To some, Dave Grohl is the guitar-toting leader of Foo Fighters, the nicest man in rock, the face of guitar music to the outside world. But here on MusicRadar’s drum channel, Dave Grohl’s true home is behind the drum kit. By his own admission, he even approaches the guitar like he's playing the drums!
From his introduction on Nirvana’s Smell’s Like Teen Spirit and a list of guest-slot credits that most aspiring session players could only dream of, through to his ambitious Play project in 2018 (one of the few times he can be spotted with a double bass drum pedal) it’s clear that Grohl has never pressed pause on his musical - and most importantly - drumming journey.
We need no introduction to his drumming in Nirvana, and he’s even performed some of the most iconic drum parts in the band that he fronts, but here we’re excluding his two biggest bands in favour of the other lines on his CV.
Grohl has contributed drums to recordings by everyone from Puff Daddy, Killing Joke, The Prodigy, Slash and many, many others. His side projects reach heights that most bands will never see, and outside of the studio he has regularly sat in with rock royalty for fun.
Below, we’re looking at just five of his key releases that show the origins and progression of his drumming, starting with the local heroes he ended up joining. Dave Grohl may not have a regular drumming gig at the moment, but we’re confident that he’ll never be far from his kit!
1. Binge - Scream (1989)
Before Smells Like Teen Spirit, and way before Everlong, Dave Grohl cut his teeth recording and touring internationally with DC punk heroes, Scream. In fact, it was his stint with Scream that brought him to the attention of Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, finding themselves once-again drummerless and checking Grohl out live on the advice of The Melvins’ Buzz Osbourne.
1989’s No More Censorship features plenty of glimpses of what we’d come to love about Grohl’s drumming, from odd timings to straight-ahead breakneck hardcore and even fills that would go on to feature on Nirvana songs.
But Binge is one of the best representations of Grohl starting to form his recognisable style. The opening bars of its down-the-stairs tom groove wouldn’t sound out of place on his work with Josh Homme, while the power and speed are all there.
Follow-up (and Scream’s final studio album) Fumble sees the band tackle Grohl’s song Gods Look Down, with Grohl taking the lead vocal as well as drum duties. Watch Grohl and one-time housemate/Nirvana and Foo Fighters engineer Barrett Jones reminiscing over demos of Gods Look Down below.
2. Winnebago - Late! (1992)
Between December 1990 - just a couple of months after joining Nirvana - and July 1991, Grohl completed two one-day recording sessions where he recorded a total of 10 songs himself, pre-empting the approach he’d take on the Foos debut album.
The recordings were compiled and released as the cassette-only album, Pocketwatch under the bandname, Late! on indie label Simple Machines. Each cassette was dubbed to-order, making an original copy of the album rare and valuable with collectors.
It featured a number of songs that would eventually become Nirvana and Foo Fighters b-sides, with versions of Color Pictures of a Marigold being released by both bands and Grohl reprising Friend of a Friend on Foo Fighters’ In Your Honor. Winnebago arguably best represents Grohl as the drummer we recognise now: monsterous flams, the building-16th-note snare crescendos and quarter-note snare/cymbal outro.
Not to mention the display of hand/right foot power from the fill after the breakdown. Of course, purists will argue that its re-recording as a Foo Fighters b-side on the This Is A Call single excludes it from this list, but we’re including it on a technicallity because it came first.
If you like the alt-rock simplicity of the first Foo Fighters album, consider this the prequel that you might not have heard, and check out the entire album below while you’re there for plenty of Grohl trademarks.
3. Song For The Dead - Queens Of The Stone Age (2002)
Grohl was left unfulfilled by results from the sessions that went into fourth Foo Fighters album One By One. It coincided with his old mate Josh Homme (Grohl had championed Kyuss during Nirvana interviews) needing a drummer for Queens Of The Stone Age, and Grohl got the call.
It’s an obvious inclusion on this list, but the resulting album saw Grohl exactly where drummers wanted him: back behind the kit. The drums were recorded in two passes as a production choice - one to capture the shells and another to overdub cymbals - with Grohl playing on cymbal pads for the ‘drum’ takes.
This gives total separation between the drums and cymbals for mixing, as well as lending to the distinctively dry sound, but also makes Grohl’s contribution even more impressive - particularly on Song For The Dead.
The drum intro borrows in-part from Black Flag’s Slip It In, while the stop-start verse sounds close enough to a crystal meth-addicted brother of Foxey Lady that WhoSampled lists it as an interpolated sample.
Between the pounding intro, hypnotic main riff, bouncing groove of the verses and the wrist-killing barrage of single strokes/triplets of the outro, it’s one of, if not the best drum track Grohl has committed to tape.
4. You Know What You Are? - Nine Inch Nails (2005)
When explaining his annoyance at peoples’ impatience waiting for new NIN material, Trent Reznor told Guitar World in 1994, “It just takes a long time. Nirvana may be able to make a record in two weeks. That's great. We're not doing that.”
Fast-forward a decade, though, and the industrial-rock mastermind would enlist Grohl to perform on seven songs for Nine Inch Nails’ most accessible collection of songs, With Teeth.
Getting Smaller is Grohl in punk mode, Sunspots is solid aggression (helped along by Reznor’s sonic manipulation), but its You Know What You Are? that presents the most interest.
Grohl - rarely seen with a double pedal - smashes out a 16th-note fugga-dugga groove between the toms and snare which mimmicks double-kick and only breaks for the half-time choruses and a few fills (he employed he same tactic on 2004’s Red War with his all-star metal line-up, Probot.).
It’s unclear as to whether this was performed as a single live take or a compiled loop from samples of Grohl’s playing. But either way, covering it is as good as lifting weights, leaving an unenviable task for NIN drummers ever since.
Grohl would team-up with Reznor along with Josh Homme on Mantra for the soundtrack of the Sound City movie, making us want to hear a full-length collaboration between the trio even more.
5. No One Loves Me and Neither Do I - Them Crooked Vultures (2009)
You don’t have to read many drum interviews with Dave Grohl to know that his love for John Bonham runs deep: indeed, he inked himself with a tattoo of three interlocking rings years before he got a sniff of playing drums for a living.
When Zeppelin reformed in 2007, John’s son Jason Bonham took the drum stool, but Grohl and Josh Homme’s collaboration with Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones gave him a taste of what writing and playing with one of rock’s finest low-enders is like.
TCV only released one album, with fans living in hope for more, but the record is full of moments where Grohl tips his hi-hat to Bonham, injecting more groove than we’re used to hearing from him (see New Fang, Scumbag Blues and Elephants).
Mind Eraser, No Chaser sounds exactly how we’d expect a QOTSA/Foo Fighters collaboration to (including prominent vocal from Grohl) and Dead End Friends had a resurgence last year during Grohl’s drum battle with Nandi Bushell. But put a gun to our heads and we’ll go with No One Loves Me and Neither Do I.
The syncopated groove is littered with hi-hat barks, and features a repeating Whole Lotta Love-inspired 16th-note triplet fill. The song leads into one of the biggest riffs on the album, weaving and flipping its way around Grohl’s drumming before he once again sees it off with another marathon fill. If you weren’t lucky enough to catch the band live last decade, keep your fingers crossed for a reunion and check out the full set below.