I’ve played drums for eleven or twelve years now and I think it’s made me bitter. Nowadays, few people are using analog studio equipment, the vast majority of performing artists able to step on stage with only a flash drive. Dave Grohl, of Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and Them Crooked Vultures fame, put out a film a couple years back about the decay of analog music, and as a drummer I can definitely identify. Don’t get me wrong, some drum machine beats are rad, but nothing can match the thunder of a real drum kit harnessed by a real drummer.
In my experience, drums are the first tracks to lay down in the studio. As well, when playing live, the other musicians do well to allow the drummer a leadership role, not necessarily in songwriting but in the energy driving the performance. The drums are the heartbeat of any song, and there’s nothing like an organic heartbeat.
Recently, I entered the studio with a band who had recorded all their tracks with a metronome or drum machine beat, and trying to add a drum part was so very unenjoyable. The rhythms didn’t feel organic and the songwriting was so fixed that my drumming became extra flair (that truthfully they didn’t need). I was glad to see them take another direction, using computerized drums instead, because the possibility of a rhythmic foundation was already lost.
If you listen to some of the best tunes out there, the drums will always be a vital factor. And it doesn’t always have to do with skill. The new Dream Theater drummer (Mike Portnoy should be glad he left) can play faster than almost any other human, but there is no groove, no heart underneath all that technical mastery. Even jazz, a technically difficult realm of music, is better when the drummer is simple and brutal.
A real drummer with soul will blow the lid off a song, and give the rest of the musicians a strong base to play over, a heartbeat to live by.
For some of the best drumming ever, check out this list of my favorite drummers, with attached reasoning on why these folks are totally crazy awesome.
First, listen to John Bonham. His playing made Led Zeppelin thunderous rock legends; no one will ever beat the shit out of a kit like Bonham did. Also, Keith Moon annihilates the drums on every recording with the Who ever. Oh yeah, and Ginger Baker is ridiculous.
Jazz drumming is a whole different monster, and one should look no further than Buddy Rich (the man beat Animal in a drum duel and could play with the same vigor when upside down), Lenny White (simply listen to his work with Chick Corea and Return to Forever), and Max Roach (he could do on a high hat what most players can’t on a kit). But also, check out the dynamite drummer Stanton Moore, the legendary modern monster who makes Galactic a great funk outfit but also inspires all kinds of new jazz players.
Beyond the classic greats, there are a lot of heavy hitters that generally stay under the radar, at least in popular music. For instance, John Stanier, the former drummer for Helmet and currently the rhythmic mastermind behind Battles, has a signature style all his own and does some of the craziest playing around. Then there are geniuses of polyrhythms like Gavin Harrison, who played with the now disbanded Porcupine Tree. His work set a new standard for modern prog rock. And, like it or not, Larry Mullen, Jr. from U2 continues to demonstrate that less is more when rhythm is concerned (everything he does is perfect for the song, and that’s a really important example to set for players who only want to hear the speed of their own soloing).
Of course, there’s the rhythm wizard ?uestlove, who proves that humans can play exactly what machines can, but with more soul and groove than any of said computerized musicians. There’s a reason The Roots are the funkiest hip hop act out there, and ?uestlove is a high percentage of that reason (the percussionist F. Knuckles has something to do with it too).
Naturally, one has to have infinite respect for Dave Grohl. Almost no players out there care as much as he does about the drums, and music in general. The man’s one of the most enthusiastic players out there, and his first allegiance is to simple, elegant rock and roll that continues the traditions of analog technology and the most organic sound. His example is paramount to the world of drummers.
And also, don’t forget Ringo. Never, ever forget Ringo.