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These days, most drummers keep time. They play to “click tracks” in the studio and nothing much really happens. But there was a time when the drummer seemed to lead the band. And leading a band when you’re someone like, say, Mitch Mitchell, and you’ve got, say, Jimi Hendrix on guitar is a pretty hefty assignment.
The following 10 are the ones who quickly came to my mind. Like a speed round without second-guessing, I made this list (damn — I left off Ginger Baker and John Densmore). And the list could not include R&B drummers, otherwise Al Jackson and a very different list would occur. It couldn’t include guys who were mostly session guys — so Steve Gadd and Jim Keltner were nixed. And they really had to be folks where the band wouldn’t be the same without them — and in the case of the Who, aren’t.
They’re not even necessarily the “best” drummers, though I’d argue that greatness is not technically facility but being the right person for the job.
Here are my 10 (which means I left out at least 30 great possibles). Fire away!
10. Neil Peart - Rush
Ah, Rush. From his Taurus Pedals to the hundred drums he hides behind, Peart delivered an over-the-top style that was perfect for a rock trio from Canada. He had lots of space to fill and threw together the kind of rolls that aspiring drummers took to heart. What kid growing up in the late-’70s/’80s/’90s didn’t try the roll from “Tom Sawyer,” only to learn it took even more drums to comfortably fulfill? Overkill as sport!
9. Bill Bruford - Yes, King Crimson
I’m not one to often suggest prog-rockers when it comes to something like drumming, since it’s the most primal of the instruments. I’m more likely to favor their keyboardists. However, Bruford played with a kinetic wit that bordered on dysfunction. A lot of technical guys sound like they’re reading sheet music from a math textbook. Bruford brought good things to life.
8) Bill Ward - Black Sabbath
I’ve always loved Ward’s playing because it sounds like he’s hitting too many drums and the result is a band that sounds like they’re being dragged down the stairs. I’m sure that from a technical standpoint, Ward is a mess. But the ears don’t lie, and other players may have supported Sabbath at different times, but none of them made the difference like this guy.
7. Alex Van Halen - Van Halen
If you listen to the Fair Warning album, for starters, you’ll hear a rhythm section that is miles ahead of the hard rock/heavy metal competition. Alex is the closest hard rock has ever come to an R&B drummer, playing behind the beat, ahead of the beat, and sometimes on top of it. Controlled chaos or pure chaos? In either case, another guy with too many actual drums onstage. But what did he care? He let the roadies carry them.
6. Maureen Tucker- The Velvet Underground
Surely a controversial pick, since I don’t think she ever played a drumroll. But then again, she played standing up. And she, in turn, was as integral to the sound of the band as that guy scraping on his viola (John Cale) or the other one mumbling about shooting up drugs (Lou Reed). Sometimes less is more. Sometimes less is all you need.
5. Ringo Starr - The Beatles
I love the fights people get into over whether or not Ringo was any good. Even if he was as lousy as his detractors claim — and I don’t believe so — how, then, did the band he was in manage to be more than just pretty good? Considering that the drummer is responsible for the energy of the band and the Beatles had lots of energy on their records, I’d have to say we can blame at least some of this on Ringo.
4. Charlie Watts - The Rolling Stones
Watts is pretty much acknowledged as being one of rock’s great drummers. Once in a while, you hear someone suggest he isn’t all that great because he doesn’t do more. But the man knows his place. He’s put up with Jagger, Richards, and Wood for decades, and as he told Keith Richards: He wasn’t Richards’s drummer, Richards was his guitar player. Exactly.
3. John Bonham - Led Zeppelin
This man was pure violence. Listen to those beats at the beginning of “When the Levee Breaks” and tell me that isn’t the sound of a man trying to beat his drums to death. Bonham was never a master of subtlety. Hear him mash through “Fool in the Rain” or “All My Love” and it sounds like a pro wrestler trying to be sensitive and accidentally breaking the door down.
2. Mitch Mitchell - Jimi Hendrix Experience
Mitchell was a most musical drummer. His fills, while certainly loaded, were always in complement to the music surrounding him. Considering that the music was coming from Hendrix, a man for whom orthodoxy was thrown out the window, made the challenge that much more, uh, challenging.
1. Keith Moon - The Who
A true madman. No one has played like him before or since, and no one, quite frankly, should. His singular style would only lead to embarrassing imitators. How he managed to stay on beat — and play to backing tapes — while doing whatever it is he was doing back there remains one of the music’s great wonders. And I now wish to shamelessly plug Tony Fletcher’s exhaustive biography of the man — known both as Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon in the U.K. and Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend here in the U.S.—as the next book you should read if you’re interested in learning everything about Keith Moon. And even if you’re not, it makes a great gift! As does the Who’s just-released anthology, The Who Hits 50.