In Appreciation of the Drummer

My top 10 favorite rock drummers, from Baker to Watts

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I learned the guitar and also used to be a bass player. The first additional instrument I’d pick up if I had the time would be the drums – and, yes, also after soundproofing a room in my basement!

I’ve always been fascinated with the drums. I have a fairly good feel for rhythm and might actually be good at it – at least that’s what I’m telling myself! Since the drums and the bass form the core rhythm section of a rock band, I also think it would make sense for me to learn the drums next.

But this post is not about my crazy drumming dreams. It’s about professional drummers who are masters of their craft. More specifically, it’s about drummers playing rock, blues, soul and pop, which are the genres I’m most familiar with. Undoubtedly, there must be incredible jazz drummers out there, but since I essentially don’t know jazz, I’m purposely leaving them out.

Here are some of the drummers I find pretty cool, in alphabetical order.

Ginger Baker

Best known as the founder of power rock trio Cream, Ginger Baker is widely considered to be one of the most influential rock drummers and a pioneer in jazz fusion, heavy metal and world music. Born Peter Edward Baker, he began playing the drums at the age of 15. He met bassist Jack Bruce and infamously started clashing with him for much of the time ever since when he joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Despite their clashes, Baker and Bruce continued playing together in the Graham Bond Organization and, of course, in Cream, which they co-founded with Eric Clapton in 1966. After briefly playing with Clapton in Blind Faith and heading his own band Ginger Baker’s Air Force, Baker lived and recorded for several years in Africa. In the mid-70s, he co-headed the Baker Gurvitz Army, a hard rock band. He has also recorded 18 solo albums throughout his career, starting in the early 1970s, and collaborated with various other artists, including Gary Moore. Here is a clip of Cream instrumental Toad from one of the band’s 2011 reunion shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall, featuring an extended drum solo.

Cindy Blackman

The inclusion of Cindy Blackman in my list is solely based on the fact that she is a kick-ass drummer. That being said, how many high-profile non-white female drummers do you know? When I saw a clip of Blackman sometime ago, playing live with Lenny Kravitz, I was truly blown away by her furious drumming. Before becoming part of his live band in 1993, Blackman had focused on jazz. She returned to her roots when she left Kravitz’s touring band in 2004. Blackman joined forces with Kravitz again in 2014 to support the tour for his 10th studio album Strut. In 2010, she got involved with another well-known guitarist, Carlos Santana, and got married to him in December that year. Currently, Blackman, now Cindy Blackman Santana, is part of his touring band and also appears on Power of Peace, Santana’s just-released collaboration album with The Isley Brothers. Here is an awesome clip of Blackman’s live days with Kravitz. The entire band is absolutely killing it.

John Bonham

Modern Drummer magazine and others have called John Bonham the best rock drummer of all time. He is also no. 1 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time list. While I’m not sure it’s possible to determine the best drummer, I think Bonham’s drumming on Stairway to Heaven is one of the coolest drum parts in rock music I know. According to Wikipedia, Bonham was self-taught and began playing when he was five years old, using containers and coffee tins. He would imitate his idols Max Roach, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. At the age of 15, he received his first drum set and started playing in bands only a couple of years thereafter. In 1966, Bonham met Robert Plant when joining a blues group called Crawling King Snakes. When Plant formed Band of Joy in 1967, he chose Bonham as the drummer. After the breakup of the Yardbirds in 1968, guitarist Jimmy Page was putting together another band and recruited Plant who brought in Bonham. Bassist and keyboarder John Paul Jones completed the line-up of the band that soon thereafter became Led Zeppelin. After Bonham’s untimely death in September 1980 at age 32, the band decided to disband. Here is a clip of Stairway to Heaven from 1975.

Sheila E.

Born Sheila Escovedo, Mexican-American percussionist, drummer, singer, author and actress Sheila E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family since her early childhood. Since the late 60s, her father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente. Already at the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George Duke, Marvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince and worked with him until 1989. Meanwhile, she also launched her own solo career in 1984 with her debut album The Glamorous Life. E. reunited with Prince several times and also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006. Her most recent release in June 2016 was Girl Meets Boy, a song in honor of Prince. Here is a clip of E. showcasing her drum skills during and appearance on David Letterman in 2011.

Al Jackson Jr.

As a founding member of Stax Records‘ session band Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Al Jackson Jr. performed on countless classics produced by the legendary soul, blues and jazz label, such as Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Albert King. He was known as “The Human Timekeeper” for his drumming ability. Jackson started playing the drums at an early age and began performing in his father’s jazz dance band when he was just five years old. Later, he played in the band of trumpeter Willie Mitchell, where he met Booker T. Jones who convinced him to come to Stax. Booker T. & M.G.’s were formed in 1962. In addition to backing up the label’s artists in the studio and working on Booker T. & the M.G.’s own music, Jackson co-wrote many Stax hits, such as Otis Redding’s Respect and Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. Additionally, he worked as a session drummer outside of Stax with artists, such as Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Bill Withers. On October 1, 1975, Jackson was shot to death by a home intruder. He was only 39 years old. Jackson was inducted in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2015 and ranked No. 9 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time. Sam Moore of Sam & Dave had this to say about Jackson: “I put him in the same bag with Ray Charles or Billy Preston, in a class all his own.” Following is a cool clip of Sam & Dave’s Hold On I’m Coming, featuring Jackson as part of Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

Keith Moon

I think it’s safe to say there is no other drummer like Keith Moon and perhaps never will be. According to Drum! magazine, “His drumming style was tribal, primitive, and impulsive, with him often stomping the bass drums and pounding his wall of toms like a madman. Yet his drumming was often surprising and always made an impression.” I think the following quote in Rolling Stone from Ahmir Khalib Thompson, aka Questlove – the drummer and joint frontman of The Roots, sums it up nicely: “Often drummers are supposed to be the line on the paper where you write the sentence, but Keith Moon is the exclamation point.” Perhaps no other tune by The Who illustrates Moon’s raw energy better than My Generation – and Pete Townshend’s! Here’s an awesome clip.

Ian Paice

Ian Paice is best known as the drummer of Deep Purple. In fact, he is the only member of the band who played on each of their albums. After Deep Purple disbanded in 1976, Paice formed a supergroup called Paice Ashton Lord. From August 1979 to January 1982, he played in Whitesnake and then in Gary Moore’s band. In April 1984, he rejoined Deep Purple and remains with the band to this day. Pictures Of Home from 1972’s Machine Head album features on of my favorite Paice drum parts. It also happens to include a terrific bass solo by Roger Glover.

Jeff Porcaro

In addition to being the drummer of Toto from the band’s inception in 1977 until his death in 1992, Jeff Porcaro was one of the most sought-after session drummers. Pocaro took up the drums when he was seven years old. He received lessons from his father Joe Porcaro, a jazz drummer, and later from Robert Zimmitti and Richie Lepore. At 17, Porcaro got his first professional engagement with Sonny & Cher’s touring band. He has also collaborated with numerous other artists, such as Paul McCartney, Dire Straits, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson and Elton John, to name a few. Porcaro died from a heart attack at age 38 in August 1992. Here is a 1982 clip of Toto performing Rosanna, one of their biggest hits. It features Porcaro’s so-called “half-time shuffle groove,” a beat he explained to Drum! magazine he created by combining Bernard Purdie’s shuffle on Steely Dan songs Babylon Sister and Home Alone with John Bonham’s groove on Fool In the Rain.

Ringo Starr

While Ringo Starr may not be the first who comes to mind when thinking about The Beatles and got less attention than some of his ’60s compatriots like Keith Moon or the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Mitch Mitchell, he has received accolades from may other drummers. Prior to joining The Beatles in 1962, Starr had played in Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, which had become one of Liverpool’s leading bands in early 1960. After the break-up of The Beatles in early 1970, Starr launched a solo career, which to date has included 18 studio albums. In 1989, he put together a live rock supergroup called The All-Starr Band, which has since consistently toured with various line-ups. Starr’s 19th solo album Give More Love is scheduled for September 15 and will be supported with a tour by the All-Starr Band starting in October. In 2015, Starr became the last Beatle to be included as a solo artist in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He is ranked no. 14 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time. The accompanying write-up quotes Dave Grohl who said, “Ringo was the king of feel.”  In Modern Drummer, Jim Keltner called Ringo “the epitome of a feel-good drummer, with just the right amount of chops needed!” According to Wikipedia, Journey’s Steve Smith said, “His parts are so signature to the songs that you can listen to a Ringo drum part without the rest of the music and still identify the song.” A drum part frequently mentioned by other drummers is A Day In the Life from the Sgt. Pepper album. Here’s a clip.

Charlie Watts

Charlie Watts received his first drum set from his parents in 1955 at the age of 14. At the time, he was into jazz and practiced the drums listing to jazz records. In the late 50s, he joined a local jazz band, together with his neighbor and friend Dave Green, who went on to become a jazz bass player. In 1961, Alexis Korner invited Watts to join his band Blues Incorporated. Watts met Brian Jones, Ian “Stu” Stewart, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards the following year. But it wasn’t until January 1963 that he agreed to join The Rolling Stones. In addition to recording music with the Stones ever since, Watts has also released various jazz albums since the 80s. According to Rolling Stone, drum compatriot Jim Keltner told Drum! magazine, “Charlie can rush like mad and still make it feel great. That’s his style…He can’t explain it and I don’t necessarily like going into too much detail with him about it. I just marvel at it.” Here’s a cool clip of Get Off My Cloud, captured in 2012 from the Stones’ 50th anniversary show.

Sources: Wikipedia, Modern Drummer, Rolling Stone, Modern Drummer, Drum!, Sheila E. website, YouTube

6 thoughts on “In Appreciation of the Drummer”

  1. A couple of things. One is that Stewart Copeland of the Police is definitely on my top ten list of drummers. (Assuming I even have one.) He just has massive taste and feel. Listen to anything by him. “Murder by Numbers” is a good example. (I speak with zero knowledge of how to drum so it’s just my uninformed opinion.) The second thing is that by the merest coincidence, I happened to watch a YouTube video on what made Bonzo so great. It’s somewhat technical and doesn’t even mention Stairway. But I think you’ll appreciate it.

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    1. Putting together this list was a bit tricky. I wanted to keep it to ten. I agree Stewart Copeland is a really cool drummer; in fact, initially, I wanted to include him, as well as Mitch Mitchell. At the same time, I didn’t want to have white males only but a more diverse list.

      Cindy Blackman and Sheila E. are not alibi females but truly kick-ass drummers, in my opinion. The same applies to Al Jackson Jr.

      Thanks for the clip, which is awesome. If I would ever pick up the drums, I would try to learn Stairway and other Bonham parts. I know, it’s probably naive to think I could ever master these parts!

      In Stairway, I like the way the drums are first coming in and also Bonham’s work on the snare and hi-hats. While I’m not a drum expert either, I’m just blown away with the stuff he played.

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      1. I really enjoyed stuff on the video like the ‘Bonham triplets.’ He didn’t invent that stuff but brought it from jazz to rock. There are entire videos on that and I watched part of another one where the guy did 10 different trademark Bonham drum patterns. I found it fascinating because to me it all just sounds like drumming. I don’t play drums so I totally miss the nuance, not to mention the difficulty. At least with guitar the only thing I have to do with my foot is tap it in time.

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      1. Ginger is not a pretend bad guy. He is a real deal bad ass. They were great together (on stage). Along with some of those drummers that you featured, two that always come to mind for me are Bruford and Cobham (more Jazz i guess). Every time I think of another one a new one jumps into my head

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