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My drumming skills are limited to only a few tracks from AC-DC’s Back in Black thus I am possibly the world’s worst (and painfully self-indulgent) drummer but one thing I know from music school and playing in any number of terrible cover bands is that all great acts have a rock solid drummer. To the casual listener, it’s easy to miss how subtle a great drummer is. I was in the car with my wife trying to explain just how tricky of a song “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” is by Led Zeppelin as we often played this song in my old band, Ghetto Chicken. On the surface, the song sounds like a straightforward rock standard but then go try to play it. The John Bonham beats are just a little “off” or “laid back” ever so slightly such that very serious attention needs to be paid to the transitions between verse and verse. I tried highlighting such subtleties but the message wasn’t really going anywhere other than to get me to start thinking about the best drummers in rock & roll history and how the effect the music that I love so much – even with myself being a bad guitar player.
So I started making my list which is designed for you to create your own list (please comment below) as lists are always controversial. Nobody ever agrees and that’s not even really the idea anyway. The point is to take a moment to think about and re-listen to the whackos who beat on drums and how they impact the music you love. There are tons of drummers that could have been considered but I have narrowed it down to just a few. Feel free to add in your own players on your list in the comments below.
Honorable Mention: Dave Grohl
The Foo Fighters are one of the best bands in modern rock and roll history and Grohl is one hell of a drummer. I pretty much skipped the Nirvana stage of his career but I might argue that the only good thing about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Grohl on the skins. You can keep the whiny vocals, the “I can barely tune my guitar” attitude but the drums were the saving grace of this generationally defining track. (https://youtu.be/hTWKbfoikeg) A much better example highlights Grohl more as the front man of The Foo Fighters but in the studio, he crushes on the drum track of “Monkey Wrench” in ways you don’t hear too often in today’s rock or pop music. (https://youtu.be/I7rCNiiNPxA) The pure intensity of Grohl’s beats keep this manic track moving ever-forward and at a break-neck pace.
No. 5: Phil Collins
I know what you are thinking – his pop music is kinda dated, especially some of the stuff from the 1980s but going back to his days with Genesis and then ultimately fronting the more pop-friendly, post-Peter-Gabriel Genesis, Phil Collins is a force when pounding the skins. If you were going to pick the most impactful drum fill of all time – you might dial up 3:17 into “In The Air Tonight” which isn’t just know for the drum fill but an entire sound (reverse gated) which makes Phil Collins immediately noticeable even in tracks that are not really drum showcases. (https://youtu.be/YkADj0TPrJA)
No. 4: Manu Katche’
Not a household name but Manu Katche’ might be one of the most under-rated or perhaps under-the-radar drummers of all time. His resume is nothing short of a who’s who of rock and roll ranging from pretty much everything Peter Gabriel has done from the album So to today. He basically replaced Stuart Copeland (big shoes to fill by the way) when Sting went solo on his all-star band album Nothing Like The Sun. Katche’ is the definition of rock solid drumming. Listen to the blockbuster hit “Sledgehammer” from Peter Gabriel. The Tony Levin “bassline” leads the song but when you focus in on the beat, it’s hard not to be impressed by Katche’s solid back beat and nifty fills. (https://youtu.be/YkADj0TPrJA) You may have never taken the time to really focus in on the drums of “We’ll Be Together” by Sting from the Nothing Like The Sun album (https://youtu.be/KYps5LfOaGg) but holy crap Manu Katche’ is just back there killing it even on a very poppy track.
No. 3: Neil Peart
Now the picks are getting significantly harder. All you need to do to appreciate Rush’s Neil Peart is to listen to early, pre-1974 Rush without him. It just isn’t the same. Peart is a good example of a drummer who is as much a star in the overall composition of his band’s music as the vocals, bass and guitars. Peart is a true acrobat on his instrument with perhaps no example shining more than a song named after an airport code (we need more songs named after airport codes if they are going to be this good) “YYZ.” (https://youtu.be/LdpMpfp-J_I) The beat on this progressive classic is off-the-chains with syncopation and fills that leave you breathless. Rush isn’t really Rush without Neil Peart. Don’t believe me, check out the sickness of the fill at around 3:32 of YYZ. It just goes from there as a total showcase of musical talent. I could see how people could put Peart number one on their list. I didn’t but I thought about it.
No. 2: Stewart Copeland
I think Sting has a taste for really good drummers. The Police were in effect “a reggae band on steroids” and one of the ways that they went to the musical heights that they did was because the beats coming from Stewart Copeland. Copeland’s style is less in-your-face than Neil Peart or even Phil Collins but he marries rock solid composition with some of the most intense and often subtle, fills. Take a listen to “Spirits In The Material World” from The Police’s Ghost In The Machine album. (https://youtu.be/cjBAJpTJlZc) The upbeat reggae groove is filled with incredible little fills that could be lost on the casual listener but harken back to a time when being really, really good at your instrument actually mattered more than how you look on MTV or how often you have a scandal on TMZ.
No. 1: John Bonham
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant knew that when John Bonham died so did Led Zeppelin. Bonham’s style is flamboyant but also incredibly complicated – often way back on the beat in ways that make covering Zeppelin songs faithfully, very hard. I renew my example of “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” at about 5:11 of the combination of “Heartbreaker” from Led Zeppelin II listen to how intense the fills and drum infrastructure is during the chorus. Later in the guitar solo actually pay attention to Bonham. He’s absolutely going off but it perfectly meshes with the Jimmy Page solo. (https://youtu.be/nwmCOSYUSlI)
So what say you? Are drummers over-rated? Who is on your top-5 list? We want to hear from you below.