8 Drummers and the Kits that Changed the World

You can recognize their beats from a mile away, each roll of the toms and kick of the bass drum is a sonic fingerprint. But in front of these heavy-hitting drummers was a custom-designed drum kit as unique and carefully constructed as the beats themselves.

Pounding their visually memorable drum kits mercilessly, these legendary drummers advanced the sound and style of drumming through a combination of skill and technological innovation, often working closely with drum builders. Whether it took five toms, two bass drums, a gong or four sticks, these legendary drummers saw their kits as an expandable sonic armory capable of delivering whatever rhythmic payload the song required.

Gene Krupa (1970). Photo by: Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archive.
Getty Images.

Gene Krupa

It’s impossible to talk about modern drumming without mentioning Gene Krupa. Pioneering the use of the kick drum, double-sided toms, and essentially standardizing the modern trap drum kit, Krupa made drums a household name, inspiring a whole generation to pick up the sticks. Partnering with Slingerland and working closely with legendary cymbal maker Armand Zildjian, Krupa’s kit delivered a powerful yet melodic sound that would set the standard for all drumming to come. His playing, largely influenced by hot jazz and shaping the cutting edge of big band and swing, combined an athleticism and intelligence that would be hugely influential on the rock ‘n’ roll scene’s leading drummers several decades later.

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Elvin Jones (1970). Photo by: Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archive.
Getty Images.

Elvin Jones

Never really just a “sideman,” Elvin Jones’ explosive polyrhythmic style was the driving force behind the post-bop explorations of jazz greats like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. Expressive and dynamic, Jones’ use of the smaller 18-inch kick drum, Gretsch drums and Zildjian K-series cymbals, gave him a unique sound that combined heaviness with a sophisticated sense of time and space. His use of cymbals was particularly influential, sounding at once like waves of the ocean while never losing their urgent time keeping.

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Hal Blaine

There might not be another musician on earth as prolific as Hal Blaine. Dominating the Los Angeles recording industry’s percussion needs, Blaine has drummed on thousands of tracks, no fewer than 40 making it to #1 and boasting the names of Elvis, The Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, Neal Diamond, Jan & Dean, The Supremes, Frank Sinatra and The Mamas and The Papas, to name a few. His legendary Monster Kit matched his approach to drumming, combining his main kit, a Ludwig Classic Blue Sparkle set, with an array of single-headed concert toms made of spun fiberglass. With all these toms, Blaine could easily pull off the extended tom rolls that made his name as the King of Session Drummers.

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Ringo Starr

There might be a whole world of showy drummers, but there is only one Ringo Starr. His drumming skills and rhythmic sensibility remain unparalleled in rock ‘n’ roll, and he’s an inspiration to anyone who witnessed his American debut on the Ed Sullivan show. Tearing through The Beatles’ early hits on this legendary television appearance, Starr looked cool as hell behind his Ludwig Downbeat kit in Oyster Black Pearl, perched high on a drum riser, with “The Beatles” logo emblazoned on the front bass drum skin. His playing left an immediate impression on 73 million viewers, heralding the dawn of a new musical era while solidifying the look and appearance of the modern drummer.

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Ginger Baker (1970). Photo by: Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archive.
Getty Images.

Ginger Baker

Few drummers revolutionized drumming like Ginger Baker. Blazing a thunderous trail across the rock and roll universe as a member of Cream and Blind Faith, his jazz-influenced, yet undeniably heavy attack was a game changer. Baker combined his huge sound with a progressive polyrhythmic sensibility and a flamboyant persona that set him apart from other drum heroes of the day. His use of the double kick drums made a lasting impression on many drummers, many who modeled their own kits after his Ludwig Classic Silver Sparkle kit, which featured 22- and 20-inch kick drums and 14- and 16-inch floor toms.

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John Bonham

Hard hitting, hard living and hard to imitate, John Bonham’s mark on modern drumming cannot be overstated. His shuffling, behind-the-beat style and heavy-hitting, high-speed fills inspired many would-be drummers to get behind their own drum kits. And during Bonham’s reign as King Drummer Numero Uno in the ‘70s, there was no cooler drum kit than his Ludwig Amber Vistalite kit. Featured in Led Zeppelin’s seminal live concert movie "The Song Remains the Same," the plexiglass kit came with the 14-, 16- and 18-inch floor-toms setup popularized by legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich, plus Bonham’s signature 26-inch kick drum. Gong not included.

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Keith Moon

Exploding onto the American rock ‘n’ roll scene by literally blowing up his drum kit up on live TV, The Who’s Keith Moon was rock 'n' roll incarnate. Known for his incredible fills and free-form beat keeping, as much as for his offstage antics, Keith was a beloved musician and beyond influential to fellow drummers. His infamous “Pictures of Lily” drum kit was a true piece of drummer art: a massive 7-piece birch Premier kit in pink, emblazoned with old-timey pornography and British flags. Though an iteration of this kit would be blown up as The Who concluded their live performance on their legendary appearance on The Smothers Brothers show in 1967, Moon would go on playing Premier drum kits until his untimely death on September 7, 1978.

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Tommy Ramone

The Ramones invented the sound and attitude of punk rock and drumming speed took off like a rocket to Russia the moment they made the scene, blending straight-ahead pop songcraft with high-gain electric guitars and lightning fast drumming. On the throne was Tommy Ramone, a wise-cracking musician about town who cut his teeth engineering for Jimi Hendrix on the Band of Gypsys album. Live, Ramone would always be found clad in black sunglasses and often the band’s trademark leather jacket. Relentlessly pounding his all-white Rogers drum kit, Tommy Ramone’s performances at legendary live shows like Live At The Rainbow NYE 1977 remain unmatched in their speed and precision.

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