The most important member of any rock ‘n’ roll band is the drummer. Seriously, you can have Jimi Hendrix on lead guitar in your band. But if Mitch Mitchell isn’t in the back, holding it all together on drums? You just have noise.
Rhythm is king in rock ‘n’ roll. Naturally, rhythm also rules in punk rock, a style based almost entirely on hammered-out straight eighth notes. You don’t nail those beats straight and true, especially at these accelerated tempos? The entire song goes up in flames. This said, the best punk drummers are always much more than faceless mechanics, banging the stick down on two and four. The only way to stand out is to add something individual to the beat so that they’re instantly recognizable to the listener. No easy feat. We feel these 20 skin bashers do all that, and then some.
Read more: A history of punk and metal fusion, from Motörhead to Metallica
These are the 20 greatest punk-rock drummers of all time. Please enjoy our custom playlist as the soundtrack to your reading.
CLAIM TO FAME: Ramones
SIGNATURE MOVE: The bulk of this list is arranged more or less in chronological order, rather than by which drummer was greater than the other. That said, Tommy Ramone has to begin festivities, since Ramones’ music more or less became the punk-rock template. Yes, the chainsaw poppers from Forest Hills saw a few drummers pass through, with Marky Ramone serving the longest, albeit in two separate stays. And he was technically their best skin-slapper. But Tommy was the original and devised that deceptively simple drum groove that still swung like mad. Few mastered it properly, making him Ramones’ rhythm king.
BEST HEARD ON: Rocket To Russia
CLAIM TO FAME: New York Dolls, Heartbreakers
SIGNATURE MOVE: Speaking of drummers who swing, Jerry Nolan swung so hard through the Dolls’ and Heartbreakers’ classic albums, you can picture him on a playground between monkey bars and a slide. Which made him a precious rarity in the punk universe, which was overrun with stiff drummers. The key to Nolan’s “cutting a profile,” as went one of his trademark phrases? His absolute drumming idol was Gene Krupa, the Keith Moon of 1946. Nolan applied the same jungle tom logic to basic rock ‘n’ roll, a more musical approach than standard boom-crash-boom-crash.
BEST HEARD ON: New York Dolls, L.A.M.F.
CLAIM TO FAME: The Stooges
SIGNATURE MOVE: By dint of his tenure in Detroit’s Stooges, Scott Asheton kills dead any chicken-or-egg arguments about the First Punk Drummer. Via his thuggish stomp and wicked syncopations through all three Stooges albums, Asheton set down massive grooves that hurled bloodthirsty singer Iggy Pop offstage and headfirst into the fifth row. After all, the harmonically unstable guitar overspill of brother Ron Asheton and later James Williamson needed a hefty, solid framework off which to hang. There was so much ferocious groove from Asheton’s tubs, it was essentially nihilistic funk.
BEST HEARD ON: Fun House
CLAIM TO FAME: Sex Pistols
SIGNATURE MOVE: Punks will argue until the final atom bomb blast who was the greater definitive punk band — Sex Pistols or Ramones? The Ramones’ 250 MPH ramalama has become punk’s accepted sonic signature. But the Pistols proved you didn’t need to ramalama to be high energy. In fact, power could be all you needed to be properly punk, as long as the rage and ideas rang true. Paul Cook’s hard-thumping, meat-and-potatoes bashing was a large part of their power and majesty. In many ways, he was punk’s John Bonham.
BEST HEARD ON: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
CLAIM TO FAME: Blondie
SIGNATURE MOVE: Without Clem Burke, Blondie would have been a charming ‘60s-influenced pop outfit. But due to those Moon-on-steroids detonations from Burke, Blondie were a charming ‘60s-influenced pop outfit that rocked like murder. Consider “Dreaming,” possibly the greatest Blondie single, without those massive, stumbling roller-coaster rolls across his entire kit. What would be showy overplaying in any lesser drummer’s hands instead elevates and propels this track. Burke is a percussive genius.
BEST HEARD ON: Eat To The Beat
CLAIM TO FAME: The Clash
SIGNATURE MOVE: Original Clash drummer Terry Chimes, heard on the 1977 debut album, was a fine drummer but rigid. The Clash didn’t truly become the Clash until Nicky “Topper” Headon arrived in late spring 1977. That he’d had jazz training and played in everything from soul revues to Canadian hard rocker Pat Travers’ band gave him chops and a professionalism few others in punk enjoyed. Now the Clash enjoyed a rhythmic dexterity that took them beyond punk from London Calling onward. And not just the reggae they so famously popularized in punk circles. They could now also play rockabilly, funk, jazz and even early hip-hop. It helped deliver them to non-punks worldwide in the early ‘80s.
BEST HEARD ON: London Calling
CLAIM TO FAME: The Damned
SIGNATURE MOVE: London’s destructo-rockers the Damned also benefited from a sticksman who went well beyond slamming two and four hard, at a manic pace. Rat Scabies had a loud, boisterous personality that ensured you heard him well before he walked onstage. Good thing his chops were louder and flashier than his character. Like a few others on this list, the Who’s Moon was clearly Scabies’ spirit animal. His expansive nonstop rolls and fills powered every Damned tune, yet he never lost the beat. If you overplay enough, you just might hit the beat somewhere.
BEST HEARD ON: Machine Gun Etiquette
CLAIM TO FAME: The Runaways
SIGNATURE MOVE: The Runaways served as the same you-can-do-this-too example to West Coast punk youth as Ramones, whom they toured with in 1978. Which isn’t to say Ramones didn’t have an effect on California. But Joan Jett and company were a local example of going against the odds, working outside of the standard music biz,and playing basic, aggressive, rebellious rock ‘n’ roll on your own terms. Despite the sexist press they garnered at the time, every Runaway could play very well. Sandy West’s slamming, solid beat-keeping went a long way toward establishing their rock ‘n’ roll credentials.
BEST HEARD ON: The Mercury Albums Anthology
CLAIM TO FAME: Bad Brains
SIGNATURE MOVE: Earl Hudson’s exemplary, sophisticated musicianship took the jazz/funk-bred Bad Brains miles beyond punk-rock basics. For one, his impatience to get offstage had him jacking their tempos so drastically, Bad Brains helped invent hardcore. But little touches like incorporating cowbell into their initial statement of purpose “Pay To Cum” was a choice that, say, Ramones would have never made. Then he would downshift from fourth gear back to first in half a second, leading them into the most molasses-slow reggae grooves known to man. Hudson is simply a great drummer by anyone’s estimation.
BEST HEARD ON: Bad Brains
CLAIM TO FAME: Circle Jerks
SIGNATURE MOVE: The percussive engine that propelled LA hardcore legends Circle Jerks, like other members of this list, was well-grounded in jazz. Lucky Lehrer spent much of his childhood following around crucial jazz drummers such as Max Roach and Buddy Rich. It gave Circle Jerks liquid rhythmic pulse and vicious swing, even as he pushed them well past any land-speed records. What’s little known is how Lehrer has trained some of California’s finest punk drummers, including Bad Religion’s Bobby Schayer and Pete Finestone. The lessons paid off quite nicely, didn’t they?
BEST HEARD ON: Group Sex
CLAIM TO FAME: The Go-Go’s
SIGNATURE MOVE: They were barely competent darlings of flagship LA punk pit The Masque in that scene’s early days. But the Go-Go’s rapidly shaped up once Gina Schock arrived from her native Baltimore and assumed tub-thumping duties. Her sense of time was metronomic, and she pummeled the skins with Bonham-like force. With their rhythmic attack now solid and steady, guitarist Charlotte Caffey could now bring to the fore the ‘60s pop elements in her exponentially developing songwriting. The results were almost an Americanized Buzzcocks onslaught, just with more 1965 AM radio seasoning. It made them the world’s biggest pop group in the early ‘80s.
BEST HEARD ON: Beauty And The Beat
CLAIM TO FAME: D.O.A., Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Danzig, Social Distortion
SIGNATURE MOVE: If Scabies is Britain’s punk-rock Moon, then Chuck Biscuits is North America’s. He initially burst upon the world as the teenage hellion propelling D.O.A. with his constant explosions. He then jumped ship for Black Flag’s Damaged-era lineup after Robo’s exit, a superior iteration sadly only captured in a demo that will never see official release. He then began a long run changing bands like he changed his shorts — Circle Jerks, Danzig, Social Distortion — rarely lasting long in any, and elevating each with his skill and power. He’s sadly been absent from music since the turn of the century.
BEST HEARD ON: Something Better Change
CLAIM TO FAME: Hüsker Dü
SIGNATURE MOVE: The Minneapolitan trio began as the fastest and most aggressive of hardcore bands, Grant Hart filling what little space was left in Bob Mould’s enormous, ringing chords with a wash of cymbals. This meant early blasts such as “In A Free Land” featured a virtually impenetrable wall of sound. This didn’t change as Hüsker Dü downshifted from blitzkrieg to half-blitzkrieg, allowing the melody and ‘60s pop strains to shine through the noise. Now the ring became the thing, even as Hart’s cracking snare emitted machine gun fire, peppering the pop albums like a master chef with a combustible soup.
BEST HEARD ON: Flip Your Wig
CLAIM TO FAME: Dead Kennedys
SIGNATURE MOVE: D.H. Peligro, the second (and longest-running) gent to occupy the drum throne for Dead Kennedys, came aboard as American punk’s great political conscience embraced hardcore. Therefore, Peligro’s speed in accurately executing unusual, jazz-inflected time signatures enabled DKs to thrash nimbly. Which added further skill and musicality to what was already one of the most imaginative punk bands on the planet.
BEST HEARD ON: Plastic Surgery Disasters/In God We Trust, Inc.
CLAIM TO FAME: L7
SIGNATURE MOVE: Dee Plakas, who has manned the drum kit for O. non-Seattle grunge outfit L7, is as meat-and-potatoes as the Sex Pistols’ Cook. But with all the fuzz and distortion and sheer crunge Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner and Jennifer Finch coated everything? L7 needed the beat to be hard, simple and true. No room for frills or fancy syncopation. Well, maybe a cowbell here and there would be nice. And it was, when she hit it. Plakas was exactly the drummer L7 needed.
BEST HEARD ON: Pretend We’re Dead: Best Of L7
CLAIM TO FAME: Bikini Kill
SIGNATURE MOVE: Riot grrrl quite necessarily and righteously arose in the early ‘90s to boot men out of the pit and reform the scene with its message of women empowerment and unity. Bikini Kill became the alpha band and overall inspiration for the whole of riot grrrl because being more musically solid meant the ideas were communicated far more effectively. A powerful message is best expressed if the medium is equally powerful. A large part of Bikini Kill’s musical integrity can be credited to Tobi Vail’s simple, effective drumming. “Basic” has become an insult in modern times, but punk has always valued the basics above all else. And Vail hitting hard, simple beats and keeping perfect time enabled Bikini Kill to broadcast their points as loudly, clearly and accessibly as possible.
BEST HEARD ON: The First Two Records
CLAIM TO FAME: Green Day
SIGNATURE MOVE: Green Day’s role in delivering punk rock to the mainstream cannot be overstated. It was a controversial move, one thar has divided the punk underground forever. As to the whys and wherefores, you can certainly point to the hard work the band put in for many years on endless van tours and basement shows. Then there’s Billie Joe Armstrong’s prodigious songwriting talent and utterly relatable lyrics, and his widescreen guitar work. But Tré Cool sitting at the back, erupting all over his kit in several exquisitely controlled tantrums, is the part of Green Day that hits you in the gut. And it feels so good.
BEST HEARD ON: Dookie
CLAIM TO FAME: Sleater-Kinney
SIGNATURE MOVE: Sleater-Kinney emerged from the tail end of riot grrrl to become the most ferocious and committedly political of indie-rock bands. True, Corin Tucker and future Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein’s guitars and vocals are long, tunefully abrasive screams. Those elements will always appeal. But Janet Weiss’ percussive contributions are not to be dismissed. Her sense of time is clock-like, and she has a crisp snare roll that she unleashes at the most perfectly deadly moments. But she also has a finely tuned dynamic sense, able to make the band whisper quiet to punctuate key points.
BEST HEARD ON: Dig Me Out
CLAIM TO FAME: The Libertines
SIGNATURE MOVE: England’s long-delayed answer to the Replacements, the Libertines’ “skiffly punk” (as the band’s tabloid-bound co-leader Pete Doherty put it in his Books Of Albion series of journals) could frequently be ramshackle and seemingly careless. But the instability never overwhelmed the clear care and craftsmanship going into Doherty and Carl Barât’s songwriting. But just as the guitars may veer wildly out of tune, or the vocals may blur around the edges, drummer Gary Powell righted the good ship Albion’s course. His unceasing, forceful sticksmanship was both the Albion’s anchor and steering wheel, propelling the Libertines through choppy waters as they headed to the mythic Arcadia.
BEST HEARD ON: Time For Heroes: The Best Of The Libertines
CLAIM TO FAME: blink-182, Transplants
SIGNATURE MOVE: Participating in high school marching band, as well as jazz orchestra, served Travis Barker well in his later career choices. His powers and abilities were refined to the nth degree, making him blink-182’s most valuable player. Then he jumped in with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong to form the punk/hip-hop/reggae hybrid Transplants, which pounded radio into submission with righteous tracks such as “Diamonds And Guns.” The latter particularly benefited from Barker’s immaculately timed snare discharges, which were as much a hook as the insistent piano motif. All this has made Barker a first-call session player for hip-hop artists looking to rock a little.
BEST HEARD ON: Transplants
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