It’s the big one! Who are the best drummers ever?! We have our favourites and as we love drumming we’re wading on with our selection.
The Best Drummers of All Time
This our 20th anniversary for taking up the drums, so it’s apt for us. And this lot are our favourites we’ve come across over the years.
So! As we’re EXPERTS (or, er… enthusiasts) on drumming here’s our pretty serious, but not altogether super serious, batch of brilliant snare hitters.
20. Yoyoka Soma: Promising Natural Talent Suggesting Genius
If you’re wondering why we’ve added a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl to the list, all you need to do is listen to the above.
At age eight, Soma had already mastered John Bonham triplets and gained international recognition.
Soma’s drumming continues to develop and she’s clearly a natural talent.
We’ve added her in at #20 as she’s already shown she can drum along to anyone and anything, ranging from Ginger Baker, to Bonham, and many more.
But it’s how she’s already performing in several bands, jamming with many established Japanese musicians, and just flourishing like crazy.
Her drum improvisations (see her YouTube channel) are most telling as she already has the type of incredible tricks that define the drumming greats.
Add in her joyous enthusiasm for drumming and she’s an incredibly exciting prospect. How good is she going to be in a decade!?
If she keeps progressing at the rate she has been, she’s surely on track to become one of the best drummers of her generation. If not one of the best drummers ever.
19. Senri Kawaguchi: Firecracker Performances of Jazz and Fusion
This firecracker of a fusion drummer has been wowing the drumming community for some time now. Senri Kawaguchi is an explosive talent and has gained international recognition thanks to her YouTube channel.
That’s led to appearances on Drumeo and much celebration of her abilities.
As a musician, she’s just stunningly well rounded. Her abilities spectacular and always entertaining, with showmanship flourishes including juggling her sticks mid-drum solo.
She’s still only in her 20s and already has the nickname Princess of Many Strokes (tekazuhime—手数姫) due to her versatility.
Kawaguchi performs in many groups and is a constant presence at jazz festivals in Japan. As her career progresses, we hope she makes more appearances across the West.
18. Joey Castillo: Spectacular Beast of a Drummer
Just as a pure beastly spectacle, we really have to include former Queens of the Stone Age drummer Joey Castillo.
That might be a controversial choice (especially amongst Dave Grohl fans), but his showmanship, sharpness, power, and flow as a player can’t be denied.
He’s just exactly what you want from a rock drummer. Thunderous.
Castillo’s quite alarming presence as a powerhouse player was almighty to behold with QTSA at the band’s peak (around 2002). And we don’t think you can detract from his primal ability to leave jaws on the floor.
17. Elvin Jones: Jazz Drumming to the Rhythm of Synaesthesia
Colours and drumming? Well, that’s what we get here. As Elvin Jones is a legendary jazz drummer with added synaesthesia to boot.
He’d often see colours whilst playing, which added an extra dimension to his rhythms.
In the Sixties, he was part of the John Coltrane quartet and earned himself a place in jazz history with his performances.
His timing was perfect. His inventiveness always on it. But he was also a dilettante talent, happy to share his skills with the drumming community.
16. Evelyn Glennie: Orchestral Sweep and a Lifetime of Awards
Evelyn Glennie is an awesome talent, as you can’t help but focus in on her skills despite being deaf. She plays this aspect of her status down saying,
“My hearing is something that bothers other people far more than it bothers me.”
She plays barefoot so she can feel the rhythms in the ground and is just an absolute natural talent with percussion.
She’s won many awards for her performances, including the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Best Soloist of the Year (back in 1991). Plus, Rhythm Magazine’s best Studio and Live Percussionist in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004.
These days she’s still performing and also runs an insightful podcast series.
She makes this list not due to her disability. But simply due to her brilliance as a drummer, using her other senses to deliver naturalistic performances with incredible depth.
15. Jeff Porcaro: An Influential Groove Master
Whether you like Toto’s music or not, there’s no denying Jeff Porcaro’s rhythmic brilliance. He was just a natural genius as a player who could merge a Bonham shuffle with his own creations like it was easy.
Part of his brilliance was as fulfilling his job as a drummer when needed.
Whether it was the Rosanna shuffle or his underrated performance on Africa, he could keep things subtle or funky whenever he needed to.
He could be in the background quietly wowing you, or upfront in your face dazzling with an impressive groove.
There was no showboating. And as with several drummers on this list, he had a dilettante mission to bring the joys of drumming to one and all. In the late ’80s, he’d turn up at universities and provide students with lectures.
And by all accounts he was a great bloke. It’s just such a shame his early death in 1992 robbed us of many more classic beats.
14. John Densmore: Sharp and Instinctive Rock and Jazz Flourishes
We think The Doors’ John Densmore deserves a lot more credit for his contributions to music. His drumming across the band’s albums is brilliant.
From Light My Fire to Break On Through, his drumming is iconic and had serious flair to it. That’s kind of forgotten thanks to the shamanic mysticism Jim Morrison brought to the band, only magnified by his early death.
It’s forgotten that Morrison and Ray Manzarek were floored by Densmore’s skills. And The Door’s producer Paul Rothchild said this of his drumming on The End.
“That’s some of the greatest drumming I’ve ever heard in my life; irrespective of the fact that I’m involved in this album, it’s incredibly creative drumming—he has an instinct for when. During a very quiet part he’ll just come in with three drum shots that are about as loud as you can hit a drum, and they’re right, they’re absolutely right!”
Whilst not as domineering and explosive as some of his peers, he’s certainly worthy of a place in any top drummers list.
13. Art Blakey: Pioneering Big Band Specialist
Yeah, there’s no denying Art Blakey’s colossal influence on drumming continues to this day.
As a big band drummer extraordinaire, he was a legend early in his career from the 1940s onward. He performed with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and then formed the Jazz Messengers in the 1950s.
Blakey toured the world leading big bands, even performing in our home city of Manchester, UK, back in the early 1980s. Our parents saw him play and they were wowed by his ability to lead big bands with ease.
He was a larger than life character, too, and rightly deserves a place in the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. That was handed to him back in 1991 followed his death in late 1990.
12. Keith Carlock: Versatility Done to Perfection
Keith Carlock is a modern jazz drummer extraordinaire. But he also extends his skills across bands such as Steely Dan, Toto, Sting, Donald Fagen, and many more.
His incredibly versatility as an all-rounder is unquestionable, as his natural talent means he can drum to pretty much anything.
He uses traditional grip, angling the stick in his left hand at quite an unusual position.
It doesn’t hold him back, as the complexity and ease of his playing has him flying around the kit like you wouldn’t believe.
We think Carlock is a modern day genius and deserves more recognition, as his skill set is uncommonly guide. But often obscured by stadium filler bands like Arctic Monkeys, Foo Fighters, and what have you.
11. Stewart Copeland: Just an Energetic Mishmash of Goddamn Awesome
The Police drummer Stewart Copeland remains epic. Check out any video of his drumming on YouTube tube and players are busy fouling themselves at his style.
It’s very unique, merging rock with pop and new wave.
And he did that in a very physical and complex way, drifting from one style to the next and just wowing audiences all over the world.
We mean… what else can you say about Mr. Copeland? Bopping. Brilliant. Inspiring. Few people are going to argue he’s one of the best drummers ever.
10. Mitch Mitchell: Jimi Hendrix’s No. 1
Jimi Hendrix’s drummer was only in the limelight for a few short years in the late ’60s. But the guitarist was bowled over by Mitch Mitchell’s drumming brilliance.
Mitchell’s drumming style was flamboyant, taking Keith Moon as an inspiration (which infuriated The Who’s drummer) whilst mixing in jazzy, bluesy undertones.
To this day, some argue he was better than Moon. Certainly more disciplined, although not quite as spectacular.
Yet you can’t help but listen to the inspired Hey Joe and marvel at his remarkable playing. A powerhouse with incredible natural groove.
Hendrix may have flipped a coin to decide which drummer to pick from, but history will be eternally grateful it landed in Mitchell’s favour.
9. Jo Jones: The Jazz Drumming Wizard
Jazz drummer Jo Jones is here due to his inventiveness and impish sense of fun. He was a magician on the kit!
Although he departed this world in 1985 aged 73, Papa Jo Jones is still a drumming legend most famous for his work with the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s and 1940s.
Unusually, he often left bass drum playing out of his performances. Instead, he’d focus on unlikely tricks and hand movements that swept across the kit.
His unusual style helped to influence time-keeping on a ride cymbal.
But we have to just pay credit to his inventiveness. That impish grin as he was perched behind his kit, aware of the incredible visual and audio trickery that was just around the corner.
Jones was also famous for his irritability, once chucking a crash cymbal at a saxophonist’s head.
This temper (along with Buddy Rich’s anger management issues) was inspiration for the excellent film Whiplash (2014).
8. Joe Morello: Cool as They Come Jazzy Chops
American jazz superstar Joe Morello is very possibly the coolest drummer ever.
His exceptional time-keeping was matched by a laid-back style, but his skills were such he could be a big band leader for any jazz unit.
Morello was most famous for playing with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, adding his playing to numbers such as Take Five and Blue Rondo à la Turk.
Initially a talented violinist early in life, after meeting Jascha Heifetz he decided he’d never reach that level.
And so he took up the drums, impressing mightily in no time at all.
Contributing to over 60 albums with Brubeck, Morello had a distinctive drumming style and time signatures.
For his solos, he’d often add in quirks such as using his hands, playing with one stick, or using only one arm.
And we love his style for that effortless cool, rolling around the kit with a feel for playing that stands him out as a great.
7. Levon Helm: Redefining a Drummer’s Role
Rarely do you get a drummer as the centre of a rock band, but Levon Helm was just that.
Helm was The Band’s lead singer and drummer. It created the unique situation (and strange image) of guitarist Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko fronting the stage… yet not being the centre of attention.
Helm’s brilliant voice and passionate performances quickly made him a star and he was no slouch behind the kit, either.
Buddy Rich was a big fan of his and you can see, through the Sixties and Seventies, the jazzy brilliance of Helm’s performances.
The 1976 take on The Night They Drive Old Dixie Die for The Last Waltz documentary is now the stuff of legend. And if you listen to the body of his work you’ll find Helm a versatile and accomplished musician.
But his drumming, minimalistic at times, funky as all heck when necessary (see above on Don’t Do It), was perfect for The Band.
Sadly, we lost Helm a decade ago but his work remains very popular and he’s the go-to singing drummer for the rock world.
6. Ginger Baker: Fiery Revolutionary With Tom Toms and African Beats
A natural genius, Ginger Baker’s fiery drumming style boasted incredible limb independence, creativity, and perfect time-keeping.
He revolutionised drumming with Cream using his mix of African rhythms, extended drum solos, and jazz influences.
In the process, he became rock’s first superstar drummer in the Sixties.
A tall skinny bloke with crazy red hair, his berserk lifestyle (including heroin addiction) and difficult personality made him hard work for other musicians.
In some ways that overshadowed his musical career.
But his brilliance was such he was always in high demand, also touring with Blind Faith, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and many others into the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s. He was drumming right up until his death aged 80 in 2019.
That’s an achievement in itself, as he was regularly cited as the rock star least likely to survive the 1970s.
You can find out more about him in the excellent 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker.
5. Buddy Rich: Explosive Jazz Drumming Perfection
Styling himself as The World’s Greatest Drummer when touring, the forthright and opinionated Buddy Rich could be accused of arrogance.
Yet his fearsome genius behind the kit let him get away with it.
Playing in many big bands as the lead bloke behind it all, he was a jazz drummer extraordinaire whose career spanned decades. Right from pre-WWII though to his death in 1987.
He championed the use of traditional grip with the sticks and was savage with his criticism against music he disliked (country music, mainly).
When not belabouring everyone around him with a fiery temper, he was slouched behind his kit working unholy wonders.
Lightning fast, precise, and in tune, his kit always sounded fantastic.
But he had an array of incredible tricks, too, upping showmanship across drumming with his poise and flair. We still love the guy’s drumming and, as it turns out, so does the rest of the world.
4. John Bonham: Monster Grooves and Pioneering Drum Solos
Few drummers can have this level of natural talent. It’s just unnatural, frankly.
Bonham at his best was all about monstrous grooves, flailing arms, and mighty power. When the Levee Breaks, Fool in the Rain, Stairway to Heaven etc. etc.
His legacy is astonishing and he’s regularly cited as the best drummer ever. Hands down. Some people swear blind no other drummer has ever been anywhere near his level.
We don’t quite agree with that. And his drinking meant that, by the mid-70s, his disturbing brilliance had faded considerably. His solos after 1973 never were of the same jaw-dropping quality as above.
Yet Bonham remains the drummer’s drummer. The one most look up to as the guy to strive towards—for many he is what being a drummer is all about. He IS drumming.
And when he was at his absolute peak, he was clearly the best drummer on Earth. Barring, perhaps, one other explosive individual…
3. Keith Moon: Madcap Personality for Centre Stage Showmanship
We feel that 60 second clip from 1974 sums up The Who’s Keith Moon rather effectively. In every area of his life:
- Manic and somewhat erratic brilliance.
- Goldfish in the kit.
- What looks like lipstick/war paint smeared on his face.
- Almost certainly half out of it.
- Sticks flying in the air.
- Ready wit at the end of it all.
A complete entertainer, Moon’s bizarre drumming style was born largely out of his extraordinary personality.
Highly intelligent, he was also highly destructive, but everything he did in life was to the extreme and very unusual. He was a one-off.
But despite his natural drumming brilliance, he still has his critics. They argue he wouldn’t have been suitable for any band except The Who.
What seems to irk his naysayers was Moon’s abandonment of the technicalities of drumming, so in their view he’s “sloppy” and out of time. Ill-disciplined, if you will—that’s only ever going to annoy the drumming snobs of the world.
We think that’s nonsense, as you can hear in The Who Sell Out and the band’s earlier albums the range and quality of his playing.
His drumming is far more versatile across the band’s albums than popular history would suggest. It wasn’t all thunderous lunacy, he largely saved that for live performances.
Regardless, his uncontrolled offstage lifestyle (“Moon the Loon”) rapidly took its toll, burning him out by age 32 in 1978.
But what’s left is a vast body of work that’s easily secured him a spot as one of the best drummers ever.
2. Jaki Liebezeit: Thrilling Motorik Beat Meets Practical Theory
Prior to becoming a rock drumming master with a legendary Krautrock band, Jaki Liebezeit was Germany’s top jazz drummer.
Can’s rhythm genius ultimately went on to create an entirely new style of drumming called motorik beat, which adorns the band’s three landmark albums like gold dust:
His bandmates joked he looked like a serial killer and could drum better than any robot, due to his unnerving metronomic style and time-keeping.
But he was just an exciting drummer to listen to, erupting into songs in thunderous fashion when required. But also having a subtle touch, such as on tracks like Future Days, Turtles Have Short Legs, and Dizzy Dizzy.
He was much more than just a drummer. Developing out an entire practical music theory for rhythm (the dot-dash system), which was documented for posterity in 2020’s The Life, Theory, and Practice of a Master Drummer.
Yet we’ve never once seen Liebezeit in a Top Drummers list. Ever. Not even in Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 100 Drummers collection.
That’s quite ridiculous; he remains the most underrated (or most ignored) genius drummers in history.
The result is it’s essential to remember his legacy (he died in January 2017), as his genius is almost unmatched.
1. Reni: The Complete Natural Talent
Reni is the most naturally gifted drummer we’ve ever come across. He was once described as playing the drums the way Hendrix played the guitar.
Although he restricted his career to The Stone Roses, he could have easily toured as a one-man drumming show and been selling out venues everywhere.
As it is, it’s a real shame a drummer of this calibre has largely been absent from music over the last 30 years.
Growing up in Manchester in the Sixties, he was branded a “freak” by other kids due to his uncanny drumming abilities.
By the time he was 20 he had an alarming level of accomplishment. He joined The Stone Roses in 1984 and was immediately the star attraction, wowing The Who’s Pete Townshend at an early gig.
The Who’s star dropped everything to try and bag the drummer for his solo albums, saying Reni was the most naturally gifted drummer he’d seen since Keith Moon.
The Manchester drummer declined the offer to forge his own route.
In those early days, he was a powerhouse player and the total centre of attention. He’d often perform pre-gig soundchecks and have people open-mouthed staring at the physics-defying drummer.
But as The Stone Roses’ music progressed, Reni cut back to a three-piece kit and came to define the sound of the Madchester era.
Although for the band’s second album (the Second Coming), he adapted his style to blues rock and proved he was more than a match for Bonham. His solos from the recording sessions around the time are unnerving.
But it was his live performances that truly stood him out—anyone who saw The Stone Roses play live knew this was the best drummer on the planet. The band’s 1989 Blackpool gig is a classic example of this, remaining one of the all-time great drumming performances.
We mean, check out his explosive, ridiculous run across the show closing I Am The Resurrection.
From a basic beat to start things off, to the thunderous onslaught in the mid-section, then a shuffling groove to lead off the improvisational ending. All across a three-piece kit.
It was his astonishing ease of playing and dexterity that’s still startling, not least as yet another incredibly impressive singing drummer.
Try thrashing out the bopping Elephant Stone whilst providing backing harmonies. He seemed superhuman, making it all look easy.
Playing away, he’d suddenly unleash a lightning-fast blast of genius that other drummers could only dream of.
And that’s how we remember him, those tantalising glimpses of how much he was holding back, so you just had to keep watching to see what was coming next.
Sadly, he now seems to have retired. But what he’s left behind is suitably enigmatic—the hyper-genius who graced only two full albums.