The Ten Most Underrated Drummers in the History of Rock

Yes, one of rock's most famous drummers is also underrated.
Yes, one of rock's most famous drummers is also underrated.

By Adam Perry

With all the real injustice on the streets -- and in the courtrooms -- of America currently, you might consider it trivial to examine ten drummers who deserve more credit and attention than they've received. And you'd be right. But music is, if nothing else, a way to make sense of this wicked world through pure release; ostensibly, music geekdom -- enjoying and dissecting -- is a meaningful part of that release.

See also: The Ten Most Underrated Guitarists in the History of Rock

Widely read drum magazines, like their guitar counterparts, focus almost exclusively on musicians who want to stand out, often fatefully above the strength of a song, and who often sound like they're getting paid by the note. We're here to instead celebrate originality and overall effectiveness, rather than monster fills and rotating double-bass drumkits. Up for discussion below is a list of extraordinary drummers who are rarely, if ever, mentioned among the greats in rock history.

10. Aynsley Dunbar

Legend has it that Jimi Hendrix decided on Mitch Mitchell as his drummer for the Experience via coin flip; the reason for that flip was Aynsley Dunbar, a 20-year-old Liverpool kid. Dunbar went on to play in two English institutions: John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Jeff Beck Group before kicking all kinds of ass on about a dozen albums by some mad American genius named Frank Zappa. Dunbar's simultaneously languid and hard-hitting style -- most notably heard on well-known Zappa jams like "Transylvania Boogie" and Zappa classical freakouts like "Big Swifty" -- is a more precise, intellectual-but-explosive version of Keith Moon, sounding less like the grand-finale of a fireworks show than a captivating lead-up. After starring on a couple of classic early '70s albums by David Bowie and Lou Reed (Diamond Dogs and Berlin), Dunbar's talents were somewhat wasted in collaboration with the likes of Sammy Hagar, Whitesnake and Journey; probably for that reason, he is terribly overlooked as one of classic rock's most exciting and important drummers.

9. Stephanie Bailey (The Black Angels)

The Black Angels emerged out of Austin with a bang when 2006's Passover was released, and drummer Stephanie Bailey -- straight-faced and svelte with long blonde hair, preferring fury over flourish -- has been the bold glue keeping the band's hard-hitting psychedelic grooves together from the start. She plays nary a fill; plays a sparse kit; and leads the Black Angels' dark, tribal stomps with beats that a friend recently described as having an "economy of language" not unlike Ezra Pound's poetry. Sometimes being flashy and outgoing doesn't make the most powerful drummer, and that's definitely the case with Bailey, whose floor-shaking rhythms on tracks like "First Vietnamese War" and "You On the Run" juxtapose the simplicity of Maureen Tucker with the depth-charge drumming of Dave Grohl circa In Utero.

8. Topper Headon

The dark horse, as far as musicianship goes, in the first wave of punk was Topper Headon. Before updating his wardrobe and learning to ride his floor tom in order to join the Clash in 1977 -- just after the punk legends' eponymous debut was released -- Headon was a jazz-head who played progressive rock and R&B. The impeccable timing and chops Headon brought to the Clash helped them transcend punk with 1979's diverse rock 'n' roll clinic London Calling and then experiment with rap, soul, reggae, calypso, and even gospel a year later on the 36-track smorgasbord Sandanista!. Headon, who was sacked by the Clash in 1982 due to drug addiction, even wrote the classic piano hook that drives "Rock the Casbah," which reached number one on the U.S. singles chart. While countless other punk bands imploded with no means of evolving, the Clash's catalog evolved Beatles-like in just five short years; without Headon, one of the most underrated drummers in rock's history, the Clash's exceptional musical growth (and continued influence) would not have been possible.

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