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Last updated on July 8th, 2023 at 02:53 pm
“Once upon a time was a backbeat.” So spoke Meat Loaf lyricist Jim Steinman about the mythic power of drummers.
Drummers do so much more than keep time. Their force and personality can help a song reach its full potential. Some drummers are as crucial to a band as any other member.
In our ranking of the best drummers, we cover every genre, from big band to heavy metal. We don’t just consider speed and how hard a drummer bashed his drum kit. Subtlety and serving the song are equally important.
Find out where your favorite landed on our list.
29 Best Drummers
29. Chris Coleman
Who is the greatest modern drummer? That’d be Chris Coleman, just don’t get him mixed up with a murderer of the same name.
He got his start playing in church, a gig he still cherishes to this day. Some other less-important Coleman gigs include providing a backbeat for Christina Aguilera, Chaka Kan, Babyface, and New Kids on the Block.
28. Mike Portnoy
This one kinda hurts. Currently, Mike Portnoy is drummer for the Sons of Apollo.
In seventh grade, I made an entire mythology based around an imaginary band called the Sons of Apollo. It’s so weird seeing their name.
But I digress.
Portnoy is better known for his time in Dream Theater. As anyone who’s heard their music knows, each member belongs on a “best of” list for whatever they play.
27. Cozy Powell
Next on our list of best drummers is Cozy Powell, who certainly got around. His big break came with Jeff Beck in the early 1970s, and from there, he played with everyone from Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant to Whitesnake and Black Sabbath.
Powell died in a car crash in 1998.
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26. Lars Ulrich
Now here’s a polarizing choice. He gets his share of hate, but Lars Ulrich belongs on a best drummers list, at least because of his influence. He’s a touchstone for many metal fans.
He’s also just a solid, underrated drummer. Who doesn’t love a little double-kick drum every once in a while?
Ulrich is at least one of the best metal drummers.
25. Carl Palmer
You had to be pretty crafty to keep up with the classically influenced complexity of prog rock powerhouses Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Carl Palmer was up to the task.
His drum parts were integral to the ELP sound. He’s still touring today, carrying on the legacy of his fallen friends, Greg Lake and Keith Emerson.
24. S.P. Leary
One of two classic blues drummers on our list, S.P. Leary played with every blues legend of the 1950s and 60s, including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and T-Bone Walker.
He combined an always time-perfect, steady backbeat with the perfect liveliness.
23. Meg White
And now for something completely different.
As I said at the outset, this best drummers list isn’t just about hitting drums real hard or playing them real fast.
It’s at least equally about how well a drummer fits the songs they play on, how inventive they are, and how much they make a piece come alive.
As such, White Stripes’ drummer Meg White clearly deserves to be on this list. Her straightforward, unhinged style was as much a part of the White Stripes’ unique sound as Jack White‘s songs or vocals.
Her sound and approach helped open the door for the garage rock revival of the early 2000s. More than just one of the best female drummers, she’s one of the best drummers, period.
22. John Densmore
The Doors’ John Densmore began his career as a jazz drummer, and it shows. His subtle and smooth style anchored the Doors, though he also had some power to him.
His otherworldly drums and percussion on Doors tracks like “The End” and “The Crystal Ship” are as crucial to their feel as the lyrics.
21. Elvin Jones
Heading into the jazz world, we got the legendary Elvin Jones.
Check out his work with the John Coltrane quartet if you need proof. He’s subtle when he needs to be and wild when the occasion calls for it. Quite stunning.
The man behind John Coltrane’s quartet gets his well-deserved spot on this best drummers list.
20. Mick Fleetwood
My Dad and I refer to Mick Fleetwood as “happy drummer.” Watch the Fleetwood Mac special The Dance or footage of any recent Fleetwood live performance, and you’ll understand why. Dude is clearly having a good time.
I don’t blame him; he’s the drummer in one of the most successful rock bands ever.
For those who don’t know, Fleetwood Mac began as a blues band, but Fleetwood found himself equally adept at the pop sound they’d later be famous for.
19. Max Weinberg
Max Weinberg has provided Bruce Springsteen‘s backbeat for decades.
Considering that The Boss’ shows are 3+ hour marathons, you basically have to be an athlete to drum for him.
Weinberg is not only able to do this, he does it with style and creativity. His heaviness is underrated.
18. Al Jackson Jr.
Al Jackson Jr. was “the heartbeat of Stax Records.” Part of the house band that played on countless hits, he was also a founding member of Booker T. and the MGs.
His grooves and absolute command of a backbeat ensure his place on a best drummers list.
17. Fred Below
Part of the reason I love writing pieces like this is to shine a light on talent outside mainstream rock.
In the blues world, Fred Below is anything but underrated. But let’s face it, on most lists that inevitably have John Bonham #1, you aren’t going to see Fred Below get the props he deserves.
He played with every blues legend of his era, including Little Walter, Elmore James, Otis Rush, and Howlin’ Wolf.
16. Moe Tucker
The Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker is the textbook example of someone deserving their spot on a best drummers list because of their subtlety and how they served the song.
An experimental band like the Velvet Underground needed a drummer with the nuance to navigate both their ethereal and heavy sides. Tucker did this with effortless cool and ease.
15. Stewart Copeland
The Police are well-known for megahits like “Every Breath You Take,” “Roxanne,” and “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”
Though most famous for their hits, they began as a revolutionary band in the late 70s, providing strong songwriting and musicianship that helped them succeed amidst the onslaught of punk.
The heart of the trio was drummer Stewart Copeland. He’s equally adept at everything the Police threw at him, from reggae to fast rock to tender ballads.
Simply, Steward Copeland brought the cool to the Police.
14. Dave Grohl
His fast, aggressive style is similar to that of the Who’s Keith Moon.
If you’re looking for another great grunge-era artist that could have made this list, check out Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.
13. Tony Williams
Jazz drumming doesn’t get any better than Tony Williams.
For proof, listen to any of his late 60s/early 70s work with Miles Davis. He navigates Davis’ complex jazz fusion like it’s nothing.
If you’re looking for the best jazz drummer, look no further. Williams is one of the world’s best drummers ever.
He even received the American Ornithological Society’s 2021 lifetime achievement award.
12. Neil Peart
Who is the most technically skilled drummer? It’d be hard-pressed not to give that honor to Rush’s Neil Peart.
He made the cover of Modern Drummer magazine nine times, and it’s easy to see why. His virtuoso drumming was the most impressive part of Rush’s sound.
Simply, seminal rock band Rush would not be what it was without Neil Peart.
11. Karen Carpenter
The massive success of the Carpenters and Karen Carpenter’s unfortunate demise have sometimes obscured the fact that she’s a helluva drummer.
The Carpenters didn’t need flashiness in most of their songs, but Karen provided exactly what was required to fill their sound.
10. Mitch Mitchell
The late 60s was a golden age for wild drummers who incorporated their jazz influences into a rock context.
Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell was one of the best of these. The fury of Hendrix made it necessary for his drummers to really go wild, and Mitchell was always up to the task.
Related: How Did Jimi Hendrix Die?
9. Buddy Rich
If you love speed, Buddy Rich is your guy.
Buddy Rich played on some of the most interesting, complex jazz and Big Band music in the 1940s and beyond.
Whether with his own band or with legends like Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie, it was hard for him not to be the center of attention whenever he played.
Amazingly for a drummer of this era, he couldn’t read music. He simply memorized his parts. Pretty good for the first superstar drummer.
8. Bill Bruford
Bill Bruford is the king of prog rock drummers, with a resume that includes Yes, King Crimson, and Roy Harper.
As a founding member of Yes, he contributed significantly to their complex, classically-infused rock. He was the king of mastering odd time signatures.
7. Charlie Watts
Like the Beatles‘ Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts is severely underrated as a drummer. This is likely because he isn’t as flashy as many considered the best drummers.
Watts provided the heavy backbeat for the blooze rock of the Rolling Stones. Another jazz drummer by passion and training, he had a serious edge to him that perfectly fit the Greatest Rock Band in the World.
His snare sound was always so crisp and perfect, too.
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6. Ginger Baker
Of course, Ginger Baker, of iconic English rock band Cream, will make a list of best drummers.
Though it can sometimes get lost in how furiously he plays, his use of ride cymbal patterns and syncopation influenced by bebop and other forms of jazz revolutionized rock drumming.
He was also cutting edge in using African rhythms and a double bass drum, which he picked up from Duke Ellington’s drummers.
Baker was also one of few drummers who could do a drum solo and have it not get (too) boring.
Related: 16 Greatest Guitar Players
5. Gene Krupa
Another of the great Big Band jazz drummers, Gene Krupa played with the biggest name in the genre, Glen Miller. Simply put, Gene Krupa was a wildman. His furious drumming and second-to-none showmanship influenced many rock drummers.
He also had a large part in forming the modern drum set.
4. Keith Moon
To say that Keith Moon was the craziest rock drummer is the understatement of this article.
The man constantly gave it all he had, furiously bashing his snare, tom toms, and cymbals.
It was the perfect backdrop for The Who. Each instrument was a band of its own, but they came together for fantastic pop rock cohesiveness.
Related: 40 Best Rock Songs, Ranked
3. John Bonham
Who is the loudest drummer of all time? Without a doubt, that’d be John Bonzo Bonham.
His work with Led Zeppelin is rightly renowned. In many ways, he was the foundation of their sound and a primary reason for their impact and legacy.
Zeppelin might have just been another blues rock band without his heavy, intense style.
I know that most best drummers lists have John Bonham at #1. He’s #4 on my list because he basically had only one speed: heavy.
Drumming is more than being heavy, though, something that gets lost when considering Bonham’s legacy. He doesn’t have a ton of range.
2. Levon Helm
In the late 60s, the Band revolutionized the music scene. They basically killed the excesses of psychedelic rock with their rootsier sound.
Levon did what the best drummers do: he laid back and served the song. Moreover, he had a sense of a groove that was unmatched.
He had a unique playing style that was all his own, a combination of the country, blues, and rockabilly drummers he revered and played alongside of.
As far as feel and subtlety go, there’s no one better.
1. Ringo Starr
Who is the greatest drummer of all time? Surprisingly to many, it’s Ringo Starr.
Starr could play as heavily as John Bonham (“Helter Skelter”) and with as much perfect subtlety as Helm (“In My Life”).
He was also wild live. See his performance on the Ed Sullivan Show for an example. Especially during the “I can’t hide” bit.
Ringo had a unique ability to serve a song. He didn’t always have to be flashy to get your attention, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be flashy.
What sets the Beatles drummer apart is his range and ability to know exactly what to play and when. He’s the master of fills – both knowing when and when not to play them.
The energy that he brought is also undervalued.
If you don’t believe me, check out “Rain” (in the video above). He plays fast but hits every crazy fill perfectly. He knows that the song needs it, so he delivers.
Other songs that prove his unique ability are “She Said She Said,” “Thank You Girl,” and “Long Long Long.”
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