Drummers are more than just fancy, human metronomes keeping the time and rhythm going in the band. Sure, there are many jokes attached to the drummer, including one too many related to them always being late and unprepared. Regardless of your personal thoughts and experiences, drummers are essential proponents to a band and can bring great textures to music.
The drummer’s role, just like any other instrument, changes drastically from one style of music to another. In jazz, the bassist is usually responsible for keeping the time and making sure everyone is together. That is why you see a lot of small jazz ensembles without a drummer. In rock music, the drummer usually takes the brunt of the responsibility for the time and rhythm. Over the years, the styles of rock drummers have altered drastically also.
At first, rock and roll drummers, usually switching over from a jazz back ground, played with a traditional drumstick grip with the left-hand stick resting between the thumb and index finger. This gave the snare drum a lighter sound that lent itself well to the gentle sounds of jazz. As rock music got heavier, drummers began switching over to match grip, holding both drumsticks the same way, with a full-handed grip. This allowed the user to get a fuller and harder sound on the cymbals and drums.
The variations of drum set also changed greatly throughout the years as well. Jazz players didn’t need as many pieces on their set, usually playing with a snare, hi-hat, bass drum, and ride cymbal. Rock drummers play with a wide assortment of configurations, everything from one or two cymbals and tom-drums to a full wrap around set with more pieces than you can count!
There are many drummers who are probably coming to your mind right now. There are so many drummers who had a significant impact on rock music and who are still highly regarded today. This is a list of five of the greatest classic rock drummers. We will dive deep and analyze their playing styles to figure out what made them stand out.
Let’s do it!
Why not start with the best of the bunch right? Of course, John Bonham is arguably the best rock drummer to ever sit on a throne; and he makes a pretty compelling argument. At a very early age, Bonham showed an interest in rhythm and hitting things, playing with his mother’s pots and pans like other kids do, but his parents noticed an innate talent lying in John. BY 10, he got a snare drum to mess around with and five years later, graduated to a full drum kit. Bonham practiced religiously, mimicking his favorite jazz drummers like Max Roach and Buddy Rich who were both very expressive and boastful.
There is more to his story of becoming the world’s greatest rock drummer, but we all know where he ends up, in the blues-rock group Led Zeppelin. At first, guitarist Jimmy Page was unsure about Bonham’s dynamic with the rest of the members, as he was very loud and explosive both on and off the kit. However, after listening to the first recording of the group, Page was convinced that Bonzo was perfect for the job.
But, what made John Bonham the powerhouse super percussionist that he was? Bonham had a less is more approach to his drum set. He played on a 5-piece Ludwig set with two floor toms, and a beefy 14inch bass drum which was the sound he became most known for. Bonham was also known for often having two classical timpani drums next to his set and a massive gong right behind him.
His sound was so overwhelming and monstrous, but it fit with balls to the wall sound of Led Zeppelin. Songs like “When the Levee Breaks” showcases Bonham’s iconic bass drum sound and innovate techniques.
Before Bonham came along, many rock drummers would fall into the simplistic pattern of putting the bass drum on beats 1 and 3 with the snare hits typically on beats 2 and 4. That gives you the traditional rock drum beat that all newcomers learn. Bonham completely flipped this concept on its head. He treated the bass drum as another accent to play around with and keep the beat interesting. Drummers often need a double bass pedal to achieve the sound Bonham had with just a single pedal…
Also, it is usually customary for the drummer and bass player to be essentially one unit, always on the same page with each other to keep the beat together. Bonham and John Paul Jones did have a strong connection in the band, but Bonham was more interested in what Jimmy Page was doing on guitar. He wouldn’t let the groove falter at all but would mimic some of the lead patterns Page played on guitar.
John Bonham, along with other drummers, made the drum set shine in the spot light and added techniques that were never explored, like playing epic, long solos with bare hands.
Keith freakin’ Moon, the personification of Animal from the Muppets cartoon. From the first time he heard jazz great Gene Krupa and took lessons from “one of the loudest contemporary drummers” Carlo Little, Moon’s path was set. Keith Moon is known for his boisterous and flamboyant characteristics both on and off the drum kit.
From the first live show he played with the British rock band The Who, everyone knew this guy was different, and he would go on to revolutionize the drummer’s role in the band. Moon didn’t limit himself to showcasing his technical prowess during solos exclusively, he was turned up to elven the entire song. Take “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for example, even when Roger Daltrey is singing, Moon is banging away, inviting the tom drums and cymbals into his cacophony of sounds. Despite his ever-constant filling, Moon was a very tasteful drummer, just a little busier than others.
Then there were his chaotic live performances. Along with Pete Townshend portraying his signature windmill move on guitar and sticking the headstock into his amplifiers, Keith Moon would kick a hole into his bass drum and destroy his drum set, sending it into a pile of metal on the floor. This crazy behavior followed him off stage as well, as he is known for his alcohol and drug induced binges which ultimately led to an early death.
Moon remains as one of the most influential and entertaining drummers to this day.
One of the greatest debates in rock music history is the answer to the question Bonham or Peart? There is exceptional evidence and arguments for both drummer, as both had skills and techniques that revolutionized the drum set and se them apart from any other drummer in the world.
Neil Peart is of course a part of the (now sadly disbanded) Canadian progressive rock band Rush. The band went very strong for about 50 years, changing the landscape of progressive music and delivering our earholes some of the most luscious sounds we have heard.
Over the course of their 20-studio album discography, Rush’s sound ebbed and flowed with the constant changing music industry, and Peart followed suit. Along with altering his physical set to match his desired sound, Peart varied his drumming and proved that he could play a wide range of styles and play with a finesse that was unique for rock drummers.
Neil Peart is known for being encased in a circle of drums, with multiple tom drums and cymbals cascading around him. Some people argue that with more drums, how could you not sound better, there is more stuff to hit! But, with more drums, comes more responsibility to compose something meaningful to the music. The way Peart navigates his vast kit is remarkable to watch, and his use of electronic drum pads, and percussion instruments opened up a whole new world for drummers to experiment.
Ginger Baker was the man responsible for setting the stage for not only the three names you see above, but for many of the rock drummers that emerged in the 60’s and beyond. Baker is perhaps most known for his time in the British power trio Cream and the group Blind Faith, but he was in a number of high profile rock, blues, and jazz groups throughout the years.
Although he is known as “rock’s first superstar drummer” he is also an accomplished jazz drummer, with multiple albums with some of the finest musicians in the genre. He also has a passion for African rhythms and has explored music with various time signatures and feels.
Baker was one of the first rock drummers to play with two bass drums, setting the stage for that hard-booming bass sound, and eventually the double bass pedal. Baker’s virtuosity on the drum set can be heard on every track!
So, remember the simplistic drumbeat I mentioned earlier, the one that stays in the pocket? That was exemplified throughout Ringo Starr’s entire career. He isn’t known for being a flashy or technical monster, but he is still regarded as one of the best drummers of all time. Why?
There is something to be said for maintaining a strong a steady beat that never falters and that is always reliable. That is what the Beatles had in Ringo Starr, no frills but full of feeling.
We forget that even though these types of drummers aren’t playing burning solos, their role in the band is crucial, and sometimes, other musicians love that about their drummer.