If we asked the average rock fan to name the greatest drummers of all time, we’re fairly confident that most would reel off the same handful of names: John Bonham, obviously. Keith Moon, without doubt. Those with a penchant for jazz and big-band might plump for Buddy Rich, while those who grew up in the 90s might name for Dave Grohl or Chad Smith. We’re just scratching the surface here, but you’d also be likely to hear the names of Bill Ward, Stewart Copeland, Ian Paice and plenty more mentioned before that of a man who has without question earned his place at rock drumming’s top table: the late, great Mitch Mitchell.
Mitchell, who passed away at the age of 61 while on tour in 2008, has been lauded by an array of top name drummers, and it’s little surprise that many of them see Mitchell as just about the pinnacle.
A jazz-schooled player providing beats at the forefront of the rock explosion, Mitchell used the coming together of those two genres to devastating effect as part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. His partnership with Hendrix lasted just four years (from 1966 to the Hendrix’s death in 1970), but it yielded musical gold and as close to drumming perfection as you’re going to get. Mitchell was able to lay down a fat groove with bassist Noel Redding, providing a canvas on which Hendrix could spew a cacophony of colours with his trailblazing guitar work. But Mitchell was also more than capable of providing his own jaw-dropping moments. His explosive snare work and cymbal riding was simply phenomenal. Here we look at just a few of our favourite Mitch Mitchell moments.
Of course, Hendrix grabs the headlines here with his typically brilliant guitar playing, but for our money this track is a Mitch Mitchell master class. With pounding toms and some simply exquisite bass and snare work, he punctuates expertly Hendrix’s stop-start riffing. Mitchell is playing with both pace and power, but somehow underlines it all with a stonking groove and feel. It’s a combination that all rock drummers strive for – the difference is that Mitch managed to nail it on Hendrix and the Experience’s debut album.
The Wind Cries Mary
The juxtaposition between this track and Fire (the latter follows the former) on the original US edition of Are You Experienced underlines Mitchell’s unique skill. While on the next track, Fire, he’s belting it out, here he is deliciously understated. The track’s slow-burning groove makes way for the odd fill (the mid-track guitar solo in particular is backed up by some tasty snare rolls), but for the most part The Wind Cries Mary is a lesson in saying a lot by not doing a whole lot.
The snare drum/ride cymbal interplay that brings in this Hendrix Experience classic has all the hallmarks of a top-name drummer at the peak of his powers. This was recorded back in March 1967, when Mitchell was just 20 years old. Apparently inspired by Johnny Dankworth’s African Waltz and Hendrix’s instructions to “Think Africa”, here is a drum part that takes every second of Mitchell’s jazz schooling and smashes it into a guitar-hero rock tune.
Delving into the depths of drum-geek territory (sorry, stick with us), it’s also as a mighty step away from your standard rock thanks to its three-four time signature. Mitchell is thinking outside of the box on a track that feels improvised yet somehow bang on the money at all times. And the fact that the final third of the song is pretty much a drum solo also scores big points.
Another slow-burner, and another example of how Mitchell could lay down a groove and then, out of nowhere, explode with awesome power. Little Wing is less than two and a half minutes long, but it features more great fills than many drummers manage in an entire career. The one that brings the band in on 30 seconds is an absolute belter, for starters. The off-beat main pattern might sound simple enough on first listen, but it’s surprisingly difficult. Another hallmark of Mitchell: making the frustratingly tricky sound effortless easy.
Wait Until Tomorrow
Perhaps not the finest work of the Hendrix Experience, but Wait Until Tomorrow epitomises everything we’ve been talking about when it comes to Mitchell’s playing. He locks in with Noel Redding beautifully throughout, breaking off to deliver stunning snare fills that punctuate the chorus. With drum breaks galore, Wait Until Tomorrow is perhaps the ideal starting point for those keen to find out just why we rank Mitch as one of the finest drummers to ever have pick up a pair of sticks.
Another Hendrix Experience classic, and yet another example of Mitchell’s genius. The intro fill is a cracker, and the main beat is downright funky as hell. Vintage Mitch Mitchell.