With 2014 now in our rear-view mirror, we shake off our turkey-induced holiday hibernation and prepare for the challenges of a new year. Many drummers are preparing for their early 2015 tours while builders and shop owners are stocking their shelves with the latest and greatest products for 2015. As one of several new initiatives for the year, the 1710 Percussion team is launching a new “Drum Forum” where we discuss the world of drumming from manufacturing to maintenance to performing. We will enlist the support of our very talented stable of 1710 drummers for their expertise and experiences in the industry. We know that you will find these topics informative and hope you will engage our team in a dialog about each topic.
Now that we set the bar high for the forum, what better way to start off 2015 than with a meaningless and controversial top-10 list? You don’t need to search the internet for long to find a popular list of “Greatest Drummers” or “Drum Gods” which will likely contain our favorites including Bohnam, Peart, Rich and Moon. But in the spirit of counting our blessings, we decided to focus on the drummers who rarely receive the credit they deserve for the impact they’ve had on popular music. So, without further delay, we present our list of the “Top 10 Underrated Drummers of All Time”.
**Note: this list was compiled with absolutely zero empirical evidence or scientific fortitude. There were no industry-wide surveys or intense interviews with Hall of Fame musicians. Simply put, we just picked some cool drummers that never get enough props. Also, it is important to highlight that the author was a math major and is a drum builder. Lower your expectations immediately…this will not be a new York Times Best Seller.
Now, here are the drummers:
#10. Chester Thompson
Any drummer who plays with Zappa should immediately garner respect.
But Chester Thompson is often forgotten when the lists of greatest drummers are compiled. His work with Genesis shows his incredible range and talent. It’s a mystery that Phil Collins can make a top-10 list but Chester Thompson is forgotten. Well, not on this list. Maybe I was influenced by my Chester Thompson signature drum sticks I had as a kid.
#9. Cindy Blackman
To the casual music fan, Cindy Blackman is known for touring with Lenny Kravitz.
But she is more appropriately recognized for her strong jazz roots and desire to achieve “virtuoso” status as a drummer. I had the pleasure of seeing Cindy Blackman play live with in 1993 with Kravitz when she ripped a face-melting 60-second solo at the end of the first song that set the tone for the rest of the gig. Her combination of power, passion, technique and style are infectious.
#8. Robert Sweet
This one should have you scratching your head.
Robert Sweet is the heavy-hitting power-house drummer for the 80’s Christian Rock band Stryper. Yes…Stryper. The entire band fails to get recognized for their great music during the Hair Metal era. But Robert Sweet’s yellow and black attack method of drumming should be applauded. Known as the “visual timekeeper”, Sweet coupled strong back-beats and thunderous kick drum patterns with crisp cymbal work to create a dynamic sound. In order to give the audience a more complete experience, he often set up his kit facing “stage right” allowing more of his performance to be seen.
#7. Michael Shrieve
Two words: “Soul Sacrifice”. At only 20 years old, Michael Shrieve made drumming history playing Woodstock with Santana.
His solo during “Soul Sacrifice” is often referred to as one of the best recorded drum solos of all time. But still, Shrieve is scarcely mentioned in discussions of great drummers. As a teenager he played as a house drummer backing legends like B.B. King. And beyond his performance at Woodstock, he played on Santana’s greatest tracks. Jazz, rock, and latin rhythms are all discernible in his style. But Shrieve’s technique and use of each genre are what make him one of the greats.
#6. Bill Ward
Frankly, it is difficult to describe Bill Ward’s style on those monumental Black Sabbath albums.
But after doing a little research on his personal influences, you can hear Ward channeling Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa in the way he uses his tom fills as accent points as though he was following a trumpet line. Those tight “stabs” are paired with loose melodic rhythms to great a sound that is uniquely Bill Ward. As the early 70’s heavy metal tsunami overtook rock music, Ward’s big band-based sound amassed less attention than Bohnam. Above all of his accomplishments, Ward can claim one of the greatest hi-hat lines in all of rock music…”War Pigs”. Perhaps this will be the topic of a future top-10 list.
#5. Mitch Mitchell
Jazz fusion meets psychedelic rock. There is little doubt that Mitch Mitchell is a phenomenal drummer…but yet he often doesn't crack the “greatest” lists.
That is understandable when you are backing arguably the greatest guitarist in history who casts a larger-than-life shadow. Perhaps as part of a rock trio, Mitch Mitchell is subconsciously compared to Ginger Baker and therefor forgotten when the lists are tallied. But you need only listen to “Manic Depression” to understand the complexity and completeness of his skill. Playing an Afro-Cuban tom melody over a Waltz tempo, this song is the benchmark by which drummers should be measured. Mitch Mitchell was both the backbone of the rhythm section and also an instrumental part of the melody of Hendrix songs. Throw in the blistering polyrhythms of “Fire” and Mitch Mitchell gets my vote as one of the most underrated and greatest drummers of all time.
#4. Nicko McBrain
Yes, many of these drummers are hard rock/metal drummers.
Completely unintentional. But let’s stick with that genre and discuss Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain. To be honest, I have seen Nicko on a few top drummer lists…but not nearly enough. Every time I sit behind a drum set, one of the first songs I rock is “The Trooper”. I first played the song when I was 13 years old and it remains one of my favorite drum tracks. Nicko highlights his lightning fast single kick action and his wide ranging tom configuration in this high energy drumming masterpiece. If you see Maiden live, you will struggle to see Nicko behind the wall of percussion. But you will definitely hear and feel his magnificence. Every drum has a reason and is used masterfully to create meaningful musicianship. Maiden’s recent resurgence has rightfully placed Nicko back on the forefront of current rock drummers.
#3. Carlton Barrett
The list of incredible drum tracks from Bob Marley and the Wailers overwhelming.
On songs like “No Woman, No Cry”, “Stir it Up” and “Get Up, Stand Up”, Carlton Barrett perfected the rhythm that is now universal in reggae music. By striking the snare and kick together on the third beat and leaving first beat empty, the “one drop” is an undeniable sound that is simple but defining. The beauty of Barrett’s sound is the space in time that he charges with slow triplets and rolling tom fills. As a preview to the next two drummers, Barrett’s best quality is that he makes great music. Reggae drummers typify this concept, but Carlton Barrett stands out for understanding the role his instrument plays in the larger sound. It’s not about how fast, complicated or loud you play…it’s about making a great sounding song.
#2. Ringo Starr
And here’s our token Ringo Starr input.
Can’t have a top-10 list of drummers (best, worst, overrated or underrated) without him. But let’s continue on the previous thread about making great music, not great drum tracks. In my opinion, the song “Something” from the Beatles is one of the most perfect recordings in modern music. And Ringo’s drum work plays a significant part in that beauty. A few things jump out immediately to include the delicate triplet patters that give the song the flow of significance. Also, the purposeful beat is steady enough to harden the backbone but subtle enough to allow the listener to enjoy the sound of George Harrison’s voice. Next, his perfect switching between ride cymbal and hi-hats provides balance and dynamics. Last, but most important, it’s not what he plays in this song that is consequential, it’s what he doesn’t play. If any other drummer plays this song, it doesn’t work. That was the beauty of the Beatles. And that’s the beauty of Ringo Starr. The same logic applies to other works like “Oh! Darlin”, “I Me Mine” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. Creating their catalog of popular music requires skill and musicianship. Ringo’s underrated drumming is a lynchpin to that recipe.
#1. Phil Rudd
Forget the recent news about drug convictions and murder-for-hire charges; let’s talk about Rock and Roll drumming.
If you learned to play the drums any time after July 25th, 1980, you probably did so by playing every song from AC/DC “Back in Black”. With 40 million copies sold, this album contains 176 minutes and 5 seconds of pure magic. And you can count on one hand the number of times you hear a tom fill. Phil Rudd’s drumming is as basic as it gets, and as good as it gets at the same time. We can discuss syncopation, polyrhythms and irrational time signatures…but why? Let’s discuss “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”. Um, flams are complicated right? Crashing the same cymbal 14 times in a row is complex drumming right? WHO CARES? This song is friggin amazing! Swap out the drum line with anything else and the song fails…the record only moves 30 million copies. Not only is Phil Rudd the most underrated drummer of all time, he’s the quintessential rock drummer that all others should aspire to be (minus the off-stage legal issues). The drum tracks from the first nine AC/DC records inspired kids to pick up a pair of sticks and blast out a basic rock beat. No flash, no flair, no interpretation, just high voltage rock and roll.
So there you have it, the 10 most underrated drummers of all time. I hope you enjoyed the journey. Let me hear your thoughts, stories and opinions. Stay tuned for more articles soon. Likely of more substance and professional rigor…