommy Lee a good drummer?

He isn’t just good – he’s great. And we’re here to show you why.

Mötley Crüe wouldn’t be the same without Tommy Lee, the rockstar poster child. His personality and energy are off the charts and he’s influenced countless drummers for decades.

From hard-hitting drum solos and unique cymbal techniques to signature grooves and fills, let’s break down why he’s such a legendary monster.


What is Tommy Lee known for?

  • Tommy Lee is the longtime drummer for Mötley Crüe, having co-founded the band with Nikki Sixx and Greg Leon in 1981.
  • He’s played drums with Rob Zombie, the Smashing Pumpkins, Post Malone, Jack’s Mannequin, Methods of Mayhem and more.
  • He was married to Pamela Anderson, receiving media attention for his wild lifestyle and – uh – racy videos.
  • Tommy is one of the few drummers who’s dared to perform upside down (joining the likes of Travis Barker and Joey Jordison).
  • He has done time on reality TV, starring in shows like Tommy Lee Goes To College and Rock Star: Supernova and hosting others like Battleground Earth.

Grooves, baby

Tommy Lee has created some of rock’s sleaziest, tastiest grooves, and you can hear them on tracks like “Sick Love Song” (the intro ride bell groove is LA perfection):

Motley Crue "Sick Love Song" drum notation

And then there’s “Kickstart My Heart”, which features one of Tommy Lee’s most famous grooves. He plays a flam on every back beat, and always keeps consistent spacing between his hands. And maintaining that beat with maximum energy? Not as easy as it seems!

Motley Crue "Kickstart My Heart" drum notation

Let’s not forget about the intro of “City Boy Blues” – a recognizable groove for any Crüe fan:

Motley Crue "City Boy Blues" drum notation

We’ve got hi-hat barks, cymbal shots and accents on the china; a great groove with lots of cymbal action.

If you’re familiar with Tommy’s drumming on Crüe albums from the ’80s, you’ll know how much he loves the cowbell.

Listen for it on “Public Enemy #1” and “Come On And Dance” (the latter having a killer four on the floor groove with triplets on the cowbell):

Motley Crue "Come On And Dance" drum notation

Mötley Crüe is known as “The world’s most notorious rock band” largely for their party lifestyle and over-the-top antics, so it makes sense that they didn’t always take the road most traveled. Most bands in their scene would never have thought of alternating between a straight and swung feel, but you can hear it on tracks like “Take Me To The Top” and “Wild Side”:

Tommy Lee has branched out from his main gig in the past, going into recording sessions with other bands.

Here’s a cool groove in 9/8 that Tommy Lee played on the Smashing Pumpkins’ 2014 song “Tiberius”:

smashing pumpkins tiberius drum notation tommy lee

Every cymbal gets special attention

Tommy Lee doesn’t shy away from anything, especially his cymbals. His creative use of chokes helped set him apart from what other rock drummers were doing in the ’80s (other than, say, Alex Van Halen).

“Shout At The Devil” has some great examples:

Motley Crue "Shout At The Devil" drum notation

And then there’s “Live Wire”:

Motley Crue "Live Wire" drum notation

Of course, we can’t forget about all the hi-hat openings and barks baked into “Dr. Feelgood”:

Motley Crue "Dr Feelgood" drum notation

One reason this groove is so cool is how the hi-hat opening shifts from being on the beat to the offbeat.

Tommy basically inverts the “Dr. Feelgood” groove on “Rattlesnake Shake”, where starts it on beat three instead of beat one:

He keeps going with his trademark hi-hat openings in “Wild Side”, where he opens the hi-hats on beats one and three during a 16th note groove:

Motley Crue "Wild Side" drum notation

In “Primal Scream”, he incorporates a cymbal choke and hi-hat barks on the left hand while his right hand grooves on the ride. This groove rules:

Motley Crue "Primal Scream" drum notation

Who are Tommy Lee’s influences?

Tommy has said in interviews that some of his favorite drummers are Tommy Aldridge (Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake), Alex Van Halen (Van Halen) and Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa), but his biggest influence is Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.

He’s a master of all things theatrical

If you’ve never seen Tommy Lee play drums – in person or in a video – stop what you’re doing and watch this right now:

No one walks away from a Mötley Crüe show without having one of Tommy’s theatrical drum solos blow their mind.

One of his biggest influences is Tommy Aldridge, who played drums with Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake, Pat Travers and more. Known for twirling drumsticks, criss-cross sticking, cymbal grabs and other “big moves”, both Tommies have built showmanship into their performances, making their drum solos impossible to ignore and difficult to forget.

It wasn’t just about looking cool, though – it was also about being seen. Literally.

Tommy Lee loved Tommy Aldridge’s wild drum solos but he was hidden behind a wall of drums. “I gotta figure out a way where people can see what’s going on!”

“The plan was, let’s build something so sick that this’ll probably never, ever be done again. I think we achieved it.”

The theatrics all started on the Theatre Of Pain tour in 1985 with a rotating cage. But it didn’t stop there. For the next tour, he decided it was time to fly his drum kit over the audience.

During the 2000s, Tommy showed Mötley Crüe fans that he could fly from the stage to ceiling-suspended risers. Later, he played a 360-degree roller coaster drum solo.

And then he gave us the “Crüecifly”…

The heaviest (and sometimes biggest) bass drum in all the land

Tommy Lee’s double bass playing stands out on Mötley Crüe’s ’80s records in particular, as well as his heavy syncopated bass drum grooves (like in “Louder Than Hell“). He’s serious about his low end: you might catch him playing a 26″ – or even 32” – bass drum!

When the band remastered Theatre Of Pain, they included the bonus track “Tommy’s Drum Piece from Cherokee Studios”. Does it remind you of Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks“?

Now listen to his bass drum work on “Let Us Prey”:

Tommy’s double bass parts in the intro of “Use It Or Lose It” are peak hair metal:

Motley Crue "Use It Or Lose It" drum notation

With a syncopated ride bell pattern peppered with simple accents atop steady double bass, it’s a classic part.

These days, Tommy mostly saves his double bass work for fills and flourishes rather than grooves, like in “Hooligan’s Holiday”.

Motley Crue "Hooligan's Holiday" drum notation

More drum fills than you can shake a stick at

Tommy has a distinct style, and specific ideas and concepts you can hear him using on a bunch of different albums.

He loves “sweeping” drum fills, especially 16th note triplets, in songs like “Looks That Kill” (chorus), the intro of “Save Our Souls”, the intro of “Red Hot”, or dropping into the first chorus of “Smokin’ In The Boys Room”.

Motley Crue "Smokin In The Boys Room" drum notation

Tommy will also use 30-second note bursts played as singles in a lot of drum fills. Listen to “Saints Of Los Angeles” (pre-chorus), “Home Sweet Home” (leading into the final chorus), and “Primal Scream”.

Motley Crue "Primal Scream" drum notation

If you like Tommy Lee and Mötley Crüe, we’ve got all these songs (and way more) transcribed note-for-note inside the Drumeo members area, along with drumless play-along tracks, practice tools and a supportive community.

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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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