My 20 Favorite Drummers

RIP Woodstock 2019.

A short while back I did a post on my 20 favorite guitarists. Since I play guitar, maybe I had an inside advantage. That doesn’t make my taste or my decisions any more valid than yours. Just that my ability to play informs my decision quite a bit. The players I like are the players whose stuff I learn.

I have no such “advantage” with the drums. I think I sat behind a kit exactly once and said, “No human being can possibly play these” and never did it again. I am that guy that air drums along with everything but I don’t know a tom-tom from a tomcat, a snare from a sneer.

But I know what I like. I know what it sounds like when Stewart Copeland plays sparingly or Alex Van Halen plays furiously and it’s just right for that band and that song. So whether or not a guy can play a 20-minute solo is irrelevant. The question for me is can he – and increasingly she – keep time, drive the band, lay it down. Here’s 20 cats who groove. (Note – I don’t really talk like that but sometimes it’s fun to.)

In no particular order with a few tunes randomly chosen:

Mitch Mitchell – I once asked a drummer buddy of mine who his favorite drummer was. He said listen to Hendrix’ “Fire.” Good choice. He kicks ass on that tune and all throughout Jimi’s catalog.

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Alex Van Halen – In the grand scheme of things, while I’ve written about and like Van Halen, I’m not some huge fan. But boy, can Alex ever cook. His brother gets all the attention. But Alex keeps right up with him, no mean feat.

Jack DeJohnette – The first pure drummer on the list, Wikipedia says, he is “one of the most influential jazz drummers of the 20th century, given his extensive work as leader and sideman for musicians including Charles Lloyd, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, John Abercrombie, Alice Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock and John Scofield.”

Max Weinberg – Bruce Springsteen’s drummer has been with him since Born to Run but interestingly, the drums on that song were played by a guy named Ernest “Boom” Carter.

For a number of years, he went on to be Conan O’Brien’s drummer on Conan’s own show and then, briefly, on Conan’s ill-fated Tonight Show stint. Just watching Max power through some 10+ minutes of soloing while Bruce gathers song requests from the crowd is quite the thing. Side note – Bruce’s son just became a Jersey City firefighter.

Steve Gadd – Gadd is not a household name as he’s largely a session man. That’s him you hear powering through Steely Dan’s song “Aja.” On that song, “Gadd’s playing was so visually appealing that some of the other players became distracted and had to rerecord portions of their parts later.”

That’s also him playing that tricky pattern in Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” He shows how here:

Buddy Rich – What list of great drummers leaves Rich off? Sure he was somewhat of an arrogant prick. But boy, he sure could play. My sister clued me in recently to a public television special that was drawn from a TV show he once had. It was a treat to watch him cook with guests like Ray Charles.

Charlie Watts – You may or may not know this, but despite having spent the last (almost) 60 years playing with the Rolling Stones, Charlie is a jazz lover and player. Like Ringo in the Beatles, you think this shit rocks because Mick writes great rock ‘n roll songs? “Charlie,” Keith Richards once said, “is the bed I lie on.”

Pete Thomas – Pete joined Elvis Costello on 1978’s This Year’s Model and played on virtually every one of his albums for the next 14 years. He still periodically tours and plays with Elvis and in fact, we saw him with EC just last fall. Great, exciting drummer. I know of no better tune than to here feature “Lipstick Vogue” from Model:

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Tony Williams – I wrote about Tony in a recent post which, as much as anything, inspired this one.

Bill Bruford – Like a lot of people, I first became aware of Bruford when he was part of Yes from their very first eponymous album. He later went on to join King Crimson and subsequently fronted a jazz-rock band called Earthworks. Listen to him on this cut, hear for yourself. With the soprano sax, this has somewhat of a Weather Report feel:

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Phil Collins – Yeah, I know. He totally fucked up your favorite band when he went all pop. But does that somehow make him not a great drummer? Somebody clued me in to a jazz album he did and it totally blew me away. And if Mike Tyson digs the drum break in “In the Air Tonight,” well, isn’t that enough? Collins and his producer Hugh Padgham created a whole new drum sound with this one.

Ginger Baker – When Cream came to town way back when, we were all buzzing about Ginger Baker. I think that during that period of the Sixties, he and Mitch Mitchell were THE guys if you wanted powerhouse drumming. I saw Ginger’s son playing behind a Cream tribute band not too long ago. I hope my son speaks better of me. If you get a chance, check out the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker to find out what a fun guy he is.

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Butch Trucks/Jaimoe – I can’t separate the mighty twosome from the Allman Brothers band or for that matter, from each other. Butch was the steady hand; Jaimoe the jazzy swing guy. Rolling Stone rates the guys in the Grateful Dead higher. Sorry, you got it wrong, RS.

Ringo Starr – Ringo gets some flak for not being flashy or doing a lot of solos. Who gives a shit? He was right in the pocket and those Beatles songs didn’t sound great by themselves. As soon as Richard Starkey joined the other lads, they went “Whoa! This is what we were missing.” Right guy, right band, right time.

Stewart Copeland -I loved The Police and I loved Copeland’s drumming. His playing was sparse, spare and tasty. That was a damn fine band of guys who could have just played instrumentals and it would have sounded great. Check him out here on “Murder By Numbers:”

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Elvin Jones – According to Wikipedia, Elvin’s styles were jazz, hard bop, post bop. Born in 1927, he was right in that sweet spot for the great post-WWII explosion of all these varieties of jazz. If ye know them by the company they keep, then know that he played with John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus. And, ’nuff said.

Here he is on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme, Part 1 – Acknowledgement.”

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John Bonham – What would Zep sound like without Bonham? The guy didn’t play drums, he bludgeoned them. Songfacts: Bonham used a device called a “Triplet” on his bass drum for this song to get a double bass pedal sound. He used the tip of his toe to flick the bass pedal back fast, creating an effect many drummers tried to copy.

Jimmy Page explained in the BBC Book Guitar Greats, “‘Good Times, Bad Times,’ as usual, came out of a riff with a great deal of John Paul Jones on bass, and it really knocked everybody sideways when they heard the bass drum pattern, because I think everyone was laying bets that Bonzo was using two bass drums, but he only had one.” 

Keith Moon – Rumor has always had it that Moonie showed up at a Who gig, said, “I can play better than your drummer,” and proceeded to get up and prove his point.

“They said go ahead,” Moon relates, “and I got behind this other guy’s drums and did one song-‘Road Runner.’ I’d several drinks to get me courage up and when I got onstage I went arrgggGhhhh on the drums, broke the bass drum pedal and two skins, and got off.” Pete and Roger told him to quit his day job. It always sounded to me like Moon was falling down on his drums and I loved it.

Billy Cobham – I saw Cobham several times with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and with his own band, most recently just a few years back at a small club in Cambridge, MA. Great feel, great timing. Still out there doing it, near as I can tell.

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20 thoughts on “My 20 Favorite Drummers

  1. Good lists. Bruford, Bonham, and Copeland are my favourites from there. I don’t really know jazz drummers much, but that’s who the rock players generally cite as favourites.

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    1. I have a draft list sitting around, but other guys I really like are Bernard Purdie and Jeff Porcaro. I don’t think you have anyone who debuted in the last 40 years; some people I like are Jimmy Chamberlain (Smashing Pumpkins) and Jim Eno (Spoon).


      1. Purdie and Pocaro are excellent, both originally session players I believe. No, I probably don’t have anybody more recent but then I don’t know those guys as well. I’d probably go for Chad Smith and Dave Grohl if I went for something more recent. But in the last 10 – 15 years? Haven’t a clue. Oh, and the guy in Phish.

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  2. I like a lot of those drummers you noted. I seem to be stuck in a Bruford, Baker groove these days. The jazz drummer thing is where I get lost. So many good ones and you mentioned a couple. I always think of the bass guy that goes with these drummers. Entwistle/Moon, Squire, Wenton/Bruford, Baker?Bruce, Danko/Helm, Commerford/Wilk (Rage) etc. Cobham blew me away when I first hear him. So many good ones Doc. New guys?I like that Stanton Moore’s style. Plus i like the music he’s involved with. I catch the beat with him.
    I like Mick Avory and you mentioned Weinberg. I just listened to his work on an Ian Hunter record. He pounds the hell out of that one.

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    1. Good point about the bass players. I typically know who they are in rock, less so in jazz. Maybe because the rock bands stay static player-wise but the jazz guys tend to move around. It’s funny but when I thought about doing this list I figured I’d come up with 5 guys. Hell, it was easy to come up with 20. I didn’t realize how much I knew about these guys. And while I don’t play drums and never will, I like when somebody describes why a particular player is so good or he’s doing a particular thing, why other drummers might admire him. What the hell is a band without a drummer? I’ll tell you. Peter, Paul and Mary.

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      1. Good one on the last sentence. I just never got into the mellow sounds of PPM.
        Yeah the jazz guys were always floating around but such good players that they could pretty well play with anybody.
        I remember Baker talking about “sense of time” and how Bruce had that. They might have fought but Ginger had to give him his due.
        Like all music a good drummer will always catch my ear. Who was the drummer for PPM? Levon Helm?


    2. Hey, if you haven’t already, check out the comment by John T on the Tony Williams post. He added a video you need to see. It’s an A-list lineup and makes me believe I should rethink and put Cindy Blackman-Santana on this list. This will blow your mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastic list Jim. Lovely seeing Jack De Johnette there, and the Allman Bros whammy.

    A couple of others who would get a big nod from meself are Paul Motion and Bobby Previte.


  4. While I cannot claim I know all the drummers you included, this looks like a great list to me.

    Perhaps my favorite rock drum part of all time is John Bonham on ‘Stairway To Heaven.’ Every time I hear that song, I wish I could play the drums. Believe it or not, as awesome as the guitar parts on this tune are, I think the drums have become my favorite aspect of that song.

    BTW, I also agree that Cindy Blackman Santana is a great drummer. A couple of years ago, I saw some footage of her playing with Lenny Kravitz. Boy, was she cooking!


    1. No shit. Did you watch that video? No wonder Carlos bragged about her on that class I’m taking. My favorite drum part? Hmm. That is a damn good question. One of my favorite drum backings is by a guy who isn’t on this list but probably should be, Omar Hakim. i like the way he propels Bowie’s “Modern Love” and he was great in the fusion band Weather Report too.

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  5. Great idea and solid list. There’s at least three, possibly four that would go on my list… though first I’m gonna tackle the guitarists


      1. as in tackle creation of my own list… not an uncomfortable conversation with Mr Beck at the next bbq


        1. Next time that wanker shows up, seem disappointed. When he says, “What’s wrong, mate?,” say, “Oh, nothing. It’s just that I was kinda hoping it was the other Beck who was coming.”


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