Featured, International Drummers Month, Music History

US/CA Blog - Off the Beaten Path

A quick look at some innovative and talented drummers of the past and present who probably deserve a bit more attention.

So many ‘Best of Lists’ that focus on drummers tend toward the same familiar names in pop and rock music. It’s hard to argue that musicians like John Bonham, Neil Peart, Ginger Baker, and Keith Moon don’t deserve top rankings but it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge some drummers of the past and present who maybe just don’t get enough credit for their style, innovation, and exceptional playing.
Clifton James
James was an American blues drummer notable for his work with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, and Little Walter. Perhaps his most significant work was with Bo Diddley and creating the Bo Diddley beat with him. A crucial step in the evolution of modern music that eventually became rock and roll, the beat was a tom heavy pattern that is instantly recognizable.
There’s some debate about whether Bo created the beat himself, but according to Willie Dixon, Clifton had much more to do with it than he ever got credit for. There are instances when a form of the Bo Diddley Beat appears prior to their work together, but it was Clifton who made it a an instantly recognizable form that’s played to this day.

Clifton frequently used a shuffle and emphasized the backbeat to create a solid rhythm that drove the music forward. Although he was rooted in blues, his simple yet effective approach to drumming helped define the sound of what became rock and roll in the 1950s and 1960s.
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones is among the greatest jazz drummers of all time. Best known for being a member of John Coltrane’s quartet, especially on the sublime A Love Supreme, he had also worked with just about every big name in jazz music from the 50s on, including Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Rashaan Roland Kirk, and Ornette Coleman.

Elvin was known for his truly dynamic approach to drumming and would go on to influence several rock drummers including Bill Bruford, Mitch Mitchell, and Ginger Baker, who he once had a drum battle with. He would incorporate all his limbs in a syncopated playing style that varied triplets in endless ways. At any given time, he might be playing a different rhythm on the ride, toms, snare, and kick drum. While 20”-22” bass drum sizes are typical in rock and jazz drumming today, Elvin chose to use an 18” or 16” since he travelled to gigs by car and had to fit all the band’s gear in it. This is impressive considering how thunderous he could sound. He played the bass drum so hard and loud he would sometimes have to nail it to the stage to keep it from creeping forward.
Tony Allen
Simply put, there is no afrobeat music without Tony Allen, who was one of the most skilled drumming talents of all time. Allen's playing was heavily influenced by his West African heritage, particularly the music of his native Nigeria, where he grew up listening to traditional Yoruba rhythms.

He started playing with Fela Kuti in the 1960s when their band was still primarily highlife and jazz focused.  When Fela changed direction and the band became Africa 70, Tony kept the beat through their extended jams, incorporating Jùjú music and James Brown inspired funk with their previous jazz/highlife sounds to create something entirely new. He often employed complex polyrhythms and syncopated beats that emphasized groove and rhythm over flashy drum fills.

After leaving Fela's band in the late 1970s, Allen continued to make music, collaborating with artists such as Damon Albarn, Hugh Masekela, and Jeff Mills; he also released an extensive solo catalog.
Jaki Liebezeit
Jaki Liebezeit was best known as the drummer for the much-celebrated but unfortunately lesser-known band Can. Through most of Can’s discography, Jaki’s drumming isn’t just front and center, but also the driving force from which the rest of the band is able to stretch out and go to some truly weird places. A veritable human metronome who could repeat a complicated groove full of life, funkiness, and power for what seemed an endless amount of time, Jaki was truly an endurance drummer.
Jaki helped pioneer the motorik beat, a consistent 4/4 at a moderate tempo, along with bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk.

Where other musicians simplified the motorik beat or made it into an electronic pulse, Jaki Liebezeit used it as the backbone upon which he’d flesh out awe-inspiring syncopation between the snare and kick drum. He influenced many, and fans of both Radiohead and Portishead can trace a rhythmic lineage back to him, although no one else sounds quite like him.
Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste
Joseph Modeliste, know sometimes as “Ziggy” or “Zigaboo,” is an exceptional drummer who revolutionized the world of funk music. He is a founding member of the New Orleans funk band, The Meters, and his ability to blend different genres such as rhythm and blues, funk, jazz, and rock make his work incomparable.

His drumming style is characterized by his inventive and complex rhythms, which incorporated heavily accented beats, and intricate use of hi-hat and snare drum patterns. He is a master of polyrhythms, creating multiple layers of rhythm that provide the backbone of the recordings he’s played on. Where a drummer normally sets the backbeat and lets the rest of the band take the space they need, Meter’s songs often tended to treat the drums as a lead instrument with Modeliste’s drums up front.
His ability to play with precision and groove make him an exceptional drummer. His distinctive style can be heard in the Meters’ early hit singles "Cissy Strut" and "Hey Pocky A-Way."
Carlton Barrett
While many drummers who top best-of-lists are known for their flashy styles, there is something to be said of the concept of staying in the pocket—that is, to keep excellent time, stay in the groove, and serve the music the rest of the band is playing. Carlton “Carly” Barrett, most famous for his drumming with Bob Marley and the Wailers, is one of the best examples of a drummer who could stay in the pocket while keeping his playing sophisticated and varied, while never letting go of the groove.

A careful listen to the drumming on some of Bob Marley’s most popular songs like “Lively Up Yourself,” “Buffalo Soldier,” and “Jamming” can be immensely rewarding as you find yourself completely mystified by just how much Carly was able to vary each measure without ever cluttering up the music. The mark he left on drumming, especially in terms of syncopation, can clearly be heard in other great drummers’ playing. Just listen to his light, crisp hi-hat playing and then follow the evolution of what he played right to Stewart Copeland’s work with the Police.
Glenn Kotche
Glenn Kotche has been the drummer for the band Wilco since 2001, as well as an experimental artist and composer. His playing on Wilco records is an amazing melding of his experimental leanings with more traditional rock beats. He has also played as half of an experimental upright bass and percussion duo with bassist Darin Gray, On Fillmore, and has composed for Kronos Quartet.

Glenn's creativity and proficiency are an essential element of Wilco's music and he has received critical acclaim for his inventive style, which blends rock, jazz, and classical music. He incorporates various techniques, including using unconventional drumming tools, such as handclaps, brushes, and mallets, to make unique sounds and rhythms. He often incorporates found or homemade objects into his kit to create different percussive sounds.  His technical ability, musicality, and versatility have earned him critical acclaim and a reputation as one of the most inventive drummers of his generation.
Questlove
Maybe it doesn’t get any more mainstream pop than being in the house band for the Tonight Show, but all that aside, Roots co-founder/co-front man and drummer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson is a titanic force in modern music. He’s written books, has a shopping cart worth of major awards including six Grammys and an Oscar, and he’s produced recordings for a ton of big-name musicians. All of that is amazing, but had he not done any of it, he would still be considered one of the greatest drummers of all time.

Questlove is very deliberate and precise in his drumming, and like Carlton Barret, is a drummer who knows how to play in the pocket. That shouldn’t fool you though, as songs like “You Got Me” from the album Things Fall Apart clearly demonstrate his technical chops. Listen to the way he perfectly emulates cut up drum and bass style breakbeats on his kit with a perfectly human tone at about three and a half minutes into the track.
Zach Hill
Zach Hill is best known as the drummer for the mathcore band Hella as well as the experimental/punk/noise/hip hop group Death Grips, and his solo work and collaborations with other artists are just too numerous to list.

His drumming style is frenetic and intense with a tendency for playing a mix of singles and doubles so fast that it sounds like off-kilter triplets. He mixes up lots of rim shots (hitting the drumhead and the rim simultaneously with the same stick to accentuate the beat) and ghost notes (ones played softly between the main notes) while working his way around his kit at insane speeds. The result is something so unique that no matter how you try to dissect what he’s doing you can’t quite wrap your head around it.  In Death Grips his work has veered toward programmed drums as well as a mix of electronic and acoustic kits. If you’re into hearing someone absolutely shred on a drum kit, Zach Hill is your guy.
Morgan Simpson
Complex, challenging, difficult—these are some of the most common words you might hear being used to describe Black Midi’s Music. From their wild tempo shifts and cacophonous noisy passages, to their impressively tight stop/start antics, they are a band that consistently throws the complicated and contradictory at the listener. Many will find this inaccessible, and everyone else will spend a ton of time trying to figure out just what this group of young and super-talented musicians are actually doing with their instruments.

At the center of all the wonderfully chaotic shifts between noise, math rock and free jazz is one of the best drummers playing today. Morgan Simpson began playing the drums at just two years old, and by the time he was five he was playing with the musicians at his church. At the age of fifteen he won the young drummer of the year award in the UK. His technical ability is phenomenal as demonstrated in the tightness he has with his band on Cavalcade standout “John L” as the tempo keeps shifting to a faster and faster pace. One of the most exciting things about him is that he’s just starting out, and the potential for what is to come from him is huge.
While there are so many more names to explore, you may find it rewarding to take the time with these amazing drummers and their outstanding contributions to music. With a great pair of KEF speakers, you can really pick out the nuance of their playing and catch all those little in-between notes you may not have heard before.
by Mike Vale for KEF.
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