"I apologise to your parents."
That was Neil Peart's stock answer when faced with young drummers who told him how much of an influence he'd been. Because, let's face it, drums aren't the most discreet instrument to master. They're loud, they're expensive, and they take up more them than almost any other instrument.
So hats off to the dozen drummers detailed here, who've overcome those hurdles to become the greatest sticksmen progressive rock has to offer, delighting audiences worldwide with ever-expanding kits, ever-lengthening solos, and everlasting genius.
Recently voted No.1 prog musician of all time by the readers of our sister title Prog, Rush’s drummer was a poster boy for progressive rock – a disciplined, metronomic and powerful player. Part of that ultimate power trio from 1975 until his untimely death in 2020, Neil Peart continued pushing himself and boundaries, inspiring generations of drummers.
His secret? “You have to practise… and trust yourself,” he told MusicRadar in 2011.
King Crimson have come to be associated with some impressive drummers during their 50-plus years, but it all started with the quietly brilliant, arguably overlooked Michael Giles.
Often cited by Neil Peart as an influence, Giles had previously played in the short-lived trio Giles Giles And Fripp, with his brother Peter and Robert Fripp, before joining Crimson. He co-wrote and played on the band’s groundbreaking debut In The Court Of The Crimson King – on which his exhilarating polyrhythmic style is a feature – and In The Wake Of Poseidon before leaving.
Pink Floyd’s long-standing drummer, Mason was the dextrous engine room behind some of rock’s most adored and spectacular moments. Plus, having reignited the flame of Syd Barrett-era Floyd with his group Saucerful Of Secrets, he’s kept his chops in top shape.
“I never wanted to go and play in a different band,” Mason told Prog magazine. “It never appealed. It was always Pink Floyd for me. I don’t see myself as keeper of the flame, but I’m enjoying the fact that people like [his Saucerful Of Secrets]. Somebody said to me: ‘You of all of us knew Syd the least, but you’re probably doing more to bring him to people’s attention.’”
Seemingly an inexhaustible human octopus, Mike Portnoy maintains a work rate that would have most drummers (hell, most people) quaking in their boots. Since leaving Dream Theater in 2011 he’s juggled playing with a range of proggy supergroups and projects including Flying Colours, Transatlantic, the Neal Morse Band, the Winery Dogs, Sons Of Apollo, Metal Allegiance and Adrenaline Mob.
“Phil Collins was an enormous influence on my drumming in the seventies, and thus remains a part of my playing even today,” Neil Peart has said. For a lesser-known but impressive display of Phil’s drumming, check out the drum duet The Big Bang that he recorded with his eldest son Simon on the latter’s 2008 solo album U-Catastrophe.
Prog fans might first recognise Harrison as the guy who joined Porcupine Tree for 2002’s seminal album In Absentia, playing a notable part in the band’s game-raising gear change. Since then he’s played for many others and, following an initial stint in 2008, joined King Crimson as a regular member (in an unusual but highly effective three-drummer set-up) in 2013.
As of 2018 he’s also been a full-time member of the Pineapple Thief. “It’s like Mario Andretti said about driving a Ferrari: if everything is under control, then you’re just not going fast enough,” Harrison has said. “There should be some seat-of-the-pants moments in every concert.”
The last man standing from classic prog heroes Emerson Lake & Palmer, Carl is one of the most revered drummers in the genre.
“I actually started off playing banjo when I was five,” he told Prog. “Had a go on the violin when I was ten and moved to the drum set when I was eleven. I learned by ear to start with, but then I got a teacher and learned to read. The story was that my family thought that as long as you could read music you always had a chance of getting a job somewhere.”
Depending on your level of modern prog (and/or drumming) geekery, statuesque German virtuoso Marco Minneman might not ring as many bells as some of the better-known stars on this list, but he’s an eyepopping joy to watch.
Besides getting up to genre-mashing mischief with Guthrie Govan in The Aristocrats, Minneman has also worked with Joe Satriani, Alex Lifeson, Steve Hackett, Steven Wilson, Jordan Rudess, the Sea Within and In Continuum, among others. Apart from being outrageously talented, he always seems to have fun doing it.
Tool’s fifth album Fear Inoculum proved that Danny Carey is one of rock’s most articulate players, crafting sinuous, writhing rhythms in odd time signatures that would leave lesser drummers getting their sticks in a tangle.
In addition to melting minds with enigmatic progressive/alt.rock heavyweights Tool since 1990, he’s also played with an eclectic range of artists including Adrian Belew, Melvins, Primus and Carole King.
Having co-founded Yes, played with King Crimson, toured with Genesis and performed on records by Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Chris Squire and many more, Bill Bruford has had fingers in more iconic prog pies than most. Much of his passion, as can be heard in his playing, comes from jazz.
“After [Soft Machine drummer] Robert Wyatt there was precious little jazz in progressive rock,” he told Prog. “Progressive rock owed nothing to jazz at all. I think from day one with Yes I was subconsciously trying to find a way back to performance with those characteristics. Joining Crimson was a step on that path."
Filling Dream Theater co-founder Mike Portnoy’s shoes was never going to be an easy job, but Mike Mangini – who previously had played with Annihilator, Steve Vai and Extreme – was more than up to the task, and has played on every Dream Theater album since 2011’s A Dramatic Turn Of Events. The ambidextrous musician flies around the kit with a speed and power to rival Bruce Lee.
As a session drummer, Pat Mastelotto worked with artists including Martin Briley, the Pointer Sisters and Kenny Loggins before forming AOR band Mr Mister, who had huge success with hit singles Kyrie and Broken Wings.
Most notably, however, he’s been a member of King Crimson since 1994, as well as playing drums with Stick Men and Ork. “I didn’t listen to that much jazz as a kid growing up,” he told MusicRadar. “I’m from the rock generation – The Beatles, Cream and Hendrix and all that.”