They’re literally the heartbeat of their bands, providing the rhythm that powers the music of bands from all genres. From the legendary stomp of late Led Zeppelin bash-master John Bonham to the intricate complexities displayed by Rush’s Neil Peart to the hip-hop-influenced punk beats of Travis Barker, the list of legendarily talented rock drummers is as varied as it is vast.
In a musical world where DJs, drum machines and computer-generated beats continue to encroach on the realm of actual drummers, these trap-masters and their bands keep it real with flesh and blood rhythms.
Narrowing the field down to 40 (or so) of the best beat-keepers to ever rock a kit, it’s your votes that will determines who reigns supreme as the single greatest rock drummer of all-time.
Support your favorite drummer in the poll below!
Ginger Baker (Cream) This classic rock pioneer (and notorious madman) with extraordinary jazz chops was among the first drummers to employ a double-bass drum set-up and is still considered a hero to many of the most famous drummers in the world, including Bill Ward and Stewart Copeland.
Frank Beard (ZZ Top) Beard’s no-nonsense beats helped propel these Southern-fried boogie-woogie bad boys to the top of the charts in the ‘70s and again in the ‘80s with a modern electronic edge added to their dusty blues-rock grooves.
Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa/Missing Persons) With staggering chops often compared to Rush’s Neil Peart, Bozzio made his name playing with the legendary Frank Zappa and later on co-founding ‘80s L.A. new wavers Missing Persons with his then-wife, Dale Bozzio.
Matt Cameron (Soundgarden/Pearl Jam) Becoming famous as the drummer of Soundgarden during the height of the ‘90s grunge explosion, Cameron’s highly touted skills put him behind the kit as a permanent member of fellow Seattle band Pearl Jam after Jack Irons was forced to vacate the seat due to health issues.
Jimmy Chamberlain (Smashing Pumpkins) Underneath the raging guitars and angst of frontman Billy Corgan, Chamberlain’s heavily jazz-influenced prowess on the drums helped define the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘90s take on classic prog-rock.
John Dolmayan (System of a Down) Dolyman helped SOAD turning metal on its head with his precision stop-start rhythms and kinetic beats. He also drummed for System spin-off band Scars on Broadway before leaving that band in the summer of 2012.
Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac) Fleetwood’s sublime and subtle drumming on many of the band’s biggest hits often belie his considerable talents on the kit, which he pulls out in concert during an extensive drum solo.
Josh Freese (A Perfect Circle, NIN, Sublime w/Rome) Among rock’s most in-demand studio drummers, Freese’s muscular beats have found him behind the kit for a host of superstar acts including Nine Inch Nails, Guns N’ Roses, A Perfect Circle and the Vandals.
Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters) After achieving fame and fortune drumming for alt-rock legends Nirvana, Grohl shifted to frontman for hard rock’s current torchbearers Foo Fighters. He maintains his drum-god status getting behind the kit on side projects like Them Crooked Vultures, with Led Zeppelin legend John Paul Jones on bass.
Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters) Good enough to play drums for a band featuring Dave Grohl, Hawkins considerable chops give the Foo Fighters their big rock beats with lots of style.
Joey Kramer (Aerosmith) This bombastic beat-keeper for Boston’s bad boys of classic rock was also influential on hip-hop with his breaks, personified in the legendary 1986 Aerosmith/Run DMC collaboration with “Walk This Way.”
Tommy Lee (Motley Crue) This master of aggressive heavy metal beats (and relentless Twitter addict) brings lots of flashy L.A. style to drumming, recently expanding his repertoire by delving into the world of electronic rhythms and DJing with good buddy Deadmau5.
Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) Combining finesse and power, Mason’s expressive drumming style was always an integral part of Pink Floyd’s constantly evolving sound.His extensive jazz chops can be seen throughout legendary 1972 concert film Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii.
Nicko McBrain (Iron Maiden) Joining the metal gods for their fourth album, 1983 release Piece of Mind, McBrain emerged from the shadows of the band’s previous beat-keeper, Clive Burr. But McBrain’s exceptional ability and controlled chaos behind the kit have elevated him to one of metal’s most respected drummers.
Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix Experience) Similar in style to his contemporary Ginger Baker of Cream, Mitchell brought a freewheeling, jazzy approach to playing in a rock trio, as much a lead instrument in the mix as the Hendrix’s groundbreaking guitar work.
Keith Moon (The Who) Somehow all over the place and in the pocket at the same time, Moon’s wild-man drumming style with the Who made him a hero and influence to countless beat-keepers who came in his wake.
Ian Paice (Deep Purple) As the drummer for proto-metal pioneers Deep Purple, Paice’s influence on the subsequent generation of drum heroes is as vast as it is undeniable, laying down the beat on classic rock hits such as “Smoke on the Water.” Like Ringo Starr of the Beatles, Paice is left-handed, but unlike Starr, Paice uses a left-handed set-up when he plays.
Neil Peart (Rush) Taking virtuosity to heights previously unseen, Peart’s complete mastery of percussion is beyond reproach. Now Peart and his still-wildly popular band Rush have been recognized with a Class of 2013 Rock and Rock Hall of Fame nomination.
Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction) Perkins’ rolling, tribal drumming is as integral to the Jane’s Addiction sound as Dave Navarro’s guitar and the vocals of Perry Ferrell. His signature sound is also a large part of underrated Jane’s Addiction spin-off band Porno For Pyros.
Matt Sorum (Guns N Roses, Velvet Revolver) Replacing original drummer Steven Adler, Sorum brought his heavy-duty drumming to the the band’s 1991 two-album opus Use Your Illusion I and II, going on to man the kit for super-groups Velvet Revolver and Camp Freddy.
Ringo Starr (The Beatles) The drummer for the most famous band in the world is known for his unorthodox left-handed style, influencing an entire generation of kids (and many of rock’s most famous drummers) to pick up sticks for the first time.
Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) The Will Ferrell lookalike was a perfect fit when he joined the RHCP to record their breakthrough album, Mother’s Milk. His solid, aggressive drumming style has proved to be an ideal foil for Flea’s bass gymnastics.
Lars Ulrich (Metallica) Literally the driving force behind these heavy metal legends, Ulrich’s powerful drumming ranges from the highly complex rhythms of the band’s earlier classics to the more straightforward power drumming of ‘90s hits such as “Enter Sandman.”
Alex Van Halen (Van Halen) As virtuosic on drums as brother Eddie is on guitar, Alex Van Halen’s thunderous double-bass attack powers many of VH’s biggest hits, most notably the revved-up intro to “Hot For Teacher.”
Bill Ward (Black Sabbath) Matching both power and finesse, Ward’s masterful drumming was Sabbath’s secret weapon. Sadly, internal band acrimony has shut him out of the reunion album currently being produced by Rick Rubin.
Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones) Always the coolest Stone, Charlie Watts has kept the band’s raucous and woozy blues-rock in check for a remarkable 50 years with his impeccable pocket and rock-steady backbeat.
Alan White (Yes) Facing the daunting task of replacing Bill Bruford (who left to join King Crimson), Alan White soon established himself as the drummer for Yes with his fluid and imaginative playing, ideal for the band’s complex mid-‘70s prog-rock compositions.
Brad Wilk (Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave) Laying down the crushing drums on Rage’s catalog of politically-charged rap-rock anthems, Wilk went on to drop dynamic and bombastic beats for post-RATM supergroup Audioslave with fellow Rage members Tom Morello and Tim Commerford alongside Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell on vocals.
Adrian Young (No Doubt) Notorious for his wild style and propensity to rock out with his, um, naked, Young is also famous for his metronomic sense of rhythm, snagging him lots of session work on the side.
Voting closes Friday, November 16 at 10AM PST. Rock’s greatest drummer revealed Monday, November 19, 10AM PST.
–Scott T. Sterling, CBS Local