7 Greatest drummers of all time

Eva Mackevic

From crazy talented to plain crazy, here are some of the greatest jazz and rock drummers who ever lived. Drum roll, please...

Gene Krupa 


Image via mixcloud.com  

To put it simply, Krupa was to swing-era percussion what Clark Gable was to golden age of Hollywood—gracious, flamboyant, elegant—he was a natural-born showman and professional charmer. A lean, wiry and handsome gentleman, his playing was full of flair, never-ending but always-thoughtful little touches, and wild, impish joy in what he did.

Krupa’s iconic solo in jazz standard “Sing, Sing, Sing” was one of the most important factors that elevated the role of the drummer as a solo voice in a band, which, as a result, made drum solos incredibly popular crowd-pleasers at live concerts—a tradition that carried onto the rock genre and allowed the drummer to take centre stage.

In 1960, Krupa suffered a heart attack which forced him to reduce the frequency of his performances, eventually announcing his retirement in 1967. Yet, forever youthful at heart, he was back at work just three years later, performing regularly with his fellow musicians of the original Benny Goodman band. Krupa’s vitality and pizzazz as a performer never dimmed and he continued to play even into his final years, frequently performing for audiences half his age.

Just look at that mischievous twinkle in his eye, those smooth shoulder shimmies and swaggering hair flips—hard to believe the man was in his early sixties at the time!

 

 

Buddy Rich 


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Buddy Rich is the man who, even decades after his death, continues to be worshipped by every aspiring drummer out there. If there’s one name you should know when you’re talking about drumming, it’s his.

While Krupa was a master of suave, gentlemanly playing, Rich was one powerful beast of a drummer with superhuman abilities. The two were like Yin and Yang, like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Forceful, strong, mind-bogglingly fast, Rich’s drumming sounded like a machine gun. Check out their radically opposing energies in this drum battle:

Rich’s robust, high-energy drumming technique was a reflection of his personality in some ways: a mercurial, short-tempered and sardonic fella, he wouldn’t think twice before snapping at fellow musicians or getting into brawls (conveniently, he held a black belt in karate, too!). He was fluent in droll, sardonic wit, and never minced his words. 

Pianist Lee Musiker, who played with Rich, secretly recorded some of his outbursts during rehearsals and bus tours during the early 1980s, which give a good taste for his personality:

If that wasn’t the inspiration for Whiplash’s Fletcher played by JK Simmons, we don’t know what was.

Though Rich would frequently threaten to fire members of his band, he rarely would, and he lauded them in interviews, which makes us think he wasn’t that bad of a guy after all—just a strong proponent of tough love.

Legend has it that his massive natural talent for drumming was discovered by his father when he witnessed Rich keeping a steady rhythm with some spoons when he was only one. He started playing drums in vaudeville when he was eight under the name "Baby Traps the Drum Wonder", which eventually developed into a full-blown childhood career. 

 

Art Blakey 


Image via wikipedia.org 

Now, Art Blakey was a jack of all trades and a master of them all. He was a phenomenal bandleader, a brilliant drummer, a watchful mentor and, generally, the life of the party. Often credited with inventing modern bebop and laying the foundation for hard pop, he’s widely recognised for giving many great jazz musicians their start by taking them under his wing and inviting them to play in his legendary 17-piece band, The Jazz Messengers.

He kick-started the careers of such great musicians as trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Bobby Timmons or sax player Wynton Marsalis and many, many others who credit him as a major influence and a great teacher—a high praise considering that many of these musicians also played alongside such jazz greats as Charles Mingus or Miles Davis. Not only did Blakey teach these youngsters many a lesson in jazz, but he would also create the perfect base for them as soloists during live performances; ever the attentive listener, he responded to each soloist’s individual needs, bringing out the best in them:

But enough about the others; Blakey himself was an astonishing powerhouse of a drummer: his playing was aggressive, explosive and ridiculously energetic, with beats pouring out of him like some unbridled primal force. He was also a master of polyrhythmic drum beats, maintaining up to three or four different beats simultaneously which, if you tried to attempt yourself, would probably make your brain explode. Fellow drummer Max Roach said, “Art was the perhaps the best at maintaining independence with all four limbs. He was doing it before anybody was." Just look at this ridiculously cool solo:

 

Keith Moon 


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Oh, Keith Moon. Where do we even begin? A living epitome of Sixties and Seventies’ rock ‘n’ roll culture, he was the drummer and, arguably, the soul of The Who. A natural-born showman (it’s no wonder that one of his favourite drummers as a young musician was Gene Krupa whose flashy performance style he would replicate on stage), goofball and eccentric, he certainly made rock ‘n’ roll history.

Watching him perform is like watching a show within a show. His drumming was tornado-like, his arms flying in all directions with enormous speed. He was known for his original ideas, such as putting drum fills in places nobody would ever think to put them, his heavy use of cymbals, tom-toms and rolling drums as well as unconventional timekeeping which completely transformed the sound of The Who.

Moon’s drumming can be interpreted as an expression of his larger-than-life personality, unpredictability, theatricality and sense of humour. Nicknamed “Moon the Loon”, he was known for insane shenanigans on and off tours, such as smashing his drum kits on stage or destroying hotel rooms, as well as playing practical jokes on his bandmates and making them laugh while they tried to lay down their parts during recording sessions. Unfortunately, his eccentricities had a darker side too; a heavy drinker and drug user, Moon reportedly would start his day with “a bottle of champagne, Courvoisier and amphetamines.” He died of an overdose of Heminevrin aged 32. 

If you’ve got an hour spare, watch the band perform at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 and you’ll understand why it was impossible to peel your eyes off Moon, as his manic charisma stole the show and his superb drumming pulled the whole sound of the band together.

 

John Bonham 


Image via mixdownmag.com.au

While Buddy Rich is the name you should know when it comes to jazz drums, Bonham should be the first one you turn to if you ever find yourself exploring the world of rock percussion.

Overwhelmingly regarded as the greatest rock drummer in the world by fellow musicians, music critics and fans alike, he was Led Zeppelin’s drummer from 1968 until his untimely death in 1980 which prompted them to disband.

Just like pretty much any other rock great, Bonham was heavily influenced by jazz drummers such as Rich and Krupa, incorporating fancy flairs and embellishments into his playing, which were unprecedented in rock. Until then, the main role of rock percussion was to keep a steady rhythm and complement the bass guitar. Bonham transformed that completely; heavily inspired by funk music, especially James Brown, his drumming was cool, laid back and sexy, which is what helped the band gel so well and allowed them to “feel the groove.”

And while he “gelled” well with the whole band and brought out the best in each and every one of them, it was his chemistry with Jimmy Page that was extra special. While most drummers would normally get with the bass player, Bonzo closely followed Jimmy's guitar, merging with it beautifully, regardless of how often the song would change tempo or pitch.

Finally, Bonham’s solos were a thing of legend. Lasting up to 30 minutes, they were referred to as either “Pat’s Delight” (After his wife, Pat Phillips) or “Moby Dick.”

 

Joe Morello 


Image via jazztimes.com 

As is the case with every other drummer on this list, watching Joe Morello perform is an electrifying experience. Smooth, innovative and inspired, he approached the drum set like a world-class chef would approach preparing his signature dish: carefully picking out all the finest ingredients and pairing them in sophisticated, unusual ways to create incredible flavour and texture combinations.

Morello is perhaps most famous for playing drums on the cult Dave Brubeck track, “Take Five,” which became the biggest-selling jazz single ever. It was allegedly written by Paul Desmond to feature Morello’s incredible mastery of the unusual quintuple time—a music meter characterised by five beats a measure (which is where the song derives its name from). And it’s an amazing spectacle to see him perform it:

Another notable example of Morello’s jaw-dropping imagination is his solo on “Unsquare Dance” which he played only on sticks—without the drums—in 7/4 time. At the end of the track he can be heard laughing at this “trick” ending.

Declining invitations to play with Tommy Dorsey and Ben Goodman, Morello joined The Dave Brubeck Quartet on a two-month tour in 1955, and remained with the band for over a decade. Over his eminent career, he’d also been a teacher, an in-demand drum clinician who published several books, made instructional videos and trained numerous prolific drummers, such as long-time drummer for Bruce Springsteen, Max Weinberg, or Jon Bon Jovi’s Tico Torres.

 

Neil Peart 


Image via wikipedia.org 

Seeing former Rush drummer Neil Peart behind the drum kit in a live performance is like watching someone man an alien spacecraft in a sci-fi film. Known for his elaborate, extensive and technically and physically challenging monster solos on enormous drum kits, the Canadian musician was the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame.

Peart’s technique and various show-stealing tricks were astounding. He would, for example, frequently reverse his drumsticks to make heavier blows. "When I was starting out", he said, "if I broke the tips off my sticks I couldn't afford to buy new ones, so I would just turn them around and use the other end. I got used to it, and continue to use the heavy end of lighter sticks—it gives me a solid impact, but with less 'dead weight' to sling around." Here he is breaking a stick and not missing a single beat:

Some of Peart’s other trademark moves include using an extensive array of exotic percussion instruments such as wind chimes, timpani and gongs, as well as his incredible ability to completely separate his upper and lower limb patterns, making him one of the most technically proficient rock drummers ever.