10 Best Drummers of the 80s Who Defined the Era

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The 1980s was a remarkable era for creativity and innovation, especially in music. Not only did the introduction of digital hardware lead to a sonic upheaval, but plenty of exceptional musicians began experimenting with new techniques and playing styles. The 80s were the era for heavy metal and rock; without these incredible drummers, some of our favorite songs we know and love may have never come to fruition.

Today, we’re going to take a deep dive and explore the top 10 drummers of the 80s to give you a better look at those who played a vital role in shaping the era’s music. 

Dave Lombardo – Slayer

To this day, Slayer is considered a pioneer of the thrash metal movement. The band was known for many things, including heavy riffs and devilish vocals. However, without the thunderous drumming of Dave Lombardo, it’s hard to tell whether or not Slayer would have become the iconic band they are today. 

Lombardo’s style is characterized by its intense, aggressive, fast-paced grooves. I remember the first time I ever listened to Slayer when I was a kid, and even then, the drums felt like they hit me with the force of a freight train. For years after, I was a certified metalhead and had Lombardo to thank.

Widely respected in the metal community, Lombardo is often referred to as “The Godfather of Double Bass,” thanks to his unruly kick skills. Undoubtedly, he’s cemented his position as one of heavy metal’s most accomplished drummers.

Phil Collins – Genesis 

Phil Collins, perhaps the greatest drummer and frontman in music history, is also one of the most accomplished musicians in modern history. He was immensely popular in the 80s and almost unavoidable. His distinctive drum sound — the almighty gated reverb — caught the attention of young drummers far and beyond. 

Genesis rock band, performing live on The Lamb Lies Down tour in Manchester, England, in April 28 1975. This remarkable live show was the last to feature singer Peter Gabriel. The photographs show Peter Gabriel in his infamous rubber suit, his leather jacket, as well as guitar player Steve Hackett and drummer Phil Collins. More negatives exist from this set, taken by Simon Robinson.
Simon Robinson / Easy On The Eye / Alamy Stock Photo

When Peter Gabriel parted ways with the boys from Genesis in 1975, Collins, who had previously served as the band’s drummer, took over as the group’s lead vocalist. Collins, who wrote many of Genesis’ best singles, transitioned from a mere Gabriel replacement to a solo megastar when he began making his own music in the early 1980s. 

Collins topped the charts by releasing four number-one albums on which he played all the drum parts and laid down vocals. Some of his most famous singles included “In The Air Tonight,” “Another Day In Paradise,” “and “You Can’t Hurry Love.”

Neil Peart – Rush

Though Neil Peart’s history with Rush dates back to the mid-70s, his contributions to prog-rock were of major significance to the 1980s, and the era wouldn’t be what it is now without him. Alex Lifeson, the guitarist for Rush, recalled how much of a fan he was the first time he heard Peart play in 1974. He noted his playing was very much like Keith Moon’s in how active and hard-hitting he was.

Neil Peart Performing Live
John Atashian / Alamy Stock Photo

Ironically enough, Peart’s style would be the opposite of Moon’s — extremely precise and plotted out. However, what truly set Peart apart from the pack was his use of esoteric kit pieces, such as timpani, temple blocks, and orchestral bells, fleshing out avant-garde rhythmic parts for songs like “The Trees” and “Xanadu.” Some of Neil’s most creative drum tracks are from the 80s on Moving Pictures and Signals.

To this day, Peart is one of the most world-renowned sticksmen in all of rock. I dare you to try and listen to “Tom Sawyer” without air drumming.

Jeff Porcaro – Toto

Three of the biggest hit singles from the 80s, “Africa,” “Hold the Line,” and “Rosanna,” are enough to solidify Porcaro’s spot as one of the best drummers of the era. What many don’t know, however, is that beyond his time playing in Toto, Jeff Porcaro was a prolific session drummer, working on around 700 albums throughout his astounding career. 

He had a knack for becoming a chameleon in whatever genre he played, and his hard-hitting backbeat on “Hold the Line” is legendary. As with many of the greatest drummers of the 20th century, Porcaro lost his life young at only 38 years old. He left behind one of the greatest musical legacies of all time. 

Stewart Copeland – The Police

In the world of 80s drummers, Stewart Copeland is somewhat of a black sheep. Not only was he a left-handed drummer using a right-handed kit (which likely had to do with the availability of left-handed kits to him as a young drummer), but he was also one of the few drummers in rock to use traditional grip. 

Pictorial Press Ltd
 / Alamy Stock Photo

Copeland is one of my favorites for multiple reasons, though much of my love comes from the fact that he incorporated two of my favorite genres, reggae, and punk, into his playing. He melds together a sense of urgency in tracks like “So Lonely” with spacey and delicious drum fills in songs like “Walking on the Moon.”

Fun fact: Peter Gabriel thought Copeland was such a great player that he hired him just to play hi-hat on one of his best solo tracks, “Red Rain.”

Steve Gadd

Steve Gadd peaked as a session player in the 1970s New York scene, claiming to play up to three sessions daily. What was unique about Gadd was his gentle, funky style in a decade of hard-hitting rock music. 

Steve Gadd
Gaslight Blues Lounge — Photo credit: PeterTea

And though some of his most famous work might come from the 70s on the likes of Steely Dan’s “Aja” and Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” you could hear his playing on almost every major record of the 80s, including those from Jon Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, and Eric Clapton.

Without Gadd, we wouldn’t have the 10” tom as the very first rack tom. Many also say he was responsible for washing suspended floor toms that became studio standards during the era. 

Tommy Lee – Motley Crue

Love or hate him, Tommy Lee’s wild persona and drumming gimmicks (remember the flying drum kit?) were a big part of the 80s. And though Motley Crue was never renowned for being much beyond a big-haired party metal band, Tommy Lee was much more than a timekeeper. 

He was one of the most powerful drummers of the era — an era where it was difficult to cut through the noise if you didn’t have a foot made of lead. Listen to hits such as “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Dr. Feelgood,” and you can hear his power in action.

Stephen Morris – Joy Division / New Order

Joy Division’s producer, Martin Harnett, is often credited for the band’s one-of-a-kind sound. However, without the machine-like drumming of Stephen Morris, it’s entirely possible that we would have never seen hipsters rocking “Unknown Pleasures” T-shirts on every street corner in every major metropolitan city. 

Morris certainly doesn’t have a complex technique; his brooding style on “Twenty-Four Hours” and his heavy snare focus on “Isolation” set the tone for this new post-punk, goth rock style. 

Of course, you can’t talk about Morris without his work in New Order. Without his steady hands, dancefloor anthems like “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Age of Consent” may have never coursed through the airwaves.

Nicko McBain – Iron Maiden

When Iron Maiden decided to hand Cliver Burr his pink slip in 1982, the wide world of Iron Maiden fans was unsure the band would ever be able to find a suitable replacement. Luckily, in came Nicko McBain. 

McBain played for several underground bands around the UK for many years, though when he finally joined Maiden to record their hit album, Piece of Mind, he made an immediate impact. McBain was a technically proficient drummer, gifted with the ability to play fast and clean or slow and heavy.

His style would eventually shape the sound of Maiden’s music moving forward, and to this day, he is considered one of the best drummers in metal.

Chad Smith – Red Hot Chili Peppers

While some might argue that Chad Smith is more of a 90s drummer, he joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1988, so I’m putting him on this list. Plus, as a resident Southern Californian, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are in my blood, whether I like it or not. 

Chat Smith playing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Alamy Stock Photo

And while the Chili Peppers have always been controversial, there’s no denying that Smith’s heavy and fast playing style complemented the smooth funk basslines of Flea and experimental riffs of John Frusciante. Without Smith, it’s hard to say whether the band would have broken through with Mother’s Milk. 

To this day, Smith is going strong with the Chili Peppers and has recorded for plenty of other major modern artists, including Halsey and Lana Del Rey.

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