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.  

7. Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)

Deerhoof's gangly, eccentric drummer Greg Saunier -- famously called "virtuosic" by the New Yorker -- is a veritable powder keg behind the drums. Saunier's struggles with Tourette syndrome partly fuel his bombastic musicianship, which is captivating in the studio and jaw-dropping in concert, which is where he's turned heads captaining Deerhoof's marriage of ambitiously cute and explosively maniacal. Saunier makes a comically small drumkit, often with just one cymbal, sound like an avant-garde orchestra -- like Keith Moon jamming with Frank Zappa -- and can also get a stuffy indie crowd bopping with funky Deerhoof classics like "Spirit Ditties of No Tone." Saunier, the driving force behind one of the few truly unique acts in the last two decades of American popular music, deserves a lot more attention in the pantheon of great rock drummers.

6. Thom Green (Alt-J)

When English folktronica act Alt-J sold out the Fillmore in December this past October, its most impressive element was the dynamic drumming of young Thom Green, who got the 4,000-strong Denver crowd bouncing with fervor while having only a tambourine, electronic pads, a couple of real drums, congas and a cowbell at his disposal. Playing a drum kit without cymbals -- a revolutionary tactic in a craft that virtually never questions tradition -- seems to unlock Green's playful creativity, and playful creativity defines Alt-J. He deserves attention as one of modern rock 'n' roll's most exciting young musicians.

5. Hal Blaine

One would think that a drummer who played on six consecutive Grammy-winning singles and 50 number-one hits would be consistently hailed as one of the legends of his craft, but Hal Blaine -- whose impeccable timekeeping is featured on everything from "Can't Help Falling in Love" to "Good Vibrations" -- is a generally a mere footnote. Known mostly for the unmistakable intro to "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes, Blaine was the veritable drum machine of early rock 'n' roll and, in the musically rich '60s, played on hits by the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Frank Sinatra and a list of other bigtime artists nearly as long as Kerouac's original scroll of On the Road. Not only underrated, Blaine is underestimated -- he's still alive, at age 85, and deserves any accolade he's yet to receive.

4. Pete Thomas

Like Hal Blaine, Pete Thomas' sticks are responsible for some iconic intros that even casual music lovers recognize instantly. The heroically gifted Thomas, however, wrote those iconic intros for songs by just one artist: Elvis Costello. Thomas, as a member of the Attractions and later the Imposters, has lent thunderous, soulful and nimble beats to Costello's eclectic catalog, and first made his mark with the opening angular-reggae salvo of "Watching the Detectives." Thomas has collaborated with the likes of John Paul Jones, Elliot Smith and Lucinda Williams, but it's his longtime musical relationship with Costello, whose best work has been supported and highlighted by Thomas' decisive and powerful beats, that's made him one of rock's most respected, yet rarely lauded, drummers.  

3. Tommy Ramone

Born in Budapest to a Holocaust-surviving Jewish mother and father, Erdélyi Tamás was an unlikely candidate to invent punk-rock drumming, but as Tommy Ramone he gave the gift of simple, supercharged drumming from the boredom-filled Queens of the early '70s to several generations of stick-wielding maniacs. Ramone's drumming on early Ramones favorites such as "Beat on the Brat" and "I Don't Want to Walk Around With You" seem like they came screaming out of a musical void to change music forever, and his no-frills performance on It's Alive (a 1977 London concert that served as Punk 101 for a wave of British copycats) is as impressive, at least, as Keith Moon's famed work on Live at Leeds.

2. Carlton Barrett

Not many musicians in history have had a greater influence on nearly every genre as Bob Marley, and Carlton Barrett -- mellifluous, original, thick and precise -- was Marley's drummer. Without Barrett, the pseudo-Jamaican hythms of bands like Sublime, 311, No Doubt, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Clash, Fishbone and countless others might have no foundation. Funky, smooth and strong, but memorably hazy, as if it was played with two joints, Barrett's drumming was a relaxed revelation. Unfortunately, he was shot to death at age 36 at his Kingston home.

1. Ringo Starr

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In the most famous band of all time, of course Ringo Starr is one of the most famous drummers of all time, but he never seems to be considered a great musician, just a quirky, loveable Liverpool kid who lucked out by getting served a fantastic opportunity. Without Starr, however, the Beatles might have had a hard time transitioning from fun-loving mop-top stars to some of history's greatest songwriters. Ringo's breathtaking inventiveness on tracks such as "In My Life," "Something" and "Paperback Writer" is often overlooked as nothing more than "straightforward," but Ringo's Zen-like minimalism with the Beatles -- which influenced virtually every quality drummer since him -- was deceptively ingenious, inspired and underrated. Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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