The most physical of all instruments, the drums can turn an ordinary number into a powerhouse of a tune. Here’s our list of the 18 best drum songs – in no particular order – that stand above the rest in terms of sheer drumming awesomeness.
- Led Zeppelin, ‘When The Levee Breaks’
- The Beatles, ‘Come Together’
- The Meters, ‘Cissy Strut’
- Metallica, ‘One’
- The Who, ‘My Generation’
- AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’
- Slayer, ‘Raining Blood’
- U2, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’
- Cream, ‘Toad’
- Led Zeppelin, ‘Moby Dick’
- Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Fire’
- Steely Dan, ‘Aja’
- Tool, ‘Ticks & Leeches’
- King Crimson, ’21st Century Schizoid Man’
- Emerson Lake & Palmer, ‘Karn Evil 9’
- Rush, ‘YYZ’
- Van Halen, ‘Hot for Teacher’
- The White Stripes, ‘Seven Nation Army’
Led Zeppelin, ‘When The Levee Breaks’
Led Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham, is the shuffle-maestro. With many awesome songs under his belt, Bonham is well-known as the mastermind behind this sledgehammer of a song. Although the tune is a cover originally by Memphis Minnie, Led Zeppelin’s cover is unique. To make the beat’s distinctive echo, Bonham put his drum kit at the bottom of a staircase with the microphone recoding from the top.
The Beatles, ‘Come Together’
The Beatles drummer Ringo Starr is the perfect example of why excellent drumming comes from artists who know how to feel the music. He started drumming at the age of 13 while recuperating from complications of tuberculosis, and later become known by the nickname ‘Ringo’ to sound more like a cowboy. Ringo isn’t insanely fast around the drum kit like many other drummers on this list, but he does have a unique and recognizable style. The Beatles ‘Come Together’ goes to show that simple form can still become iconic when it’s done right.
The Meters, ‘Cissy Strut’
With a name like Ziggy Modeliste, how could you not join a funk band?! Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste teamed up with New Orleans R&B funk band in 1966. The beat he creates with The Meters, like his name, is the epitome of funk. When you hear ‘Cissy Strut,’ it’s hard not to strut down the street as you dance to this drum beat. The sound is sophisticated yet not fast. People can tap along with this beat easily, unlike many other quick, syncopated hits on this list. Released in 1969, this tune was even inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011.
For ultimate drumming power, look no further than Metallica’s Lars Ulrich. Many of the band’s well-known and popular numbers are heavy, but ‘One’ starts off the first half of the track with less intensity. The drums set the scene with a machine gun-like drum beat. During the last remaining minutes of the song, Lars introduces a sharp rapid snare and double bass that makes the sound of the entire song iconic in the best way possible.
The Who, ‘My Generation’
A famous rock band with an awesome drummer, The Who offers a beat that keeps up with the increasingly advanced songwriting of later releases. Drummer Keith Moon creates a more simplistic drum beat in ‘My Generation.’ However, there are still complex and chaotic fills in the middle of the song and between other beats. The high energy sound and explosive fury became a masterpiece. The band performed ‘My Generation’ live in varying ways due to the complex rhythm. In a TV performance, for example, Moon added gunpowder to his bass drum for a colossal explosion that actually damaged singer Pete Townshend’s hearing permanently.
AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’
Phil Rudd from AC/DC demonstrates excellent power and restraint in tracks like ‘Back in Black.’ Many drummers lack the discipline for quick-paced playing, but Rudd hits the drums hard one moment and sits back at other times to complement rather than taking the front stage from his bandmates. This one is a perfect example of this skill. Just when you think Rudd couldn’t hit the drums harder, he pulls back in an attempt not to overwhelm the song. The result is influential and utterly iconic in rock music.
Slayer, ‘Raining Blood’
While sometimes powerful and simple work well in rock anthems, this hit shows how complexity can also pair with the power to create a popular number. Slayer’s Dave Lombardo is a metal drummer, but he doesn’t sacrifice the feel of a song for playing as fast as the speed of light. In Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood,’ groove and fast drums are perfectly balanced for symmetry. The signature song is a favorite for bandmates and writers Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King to play live as well. When played live, crowds were likely to see ‘Raining Blood’ performed on stage amidst a literal rain of blood.
U2, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’
Modern U2 may not be insanely popular among music aficionados today, but their hit ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is an emotionally powerful track. For this one, it’s all about the simplistic drum beat. The music is an ode to the Bloody Sunday massacre, so to evoke emotion about the event, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. plays a march that sounds like a military beat. The march is thrown in throughout the song as the hook, and it instantly becomes the most recognizable part of the entire track.
One of the rock industry’s first supergroups, Cream was made from high-standard talent like Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker. Drummer Ginger Baker shows his rare ability in the solo of ‘Toad.’ It’s nearly full of his brilliantly layered tracks, which makes it unusual for today’s drummers to even attempt to replicate. Baker’s drumming is precise, and the solo intricately and seamlessly extends across the majority of the song, transitioning from snare-heavy to a rode cymbal-centric piece that carries listeners through the song with winding percussion.
Led Zeppelin, ‘Moby Dick’
Another hit from Led Zeppelin’s drummer, Bonham was indeed a musical genius. He combined folk, brawn, funk, and rock on the drum kit in a way that no other musician will ever be able to recreate the same way. Perhaps this is the reason an authentic Led Zeppelin reunion tour will never match up to expectations. While guitarist Jimmy Page’s guitar work would often get a lot of the limelight, the song ‘Moby Dick’ has an epic drum solo that perfectly sums up the magic behind Bonham and exactly why no other drummer can replace this legend. In live performances at the time, Bonham could play his already extended 14-minute solo for sometimes around 20 minutes or more.
Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Fire’
While this band is well-known for Jimi Hendrix’s insane guitar work, the Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell produces much of the power and energy behind the music. ‘Fire’ is a psychedelic rock song with soulful polyrhythmic jazz-like drumming. Released in 1967, Mitchell provides non-stop rhythms and fills throughout. The propulsive drumbeat allows Jimi to weave his guitar in and out of the notes, creating an impactful and stunning tune to listen to.
Steely Dan, ‘Aja’
For critics of the era, Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ was the song of the decade. In a number full of piano, tenor sax, and overdriven guitar solos, the drum solo by Steve Gadd makes this 1977 number something special. What’s surprising is that Steely Dan didn’t often create music with drum solos, and the occurrence allows Gadd to truly shine. ‘Aja’ is one of the first tracks from the band to come with a drum solo. It starts with a steady percussive beat that’s unforgettable, then the drum solo section highlights each of the other instruments perfectly. Jump to around 4:45 of this 8-minute tune to check out the drum solo.
Tool, ‘Ticks & Leeches’
Before Tool came out with ‘Ticks & Leeches’ in 2001, drummer Danny Crey was already considered one of the best drummers of his generation. Many people feel like ‘Ticks & Leeches’ doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the music on the album Lateralus. However, this one clearly shows the esteemed drummer expanded and refined his skills just before the making of this intensely complex hit. Tool’s style is ever-changing. While ‘Tools & Leeches’ is an angry-sounding tune typical of the band, the album itself transformed Tool into the progressive rock genre from the art and psychedelic rock territory.
King Crimson, ’21st Century Schizoid Man’
You may know the King Crimson song ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ from its feature on Kanye West’s 2010 single called ‘Power.’ However, the progressive rock number debuted in 1969. Drummer Michael Giles brings a complex drumming style to the table that’s polyrhythmic (perfect for a man with a schizoid personality disorder). While you listen, notice how the drumming blends all the wild solos, and the fast time changes into a new and unique flow. It tells a story, and the drumbeat brings every element together.
Emerson Lake & Palmer, ‘Karn Evil 9’
Emerson Lake & Palmer’s ‘Karn Evil 9’ features an epic drum track that’s a whopping 29 minutes long! It comes from the 1973 prog rock album ‘Brain Salad Surgery,’ and ELP’s drummer Carl Palmer has plenty of time to show off his mad skills in this hit. Throughout ‘Karn Evil 9,’ Palmer directs the band through tons of mood and tempo changes before letting loose. Sure, the song won’t seem to end. But how many rock numbers showcase the drummer’s insane abilities for nearly a half-hour?!
Rush’s drummer Neil Peart is the best at technique and technicality. In ‘YYZ,’ Peart creates a strange-sounding and utterly unique beat. The track starts with a rhythm made using mode code for YYZ, which is the band’s code at their local Toronto Pearson International Airport. The drumbeat (along with the other instruments) join in to match the YYZ morse code, and the song becomes more complicated with fills and other intricacies. With so many intricate sounds happening at once, Rush doesn’t bother to sing over the music. Otherwise, they may push the complication over the top.
Van Halen, ‘Hot for Teacher’
The rock band Van Halen, made up of siblings Eddie and Alex Van Halen, featuring guitar and drum innovations of equal measure. Eddie may gain tons of recognition for his guitar work, but as ‘Hot for Teacher’ shows Alex had plenty of tricks up his sleeves as well. In this innovative song, Alex shows off instead of resorting to his usual solid rock foundation. To create the layered sound of two drum sets at the beginning of the number, Alex strung four bass drums together. The sound erupts like fireworks, and then the bass drum cuts low to mellow the tone a bit. ‘Hot for Teacher’ demonstrates the drummer’s unique sound and true skill at matching his brother, both in their creativity and fast tempo.
The White Stripes, ‘Seven Nation Army’
It’s hard to believe Whitestripes Drummer Meg White didn’t play the drums exclusively until she joined up with her now ex-husband Jack White. She started playing on impulse alone using a straightforward style. Today, ‘Seven Nation Army’ is the band’s magnum opus. It features heavy drum sections near the start, and the husband and wife band went on to perform an extended drum solo version during live performances that amazed crowds.