There are few drummers as impressive as a heavy metal drummer. Blast beats, a million toms and fills hard enough to give you granite boots. Watching a heavy metal drummer is simply a joy to behold, and their role in such bands is vital. Without the precision and technical ability of the heavy metal drummer, the sound from the rest of the band would sound an utter mess.
Nicko McBrain of Iron Maiden is such a drummer. Born in Hackney in 1952, McBrain first started drumming on pots and pans in his parents’ kitchen, using utensils as sticks, later graduating onto the gas cooker with knives. His parents were not too happy with this, so his father bought him his first drumkit aged eleven, consisting of one tom, one snare and a cymbal. He started playing in school bands, performing covers of the Beatles and Rolling Stones before playing in pubs and at weddings.
McBrain eventually joined Iron Maiden in 1982 after meeting the band whilst touring with French outfit Trust, replacing former Maiden drummer Clive Burr. He debuted on Maiden’s 1983 album Piece of Mind and formed a tight rhythm section with bassist Steve Harris, forming what many consider to be Iron Maiden’s definitive lineup. A string of gold and platinum-selling albums followed.
Whilst undoubtedly a heavy hitter of the pans, delving into McBrain’s drumming influences might come as a surprise, with the list heavy on blues and jazz drummers. Here, we have compiled the list of who McBrain considers his top five most influential drummers.
Nicko McBrain’s five favourite drummers
Joe Morello was an American jazz drummer known for his work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. He was heralded for his complicated time signatures and rhythms, which gave rise to the quartet’s popularity. Morello was part of the quartet’s classic lineup, which included Paul Desmond. Desmond intentionally wrote ‘Take Five’, the group’s most famous track, to show Morello’s ability to play in a 5/4 time signature.
“Morello was a guy I saw do a drum solo live on telly with Dave Brubeck, the track ‘Take Five’,” McBrain confirmed. “Must have been ’62, middle of ’62. I was 10. I remember seeing this guy. I went straight to the television. He had the shades on and he just flew around his drum set. Dad was there ironing, and I said, ‘Dad! Who’s that?’ And he goes, ‘That’s Joe Morello’. I said, ‘That’s what I wanna do!’. He said, ‘You will never be as good as Joe Morello’ and I went ‘Oh, OK’. I went and beat the shit out of my mom’s cooker, thinking I was Joe. I’ve just seen him playing. He inspired me. He made me pick up a pair of sticks.”
The last member of The Beatles lineup that we know and love today to join the band. A patient and calm demeanour led to Starr’s beloved spot in the most famous rock band of all time. Starr, like Lennon and McCartney, was heavily involved in the UK’s skiffle scene and was invited to join the Beatles in 1962 after he had quit his old band, the Hurricanes.
Like so many percussionists in the rock and roll realm, The Beatles were inescapable: “Ringo was my first hero. When I was 12 years old – in fact, I was 11 – I had a poster of Ringo in my bedroom. He was looking over the left side of his drum set over his hi-hats, and I every night would go to sleep thinking, ‘That is the man. That is the guy I wanna be like.’ And he really did kick off my drumming career. One other thing is I got to meet him three years ago when he played down here in Fort Lauderdale — the first time after all of those years that I got to meet my hero.”
Charlie Watts was the late drummer of The Rolling Stones, arguably the world’s second most significant rock band after The Beatles. Watts had initially trained as a graphic artist, but joined blues outfit Blues Incorporated in 1961, two years before joining the Stones. Jazz was a great influence on Watts and is evident in his playing style. Watts died in 2021, at which time, he, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were the only Stones members to play on each of the band’s studio albums.
The tragic loss of Rolling Stones’ drummer was felt deeply by McBrain: “Charlie is a sad loss to the music world and the drumming fraternity across the table. He will influence all these drummers that are getting into that music from The Stones. He’s a jazz drummer. He came from a jazz background. He played traditional grip; also he played orthodox as well. Matched grip as well, but that was his main style. Just a wonderful, wonderful player.”
Noted for his unique playing style and wild behaviour, Keith Moon was the drummer of the Who. His technique consisted of heavy reliance on toms, crash cymbals and big fills and he was one of the first drummers to incorporate a double bass drum into his kit. Moon developed a reputation for erratic behaviour, often smashing his equipment at the end of performances and wrecking hotel rooms whilst on tour.
“What I think really possibly defined me was ‘My Generation’ with Keith Moon,” McBrain shared. “I was used to playing straight poppy songs. But when Mooney came out, he broke that mould. It’s like saying when Louie Bellson did ‘Skin Deep’ with two bass drums, he broke the mould from going from a single bass drum, the drum set which was the norm in the 30s. It was like a wild guy behind the kit. I thought, ‘That’s me! That’s how I like to play’.”
Often regarded as one of the greatest drummers of all time, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin fame has an influential reach across many generations of drummers. He is renowned for his power behind the kit and the speed of his kick drumming. Bonham was so good that Zeppelin recorded a track of his drum solo entitled, ‘Moby Dick’. Live versions of the track could go on for over 20 minutes. Zeppelin split after Bonham’s death in 1980, feeling they could go on without him.
“My first influence was Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, then the great Keith Moon,” said McBrain. However, there’s one band that laid the foundations of heavy metal, and one man who perfected the art of rock drumming: “Bonham’s right on the back of that. That drum sound was what really drove me and pulled me into it. That’s where my style really generated from – those four guys. The first song that really inspired me was ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and the middle breakdown, where he was playing a lift hat. Then he would play a percussive motif on the bell. I never heard anything like it in my life!”