Top 10 Rock Drummers - keeping the beat with the best

By Tom MacIntosh

What makes a great drummer? Dedication, discipline, a well crafted sense of time and meter, stamina, big ears, big arms, and great hair? Well, all of the above actually, especially when we talk about rock drummers, which is what we will do here in Guitars Exchange today. We have endeavoured to put a list of top 10 players, some obvious, some our favourites, that we hope will whet the appetite of drum enthusiasts and rockers out there. Let’s get started…

John Bonham
(Led Zeppelin)

He was called “The King of rock drumming” by everyone important, and still is; he was named #1 on Rolling Stone’s100 Greatest Drummers of All Time”. He was one of the first rockers to tune his drums, and could make it sing with instant groove, swift feet, and intensity. According to the other members of Led Zeppelin he was the motor that made the machine run: “where the power sound came from. The opening song on Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album, Good Times Bad Times was a great introduction to his signature style, one laced with double kick-bass drums licks used to form triplets (3 beats played rapidly instead of just 1 beat), a style he admired from some of the jazz greats like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. He was a hard hitter too, renowned for using the longest, heaviest sticks which he called ‘trees’. He was uniquely attuned not only to John Paul Jones’ bass lines, but had big ears for Jimmy Page’s Les Paul and his soaring solos and riffs. Producer Ron Nevison (The Who, Thin Lizzy, Chicago) describes it this way, “The essence to me of the whole Led Zeppelin thing was John Bonham following Page’s guitar. He would take the riff and make it his drum part. Instead of doing it 4/4 and getting with the bass player, he got in with Page’s guitar”. He played Ludwig drums for most of his short illustrious career.


Neil Peart

Canadian Neil Peart was not just the “quintessential” rock drummer admired the world over for his high-octane style that turned the drums into a leading instrument, but also as main lyricist for one of the legendary bands of progressive rock, Rush. He is known for his “butt-end out” style where he hold the sticks in reverse; the fat bit was excellent for cleaner impact and sharper rimshots. This happened purely by accident. When he started out, he says he would break the tips, and couldn’t afford new ones, so he just turned them around. And look where he is today. He is also famous for the splendid array/arsenal of drums and other diverse percussion instruments that surround him, such as the bell tree, timpani, gong, tubular bells, wind chimes, crotales, and cowbells. His ear for syncopated beats and the ability to manipulate the space between notes finding a groove, is signature Peart. And what Rush concert would be complete without one of his smashing 15-minute solos. His tools of employment were many, including Slingerland, Tama, Ludwig, and Drum Workshop drums. And if keen drummers out there fancy his sticks, he has his own signature series with Pro-Mark.  

Keith Moon (The Who)

Keith “Moon the loon
was simply wild even when he wasn’t thrashing about on his kit. But when he was playing, he was one of the best in the game. His maniacal way of playing gave The Who their identity, with an intensity rarely matched along with savage unschooled riffs that seemed crazy by ‘experts’ but it gave personality and gravity to the music. To hear his solos on Cobwebs and Strange, and Won’t Get Fooled Again are hard-hitting examples of the dedication and imagination that he gave to rock music. He certainly “marched to the beat of a different drum” as they say, his wild obsessed personality perhaps reflected the essence of the rock world at the time. His deft interaction with Pete Townshends Gibson Custom EDS 1275 6/12 black on Substitute is immemorial.

Stewart Copeland
(The Police, Oysterhead)

Stewart Copeland
dazzled on the skins for one of the greatest pop/rock trios of all time with Andy Summers and Sting, to form The Police. He brought a fresh sound to rock drumming no doubt due to his early influences of various music styles including Lebanese, rock & roll, reggae and jazz. To forge these new sounds, he used octobans, or tube toms, invented by Tama, which are deeper, smaller in diameter, and melodically tuned in sets of 8, giving them their name. He also used a ‘smash cymbal’ which was a child’s toy, which gave a crisp, cutting edge to his counter-tempo rimshots that resonate on many of their hits, including Walking on the Moon, and the slick momentum in So Lonely, to name a couple. Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time puts him at number 10, on top of being inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2003), and in 2007 the French government awarded him, along with Summers and Sting, the Ordre des Artes et Des Lettres. His post-Police work is still in full force with collaborations with Peter Gabriel on Red Rain and Big Time from his album So. He’s also teamed up with heavies such as Tom Waits, Adam Ant, and Mike Rutherford (Genesis). Copeland’s style influenced legions of young drummers looking for that ‘groove’ in their playing.

Ginger Baker
Cream, Blind Faith)

Ginger Baker
was one of the founders of the legendary rock/blues band of the 60s, Cream, along with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. His pioneering use of double bass drums in rock gave him a reputation as “rock’s first superstar drummer”, he is also cited as one of the first to introduce the drum solo (5 minutes) into the mix on Toad by Cream; one of the very early recorded examples in rock history. His thunderous thick sound was often unpredictable, yet clever, his showmanship was tempered with an innate love for jazz components, like subtleness and restraint. He’s been described in the book Classic Rock Drummers by  Ken Micallef as “the pantheon of contemporary drummers from metal, fusion, and owe their very existence to Baker’s trailblazing work with Cream”. Baker has gone on to mine other genres like world music and jazz to further show the enormous wealth of talent and musical I.Q. this legend shared with the music world.


Dave Grohl
(Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Them Crooked Vultures)

Dave Grohl
is a rock drummer’s working class hero. He starred with the rock/grunge sensation Nirvana, and went on to front the Foo Fighters on guitar and vocals, only to get back to the skins with groups like Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures. A man of many musical talents, he is very handy with a Gibson Trini Lopez Standard Custom Reissue, but is more at home behind a drum set. He had a brief part in Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers as drummer, was offered the job, but declined, went on to greener pastures and has had an outstanding career from the Foo Fighters to soundtracks such as the one from the 1997 movie Touch. He’s another R&R Hall of Famer with the talent and charisma to take risks, which is why so many want to play with him.

Lars Ulrich

We cannot mention great rock drummers without a bow to Lars Ulrich, the Danish born drummer for the American metal rock giants
Metallica. He anchored the most explosive metal band with his early simplistic rat-ta-tat approach, without so much double bass drums or exquisite fillers, but rather a restrained, muscular push into metal momentum. However, soon the double bass drum licks came as well, on numbers like Fight Fire With Fire (Ride the Lightning) and All Nightmare Long (Death Magnetic), to name just a pair. He and Metallica band members James Hetfield, James Newsted, Kirk Hammett, and Robert Trujillo were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

Ringo Starr (the Beatles)

Ringo Starr
was the beat to the biggest rock/pop sensation the world had ever seen,
the Beatles. His low-key presence in the shadow of McCartney, Lennon and Harrison, cannot be overlooked. His instinct to hit the offbeat rhythm was essential to their sound. Drummer Steve Smith (Journey) on his view of Starr, “Before Ringo, drum stars were measured by their soloing ability and virtuosity. Ringo’s popularity brought forth a new paradigm...we started to see the drummer as an equal participant in the compositional aspect...His parts are so signature to the songs that you can listen to a Ringo drum bit without the rest of the music and still identify the song”. He is currently the most financially successful drummer of all time; from low-key, to very high altitude$.

Carter Beauford
(Dave Matthews Band)

One of the central pieces to the Dave Matthews Band,
Carter Beauford rides the drums and percussion through various genres with his ambidextrous talents and open-handed style on the skins. He can also add backup vocals to their rich repertoire of hits, like the Zildjian performance of So Much to Say, which shows his seamless ability to slide into different tempos and grooves without breaking a sweat, simply amazing! The thick orchestration of the music relies on winds and a percussion ensemble that fits well with Carter’s jazz background; he once had played with LeRoi Moore and Sal Soghoian. He’s a Yamaha drum enthusiast and of course uses Zildjian cymbals. Beauford has also worked with vips like Carlos Santana, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and Victor Wooten.

Charlie Watts
(Rolling Stones)

Last but certainly not least, Charlie Watts, the stoic face behind one of the greatest rock bands in history, the Rolling Stones. What can we say to the man who captained such colossal hits as Satisfaction, Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Women, and the list goes on over the rock horizon. His minimalistic rat-ta-tat drum arrangements allowed the other Stones to shine and form a lasting signature sound and bond that is still alive today. One anecdote about this dapper, poker-faced Englishmen, which flies in the face of his outward calm appearance is when, in the 80s, a drunken Mick Jagger
called him in the hotel after midnight and asked, “Where’s my drummer?Watts got up, shaved, put on a suit and tie, went down stairs, and punched Jagger in the face saying, “Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my fucking singer!” How ‘Rolling Stone’ is that? He’s one of the very best and classiest drummers ever.