Drumming Legends: 5 Iconic Drummers Who Changed Rock Music

What is rock music without a backbeat? Well, it’s not really rock music at all. From the time that the music first began to stand apart from the genres from which it first emanated and began to captivate the public, it was clear that drummers were essential to this new hybrid. There have been so many iconic drummers that naming five who stand apart from the rest is bound to start arguments. While you might have your own choices, we stand by the five drummers below as being foundational, not just for the sound of their band but in terms of the history of rock music itself.

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1. Ringo Starr, The Beatles

Ringo Starr actually tried to get out of the brief solo he performed toward the end of the melody found on Side Two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. It was never his style to stand out in that manner. By contrast, he wished to simply provide whatever the song needed. Of course, he could handle the flashier stuff when called upon to do so. Think about the work he does on psychedelic forays like “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Rain.”

In addition, his backbeat kept things together even when things were at their most chaotic. Check out the Get Back documentary: No matter how many times The Beatles play those songs, Starr is absolutely unerring. He might have been fortunate to land in The Beatles as an emergency replacement, but, in the end, the band was far more fortunate to have him.

2. Charlie Watts, The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones’ 2023 album, Hackney Diamonds, features only a few tracks where Charlie Watts, who passed away in 2021, appears, which is just hard to wrap your head around. As excellent as Steve Jordan is as a replacement, Watts’ appearance at the back of the bandstand, stoic and unswerving as he handled anything his more volatile bandmates threw at him, is hard to replace.

That demeanor, coupled with his longtime preference for jazz over rock and roll, might fool you into thinking that his playing is somehow restrained or genteel. Just listen to the charging opening of “Paint It Black” to be disavowed of that notion. Practically every signature Stones song features at least one moment when you’ll notice Watts’ playing, and it will bring a smile to your face and a bob to your head.

3. Keith Moon, The Who

Keith Moon set the template for the charming ne’er-do-well rock drummer that many others have followed. His exploits off the stage and out of the studio should never outweigh what he did whenever he settled down long enough to sit at the kit and get rolling. Pete Townshend realized at some point that it was futile to fight against Moon’s maximalist style, and so simply started writing songs with such epic scope that they were suitable for the backbeat they would receive. The rest of the band followed suit, from John Entwistle’s thundering bass, to Townshend’s windmilling guitar stabs, to Roger Daltrey’s primordial screams.

When they all got rolling in the same direction, it was a transcendent racket, and Moon set the tone. After Moon’s death, The Who sounded a little more refined and precise. Yet they also never quite recaptured the explosive alchemy of landmarks like Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia without their original human spark plug.

4. John Bonham, Led Zeppelin

Nobody banged the drums any harder than John Bonham, the burly Brit who gave Led Zeppelin the thunder to balance out the quicksilver lightning of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. But Bonham was more than just a basher without abandon. He and bassist John Paul Jones deserve credit for keeping the bottom end from swerving out of control whenever Page’s inventive songcraft pushed them to the hilt.

The band’s fourth album is largely hailed as one of the seminal moments in hard rock, and Bonham’s playing is essential to its success. Think of how he crashes his way through the reckless pace of “Rock and Roll,” how he massages the delicate sections of “Stairway to Heaven,” or how he rattles the Earth in “When the Levee Breaks.” 

5. Levon Helm, The Band

How was it that a group that was 80% Canadian came out sounding so quintessentially American? Perhaps because the other 20%, Levon Helm, had a knowledge of roots music that filtered its way through not just the Arkansas drawl of his vocals, but also through the drumming pocket that he seemed to find again and again with The Band. He could deliver herky-jerky beats like “Up on Cripple Creek” that always kept you on your toes, or he could lock into a funky groove as he does on “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” that puts a shimmy into your core.

Helm also set a standard as a drummer-vocalist that will be tough to match. When those two talents came together on songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” it could inspire awe like few other things in rock.

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

2 Comments

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  1. While I don’t take issue with any of the drummers listed here, these are brain-numbingly obvious choices. I would argue that, if you insist on limiting the list to 5, Stewart Copeland deserves Levon Helms’ spot. And, I don’t know who sends out notifications from American Songwriter, but I’ve worked with a whole lot of drummers in my time and they were all human beings, not objects… So, I’m pleased to see that the actual sub-title of this piece is “5 iconic drummers WHO changed rock music” rather than how this morning’s notification put it, “5 iconic drummers THAT changed rock music.” Peace.

  2. Rand, I wouldn’t move Levon out, but I agree that the list should be bigger – at least big enough to accommodate Copeland and (though influential to perhaps a smaller group of listeners) Richie Hayward of Little Feat.

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