Our Ten Best- Episode 17: Classic Rock Drummers

JohnBonhamClassic rock drummers are an essential component of a band’s success in both the studio and a live setting. Some are flashy while others keep a steady backbeat. The drum solo, a lost relic in today’s music world, was a staple of the classic rock golden age. Here is my list of the best classic rock drum specialists who complemented their band’s sound and have influenced countless neophyte drummers.

1- John Bonham (“Led Zeppelin”) – “Bonzo” had it all: power, speed and incredible timing. From his apprenticeship with Robert Plant in the “Band of Joy” and later helming the drum chair in the legendary Led Zeppelin, Bonham stood out as an omnipresent and vital force. From the opening strains of “Good Times Bad Times” on their debut to “Kashmir” on “Physical Graffiti,” his raw power on the instrument stands out.  A legendary story during the recording of their fourth “Untitled” LP at the Headley Grange mansion, which features rock anthem “Stairway to Heaven,” has the band recording Bonham’s drums at various locations (including a faraway hallway) because his playing was too loud. Bonham’s thunderous sound also resulted from his use of larger drums in his various kits. For instance, his bass drum was sometimes four inches larger than the standard. Bonham also excelled at unique time signatures on “Black Dog,” “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and was a perfect sideman right there with Jimmy Page (guitar) and John Paul Jones (bass) on the end section of “Stairway,” helping to make the song the most played track on classic rock radio. His “Moby Dick” drum solo is a tour de force as he eventually pounds his Ludwig skins with his hands. Check out lesser-known gem, “When the Levee Breaks” to hear a drummer whose sonorousness and style will never be duplicated. His tragic death on September 25, 1980 at the age of 32 from pulmonary edema robbed us all of future percussive brilliance.

2- Keith Moon (“The Who”) – A whirlwind whose energy was boundless, Moon redefined the Who’s sound from the time he came into a club in 1964 with ginger-dyed hair and ginger-colored clothes, commenting to future band mate Pete Townsend, “I hear you’re looking for a drummer. Well I’m much better than the one you’ve got.”  He proceeded to play in his typical whirlwind fashion and was hired on the spot. “Moon the Loon” was known for his destructive, out of control lifestyle, but once you get past that, you realize this drummer had unrivaled  power, speed and originality. He played four and five piece Premier drum kits early on and in June 1966 graduated to a double bass edition. His cyclonic, unorthodox style fit in perfectly with the Who’s sound on rock anthems like: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Reilly” and lesser known tracks like “Heaven and Hell” and “Sea and Sand.” His drum fills are unique as was his playing off his guitarist, Townsend. Moon died at age 32 on September 7, 1978, a couple of weeks after the release of the “Who are You” album from an overdose of a medication that he was using to quell alcohol cravings. Listen to the Who’s dynamic CD catalog and watch “The Who Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970” and “The Kid’s Are Alright” DVDs to witness a true original.

3-Carl Palmer (Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Asia) – This drum technician is a rock drummer whose playing elicits looks of amazement on the part of an audience. Some of his early influences include: Art Blakey, Gene Krupa and the best jazz/standards drummer ever, Buddy Rich. Palmer’s solos are legendary and in live performances, he would remove his t-shirt while playing double bass brilliantly. “Tocatta,” “Tarkus” and “Karn Evil 9” are shining examples of his brilliance with ELP. The trio’s amalgamation of jazz, rock, classical forms and the wonderful chemistry they possessed led to some of the best progressive rock ever. Palmer’s dexterity and power make him a human dynamo that inspires his band mates to strive for perfection. Check out his “Working Live,” volumes one and two, to hear Palmer in another trio with a guitarist replacing Keith Emerson’s keyboard. Palmer was part of a recent Asia reunion that spawned “Fantasia,” a live CD and DVD. He has played gongs and tambourines live, but most importantly had a jazz drummer’s sensibility in rock and roll. He guests at drum clinics across Britain, Europe and the United States and if you are lucky enough to attend one of his demonstrations, get ready to be a witness to a drummer whose playing defies description.

4-Ian Paice- (Deep Purple and Whitesnake) – This left-handed drummer deserves to be placed on a 10 most underrated list. His rock solid backing on all editions of Deep Purple (see my “Deep Purple Hits, History and Highlights” DVD review) complement the band’s progressive leaning, blues based, hard rock greatness. His sense of time is splendid considering he had to navigate around Ritchie Blackmore’s frenetic guitar and Jon Lord’s keyboard brilliance. “Speed King,” ‘Fireball,” “Space Truckin’” and “Might Just Take Your Life” are just a few of the tracks that display his virtuosity. Paice also appears at drum clinics and most interestingly occasionally plays in “Deep Purple” cover bands, performing lesser-known tracks. He used Ludwig kits in the ‘70s, switched to Pearl in 1984 and plays a single bass drum. Paice is steady and flashy when he needs to be. Deep Purple would not have been the iconic band it is without him.

5-Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix Experience) – Part of one of rock’s premier power trios, Mitchell stood out in a band that featured a guitar god (Hendrix). His “fusion” style – playing off another instrument and incorporating jazz into a rock setting, make him a true original. He did not merely provide rhythmic support, but also incorporated melody into his playing. “Hey Joe,” “Manic Depression,” (3/4 time), “Fire” and “Stone Free” show how he changed rock drumming. He made the drums no longer merely a background instrument. He died of natural causes, at the age of 61, while on a 2008 “Experience Hendrix Tour,” which also featured Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Brad Whitford of Aerosmith. His unique style may never be duplicated.

6- Ginger Baker (Cream and Blind Faith) – It is hard to believe that Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker just turned 70 on August 19. This rock warhorse was a member of “The Graham Bond Organization” and “Blues Incorporated” with Jack Bruce (bass) before they joined Eric “Slowhand” Clapton in Cream, one of the first super groups. Baker’s drumming style is schizophrenic (sometimes flashy and sometimes not) and his use of two bass drums was revolutionary at the time. His jazz background contributes to restrained playing, which, at times, serves a power trio well. One of the original jazz-rock fusion players, his 13-minute drum solo on “Toad’ from “Wheels of Fire” is a forerunner of later classic rock drum solos (“Moby Dick”). Baker’s ferocious drum attack with Cream is evident on tracks like “White Room,” “Spoonful,” “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Outside Woman Blues” as 2005’s Cream Albert Hall reunion CD and DVD demonstrate. Though hailed by musicians as a supremely talented drummer, Baker always seems to get overlooked on best drummer lists. He has an off-beat playing style and mercurial nature (his tiffs with Jack Bruce are legendary). Baker used Ludwig drums until the 1970s and currently uses a set produced by Drum Workshop. He is one of the most unique and innovative drummers to ever pick up a pair of sticks.

7- Neil Peart (Rush) – This drummer is a chameleon who embraces diverse styles and is the band’s lyricist. This Canadian born drum ace is known for his technical flair and huge reserve of energy. His style evolved from a derivative of Bonham and Moon to a progressive and jazzy feel. This goes hand in hand with “Rush’s” metamorphosis as a band. Peart has played Slingerland, Ludwig, Tama drum kits and most recently has used a 360-degree set by Sabian with acoustic drums in front and electronic ones in the rear. His drum solos are concert staples and are awe-inspiring. They contain unique time signatures and are intricate and challenging. “All the World’s a Stage” and “Exit Stage Left” are live albums that display Peart’s brilliance. He also released an instructional DVD, “Anatomy of a Drum Solo.” Check out 2004’s “R30,” Rush’s 30th anniversary DVD to see and hear a master at work.

8- Corky Laing (Mountain and West, Bruce and Laing) Another Canadian born stick man (Montreal), Laing is an influential classic rock drummer whose tenure in “Mountain” with Leslie West and Felix Papalardi redefined the rock percussionist’s role in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The cowbell on “Mississippi Queen” is a benchmark moment in classic rock history. His use of double bass drums is tasteful and rocking. Laing is a high energy drummer who is powerful and flamboyant, but at the same time, a rhythm section stalwart whose steady playing is a bedrock foundation for any band of which he is a member. Mountain’s recent appearance at the Seaside Concert Series in Brooklyn was dominated by Laing’s dynamic presence. It seemed like his drums did not need to be “miked” due to his raw power. Listen to “Nanrtucket Sleighride,” “Crossroader,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Never in my Life” to hear the most underrated drummer on this list.

9- Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Cactus and Beck Bogert and Appice) –This Brooklyn born drum wizard has a resume that reads a mile long. Besides the bands I listed, Appice was a member of Rod Stewart’s band on his “Footloose and Fancy Free tour” (1977) and has worked with Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Ted Nugent and jazz bassist Stanley Clarke. Appice hosts drum clinics at a drum conventions, stores and college campuses. His main drum influence is the aforementioned Rich, which shows in his playing. His fluid jazz-rock approach, stick tosses, double bass drum expertise and overall technical ability is second to no one. His brother, Vinny Appice, is playing drums on the current “Heaven and Hell” tour (August 29 in Atlantic City) and recent CD release with Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi.

10- Simon Kirke- (Free and Bad Company) – Kirke’s raw power and steady backbeat made Free and Bad Company two of classic rock’s iconic bands. He is not showy, but that does not mean that he does not have amazing ability. Free’s “All Right Now,” one of classic rock’s anthems, is greatly complemented by his presence. Kirke’s drumming that opens Bad Company’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love,” (after the 1-2-3 countdown), makes “Rock Steady” steady and “Movin’ On” move is a testament to his ability. He also played on a couple of editions of Ringo Starr’s all-star band. Kirke is a rock drummer who is the definition of what a drummer should be.

Honorable Mention: Ringo Starr (The Beatles), Danny Seraphine (Chicago), Aynsley Dunbar (Journey, Jefferson Starship and Jeff Beck), Cozy Powell (Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Whitesnake) and Bill Bruford(Yes).

About Steve Janowsky 88 Articles
Steve Janowsky is a former co-host of the Rocktologists theme based classic rock show radio show on WKRB 90.3 fm, which was voted the best classic rock podcast in the country by Dave White of About.com. Some of the interview guests on the show were Simon Kirke ( Free and Bad Company), Carl Palmer (ELP), Vince Martell (Vanilla Fudge), Randy Jackson (Zebra) and Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. Janowsky is also an English and Journalism instructor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and is an avid guitar player and songwriter.


  1. I greatly enjoyed the article! An argument can be made for the inclusion of Bill Bruford
    in the top ten. Bruford not only performed in Yes;his percussion also provided the foundation for King Crimson and a version of Genesis.In addition, his technical prowess has made him a legitimate drummer in the jazz and jazz-rock worlds.Terry Sullivan of Renaissance,who shared the same drum instructor as Bruford, is a greatly overlooked drummer that incorporated much tuned percussion in classic rock.

  2. Another fine article, Steve. Glad to see you rank Carl Palmer so highly. His drumming is phenomenal. I would’ve put Phil Collins on the list, even if only Honorable Mention. There aren’t many drummers out there whose sound the average man-on-the-street can instantly recognize. Maybe he just did too many sappy pop tunes along the way to qualify anymore. Surprised you didn’t include Charlie Watts, but only because every music writer alive seems to list him among the all-time greats (I’ve always found his playing fairly boring). Absolutely shocked Roger Taylor isn’t on here, but you’ve atoned for this and your other past sins of omission with choice #7. Rock On!

  3. All GREAT drummers. However, the only drummers that have even a chance of topping Peart are Bonham and Moon. Peart is # 3 at worst and THE greatest living rock drummer of all time.

  4. Bonhan great drummer. However, he is up there because the Led Zepplin legend still lives on. It is like Hendricks. Their deaths made them immortals. There are better musicians than them. Nobody has the balls to to judge them against others. There are better drummers and better guitarists for sure, but is to cenvenient and to easy to put them always on top.

  5. John Bonhan speed? Check Ian Paice one hand snare. He is twice the speed of Bonhan for sure.
    Much faster, much more creative, much more virtuoso. Check Burn the main track. Bonhan could only seat, listen to it and contemplate.

  6. Moon great showman, great drummer, but not number 2.
    Honarable mention perhaps. Way to sloopy, his timing is not the greatest either.

  7. It always blows my mind that Buddy Rich never gets the recognition he deserves. His bass drum prowess is second to no ones. Mitchell played well off of Hendrix in The Experience but Rich & Hendrix never gelled in Band Of Gypsies because they were both masters ahead of their time on their respective instruments.

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