Treble’s 50 Favorite Drummers

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Levon Helm
[The Band]

Bring up the subject of drummers who sing, and nine times out of ten, someone’s going to bring up Don Henley. Not that I’m about to start slagging on the Eagles — the flak they receive is overkill at this point — but Levon Helm deserves at least as much credit. Aside from being the voice of many of The Band’s most well-known songs, his drumming style gave their folky rock sound more authority and groove. Take “Up on Cripple Creek,” which contains very little in the way of showing off, but is missing absolutely nothing. Or “This Wheel’s On Fire,” which manages to be heavy without bludgeoning. Helm had a rare, restrained command over his instrument that shined through, even at its most straightforward. – Jeff Terich

Listen: The Band – “Up on Cripple Creek“; The Band – “This Wheel’s On Fire“; The Band – “The Weight

Al Jackson, Jr.
[Booker T & the MG’s; Al Green]

Booker T & the M.G.s recorded literally hundreds of sessions for Stax Records, backing the likes of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Albert King, Eddie Floyd and countless others, and being the foundation of the Southern soul sound means being some of the best musicians in the business. Al Jackson Jr., the M.G.s’ drummer, earned the nickname “The Human Timekeeper” as a result of his rock-solid rhythms, a title he earned through knockout performances (he started in a jazz band at the age of 14!) and the kind of soul that can’t be taught. He later lent his talents to some of Al Green’s best known records, thus carrying Southern soul well into the 1970s. Just remember, every time you wonder just what makes those old Stax records bang so hard, that’s Al Jackson hitting the skins. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Sam & Dave – “Hold On, I’m Coming“; Otis Redding – “Respect“; Al Green – “Love and Happiness

Elvin Jones
[John Coltrane; jazz session]

Dig through most of the great jazz albums recorded in the last 50 years and you’re going to see a lot of recurring names in the session personnel. And as drummers go, there are a handful that show up time and time again, and it’s not because they had nothing better to do. Elvin Jones has a discography as both leader and sideman that’s long enough to make you dizzy, which doesn’t just show off how prolific he was, but also how versatile. He could pull off a Latin syncopation, a lively swing, or even some far-out avant garde improvisation. A pretty big chunk of his career was spent in John Coltrane’s quartet, which essentially meant he had to be on board for any and all directions, and did a bang-up job at that. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Larry Young – “Zoltan“; McCoy Tyner – “Passion Dance“; John Coltrane – “Part 2: Resolution

Ben Koller

In the glory days of hardcore, the only real requirement was to play really, really fast. And it pretty much always worked out just fine. Hardcore has evolved, however, and a handful of pioneering bands, chief among them Converge, have allowed for greater complexity and progressive songwriting and performance. That in mind, Converge’s drummer, Ben Koller, is equal parts Grant Hart and Dave Lombardo, blending speed and efficiency with mathematical complexity and unique stylistic flourishes. Slow, dirgey stomp? Check. Machine-gun grindcore blast? Check. Old school d-beat? Check. There’s a wide range of strategies in his arsenal, all of which destroy. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Converge – “Last Light“; Converge – “Dead Beat“; Converge – “Thaw

Glenn Kotche

Wilco is probably not the first band to come to mind when discussing an artist whose rhythmic core is among America’s most dynamic, but anyone who’s paid at least a little attention will recognize that Glenn Kotche is one of the primary factors that transformed the band from alt-country heroes to art rock innovators. On stage, he performs with a surprising aggression that’s typically kept under wraps in the studio. And in the studio, his performances show off an awe-inspiring range that the sheer intensity of live shows might overshadow. Revisit Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and take in all of the odd blends of percussive elements, unusual ornamentation and just the right fill, sometimes done without ever playing the same thing twice. Kotche has a background that extends beyond rock music, so it comes as no surprise that his outside-the-box thinking is now an essential part of Wilco’s sound. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Wilco – “Poor Places“; Wilco – “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart“; Wilco – “Company In My Back

Gene Krupa/Buddy Rich
[jazz/big band session]

Despite career paths that took some of the same twists and turns, these former big band veterans ended up developing their own styles — Krupa used drum brushes like a painter, Rich seemed the more forceful showman. They were ultimately tied together by famed recordings of their dueling drum performances as well as individual (and some joint) uses of television to help forward the cause of jazz to the general public. Hosted and promoted by the likes of Steve Allen and The Muppets, they would end up touching pop music from KISS to The Beastie Boys. – Adam Blyweiss

Listen: Gene Krupa/Buddy Rich – Drum Battle; Gene Krupa – “Drum Boogie“; Buddy Rich – “Time Check

Jaki Liebezeit

Metronomic, funky, jazzy and abstract, Can’s Jaki Liebezeit is one of the few drummers of the prog-rock era to find a happy medium between the avant garde and the groove. One can point to other Krautrock percussionists — Klaus Dinger, for instance, is essentially the man responsible for the oft-cited “motorik” rhythm. Yet while his style frequently emphasized steady, pulsing progressions, Liebezeit had a fair amount of tricks in his repertoire. The 18-minute funk jam “Halleluwah,” for instance, found him carrying the band’s psychedelic funk through various permutations of his head-nodding rhythms, only to escalate into a rapidly increasing stomp toward the end. “Vitamin C,” meanwhile, showed just how much subtle differences can make in a beat, each measure bringing about a mesmerizing climax. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Can – “Halleluwah“; Can – “Vitamin C“; Can – “Oh Yeah

James Lo

James Lo has a considerable number of interesting entries on his resume — Live Skull, V.A.S.T., Bonnie “Prince” Billy, John Zorn — which goes to show off his versatility. However, his longest running gig (sort of) with the punchy New York post-hardcore outfit Chavez is a strong enough case for his chops. For a band whose melodies are frequently quite beautiful in their heavily distorted majesty, Chavez always played pretty damn heavy. Lo’s contribution to this crushing power lay in his bombastic bursts of crash cymbal, deftly syncopated tom-tom fills and a snare that could break down doors. Lo’s muscular technique comes off as a polar opposite to singer Matt Sweeney’s strangely sweet vocals, but they’re complementary sides of a musical unit that never had a hair out of place. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Chavez – “Tight Around the Jaws“; Chavez – “You Must Be Stopped“; Chavez – “Pentagram Ring

Dave Lombardo

In their prime, Slayer operated almost like an inverse Metallica. Speed and aggression reigned (in blood) over more drawn-out melodic thrash epics, while drummer Dave Lombardo, in contrast to the steadier Lars Ulrich, did a lot of the heavy lifting via ultra-fast breaks and a double-bass style that earned him the title of “godfather of the double bass.” The very concept of Slayer pretty much falls apart without a wicked percussive defensive line to hold it all together, so it sort of goes without saying that Lombardo is a necessary part of the equation. It’s no coincidence that the band underwent a marked dip in quality for a solid decade after Seasons In the Abyss, and that their most acclaimed album since then, Christ Illusion, also happened to be the one on which Lombardo returned. Even if Lombardo’s initial reason for leaving the band stemmed from wanting to spend more time with his wife and newborn child, it’s his thunderous pound that made Slayer sound their most evil. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Slayer – “War Ensemble“; Slayer – “Criminally Insane“; Slayer – “Raining Blood

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