10 Best Classic Rock Drummers


Photo of the Canadian rock band Rush, with a blue background.

Rush – Story by Anne Erickson, courtesy promo photo

In honor of the thunderous rhythm section, Audio Ink Radio names its 10 best classic rock drummers

A good drummer is the foundation of any solid band. It doesn’t even matter the genre of music. Whether it’s a hard rock band or jazz ensemble, having a fantastic drummer with perfect timing and feel is critical. That said, many of the best drummers of all time hail from rock. That begs the question, who are the 10 best classic rock drummers of all time?

When we say classic rock, we’re really referring to any of the drummers that ruled the stages and airwaves in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Some of these drummers even move into the 1990s and today, since many of the so-called “classic rock” bands of the early days of rock music are still active.

As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that while many of these classic rock drummers and bands appeal to older listeners, there’s a new generation of young music fans who are embracing their music. Retro-sounding bands such as Greta Van Fleet and Dirty Honey have opened the eyes, and ears, of many young people. Consequently, those young fans are now finding the music of groups such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd for the first time. Personally, I’m not mad about classic rock becoming a trend with the youth. If teenagers can keep the classic rock and metal flame alive, then that’s good for the genre, in general.

In honor of the drummers that make classic rock music soar, Audio Ink Radio is naming its 10 best classic rock drummers of all time. Get in touch with us and send us your picks on social media here.

10. Chad Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers

Here’s where the line between alternative rock, classic rock and just rock gets blurred. Some would argue that the Red Hot Chili Peppers aren’t a classic rock band. While it’s true that they didn’t get their footing in the 1960s or 1970s, like bands such as Led Zeppelin or Genesis, they did start making music back in the early 1980s. Plus, their funky, straight-ahead rock style settles into the classic rock format well. Considering that, when it comes to classic rock drummers, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith is one of the greatest. He helped create and define the Peppers’ unique sound, which brought together a range of rock styles with dashes of funk, reggae and alternative. He’s also famous for his deep drum grooves.

9. Ian Paice, Deep Purple

Ian Paice is the one consistent band member in English rockers Deep Purple. He’s the final remaining original member of the band, and he’s also played on every Deep Purple album. Paice is a left-handed drummer in a sea of righties. His playing is often very fast and slinky, making him a joy to hear. In addition to Deep Purple, Paice has also played with Whitesnake, Black Sabbath and others.

8. Ginger Baker, Cream

Ginger Baker of Cream is one of the more unique and distinctive drummers of the early rock era. He knew how to play pretty much every genre imaginable, from jazz to African to rock. He was also one of the early adaptors of the now-popular double bass drum. Above all, Baker is celebrated for how he mixed jazz and African rhythms into rock music. He was truly an originator.

7. Dave Grohl, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Them Crooked Vulture

Dave Grohl is a difficult one to fit on this list, because some would say that his work with Nirvana came too late to be considered “classic rock” in its purest form. It’s true that when it comes to grunge drummers, he’s tops. But, even after his time with Nirvana, Grohl has performed with a bevy of classic rock acts, so we’re considering him a classic rocker for the sake of this tally. That said, Grohl is not only a skilled and gifted drummer, but he’s a visionary. Following Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, Grohl regrouped and launched his own band, Foo Fighters, where he took on lead vocals. Now, Foo Fighters are one of the biggest bands in the world. Grohl’s many talents make him an apt fit for this list.

6. Ringo Starr, The Beatles

We’re bracing for emails on this pick. Ringo Starr is often teased as one of the worst drummers in rock history. But, in our eyes, Starr was the perfect drummer for the Beatles. Really, that’s all that matters. Starr knew how to perfectly play for the song, and for music as melodically complex as the Beatles, he knew how to take a step back. In addition to his hoards of music with the Beatles, he also has a successful solo career. We don’t think Starr cares about the haters, and we don’t, either.

Related Story: Audio Ink Radio names its 10 best classic rock bands of all time

5. Neil Peart, Rush

Rush’s music is progressive and epic, and only a special kind of drummer could fit the bill for their music. Neil Peart was that drummer. Peart, a longtime member of the band, is considered one of the best technical drummers of his era. With Rush, he locked in steady with bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee, and created a mesmerizing backing to Rush’s music. Peart was also the primary lyricist for Rush’s music. Peart passed away of brain chancer in 2020, and he is deeply missed.

4. Nick Mason, Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd is one of the most popular and prolific classic rock bands of all time. Each band member contributed to Pink Floyd’s sound and success, including the great Nick Mason. The drummer was a founding member of Pink Floyd and is actually the only member to have played on every Pink Floyd album. He also co-wrote many of Pink Floyd’s songs. We think Mason is often underrated as a drummer, too, which is why we’re placing him inside the top five on this list.

3. Keith Moon, The Who

When it comes to great rock drum solos, Keith Moon of The Who helped create that whole phenomenon. He was really one of the first drummers to take center stage and serve up an electrifying, lengthy rock drum solo, and the crowds loved it. Mo was also a creative player, often bringing together sounds that no other drummer would attempt, such as wild drum fills and crazy onstage antics. He sadly fell prey to his demons of addiction and passed away at age 32.

2. Phil Collins, Genesis

Genesis may not have reached the level of fame as Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, but it wasn’t for lack of talent. Genesis’ music was ambitious, very progressive and complex. Still, they managed to gain mainstream success with the strength of their songs. At the core of Genesis was Phil Collins, one of the most articulate and precise drummers of all time. Of course, his voice was also a huge part of Genesis’ success.

1. John Bonham, Led Zeppelin

It should be no surprise that the great John Bonham of Led Zeppelin is No. 1 on our tally of the best classic rock drummers of all time. He’s really the prototype for great rock drumming. Bonham, undeniably, is one of the most influential drummer to ever live. His beats were steady, but more importantly, his grooves were always just right for the song at hand. Bonham sadly died at age 32, far too soon. But, he left a plethora of incredible rock music from Led Zeppelin and a handful of other projects. Bonham was singular. Nobody could ever imitate or emulate his playing or live performance style. If he had lived longer, it’s difficult to picture just how far Bonham could have gone with his skills and charisma.

For more classic rock enjoyment, check out Audio Ink Radio’s feature on the best classic rock love songs here.

Have a comment or an idea for a feature? Contact Audio Ink Radio head writer Anne Erickson at anne@audioinkradio.com.

Anne Erickson
Posted by Anne Erickson | Features, Music, Rock