Recently, we asked you to vote on a shortlist - also compiled by MusicRadar readers - to decide who is the best rock drummer of all time. Now, the results are in and we’re charting the top 15 rock drummers, as decided by you.
Rock is one of the widest genres in music, taking in everything from indie to metal, with boundaries overlapping. This is reflected in some of the winning nominations, with rock’s reach spanning everything from pop to prog and metal.
What qualifies as rock? Well you guys have decided! What is clear from our results, though, is that rock drummers like groove, as our top 15 is dominated by the bouncing swing of drummers who first defined the term ‘rock drummer’.
Outside of that, it’s clear that when it comes to being a great rock drummer, chops are important, but not nearly as important as having a unique voice: something that is obvious for every single entry here. So, let us delay no further, and discover who got your vote as the G.O.A.T!
1. Neil Peart
2020 started tragically for drum fans, as we lost the man who inspired entire generations to pick up sticks and wear-out their rewind buttons trying to figure out exactly how to play his parts, bar-by-bar.
Neil Peart was an innovator in every area of his approach to the drums. He had the technical prowess to bring the ideas in his head to life with precision, the imagination to push things forward - the very definition of ‘progressive’, and when the music required, he could create groove to rival any breakbeat.
Then there were the kits, in all their glory. Watching Neil traverse a 360-degree setup incorporating enough drums to build multiple traditional kits, groundbreaking electronics, and tuned percussion is a sight to behold, and one that many drummers would pay their entrance fee alone to witness.
Peart’s unique direction is what made millions of drummers fall in love with his playing, when someone offers complete originality in every facet of their take on an instrument, it also makes them inimitable. Neil may have gone far too soon, but with his drumming (and lyrics), he left us with the greatest of gifts: which will continue to inspire and influence for decades to come.
2. John Bonham
You’re reading this correctly: a drumming opinion poll that doesn’t place John Bonham in the top spot, and we admit, we were as surprised as you. John Bonham’s playing simultaneously invented and transcends ‘rock’.
Like so many drummers from the burgeoning, golden age of rock music, Bonzo was raised on a diet of jazz and traditional snare drum-playing. But when the self-taught powerhouse mixed these styles with a heavy backbeat, it created the perfect canvas for Zeppelin’s rock blueprint.
Like every drummer who topped this poll, Bonham gave the drums his own voice, from the bouncing right-foot, to the thunderous triplets between hands and feet to the now-iconic Ludwig and Paiste combo he used to deliver them. Rock or not, Bonham will forever remain one of the most influential drummers to sit behind a kit.
3. Roger Taylor
Hand a novice a pair of sticks and ask them to tap out a beat, and chances are you’ll be met with the ‘boom-boom-bap, boom-boom-bap’ of Queen’s We Will Rock You. Roger Taylor isn’t always the flashiest of drummers, but when you’re one-quarter of a line-up that also contains Freddie Mercury, Brian May and John Deakin, it’s important to be aware of space and songwriting.
That said, Roger is no slouch, with Queen’s music ranging from simple to orchestral-level pop prog at times. Where other drummers might have littered the music with fusion-like complexities, Roger kept it simple with the occasional flex of the chops or solo when appropriate, absolutely nailing what was required for a band whose production featured plenty of harmonic seasoning. Sit down and really learn his parts, and you’ll appreciate the subtleties even more.
4. Danny Carey
If other life forms exist outside our planet, we think they’ll one-day find an affinity with Danny Carey’s drumming. Mixing heavyweight prog influences with the ferocity of any metal player along with the more subtle flourishes of Stewart Copeland, putting Carey in a ‘rock’ box is a bit like calling Concorde public transport.
But rock he does, and much like Tool’s music, he does it in a way that is incomparable to anyone else. Moan all you like that Tool take their time making albums, but with each release comes years and years of learning and inspiration. If you’re uninitiated, do yourself a favour and allow Danny Carey’s drumming to change your mind about what ‘progressive’ can really mean.
5. Keith Moon
Let’s forget the booze, the destroyed hotel rooms and the Lincoln Continental parked in the swimming pool. Keith Moon changed how we approach drumming. Another of the ‘early’ rock drummers, Keith was one of the first drummers tasked with competing with the guitarist’s new weapon: the Marshall stack while PA systems caught up.
This called for energy, something that Mooney had in spades. Marrying the showmanship of the jazz greats with the two-and-four of rock, his bombastic playing style was the drumming version of the cherry bombs he enjoyed experimenting with. Explosive, colourful, exciting but still accessible, Keith’s busy drumming was exactly what the soundtrack to the arrival of the ‘first’ generation of teenagers needed, Keith Moon burned bright and fast.
6. Ian Paice
There are many British drummers who cut their teeth in the 60s on this list, but sadly not many of them survived the excess - even fewer are still drumming. Ian Paice and Deep Purple released their 21st studio album in 2020, and Paice is showing no signs of slowing down. With a swing to pretty much everything he played, and his famous use of double-bass drums, The Chief’s drumming has played a massive part in the development of grooved-tinged heavy blues rock (which was first declared heavy metal on its arrival) ever since.
7. Dave Grohl
With his iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit intro fill bursting out of our speakers, Dave Grohl introduced himself to the world as one of the most powerful rock drummers on the planet, and has remained a firm favourite ever since.
He might have swapped drumming for strumming for the majority of his time these days, but his post-Nirvana drum duties with Foo Fighters, Queens Of The Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails, The Prodigy and of course, supergroup Them Crooked Vultures have meant that we still get treated to regular glimpses of Dave Grohl’s iconic drumming style.
8. Ginger Baker
A little over two years is all it took for Ginger Baker to cement himself as one of the best-loved rock drummers of all time through his work with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in Cream. Yet another jazz inspired pioneer (Ginger famously hated being referred to as a ‘rock drummer’), his playing on Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, Wheels Of Fire and Goodbye was groundbreaking, swinging his way through blues and psychedelic-rock with dynamics and finesse. Ginger gave rock the drum solo with ‘Toad’. Ginger Baker was bold, outspoken and a true pioneer of redefining what the drum kit’s place in music could be.
9. Ringo Starr
The mere mention of Ringo Starr’s name in a drumming poll is sure to raise as many eyebrows as it does head-nods. But, we’re not interested in the debate. Ringo replaced Pete Best and completed the puzzle of The Fab Four.
His drum parts, feel and technique were unorthodox, but perfectly placed to only add to the genius of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. Did he have chops? Could he play a solo? Will we ever see him hold a drum clinic? The answer doesn’t mater, because the result is the same: he was in The Beatles and carved out an entirely new direction for drums in pop music.
10. Mike Portnoy
Few drummers can claim as much influence on heavy rock/prog/metal drumming in the last three decades as Mike Portnoy, and if they can, there’s a fair chance they took inspiration from the man himself.
As a Berklee alumni, Mike Portnoy has the lethal combo of not only being a technical monster, but, as anyone who has watched his tutorial DVDs will know, he can explain what he’s doing in a way that makes us mere mortals believe learning it could be possible.
Aside from the ridiculous impact Mike had as part of Dream Theater, the decade since he left the band has seen his CV become an ever-expanding who’s who list of legends. Long may he continue!
11. Bill Bruford
Bill Bruford took the rulebook for ‘rock drums’ and not only rewrote it, he digitised it and turned it into his own song-within-a-song. As well as being a technical musician of the highest order, Bill employed the use of electronics from the inception of drum pads.
Never before had the drums been given such a voice with such freedom. After his time in Yes and King Krimson, Bill pursued his own compositions, mixing up jazz with electronics in Earthworks. These days, he might have swapped sticks for books, having recently sold off a raft of gear. But Bill Bruford was, and will always remain, the thinking drummer’s drummer.
12. Gavin Harrison
Gavin Harrison is one of three drummers on this list who we’d say blur the lines between rock, prog and metal. In short, he’s an absolute animal. He blew our minds with his work in Porcupine Tree and continues to do so as part of King Crimson and The Pineapple Thief.
Outside of his ‘day jobs’ Gavin is one of the busiest drummers around, having notched-up four album releases so far this year. If you like your rock drums executed with jaw-dropping precision and a sense of detailed craft to the parts, matched with a drum sound that’s extremely articulate, you owe it to yourself to become familiar with Gavin Harrison.
13. Stewart Copeland
The Police gave us many reasons to love them. The sugary power-pop came with the energy of punk but the musical abilities of some of the best songwriters the charts have ever seen.
But for rock drummers, Copeland opened up a whole new landscape. Copeland’s mix of reggae and rock has changed the way that rock drummers think about pulse within the bar, how we incorporate cross-sticks, the role of the hi-hat, and how the ride bell doesn’t just have to play quarter-notes. He even helped change the way we tune our snare drums. Don’t believe us? Check out a Sting solo record and spot the Copelandisms.
14. Cozy Powell
As one of the most prolific drummers here, it’s hard not to wonder what else Colin Flooks would have gone on to do in his career, which was cut short after he tragically lost control of his car in 1998. After getting his first big break with Jeff Beck, he brought his drum solo, Dance With The Devil to the charts (reaching No.3 in the UK.) before forming Cozy Powell’s Hammer.
He went on to join Rainbow, Whitesnake and Black Sabbath as well as taking a number of gigs with the likes of Michael Schenker, Brian May, Yngwie Malmsteen and Peter Green. Cozy’s powerful, energetic style gained him fans worldwide and racked-up over 60 album credits in his career.
15. Phil Collins
To the uninformed, Phil Collins is a singer who has also played a bit of drums over the years. But to us, he’s a drumming legend. Think of it this way: when sitting in for John Bonham with a reunited Led Zeppelin isn’t even the first thing people remember you for, you’ve probably had a pretty good career in your own right.
He helped invent the sound of 80s drums, has sold well-on-his-way to a couple of hundred million albums and has demonstrated his ability to play the drums with the best of them countless times. Alas, Phil put down his sticks for good in 2019, but we’d say he can walk away happy.