How do you pick best drummers? The list could be endless, starting with the first neanderthal beating on a log with a bone. No, he was not part of the British Invasion.
There are great jazz and big band drummers, but that is beyond my base of knowledge, so I am going to focus on post-1960s music.
Hal Blaine – The godfather of the Wrecking Crew, player on 40 #1 records and over 150 top ten hits. From the Beach Boys to Simon & Garfunkel to Elvis to Phil Spector, Blaine was the first drummer you called for a session in the 1960s. He could pick the beat and time better than anyone. He played on six consecutive Record of Year Grammy winners. Blaine was credited with inventing the disco drum beat that everyone copied in the 1970s.
Earl Palmer – Played on many sessions in the 1950s and 1960s, the early rock and roll records of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ricky Nelson, Ray Charles, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys and most of the sessions that Hal Blaine didn’t play. Palmer also played sessions for Dizzie Gillespie, Count Basie and B.B. King. You can hear him on Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Sarah Vaughn, Bobby Darin and many other artists. His timing was so good, he worked more than 450 sessions in 1967.
Ringo Starr – The ex-Beatle never got the respect he deserved. Never flashy, Ringo was a very good timekeeper and knew how to add the right fill to each song. The Beatles produced songs in many different styles and time signatures, but Sir Richard Starkey kept the beat. Only on Abbey Road did he reluctantly perform a drum solo.
Bill Bruford – This guy was part of two revolutionary bands: Yes and King Crimson, with a side trip with Genesis. Bruford’s style is hard to define because he played rock, jazz-fusion, world music and progressive rock. He earned a doctorate in music along the way. A found member of Yes, he left as their star was ascending, to play more experimental and jazz-influenced music.
John Bonham – All you need to know is “When the Levee Breaks.” Bonham developed the bottom-end sound for heavy metal and hard rock. The power in his drumming, the shear vibration and shock wave defined the genre as much as shred of the guitar. The drums were a key instrument for the attitude and swagger of this gritter and blues-edged music. “No Quarter,” “Misty Mountain Hop,”The Ocean” and “Trampled Under Foot.” There are all kinds of YouTube videos about his style and influence on other drummer from how he gripped the sticks to his double kick drum action.
Ginger Baker – Beware of Mr. Baker, his angry persona exemplified his drumming style. Take no prisoners, offer no apologies. He was the first of the popular power trio drummers. In Cream, and briefly, Blind Faith, Baker was the engine for those supercharged groups. His power was certainly equal to Keith Moon, but he was not a basher, and while he kept great time, his drumming gave you much more. His background in jazz brought such opportunities for rhythm in a rock style. Baker gave you the impression there were two drummers instead of just one.
Phil Collins – If you can set aside the Phil Collins singer, and focus on his drumming, Collins was the rock star of drummers in the 1980s. He joined Genesis in their early period and gave them not only a talented musician as different styles and tempos, but he developed the patented “gated drum sound” that became a cliche in the 1980s. Collins was part of the jazz-fusion band, Brand X, in the late 1970s. If you listen to Genesis in the 1970s and focus on the percussion, you can appreciate his immense talent.
Jeff Porcaro – A member of Toto, but a premier drummer that was an A -List session player. He worked with rock artists but he was as likely to play sessions for Hollywood elite. He was the likely the first name you called for an important session. He began working for Sonny and Cher, then went on to Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, Dire Straits, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Rickie Lee Jones, Donna Summer, Joe Walsh, Dave Mason, Warren Zevon and even Pink Floyd.
Jim Keltner – During the 1970s, he was the go-to-guy for the biggest musical artists in rock. He has a ton of Gold and Platinum records and was part of a few bands including the Traveling Wilburies. Keltner was a solid interpretive drummer, quick to figure out the best rhythmic style to support a variety of artists. Check the album credits during the 1970s and 1980s and you’ll often find his name. He played with Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, George Harrison, John Lennon, John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Roy Orbison and many more.
Carmine Appice – He is the representative, along with John Bonham of the heavy rock breed of drummer that became prevalent during the 1970s and 1980s. Huge, thunderous percussionist that matched the attitude of the band or artist. A member of Vanilla Fudge, he also worked with Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart. He co-wrote and played on the Stewart classic, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”
Carl Palmer – A member of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, he was versatile to play progressive-rock or classical. He also was a founding member of the band Asia. Palmer had a dynamic style of playing, deep and expansive, but not necessarily showy.
Billy Cobham – He came from the jazz field and became a powerhouse jazz-fusion drummer. From Miles Davis to the Mahavishnu Orchestra to the Greatful Dead, Cobham covered a lot of ground. As a solo artist, he’s released many albums. He became the godfather of jazz-fusion artists who followed.
Honorable mention: Tommy Lee, Cozy Powell, Roger Taylor, Alex Van Halen, Steve Gadd, Russ Kunkel, Neal Peart, Ian Paice, Al Jackson, Jr. and Stewart Copeland.
Who did I leave out?