Treble’s 50 Favorite Drummers

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Clyde Stubblefield
[James Brown]

James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” is, reportedly, the most sampled record of all-time, and with all due respect to the Godfather of Soul, the credit lies entirely with the funky drummer, himself, Clyde Stubblefield. Now, being in James Brown’s band required a simultaneous looseness and perfectionism best left to jazz musicians can pull off, which is, in a sense, the underlying basis for Brown’s brand of funk. Stubblefield, keeping that tight-loose dynamic in check, more or less invented funk drumming, as established in 1967 single “Cold Sweat.” With Brown’s band, groove was everything, and though Stubblefield could outdrum the best of them, his style is most recognizable at its simplest, keeping an intricate funk tangle in line with soulful discipline. – Jeff Terich

Listen: James Brown – “Funky Drummer“; James Brown – “Cold Sweat“; James Brown – “Ain’t It Funky Now

Pete Thomas
[Elvis Costello & the Attractions; session]

In the hierarchy of necessary elements to playing punk rock, technical skills are somewhere near the bottom, though a handful of new wavers made certain to tighten up and give it a more stylish, streamlined makeover. Elvis Costello’s Attractions were some of the best in the business, chiefly drummer Pete Thomas, whose technique frequently allowed for more dazzle than his contemporaries. In fact, none other than Tom Waits called him “one of the best rock drummers alive.” No small compliment. But given that the focus of Costello’s music has been his lyrics (not too shabby, those), it’s to Thomas’ credit that his drumming was in competition for the best thing about the group. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Elvis Costello & the Attractions – “No Action“; Elvis Costello & the Attractions – “Lipstick Vogue“; Elliott Smith – “Can’t Make a Sound

Todd Trainer

More than any other noise rock or post-hardcore band, and that includes other bands that Steve Albini has been in, Shellac is about getting the most out of the fewest elements. Just one guitar, one bass, one drummer — that’s it. And yet, those three elements each hit like a concrete block. When you consider that the band is two-thirds rhythm section, there’s not really any mystery why that’s the case, and Bob Weston’s bass, at times, functions almost as a percussive instrument rather than carrying the low end. But Todd Trainer is the one who applies the beatings, steadily, heavily, and professionally, like a well-connected pro who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, but would rather not get any of the mess on his suit. It takes finesse to work a room as dry as Albini’s. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Shellac – “Crow“; Shellac – “Il Porno Star“; Shellac – “Prayer to God

Maureen Tucker
[Velvet Underground]

When held up against the other 49 drummers on this list, Maureen Tucker won’t shine as the most rhythmically complex, technically proficient or precise drummer. But, see, that doesn’t really matter. Tucker didn’t play the way a drummer was supposed to, and as a result essentially re-wrote the rules of drumming. She played standing up, with an upturned bass drum, took out the cymbals, and beat the living shit out of her set with a pair of mallets. Drumming for the Velvet Underground took brute force rather than scalpel accuracy, so she did her part in helping to make the band the noisiest group of the 1960s. Too bad about the whole tea party thing. – Jeff Terich

Listen: The Velvet Underground – “I’m Waiting For the Man“; The Velvet Underground – “Sister Ray“; The Velvet Underground – “What Goes On

Bill Ward
[Black Sabbath]

Being the world’s first true heavy metal band might indicate, by default, having a drummer with the heaviest playing style of all time. That’s not exactly true; Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, another massive heavy metal influence, played with a much more leaden stomp. Ward, though one of the crucial players in making Sabbath’s music so massive, switched up his style from a more straightforward psych-rock thud, to the occasionally jazzy fill, to the slow, doomy trudge that made Sabbath’s debut so ominous. Ward maybe wasn’t the heaviest, but certainly one of the most badass, and the scars from having his beard repeatedly set on fire (!) are there to prove it. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Black Sabbath – “War Pigs“; Black Sabbath – “The Wizard“; Black Sabbath – “Behind the Wall of Sleep

Charlie Watts
[The Rolling Stones]

Dapper, less visibly ravaged by chemical abuse and above all classy, Charlie Watts is the easiest member of the band to spot on stage, which means he’s the one who blends in most easily offstage. Aside from a period of heavy drinking, Watts never lived much like a rock star — he’s kept faithful to his wife of 47 years, and actually tends to be more of a jazz fan than a rock `n’ roller. Interesting irony that, given he’s drummed for five decades in one of the most massively successful rock bands of all time. Yet Watts plays some pretty mean rock `n’ roll drums. For a jazz guy, he tends to exercise restraint, and tends to play in the service of the song, and on stage, he’s incredibly refined, never becoming the embodiment of the wild, hairy Muppet that graces the top of this feature. So it’s a wonder those drums have so much kick. Plenty of drummers fail miserably at trying to be Buddy Rich; not enough succeed at trying to be Charlie. – Jeff Terich

Listen: The Rolling Stones – “Monkey Man“; The Rolling Stones – “Loving Cup“; The Rolling Stones – “Sister Morphine

Janet Weiss
[Sleater-Kinney; Quasi; Wild Flag; Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks]

It might be far easier to acknowledge the rise of The Female Drummer with someone like Meg White or Sheila E., were it not for the fact that they’re one-note stereotypes. While the road from Sleater-Kinney’s post-riot grrrl punk to Wild Flag’s hook-laden indie rock may be a short one, Weiss possesses enough power and skill to avoid White’s pitfalls as a simple window-dressing rhythm-keeper. Weiss also earned her own quarter-decade of pedigree the hard way, instead of through showbiz-family nepotism like Sheila E. did by R&B contemporaries and jazz family. – Adam Blyweiss

Listen: Sleater-Kinney – “Entertain“; Sleater-Kinney – “One Beat“; Quasi – “Our Happiness Is Guaranteed

Tony Williams
[Eric Dolphy; Miles Davis Quintet; Tony Williams Emergency; et al.]

Tony Williams earned his rightful title as one of the most influential drummers in jazz pretty damn early; the Chicago born drummer joined Miles Davis’ second quintet at the age of 17, making him the youngest member of the group by a good margin. If that wasn’t enough, he released his first album as a bandleader and played in sessions for landmark albums by Herbie Hancock and Eric Dolphy, all before turning 20. With his Tony Williams Lifetime project, he delved into harder-hitting jazz-fusion rock styles, but his most impressive work is frequently in the acoustic jazz he played leading up to that. He could glide with an easy going lightness, but he could also smack louder than any of his bandmates. His percussive battle against Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone abuse in Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” is a case in point that jazz isn’t for lightweights. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Eric Dolphy – “Hat and Beard“; Miles Davis – “Frelon Brun (Brown Hornet)“; Andrew Hill – “Flight 19

Boris Williams
[The Cure]

In 35 years, The Cure has gone through at least five drummers, which in retrospect makes Robert Smith sound less like a control freak than I would have given him credit for. There was “Graham,” the group’s first drummer; Andy Anderson, who was fired for destroying a hotel room; Lol Tolhurst, who more or less sounded like a drum machine; Jason Cooper, who has been with the band since 1995; and Boris Williams, the best drummer who ever backed the band. From the opening fills of “In Between Days,” on The Head on the Door, Williams’ presence became an unstoppable element in the band, and one much more complex and unusual than first glance might reveal. Sure, the guy was solid, even amazing, but beyond that, his linear style meant that his drum parts were written almost as songs in themselves. And while never played ride, he fitted his set with two hi-hats. However unorthodox his methods sometimes were, they definitely worked to his advantage. – Jeff Terich

Listen: The Cure – “In-Between Days“; The Cure – “Icing Sugar“; The Cure – “Closedown

Yoshimi P-We
[Boredoms; OOIOO]

Her name is Yoshimi. She’s got a black belt in karate. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the longtime Boredoms drummer is well accomplished in the discipline of percussion. The “lead” drummer of the group, who has been known to have as few as two drummers onstage and as many as 77, was, in fact, the inspiration for the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and it has a lot to do with the fact that she’s a total badass. Over the course of the Boredoms’ more than two decades together, Yoshimi’s role has remained indispensable, particularly as the group has grown away from its earlier, noisy incarnations toward a more rhythmic dynamic that stands as one of the most interesting developments in psychedelic music. And if you need help picking out which drummer she is in the chorus of percussionists, most likely she’s the one banging the fastest and the hardest. Because, y’know, she’s a total badass. – Jeff Terich

Listen: Boredoms – “Poy“; Boredoms – “(Circle)“; Boredoms – “Super Are

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