5 Of Classic Rock’s Most Musical Drummers

5 Of Classic Rock's Most Musical Drummers

Feature Photo: lev radin / Shutterstock.com

Functionally speaking, the role of drums in music is to establish rhythm and maintain a desired tempo. So, what exactly is it to which “musicality” is referring in this context?
The drum kit is a much more versatile instrument than perhaps it gets credit for, and generally speaking, the function most prominently associated with drums in popular music is that of serving as an anchor around which other musicians can keep time.

There are drummers, however, who tend to weave in and out of the surrounding instrumentation, ebbing and flowing, rising and falling right along with guitarists, vocalists, and the like. These types of players tend to draw inspiration from genres outside the realm of straight-ahead rock, with jazz being one source of inspiration that crops up with great frequency.  Here we will briefly touch upon five men often discussed among the pantheon of rock & roll drummers based on a broad array of stylistic influences and distinct idiosyncrasies that allow them to transcend the genre, as well as the perimeters of their chosen instrument.

# 1 – Ian Paice (Deep Purple)

Having spent his extensive career in the company of some of the most renowned players in the business, Ian Paice brings a seemingly effortless intensity to the drums that few, if any, have been able to replicate. In a genre that relies heavily on groove and backbeat, Paice has always been able to launch into agile flurries, seemingly at the drop of a hat, falling right back into time without ever losing a bit of the swing or power of a song. His inventive fills and fluid, stylized approach to different time signatures – as heard on tunes like “Maybe I’m a Leo” from Deep Purple’s classic, Machine Head LP – elevate him above his contemporaries in the genre.

Another prime example of the distinct flavor brought to the table by Paice appears in another of Deep Purple’s signature Machine Head tunes, “Highway Star.” Given the nature of the song, one might assume the rhythm section to be driving straight ahead, providing fuel for the propulsive rocket. But while the snare and bass drum generally land where one might expect, closer inspection of the isolated drum track of the song reveals significant rhythmic variation in the song’s hi-hat pattern, establishing a detached counterpoint to the driving guitars and reinforcing the tune’s conceptual themes of speed and entropy.

# 2 – Levon Helm (The Band)

The man many would call the most beloved singer in a group featuring several excellent singers, The Band’s Levon Helm brought so much vigor and swing to his instrument that it would often sound as though he were dancing as he was playing. This, compounded by the fact that oftentimes he was also singing while playing these wild, lively patterns.
Written notations of Levon’s playing would highlight its nuance, as well as how difficult it would be for any other musician to pull. But they were simple for Levon, as his playing was just an extension of his personality. Helm himself has touched upon this a number of times, specifically with regard to the playing heard throughout The Band’s sea-changing debut album, Music From Big Pink.

Discussing the outward perception of what goes into singing and playing simultaneously, the iconic musician has pointed out that it isn’t as complex as one might think. As with all things in life, Levon considered the instrument on his own terms, creating a highly personalized, instantly recognizable approach to drumming that propelled one of the most influential bands of all time.

# 3 – Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers)

The funk rocker brings an explosive power to the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Smith’s playing is so light on its feet that the bombastic pocket grooves feel almost effortless.  A student of classic rock, Smith’s early influences include greats such as Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham. But his style has progressed over the years to the point where not only does it gel organically with the style of his primary band, Smith has also been recruited to play on dozens of albums as a session musician. Artists for whom Smith has been brought in to work include Ozzy Osbourne, Dua Lipa, The Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash, and countless others.

The sheer force born of Smith’s appreciation of hard and classic rock in tandem with an ethnic nuance punctuated by a notable aptitude for ghost notes make for a lethal combination, musically speaking. As such, it’s no surprise that the Peppers’ percussionist has become one of the most sought-after names in the industry with regard to session musicians.

# 4 – Bill Ward (Black Sabbath)

If it has yet to become apparent by this time, “swing” is going to be a recurring theme of this piece. This is due to the titular “touch” emerging as part of a “feel” which comes from lack of restriction to the downbeat. In many cases, this variation is indebted to a jazz influence, as is the case with Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward.  Taking heavy influence from big-band legends like Gene Krupa, Ward – along with Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler – gave the metal pioneering act a distinct swing that distinguished them from their contemporaries. Quite impressive for the rhythm section for what many consider to be the heaviest band of all time.

The jazz influence is significant in Ward’s case, in fact, that the first names to appear on the drumming legend’s own official website under the “Most Influential Drummers:” category are Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Louie Bellson, while “Big Band Jazz,” is the first to be listed under “musical influences.”

# 5 – Bill Kreutzmann (Grateful Dead)

The Grateful Dead would become well-known for their distinctive two-drummer setup featuring Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. But for a period during the early 1970s, Hart took a sabbatical from the group, leaving Kreutzmann as the sole stickman for the band for a time.

This period would become what bassist Phil Lesh would call the “turbo-charged, turn-on-a-dime Grateful Dead,” due to the fluidity of the one-drummer rhythm section. During this time, Kreutzmann’s affinity for jazz turnarounds and manipulation of time signatures was never more apparent, and the band would become as agile a beast as ever, navigating complex rhythmic interplay while continuing to push the more melodic elements of the music. Here, Kreutzmann’s abilities behind the kit become abundantly clear, and many would argue that this period was the peak of the band in terms of live interplay.

These attributes are apparent when referring to any number of shows from the period in question, with 1973 and 1974 performances serving as perhaps the most apt examples of this iteration of the group. Fluid, jam-based vehicles such as “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” (“China<Rider”) act as solid points of reference, as do early versions of “Eyes of the World” – such as that included in the Dick’s Picks Volume Twelve collection comprising performances from late-June of 1974.

5 Of Classic Rock’s Most Musical Drummers article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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