Drummers: Unsung Heros

Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) on drums
Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) on drums

I have always been a huge fan of music, in general.  There are all types of music that I love and listen to.  My mood, of course, dictates what I choose to play.  But I digress.  Lately, I’ve been trying to study more of the background aspects of any given song.  I’ve been trying to dissect the subtle details that help to weave the tapestry of the song.  I’m intentionally trying not to focus on the lead guitar, the vocals or the organ licks, or otherwise.  I’m trying to pay attention to the little details that might go unnoticed if it weren’t for someone (a person like me) who really wants to pay attention.  And that’s when I realized that it’s the drummers and percussionists that don’t get the attention they deserve.

Now I’m not saying that drummers don’t get their fair share of the hype.  There are truly some phenomenal drummers in the world, especially within the rock scene, that have truly earned their due acclaim.  There are drummers that are known to be, shall we say, over the top.  Some of the most well known drummers are known for their eclectic and often complicated riffs.  I’m talking about Neal Peart (Rush), the John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), Keith Moon (The Who) or Dave Grohl (Most known as the lead singer to Foo Fighters, but he was the drummer for Nirvana and Queens of the Stone Age).  These are all fantastic drummers.

Then there are the drummers that are known for their finesse.  Maybe they aren’t going to be kicking out crazy riffs.  But their stuff is technically perfect.  In this group, I would include drummers like Carter Beauford (Dave Matthews Band), Quest Love (The Roots) and Phil Collins (Genesis, bonus that he’s also the lead singer).

But the guys I really have drawn interest to lately are those guys that really fade into the background.  These are the drummers that are absolutely essential to their bands and the songs they create and play for.  These are the guys that are willing to let the song breathe and speak for itself.  These guys are not trying to steal the spotlight, nor are they trying to confuse the listener.  These drummers aren’t known for their flourishes or their technical prowess.  But the more I listen to them do their thing, the more I think they are absolute geniuses.  I believe it takes a special kind of skill to be a drummer.  They are, at the root, the absolute core of the band.  They set the tempo, they build the riffs.  But it’s generally an easy position to take for granted, as a listener.

Let’s take Ringo Starr.  There is a large portion of the population that thinks that Ringo Starr is a sub-par drummer.  It’s very easy to say that he’s the “worst of the Beatles” when he’s overshadowed by the likes of McCartney, Lennon and Harrison.  One could argue that such a comparison would be like comparing President Jackson against Presidents Washington and Lincoln.  But when you get down to it, Jackson was a great President and Starr was a great drummer.  Starr, unlike many before him and many to follow, was dedicated to the music first and foremost.  He was not interested in showing off his skills, nor was he interested in stealing the show.  Early Beatles music was fairly basic, so was Starr.  As the band explored and expanded their sound, so did Starr.  That’s somewhat the point…Starr’s contribution faded into the background, but his work was absolutely essential to the sound.  People forget that Starr was the brilliance behind “Come Together”, “Rain” and “The End”.  The guy can do fancy if it’s required.  But he doesn’t over-complicate if it isn’t necessary.  To me, this is the mark of a great and dedicated drummer.

So here’s my list of unsung drummers:

  1. Ringo Starr (The Beatles) – For reasons already mentioned above, this is a guy who is absolutely dedicated to the song.  He plays exactly what the song requires, nothing more, nothing less.  He’s taken slack for being too simple…but in his simplicity, he’s helped to make the greatest band of all-time remain timeless.
  2. Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) – I’ll admit that Mason is the guy that spawned this article.  I have been a fan of Pink Floyd for a very long time.  In that sound spectrum, it’s difficult not to focus on Waters and Gilmore; we forget they had a solid band behind them.  Mason was incredible and second only to Starr for providing only what the song required.  In some songs, he’s absolutely perfectly times to the bass riffs so that he can give the extra punch.  He’s the team player that is working to make the entire song perfect.  My favorite example is “The Wall, Part 2” where Mason plays an almost robotic riff through the entire song.  The riff is exactly the same through most of the song until the guitar solo breaks in near the end.  But the song, which is criticizing rigid order, seems to make sense only in the rigid riffs of Mason’s percussion.  The drums are the only binary and uniform part of the song.  He’s the “teacher” proffering “education” and “thought control” while Gilmore is riffing the guitar in the counter-order.  Mason is brilliant…I only wish I realized it sooner.
  3. Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac) – If you want to have a drummer fade to the background, look no further than Fleetwood.  With Lindsey Buckingham, John McVie, Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks stealing the spotlight every night, I can’t imagine what it might have been like for the drummer that held it all together.  Fleetwood is textbook-perfect.  He is not known to stray from the book and that’s okay.  The reality is that every one of Fleetwood Mac’s best tracks features a very stoic and mathematical drum riff.  He’s calculating and he’s always on the path.  I actually once learned that my metronome was failing because the Fleetwood Mac song didn’t seem to sync up.  Kidding aside (I wasn’t really kidding), his lack-of-motivation to explore the loose side prevents him from the acclaim he deserves.  But I highly doubt any drummer could have taken his place at the set on a Fleetwood Mac stage.
  4. Philip Selway (Radiohead) – Radiohead is experimental, atmospheric and they don’t really fit into any one specific genre.  They’ve dabbled in rock, touched the borders of ambient and blended everything in between.  Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood are the most acclaimed members of the band and with good reason.  But the root, Selway, is completely inseparable from the Radiohead sound.  Even on the album Amnesiac, when all of the members learned different instruments, it was apparent that Selway’s absolute understanding of tempo was critical to the sound.  His riffs are anything but textbook.  He really explores the depths of the medium.  But he doesn’t flourish like other drummers on the scene.  He’s off-kilter and atypical with his rhythms, but he’s not stealing the spotlight.  I had to spend a lot of time listening to their entire discography to really pin down his abilities.  He is, in fact, the different drummer that the others march to.  And it’s a funky, experimental riff.  It’s brilliant.
  5. Stewart Copeland (The Police) – When your lead singer is Sting, everything else fades to the background.  Unlike others on this list, Copeland is known to work in some pretty complicated fills and some really dramatic riffs.  He’s even got a good solo here and there.  But he was never the focal point of the band.  If you really get down to it, The Police were never really known for overly-complicated songs.  Sure, you’d have the Sting vocal prize and the Henry Padovani guitar licks, but nothing that was too outside-the-box.  That’s where Copeland should have thrived.  He was the refinement and the flourishes of the band.  He provided a much-needed layer of complexity to their music.  But he did so in a way that blended everything together flawlessly.  He doesn’t stand out inside The Police hits.   But he should have, because he was the glue that held it all together.

So what do you think of my list.  Is there anyone you think belongs on the list?  Anything you’d like to dispute?  Leave your comments below.