The Greatest Drummers-Part I

A band is only as good as its drummer.

I believe that.

Not that I’m an expert, but I know my way around a drum kit. At least it’s the one instrument that I’m proficient at. Mind you, if I were to play with a band or asked to perform with other musicians, I’d probably choke. But I know how to bang it out (if you know what I mean).

I am a student of the craft. And as a student, I have many opinions about my fellow percussionists. Remember Frasier and Niles Crane? Remember their snobbishness about wine (among other things)? That’s the way I am about drummers.

I don’t try to be that way. I know that every drummer that I hear is very much better than I am, or ever will be. Yet a drummer can make or break a band for me. That’s all that I’m saying.

And when I’m practicing myself, there are a number of artists that I attempt to emulate. Some of them are widely appreciated. Some of them aren’t.

John Bonham is, of course, the gold standard. I don’t believe that non-drummers truly understand his contributions to music. In philosophical terms, he did to drumming what Rene Descartes or Plato did to philosophy. You may not be a fan of his, but one way or another….you have to reckon with him.

Of course, to drummers, this goes without saying.

Now, in my personal view, I don’t believe that Bonham’s style was as aggressive or sophisticated…even among his contemporaries. But it was polished. It was bold. And it greatly contributed to that Led Zeppelin sound that we all know and love. And every drummer since has strived to mimic that sound.

When you hear a Bonham groove, you instantly know that it’s HIS sound.

And to me, that’s what makes a GREAT drummer. Drum solos or technical ability is fine. I find those things cool to watch. But it’s not like I think to myself: “Man, I really want to listen to that 18 minute drum solo!”. Few people think that. So it’s not about how WELL you play…it’s about contributing to the music.

Does your sound add TO the music? That is the question.

And even though I fail to match up to the greatness of these musicians, the following drummers have inspired me the most. Some of them you’ll recognize, some of them you won’t.

Bobby Chouinard- Billy Squier 

When we think about the great successor to John Bonham, for some reason, most people think Dave Grohl. I don’t know why. Probably because that’s the only drummer that people can name. No doubt that Grohl derived inspiration from Bonham. But I just don’t hear it.

And the truth is, there isn’t a successor. Few have ever come close to emulating that sound.

But ONE came close.

Most don’t put Billy Squier in the same league as Led Zeppelin, The Who, and other great MUSICIANSHIP bands. But who cares? When I think of John Bonham, one thing comes to mind: the bass drum. The man could make it sound like rolling thunder. I get chills just thinking about it. Mix that in with the Bonham-groove, you have a difficult time trying to re-create the sound. But Bobby Chouinard nearly did it.

Don’t believe me? Listen to Lonely is the Night. Again!

But Chouinard did more than just re-create Bonham. If you ask me, he was more instrumental in creating that Billy Squier sound than Billy Squier. His drumming wasn’t anything INSANE, but it was bold. It was clean. It was loud. And it fucking rocked.

Mitch Mitchell- The Jimi Hendrix Experience

I don’t think that Mitchell gets disrespected in any way.

But because Jimi Hendrix is such an icon, it’s easy to overlook the incredible technique of his drummer.

When I think of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, I think of three musicians that were pretty much doing three different things for each song…yet, somehow, it all came out beautifully in the end.

It’s incredible to listen to.

But Mitchell’s frantic jazz style was what really drove the Experience. You get worn out just listening to it. And truth be told, I can’t emulate it at all.

Alex Van Halen- Van Halen

Okay, so this is another drummer that I don’t think is disrespected necessarily. But between the shenanigans of the various lead singers and Eddie Van Halen, Alex sort of gets lost in the shuffle.

When some think of Van Halen, they think of Eddie’s stupid grin. But he has good reason to smile: he’s a fucking incredible guitarist. I often bitch about musicians and their lame or unnecessary solos. And you might want to punch Eddie in the face, but the man knows how to shred. Which is why between Alex and Eddie Van Halen, the band is one of the more underrated MUSICIANSHIP bands…along with Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix Experience, etc. (Even though Van Halen is FAR from being underrated).

Rush is considered a MUSICIANSHIP band. I’m not gonna lie, the three members are probably the best musicians at their respective positions. But they suck, or they have an uneven catalog at best.

How is that possible?

In short, they fell victim to the self-indulgence that became characteristic of the 1970s (more about this in Part II). During that time, those three talented guys had no business being in the same room together. Music sometimes suffers from an over-indulgence of ability. And as a result, we get Rush. 

So what does this have to do with Alex Van Halen?

Great question. And hopefully I’ll be able to answer it in Part II.

I promise you that I’m going somewhere with this, by the way.