How Buddy Rich Shaped the Music of Modern America

Exploring the legendary jazz drummer’s ties to metal, punk and rock

Buddy Rich (Image: Wikipedia)

Buddy Rich, the hard-driving band leader and drum savant, was instrumental in developing modern metal music.

What??? You heard me right! Surpassing even Gene Krupa, Rich’s early drum style brought the thunder to the “easy listening” jazz scene for early greats such as Red Nichols, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and so many more.

Although Krupa’s genre-shattering drum solo on Benny Goodman’s 1937 hit recording “Sing, Sing, Sing” forever elevated drummers from backline to soloist status, it was Buddy Rich, aka “Mr. Drums,” claiming the title of “world’s most influential drummer.” Born to Vaudevillian parents, he spent his childhood sneaking into the orchestra pit during his folks’ performances to steal the drummer’s sticks. And, at four years old, he was stealing the show as “Baby Traps the Drum Wonder.” Besides his drum virtuosity, Rich became an accomplished singer and dancer, touring the United States and Australia. By age 15, he was the second-highest-paid child entertainer, surpassed only by “The Kid” actor Jackie Coogan.


VIDEO: Gene Krupa and his band perform Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” 

Following in Krupa’s footsteps, Rich hit the burgeoning jazz band scene in 1937, supporting such legends as Joe Marsala, Bunny Berigan, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Dizzy Gillespie to name a few. At just 21, he recorded with Vic Shoen and the Andrew Sisters and, ultimately, joined up with Tommy Dorsey. After a WWII stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, he formed the Buddy Rich Orchestra, a driving force behind the Big Band sound of the 1950s into the 1960s. His service as a session musician was equally legendary, backing big names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and so many more.

Rich had an aggressive, muscular playing style, incorporating many then-unique “tricks” to create visual and auditory excitement. Although he often cited Gene Krupa as one of his main influences, he never took formal lessons. In 1942, he co-authored Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments with fellow jazz drummer Henry Adler. The book is still considered one of the best of its kind ever written. Contrary to rumors, Adler claims that never taught Rich to play–only to read music, which in Rich’s case, proved futile–he learned to play entirely by ear.

According to Bobby Shew, lead trumpeter in Rich’s mid-1960s big band, his inability to read music was a widely known “secret.” When asked in a 2/25/2010 interview posted to Jazzwax, Shew acknowledged, “No. He’d always have a drummer there during rehearsals to read and play the parts initially on new arrangements. Buddy would just sit in the empty audience seats in the afternoon and listen to the band.”

He continued, “He’d only have to listen to a chart once and he’d have it memorized. We’d run through it and he’d know exactly how it went, how many measures it ran, and what he’d have to do to drive it.”

In 1966, on an episode of the Sammy Davis Jr. Show, Buddy Rich and mentor Gene Krupa participated in what some call the greatest drum battle of all time while an awed Davis Jr. watched.


VIDEO: Gene Krupa x Buddy Rich on The Sammy Davis Jr. Show

Rich’s heavy style became the blueprint for millions of modern drummers. His acolytes include a who’s-who of world-renowned skin beaters, too many to note. Some of the more celebrated include jazz luminaries Dave Weckl and Adam Nussbaum, fusion drummers Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting) and Simon Phillips (Toto), and rock legends Carl Palmer (ELP), Ian Paice (Deep Purple), Tre’ Cool (Green Day), Bill Ward (Black Sabbath), Phil Collins (Genesis, Phil Collins Band), Roger Taylor (Queen), Neil Peart (Rush) and, of course, John Bonham (Led Zeppelin).

Buddy Rich left an indelible mark on drumming and music as a whole – his aggressive style led to a sea change in how drummers impacted band dynamics, the role of drummers and the overall power and intensity of popular music. In a 2019 article in JazzTimes, Journey’s drummer Steve Smith perfectly sums up Buddy Rich’s status as the GOAT. 

According to Smith, “He has this perpetual place as the greatest drum-set virtuoso who ever lived, and that still stands up today, though there are drummers who have developed incredible abilities through practice. Still, there’s something about Buddy’s visceral energy and natural technique, his swing, his feel, his musicianship, his high intensity, and the way he could drive a band, the way he would play the music and raise the level of musicians around him.”




Steve Kirwan
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Steve Kirwan

Steve Kirwan, Executive Editor of, is a seasoned whiskey influencer with over 25 years of experience reviewing and writing about whiskey, wine, and related topics. He's also a drummer and guitarist with an intimate knowledge of guitars, amplifiers, effects pedals, and all things drum-related. When he's not reviewing whiskey or writing about rock and roll legends, he's working on writing the definitive book on American Single Malt Whiskeys. Follow Steve on LinkedIn and FaceBook.

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