While drumming has historically and unfairly been coded as a more “masculine” art, and the music industry being predominantly controlled by men, more and more females are breaking through the world of drums, and the molds of “gendered” instruments are being broken.
In an early pre-fame recording session, United Audio’s owner and engineer at the time approached Karen Carpenter saying, “your boyfriend has trained you well for you to come and set up his drums for him.” It is to this that Karen responded with a sheepish grin saying, “I am the drummer”.
Iconic drummers like Karen Carpenter have led the way for other female artists, including students in the School of Rock community, to be confident and bold in their craft, regardless of the precedent that the industry has previously set in a male-dominated environment.
Here are some female drummers you should know.
Karen Carpenter was not the first female in history to have a prolific drumming career, but she may be the most recognizable. Known for her early death at just 32 years old, she has been memorialized extensively for her impressively low and clear vocals. However, people seem to forget that Karen Carpenter beat out Led Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham, in a 1976 Best Drummers poll. She had marching chops (this came from her experience in high school marching band) with a jazz sensibility that no drummer—male, female, or otherwise—could touch. She was especially good at managing tricky drum transitions while maintaining her perfect relative pitch as lead singer. Truly a one-of-a-kind person and drummer, Karen Carpenter was one of the first idols that girls had to look up to as a drummer. Unable to see herself as only a vocalist, she quips, “I love it. I wouldn’t be doing it [drumming] if I didn’t. People think it’s a gimmick. I don’t care what they think; it’s not a gimmick. It’s my instrument.” My instrument.
Viola Smith was dubbed the “fastest girl drummer in the world”, and became the first female star of jazz drumming. Viola Smith may be the first female drummer to make a real name for herself—and it might not have happened except for the intervention of the Great War. The World War II phenomenon of women filling the roles of drafted men in the workplace did not end at the assembly line. "In these times of national emergency,” Smith said, “many of the star instrumentalists of the big-name bands are being drafted. Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?''.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, the sight of a female drummer would shock an audience. Instead of shying away from the attention, Viola Davis really ate this up. Not content to hide behind the kit, she had a signature setup: she would put two floor toms and position them sideways above her head, marching bass drum style. This was also to add some genius spectacle to the whole thing: placing the floor toms higher than her meant that she would reach up while playing and the audience could better see her performance.
While recording almost nothing in her lifetime, she maintained sponsorships from Zildjian and Ludwig, as well as played in the first Broadway run of Cabaret in 1966. Viola Smith was the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ of the drumming world, and walked so the following drummers could run.
Maureen “Moe” Tucker was part of Velvet Underground’s proto-punk musical style and associated social movement, and she may have been the godmother of punk drumming.
She began playing drums on a second-rate snare drum and never really learned how to play with cymbals. When she joined The Velvet Underground in 1965, she maintained this style, insisting that cymbals drowned out the other members of the band. Since a drummer’s job is to keep time, she thought, cymbals just drown out the beat.
Like Viola Smith, and for very different reasons, she had a unique drum set up: an upturned bass drum, a snare, a few toms. She also preferred to play with mallets instead of drumsticks. This minimalist style served not only to catalyze what would become punk drumming (like those eighth note tom beats), but also allowed Lou Reed and the other members of Velvet Underground to improvise and get into performing instead of trying to follow cues the whole song. As we transition to the 70’s, all of the drummers on this list have Maureen Tucker to thank for paving the way.
When people scream, “Girls invented Punk Rock, not England”, they are almost always speaking of The Runaways, and their innovative SoCal sound would not have that needed punch without drummer Sandy West. Bursting into the scene with their own brand of rock-n-roll, Sandy West was drumming in the same decade as Karen Carpenter, but with a more raucous sensibility than people had seen before. Even after the Runaways explosion, she rocked out for decades with her Sandy West Band. Listen to “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways for that familiar punk sound that was anything but familiar when released in 1976.
Entering the 1980’s, The Queen of Percussion herself Sheila Escovedo (“Sheila E.”) was touring with artists like Marvin Gaye and Prince. While she began her career in Prince’s shadow, by her 1984 release of The Glamorous Life, Prince was singing backup vocals for her. When she tours with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, she battles Ringo Starr, and he is the one who backs off at the end of her drum solo. Not one to minimize Ringo’s genius and influence, she says it is all in good fun. “He enjoys the joke!” she explains.
This creative powerhouse has toured with George Duke, Prince, Madonna, Ringo, Cyndi Lauper, and Beyoncé. It seems there is no style Sheila E. can’t master. Literally, master: she has her own masterclass!
The 1980s saw more and more female drummers, with Gina Schock, the drummer for The Go-Go’s, being a seminal part of this social and musical shift. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Gina Schock was her ability to keep time with the precision of a metronome in an era when the drum machine reigned supreme. Who else could play drums to a song called “We Got the Beat?” Who’s got the beat? That’s Gina Schock.
In the 90’s, grunge was king, and the climate of the music industry seemed to shift towards a more female focus. This was the decade of Riot-Grrrl, after all.
Patty Schemel is undeniably one of the best rock drummers of all time. She played in a few different Seattle bands before fatefully being introduced to Hole’s Courtney Love by Kurt Cobain himself.
Her entrance into the band spawned a whole new era for Hole. Their sound culminated in Hole’s 1994 release of Live Through This. Every fresh listen is like a fresh punch to the face, every three or four minutes until its end. It is one of the most iconic rock albums ever, and its scandal (it was rumored to be ghostwritten by Kurt Cobain in his last days) only increased its ubiquity on rock radio and elsewhere. “Jennifer’s Body” has perfect, urgent, and frenetic drums: please listen.
Patty Schemel is an absolute inspiration: her battle with substance use, her difficulty coming out as a lesbian in the 90’s, and her notorious firing during the Celebrity Skin recording sessions could have broken anyone. However, Patty had a monster comeback in the early 2000’s revival of Courtney Love’s career—the reunion we didn’t know we needed.
Cindy Blackman Santana
With a career spanning over four decades, it would be impossible to curate any ‘best of’ drummer list without this prolific drummer. Cindy Blackman Santana’s many talents, including drumming, songwriting, and band-leading stand by themselves, but she is most recognized for her tenure as a drummer for Lenny Kravitz. In an industry where drummers come and go, and are often fired on the spot for getting a beat wrong, Cindy Blackman Santana toured with Lenny Kravitz for 18 years. Surely, her undeniable groove and energy sets her apart.
Cindy Blackman Santana has had to work incredibly hard to combat gendered and racial prejudice. She explains, “In the past, there were a lot of stigmas attached to women playing certain instruments. Any woman, or anyone facing race prejudice, weight prejudice, hair prejudice ... if you let somebody stop you because of their opinions, then the only thing you're doing is hurting yourself. I don't want to give somebody that power over me." Any drummer, regardless of gender, would be envious of that “power” that Cindy holds behind the drum kit.
To hear her driving jazz playing interspersed with inventive and inspired fills, check out “Velocity” off her 2020 solo album, Give the Drummer Some!
At Janet Weiss’ Sleater-Kinney tryout, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker were not only impressed at her originality with some of their new material, but she also came prepared knowing their entire catalogue. In Carrie Brownstein’s autobiography Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, she describes:
“Janet hit the drums harder than anyone we’d played with. Corin and I were used to having drummers follow along and defer to us… Immediately Janet grounded the song in a way we’d never heard, giving each of our guitar parts a place to go. Janet had learned all the songs from Call the Doctor as well. She bashed out a body, a spine, finally making that album title sound like an order and not a plea.”
Janet Weiss holds a spot in our hearts as being one of the greatest rock drummers of all time. It is nearly impossible to nail down a best Janet Weiss song, but “Jumpers” hooks you and won’t let go. Her other band, Quasi, is a treat for the ears as well.
While often overshadowed by Jack White’s innovative riffs and blazing solos, Meg White can always be counted on to thump at the right time. Some argue that her more simplistic style could never hold up in any other setting than The White Stripes, but all you have to do is listen to the intricacy and light syncopation in “Icky Thump” to know that Meg White sure does have rhythm. While often chastised for her simple, minimalistic style, even Dave Grohl loves Meg White’s style. While preferring to keep a low profile since her fame in the early 2000’s, she is one half of arguably the most iconic band to come out of Detroit, Michigan.
The only drummer on this list not to play the drum kit, Dame Evelyn Glennie plays traditional Scottish drums and various percussion instruments. She is probably most well known for leading the 1,000 drum introduction to the 2012 Summer Olympics. A feat for any drummer certainly, but did you know that Evelyn Glennie is also deaf? She feels the vibrations in her feet instead of listening to the groove and has said she learned to play instruments using different parts of her body than her ears. She insists that being deaf does not affect her timing or performance: “Losing my hearing made me a better listener,” she clarifies.
Terri Lyne Carrington
Terri Lyne Carrington rose to fame in the 1980’s after serving as house drummer for The Arsenio Hall Show and VIBE (featuring Quincy Jones and Sinbad). Her touring with Herbie Hancock and Dizzy Gillespie (among many others) skyrocketed her career. Please listen to her NPR Tiny Desk Concert if you want to be completely blown away. Just wait to hear Terri Lyne Carrington grooving harder than those a third of her age.
Did you know the Queen of Funk herself can drum like a demi-god as well as sing like a goddess? While mostly known for her legendary vocal chops and undeniable groove, all of these attributes flow into her drumming too—when she shows it. Check out this drum battle between Chaka Khan and Rosie O’Donnell. The concept honestly sounds completely made-up, but it actually happened.
The only metal drummer on this list, Mercedes Lander is the master of drum hooks and catchy fills that you can’t worm out of your head. This barefoot player can shred the double bass pedal, but she is also integral to the songwriting process in Kittie and is often given songwriting credit. “Brackish” has some of the most inventive drumming in metal. Since the soft disbanding of Kittie, she has kept herself busy with White Swan.
In the early 2000’s, with the rising popularity of social media and video platforms able to generate millions of views, the climate of the music business shifted yet again. With music studios and insurance companies completely removed from the equation, and now that people could upload content from their basements, female drummers started coming out of the woodwork and creating a platform of their own. In a way, technology is liberating female drummers from the constraints of what used to be a fully male-dominated industry. With this burgeoning freedom, some superstars have emerged.
This drummer goes viral with every cover video she posts, but her drumming style is unique and technical, and wow, can she shred. Meytal Cohen emerged in 2009, posting impressive covers of popular songs. Her cover of System of a Down’s “Toxicity” and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” are a particular joy to listen to. Her covers are nearly perfect, but she shows her immense creativity as band leader of Meytal as well. Check out Meytal’s single “Breath” to hear her grooves and blazing fills.
Sheila E. isn’t the only drummer on this list to have gotten a career jumpstart from Prince! In 2012, Prince asked Hannah Welton to join him for a few tour dates after seeing some videos she posted. Listen to “boytrouble” by 3rdeyegirl and Prince to hear Hannah Welton’s refreshing take on funk grooves (also featuring Lizzo!).
This list is anything but conclusive. While the sight of female drummers may have been a spectacle in the 1930’s, it has been almost a full century since then—times have changed. We need female drummers because music is continually evolving, and as it does, the needs of the collective change. Being exposed to different perspectives benefits everybody because we need originality and innovation in music. The future of drumming is female. It is queer, it is bipoc, it is transgender, it is nonbinary. Everyone is included. Welcome to the future!
HONORABLE MENTIONS (FOR BREVITY, NOT BASED ON ABILITY):
Anika Nilles, Senri Kowaguchi, Sarah Thawer, Jody Linscott, Bobbye Hall, Georgia Hubley, Linda Pitmon, Claudia Gonson, Dottie Dogion.
School of Rock has drum lessons for all skill levels of drummers. From beginner lessons to drum lessons for kids to drum lessons for adults, every drummer has a place behind the drum kit at School of Rock. Learn more and sign up for a trial lesson below.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Amanda Waltz is a drum teacher at School of Rock East Lansing. Amanda started drumming when she was 10 years old. Since then she has toured all over the US, Canada, Mexico, the UK and continental Europe, and is looking to do even more with her main band, Rodeo Boys.