Isolated Drum Tracks From Six of Rock’s Greatest: Bonham, Moon, Peart, Copeland, Grohl & Starr

“Drums, eh,” says Keith Richards in answer to a fan question on the subject. “Without it you’re kinda nowhere.” He’s got a point. An ace drummer can be the spine, muscle, and even soul of a great band. Pounding, swinging, and smashing away behind showy guitarists and flamboyant frontmen, drummers sometimes have problems being seen, but never heard. But while John Bonham or Keith Moon never got lost in the mix, it’s a rare thing to hear them out of it. The proliferation of rock band video games and isolated tracks posted to Youtube allow us to listen to the nuances of drum grooves we may feel we know by heart, such as Bonham’s driving beat behind Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

In a previous post, we brought you a rough mix of the song and Jimmy Page describing its creation. Page wanted Bonham’s drum track to “really stand out, so that every stick stroke sounded clear and you could really feel them.” It certainly does that. The drum track above is all about feeling. As a result of the recording techniques of the time, writes producer/engineer Bobby Owinski, drum tracks tended to sound “like a single instrument,” since they were recorded with only two or three mics capturing the space around the kit, rather than the sound of individual pieces. “Still,” Owinski writes of this track, “there’s plenty of power in [Bonham’s] kick and snare, because he played them hard!” In addition to his power, Bonham is known for his laid-back groove, due to his tendency for playing slightly behind the beat, a quality Youtube drum instructor Terry Keating of Bonzoleum ascribes to “temperament.”

Bonham’s style consisted mainly of creative uses of triplets, so much so that McSweeny’s had a good laugh about his constant use a similar pattern. One of my favorite drummers—crankiest man in rock Ginger Baker—also disparages Bonham’s playing, as well as that of another alcoholic drum star, Keith Moon. But Ginger Baker doesn’t tend to like anyone, and Moon’s playing, while maybe not virtuosic or especially disciplined, was, like his persona, insane. Drum Magazine describes Moon’s style as “tribal, primitive, and impulsive, with him often stomping the bass drums and pounding his wall of toms like a madman” (clearly Moon inspired the Muppets’ Animal). Moon’s many kits often consisted of double bass drums and double rows of toms, and he played them as hard as possible almost all the time. Hear him above thrashing with abandon through “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Seemingly miles away from the madness of Keith Moon, Rush’s Neil Peart is a highly technical drummer with impeccable on-the-beat timing and a drum setup that has grown so extensive and complicated over the years that he almost disappears into its depths. Peart’s playing combines the power and stamina of Bonham with complex patterns whose rhythmic dynamics shift subtly several times throughout each song. Check out the isolated drum track for “Tom Sawyer” above as a classic example of Peart’s technique and you may see why he’s classed as one of the all-time best rock drummers (though I wouldn’t class him as one of rock’s greatest lyricists).

Although I’m an admirer of Neil Peart’s drumming, I can’t say I’m much of a Rush fan. Police drummer Stewart Copeland feels the same. In an interview with Music Radar, he jokes about “pull[ing] Neil’s chain at every possible opportunity” for the self-indulgent excess of drum solos (though Copeland gamely played one during David Letterman’s “Drum Solo Week” in 2011). Copeland talks about “a time when bands like Rush were the epitome of what The Police were theoretically against, which was an overemphasis on musicality.” Nonetheless, Copeland is one of the most musical of drummers, making use of odd time signatures and polyrhythmic syncopation to create a thoroughly unique and instantly recognizable style (which has even inspired neuroscience studies). The drum track above comes from “Next to You,” a song on the band’s debut album, during their decidedly anti-Rush phase. While the song itself is uptempo punk rock, Copeland’s Gene Krupa-like drumming, heard in isolation, presages the unusual quirks to come as the band stretched out into jazz and reggae territory.

The sheer number of bands Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl has drummed for is impressive, and a testament to his machine-like speed and timing. Drummer and Portlandia star Fred Armisen may be Grohl’s biggest fan. “Every drum part he does is a masterpiece,” says Armisen, “He’s never just heavy for heavy’s sake or rock for rock’s sake—it’s all so musical, with an incredible sense of dynamics. Every generation has their drumming guy, and Dave is ours.” Even Kurt Cobain, never one to overpraise, once called Grohl “the best drummer in the world.” Maybe a bit of hyperbole, but Grohl’s damned good, even at his most straightforward, as above in his pounding drumbeat for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Grohl’s powerhouse playing isn’t the most versatile. He had some trouble adjusting to quieter environs, and Cobain nearly banned him from the band’s legendary “Unplugged” performance for his too-aggressive playing in rehearsals. Nonetheless, when it comes to punk, hardcore, and serious rock, Grohl’s the man.

I can’t resist ending with the isolated track of what maybe be my all-time favorite drum part, Ringo Starr’s wildly funky business at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Some of the drums here are overdubbed, with several different percussion parts blended with Starr’s full-kit freak out. Starr has taken a lot of completely undeserved flak for his supposed limitations as a drummer, but as Samuel Belkin writes at The Examiner, “his latter day drum patterns are […] often sophisticated, and always idiosyncratic […] nobody has ever been able to sound quite like Ringo.” Ultimately, in my book, what distinguishes a truly great drummer from thousands of technically proficient players is a quality no one can teach or emulate: Personality.

Related Content:

Listen to The John Bonham Story, a Radio Show Hosted by Dave Grohl

Keith Moon’s Final Performance with The Who (1978)

Hear the Isolated Vocal Tracks for The Beatles’ Climactic 16-Minute Medley on Abbey Road

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.


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  1. Jason M says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 10:29 am

    Dave Grohl? Huh. Okay…

    Wish you could’ve found “Driven to Tears” rather than “Next to You,” but Copeland is excellent nonetheless.

    Shame about his feelings towards Peart. It’s like Keanu Reeves pulling Jack Nicholson’s chain.

    And….Dave Grohl?

  2. Kutch says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 11:48 am

    Great post!

  3. John Hell says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 11:59 am

    How about adding some of funks greatest hitters, such as Bernard Purdie, and Clyde Stubblefield?

  4. Steven B Kurtz says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 12:02 pm

    Guess I’ve been spoiled by jazz drummers. Check out solos by:

    Max Roach, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Chico Hamilton, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke,..many others

  5. VCM says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 12:04 pm

    Uhhhh Starr gets mentioned but not Ginger Baker. Keep studying, one day you’ll actually know something. Idiot.

  6. CR says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 12:52 pm

    It says in the title that this was focused on the rock genre. ;D

    There are always other songs, other drummers, and other styles that people will want on here. I enjoyed hearing some isolated drum tracks, regardless.

    And in my opinion, Dave Grohl belongs on here. He was my Ringo Starr in the 90s, and I imagine he was influential for a lot of people during that time. He has proven himself a significant rock drummer many times- Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Dirty Vultures, Foo Fighters…

  7. Moderator says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 1:14 pm

    On the subject of the Nirvana Unplugged session, there is some video floating around of the rehearsal, in which greater context is provided about Cobain’s state of mind.

  8. Josh Jones says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 1:52 pm

    @VCM: I do mention Ginger Baker. Twice in the third paragraph. There just don’t happen to be any isolated drum tracks of his floating around the internet. Also, the subject of the post is 6 *of* rock’s greatest, not *the* 6 greatest. Reading comprehension is a useful skill.

  9. Phil Grabar says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 3:43 pm

    One of my favorite videos – Charlie Watts doing his rock steady thing –

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3FUA0Hj7fI

  10. chazzo says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 7:13 pm

    I am not sure these are the best tracks from these drummers, but it is a cool article. Definite picks: Copeland Regatta de Blanc (song). Ringo on She Said. Bonham on When the Levee Breaks. As far as other drummers go (as per the thread), I always liked Mitch Mitchell. He carried so much.

  11. Steven Groom says . . . | June 13, 2014 / 9:10 pm

    I think that perhaps the best example of Ringo Starr’s work would be “Rain”, honestly.

  12. Dave Juliette says . . . | June 14, 2014 / 2:16 am

    For the life of me, I just don’t understand this site’s penchant for these “isolated” tracks, in which music is broken down into one of its elements. Of course, digital technology makes such things easy for non-professionals to pull off, but just because we have the tools to do such things, does that mean we should be breaking down art into its individual pieces and obsessively studying them? What next, “A Starry Night” with just the yellow?

    It all brings to mind what E. B. White said (and yes, it was White, not Carson) about the dissection of a frog being possible, but “the frog tends to die in the process”. These exercises in deconstruction are anti-art. They serve little purpose, other than to provide perhaps some minor insight into process. But the probative value is clearly outweighed by the loss of that thing which is greater than the sum of the parts which you are so keen to isolate.

    And before anyone tells me, “oh, lighten up”, I would remind you that this is art we’re talking about. If you need to break it into pieces in order to understand it, then you’re not even in the room.

  13. David says . . . | June 14, 2014 / 6:20 am

    These are enjoyable to hear and add major insight.

    I understand the penchant for isolated tracks. The music doesn’t get broken, and not being a frog, the music also doesn’t get killed in the process, and is released unharmed. It’s playable again, as a whole, even more enjoyably. The separation into discreet tracks is not anti-art, but pro-art. Musicians record in stereo, separating instruments and putting them in different spaces. Is that anti-art? They orchestrate different parts for different instruments. And then people seeking to understand and enjoy the art more analyze, isolate, focus. Nothing is lost at all. It’s frankly just stupid to make the claim that the art has been damaged or killed, the experience reduced, or the totality lessened. Not only is nothing lost by this isolation for study and enjoyment, in fact the experience is heightened.

    It’s not a matter of lightening up. It’s that the view that isolating tracks (or colors in a painting, yes) somehow cripples the experience of the work is frankly stupid and thoughtless. Even those who pose such a claim cannot live by it. If you think that you can’t gain increase enjoyment and understanding of art by analyzing artistic elements, then you’re not even in the room. I would remind you that this is art we’re talking about.

  14. Dave Juliette says . . . | June 14, 2014 / 8:57 am

    Indeed. Well, I’m certainly not going to lose any sleep at being called “stupid and thoughtless” by someone who apparently doesn’t even have the courage to back up his vitriol with his full name.

    Way to be a man, missy …

  15. Stevr Macc says . . . | June 14, 2014 / 9:47 pm

    Thanx a billion for shating these cool drum tracks by six amazing players. Tis in dead a pleasure to hear the heart beating so clearly. Love frogs and ZAZZ !!! mac

  16. Stevr Macc says . . . | June 14, 2014 / 9:51 pm

    Apologies for typos above…bloody sausage fingers…im sure you get the gyst of what om saying….love drums and the opportunity to hear them in isolation…intriguing…LF & Z…mac

  17. Danny Carey says . . . | June 14, 2014 / 11:25 pm

    No mention of Danny Carey? Hard to believe.

  18. Dave C says . . . | June 16, 2014 / 8:05 am

    Ian Paice. Listen to ‘Burn’ and tell me he’s not every bit of Bonham’s equal. Grohl? please

  19. Clint says . . . | June 16, 2014 / 10:26 am

    How about Tommy Aldritch.

  20. Roy Carelson says . . . | June 16, 2014 / 7:53 pm

    Folks be glad to have these tracks and hopefully more. I have seen 4 of these 6 live and I can tell you they are all awesomely different players. When there was no youtube you had to study on your own or with a teacher. Music is not a contest or is drumming. If drumming was a contest we would all be Thomas Lang and that would seriously limit the amount of art at our disposal. Thanks again for the tracks and article.

  21. Jesus says . . . | June 17, 2014 / 12:31 pm

    You must be a TV baby w/ this drivel. Stuff that’s been said 100 times & putting Foo in there proves it .. Wake up man.

  22. David Whitelock says . . . | June 18, 2014 / 9:05 pm

    Danny Carey….there I said it!

  23. Peter says . . . | July 1, 2014 / 4:41 am

    WOW… What a terrible list.
    NO GINGER BAKER?!?!?!?
    ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!?!
    He revolutionized drums and without Ginger we wouldn’t have any of these guys.
    No comparison between bonham/moon to Ginger. He is hands down the greatest drummer.
    Please people…UNREAL

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