Drummers. Often overlooked, they are the most critical piece of the band puzzle. Without a decent and reliable rhythmic lynchpin, the whole thing comes tumbling down. We’ve all seen bands at our local pubs and community events that are just no good, but having a bad drummer really brings the whole thing down, more so than having a terrible bassist, guitarist or dare we say it, singer.
This is because rhythm is key. With no rhythm, we don’t get a groove, and in its absence, the song will never take off, unless we’re talking about the ambient genre. This is why, when a truly incredible drummer comes along, it is absolutely remarkable.
We’ve been blessed with an innumerable amount of technically gifted guitarists, bassists and vocalists over the years, but it seems as if finding a true master of the drums is so rare, that when one is uncovered it is almost a cultural experience.
This rarity makes them all the more revered. When a drummer is technically proficient, it blows all other instruments out of the water. Understanding rhythm on such a tacit level and possessing the ability to carry complex rhythms off is something that not every layman can do. A Drummer’s brain works in a different way from normal humans.
John Bonham, Neil Peart, Joey Jordison, Ginger Baker, when you heed any of these drummers’ varying but amazing styles, you see that when a drummer is able to truly instil their personality into their rhythms, that is when sparks begin to fly. Let that sink in, think of the sheer volume of very average drummers there are in existence, and just how forgettable they are.
The discussion of who ranks among the greatest drummers of all time is always a point of contention between fans, critics and drummers alike. This is because musicians from every walk of life make strong claims for their admittance into this exclusive members-only club, and depending on who you ask, the guest list changes.
It is one of the age-old questions, and you see internet forums and social media groups erupt over it. It is also a topic that has been discussed so many times, it is a little overdone. Therefore, today, we want to dig a little deeper into the world of drumming. This time, we’re turning our heads to another contrite discussion.
We are listing what we believe are the ten greatest drum solos of all time, on record. Another hot topic, on our list you’ll see some of the big names, and some lesser-known ones who are equally as brilliant. This is just our opinion, but it should be used as a conversation starter for all you rhythmic musos out there.
We forgot to mention, there is no inclusion of Phil Collins as he is not the brilliant drummer everyone seems to think. So join us, as we list in no particular order, the ten greatest drum solos of all time that made it onto records.
The 10 greatest drum solos of all time:
‘Moby Dick’ – John Bonham / Led Zeppelin
Where else to start than with one of the ultimate drum solos of all time? The late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham needs no real introduction. His versatile, jazz-infused style of hard-rock drumming has inspired everyone from Mike Portnoy to Dave Grohl and even Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders.
The drum solo on this instrumental is incredible. He covers every part of the drum kit, and his expert use of the toms and the bass drum sends the listener into an almost trance-like state. Primal and containing jazz influences, there can be surprise why this always ranks as one of the best drum solos of all time, it manages to blend the well-thought-out with the improvisational. Here Bonham really shines.
‘YYZ’ – Neil Peart / Rush
‘YYZ’ is one of the Candian prog-rock heroes, Rush’s most iconic songs. Taken from 1981’s Moving Pictures, the band’s late drummer, Neil Peart really shows why he is regarded as one of the greatest rhythmic masterminds of all time.
Covering every inch of his massive drum kit, Peart delivers some funky rhythms that serve to augment Geddy Lee’s speedy, grooving bassline. The whole instrumental is a drum solo for Peart, which shows his true genius. Containing fill after fill, after listening to this track you realise just how good Peart was.
‘Disasterpiece’ – Joey Jordison / Slipknot
The late Joey Jordison was nothing short of an iconoclast. Meshing influences from jazz, metal and everything in between, he hit the drums with a precision the world has rarely seen. With a satanic speed, his early work with shock-metal icons Slipknot endeared him to fans worldwide.
He made expert use of every part of his kit and his use of the double bass drum was truly astonishing. The true majesty of Jordison was that it was in the live environment that he shined. YouTube is brimming with videos of him delivering stellar drum solos.
However, we’re talking about on a record, and undoubtedly this has to be ‘Disasterpiece’. Yes, we could have chosen ‘The Heretic Anthem’, but the evil rhythms of ‘Disasterpiece’ just pip it. As with Neil Peart, he soloed his way through pretty much every Slipknot song.
The breakneck speed with which he approached his kit on ‘Disasterpiece’ is iconic, and there is no surprise that this is a favourite of Slipknot fans and drummers everywhere. The double kick in the breakdown is ridiculous.
‘Toad’ – Ginger Baker / Cream
An absolute classic. No list of the greatest drum solos ever recorded would be complete without Cream’s late drummer Ginger Baker. A true master, who was at heart a jazz drummer, Baker is up there with Bonham as the other most influential rock drummer of all time.
His solo on Cream’s classic 1966 instrumental ‘Toad’ is what really paved the way for the concept of the drum solo in rock music. It had long been utilised by jazz and big band drummers, and because he was so well versed in those modes, Baker decided to transpose it over to rock, and what a decision it was.
Using the bass drum and toms to absolute precision, never missing a beat, Baker displayed his unhinged genius on ‘Toad’. Including a smattering of ghost notes, it would not be ridiculous to posit that his technical ability as a drummer superseded that of Bonham’s. The way he ramps up the energy on this track is incredible; it’s as if he has two pairs of arms.
‘Rat Salad’ – Black Sabbath / Bill Ward
Former Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward is underrated. We said it. He is often overlooked in favour of his bandmates Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. We have to remember that Ward is what musically kept the whole thing together. This was no easy feat amongst all the tales of excess.
Taken from Sabbath’s second studio album, 1970’s Paranoid, the swaggering instrumental ‘Rat Salad’ seems to be forgotten by rock fans. It is a work of genius from Iommi and Butler, but the props have to go to Ward.
His drum solo is visceral and as hard-hitting as any on the list. Funky yet metal, he makes a bold claim as rock’s most underrated drummer. The fills that make up the solo are so quick that there’s a definitive jazz influence that shines through, this provides a different account of Bill Ward’s drumming.
‘Aja’ – Steve Gadd / Steely Dan
A drumming classic. A jazz fusion tune containing flecks of prog, ‘Aja’ is a 1977 masterpiece by everyone’s favourite soft-rock legends, Steely Dan. It was the first song to feature the band’s new drummer, Steve Gadd, and boy did he grab the opportunity by the lapels.
These days, Gadd is one of the most highly recognised drummers in the music industry, and it’s outings like this that cemented his reputation. You could argue that his solos on the track are the elements that have truly contributed to its hallowed reputation.
Gadd’s part was recorded in just two takes, and added to the fact that his solos were improvised, it makes this entry truly mind-blowing. Told by the band to “play like hell”, he didn’t disappoint.
’21st Century Schizoid Man’ – Michael Giles / King Crimson
A prog classic on King Crimson’s debut album, 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Michael Giles’ jazz-inspired drumming is what really makes the song. Containing Duke Ellington-esque free jazz, you immediately understand why King Crimson are hailed as the definitive prog-rock band by some camps.
Giles’ drumming shifts between time signatures and tempos, and it clearly marks him out as one of the most underrated drummers of all time. The instrumental middle section of the song, known as ‘Mirrors’, is where he really takes off. As if we had taken a whole load of speed, he definitively takes the song down its “schizoid” route.
‘6:00’ – Mike Portnoy / Dream Theater
The first track on prog-metal heroes, Dream Theater’s third album, Awake, ‘6:00’ features some of Mike Portnoy’s best drumming. Although he is no longer in the band, it is songs such as this one that reminds us of just how integral he was to the band establishing their sound.
Their rhythmic master, he controlled the band. Taking his cues from his hero Neil Peart, Portnoy delivers a stellar performance here. Hard-hitting yet restrained, he makes a strong claim for being one of the best drummers of all time. There are double kicks, rhythm changes and no end of frills.
‘West Side Story Medley’ – Buddy Rich
One of the most influential drummers of all time, Buddy Rich‘s legacy as a drummer lives on. A true virtuoso who mastered power and speed, he could do it all. He could swap his grip in the middle of the song, and his understanding of dynamics remains unmatched.
The most incredible thing about his drumming was the fact that he never learnt how to read sheet music. Rather, he did it all from memory.
Whilst there are many examples of his brilliant soloing, ‘West Side Story Medley’ is the one we feel best displays his character as a drummer. Refined and well-thought-out, his solos over the ten minutes set a precedent of what a jazz drummer could really be. They’re so good, you’ll immediately want to rewind.
‘For Big Sid’ – Max Roach
Another highly influential virtuoso, outside of jazz, Max Roach, is largely unknown. We think it’s about time this changed.
A true master, who’s presence lives on in modern jazz, his drumming was expressive and technically gifted. With a keen understanding of all things rhythm, a true drummer, his pioneering work in the genre of bebop allowed him to work with the likes of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
Whilst there exist an innumerable amount of examples that show his genius; his best solo has to be taken as 1966’s ‘For Big Sid’. Three minutes of soloing, he conveys every human emotion and uses rhythm and tempo changes to expert effect.