How do you stir things up? Get a bunch of drummers in a room and make them choose the top 20 drummers in the history of rock ‘n roll!
We polled the Drumeo staff and the community of thousands of Drumeo members to see who people consider some of the most important, interesting, or influential figures in rock drumming. This list includes classic heroes and modern legends who have made a lasting impact on the drumming community by inspiring others either through popular bands or with their technical abilities. Many are recognizable to drummers and non-drummers alike.
One thing’s for sure: in the world of rock music, there’s room for every type of drummer, whether you’re a simple, backbeat-driven machine or a complex, technical master.
We’d like to preface this list with a few disclaimers:
Without further ado, here’s our top 20 in alphabetical order.
Bonzo had it all: power, groove, and boundless creativity. He inspired a generation of drummers and redefined the role of the instrument (his infamous nightly “Moby Dick” solo often went on for over 30 minutes). As his bandmates often said, Zeppelin wouldn’t have been nearly as good without him.
As one of the godfathers of progressive rock, Bruford’s work with YES and King Crimson influenced a legion of aspiring drummers. He is one of the most musically creative players of all time, and was never afraid to break from tradition when crafting his parts. He also spent time touring with Genesis and Earthworks.
He brought the drummer to the forefront of the band by singing his butt off while creating timeless drum parts on hits like “In the Air Tonight.” After leaving Genesis, he showed that the drummer could be a mega-star, notching seven #1 hit singles and selling over 100 million records on his path to rock immortality.
As a founding member of the one of the most famous bands of all time, Peter Criss’ influence on the history of rock is undeniable. His solid and simple playing provided the backbone for hit albums like Dressed to Kill and Love Gun, and he even sang the lead on tunes like “Beth,” “Hard Luck Woman,” and “Black Diamond.”
Dave Grohl’s relentless energy behind the kit provided moody teens all over the world with their personal soundtrack to the ‘90s. Besides playing on hits like “Come As You Are,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “All Apologies,” his use of hot rods on Nirvana’s infamous MTV Unplugged performance showed a generation of rock drummers how to turn it down and play with sensitivity and touch.
It’s a happy coincidence that Grohl’s drummer is next! Taylor Hawkins is one of the hardest hitters on this list and somehow does it without losing any technical facility. He played on Foo Fighters #1 hits like “The Best of You” and “Walk,” as well as 9 studio albums. Fun fact: he was touring with Alanis Morissette when he first joined the group.
Simply put, Levon Helm had one of the deepest pockets of all time. He played and sang on hits like “Up on Cripple Creek,” ”The Weight” and “Ophelia,” influencing drummers far and wide by combining elements of blues, funk and country. His legacy lives on through his singer-songwriter daughter Amy and the iconic Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York (The Barn).
As a charter member of one of rock ‘n roll’s most important bands, Tommy Lee always pushed the boundaries of convention musically and with his incredible stage antics (“Here I come Tacoma!”). Whether he was soloing upside down in a giant cage or laying down the beat for hits like “Shout at the Devil” or “Girls Girls Girls,” Tommy Lee never did anything halfway. Bleeding charisma and inspiring drummers to steal the show, he’s a true rock star!
Pink Floyd bandmate Roger Waters once referred to Mason as “a metronome that eats.” As the drummer on every one of their studio albums including Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, his tasteful and sensitive playing fit the band’s style perfectly, helping Waters and David Gilmour to elevate far beyond what they might have achieved without him.
It’s hard to imagine Hendrix’s early hits without Mitch Mitchell on drums. He brought a jazz background to a rock setting and helped redefine the concept of the “power trio” with his feisty and theatrical live performances. Mitchell’s playing on albums like Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland allowed many drummers to imagine a role for the instrument beyond basic timekeeping.
It’s another bit of alphabetical awesomeness that Moon follows Mitchell, since their playing styles were quite similar. Moon’s fiery fills and limitless energy provided the backbone for hits like “Baba O’Riley” and “Pinball Wizard.” He was also known for his wacky and unpredictable stage antics, which included kicking over his drum set and putting gunpowder in his bass drum (which as this video shows, maybe wasn’t such a good idea). Critics from his era often called him “the best drummer in rock.”
His seemingly effortless mastery on hits like “Smoke on the Water” made him a worthy idol for drummers worldwide. As the only original member of Deep Purple since its inception in 1968, he has played on over 60 of the band’s studio and live recordings. He also spent three years playing in Whitesnake when Deep Purple briefly disbanded in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. A true legend.
Any list of the best drummers in rock begins with Neil, and his influence on future generations can’t be overstated. His technical precision, intense devotion to his craft and endless creativity helped make Rush into a supergroup with legions of devoted followers. He also wrote nearly all of the band’s lyrics (Tom Sawyer, Closer to the Heart, and the list goes on). It comes as no surprise that Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson don’t plan to continue the band after Neil’s passing. It wouldn’t be the same without him.
As a legendary session drummer on hundreds of albums, he first gained attention for playing on the Steely Dan record Katy Lied. He later joined Toto for 8 studio albums and his half-time shuffle on their hit “Rosanna” stands the test of time as one of the world’s most famous drum grooves. He also played on 4 tracks from Michael Jackson’s Thriller and left a massive musical footprint on rock and pop music from the late ‘70s through the early ’90s.
He had a special knack for playing simple beats with deep groove, conviction, and a massive, thumping drum tone. Phil was the engine that powered some of the most famous rock hits of all time on Back in Black and Highway to Hell. During one of the periods when he left the band, his bandmates remarked that while the other drummers they had were great, AC/DC lacked a certain “groove” when Rudd was not behind the kit.
Not familiar with Shrieve? We bet you’re familiar with his playing that powered Santana’s first eight albums, helping to launch the band to crossover stardom. He also has an impressive resume as a session player which includes The Rolling Stones, George Harrison, Pete Townsend and Andy Summers. At age 20, he was the youngest person to perform at Woodstock and his “electrifying” drum solo was one the festival’s most enduring memories (although he thinks this one was better). We think they’re all amazing, and his stellar playing and deep impact on his peers secures his place as one of the all-time greats of rock ‘n roll drumming.
While some might consider him a pop drummer, we couldn’t put this list together without Ringo – but not just because he’s arguably the most famous drummer ever. His creativity, musicality, and ability to come up with parts that complemented and enhanced the genius of his bandmates’ songwriting is his most special gift. He knew his role in The Beatles and filled it perfectly, inspiring countless kids to beg their parents for a drum set and pair of Beatle boots (we need some of these at Drumeo HQ!)
Queen revolutionized rock ‘n roll, and Taylor laid down the grooves for stadium bangers like “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” His powerful yet sensitive playing matched the band’s operatic rock sound and he also sang some pretty crazy falsetto backup parts. Queen’s Live Aid performance in 1985 drew almost 2 billion TV viewers, and Taylor was the engine driving their unique sound.
As a founding member of one of rock’s most significant bands, Alex Van Halen laid the smack down for many of the hard rock anthems of the ‘80s. The band had thirteen #1 hits and sold over 75 million albums on the path to rock immortality. His legendary double bass drum groove on “Hot for Teacher” is one of the most recognizable and influential drum parts ever.
The White Stripes took the music scene by storm in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, and Meg White’s minimalist approach fit perfectly with Jack White’s songwriting style. The band wouldn’t have sounded the same without her. She’s also one of the most famous women rock drummers of all time, with even non-drummers knowing her by name. Meg’s time in the spotlight inspired many young girls to pick up the instrument and changed the music industry forever.
There you have it – our top 20. While there are many more incredible players we wanted to include, this list offers a fun snapshot of the history of rock drumming. These drummers influenced many through their music, their personalities, and the famous bands they played in. Let us know who we left out – and rock on!
If you want to learn to play some of these drummers’ songs, get the free sheet music and handy playback tools for 40 of the most popular songs for drummers here.
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