“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.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
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.
How about adding some of funks greatest hitters, such as Bernard Purdie, and Clyde Stubblefield?
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
Uhhhh Starr gets mentioned but not Ginger Baker. Keep studying, one day you’ll actually know something. Idiot.
@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.
One of my favorite videos – Charlie Watts doing his rock steady thing –
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.
I think that perhaps the best example of Ringo Starr’s work would be “Rain”, honestly.
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.
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.
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 …
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
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
No mention of Danny Carey? Hard to believe.
Ian Paice. Listen to ‘Burn’ and tell me he’s not every bit of Bonham’s equal. Grohl? please
How about Tommy Aldritch.
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.
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.
Danny Carey….there I said it!
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.
Guess you can’t read either. The author already stated that he mentioned Ginger Baker, but there is no video for him because he can’t find an isolated drum track for Baker.
Oh, boy. Here come all the drummer snobs, thinking that Ringo Starr and Dave Grohl aren’t “cool enough” for their little club. Give us all a break. Both of those dudes were extremely influential to their respective decades and genres. Extremely.
Bill Bruford is amazing too. http://youtu.be/I1LofJ21_V0
am i the only one who thinks the drums on smells like teenspirit sound like samples? Especially the cymbals… Hmmm
Nirvana might not really be the best indicator of Grohl’s talent, but Dave Grohl is plenty talented. Listen to Foo Fighters “Everlong” for some really creative and blistering beats and fills. And yes, even though Taylor Hawkins is the Foo Fighter’s drummer, Grohl actually came up with it and played it on the album recording. It’s not easy to play something that fast and play it as relaxed as he does. Taylor Hawkins is a really good drummer and never quite does it justice…
Anyway, to the people complaining about isolated tracks, consider that we all practice at some point by ourselves. Being able to hear how “good drumming” sounds standing alone is an integral part of that process, and in my opinion if you do not understand that, maybe you should reconsider whether you are a “good drummer”.
Ginger Baker always sounded like he was playing on plastic garbage cans. Overrated.
Where’s Ian Paice?
Grohl and Starr? You’re kidding, right? And the choices of songs you picked are pedestrian.
Popularity doesn’t make you a good drummer. I have no problem with the others listed.
There are better drummers for the list than Grohl and Starr.
See Palmer and Bruford for starters. PTxS
Putting Dave “Horseface” Grohl on this list is a complete insult to the rest of the list. The other musicians are incredible rhythmic visionaries (minus Starr, of course), while Grohl is a completely generic, style-less media whore. It would take more than 10,000 Grohls to = someone like Bonham or Peart.
As a fan of metal, these come across as quaint. Even Moon and his “hard” bashing as I believe the author called it. But not uninteresting. Good to see Grohl getting the credit he should in these comments. Queens of the Stone Age were on a roll until they hockey up with him, then it seems to have gone down hill.
You guys are angry. I think Dave Grohl is an amazing drummer, but agreeing with some other commenter that Nirvana is by no means where you would hear it.
RE: Neil Peart “(though I wouldn’t class him as one of rock’s greatest lyricists).”
Why is it critics ALWAYS have to add a comment like this? This column is about DRUMMING and Peart is considered one of the greats for good reason.
Nobody cares what you, some idiotic writer (who has neither the ability or the success of the subject) thinks about his lyrics!
Great piece. Thanks. Eff the critics.
Tony Thompson (RIP) of Chic and Power Station is missed, as well as Cozy Powell (RIP) (Jeff Beck, Rainbow, Whitesnake, et al) deserves a mention as well.
I think dave grohl is more on the list not because of popularity, but because of creativity and i do understand that he is not as great as some, i’ve spent a lot of time listening to his different bands (that he was a drummer) and i think he’s a natural drummer with very specific ideas of a good beat that loves to rock his ass off, and to me that makes him a great drummer.
The ill-humoured nay-sayers on these forums are really disappointing. It’s just an opinion folks.Nowhere does Josh Jones say that this is the definitive or final list of drummers or performances. There really is not a “best”, it’s just a matter of what moves you (and what happens to be available track-wise). He could have created dozens of groups of six and been just as right or wrong as far as opinion and personal taste goes.I understand the idea that breaking down a musical masterpiece can potentially take some of the magic out of it but it really doesn’t. It’s always there as a whole. I agree that it’s not only helpful to listen to isolated tracks, it’s just plain fun. One way or another,we are listening to a performance. A few moments frozen in time.
Drummers love to hear the tuning and timber of the drums, the buzzing of the snare and the odd stick click, along with the subtlety, power and feel. At the end of the day its just entertainment.Combine that with drums and it’s all the better.I really enjoyed it. Thanks Josh.
Dave “horseface” Grohl? Way to set the tone for how seriously we should take your opinion, you child.
As for Starr, it’s generally the people who know nothing about drumming that mindlessly parrot the myth that Ringo was a terrible drummer.
@John Hell Bernard Purdie has all but said directly that he stood in for Ringo many times on the albums (check the Red Bull Music Academy interview for the latest time). So in a way Bernard Purdie is in the list…
Ringo is clearly the best of them. For many this is hard to understand as they tend to favour virtuosi or their favourite band’s drummer. But one must analyse inventiveness, personality and, above all, adequacy. Ringo’s drumming was every bit (or beat) adequate to his mates’ compositions. This alone will grant him a place in the history of music.
Ringo is the best drummer on here. As in, the ideas he expressed are the best, most powerful, and most meaningful, musically and timbrally speaking. Technically he doesn’t even belong within 10 miles of the list, but technique is very overrated to everybody out there who’s not a prog-rock fanboy. He had every unfair advantage, of course, from his luminous bandmates, classic songs written around him, and brilliant production. His environment allowed him to be the best. His loping, idiosyncratic beat is, in its own preposterously imperfect way, perfect. Any of these other monster metronomes would have utterly ruined the Beatles’ classic songs. I agree that Grohl may have brought thrashing to its pinnacle in Nirvana and I would rate him as a *very* good drummer but there’s something pedestrian and adequate about his ideas, which permeate to his singing, guitar playing and songwriting as well…
And the rule of punk continues, plainly–strangely married (as usual) to the notion of “rightness”. Rightness is important, but having good technique is, too. You can like Ringo Starr unashamedly, but I like Neil Peart’s drumming (which is, after, all, quite personal and creative–no one else sound like him) unashamedly, too, and it makes less sense to have to say that about Peart than to say it about Ringo.
These are great.. Stewart’s quick flams sound amazing. If only you guys could find some of Danny Carry’s isolated tracks. After seeing the end of the Grudge, Ticks & Leeches and Triad, I’m convinced that dude has brought quite a bit to the table in the drumming world :D
Obviously any of you clowns have not seen Grohl play. Buy a computer and check out this talent on Youtube.
Mike Portnoy? Anyone?
“Bonham’s style was just triplets” is like saying Einstein was just good at using a chalk board. Drummers who talk about him admire his amazing touch, which you fail to understand. I’m guessing you are a guitar player or some such frippery. Also, Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.
This was absolutely fascinating, a revelation. I’d love to see more of this, much more.
You’ve got the right perspective. You’re right in that’s it’s cool to hear raw drums tracks. Sometimes they sound so thin you’re amazed at the final product. It’s so cool to hear Bonham’s noisy hi-hat pedal.
great article. The differences are huge. Ringo sucks hard although samuel bs.
How about Matt Cameron?
Couldn’t find any from Soundgarden, but here are two from Pearl Jam:
Where is Pete Thomas?
Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one.
Tim Sullivan, only a moron would believe that made up story that Lennon never said. What he did say was that Ringo was a damn good drummer. John didn’t give out praise lightly.
Shame Ian Paice isn’t in there…
No Pro Tools kids!
Bonham on “No Quarter”.
Moon on “Love Reign O’er Me”.
Bruford while with Yes, and on Chris Squire’s “Lucky Seven”.
Also like Peart, Palmer and Copeland among others.
You are saying that Stewart Copeland is like Keanu to Neil Peart’s Jack Nicholson?
And, I guess in your mind, Jack Nicholson represents a serious actor?
Which goes along with your taste in drumming. Neil Peart couldn’t play a groove to save his life.
Dave Grohl’s timekeeeping was the best of all of them.
Seems you share a similar personality with Ginger Baker
Opps, that’s Paul playing on Back in the USSR and Dear Prudence. Ringo quit the band for a week and Paul filled in.
Llars Ulrich was influential as well because of the massive fame of the band he was in. That did NOT make him even an eladequate drummer. Ringo was a Beatle. He was a lucky man and he knows it. This insistence on trying tk make him a repurable, gasp, revered drummer is rediculous Nd I tire if it.
I love it when tracks are all about feeling. I can play a lot of instruments but I have never tried playing the drums before. Maybe I can give it a try and learn some of these tracks that help you feel more.