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Seventeen top drummers
by Derek K. Miller
When people hear that I'm a drummer—and one who makes a living at it, as long as I wear a wig (as in the photo)—they usually ask me who my favourite other drummers are, or which ones most influenced my playing.
Mine are all rock players, since that's what I do. Oddly enough (or not, given drumming's demographics), all are also men. This list of "greatest rock drummers" from Australia's Triple J radio might also interest you, although it lacks any commentary and inexplicably excludes both Gary Mallaber and "Jabo" Starks (see below).
- Al Jackson Jr. was the session drummer for Stax/Volt Records, and one of Booker T and the MGs, who might be rock 'n' roll's greatest instrumental group. A music writer once called their "Green Onions," from 1962, a "steaming skillet of groove." Jackson's bare-bones playing is a big reason why. He was also the beat behind Sam and Dave, Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign," and dozens of other hip-shakin' hits. "I don't like to break up rhythm," he said. Right on.
- Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, and John Bonham. No one who plays in a sixties cover band, as I do, can avoid the influence of the drummers for the Beatles, the Who, and Led Zeppelin—who also cover the stylistic map. (I should add Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones too, but he's almost too tasteful in this context.)
Ringo was often dismissed as talentless—not least by jazz (and rudeness) legend Buddy Rich—but all you have to do is listen to "Saw Her Standing There" or "Come Together" (or the Beatles with Pete Best on drums before 1963) to know that's not true. Plus he sang (sort of) and was funny, not just the guy in the back nobody knew.
Moon might have been clinically insane. He played like it. No one has duplicated his chaotic style, and even trying can be unsafe. (I speak from experience.) Grab the 1995 extended live CD re-release of the Who's Live at Leeds. Right off the top, Moon is flailing around, playing less with technique than with the pure force of his personality, yet somehow he's elevating the music too. Listen to the instrumental build in "Fortune Teller" on that disc, before the band speeds up the song. Moon is hitting his tom-toms as hard as he can, like a jackhammer. But you can still hear him screaming over top.
Bonham was the most proficient of the trio, but bombast and a huge sound were not what made him great. (That's what so many of his imitators seem not to get.) Instead, Zeppelin singer Robert Plant often praises Bonham's "thrift," which was his genius. On songs like "Kashmir," he plays straight, boomp-thwack-boomp-thwack, and lets the song do its job. Even in strange time signatures, as in "The Ocean" or "Black Dog," he plays very tricky arrangements as if they were the easiest thing in the world. Most rock songs are in 4/4 or maybe 3/4 (waltz) time, but Bonham would play 7/4 or 15/8 time, dropping a beat or doubling it up, as the bare minimum to make it seem normal, even powerful. And nobody tops the drum breakdown before the guitar solo on "Fool in the Rain."
- Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks were the greatest of James Brown's great drummers. Stubblefield created a drum groove so definitive that as his band recorded it, Brown called out, live in the studio, "the name of this tune is the Funky Drummer—the Funky Drummer," repeating for emphasis. And it was. Starks is the stutter-stop heartbeat behind "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine." And that's just one song each. There are albums full.
- Gary Mallaber was (and is) a studio drummer, but I know his work only from Van Morrison's Moondance album and the Steve Miller Band's early '70s recordings. That's enough. His lovely, lazy snare rolls on "Crazy Love," distinctive hi-hat hits on "Take the Money and Run," and hissing China cymbal on "Rock 'n' Me" are key examples of using technique to rock, not to show off.
- Animal from Dr. Teeth's band on the Muppet Show isn't even a real drummer. I mean, he's a muppet. But he was my favourite muppet, in part because he played the drums. He's also probably the most direct protégé of Keith Moon (which reinforces Moon's uniqueness), and the only one who could freak out Buddy Rich in a drum duel. He taught me that drumming could be fun and a way to release my hammy stage tendencies.
- Stewart Copeland made the Police. Sure, Sting wrote the songs and sang, and Andy Summers created a whole new role for rock guitar, but Copeland started and named the band. He made it happen, he built the attitude, he made them pretend to be punks when they were too good as musicians to do it authentically—so they did something else. An no one plays drums like him. Raised in the Middle East, he approaches a normal drum kit in abnormal ways. "Driven to Tears" is typical: he pumps the bass drum in straight time, but his ride cymbal work is almost random, and he hardly uses the snare drum at all for most of the song. Spare, yet complex, and you know it's him in only a few beats.
- Phil Collins—yes, he's actually a drummer—like Copeland's band-mate Sting, has degenerated into adult-contemporary dullness, but around the turn of the '80s, he was a pioneer in showing how live drums, studio effects, and drum machines can work together in new ways. The Genesis song "Mama," from 1983, was also one of the first tracks I air-drummed to, subconsciously trying to figure out how the parts fit together long before I considered trying drums as an instrument. His track for "No Self Control" on Peter Gabriel's third solo album is also ferociously good.
- I didn't even know Clem Burke's name until recently. He played drums with Blondie, most famously (and also with the Eurythmics, the Ramones, the Romantics, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, and Joan Jett), but it's not so much his drumming (which is very good) as his drum kit that influenced me. His tom-toms and cymbals sit low and flat, so he's visible above them, unlike most drummers who are hidden behind a wall of metal and wood. I've taken the same approach in arranging my drums so I can be seen when I'm onstage.
- Larry Mullen Jr.'s playing hasn't influenced mine much, and he's not what makes U2 a distinctive group (even if, like Stewart Copeland in the Police, he started the band), but his introduction to "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was the first thing I ever played on the drums, when I suddenly discovered I could drum on New Year's Eve 1987, at the late age of 18.
- Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil, like Clem Burke, uses a low-down kit so people can see him while he plays and sings, but he was also one of the band's main songwriters, and was a big part of their explosive live shows. (A female veejay on Canada's MuchMusic also once said that he has the "best arms in rock 'n' roll.") His debt to Keith Moon is clear on "Kosciusko" from 1985's Red Sails in the Sunset, but also listen to his drum-machine lockstep from "Power and the Passion," from two years earlier, the organic spookiness of "Feeding Frenzy" from 1993, the entire concert album Scream in Blue Live, or the Bonham-like thrift of "The Dead Heart" from Diesel and Dust. Watch the 20,000 Watt R.S.L. DVD to see him go crazy in concert too.
- Paul Hester of Crowded House showed how important a drummer is to a great band. After he left in 1994—taking his weird humour, subtle brush-style playing on soft songs, and wild abandon on louder ones with him—Neil Finn's ensemble was never the same, and dissolved a couple of years later without releasing any more studio albums. Brushes are unusual in rock drumming, but Hester was a master, especially on "Sister Madly" from 1988's Temple of Low Men and "Four Seasons in One Day" from Woodface in 1991. Oddly, of the drummers on this list who aren't still alive, Hester is the only one who died because of an illness (clinical depression), rather than from an overdose (like Moon and Bonham) or at the hands of an attacker (like Jackson).
- Paul Brennan isn't as well known as the others I've listed so far. He played for Vancouver's Odds, one of my favourite bands, from 1987 until 1995, then for Mae Moore and Big Sugar. A music critic called his playing "four on the floor," which is a perfect description. Songs like the Odds' "Heterosexual Man" and Big Sugar's "Digging a Hole" rock because Brennan made them rock. His tracks beg to be sampled, and I mean that in the best possible way.
- Crash Gordon is even less famous, but he was the best of my drumming contemporaries when I was trying to get famous in the early '90s. (I now aspire to much less.) He played for Vancouver rockabilly roustabouts the Rattled Roosters. Not only was he too cool for the rest of us, with his white tank tops and slicked-back hair, but he's a really, really good drummer (with a lovely custom wood-rim Ayotte kit). My favourite track of his is a hidden instrumental on 1993's Year of the Rooster called "Theme From Bugland." He's right in step with bassist Tony Longlegs in the rockabilly beat, but his jazz-inflected cymbal work also has shades of Stewart Copeland and other less traditional players. He moved to L.A. with the Roosters years ago, and then the outfit folded. I originally wrote here that I was "not sure what he's up to now," but he managed to find this article and e-mail me: he's still in L.A., and still drumming away. He's also not to be confused with the rockabilly band Crash Gordon either.
- Big Sugar has had a rotating roster of musicians, but drummer Al Cross is the only one besides leader Gordie Johnson to be credited (most recently as "King of the Drums") on every album since the first one in 1991. He inspires me not just because of his excellent playing, but because he's a white-haired old man in a young man's game. I'm not there yet, since I'm only 35, but Cross keeps my hopes up. (Of course, now he's gone and retired, and Big Sugar has broken up. Sheesh.)
I'm self-taught on the drums, so I guess those guys showed me how to play. There are, of course, many honourable mentions too, from Kenny Aronoff (of John Mellencamp, John Fogerty, and the Smashing Pumpkins) and Pistol Allen (of Motown's Funk Brothers) to Manu Katche (Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson) and Jim Keltner—just to mention some As and Ks. Meg White of the White Stripes is great, even though (or, more precisely, because) she has almost no technique at all. Some influence me more than others—I play a lot like Ringo (or Meg), but very little like Copeland (or Crash)—but I enjoy hearing them all.
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Page BBEdited on 30-Mar-05 (originally published February 2003)
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