Ready for a Beatdown?

The cathartic power of drumming

Aurélien (flickr/pixof)
Aurélien (flickr/pixof)

If weeks of social isolation make you want to hit something, don’t. Instead, satisfy your inner animal by allowing these legendary drummers to do the hitting for you—and in ways that will boggle your mind.

Jeff Porcaro’s Shuffle

Porcaro, despite his death in 1992 at age 38, is one of history’s most-recorded drummers. The names on his musical résumé read like a who’s who of the greatest recording artists of his era. But he’s best known for the “Rosanna shuffle”—to my ears, the most irresistible groove ever put to tape. It is an adaptation (as Porcaro discusses here) of two other legendary shuffles: John Bonham’s “Fool In the Rain“ and Bernard Purdy’s “Purdy shuffle.”

Dennis Chambers’s Speed

Chambers may be the fastest drummer alive. He plays like he has four arms and eight legs—all possessed of superhuman speed. For proof, see here. Or here. Or here (note the astonished smile on John McLaughlin’s face). Not only that, he’s an amazing pocket player: Chambers plays milliseconds behind the beat in a way that is less heard than felt. To “feel” it, check out “Blue Matter” from guitarist John Schofield’s 1990 Pick Hits Live album.

Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich’s Bombast

This is the Coke vs. Pepsi of drum battles. In the early days of the drum set, Krupa and Rich helped define what drummers could do—and what you’d think they couldn’t possibly do if you hadn’t just heard them do it! There’s a certain bravado, a kind of unbridled jubilation to their playing. Toss in Sammy Davis Jr., and it’s almost too much. Rich also features in two other epic drum-offs: this one against The Tonight Show’s Ed Shaughnessy, and this one against none other than Animal!

Robert Morin’s Feel

I first heard Morin while sitting on jazz drummer Paul Wertico’s couch. (Wertico himself is a beast on a drum kit—or anything for that matter, including the kitchen sink.) Wertico has a wall-size collection of rare jazz vinyl, and his favorite—at least circa 1997, when I visited him for a lesson—was a forgotten gem of an album by saxophonist Ernie Watts, called Planet Love. Released in 1969, it features Morin, likewise forgotten. But not by Wertico. We listened to the first track, “Goin’ Home,” several times, always pausing to admire Morin’s feel and his genius fill at minute 1:27.

Stewart Copeland’s Hi-hat

Copeland sits on the throne in my pantheon of the greatest groove masters of all time. He’s not as versatile of the best session players, but that’s what I like about him: his playing is as identifiable as a fingerprint. His snare is invariably tuned as tight as the drum head will allow; his bass drum is fat, deep, and in the pocket. (Click here to see Copeland showing off his equipment to Squeeze frontman Jools Holland.) But it’s Copeland’s mastery of the hi-hat that elevates him to regal status. He gets more out of those two cymbals than most drummers do from their entire kit. There is no better example of this than his performance on “Walking on the Moon,” from the 1979 album Reggatta de Blanc by The Police. It’s a master class in dexterity, feel, and tone.

Keith Carlock’s Calculated Sloppiness

Carlock hails from the drum world’s equivalent of Harvard: the jazz program at the University of North Texas. He’s occupied the drum chair for a number of great acts, including Sting, Steely Dan, and John Mayer. But if you watch this stunning performance from 2005, you’ll see that his regular gigs merely handcuffed his creativity. Drum solos can be self-indulgent fiascos (like this one!), but Carlock’s musicality reigns throughout this 10-minute demonstration, which holds together as if he were following a score. What most sets him apart, though, is the vaguely unsettling nature of his playing, the suggestion of sloppiness, the hint of things breaking down. To me, his fills sometimes sound like someone falling down the stairs. They speed up and slow down and move in and out of time. But Carlock always lands on his feet.

Carla Azar’s Relentlessness

Rock and jazz drumming have long been male-dominated precincts, despite the many women who’ve proven themselves to be equally monstrous behind a kit. I’m talking about you, Terri Lynne CarringtonCindy BlackmanMeg White, and Samantha Maloney. (And let’s face it: the future belongs to eight-year-old Yoyoka.) But Carla Azar, who got her start with the indie band Autolux, brings something particularly special to the table. Not only is she a fine vocalist, she also designs deceptively simple yet powerful beats. These days, she can be found accompanying guitarist Jack White, but I first took notice of her in 2004 with the release of Autolux’s Future Perfect. For me, the most undeniable beat on that album can be found on its first track, “Turnstile Blues.”

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Bruce Falconer is the Scholar’s executive editor.


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