10 best drummers of all time

17.02.2022 Ben Maloney Drums

Hearing a drummer giving it some is one of the most mesmerising musical experiences. Rhythm is something that we all understand instinctively, and when we see it played out with pace, agility, control, athleticism - which all great drummers possess - it makes an impression like no other.

But that’s not to say that great drumming equates to technical prowess. Many of the best drummers are innovators. Some are renowned for an ability to construct complex edifices in sound. Others tirelessly lent their beats to a vast and historic catalogue of recordings.

Here are ten drummers who fall into one or several of these categories. Ten inspirational musicians who brought a unique creative voice and some seriously acrobatic limbs to their craft, and who helped to make drumming one of the most fascinating chapters in the story of music. Ten of the greatest drummers of all time.
 

The world’s greatest drummers
 

  1. Buddy Rich
  2. John Bonham
  3. Tony Williams
  4. Senri Kawaguchi
  5. Mike Portnoy
  6. Evelyn Glennie
  7. Al Jackson, Jr
  8. Phil Collins
  9. Cindy Blackman
  10. Dave Grohl

1. Buddy Rich


Brooklyn-born Buddy Rich showed talent from day one. He was performing vaudeville by the age of two, and drumming on-stage at age four. From the 1930s - when he was a little older - his precocious talent made him an in-demand sideman, and he played in groups led by Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Charlie Parker. In 1946, he formed his own big band. 

Despite going through several incarnations, the group endured more or less until Rich’s death in 1987. It was the platform for his wildest expressions of skill, and his most daring musical experiments. The big band soared in the 1960s when enthusiasm for old-fashioned swing orchestras was waning, and they boast some of the crispest playing you’re likely to hear.

Rich brought stunning solos, squeezed fills into the unlikeliest of places, and brought an irrepressible energy matched by few, if any. His technique was characterised by speed, precision and variety, and he developed his ideas with limitless imagination. He also had a fine ear for balancing the drums within the big-band texture. Get started with his medley of songs from West Side Story.

2. John Bonham


What Rich is to jazz, John Bonham is to rock. The benchmark. The gold standard. The person who, more than anyone, demonstrated and defined what it meant to fulfil the role of the drummer. Renowned for his power, his manipulation of timbre and an effortless handle of the groove, Bonham is a player that you’ll quickly learn to recognise by ear. 

He hailed from England’s West Midlands, a region with stock in rock history (also home to Black Sabbath). There he played with Band of Joy, before the group lost him and another member - singer Robert Plant - to Led Zeppelin. Band of Joy’s loss was the world’s gain. With Led Zep, Bonham became legendary. 

The band's first four albums, released between 1969 and ’71, triggered a revolution in rock, and still showcase everything that makes Bonham one of the greatest. From the brisk pedalling on ‘Good Times Bad Times’, through the punchy beat on ‘Black Dog’, to the extended drum masterclass that is ‘Moby Dick’, here are the works of someone in complete control of the kit and the ensemble he's backing.  

3. Tony Williams


Polarising though he is, the experienced and massively intelligent critic Robert Christgau knows a great deal about music. And when jazz-drumming extraordinaire Tony Williams (and many other drummers, for that matter) were at the height of their powers in the 1970s, Christgau named him the greatest in the world.  

In the 1960s he played trailblazing - and impressive enough stuff - in groups led by Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. But in ’69 Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin co-founded the Tony Williams Lifetime. And this was when he really let loose, exploiting the ground broken by the likes of Rich to expand the role of the jazz drummer even further.

On albums like Emergency! and Ego, he paints his soundscapes with a sweepingly broad palette. He flaunts his bewildering polyrhythmic cymbal action, his warping of tempo, and his taste for undermining metre by shifting emphasis unexpectedly and explosively. One thing’s for sure: a Williams performance is always a tour de force.

4. Senri Kawaguchi


It’s not a name you’ll likely know, but Senri Kawaguchi could be the most exciting drummer in the world. At the age of just thirteen, she became the youngest player ever to feature in Drummerworld’s prestigious list of the Top 500. She’s being showered with awards, and described by an increasing number of aficionados as one to watch. 

As the selections have shown, rock and jazz stand as two pillars in the world of drumming - genres that encourage expansive drumming. With a foot in both worlds, Kawaguchi has been able to bring flair, invention and utility to a diverse array of collaborations, working with iconic figures like bassist Bootsy Collins and fellow drummer Steve Gadd.  

Her scene presence is extraordinary. While at school, she was organising touring jam sessions and playing at jazz festivals. Later on, she was supporting idol groups and being invited to play with movers and shakers while they were performing in Japan. Want to see what the fuss is all about? Check out this solo she recorded a few years ago.

5. Mike Portnoy


Remember those pillars, jazz and rock? Between them you can find genres that blend the two. Jazz fusion is one. Progressive rock is another, which is taken to an entirely new level by progressive metal. And that’s where we find the band Dream Theater, as well as their jaw-dropping drummer, Mike Portnoy. 

This is music that’s all about intensity and complexity on every level. Have a quick listen, for example, to ‘The Dance of Eternity’, from the 1999 album Metropolis, Pt 2. Building on the foundation of a simple four-to-the-floor pattern, Portnoy weaves together a rhapsodic series of strands into a sprawling percussive tapestry. 

Each beat is as complicated as the fills that bookend it, and is executed with metronomic precision. Portnoy’s as seamless when shifting from one time signature to another as he is when combining disparate drumming styles. Who else could play a blast beat right after that honky-tonk section and make it sound natural? The sheer creativity is phenomenal. 

6. Evelyn Glennie


Dame Evelyn Glennie’s journey is a truly remarkable one. Despite her deafness, she has become one of the finest percussionists in the world - at once a sensational performer, a pioneering composer, a leading interpreter of contemporary music, and an mesmerising speaker and educator, who communicates new ways of playing and thinking about music. 

The first to perform a percussion concerto at the Proms in 1992, the Scot helped to thrust percussion-playing into the limelight. She has commissioned over 200 compositions in her career, inspiring and delivering to the world the most cutting-edge modern music written for her family of instruments.  

Her versatility far outstrips that of anyone here, her musicality transcending the kit alone. A master of the drum, the xylophone, and the marimba, and comfortable performing jazz, pop, folk and classical music, she is the universal package - the most rounded, dextrous and unclassifiable percussionist in the world.

7. Al Jackson, Jr


From the early 1960s to his tragic death in 1975, Al Jackson, Jr was the great session drummer at Stax Records, the Memphis-based label responsible for some of the finest popular music ever recorded. Gracing hundreds of landmark tunes, the distinctive drumming style of the ‘Human Timekeeper’ would define the Southern-soul sound. 

Jackson drummed as a member of Stax’s studio band Booker T. and the M.G.’s. They formed in 1962 and recorded their signature tune, ‘Green Onions’, the same year. Behind the singer in the spotlight on every Stax anthem you know, Jackson and his fellow M.G.’s are plugging away, casually laying down grooves for the ages. 

He’s there on Wilson Pickett’s ‘In the Midnight Hour’, on the Otis Redding classic ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’, and ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’’ by the great Sam & Dave. He brings just enough to his beats to make them busy, vibrant and interesting, but he never disrupts the flow. Listen out for the distinctive shade of swing he adds to these largely straight patterns.

8. Phil Collins


What, the guy who sang those cheesy ’80s pop ballads? Yes, the same. You might not be aware of it, but Phil Collins also happened to be one of the most magical drummers who ever lived. As the rhythmic engine that drove the band Genesis for over two decades, he had a hand in some of the most adventurous rock music ever concocted. 

Genesis are the textbook progressive rock outfit - sprawling tunes, fantastical lyrics, and virtuosity aplenty. Until they went mainstream in the 1980s, they delighted in making their music intricate and complicated. But no matter how intense things get, Collins always navigated these mazes crisply, kept his bandmates in time, and did it all with panache.

In terms of genre, he’s a hugely resourceful player, engaging with pop in his solo stuff, (think ‘In the Air Tonight’), fusion with his other band Brand X, and traditional jazz with the Phil Collins Big Band. No matter the style, he’s always able to construct a fascinating drum part, and no one hits a snare drum the way Collins does.

9. Cindy Blackman


Influenced by masters such as Max Roach, Art Blakey and Tony Williams, Cindy Blackman started turning heads and raising eyebrows on the New York jazz scene in the mid-1980s. Her skill and freshness quickly won her fame and admiration, particularly from Lenny Kravitz, with whom Blackman performed as a touring drummer for nearly 20 years.

She’s well known for her work with Kravitz, but from the late ’80s onwards she has steadily produced one album after another as the leader of her own combo. On these, she largely focuses on jazz - her first and greatest love, which she performs with a rare dynamism and spontaneity. She’s also ventured into rock, funk, R&B and beyond. 

Here’s a beautiful anecdote: after Blackman’s stint with Kravitz, she began touring with the great guitarist Carlos Santana in 2010. That year, at a gig in Illinois, Santana asked Blackman to marry him after she tore through one of her transcendent drum solos. They were engaged right there on-stage. Must have been a pretty awesome solo.

10. Dave Grohl


Few, if any individuals have played a more significant role in modern drumming than Dave Grohl. Not only did he drum so groundbreakingly for Nirvana at the turn of the 1990s, but he’s also helped to carry the rock-musc torch in the 21st century, as part of Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures. And Foo Fighters, though not from the kit. 

Grohl amended the drumming manual on Nirvana albums Nevermind and In Utero, seizing on the innovations of the emergent genre of heavy metal to help forge the grunge idiom. Ramping up the cymbal action in particular and the energy in general, he created an enveloping wash of metallic sound, at the heart of which remained a solid beat.

Taking a leaf out of Bonham’s book, he intensified the timbre, supplying punchier strikes and more powerful patterns for a new genre that demanded it. He brought this style to his later work, too, for which he often played with even less restraint - take a look at some of the unbelievably athletic fills he brought to the Queens’ classic tune, ‘No One Knows’.

Your next steps for drum music 


We could have included Stewart Copeland, drummer of The Police and the man behind the spectacular rhythms of ‘Roxanne’. Or Ginger Baker of Cream, whose improvisatory vigour turned rock upside down in the 1960s. Or even Buddy’s great rival, Gene Krupa. But ten is a tight cut to make. Hopefully a few players here have still got you feeling inspired.

Wondering what to do with that inspiration? Check out the drum kit sheet music available on nkoda. Or make like Glennie and do away with such restrictions, to discover some of the great percussion works in this essential percussion playlist.  

As for similar blog content, you might like to have a gander at the hardest songs to play on drums and the best drum songs. On the other hand, if you’re a beginner, you can bring it all the way back to easy drum songs.

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