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Taylor Hawkins: farewell to a modern rock drumming hero

Taylor Hawkins
(Image credit: Rich Fury/Getty Images)

The drumming community woke in shock this morning to the news that Foo Fighters drummer, Taylor Hawkins has died aged 50. He may have joined Foo Fighters as the drummer, but he was a songwriter, stadium-level vocalist (as proved many times), and alongside Dave Grohl, the second strongest personality in Foo Fighters.

Starting his career playing with Sass Jordan, before moving on to Alanis Morissette’s band, he might not have known it at the time (or perhaps maybe he did) that the distinctive "goofy" guy behind the drums, arms flailing with a shaggy shock of surfer-blonde hair would go on to become not only one of the most influential drummers of his time, but a cornerstone of one of the most successful rock bands of the 21st century.

Here, we celebrate just a few of the reasons that Taylor Hawkins was one of the leading lights representing drumming as a whole.

Taylor Hawkins

(Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

He was all your favourite drummers all rolled into one

Taylor Hawkins

(Image credit: Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images)

Taylor Hawkins was like a musical sponge; born in the ’70s, a teenager in the 80s soaking up the very best of rock music that had preceded him. Just like any American teenager of the era, Hawkins raised himself as a devotee of classic rock, culminating in a drumming style that had the power of John Bonham, the technicality of Neil Peart, the frenetic intricacies of Stewart Copeland, the showmanship of Alex Van Halen and Tommy Lee, and the hooks of Roger Taylor.

But he wasn’t just looking back. As a California native from the age of four, Hawkins was exposed first-hand to the most exciting contemporary rock of the late ’80s: Steven Adler, Chad Smith and one of his biggest influences - Stephen Perkins of Janes Addiction all played a part in shaping Hawkins’ melting pot of rock.

What’s more, Hawkins would go on to gain the respect of his heroes, always paying back by voicing his admiration in interviews, and in many cases, performing alongside them. 

Where for many it would be about the sound of the name hitting the deck, for Hawkins it always came across as a lifelong fan of drums and rock music living out his childhood fantasies with the posters from his wall brought to life next to him on stage. 

He was Dave Grohl’s right hand man

Foo Fighters

(Image credit: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

There isn’t a shoe-size big enough to describe what it must be like joining a band where the boss also happens to have been the drummer in one of the most iconic bands of all time. 

But when original Foo Fighters drummer William Goldsmith departed the band around the completion of second album, The Colour and The Shape, that’s exactly the position that Taylor Hawkins found himself in.    

He forged a friendship with Dave Grohl via coinciding festival performances, the two drummers hitting it off immediately - musically and with a Ryu/Ken twins-separated-at-birth likeness and similarity.

But it almost never happened, as Hawkins recalled in Foo Fighters’ Back and Forth documentary, Dave Grohl asked Hawkins "if he knew anyone" who might be interested in filling the vacant drum chair, thinking that Hawkins himself wouldn't be interested due to the fact he was currently occupying the most sought-after pop/rock session stool on the planet. 

But join he did. Hawkins performed on covers of Killing Joke’s Requiem for the Everlong single b-side, along with covers of Prince's Drive Me Wild and Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street. But his first full studio contribution came at a time where Foo Fighters found themselves as a three-piece during the making of There Is Nothing Left to Lose.

Grohl once again split the drumming duties on the album, with who played which songs uncredited on the sleeve. Hawkins told Drum! in 1999, “Basically the more mellow or mid-tempo ones I played really well. I almost felt like handing Dave all the faster and crazier songs, and I wanted to do the jazzier, freakier ones.” 

He also pointed to Aurora - itself a melancholic love-letter to Grohl's time spent in Seattle, which Hawkins would later declare his favourite Foo Fighters song in 2020 - and MIA as examples of his style. “I feel like I added some things, like on the song "Aurora," which is totally me. It wouldn't have been like that if Dave played it.” The sessions also yielded a cover of Pink Floyd's Have a Cigar, giving an early glimpse of Hawkins' abilities as a vocalist. 

Hawkins once described Grohl’s leadership (with clear respect) as a ‘benign dictatorship’, adding that he’d “Learned to keep his mouth shut until Dave’s really looking for input”.  

But as time went on, it's clear that Hawkins stretched out into the role, helping to move Foo Fighters’ music - at least from a drumming perspective - away from the post-grunge and alt-rock beats of the 90s into a fusion of progressive timings and stadium clarity while maintaining the timeless position of a live drummer in a rock band.

His commitment to the craft was unshakeable

As we’ve established, Taylor Hawkins was a dyed-in-the-wool student of rock. But consider that Foo Fighters emerged during the height of mid/late-90s dance music’s popularity, became even bigger while nu-metal was at its peak, saw off a period of dubstep and remained in parallel with ‘EDM’ right through to the present day.

At a time where loops and samples, triggered drum sounds and even DJs seeped their gimmick into rock music, Taylor Hawkins kept his drums in Foo Fighters pure - at least in the live environment.

Perhaps the biggest example was the band’s decision to record 2012’s Wasting Light entirely to tape: a feat that the band had achieved before without fanfare, but which became a signifier of purity amongst an industry of grid-snapped performances and auto-tuned vocals. 

The nods to the stadium-filling drummers he idolised have always been there. The mere fact that he settled on Gretsch drums had more than a little to do with his love of Phil Collins. Ditto the addition of concert toms.  

Rototoms, gongs, the brightly coloured finishes and more all add up to Taylor’s unflinching dedication to what he felt a rock drummer was: the backbone of a band, the focal point of the stage and still one of the key indicators that you’re watching a live band.

Foo Fighters are often criticised for being the go-to flag bearers of rock music in an era where ‘rock’, as Hawkins knew it, is a long way from the omnipresent cultural impact of his youth.  

But that’s because of the band, and in no small part, Taylor Hawkins’ relentless dedication to showing that rock ‘n’ roll can still thrive in its most bare-bones presentation. His drumming was at the core of this concept.

His drumming was a brand of its own

There are drummers in great bands, and then there are bands with great drummers. The type of studied and schooled player who has taken the time to unpick their influences, understand the nuances and how to apply it within their own playing. 

It’s these players who attract other drummers to the music, and elevates it to an audience beyond a love of the songs, transcending the ‘guy-at-the-back’ role, and inspiring an entire generation of new drummers along the way.

Hawkins was the latter, and hit the drumming world hard alongside a collection of drummers’ drummers who helped re-establish the art of great grooves and interesting playing in rock music.

Another like-minded drummer who went on to conquer the world was Travis Barker. Upon the news of Hawkins’ death breaking, Barker shared a story of his and Taylor’s early days to his Instagram, revealing that Hawkins encouraged the Blink-182 drummer when he was still working as a bin-man.

“I don’t have the words. Sad to write this or to never see you again. I’ll never forget Laguna Beach days when I was a trash man playing in a punk rock band and you were playing with Alanis. You’d come watch me play in dive bars and be like, “kid you’re a star”. 

And I thought you were crazy but you gave me so much hope and determination. Years later we toured together with blink and Foo’s in Australia and I have the best memories of smoking cigarettes in the restroom of flights we were on together and watching your set every night. 

To say I’ll miss you my friend isn’t enough. Till the next time we talk drums and smoke in the boys room…Rest In Peace.”

It’s not just his peers, though. Hawkins’ reverence for the likes of Queen’s Roger Taylor and Phil Collins is, by proxy, extended to their drumming offspring. 

Rufus Taylor - now the drummer in The Darkness, and Nicholas Collins have both spent time in the orbit of Taylor Hawkins, both cite him as an influence, with Rufus Taylor having performed Under Pressure with Foo Fighters while Hawkins took vocal duties.

The fact that drummers as far reaching from the world of jazz to hip-hop and gospel, as well as the more obvious rock world have all rushed to pay tribute to Hawkins is testament to the fact that he was much more than just the drummer in a rock band. He was, in many ways, the glue that united the profile of drums and their position in music in the modern era.

He wasn’t ‘just’ a Foo Fighter

As far as recognition goes, being known as the drummer who matched-up to (and clearly surpassed) Dave Grohl's requirements is legacy enough. But Hawkins had many other strings to his bow outside of the performances at Wembley and the Glastonbury and Coachella headline sets, where the view for most is limited to the big screen. 

Taylor Hawkins never forgot why he was there in the first place - for the love of jumping behind a drum kit and playing the music you love. It starts with his rock covers band, Chevy Metal, who would regularly show up at clubs to run through a set of golden-era rock covers.

Hawkins was an extremely accomplished musician away from the kit too. As well as writing and releasing three albums with his side-project, Taylor Hawkins and The Coattail Riders, he also founded The Birds of Satan. Both projects showed Hawkins’ aptitude for leading a band, as well as his vocal ability alongside his more progressive drumming influences.

Naturally, as one of the most significant drummers in popular culture, Hawkins’ energy and musicianship as a drummer led to him working with plenty of other artists as a session player.

In 2006, when Chris Pennie was unable to perform on Coheed and Cambria’s …No World For Tomorrow, Taylor Hawkins flew under the radar to cut the drum tracks, as well as touring with the band.

He contributed drums to Brian May’s solo album, Another World on the track, Cyborg, lent his talents to Janes Addiction bassist (and fellow Alanis alumni) Eric Avery’s Help Wanted.

But Taylor’s vocals also earned him some additional credits. During the Freddie Mercury-inspired sections of Foo Fighters shows, Hawkins would take to the mic and wow thousands of fans with a rock ’n’ roll gravel that outshines many vocalists at their day jobs.

This ability led to him adding backing vocals to Slash’s debut solo album on the song Crucify The Dead. When it came time to finish a song by late Beach Boys drummer, Dennis Wilson (Holy man), Hawkins got the call, enlisted alongside Roger Taylor and Brian May for the song’s release.

Some of his most inspiring work as a drummer, though, came at the end via his collaboration with Janes Addiction/former Red Hot Chili peppers guitarist Dave Navarro and longterm Hawkins collaborator/session bassist, Chris Chaney in NHC, which also included live guitar performances from Foo Fighters’ Pat Smear.

Following the release of singles, Feed The Cruel and Better Move on, NHC released a four-song EP titled Intakes and Outakes. Sadly, Hawkins never got to see the release of NHC’s full-length album, which was recorded in 2021 and slated for release in 2022.

I'm a freelance member of the MusicRadar team, specialising in drum news, interviews and reviews. I formerly edited Rhythm and Total Guitar here in the UK and have been playing drums for more than 25 years (my arms are very tired). When I'm not working on the site, I can be found on my electronic kit at home, or gigging and depping in function bands and the odd original project.