There is a certain pointless quality to doing any kind of “Greatest” list, no matter what the subject matter is. There are so many factors that come into play, not the least of which are the personal preferences and tastes of the person reading the list, that it is almost an impossible task.
It’s always pretty easy to find the top five in any category, for example in basketball; Jordan, Magic, Bird, Abdul-Jabbar, and Chamberlin. But then it gets very tricky.
With that in mind I have come up with my own list. In this highly unscientific and biased list I used five criteria.
Drumming Ability: This may seem obvious, but I am not talking only technique here. The ability to do a one-handed triple flam is not what I am looking for, but instead playing in a unique and skilled way that enhances the music but never overshadows it.
Visibility: There is probably a guy in a cave somewhere in remote Afghanistan who has the best chops and grooves in the history of drumming. But if nobody or relatively few people know of him, he doesn’t get on the list.
Influence: This simply comes down to how many drummers, pro or amateur picked up the sticks because of their work.
Legacy: Different than influence in that not specifically motivating people to start drumming, but once discovered, their work changed the way people played and left an imprint on styles and genres of music going forward.
My Personal Opinion: It’s my list, so there!
In order to be on the list you have had to have at least an impact in three of the five categories above. For example, Ringo Starr may have had more visibility and influence than any drummer ever, but he is completely lacking in drumming ability, legacy, and my personal opinion, so he doesn’t make the list.
Lastly I tried to keep it to one main drummer per style and they are listed in no particular order.
(Note: After each drummer I have put in links to their performances).
John Bonham – Probably no drummer had more power, but Bonzo also had a very soft touch when needed, and had an amazingly “funky” right foot for a hard rock drummer (check out the triplets on “Good Times, Bad Times”). There could not have been a Led Zepplin without Bonham. High scores in all five categories. See Bonham here and here.
Neil Peart – Peart is master of complex times signatures with an exacting technique that never gets in the way of the unique feel of a Rush song. On par with Bonham in terms of influencing generations of drummers. High scores in all five categories. See Neil here and here.
Steve Gadd – You can ask almost any professional drummer to name his favorite drummers and Gadd will be on the list. Incredible technique with an otherworldly feel. A studio ace with a list of credits that goes on for days. Check out his work on Paul Simon’s “50 Way to Leave Your Lover” and “Late in the Evening” and then try not to throw your drum set out. Lacking in visibility and influence. See Steve here and here.
David Garibaldi – Tower of Power is one of the most sampled groups out there, largely due to the inspired drumming by Garibaldi. The most complex use of all four limbs makes his sound intricate but always smooth, funky, and right in the pocket. Visibility is the only category lacking. See David here and here.
Buddy Rich – It was a tough one between Buddy and Gene Krupa. I think in all honesty Krupa could “swing” better than Buddy, but Buddy’s technique was out of this world, and only got better as he got older. First guy to really raise the visibility of the drummer, culminating in The Buddy Rich Orchestra. High scores in all five categories. See Buddy here and here.
Zigaboo Modeliste – Okay, I know I will get in trouble with many here. The Meters original drummer mixed zydeco, funk, and New Orleans second line drumming into a style that is uniquely his own. His beats are highly sampled in rap and hip hop, and the “Godfather of Groove” has influenced drummers from Copeland to Questlove. No visibility and lacking in influence. See Zigaboo here and here.
Lars Ulrich – Seems a bit cliché’ but Lars fits the bill on all accounts. His approach to drumming changed the way metal drummers approached their kits. High scores in all five categories. See Lars here and here.
Mitch Mitchell – Hendrix first drummer took jazz technique and rammed it right onto rock music. Laying back on the beat as Jimi pushed it, made The Jimi Hendrix Trio sound a “game changer”. Lacking only on influence. See Mitch here and here.
Stewart Copeland – Copeland was able to bring reggae beats into punk rock and new wave in a way that both accented and drove the music. His high-hat work is some of the greatest ever done. Redefined what “rock” drummer could be. High scores in all five categories. See Stewart here and here.
Charlie Watts – Certainly Moon and Starr have the same influence and visibility, but Watts has the “feel” that neither one of them could match. His high hat lift technique was so unique it was copied by Levon Helm and Jim Keltner. A multi-threat at rock, blues, jazz, and big band drumming puts him one the list. High scores in all five categories. See Charlie here and here.