17 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Drummers Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant

Because of their unique sound, drums are one of the most interesting instruments out there. With drums, musicians can enhance the beat of a song and help provide harmony.

Drummers are also not limited to a specific genre. From jazz to rock to classical music, they add a special touch of their own depending on the beats they express.

In this post, let’s take a look at 17 of the greatest and most famous drummers of all time who have added so much to the music scene with their work. Let’s get started.

1. Gene Krupa

Born in 1909, we have first up jazz drummer Gene Krupa. The man peaked in his career during the 1920s and ’30s, along with another drumming legend, Buddy Rich. In fact, the two often had quite the drumming showdown during the time.

Krupa was also a great soloist. Among the many songs he drummed in, Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” is undoubtedly the best and most well-known.

However, his technique and showmanship aren’t the only things Krupa is famed for. In fact, modern drums and cymbals might not be what it is today if it weren’t for him.

Collaborating with Zildjian cymbal and Slingerland drum manufacturers, Krupa helped develop tom-toms and modern hi-hats and standardized the use of the crash, splash, and ride cymbals.

2. Max Roach

Born in 1924 in North Carolina, drummer Maxwell Lemuel Roach was one of the first drummers to play the jazz-inspired style known as bebop.

He trained classic percussion for a time at the Manhattan School of Music before co-founding a record company and performing with big-name musicians and singers at the time, like Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington.

Notable of Roach’s innovations as a drummer is the playing of the 4/4 time on the ride cymbal rather than the bass drum. This concept is common now but utterly revolutionary during Roach’s time.

If you want to listen to Roach’s style, we recommend listening to some of the albums he recorded, like Max Roach + 4, Jazz in 3/4 Time, and Money Jungle.

3. John Bonham

If you love the fast, powerful beats of Led Zeppelin, then you most likely love the man behind the drums: John Bonham. Born in 1948, the English drummer was influenced by the above-mentioned Max Roach and brought his drumming skills to Led Zeppelin in 1968.

In fact, Bonham’s drumming is considered legendary. He ranked at the very top of Classic Rock‘s 50 Greatest Drummers in Rock in 2005. His style influenced many of the great drummers who followed him, like Dave Grohl and Tommy Lee.

Unfortunately, Bonham’s career was cut short when he passed away in 1980. His legacy lives on, however, and should you wish to listen to songs that perfectly express his skills as a drummer, try his “When the Levee Breaks” and “Good Times, Bad Times” with Led Zeppelin.

4. Buddy Rich

Let’s go back to classic jazz sounds with Buddy Rich, who was highly esteemed in the genre with his drumming skills. From Brooklyn, New York, Rich was already talented at the drums at the young age of two, and he only continued to improve his skill as he grew older.

After a short stint in the US Marines, Rich started his own big band, sometimes known as the Big Band Machine. Here he rose to fame, earning the reputation as the fastest drummer of the time—in fact, some still believe he is to this day.

Check out his unique techniques by listening to these recommended albums, A Different Drummer and Lionel Hampton Presents Buddy Rich, as well as his solo in “Caravan.”

5. Keith Moon

The unconventional style of English drummer Keith Moon would land him the second spot on Rolling Stone‘s greatest drummer list, following John Bonham. He was one of the greatest strengths of the English rock band the Who.

Moon’s drum kit is considered the biggest in all of rock, sometimes having as many as ten toms, six cymbals, and even a gong. Not only that, he didn’t play across the set but rather forward, which often frustrated his teammates.

Moon, unfortunately, had a destructive side to him. Often, while on stage performing, he’d destroy his drum set. Off stage, he also had a destructive lifestyle, which led to an untimely death in 1978.

Still, his legacy helped him become a celebrated drummer. Give Keith Moon a listen. The best albums for this are the Who’s My Generation and Tommy.

6. Neil Peart

Known as the Professor to fans, we have rock band Rush’s lyricist and drummer extraordinaire, Neil Peart. His meticulously precise drumming gained him worldwide fame as one of the greats in the drumming scene.

His distinctive solos are also well-known. During these performances, Peart often used exotic percussion instruments to up the sound, and the complex arrangements he beats are like none other.

One of Peart’s most notable performances that you should check out is during the 1984 Grace Under Pressure tour. The drummer used a rotating 360-degree drum kit! He wowed the crowd by playing different sections of the kit while performing.

7. Alex Van Halen

It seems as if the Van Halen family of the California rock band named after them is full of greats. Eddie is a legendary guitarist, and Wolfgang is too. Alex, as you might have already surmised, is the iconic drummer.

Surprisingly, when they were younger, it was actually Eddie who played the drums and Alex on the guitar; however, Alex often practiced more on the set and eventually surpassed Eddie in skill and technique.

Now, Alex’s devotion to the instrument and in performances is undeniable. He has even played on stage with a broken hand!

Alex was inspired by early jazz drummer legends like Buddy Rich, and you can hear this exceptionally in “Hot for Teacher” and “Finish What You Start.”

8. Ginger Baker

Our next drummer had a unique blend of sound that made him iconic. Ginger Baker was known to fuse world music, jazz, and African rhythms—yes, you read that right—into his works, and fans loved it.

Aside from this, Baker was one of the first drummers in rock history to use double bass drums rather than the conventional ones, and he is credited for standardizing the drum solo in rock music—the song that led to this title is the instrumental single “Toad,” by Cream.

Iconic musicians are acknowledged as such, and being inducted into three halls of fame shows how much Baker’s contribution impacted the industry. He’s among the greats in the Rock and Roll, Modern Drummer, and Classic Drummer Halls of Fame.

9. Ringo Starr

The Beatles is said to have led the British Invasion, and who brought the beat to their iconic songs is none other than Ringo Starr.

Though he often thinks he’s just a regular off-beat drummer, Starr’s emphasis on feeling rather than the technicality of drumming is his best quality. Starr also influenced much of modern drumming techniques, particularly muffling the tonal rings and lowering the tones of drums.

Those wishing to learn the drums are in luck, as recently, Starr has opened a ten-part MasterClass course. If not interested, just give the Beatles’ songs a listen to experience the legend at work. We recommend “A Day in the Life” and “Rain.”

10. Phil Collins

Influenced by the above Ringo Starr, we have next Phil Collins, who is credited as one of the pioneers of prog rock drumming.

The left-handed drummer was behind the beats of the English rock band Genesis for part of the band’s earlier years before becoming their lead vocals in 1975. By this time, however, his fast playing and signature odd-time technique had cemented his reputation as one of the greatest drummers of all time.

“In the Air Tonight,” “Turn It On Again,” and “Watcher of the Skies” are among our favorites to listen to when we want to experience Collins’s style. Give these a try too!

11. Stewart Copeland

Our next drummer, Stewart Copeland, was already a great drummer by the time he joined the Police in 1977. But it was during his time with the group that he skyrocketed to stardom.

His reggae-tinged, jazzy rhythms and exceptional hi-hat work became his signature sound. Unique also to Copeland is his use of Octobans, narrow-tubed drums, and the splash cymbal—something he helped improve with the instrument manufacturing company Paiste.

One of the Police’s earlier songs, “Roxanne,” is a good place to start if you want to listen to Copeland’s style. Or, if you want to check out an exclusive performance, watch his solo drumming on a David Letterman show back in 2011.

12. Charlie Watts

Since the start of the legendary rock band Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts had been with them, letting loose some of the music industry’s most iconic hits. In fact, some even say without the sounds Watts provided, the band’s music would have been quite different.

His rhythm and blues-inspired, almost vintage-style jazz patterns were one of a kind. Notable also of Watts was his drum kit. It’s actually considered small compared to other rock-and-roll drummers, with a set of fewer than ten items.

Sadly, the drummer is no longer with us, having passed away in 2021 at the age of 80. Yet all those years with the Rolling Stones and the hits songs they’ve released all exemplify his extraordinary style.

13. Dave Grohl

Before forming the Foo Fighters and becoming their lead vocalist, Dave Grohl was the drummer for punk grunge band Nirvana from 1990 to 1994.

The six-feet-tall drummer is known for playing impressive and powerful intros on huge drum sets (all the more to fiercely express those flams). Take Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice,” for example, or those bold, pounding beats in their “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

The death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 and the abrupt end of Nirvana, however, had a significant impact on Grohl. Not wanting to be constantly reminded of his time with Cobain and the band, he shifted to playing guitars (of which he’s also iconic) and songwriting and eventually founded Foo Fighters.

14. Chad Smith

The quick right-foot play and ghost notes of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith have earned him a spot on our list of great drummers.

Inspired by Neil Peart and Buddy Rich, Smith’s beats often have a bit of metal and jazz sound. Check out the band’s “Californication” and “Give It Away” as some of the best examples of his style.

A funny (and fun) fact about Chad Smith is that he has a doppelganger—a lookalike—in comedian Will Ferrell. They look so much the same. It’s as though they’re twins! Best of all, with all the teasing of their similarities, the two have gone on to have several drum-offs, often for charity events.

15. Steve Gadd

Unlike other drummers on this list who are in specific bands, Stephen Kendall Gadd is a session drummer. This means he’s usually hired for short-term gigs, often by solo artists.

But don’t cut him off just yet; Gadd has toured and worked with some big names in his career, like Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan. His thunderous strikes and smooth syncopation, among other skills, are what make him great.

Some hits you can listen to that records Gadd’s performance are Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and Steely Dan’s “Aja.” Eric Clapton’s saddest album of all time, Pilgrim, also features Gadd as his drummer on some of the tracks.

16. Bernard Purdie

Sometimes called the Mississippi Bigfoot, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie was considered the session legend of the 1960s and ’70s, and his career even spanned well into the 1990s.

Purdie’s funky-pop and jazzy beats made him one of the most in-demand drummers at the time. He’s played for James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and so many more.

It is said that Purdie created the iconic Purdie Shuffle, a variation of the half-time shuffle with ghost notes played on the snare. We recommend listening to Steely Dan’s “Home At Last” to experience Purdie’s classic work.

17. Al Jackson Jr.

Last but not least, we have another session drummer known for his swinging grooves. The soul drummer Al Jackson Jr. was so skillful in keeping perfect drum timing he was called the Human Timekeeper.

Jackson was a member of Booker T. and the MG’s, a group of session musicians for Stax Records, and had worked for many great artists of the time. Most notable was with Al Green, like in Green’s hit songs “Let’s Stay Together” and “I’m Still in Love with You.”

Sadly, Jackson’s career was cut short when he was shot in his home in 1975. He was only 39. His legacy continued, however, because in 1992, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of MG’s). After this, Memphis Music Hall of Fame added him too.

Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Drummers Of All Time

Sometimes people believe that drums are noisy and chaotic, but these people we’ve listed have proven that it is anything but.

These great drummers each had their own special way of playing the instrument. They all added something unique and unforgettable to the music scene that paved the way for modern drummers and drumming techniques.

However, our list is far from comprehensive. There are far too many amazing drummers out there to fit in this post. Who have we left out that should be on here? Let us know, and we’ll add them!

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.