Drummers are the true unsung heroes of any good band. While guitarists and vocalists steal the spotlight in the front and bass players provide a vital link that ties the entire rhythm section together, drummers pound away in the back driving the music, content with the knowledge that they’ll probably be the first member kicked out when the lead singer inevitably goes on an ego-driven power trip. Of course, there are many percussionists who have become household names over the years, with names such as John Bonham, Keith Moon, and Neil Peart earning the praise of not just other drummers, but music fans in general. But while those rock legends are undisputed in their skills behind the kit, there are way more drummers out there who simply do not get their due for their contributions.
While the following 15 drummers may not be among the greatest drummers to ever play (though a few could certainly qualify), they don’t get the credit they deserve for what they’ve been able to accomplish with two sticks and a burning desire to make lots of noise.
If you like this list, be sure to check out our countdown of the 15 most underrated guitarists of all time.
15. Charlie Watts – The Rolling Stones
When it comes to legendary rock ensemble The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards hog the spotlight. After all, how can you overlook one of the greatest songwriting partnerships in music history? Of course, the Stones’ music is characterized by more than just Jagger’s bluesy vocals or Richards’ memorable guitar riffs. While the band has seen many personnel changes over the years, the only other founding member still with the Stones is drummer Charlie Watts, who has provided the beat to Jagger and Richards’ songs ever since the band was formed in 1962.
The secret to Watts’ longevity is his rock-solid (apologies for the pun) playing, always doing what’s required of him to make the song great. Whether he’s playing fast, slow, quiet, or loud, Watts always delivers a reliable performance and has formed an integral component of The Rolling Stones’ sound since day one.
14. Stephanie Bailey – The Black Angels
There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of The Black Angels, but the psychedelic outfit out of Austin, Texas is arguably one of the most exciting American rock bands to form in the 21st century. The band’s drummer, Stephanie Bailey, is the glue that keeps The Black Angels’ haunting jams together, possessing a style that emphasizes hard-hitting floor tom work and furious stomps. Those who prefer fancy fills should probably look elsewhere though, as Bailey makes do with a small kit and steady grooves, but it’s hard to imagine The Black Angels being half as effective without her, making her one of the most underrated modern rock drummers.
13. Tommy Ramone – The Ramones
Born Erdélyi Tamás in Budapest, Tommy Ramone’s supercharged, no-nonsense drumming helped power The Ramones to becoming one of the most influential rock acts of the 1970s. Even though Tommy’s playing has been written off by some as being simplistic, his hard-hitting, steady beats helped form the basis of what would become punk rock drumming. Yes, you can kind of tell that Tommy Ramone had no formal training when you hear a Ramones song (in fact, he’d never actually played before picking up sticks for the band) but his bare bones approach worked in the band’s favor, as the Ramones’ lack of musical experience was part of their charm.
Tommy’s playing has influenced countless young players ever since and that’s precisely why he’s so underrated. While technical players have no time for The Ramones’ basic drum lines — good luck finding much in the way of fills in Tommy’s playing — their music has served as excellent fare for beginners for decades. Tommy Ramone epitomizes the “less is more” approach and even though he’d never be mistaken for being a “great” drummer, he definitely left a big impact.
12. Brian Chase – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs rose up out of the New York garage rock revival scene of the early 2000s that also gave us bands such as The Strokes and The Hold Steady. Though the band’s eccentric lead singer Karen O tends to get the most attention, drummer Brian Chase forms an essential part of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s unique sound. A classically-trained player who still uses a traditional grip, Chase’s percussion strikes a fine balance between overbearing and understated; never flashy yet always interesting. On songs like “Maps” and “Gold Lion,” Chase’s beats are both catchy and melodic, and are employed almost like guitar riffs. Chase is definitely one of the most interesting drummers to come out of the modern indie rock scene and it’s a shame he’s not brought up more in discussions about great drummers.
11. Simon Kirke -Free, Bad Company
Simon Kirke is on the shortlist of drummers who made his bones with two successful rock bands, as Kirke started out with Free in 1968 and went along with lead singer Paul Rodgers to form Bad Company in 1973. Heavily influenced by groups out of the ’60s Memphis soul and R&B scene, Kirke’s approach to the kit was always measured and economical. On tracks like Free’s “All Right Now” and Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” Kirke helped set the standard for solid rock beats and while he could still lay down a great drum solo every now and then, Kirke’s playing was always in service of the song and especially Rodgers’ incredible vocal howl.
While Kirke will never be thought of in the same league as forces of nature like John Bonham or Keith Moon, any touring rock band earning their keep in the ’70s would have been lucky to have him.
10. Don Henley – Eagles
These days, ripping on The Eagles has become the popular thing to do but even though they have some duds in their back catalog (“the cheatin’ side of town” might be one of the worst lines in classic rock history), they’re still one of the greatest, most talented bands of all time. Perhaps The Eagles’ greatest strength is that they’re all phenomenal vocalists who can sing pitch-perfect harmonies. While the band doesn’t have a dedicated lead vocalist, that job arguably belongs to Eagles drummer Don Henley.
Henley could be the worst drummer in the world and it was still be easy to forgive him given how incredible his voice is, but even though he’s never been considered an elite level player, Henley is still a monster behind the kit. Guitarists like David Gilmour have proven that you can still be highly regarded even if you don’t play fast and that same principle can be applied to Henley’s drumming, as it always features pristine timing, great fills, and a pleasant, easy beat that fits in perfectly with the Eagles’ laid-back California vibe.
9. Larry Mullen Jr. – U2
U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. will never be mistaken for being a great drummer but he’s been an integral part of the Irish rocker’s sound from day one and always gets the job done. Much like U2’s guitarist The Edge, Mullen is a player who makes up for his lack of technical skill by utilizing what skill he does have and applying it to the band’s music to make it as distinctive as possible. Mullen’s drum parts on songs like “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and “Bullet The Blue Sky” are fun and unique, helping to craft a specific mood. Alongside bassist Adam Clayton, Mullen forms a solid rhythm section that has served U2 well for close to four decades and Mullen in particular really comes alive in the band’s live shows.
8. Levon Helm – The Band
The drummer for arguably one of the most underrated rock bands of all time, Levon Helm was an essential member of The Band who also contributed vocals. Due to a combination of his singing duties and The Band’s more laid back sound, Helm wasn’t a flashy, virtuoso drummer but rather played precisely what was right for the music and individual song. One need only listen to the way he strums his snare on a song like “I Shall Be Released” to recognize that Helm was an inventive player who played with heart. Helm was also well-admired and spoken highly of by his contemporaries, with Bob Dylan calling him “one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation.”
Despite declining health and finances in his later years, Helm continued to organize concerts at his barn in Woodstock and put on sensational shows, even with his voice greatly diminished by throat cancer treatments. Helm would sadly lose his battle in 2012 at the age of 71, but he’ll always be remembered as one of rock’s most quietly brilliant drummers.
7. Mick Fleetwood – Fleetwood Mac
Ask most people to name a member of Fleedwood Mac and they’ll most likely go with Stevie Nicks or Lindsey Buckingham. Despite making up half of the band’s name, drummer Mick Fleetwood is typically an afterthought when discussions about Fleetwood Mac arise and the same is true when talking about rock’s greatest drummers. Part of the reason may be that Fleetwood’s playing isn’t showy but if you listen carefully to what he’s doing on classic tracks like “Go Your Own Way” and “Dreams,” there’s a fantastic groove to his drumming that helps each song flourish. It makes sense that the other half of the band’s name came from bass player John “Mac” McVie, as the two formed one of the most solid rhythm sections in rock history and helped keep the band grounded even when in-fighting and romantic trysts threatened to tear it apart.
6. Michael Shrieve – Santana
One need only listen to Michael Shrieve’s electrifying drum solo during Santana’s performance of “Soul Sacrifice” at Woodstock 1969 to know that he was an immensely talented drummer even from a young age (Shrieve was only 20 years old at the time, making him one of the youngest performers at the legendary music festival). However, that defining moment only scratches the surface of Shrieve’s accomplishments behind the kit.
He got his start as a teenager playing as a house drummer behind legends such as B.B. King and after playing with Santana in the early ’70s, he moved onto solo work and also joined the fusion supergroup Go alongside Steve Winwood. Shrieve’s distinctive style is an amalgamation of his deep jazz, rock, and Latin rhythm roots and it’s shocking that he’s hardly ever mentioned in discussions of great drummers.
5. Meg White
Purists would likely scoff at the idea of including Meg White on any list that isn’t a countdown of the “worst” drummers. After all, she’s not a technical player, is overly simplistic in her approach, and doesn’t even have great timing. Therefore, she’s often written off as being an awful drummer but context is key. In most bands, Meg White’s drumming would not suffice but her style is perfectly suited to The White Stripes’ stripped down sound.
White’s steady, simplistic beats on a song like “Seven Nation Army” helped make it the band’s biggest hit and even though she’s nowhere close in terms of ability, White channels the great John Bonham and other hard-hitting legends in much of her work (“Icky Thump” stands as a great example of this). Meg White is the definition of a drummer who is all feel and one who whacked the hell out of her kit during her time recording with Jack White. Again, we’re not saying she’s a great drummer, but it’s hard to argue that she’s not underrated.
4. Aynsley Dunbar – Jeff Beck Group, Frank Zappa, Whitesnake, Journey
Legend has it that Jimi Hendrix chose Mitch Mitchell as his drummer for the Experience by flipping a coin. The other drummer who didn’t get picked was Aynsley Dunbar and considering how revered Mitchell is, the fact that Hendrix had to leave it to chance to decide should tell you all you need to know about Dunbar’s credentials behind the kit. Fortunately, not getting into the Jimi Hendrix Experience wasn’t the death of Dunbar’s career; far from it in fact, as he went on to play in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Jeff Beck Group before joining up with the one and only Frank Zappa.
Dunbar played on around a dozen Zappa albums, contributing hard-hitting beats to classics like “Transylvania Boogie” and “Big Swifty,” the latter of which has Dunbar doing his best Keith Moon freakout impression. With that kind of resume, you’d think Dunbar would be talked about more among classic rock’s elite drummers, but his time in lesser regarded bands such as Whitesnake and Journey during the 1980s might at least partly explain why he’s been so overlooked.
3. Topper Headon – The Clash
To make a gross generalization, punk rock drummers aren’t typically recognized as being “great” drummers. There are a number of exceptions, of course, and one of the best is The Clash’s Topper Headon. A skilled percussionist, Headon blew away most of his punk contemporaries with his infectious playing. While Tommy Ramone helped usher in the style that would come to dominate the punk rock sound, Headon had a swing and groove to his playing that helped ensure The Clash’s rhythm section was never boring. He was also a great songwriter to boot, penning the band’s biggest hit, “Rock The Casbah,” and even though he made significant contributions to the history of rock and rock, Topper Headon simply doesn’t get the respect he deserves.
2. Carlton Barrett – Bob Marley And The Wailers
Bob Marley is one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century, with his legacy touching not just reggae but pretty much every genre you could think of. Of course, Marley also had a heck of a backing band behind him and there was arguably no more important musician in that group than Carlton Barrett. Barrett’s meticulous sound, characterized by the “one drop” technique created by striking the snare and kick together on the third beat and leaving the first beat empty, has become the driving rhythm technique of reggae music ever since Barrett popularized it with Marley.
Unfortunately much like Marley, Barrett’s life was tragically cut short at the age of 36, when he was shot to death at his home in Kingston, but he’s remembered now as a musician who exemplified feel over heroics in his playing, proving that you don’t need to play lightning fast to be considered a great drummer.
1. Ringo Starr – The Beatles
It’s hard not to feel bad for Ringo Starr. Even though he was a member of arguably the greatest band of all time, Ringo has had to struggle to get the same level of respect as the other Beatles throughout his entire career and the unfortunate part is that, in a way, his position as everyone’s least favorite member of the Fab Four is somewhat justified. Ringo was neither as talented or accomplished a musician/songwriter as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, and his position as the Beatles drummer has more to do with luck and good timing than his skills on the instrument.
That being said, even though Ringo Star may not have even been the best drummer in the Beatles (as John Lennon once famously quipped), he still managed to become one of the most influential drummers in rock history. What Ringo lacks in technical skill he makes up for in sheer inventiveness, with songs like “Something,” “Ticket to Ride” and “Rain” (the last of which features arguably Ringo’s best drum performance) displaying his knack for timely, intricate fills and minimalist approach.
The Beatles could have found a better drummer had they gone out and looked for one, but it’s hard to imagine the band’s music without Ringo driving the rhythm section (and yes, we realize that Paul played drums on a few tracks). For that reason, we declare Ringo Starr to be the most underrated drummer of all time without hesitation.