What music fan hasn't had a discussion, let alone a full blown argument, about who all makes the list of the best drummers of all time? It's that time again and I'm ready to fend off your emails, because we undoubtedly qualify these musicians based on different factors.
Some people only care about technical ability, while others value simplicity with perfect timing. I know someone that measures an artist by how much mass appeal they achieve and how many nominations or wins they get from the not-always-honest Grammy Awards.
This list cares about all of those factors, weighing them together. Because, face it, if a drummer plays so crazy that nobody enjoys it, it doesn't matter how advanced it is. The real challenge we face is boiling it down to only the top 10 best drummers, since there's far more greats than that. This is why we have a runners up section below and even some honorable mentions.
You'll probably enjoy looking at our list of the best bassists of all time too, since the bass and drums form the foundation of the rhythm section. Many of these drummers below worked with the top bassists in some of the greatest bands ever. But lets move on and count down the list of the best drummers of all time...
#10 - Bill Bruford
Associated ActS: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks, Genesis
Bill Bruford is a master drummer and percussionist who hit the limelight in the prog rock band Yes who continued his meteoric rise with King Crimson and as the live drummer for Genesis. He went on to work in many other bands and land in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Some of the top drummers in the world consider him one of their influences, such as Mike Portnoy and Danny Carey. His early technical prowess combined with jazz knowhow and rock energy led to enough success that he was able to have the freedom to evolve further into what he calls a "polymetric funk savant."
Trivia Facts: Bill Bruford earned his PhD in Music from the University of Surrey in 2016. He cites Ginger Baker as one of his main drumming influences. As a youth he took lessons from Lou Pocock of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
#9 - Max Weinberg
Associated ActS: Bruce Springsteen, E Street Band
Max Weinberg is known as one of the most reliable drummers ever, performing night after night with Bruce Springsteen and as the leader of the Max Weinberg 7 on the Late Night Show with Conan O'Brien and The Tonight show with Jay Leno. He's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of course.
He leads his band with a drums-driven jump blues style. You know you have to be good to lead a band as a drummer, as opposed to being a guitarist or vocalist. He considers Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Ringo Starr as influences. Weinberg's philosophy of "show up every time and do a good job" is something we can all learn from.
Trivia Facts: Max Weinberg is the father of one of the Slipknot drummers, Jay Weinberg. He knew he wanted to be a drummer when, at age 5, he saw Elvis Presley and D.J. Fontana play on The Milton Berle Show in 1956. By age 6 he was practicing and by age 7 he was sitting in with bands.
#8 - Mike Portnoy
Associated ActS: Dream Theater, Neal Morse Band
Mike Portnoy has been in or started countless bands but he's best known for his 25 year run with Dream Theater. He took some music theory lessons in high school but is otherwise completely self-taught as a drummer. His drum skills are so enormous that ModerN Drummer has given him 30 awards and placed him in their hall of fame.
Portnoy considers drummers like Neil Peart, Bill Bruford, Alan White, and others on this list as his influences. He endorses Tama drums, Sabian cymbals, Remo drumheads, and Promark drumsticks if you needed a recommendation.
Trivia Facts: Mike Portnoy met John Petrucci and John Myung at the Berklee College of Music, where they soon dropped out and formed Dream Theater (originally named Majesty). His daughter is in an all-female band called Meanstreak with the wives of other Dream Theater members.
#7 - Buddy Rich
Associated ActS: Joe Marsala, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw
Buddy Rich was a jazz drummer and bandleader that was known for his speed and power without sacrificing his technique. He was a self-taught child prodigy, playing drums on Broadway at age four and in vaudeville shows. He began leading bands on international tours in his teens and by 15 years old he was the 2nd highest paid child entertainer in the 1930's!
As big bands lost their appeal, he stayed committed to the art, performing sessions for Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and making many TV appearances. He played with a traditional grip but would switch to matched grip when playing the floor toms and perform cross-stickings as one of his stick-tricks. There was a period where he played with brushes nearly exclusively.
Trivia Facts: Among the incredible events of his life, Buddy Rich gave drum lessons to Mel Brooks when Brooks was 14 years old. He served as a judo instructor in the United States Marine Corps. Rich was apparently short-tempered and would get into actual fights with Frank Sinatra, which wasn't good because Rich was a black belt in karate.
#6 - Hal Blaine
Associated ActS: The Wrecking Crew, The Beach Boys
Hal Blaine is the most recorded studio drummer in history, as far as we can tell, having recorded in over 35,000 sessions and 6,000 singles. He's played on 40 number one hits and 150 total US top 10 hits. He's played with all of the greatest musical acts, including those still popular today. And of course he holds all of the awards possible.
His legacy includes popularizing the disco beat in studio recordings. From 1966 to 1971, he played on every single Grammy Award Record of the Year winners from various artists. He reduced his session work as computers and drum machines became more popular, but continued to record for film, TV, and jingles.
Trivia Facts: Hal Blaine began playing drums at 8 years old. His first big break was with Count Basie's big band. He would leave a "Hal Blaine Strikes Again" stamp on music scores and locations where he had played. His playing on the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" is the most imitated drum beat ever.
#5 - Keith Moon
Associated ActS: The Who, Plastic Ono Band
Keith Moon was the drummer for The Who, known for his early use of double bass drums in his drum kit. He would fit in drum fills in the craziest places in songs, emphasizing tom-toms and cymbals, acting more like an orchestrator than a drummer. He was known to mimic other greats like Gene Krupa and Hal Blaine, but with a much more wavering timing.
He hated drum solos and refused to play them even when pressured live on stage. He would destroy his drum kit on stage after nearly every show. He would also destroy entire hotel rooms and the buildings' plumbing. His destructive behavior led to his early passing, but even so, he managed to leave his mark as one of the drumming greats.
Trivia Facts: Keith Moon was the inspiration for the Muppets character Animal. His destructive behavior earned him the nickname "Moon the Loon." It's said that he came up with the phrase "lead zeppelin" and incidentally inspired the name of the band Led Zeppelin.
#4 - John Bonham
Associated ActS: Led Zeppelin, Band of Joy
Usually considered the greatest drummer of all time, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin was known for his instinct and feel of the groove, which shined through his love of speed, fast kick drumming, and hard-hitting power. He received his first drum kit at 15 years old and was largely self-taught, emulating greats like Max Roach and Buddy Rich.
Bonham's talent was so ferocious that modern drummers like Dave Grohl, Dave Lombardo, and Chad Smith all consider him their greatest influence. Though he excelled at dynamic rock drumming, he later began integrating funk and Latin styles into his work.
Trivia Facts: John Bonham's drum solo "Moby Dick" would last over 20 minutes live on stage and the crowd loved it. Though he now has won all of the awards and recognitions, music critics didn't appreciate his hard and straight playing, saying he lacked swinging in his timing.
#3 - Bernard Purdie
Associated ActS: Jeff Beck, Steely Dan, The 3B's
Bernard Purdie, or as some call him, "Mississippi Bigfoot," was once the most in-demand drummer in the industry. It's easier to talk about who he hasn't played with than to list off who he has. He played so perfectly, even with complex drum patterns, that Steely Dan brought him in. And they're seriously some sticklers about everything.
His precision with keeping time, his use of triplets and half-time (The Purdie Shuffle), and his professionalism pushed him straight to the top. His syncopated ghost notes and fusing of styles such as swing, blues, and funk make him unique and extremely entertaining.
Trivia Facts: Bernard Purdie learned to play drums from Leonard Heywood. He's played (even uncredited) on some of the biggest hits ever, even overdubbing for the Beatles. One of his early breaks was playing a session for James Brown.
#2 - Neil Peart
Associated ActS: Rush, Vertical Horizon, Buddy Rich Big Band
Neil Peart is known as the incredible drummer for Rush, who chose him after an audition because he reminded them of Keith Moon from The Who. At the end of the day he was nothing like Moon besides his hard-hitting style. Moon was very loose with his timing, but Peart is possibly the most meticulous and technical player of all time.
I had the pleasure of seeing him and his unbelievably huge drum kit live before his passing. It wrapped around him 360 degrees and included digital samplers and much more. He played every part of a full band by himself during a solo.
Trivia Facts: Neil Peart was Rush's primary lyricist. He also wrote 7 nonfiction books. Strangely, before he auditioned for Rush, he was part of a band called Hush. He often reversed his stick orientation, playing with the butt-end out for increased rimshot capacity. He got used to it because he'd break the tips off his sticks as a youth and couldn't afford new ones.
#1 - Ginger Baker
Associated ActS: Cream, Blind Faith, Air Force
Ginger Baker is best known as the superstar drummer for Cream and Blind Faith along side Eric Clapton. He was one of the earliest drummers to use two kick drums and record lengthy drum solos. His use of matched grip, syncopation, African rhythms, and ride cymbals made him more of a bebop and jazz drummer than rock.
All of the greats recognize Baker's prowess, with Neil Peart saying that Baker set the bar for what rock drumming could be. His showmanship and playing is described as primal, extroverted, and inventive. He's even considered a pioneer of heavy metal drumming, though he didn't play in the genre and despised it.
Trivia Facts: In the 1960's, Ginger Baker took lessons from Phil Seamen, a leading British jazz drummer, but was otherwise self-taught. After Blind Faith disbanded, Baker started and joined many bands, even operating a recording studio, none of which really panned out for him.
Runners Up: Who's Almost a Best Drummer of All Time?
It's impossible to only mention the top 10 best drummers of all time. There's just so many other greats that we could argue should be in the list, so we're adding this runners up section to honor more of these legends (and to appease you readers!), and don't miss the honorable mentions further below.
Associated ActS: Eddie Condon, Benny Goodman
Gene Krupa is known as the first rock drummer. He was the first to elevate the drummer from a background and accompanying member of a band to a possible solo voice. He helped define what the standard drum kit included, earning him the title of the founding father of the modern drumset.
He played in the Chicago jazz style, accentuated by press rolls. His tom-tom interludes were the first extended drum solos recorded commercially. Though he operated fairly early, starting in the 1920's, he still revolutionized the drumming game so much that he's recognized for his talent.
Trivia Facts: Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich had "The Drum Battle" shows at Caregie Hall in 1952 and in televised events, and later released two studio albums together. After retiring due to growing back pain, he started a school of music. He starred in several movies and had one created about his life.
Associated ActS: Slayer, Grip Inc., Testament, The Misfits
Dave Lombardo is best known as the co-founder and drummer for the thrash metal band Slayer. His playing is extremely aggressive and incredibly innovative. Drummerworld calls him the godfather of the double bass. He's the main drumming influence in all of the metal sub-genres, respected for his energy and technical skill.
He got started with percussion at 8 years old and received his first drum kit at the age of 10. He developed a tasteful style, and despite the speed he doesn't overplay and still finds the groove. His work is so effortless that other musicians consider him a "natural" as if to dismiss all of his practice.
Trivia Facts: Dave Lombardo is left handed but learned to play right handed with a right handed drum kit. He's created art collections, the first of which was called Rhythm Mysterium and is on a new medium he calls rhythm-on-canvas.
Associated ActS: Toto, STeely Dan
Jeff Porcaro was the drummer for the band Toto, which already tells you all you need to know. His playing is perfect and precise like Bernard Purdie so much that you'd think a computer generated the sounds. Steely Dan hired him, which only further proves the point.
Many consider the programmed MIDI drumming of the 1980's and 90's to be based on Porcaro's sound. He's one of the most recorded session musicians in music history, too. He started playing drums at age 7 and by 17 became a professional.
Trivia Facts: His most famous drum pattern on the Toto song "Rosanna" is called the Half-Time Shuffle Groove, based on the Purdie Shuffle. He's played with all of the biggest names and even did four of the tracks on Michael Jackson's Thriller.
Honorable Mentions for the Best Drummers of All Time
Even with this additional section, there's more names we'd love to discuss but we have to stop somewhere. These guys deserve to be mentioned though. They're true drumming icons that you should know about, if not already love.
- Ringo Starr is best known as the drummer for the Beatles. His style was simple but extremely consistent and reliable in a way few others have attained.
- Phil Collins is a huge success, probably best known for his work with Genesis. He got started at age 5 and was destined to be a great.
- Stewart Copeland was the drummer for the Police. His style is so distinct and unique that you know it's him playing nearly immediately.
- Dave Grohl rose to prominence with Nirvana and the Foo Fighters and has had a monumental output ever since. He's a multi-instrumentalist and focuses less on the drums these days.
- Danny Carey is the drummer for Tool. He bases many of his drumming patterns on sacred geometry and gets way far out there. It's all unique and played well, though.
- Alan White is the long-running drummer for Yes and is known for playing on big hits like John Lennon's "Imagine."
I feel bad for the other drummers out there that I'd love to mention. There are so many amazing players out there and we hold them dear in our hearts, but we're already being generous with the amount of musicians we've listed past the top 10. We have to cut it off somewhere.
A fun read from here is to bounce over to our list of the best bands of all time and see just how many of these best drummers of all time were in those bands. It's quite a few, full of names from our guitarist lists and others. Somehow the most amazing musicians found each other and managed to merge their talents to bring us some incredible music. Thanks to them and to you for reading.