When the DRUM! staff decided to limit its World’s Heaviest Drummers list to a mere ten spots, we knew a grueling task lay before us. So after the shouting matches, shed tears, and suggestions were ridiculed and shot down (or shot down and then ridiculed), we came to a consensus. There may be someone you think we’ve criminally neglected or even a player you’re surprised to see here. But if we’ve simply reinforced what you already believe, well, we wouldn’t be a drumming authority. However, we can almost guarantee after reading the following pages that you’ll walk away with an expanded notion of what it means to be heavy. Let the bruising begin.
The template for heaviosity, John Bonham was so essential to the Zeppelin sound, the band had no choice but to break up after the drummer overdosed in 1980. Unlike some of the other entries here, Bonham didn’t actually strike very hard, and yet his drum sound was huge – the fact that he tuned the reso side much higher than the batters only partially explains it. How many drummers do you know who are practically synonymous with a beat simply because their execution was so tasty? (We’re referring of course to the half-time shuffle from “Fool In The Rain.”) The first to champion acrylic shells, Bonham is also the only guy on our list associated with the look of a drum set. Don’t forget that an entire musicological study could be devoted to the drummer’s right foot, an appendage so agile and strong – check out “Good Times, Bad Times” – it’s hard to believe it’s not a double pedal. We’ll probably never know the reticent Englishman’s secret since he didn’t analyze his own playing – he just did what he did.
“I never had many drum lessons. I just played the way I wanted and got blacklisted in Birmingham. ’You’re too loud!’ they used to say. ’There’s no future in it.’ But nowadays you can’t play loud enough.”
–TRAPS Magazine, Summer 2007
Gear Ludwig drums and hardware; Paiste cymbals; Celina, Ludwig, and Promuco sticks; Remo and Ludwig heads.
With Led Zeppelin (on WEA): Led Zeppelin; Led Zeppelin II; Led Zeppelin III.Led Zeppelin IV; Houses Of The Holy. (On Swan Song): Physical Graffiti.
Style While we could have chosen countless patterns, “When The Levee Breaks” is impressive for both its simplicity and its power. Two microphones, a drum kit at the bottom of a stairwell, and Bonham created a groove that will resonate forever.
Tommy Lee’s shenanigans in the tabloids have at times eclipsed the dazzling drum-tastics that made him noteworthy in the first place. The ear-popping force with which he walloped his snare and dug into his double bass drums practically leaped out the speakers on Mötley Crüe’s 1983 commercial breakthrough, Shout At The Devil. The impact was amplified by his stick-twirling, stage-production extremes, like when he fell from the harness during a solo on his airborne kit on the Dr. Feelgood tour and had to be rushed to the hospital. But Lee’s one of those rock stars who bounces back no matter how many injures he sustains, drugs he does, or times he reunites with Pamela Anderson. Lee also saw the potential of acoustic drums in hip-hop, which he explored in rap-metal project, Methods Of Mayhem, but this is a footnote in a career filled with great, drummy albums. The golden age of Sunset Strip hair metal might be in the past, but Lee’s search for fat drum sound is more daring than ever. That 40″ bass drum on his current tour isn’t just a prop, it helps the bass drum he’s playing behind it to resonate like a woofer.
“Go crazy or stay home. I’ve always prided myself on that. And who knows, hopefully one of these days, when it’s all said and done, somebody will put together a reel of all the crazy stuff I’ve done.” –DRUM!, February 2007
Gear DW drums and hardware, Zildjian cymbals, Ahead sticks, LP cowbell, Remo heads.
With Mötley Crüe (on Elektra): Too Fast For Love; Shout At The Devil; Theatre Of Pain; Girls, Girls, Girls; Dr. Feelgood. (On Motley/Beyond): Generation Swine.
Style Lee creates drum parts that just kick butt. His slamming intro to “Livewire” is a perfect example of this. The guitar riff is chugging along and Lee pounds accents on his snare and floor tom before launching into the double bass groove that drives like a freight train into the verse.
The style of Faith No More’s Mike Bordin is a textbook balancing act between hard rock balls and hip-hop boom bap (and a telling glimpse at how similar the two are). With Bordin, it was the space on either side of every whip-y, liquid strike that gave ballast to Faith No More’s funk-metal wackiness – even the rim-clicks on the eight-minute “The Real Thing” possess a lingering, visceral crack. When he joined Ozzy Osbourne in 1995, it allowed him to play looser time-wise, but with greater heft. (Check out “I Don’t Want To Stop” for a surprise-filled display of tensile strength.) No doubt, the stint with Ozzy paved the way for his brief replacement of Bill Ward in Black Sabbath, where he further plumbed the depths of ur-metal groove. Is it any wonder Bordin was the first guy Korn called to fill in when David Silveria was injured on 2000’s Sick And Twisted Tour? Here’s to hoping rumors of the drummer recording new Faith No More material will become reality.
“I’ve always been into really heavy music. When I was young, whether it was Jimi Hendrix, or Black Sabbath, or Deep Purple, or the Scorpions … what I chew on kind of comes out, and I’ve always chewed on heavy stuff.”
Gear Yamaha drums, Brady snare, Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Remo heads.
Style An unusually powerful player, Bordin is a lefty who plays a right-handed kit, and his unconventional open-handed stance helps him hit his snare as forcefully as anyone around. The Faith No More song “Epic” was an alternative rap-rock anthem and helped open the door to other bands that wanted to mix metal with other influences. The track starts with a powerful and funky rock groove that starts each bar with three quick sixteenth-notes on the kick drum. The drums break down to just a kick drum, snare, the bass line, and the rap in the verse.
With Faith No More (on Slash): Introduce Yourself; Angel Dust. (On London): The Real Thing. With Ozzy Osbourne (on Sony): Down To Earth. (On Epic): Live At Budokan. With Jerry Cantrell (on Roadrunner): Degradation Trip.
A human metronome, if ever there was one, Phil Rudd’s bare-bones stomp is hard rock’s heartbeat, and it pounded right through the fussy architecture of prog when AC/DC burst on the scene in the early ’70s. Some drummers consider Rudd elementary, but that’s the whole point: The insane depths of his pocket are what made it easy for Bon Scott (later Brian Johnson) and the Young brothers to do their thing. So unadorned is Rudd’s style that he doesn’t even hit the crash – a reflex for any player – at the end of the small fill on the chorus of “You Shook Me All Night Long,” instead going straight to the hats. Sick. When AC/DC fired him in 1982 for alcohol abuse and artistic differences, Rudd retreated to New Zealand where he flew helicopters, raced cars, and tried his hand at farming. He was rehired in 1991, but musical tastes had moved on. Not that Rudd gave a damn. He picked up right up where the 4/4 left off. Most recently, his addictive pulse has been impacting fans every night on the Black Ice tour.
“It’s a hard thing to do. Simple is always hardest. It’s pretty cool to be known as one of the better-known exponents of that style. You have to be a little patient, I guess, to play that way.”
–DRUM!, June 2005/December 2008
Gear Sonor drums and hardware, Paiste cymbals, Ahead sticks, Evans heads.
With AC/DC (on Epic): Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap; Let There Be Rock; Highway To Hell; Back In Black. (On East West): Ballbreaker.
Style Most drummers love to play fills, but Rudd usually avoids them like a meddlesome mother-in-law. That inclination, combined with his supportive approach, has made him one of the most important rock drummers to swing a stick. His incredible pocket on AC/DC’s classic “Back In Black” is required learning for every hard-rock drummer. Have at it.
Legend has it Keith Moon got his job with The Who after drunkenly insulting the band’s original drummer at an early performance, claiming he could do a better job. Not only was he right, he nudged The Who in a whole new direction. As drummer for the “world’s richest vandals,” as one screaming headline from the ’60s dubbed the band, Moon would literally crush shells, crack cymbals, and put his foot through the bass head at the climax of concerts. As opposed to brute strength, Moon was more about controlled chaos and one of the first rock drummers to make fills a core part of a song, rather than an ornament. One of the earliest adopters of double bass, Moon’s carpet-bomb approach turned The Who’s heady concept albums into a musical adventure. Rock-opera might be pretentious by today’s standards, but Moon’s explosive, volatile style made “Acid Queen” and “Pinball Wizard” exhilarating stuff. It’s interesting to speculate how much further Moon could have gone had not substance abuse cut short his career – he overdosed in 1978 – but excess was simply hardwired into his DNA.
“I’m a person who always does things to extremes – extreme happiness or extreme depression … Sometimes I think I have a death wish. I’m happiest playing drums. I likes to hit – I likes hitting.”
–Rave Magazine, July 1969
Gear Premier drums and hardware, Ludwig and Gretsch snares, Paiste cymbals, Premier and Ajax drum sticks, Premier heads.
Style Moon was the most bombastic and unpredictable drummer to make our list. A Freudian psychiatrist might describe his drumming as pure id, but to the rest of us, he was impulsive, fearless, inspired, and always in the moment. Here are two short excerpts from The Who’s classic, “Baba O’Riley,” and “Bargain.” Each song shows his unique way of entering a song with the subtlety of a bull running into a china shop. Notice how his playing often had a bit of swing in it and the unconventional way he used his bass drum to underpin his fills and grooves.
Don’t think for one second that traditional grip stymied the power of the only drummer on our list who easily goes back and forth between open and trad. Even when playing with extreme sensitivity, as he did with Horace Silver back in the ’60s, Billy Cobham nearly ripped apart his kit when taking a solo. Best known as the original drummer for Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cobham juxtaposes the constant patter of twin kick with asymmetric fills up top and never loses time (“Awakening” is but one example). In addition, he is easily the most chameleon-like player here. Whether he was backing a fusion/jazz artist (Herbie Hancock), singer-songwriter (Carly Simon), rockers (Peter Gabriel, Jack Bruce, Tommy Bolin), Latin (Santana, Fania Allstars), working solo, or saluting Jerry Garcia in instrumental cover band Jazz Is Dead, Cobham’s athletic style is always felt.
“As I get older, I find the theory that less is more, the complexity of simplicity, is a conundrum unto itself. All of a sudden you find you’re playing the music and looking to find the space.”
–Goldmine, October 2003
Gear Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Evans heads.
Style There’s no doubt that Cobham is an innovative, powerful, and remarkably fast drummer, but his heaviness goes beyond the strength of his strokes to the power of his ideas. He’s known as one of the first fusion drummers to use a large kit with multiple bass drums and lots of toms, and also for his ambidexterity. As a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he helped to bridge jazz and rock, but his style definitely leaned more toward the rock side of things. The track “Birds Of Fire” shows him playing a powerful double-bass groove in 9/4 in 1973.
The highest-profile drummer in thrash’s Big Four, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, was the quintessential mondo-kit-bashing animal of ’80s heavy metal. Ulrich’s wide-swinging limbs may be a vestige of the tennis career he abandoned as a teen, but the sounds he gets are consistently precise, whether it’s double-bass jabs, crash accents, or in one memorable stretch, the single strokes that hammer his snare at 2:54 in “Eye Of The Beholder” from 1986’s …And Justice For All. Even as Metallica achieved mainstream respectability in the early ’90s, Ulrich still found a way to kill it. On mega-hit “Unforgiven,” you’ll swear he’s atomic-elbow-dropping the crash cymbals throughout the verses. Ulrich briefly distracted folks from his tub-slugging greatness when he decided to become an anti-Napster crusader in the early days of file sharing. Whether it’s hitting drums or activism, there’s nothing in moderation with Ulrich.
Where I came from, it was about weight. It wasn’t about bounce, it was about weight.”
–DRUM!, December 2003/January 2004
Tama drums and hardware, Zildjian cymbals, Ahead sticks, Remo heads.
While tabloid coverage, last year’s plane crash, and the recent overdose of his creative partner have kept Travis Barker in the public eye, it’s this tattooed fashion plate’s eye-popping kinetic energy behind the kit that fascinates drummers. A heavy hitter in the most literal sense of the word, Barker puts his whole body into the strokes – and he has the bone fractures to prove it. But from the fast punk beats in the band that made him famous, Blink-182, to his more recent turn backing rap stars like The Game and doing his own cover-song mash-ups, Barker’s deep pocket is the result of aggressive feet – he has jokingly referred to his kicking style as “leg up” – and upper-limb arcs that begin way behind his head. This may also explain why he arranges his toms flat and low: More room for his stick to get the maximum amount of downward momentum before striking the head, but it’s just as likely a carry-over from his drum corps days.
“I just try to keep moving forward. Some people may go, ’He overplays, he hits his drums too hard,’ [but] it’s what I do.”
–DRUM!, December 2006
Orange County drums, DW hardware, Zildjian cymbals and sticks, Remo heads, Roland electronics.
Getting his start in the Washington D.C.—area hardcore band Scream, Dave Grohl would perfect his caveman-style club-wielding with grunge icons Nirvana, where his unschooled approach fit perfectly with the Northwest style’s lo-fi crudeness. Looking back at the debut broadcast of MTV Unplugged in 1994, the drummer is visibly pained at having to play softly. A veritable renaissance man, Grohl proved even a Cro-mag basher could write hit songs and front a platinum-selling act, which he did quickly with Foo Fighters, immediately following Nirvana’s demise. Fortunately for us, his enthusiasm for the drums has never waned. Between singing and axe-slinging for the Foos (for whom he writes all the music, including the drum parts), he has drummed live and recorded with Queens Of The Stone Age; metal super-group Probot; and performed with musical acts from the serious (Nine Inch Nails; Killing Joke) to the silly (Tenacious D; Juliette & The Licks). Now he’s back in the saddle rocking heavy with Them Crooked Vultures.
With Nirvana: Tama drums, DW hardware, Zildjian cymbals, Aquarian sticks, Aquarian heads. With Probot: Tama Drums, Zildjian and Paiste cymbals, Remo heads, Ahead sticks. With Them Crooked Vultures: DW drums and hardware, Zildjian cymbals, 3Drumsticks sticks, Remo heads.
With Nirvana (on Geffen): Nevermind; In Utero. With Queens Of The Stone Age (on Interscope): Songs For The Deaf. With Probot (on Southern Lord): Probot With Nine Inch Nails (on Interscope/Nothing): With Teeth. With Juliette & The Licks (on The Militia Group): Four On The Floor. With Them Crooked Vultures (on DGC/Interscope): Them Crooked Vultures.
“Someone who comes down on both crash cymbals at once as hard as they can. Someone who’s constantly breaking things and kick pedals snapped in half. That’s the type of drummer I want behind me.”’
–DRUM!, March 1996
For almost 40 years, Bill Ward has been the backbone of Black Sabbath, the first true heavy metal band. Forget technique, Ward’s appeal lies in gut-level thrills, like the momentum he creates in “Paranoid” or, say, the beefy, busy kick in “Iron Man.” Following Sabbath’s chart-topping reign in the first half of the ’70s, the band became increasingly fractious and Ward pursued other projects, including Max Havoc; contributed to Sabbath guitarist Tommy Iommi’s Iommi; and briefly went solo himself. Whatever the vehicle, Ward never strayed from the crushing oomph whose legacy is felt today in a gazillion doom-metal rhythm sections. After the original members of Sabbath reunited in 1997, Ward suffered a heart attack during rehearsals for Ozzfest (Mike Bordin completed the tour). Ward made a full recovery, and has been with the band ever since.
“The drums for me are something that happen, and they explode, and it happens, and comes out, and that’s that, you know?”
–DRUM!, June/July 1998
Tama drums and hardware, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks.
With Black Sabbath (on Warner Bros.): Black Sabbath; Paranoid; Master Of Reality; Black Sabbath Vol. 4. (On Castle): Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.