He’s the guy (or the gal) sitting in the back. People make fun of him, and the job’s personality type tends toward a class clown mentality. But if the drummer’s off, the band doesn’t fly. Just ask Genesis. It took them four tries before they hired Phil Collins, including a brief turn at the beginning by Peter Gabriel.
In the beginning, the drummer was just a time-keeper. In jazz, that’s enough. In jazz, the drummer has a lot going on already trying to translate a time signature into something the rest of the band can use. There’s an old joke told by Spinal Tap in their subsequent regroupings about the high mortality rate of Tap persussionists: “All they have to do is count to four.” Outside of a progressive rock band, that’s not too far off the mark. But the simplicity of common time actually drives the modern drummer to be something more than a time keeper. If he can’t keep time, he’d better have style.
It’s Ringo Starr who noticed this before most other rock drummers. No one will accuse Ringo of giving Bill Bruford or Alex Van Halen a run for their money. But Ringo’s style was deceptively simple. It was very much a part of The Beatles’ sound. Before other drummers (with the exceptions of maybe Charlie Watts and Cream’s Ginger Baker), Ringo figured out that the drummer’s presence on an album would be missed if he changed it. “Love Me Do” is missing something “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Hard Day’s Night” have. Surprise! It’s the only song on the Beatles’ first album that does not have Ringo drumming. In fact, the drumming is rather dull on that song compared to some early recordings of Ringo’s predecessor, Pete Best (himself no slouch on the drums.) During the White Album sessions, Ringo reached the end of his patience with his more prominent bandmates and walked out. Paul McCartney attempted to take over. Except all Paul could do behind the kit is keep time. Ringo returned, better appreciated by the other three Beatles.
Charlie Watts, though, redefined rock drumming. He was steeped in swing. In the early days, when Mick, Keith, and Brian Jones lived in a slum trying to put the Rolling Stones together, they always had a drummer. But they lusted after Charlie Watts the way most straight men lust after Marilyn Monroe. When Bill Wyman came aboard as bass player, he, too, wanted to play with Charlie. In fact, Watts was the carrot dangled in front of Wyman to get him to join. Never mind that they had not landed him yet.
But Watts is equal in importance to the Stones as Mick and Keith. Without him, they don’t sound like the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards all but says it in his autobiography, Life. Mick found out the hard way in the 1980’s with his brief solo career.
Two drummers, however, defined the force of rock. They are the yin and yang of percussion: The Who’s Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. Moon will never be accused of being a time keeper. In fact, some of the more nuanced Who songs prior to Kenney Jones, Simon Phillips, and Zack Starkey’s tenures are actually played by Pete Townshend. But Townshend explained how the roles were shuffled in The Who. John Entwistle was really the lead guitarist. He just played it on bass. Moon might have played drums, but he functioned more as a keyboardist, adding style and color to the music. What he has in common with Bonham is power.
Bonham was power incarnate behind the kit. Yet much of this was illusion. Bonham lined his bass and tenor drums with aluminum foil and use “trees” for sticks. This resulted in a much louder sound that hid a more delicate touch. Bonham’s time keeping and style wove a thread through Zeppelin’s music so difficult to duplicate that only three drummers have managed to do it: Phil Collins, Chic’s Tony Thompson, and Bonham’s son, Jason. Bonham did more acoustically with the drums than Collins and later drummers did with noise-gating and reverb.
If I had more space, I could do a drummer list. But who do you put on it? Certainly Yes’s two drummers, Bill Bruford and Alan White. Rush’s Neil Peart took Moon’s technique and applied an almost mathematical approach to it. If Moon could play 64th notes with his feet, he’d sound like Peart.
There are the Siamese twins joined at the snare drum, Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, who both prove punk-based drumming can be just as subtle and delicate as jazz or metal drummers. But what about Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason? Listen to the early Floyd albums. Mason is all bombast and flourish, yet his later drumming sounds lifted straight out of the big band era, particularly on Dark Side of the Moon.
I could go on and on, and I’m sure the comment section will fill with everyone’s preferences. How could I forget Jimmy Chamberlin or Patty Schemel? Where’s Buddy Rich? Alex Van Halen and Cozy Powell?
The styles are as varied as any list you could come up with.