Does the word “drummer” paint a picture in your head? What does a “drummer” even look like? Most people might picture a grubby lookin’ dude with long hair, ripped jeans, and the faint odor of stale beer and cigarettes. But, as a student at Boston Drum Lessons, you know that’s not at all what drummers are. While it’s undeniably true that the majority of drummers are male, some of the gnarliest and most innovative drummers are women. Let’s check out just a few of the biggest names.
1) Viola Smith
One of the first and most impactful drummers of the modern era dates all the way back to the 1920s. Viola Smith, born in 1912 (she’s still alive!), began performing with her family’s band, which consisted of her and her 7 sisters. She gained popularity throughout and the 1930s through touring and radio performances. She played a large, elaborate drum set including two 16-inch toms mounted over her shoulders, timpani, a set of vibraphones, and an array of cymbals. The aerial-mounted toms are said to have inspired Louie Bellson to use two bass drums on one drum set. At 106 years old and still an active drummer, she’s the oldest living mainstream musician. Check out this blazing performance from 1939.
2) Sheila E.
Sheila E., referred to as the Queen of Percussion, has been performing since 1976 and has become one of the most iconic female drummers and musicians of all time. Born into a family of prominent Latin-American musicians, Sheila was surrounded by music her entire life. She performed alongside Prince (to whom she was married for a time), George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Beyonce, Ringo Starr, and so many other huge names in music. She routinely performs wearing stilettos and a dress, proving that glamor and shredding drums can go hand-in-hand. In additional to extensive touring and performing, Sheila has also recorded music with Hans Zimmer for major movies including Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the animated film Boss Baby. In 2011, she was a featured drummer on the Late Show’s Drum Solo Week. Watch below to see her incredibly powerful performance. She absolutely RIPS.
3) Cindy Blackman
Cindy Blackman has been on the scene since the early 1980s. After studying for a short time at Berklee College of Music (here in Boston), Cindy moved to New York City to immerse herself in the jazz scene. While there, she attended countless jazz performances and gained heavy influence from drummers such as Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Philly Joe Jones, and Art Blakey, who became a particularly important artistic influence. Despite encountering prejudice and resistance in the music scene as a black woman drummer, Cindy forged a virtuosic personalized sound and more established musicians started taking notice. While she has performed in front of packed arenas with Lenny Kravitz and audiences in excess of 100,000 people, her true passion resides in playing small-room jazz gigs. Nowadays, In addition to her solo career, she performs with her husband and legendary guitarist, Carlos Santana. At almost 60 years old, she still rips harder than drummers less than half her age.
4) Terri Lyne Carrington
Terri Lyne Carrington has been active in the jazz scene since the mid-1980s and has played with legends including Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and many more. Born and raised in Medford, Massachusetts, Terri began playing the drums at the age of 7. Her mother, a pianist, and her father, a jazz saxophonist, encouraged her musical development from the very beginning. After studying at Berklee College of Music, Terri began her professional career in the New York jazz scene. Toward the end of the 1980s, she moved in Los Angeles and played as the house drummer for the late-night program “The Arsenio Hall Show” and later in the 1990s as the drummer for “VIBE.” Her abilities as a drummer, composer, singer, and producer have earned her three Grammy Awards. In addition to composing and performing, she presently works as a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA and directs the annual Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival. In this video, Terri talks a little bit about her upbringing and career before performing to a poem she wrote.
5) Anika Nilles
Anika Nilles is a legend in the making. Unlike many of her predecessors, Anika’s success started on YouTube in 2012, demonstrating the Internet’s ability to reach far beyond the local scene and give a platform to otherwise unknown musicians. Taking influence from greats such as Jeff Porcaro, Jojo Mayer, Aaron Spears, Steve Jordan, Questlove, and Benny Greb, her playing incorporates a unique blend of jazz, rock, and R&B, resulting in powerful grooves and tasteful chops. Anika also uses many odd meters and irregular subdivisions, like quintuplets and septuplets (breaking a beat into 5 or 7 parts respectively), to create a more individualized sound. Anika has a long, fruitful career ahead of her!
Of course, there are many more incredible female drummers aside from those mentioned above. Some other names to keep an eye out for: Sarah Thawer, Helen de la Rosa, Madden Klass, Camille Bigeault, Lindsay Artkop, Taylor Gordon, Camellia Kies. To learn more about women in drumming, check out Tom Tom Magazine. Tom Tom Magazine is the only drumming magazine dedicated entirely to giving female drummers a much deserved platform. At the end of the day, drumming is for anyone and everyone!