10 best drum songs you need to know

10.01.2022 Ben Maloney Drums

Ten absolutely gargantuan drum tunes coming your way. Quicker than a Neil Peart roll, cooler than a Steve Gadd swing, and heavier than a Phil Collins snare. From stadium-rock anthems to dainty pop ballads, via everything in between, behold: some of the drumming pantheon’s greatest performances. 

How have they been assembled? These tunes, while featuring astonishing skill, inspired creativity and a pioneering approach to drumming, together exhibit the broadest possible array of styles and techniques. Quality is important, but organising an even spread is no less crucial here.

That’s because you, the drummer, should be exposed to as much as can be shown in the space of ten songs that are optimal to learn. Go and find these works on nkoda, witness just what it is that makes this drum music great, try your hand at what captures your imagination, and discover your unique offering. 
 

Best drum songs of all time
 

  1. ‘Paradise City’ by Guns N’ Roses
  2. ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ by James Brown
  3. ‘Breezeblocks’ by Alt-J
  4. ‘Highway to Hell’ by AC/DC
  5. Drum of Orfeo by Marta Ptaszyńska
  6. ‘Virtual Insanity’ by Jamiroquai
  7. ‘Go Your Own Way’ by Fleetwood Mac
  8. ‘Baby Love’ by The Supremes
  9. ‘No One Knows’ by Queens of the Stone Age
  10. ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd

1. ‘Paradise City’ by Guns N’ Roses

So simple, but so powerful. The iconic drum pattern rings out as Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash plays his equally iconic riff in the intro to ‘Paradise City’. It’s nothing but a standard backbeat pattern, just with the second kick of each bar pushed back a quaver - and with flams added to both the snare strikes. That’s vital.

Those subtle shifts make all the difference, making for one of the finest rock beats of all time. High in the mix and with some serious reverb, it typifies what arena rock is all about. There’s a lot else that vouches for the greatness of Steve Adler’s part, too - not least the bewildering double-time beat he plays to close the song. Phenomenal kick action. 

The song was announced to the world along with a few other major musical statements (‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ included) on the band’s seismic debut album of 1987, Appetite for Destruction. But Adler brings his very best to ‘Paradise City’, and demonstrates just how strong an effect can be generated when the kit’s foregrounded. 

2. ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ by James Brown

Man, myth, legend Brian Eno once declared that ‘there were three great beats in the ’70s: Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, James Brown’s funk, and Klaus Dinger’s Neu! beat’. We’d better look at one of them. So - despite its 1965 release - introducing ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’, one of Brown’s earlier smash hits, which was a trailblazing release in the development of funk.

And, of course, a seminal drum tune. In fact, so much of what makes funk unique can be traced back to drumming, and observed in Melvin Parker’s performance on this recording. In the midst of his pattern is a steady snare. But in the space left in between those pulses are some deft kick flourishes and closed-open dovetailing on the hi-hat.

All this creates a vibrant, dynamic and textbook funk rhythm. Add the jagged interjections from bass, guitar and horns, and you have a funk groove, with Parker at its heart. In 2004, Brown himself decreed: ‘the greatest drummer I ever had in my life was Melvin Parker. 'I Feel Good', 'Papa's Bag' – nobody ever did that. Nobody. And they can't do it now’.

3. ‘Breezeblocks’ by Alt-J

Back in 2012, nobody really expected Alt-J’s debut album An Awesome Wave to, well, make quite such an awesome wave. Their hauntingly lyrical melodies, synthesised tapestries and eccentric tone colours all contributed to some of the most distinctive music that the pop market had seen in a good while. 

‘Breezeblocks’ was the album’s third single. Capturing the band’s aesthetic perfectly, it also indicates how that aesthetic translates to an imaginative and radical approach to the drum kit. Percussionist Thom Sonny Green performs crisply and mechanically, with a surprisingly satisfying lack of feel. 

This dispassionate style, its mathematical precision and the emphasis on timbre, reflects a kind of ‘drum machine’ sensibility, which may be a byproduct of Green’s parallel work as an electronic music producer. At any rate, he’s developed a totally idiosyncratic style, and it’s best in evidence on ‘Breezeblocks’, one of the best of the album’s tracks.

4. ‘Highway to Hell’ by AC/DC

And at the other end of the creative spectrum we find Phil Rudd. AC/DC’s no-nonsense is the polar opposite of the calculated and intellectual Green. But then again, they’re kind of similar in some ways. Rudd never does a thing that could be described as flashy, and is nothing if not metronomically rock-solid.  

He never made a stronger case for his way of playing than on the anthemic ‘Highway to Hell’. The song appeared on the 1979 album of the same name, released just before the death of the band’s frontman Bon Scott. In fact, it opens the album, and within the space of ten seconds, Rudd is already laying down his hallmark backbeat - with a loose hi-hat.

Like Parker in ‘Papa’s Bag’, Rudd acts as the constant that fills and binds the wide-open gaps between guitarist Angus Young’s spacious riff. He locks in with bassist Cliff Williams and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young with a tightness that few if any other bandmates ever came close to matching.

5. Drum of Orfeo by Marta Ptaszyńska

A bit of a departure, this. But an entirely reasonable one. Here is a work that celebrates drumming in concept and practice, that engages with it at its most universal level, and which in truth demands more technically and physically than any of the other works on this list.

Drum of Orfeo is one of the landmark percussion works of the modern era, written at the turn of the millennium by Polish composer Marta Ptaszyńska, herself a virtuoso player. It was commissioned and premiered by the great Evelyn Glennie, who's spotlighted in our countdown of the best drummers.

It’s as much a musical composition as a theatrical work. Exploiting the spatial dimensions of performance, Ptaszyńska instructs the player - as a director would an actor - to move about the stage, from one family of percussion to another. The physical layout of the instruments reinforces the expansive understanding of the nature of drumming that the work advocates.

6. ‘Virtual Insanity’ by Jamiroquai

Hauling funk into the 21st century, Jamiroquai carried the torch once held aloft by James Brown. They emerged from the London-based acid-jazz movement, but with the addition of funk to their sound developed a trademark style, and became one of the best-selling UK acts of the 1990s - losing out only to the Spice Girls and Oasis.  

Few tracks better demonstrate Jamiroquai’s unique appeal than ‘Virtual Insanity’, released on the 1996 album Travelling Without Moving. Drummer Derrick McKenzie fuels the funky engine on the tune. After some deft work on the hi-hat in the intro, he starts to tap away like a click track, while bringing the swing with the kick. 

The bass and keys then interlock around McKenzie’s anchor to construct the groove, just as they do with Parker’s part above. If you want to understand what that concept - the groove - is all about, look no further than these tracks. Something in the combination of a straight beat and deviating rhythms working against it is just irresistibly danceable.

7. ‘Go Your Own Way’ by Fleetwood Mac

There is so much to explore, admire and enjoy in Fleetwood Mac’s great album of 1977, Rumours. Incredible vocal interplay, sublime melodic writing, emotionally charged lyrics - the list goes on. But Mick Fleetwood’s drumming is something to bear witness to, and never more so than on the standout track, ‘Go Your Own Way’.

One of the group’s most revered tunes, the song reflects - as many on the album do - on the separation of lovers, in this case guitarist (and songwriter) Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks. As Buckingham sings, Fleetwood begins to rumble away, mirroring in music the turmoil of the words. 

Over a four-to-the-floor pattern, he overlays staggered hits across the kit, combining on- and off-beat gestures. He plays occasional flams to boost the power and intersperses a few snare-drum flourishes before he breaks out into a simpler backbeat for the familiar chorus. This is the man who lends his name to Fleetwood Mac, and for good reason.

8. ‘Baby Love’ by The Supremes

When people think of ‘Baby Love’, about Diana Ross and the Supremes, or about Motown songs in general, they probably don’t think of world-beating drumming. But the label was the site of some quietly revolutionary stick-work in the musical melting pot of the 1960s, from the likes of Funk Brothers’ drummers Benny Benjamin and Richard Allen. 

And for that, where better to look than the signature tune of Motown’s most successful act of that decade? It’s ‘Pistol’ Allen playing on the ’64 recording, and he’s the one that makes that famous intro so distinctive, hitting those swung rhythms on tom and cymbal before that iconic triplet snare signals the three Supremes to work their magic on the microphone.

Pistol continues to double the swing rhythms, now on the hat and bass drum, and embellishes his beat with those famous dragged snares. All of these elements work seamlessly with Mike Valvono’s foot-tapping, the Brothers’ complementary licks, and the Supremes’ cooed singing.

9. ‘No One Knows’ by Queens of the Stone Age

Here we’re home in on what is probably the most immediately breathtaking playing that can be found in this top ten. We’re talking ‘No One Knows’, probably the high-water mark in the discography of Queens of the Stone Age - from the band’s 2002 album, Songs for the Deaf.

For the album - the group’s third - bandleader Josh Homme brought in some big-name personnel, among them Foo Fighters frontman and pioneering Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. Excellent move. On ‘No One Knows’, Grohl supplies some of the most exemplary playing of his exemplary career.

Yes, Grohl’s drumming is impressively tight, muddy and surprisingly beefy for a minimal beat pattern, but the jewel in the crown is the chorus. This is made up of four extended fills - or miniature drum solos - each more mind-boggling than the last. How he’s able to drag triplets as precisely as that as such a tempo is a mystery that no one knows.

10. ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd

If there’s one player in the textbook that attests to the beauty of humble drumming, it’s Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason. Despite the transcendental sagas that Floyd regularly played through, Nick ‘Master of the Ride Cymbal’ Mason would root the band with unwaveringly cool and composed playing, maybe leaking a few economical flourishes here and there.

‘Comfortably Numb’ completely epitomises this. Even here, on perhaps the group’s most epic tune, his upping of the ante is characteristically tempered. The highlight of the 1979 album The Wall, the song takes things easy for four minutes or so. Take the time to admire Mason’s modest, steadfast beats and modest fills here.

And then, as guitarist David Gilmour soars the heights of his fretboard - playing through one of the great solos of all time, incidentally - Mason delivers a cymbal masterclass. First bringing the china into play, he then, at the solo’s climax, alternates between China, crash and ride in a kind of cymbalic trifecta. It’s one of the all-time great drumming moments.

Your next steps for drum music


What a rush. Hopefully that’s got raring to take to the stool and lay down some beats and fills. Those tunes really do exhibit some of the very best that drum music has to offer. 

Remember that transcriptions of all these songs - and the score and parts to Drum of Orfeo - can be found in the nkoda library. The materials you need to engage with all this drum music is just a few clicks away, whether you’re keen to play or simply want to read along and marvel as you listen.  

If you liked this read, there are other drum-related articles here on the blog that’ll appeal. Take things up a notch with the hardest drum songs or down a few with some easy drum songs

Meet the likes of Buddy Rich, Cindy Blackman, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy in the best drummers article, and, should you need to familiarise yourself with reading drum sheet music, you can do so in the piece on how to read drum sheet music - tailored to absolute beginners.

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