The rhythm is one of the most fundamental elements of music, and without a competent percussionist or drummer, the whole thing falls apart. It is difficult to choose the best percussionists as many pushed the limits with complex rhythms and techniques and made their marks in music history.
Although this is not a definitive list, I tried to choose the best percussionists considering their skills, influence, fame, and work throughout history.
1. Martin Grubinger
Martin Grubinger is an exceptionally talented Austrian multi-percussionist who is considered one of the best in the world. He has a broad range of works, from solo projects to chamber music with his band Percussive Planet Ensemble as well as percussion concertos.
His nickname is “The Wizard Of Percussion,” and he is famous for his technical perfection, passion, experimental approach, and musical versatility. He has had a growing audience for years, and many composers are writing special musical pieces for him to play. Martin took the percussion to the center of the orchestra from the depths of the stage.
He has won several prestigious awards like Jeunesses Musicales’ Würth Prize. You can listen to his work in pieces like Avner Dorman’s “Frozen in Time” and Tan Dun’s concerto “Tears of Nature.”
2. Trilok Gurtu
Having won the Downbeat Critics Poll for best percussionist award five times, The Indian percussion virtuoso Trilok Gurtu is a world-class percussionist. He has abstract improvisation skills, a jazz percussion approach, and Indian classical music proficiency, making him an extremely versatile musician.
Trilok Gurtu often performs with his unique floor kit, which includes cymbals, toms, hi-hats, snares, cowbells, congas, gongs, dhols, tablas, and different uncommon components like buckets of water. With his experimental and progressive approach, he created a global genre of music, which became quite popular in Europe and the U.S.A.
He studied Brazilian, Euro-African, Indonesian, Chinese, and Japanese, as well as Indian rhythms, and he mixed different elements of jazz and rock with Indian music and various ethnic traditions. He collaborated with many high-class musicians like John McLaughlin, Jan Garbarek, and Joe Zawinul, among many others.
3. Evelyn Glennie
Scottish virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie is one of the most unique musicians in history, as she has been deaf since the age of 12. She taught herself to hear with parts of her body instead of her ears. She won many awards and released more than 200 works with her tuned and untuned percussion proficiency.
Evelyn Glennie worked with worldly-renowned names like Björk, Bobby McFerrin, and Mark Knopfler. She performed in various world-famous events like the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, leading more than 1000 drummers.
Glennie performs with orchestras, as well as a solo percussionist around the world with different projects. She is considered the world’s premiere solo percussionist, and she often plays with tuned percussion instruments like Aluphones and Xylophones. She has won many awards and received 28 honorary doctorates from different universities.
She is also a motivational speaker, and her TED talk on how she perceives the sound with her body is a must-watch for every musician.
4. Alex Acuña
The legendary Peruvian-American drummer and percussion player Alex Acuña is one of the most famous and skilled percussionists in the world today. He collaborated with a large number of world-class artists, from Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock to Paul McCartney and Paco De Lucia.
His proficiency in classic as well as ethnic, especially Latin rhythms, complex techniques, experimental approach, and creativity, earned him countless awards like the Emeritus MVP award from the National Academy of Recording for the Arts and Sciences. He often plays the drum kit or a mix of congas, bongos, and his own special edition Peruvian Cajon.
5. Colin Currie
Colin Currie from Scotland is another virtuoso percussionist who is one of the top choices of world-leading composers and conductors. He is a dynamic and adventurous soloist as well as a chamber artist. He regularly performs with world-renowned orchestras like Royal Concertgebouw and New York Philharmonic.
He is also the founder and leader of the ensemble The Colin Currie Group, with which he releases the music for the minimalist music composer Steve Reich. He was called “the summit of percussion performance today” by the Gramophone.
6. Francisco Aguabella
Often called the bridge between the music of North America, Cuba, and Africa, Francisco Aguabella was one of the most important percussionists of Latin jazz. His rhythmic virtuosity and knowledge of ethnic drum lore were highly appreciated and earned him many fans worldwide.
Aguabella’s impeccable rhythmic sense enriched the live performances and recordings of salsa, Latin jazz, and pop artists for many decades. His main instrument of choice was the conga drum, with which he created remarkable percussion sequences. He played for many great names, such as Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Santana, and Tito Puente.
7. Don Alias
Charles “Don” Alias was a master percussionist who contributed significantly to jazz-rock fusion, playing with great names like Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell. He often played hand drums and congas but was also a proficient drummer. He was known for his unique sound, adding extra textures to create complex rhythmic patterns.
Don Alias passed away at the age of 66, however, he is still remembered for his power and style, enthusiastic musical spirit, impressive control over percussion, unique sound, and complex rhythms.
8. Manolo Badrena
Another Latin percussion master is Manolo Bedrena, who contributed to over 100 recordings of a wide range of genres, including jazz, pop, Latin music, and ethnic music. He played for many legendary artists like The Zawinul Syndicate, the Rolling Stones, Mezzoforte, and Joni Mitchell, to name a few.
His most famous works were with the band Weather Report, with which he was first noted for the impeccable speed, diversity, control, and complexity of his rhythmic patterns. While he was a proficient jazz percussionist, he could play a great number of genres. Besides his percussion skills, he is also a great guitar player and singer.
9. Lenny Castro
The Puerto Rican-American percussion virtuoso Lenny Castro is one of the top names in the music scene today regarding percussion instruments. Unlike most Latin percussionists, Castro studied and played many genres outside of Latin music, including jazz, rock, pop, classical, folk, and many more.
Throughout his career, Castro played mainly congas and bongos but also other percussion instruments for legendary bands and artists like Toto, Eric Clapton, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Stevie Wonder, Adele, and Fleetwood Mac, among many others. His control over different rhythms, diversity, and amazing rhythmic sense make him one of the first-call session artists today.
10. Sheila E.
Sheila Cecilia Escovedo, or Sheila E., is a world-class American percussionist who played for some of the best-selling albums and artists of all time. From Prince Beyonce to Herbie Hancock and Marvin Gaye, she played drums and percussion with an amazing genre diversity, as she has mastery in pop, R&B, jazz, Latin, rock, and funk.
With her “The Glamorous Life” album, she became a mainstream star in the 80s. She is known as “The Queen of Percussion” thanks to her fame, amazing versatility, complex drum skills, and techniques, as well as virtuoso-level knowledge of various percussion instruments.
Choosing 10 of the best percussion players in the music world is a challenging task to accomplish. Besides the percussionists mentioned in this article, there are many others who are virtuosos. Everybody would choose different artists for this list, but there is no doubt that these 10 are some of the most influential percussionists in music history.
Martin Grubinger Featured Image (Top-Left) by: Frank C. Müller, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Evelyn Glennie Featured Image (Top-Right) by: No machine-readable author provided. Nomo assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
Sheila E. Featured Image (Bottom-Left) by: Justin Higuchi from Los Angeles, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Trilok Gurtu Featured Image (Bottom-Right) by: Henryk Kotowski, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons