Want to play drums like one of the greats? Here’s what you need to know

By James Burcky

Photo via Getty

“You get some hit sticks, you pick out the prettiest drum color (those one’s sound better), and then, assuming you’ve already perfected your ‘drummer aesthetic,’ you now listen to the angstiest song you know, only once, no more, no less, you channel your inner Animal (from the Muppets), and you hulk smash those drums until your hands bleed from the pure power you have attained in your fingertips.”
-Hannah Clark, Arundel Junior

That is precisely how you play drums, coming from someone who can’t even read music. However, lucky for you, dear reader, an aspiring drummer (I, James Burcky), can read music. Granted, I’m not a particularly good drummer, but I’ve been playing for about a decade, so I’d like to think I know a thing or two.

There are a thousand and one approaches to drumming, but generally there are five main schools of thought, as shown by the archetypes of five of the most noteworthy drummers who ever lived: Ringo Starr, John Bonham, Neil Peart, Buddy Rich, and Ginger Baker.


The Ringo Starr Approach (The Beatles)

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 Photo via beatlesbible.com

First things first, practice is not important. You should be far more concerned with the your band’s image and leave the songwriting and true musicianship to the other guys. And if you find some dudes that can really write music well, like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison, their greatness will completely mask your awful technique and emotionless playing. However, every once in awhile, someone will figure you out. To combat this, make sure to only put forth effort into singing. While drumming and singing at the same time is very difficult, no one will notice your god-awful drumming.

Others to Check Out: Lars Ulrich (Metallica), Peter Criss (Kiss), Phil Rudd (AC/DC), Steven Adler (Guns ‘N Roses)


The John “Bonzo” Bonham Approach (Led Zeppelin)

 Photo via ultimatedrumming.com

Loud and proud: the only two words a drummer needs to know.  It doesn’t matter if what you’re playing is fast, slow, easy, difficult, jazz, or rock, so long as you play loud, everyone will simply adore you.  You will be regarded as the greatest and most influential drummer of all time. However, there are two caveats. First, some people don’t appreciate all loud all the time, so instead of playing quietly, just don’t play at all (see the first 4:18 of “Stairway to Heaven” for more). Second, going so hard for so long can have dire, or even fatal consequences.  Bonzo lived a short and tragic life, dying at age 32, he passed out drunk and choked on his own vomit. Long story short, don’t drink, kids!

Others to Check Out: Travis Barker (Blink-182), Dave Grohl (ex-Nirvana, Foo Fighters), Dave Lombardo (Slayer), Keith Moon (The Who), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers)



The Neil Peart Approach (Rush)

Photo via rollingstone.com

You need to be a living clock. Not in the way that a clock keeps time (everyone knows that’s not important for a drummer), you need to be incredibly intricate and ridiculously hard to understand. Your drumming should basically become its own foreign language, of which you are the only fluent speaker, and your bandmates can only understand simple verbs and adjectives. It should also be comparable to computer coding, highly scientific and highly technical. However, this will likely attract a lot of music nerds. To imprint on this, make sure to take complete control of your band’s lyrics and write about wizards, and sci-fi, and famous books. This way it will be nerds of all kinds listening to your music.

Others to Check Out: Danny Carey (Tool), Larnell Lewis (Snarky Puppy), Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater, Winery Dogs), Tomas Haake (Meshuggah), Dave Weckl (Dave Weckl Band)


The Buddy Rich Approach (Buddy Rich Big Band)

Photo via allaboutjazz.com

As the drummer, you must be in complete control of your band at all times. You are the king, they must answer to you. You are the single and only source of tempo, and if they can’t or just aren’t following your tempo, kick them out. If one of them tries to blame you for anything, anything at all, music instantly becomes a contact sport. Your band becomes a football team of which you are the quarterback. You now have free reign to throw things, particularly chairs, at your inferior, subpar band mates. And since you are now the quarterback, nothing is your fault. Your team lost because they could catch your passes. However, the only setback is that you must develop perfect pitch, so that you can know when your horn players are out of tune or are just wrong.

Others to Check Out: Art Blakey (Jazz Messengers), Billy Cobham (Miles Davis), Gene Krupa, Max Roach


The Ginger Baker Approach (Cream)

Photo via ultimateclassicrock.com

For this approach, it is far more cerebral than technical. You must attempt to meld yourself with, and become one with the music. Simply, give up on all chance of having a complete or healthy psyche, and just go off the deep end. Move to South Africa, live as a hermit for decades, and then just appear out of nowhere, still one of the greatest ever. You should take no crap from anyone, as no one has reached the level of enlightenment that you have. Simply, beat the drums, and do as you please. The only downside to this approach, is the very real possibility of complete and utter lose of reasonable thought, but that’s okay, you’re the best.

Others to Check Out: Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa), Stewart Copeland (The Police), Mitch Mitchell (The Jimi Hendrix Experience), Elvin Jones (John Coltrane), Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa)


On a serious note, these five drummers are the most noteworthy and influential, and for good reason, despite some of their areas that lack.

For Ringo Starr, he didn’t have great technique, but he did serve the song and played what was best for it.

For John Bonham, he did have a lead foot and played loud, but melded the rock ‘n roll genre with latin, jazz, and funk concepts and provided a strong rhythmic backdrop for his bandmates.

For Neil Peart, a lot of the music he played was very difficult and demanded a high level of technical proficiency to perform, but he constantly and consistently practiced to keep getting better and the achieve more.

For Buddy Rich, he was a very irate man and verbally abused his bandmates, but he was the leader of the band, and knew how to use that position to effectively lead the band’s tempo and dynamics.

For Ginger Baker, yes he was down right crazy, but he studied tribal percussion and is one of the most innovative and creative musical minds ever.

So there it is, the five actual ingredients to playing drums well:

  1. Serving the song.
  2. Strong rhythmic backdrop.
  3. Practice to get better.
  4. Have a strong sense of tempo and dynamics.
  5. Be creative.


Here’s a bonus level:

The Bernard Purdie Approach (Herbie Hancock)

Photo via voicesofeastanglia.com

This is a hybrid between the Ringo Starr and Neil Peart approaches. Now you may ask, “Are you crazy?! Those styles are complete polar opposites!” And to that I say, “Yes, I am crazy, and yes, you are right.” However, Bernard Purdie was able to master knowing when to display his masterful technical proficiency, and when to dial it back, depending on what the song or the band needed at the moment to song as best as it could.

Other to Check Out: Questlove (The Roots), Carter Beauford (The Dave Matthews Band), Gavin Harrison (ex-Porcupine Tree, King Crimson), Jojo Mayer (Nerve)