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The 11 most instantly recognisable drummers

A 21-drum salute to 11 tub-thumpers whose playing you can recognise from a mile away – from Joey Jordison to Travis Barker and beyond…

The 11 most instantly recognisable drummers
Words:
Mörat
Header photo:
Paul Harries

World Toilet Day? National Vanilla Cupcake Day? National Sock Day? Who the hell makes these up? It’s not like anyone’s going to forget to go to the toilet! And, frankly, cupcakes, vanilla or otherwise, don’t really merit a celebratory day. And neither do socks!

Today, however, is apparently National Drummer Day, which we think you’ll agree, is something worth raising a glass – or indeed a drumstick – to. After all, it can be a thankless task lugging all that expensive gear around, loading and unloading with no help from your prima donna singer who will be far too busy hogging all the limelight. Not to mention all the endless drummer jokes: How do you know if the drum riser is level? Because the drummer dribbles out of both sides of his mouth…

But as any real musician will tell you, a band is only as good as its drummer. They are the backbone of the band, and without a good drummer, you may as well not bother. So, today, we celebrate 11 of the greatest tub-thumpers of all time, legends one and all. (Hi) hats off to you!

Keith Moon

Legendary Who drummer Keith Moon wasn’t known as Moon The Loon for nothing. With a penchant for destruction, he would wreck pretty much anything in his path – not just hotel rooms, but entire floors – and had a particular fondness for blowing up toilets, presumably not a fan of World Toilet Day. He also famously blew up a drum kit on TV, the resulting explosion setting fire to guitarist Pete Townshend’s hair and allegedly causing him to go deaf for a month. Keith was equally crazed in his playing, wildly expressive, and without question an influence on every drummer in our list – not to mention being the inspiration for Animal from The Muppet Show. Not surprisingly, he was dead by the age of 32.

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Philthy Animal Taylor

It could easily be argued that Mikkey Dee is technically a far superior drummer than Phil Taylor, certainly more precise. But it was Philthy’s ‘sloppy’ style, said by Lemmy to be ‘a collection of mistakes’, that made his playing so cool and so inimitable. Indeed, it was said also (by Lemmy) that Motörhead had to stop playing their signature tune – er, Motörhead – because Mikkey couldn’t replicate Philthy’s beats. And, hey, if we’re talking about instantly recognisable drums, then it doesn’t get any more so than the unrelenting double bass on Overkill.

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Lars Ulrich

Yes, Lars Ulrich. Enough with the ‘he’s not even the best drummer in Metallica’ jokes. Lars may be many things, but a shit drummer he is not. Sure, he may not be metronomic – see Kill ’Em All – but his ability to add nuance to a song or a little flash here and there is vastly underrated. Just check out the snare fill on Sad But True! Moreover, Lars has had a hand in writing every Metallica song since their inception 40 years ago, and they’ve sold a fair few albums – so he must be doing something right!

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Paul Cook

From The Damned’s Rat Scabies to Poison Idea’s Steve ‘Thee Slayer Hippy’ Hanford, Topper Headon of The Clash and Bad Brains’ Earl Hudson, there are any number of punk drummers worthy of our list, but if ever there was an example of a drummer holding a band together, it would be the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook. Granted, there was nothing flashy about his playing, just a solid beat, always on tempo, but in many ways, it was the very foundation of the band without which it would have all fallen apart. Simple, but oh so effective!

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Travis Barker

With all the trappings of stardom, reality TV shows and dating Kardashians, it’s easy to forget that Travis Barker is, at his very core, a truly exceptional drummer. You may or may not like his music – from The Aquabats and blink-182 to the Transplants and on into hip-hop collaborations – but there is no questioning his talent or passion. Seriously, he’s been playing since he was four years old, and while initially inspired by Animal from The Muppet Show, he went on to develop a style that takes in the likes of Tommy Lee and jazz legend Buddy Rich. Hell, he broke his arm during a video shoot and played a blink tour with one arm! He’s that good!

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Bill Ward

It is widely (and rightly) accepted that Black Sabbath invented heavy metal, but while much of the credit goes to guitarist Tony Iommi, the band would have been an entirely different beast without drummer Bill Ward. Perhaps underrated because the first Sabbath albums were recorded in days rather than weeks or months, somewhat burying his talent with a lo-fi mix, Bill had a swinging jazz/blues style, pulling back between beats and accenting with cymbals. A monster behind the kit when it was necessary, he also knew when to hold back, a prime example being the instantly recognisable hi-hat timekeeping at the start of War Pigs. No Bill Ward, no Sabbath. It’s that simple.

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Dave Lombardo

While it was Phil Taylor who brought a particular style of double-bass to rock, metal, and punk, it’s Slayer’s Dave Lombardo who took it to an entirely different level. Astonishingly fast and with pinpoint accuracy, his influence is boundless – taking in everyone from Igor Cavalera (Sepultura) and Raymond Herrera (Fear Factory) to Joey Jordison of Slipknot and Roy Mayorga of Ministry and Stone Sour, and his legacy second to none! As well as Slayer, Dave has left his mark with such bands as Suicidal Tendencies, the Misfits, Amen and Fantômas, to name but a few. “To me, he’s the Keith Moon of thrash metal,” said Roy. High praise indeed.

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Joey Jordison

Voted the best drummer of the previous 25 years by readers of Rhythm Magazine in 2010, it goes without saying that the late and very great Joey Jordison was a phenomenal and mesmerising talent. And a thoroughly nice bloke, it should be mentioned. But aside from his work with Slipknot, notably bringing blastbeats to the mainstream, it is perhaps for that historic day in 2004 for which he’ll be most fondly remembered. You know the one: when Metallica were supposed to be headlining Download Festival and found themselves sans drummer at the last minute. So along comes Joey, with no rehearsals, and stands in for Lars, playing no less than eight of the 13 songs on the setlist and even improving them with improvised fills. Out-fucking-standing!

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Tommy Lee

So where do we go after Joey? Well, personal taste aside, it would be rude not to mention that Mr. Jordison’s revolving, upside down drum kit was not the first of its kind. Indeed, frequently clad in an outfit that could double as a pirate’s eyepatch, Tommy Lee has employed revolving kits, rollercoaster kits, and all manner of other gimmicks throughout his career with glam rock giants Mötley Crüe, and while a cruel voice might suggest that it’s to distract the listener from the vocals, it is actually because Tommy is a showman. And sometimes you need an outrageous drummer who can pull off all the tricks, while nailing the beat like a carpenter.

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Joey Castillo

And as the comments on social media will doubtless point out, we have yet to mention such greats as Jean-Paul Gastor, Brann Dailor, Matt Cameron, Dave Grohl, and John Dolmayan. But let’s go out on a limb here and bring up a name that deserves to be up there with them, and really doesn’t get enough praise. How about doing 10 years for Danzig, after turning down Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies? How about 10 years with Queens Of The Stone Age? Not to mention playing drums for The Hives, Mark Lanegan, Eagles Of Death Metal and Bloodclot. An absolute fucking powerhouse behind the kit, Joey recently played with The Bronx at Punk Rock Bowling festival… and then did a 33-song headline set with Circle Jerks! Legendary!

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John Bonham

Come on, you didn’t seriously think we’d forgotten John Bonham, did you? Like Moon The Loon, at the start of our list, John’s influence is unsurpassed, essentially inventing a new heavy style of playing, described as ‘artful clobbering’ because no-one had done it before. Voted the greatest drummer of all time by Modern Drummer and Rhythm magazines, he topped a Rolling Stone poll ‘by a significant margin’ in 2011 and again in 2016. “I spent years in my bedroom – literally fucking years – listening to Bonham's drums and trying to emulate his swing or his behind-the-beat swagger or his speed or power," said Dave Grohl, in the same magazine. Unfortunately, like Keith Moon, John was also dead by 32. It’s safe to say that his legacy lives on.

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