Greatest Rock Drummers

Given the subject line many names come to mind such as  Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, Phil Collins and Carl Palmer but, is Neil Peart the greatest rock drummer of all time?
B0cac651 5a67 4320 a7db b21d82333c14falconquest
No, Earl Palmer is. By the way, Ginger Baker is not a Rock drummer, but a Jazz one.
Ok, I can see Earl Palmer as a contender but I wouldn't lump Cream into the category of jazz......although Baker did play lots of jazz. I guess one would also have to consider Bill Bruford as well.
Saw all on your list but Palmer.
It is a good list but some will find it incomplete....particularly fans of John Bonham.
I would put Ginger Baker up there with the best and fans of Cream, GB's Airforce, and Blind Faith will have no problem with him as a rock drummer although he has more recently played in a jazz quartet.
Keith Moon put on a fantastic show playing with one of the best rock and roll bands ever.
I knew someone many, many years ago -- I'm talking way back in the 1970s -- who said Carl Palmer's drumming reminded her of a too-heavy meal. I laughed then, and I laugh now to remember that very wise comment.
For my money, I'd pick Stuart Copeland. Listen to almost any song he's on -- by The Police or some other band -- focus on the drumming, and be amazed.
One man's opinion, of course.
-- Howard

Ginger has played some Rock music, and played in some Rock bands, but his basic approach to playing drums is that of a Jazz drummer. That’s one element of my "problem" with Cream, and Ginger’s playing in that band; their music was basically blues, but played by non-Blues players, at least Ginger and Jack Bruce. It doesn’t "work", it sounds "wrong". Jazz and Blues are very different musics, opposites in fact. Before Cream, Ginger and Jack were in The Graham Bond Organization together, a Trad Jazz band in London. Prior to Cream, Ginger had never played Rock music, or in a Rock band. His drumming models are Art Blakely and Elvin Jones, pure Jazz players.

Steve Jordan (the drummer Keith Richards chose for his "Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll" Chuck Berry documentary movie band), in his testimonial to the brilliance of Band drummer Levon Helm, described Levon’s approach to playing drums as that of a Blues player, and I agree. The fact that Levon played Rock ’n’ Roll in a R & R band does not change that fact.

Interviewer: "Could you play in the Buddy Rich Big Band?"

Keith Moon: "No, and Buddy Rich couldn’t play in The Who."

"It is a good list but some will find it incomplete....particularly fans of John Bonham."

I knew when I typed the post that I left out Bonzo but then I would have to mention Mickey Hart. I felt bad about that but one has to draw the line somewhere. I still think Neil Peart is among the best due to technical ability and creativity.
I agree the Neil Pert is probably at the top, but I want to add Nick Mason, the late Jeff Pocaro was awesome too. Carl Palmer is also at the top of this list as mentioned as is Ginger Baker, Stuart Copeland, Bill Bruford, Michael Shrieve...the list goes on. Really hard to pick one as the end all be all. Going back a number of years some of the studio drummers were good as well, Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon did a lot great work that wasn't really acknowledged.
That's ridiculous drumming in that youtube clip.
The best jazzrock drummer is Billy Cobham. No rock drummer I ever heard comes close.

Another fact: Though Earl Palmer was a New Orleans Jazz drummer, and at the end of his life was playing in a Jazz trio at Chadneys Steak House in Burbank, CA (where I and the bass player of Los Straitjackets---himself a drummer and huge Earl Palmer fan---went to watch and listen to him), he is credited with actually inventing Rock ’n’ Roll drumming.

There is a thread on Steve Hoffman’s Forum where people offer their opinion on Earl, and there you can find an incredible list of the recordings on which he played. Far and away the "best" drummer to ever play Rock ’n’ Roll. Not just technically, but in terms of great song parts, excitement, creativity, and a sense of musical humour that tops even that of Keith Moon!

No offense ya’ll, but most of your nominees are dreadfully boring, with not a hint of musical wit (Neil Peart, in particular. His playing is SO corny.). Just my opinion, of course.
I love Steve Jordan. Great feel and groove. I would say there is no greatest. They all contributed something. Neil Pearl is a master technically but not so much gifted with feel.

If I was forced to choose then my top pick would be John Bonham. Anyone who plays rock will have been influenced by him and most drummers study him.

Chad Smith is amazing too - just keeps a tight groove with great hi-hat work and solid kick. Could be the perfect rock drummer as he is so solid.

After the death of Buddy Rich, Neil Peart organized the recording of a tribute album to Buddy. Unfortunately for him, Neil exposed to the drumming world his total inability to play a shuffle, a complete lack of sense of swing. His playing on that album became the butt of a lot of jokes amongst drummers. How embarrassing! Earl Palmer had an absolutely incredible ability to swing, legendary amongst drummers.
How about drummer B.J.Wilson of the Brit band Procul Harum? Check out his work on "Shine On Brightly" and "A Salty Dog".
There are different types of drummers who can be called the best. There are the technically skilled like Peart, who never really get into a groove, and then there are the rhythmic drummers who have "feel." Just listen to Clyde Stubblefield, now that’s a drummer who was "in the groove."
I love Bonzo, his polyphonic rhythms have been compared to counterpoint in classical music. I also love Bruford, another original, plus Billy Cobham, Carl Palmer, Copeland, and Keith Moon. Keith, btw, couldn’t keep a beat in the studio.
There’s a little-known drummer, except in drumming circles, called Budgie from Siouxsie & the Banshees. Exceptionally rhythmic, influenced by African and Japanese drummers. DW ranks him among the best.

Ringo Starr had a unique ability to add something different and interesting to each song.
Bdp24 - I completely agree with you about Baker. Curious what your take is on Mitch Mitchell, to my ears his work with The Jimi Hendrix Experience has a similar 'problem' as you've described with Baker and Cream.
You guys crack me up with these "best in class" threads. Without the variety and talents of so many, many, great drummers, we wouldn’t even be having such a discussion.

To me, if the drumming serves the song as well as the rest of the band, it is "best" for that context. When it comes to art, "best" is an oxymoron.

You are of course right, Steve. Ringo was the best drummer for The Beatles, Keith Moon the best for The Who (though Zak Starkey, Ringo’s kid, is doing a fantastic job in The Who now. I saw Keith with The Who live twice, and he was a possessed madman. I mean that literally).

But seriously, take a look at Earl Palmer’s recording credits on the thread about him on the Steve Hoffman Forum. Astounding! If ANYONE can be called the best, it is he.

All the drummers mentioned here have their own, identifiable style, which is the important thing. It is said Buddy Rich thought John Bonham's technique was vastly over-rated, and did a spot-on imitation of him. But Bonham was a very influential drummer, THE most so of our era---the Gene Krupa of Rock.

But the talent of the musicians gets you only so far; if they are playing "right", they are serving the music first and foremost. If The Beatles songs hadn’t been so good, who would care about Ringo? The song is the same as the script is to a movie; sure, you need good actors to bring it to life, but without a good script you got nothin’. Forget good musician’s, give me good songs!

Any list regarding "great drummers" needs to include Steve Ferrone.
Jazz and Blues are very different musics, opposites in fact.

I can't believe you wrote that.
Ha, I wondered if that would rankle anyone! Yes, I am well aware that opinion flies in the face of the commonly accepted wisdom, with which I obviously disagree. I could explain, but one either gets it or one doesn’t ;-).
I saw Carl Palmer perform live 2 weeks ago, and he is simply amazing. All of the power and precision he is known for is still there. He is trying to get together a more complete band. Presently he has only a young guitarist and a young bassist. He desperately needs a singer and a keyboard player. When he gets that, it will be a first class band.  
Say what you want and name all the names, but in the end,I think we would mostly agree that #1 is Jon Bonham for rock and #1 is Billy Cobham for jazz. These are truly the two best of the best of the best.

Matt M
Well Matt, here we go again making music into a contest. Can't we say that there are many great talents, each with a different style? You love Jon Bonham for example, and I think that he was a perfect fit for Led Zeppelin, but he'd be a terrible fit for a band that needed a drummer who was lighter on his feet. So, even within the rock genre, there are so many great players, each "great" in a different way. 
Oh yeah Jazz and Blues (Rock/folk) require a different mindset. It is hard to switch from Snare and Bass (Blues back beat) to Ride and Hi-hat (jazz). Jazz is all about swing and comping. They both however focus on the One. 

Reggae is the mind bender - the one-drop is quite off putting....

And Latin/Cuban clave beats with a clave on the left foot like Horacio Hernandez - that takes years of practice.
Check out this version of Walking on the Moon done in jazz swing rather than one drop reggae!

Rhythm is everything! A great vocalist without rhythm is not a musician. Frank Sinatra didn’t have such a great voice but he understood rhythm and phrasing as well as any of the best drummers.


Sting may be unpleasant and arrogant but he sure has oodles of talent!
Jack Ryan is a great upcoming drummer from SC. 
I’m sorry shadorne, but that just doesn’t work.
 Timing is EVERYTHING!

Not just drummers need good time. Ask any recording engineer about guitarists doing overdubs; many "rush", not laying back and waiting for the groove, so hot to play their solo that they jump out ahead of the rhythm section. I’ve seen it time and time again in the studio.

Bluegrass musicians have the best sense of time I’ve seen or heard. Since they all create the groove---Bluegrass bands don’t have drummers---they really lock together. Some of the best music being made today, imo, is Bluegrass. Great songs, great singing, great musicianship, and no over-playing drummer to have to rein in!

I was out on a little cruise this afternoon on the Willamette River in Portland, and there just happened to be a Led Zeppelin tribute band (tribute bands are huge up here in the Northwest) playing in the lounge. Watching and listening to the band’s drummer (who was pretty darn good), I was reminded of what I so dislike about Bonham---his playing was so "literal", so un-poetic. It didn’t have any elegance, any grace. Almost rude! His bass drum triplets (one of the tricks he is known for) were played just to show he could do it, not to serve any higher purpose; they didn’t have anything to do with what anyone else was playing or singing, or to the song itself (of course, Led Zeppelin didn’t have much in the way of songs anyway). That’s the lack of musicality I’m always talking about.

To hear what musicality in a Rock ’n’ Roll drummer sounds like, listen to Earl Palmer, Jim Gordon, Levon Helm, and Roger Hawkins. The masters! Three out of four were studio musicians, one the drummer in the best band Rock ’n’ Roll has so far produced.

When I listen to the classic Chess recordings and other electric blues from that period the drummers are doing more than just a snare/bass backbeat.  There's a real swing to their playing.
What made John Bonham and LZ different from other bands was that they did not use the traditional rhythm section. Bonzo played with Page, not with JP Jones. Listen to Page’s rhythm and lead, and the drums are playing along with those rhythms. Jones provided a virtuoso-like back beat and very often played keyboards and bass pedals, he was not following the drums.

Was Bonham often heavy-handed? Oftentimes, the answer is yes, but so was Page. And the bass triplets were less about showing his prowess, it’s part of what gave them a sound that no other rock band had. His bass/floor tom rhythms and fills come from the basic rudiments of drumming. He was a drummer who was out in front, which was decidedly the sound they were going for. To a drummer, I agree it could be called a lack of finesse, but IMO, it worked.

bdp24, The drummers you mentioned were masterful, and played wonderfully for what the music required. That’s why I stated early that there are different types of drummers and the music determines what is needed.
Now, Neil Peart is a drummer who is showing off his technical prowess. Luckily, he’s in a band that allows for that style of drumming. When I first heard him, I thought he must be the greatest drummer in the world. But after a few songs and seeing Rush live, he was just way too much.

I wish you could have seen the tribute band Rat Race Choir, here on the east coast. Their drummer, Steve Luongo was so skilled and polished, he played Bonzo exactly but with finesse. In fact, he may have been even better than Bonham. I always wanted to study with him, but he had a limited number of students.

+1 Led Zepelin really grooved because Page is a fantastic rhythm guitarist and the drumming accented the guitar. However Bonham often alternates between bass and rhythm guitar as you go from verse to chorus and this is really innovative. Most drummers will stick to bass or rhythm guitar and lay down a continuous groove with the odd fill thrown in but NOT alternate (often radically) between both. This is what makes LZ so interesting and refreshing whereas as most rock/pop/blues gets repetive after 2 minutes. Chad Smith applies this technique too.

Ramble On is a simple but good example.

As for fills, Bonham had tremendous swing and triplet feel - he often leaves you in suspense on a fill that starts off in 1/8 note groove and then ends with a gap of 2/24 followed by an accent on a "let" and finally in a flourish of 1/24 note triplets and then goes perfectly back on the one. His drumming feels like it is always just about to fall apart - lurching here and there but then he nails the One and you are back in the groove.

Was he a show off. For sure. Apart from John Paul Jones LZ were all extravagant show offs and it was fun and enormously entertaining and still is to this day!

RHCP are the same - enormously talented over the top entertainers. Chad Smith hits so damn hard but still grooves as good as any New Orleans cat!

Perhaps a lot more music would be like his if lead guitarists weren't so controlling of drummers and demanding they take a back seat!!!!! 

Kudos to Page for allowing Bonham to simply go for it! 

Kudos to RHCP for allowing Chad to have a significant role in their sound.
Check out two drumming styles - same song

What a huge huge difference a drummer can make!

Which version really swings and makes you tap your foot or move?
I like that upfront, on-top-of-the-beat drumming. Hate that it's used in a movie soundtrack.
This vid helps breakdown Bonham's approach with LZ, good explanation starting at 3:45 ....
I think this guy is one the best drummers in the business. JR Robinson.

And this guy- Dave Weckl-a customer- and hugely respected in studio circles. I love the way he plays this one.... vibe:

All great comments. As always, taste is personal. For instance, I love Bonham's snare sound (a 6.5" deep metal Ludwig shell), but hate Chad's (that high-pitched wood piccolo sound).

What constitutes over-playing is a matter of opinion. The tale I have told before bears repeating. Master guitarist Danny Gatton, after a few songs into the first gig with his new drummer, had the following exchange with him:

Danny: "You know that fancy stuff you're playing?"

drummer: "Yeah."

Danny: "Don't."

Bonham's playing absolutely works in Led Zeppelin, the same way Keith Moon's does in The Who. Neither could have played on the Aretha Franklin recordings Jerry Wexler produced in Muscle Shoals, which feature the great Roger Hawkins on drums. And Roger's playing would not be appropriate in Zeppelin or The Who. It worked awfully well in late Traffic, though. Horses for courses.

One more thing: Taste, economy, and lack of over-playing need not restrict a drummer to playing nothing more than keeping time, playing only the 2/4 backbeat and four-on-the-floor bass drum patterns. Do yourself a favor and listen to Levon Helm's playing on the first Band album, and his and Band pianist Richard Manuel's (he's a very creative, really inventive and interesting drummer) playing on the second. And for really wild, off-the-wall playing, Earl Palmer on the many early Rock 'n' Roll recordings he played on---Little Richard, for instance. He swung like mad, and had chops to die for. NOBODY played like Earl!

And one last one, Simon Phillips with Hiromi, recorded by some friends over at 5/4
John Bonham's part in "Rock and Roll" is a direct cop of Earl Palmer's in Little Richard's "Keep-A-Knockin'". A comparison of the two will display why Bonham sounds so flat-footed, so leaden, to me. Earl's part absolutely bristles with kinetic energy and forward momentum. Bonham's sounds slow, almost like he's running to keep up with the music. It sounds labored and contrived, in contrast to Earl's spontaneous, creative playing. A world of difference. Perhaps it's the difference between Rock 'n' Roll (Earl, of course) and Rock (Bonham).
Wow, Hiromi is like Eddie Van Halen style but on the piano! What incredible talent. I would tend to classify this outside of Rock Drumming genre as is that insane demo from the genius Dave Weckl.

Tony Williams
Ginger Baker
Elvin Jones
Charlie Watts
Clive Bunker
Thelonius Monk (if he'd chosen to play drums)
Some good responses, but a whole lotta nonsense, too. I'm a drummer who has played rock, blues and jazz with some of the greats in each field, as well as being a published music critic and owning 60,000+ titles in my music library. Harrumph. Blues and jazz are not opposites, as one (who is probably not a drummer) mentioned. First, jazz evolved from blues. And if you can't play a blues, you really can't play jazz. Many of the greatest blues drummers (i.e. Fred Below, Francis Clay) started out as jazz drummers. As far as greatest rock drummers, yes, Ginger, Moon and Bonham qualify. Earl Palmer no question (though he was more R&B, nonetheless a brilliant player). But the list must include Charlie Watts, Mick Avory, Ringo, Jim Gordon, Clive Bunker, Buddy Miles, Jon Hiseman, Ian Paice, Mitch Mitchell, Pip Pyle, Michael Shrieve, Bruford, Scott Asheton, Robert Wyatt, Boz, Michael Giles -- and others, though Neil Peart doesn't make it. Someone mentioned Cobham as the best jazz drummer. No. Not even in the top 50. For jazz, that's Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jo Jones, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Joe Chambers, Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Cyrille, Sunny Murray, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Frank Butler, Pete LaRoca -- and Rich, Krupa are in there somewhere, as is Bellson.
I love this guy. Distinctive style. Rock steady and plays with such force but totally relaxed and lightening quick. This video shows he is extremely talented. Extremely precise playing. Everything is very clean.
Bobby Graham! RIP (1940-2009).

This powerhouse drummer provided the backbeat to those amazing early Kinks hits - You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night, I Gotta Move. Such authority, and such minimal fills - no stupid show off crap.
John Bonham's part in "Rock and Roll" is a direct cop of Earl Palmer's in Little Richard's "Keep-A-Knockin'"
Wow, that is a keen observation. But IMO, its probably a homage to that intro and Earl Palmer. After all, the song is called "Rock and Roll."

einmensch, your comment really puts this subject into perspective. And right on with your list of great jazz drummers.

Funny how these lists of great rock drummers always turns into a list of jazz drummers. But that is the natural progression in music, drummers like Simon Philips and Bill Bruford have released jazz albums. (Just to name a few).

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Steve Gadd; he can do it all.

Carl Palmer was so far ahead of his time but then again so was ELP!!!
Carter Beauford....Nobody else can do what he does.   And I've seen a lot of bands.  Palmer is pretty far up on the list as well.

BTW, seems that Audiogon should arrange for discounts with AARP now that I think about it....
Lots of great artists here, not to dismiss any; and I get it that some may
argue that Little Feat was not a rock band, but my guy is/was Richie 
Hayward; may he rest in peace. 
Ian Paice of Deep Purple, Ginger Baker for his jazz flavored rock style. Travis Barker of Blink 182. Keith Moon, although the Who said he was great playing Who songs, but could not play anything else, I love his fills and rythm .
Of course Neil Peart.