The Most Sonically Gifted Female Drummers Of All Time
Female representation in rock music isn’t exactly great. Research shows that women produced just two percent of the most popular songs of the last six years. Females wrote just 12 percent. Worse yet, women are notoriously underrepresented in festival lineups (though Coachella finally threw us a bone and let Beyoncé headline). What’s more puzzling with these staggering facts is that the world isn’t lacking in female talent – especially when it comes to rock and roll.
These 20 drummers aren’t just the best female drummers (a non-genre begrudgingly forced upon female-identifying musicians since the beginning of time). They’re some of the best drummers in the flagrant boys club that is rock and roll.
Karen Carpenter (The Carpenters)
Karen Carpenter left a legacy behind after she passed away at the age of 32 in the early ’80s. Carpenter achieved success the old fashioned way with her brother-sister duo, The Carpenters. She toured and recorded for several years before the band was signed in 1969. A year later and they were bona fide stars.
Carpenter was a multi-talent and singing from behind a drum-set is no easy feat. Though her brother admired her for her ability to “speedily maneuver the sticks as if she had been born in a drum factory,” she was also named one of Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest singers of all time. She even played bass on “All of my Life” and “Eve” which were featured on the band’s debut.
Patty Schemel (Hole)
Patty Schemel made waves in the ’90s alongside Courtney Love in Hole, but her talents aren’t limited to the platinum-selling band. Schemel is so adept at her craft that Kurt Cobain considered enlisting her for Nirvana before landing on Dave Grohl (she was still his second choice). In fact, it was Cobain’s suggestion that landed her the gig with Courtney Love, and Schemel helped compose the band’s breakthrough album Celebrity Skin.
Schemel quit the band while recording Hole’s seminal album because of personal and creative differences. Instead, she pursued a solo career and briefly joined Juliette Lewis’ band, Juliette Lewis and the Licks. These days, Schemel is still slaying on the drums in the hook-laden, California-based pop-rock band Upset.
Sheila E. (The George Duke Band, Ringo Starr)
Sheila Cecelia Escovedo is best known by her stage name Sheila E. Under that moniker she shredded the stage as both the singer and drummer for The George Duke Band. After almost a decade, she left to pursue a solo career and penned “The Glamorous Life,” which launched her into mainstream fame and landed her two Grammy nominations.
There’s a reason Sheila E. is often called the Queen of Percussion – she slays at everything she does — from opening for Prince on the Purple Rain Tour and manning the kit in Ringo Starr’s backing band to slapping the skins for Beyoncé’s hit “Work It Out.” She’s been featured in programs like American Idol and The Late Show with David Letterman and performed alongside Pharrell Williams at the Academy Awards. She’s an icon, which coincidentally is the name of her seventh studio album.
Lelah Maupin (Tacocat)
Even if you think you haven’t heard of Tacocat, you’ve heard Tacocat. The sunshiney, Seattle-based outfit wrote the theme song for Cartoon Network’s Powerpuff Girls reboot. The band has carved itself into a unique niche where songs about menstruation and street harassment are dressed in a glittery, Technicolor sheen that makes it impossible to not dance. Who better to pen a song about superhero sisters?
Lelah Maupin and her bubblegum-colored hair hold down the kit, but her unique style is a signature for the band. When you hear a Tacocat song, you know it’s a Tacocat song partly because of frontwoman Emily Nokes’ unique voice and Maupin’s drumming. That’s a skill few musicians have managed to master.
Leah Shapiro (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club)
Leah Shapiro is the bold drummer behind Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, whose hit “Done All Wrong” appeared on the Twilight soundtrack. Shapiro manages to capture the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll with influences ranging from Lez Zeppelin (the all-female tribute band to Led Zeppelin) to Sonic Youth and manages to still hit the kit after suffering from a life-altering disease.
Shapiro started noticing that her hands “literally fell apart” during a summer tour. She pushed past it but was later diagnosed with a Chiari malformation. The rare condition causes coordination and muscle issues making her day job as a fierce drummer really difficult. She briefly stepped away from the band and had surgery to repair the malformation. Her bandmates and fans raised over $33,000 for her surgery, and after months of recovery, she rejoined Black Rebel Motorcycle Club for their 2015 summer tour.
Cindy Blackman (Lenny Kravitz)
It takes a rock and roll master to roll with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, and that’s precisely why Cindy Blackman was up for the task. With her strong mastery of jazz drumming, Blackman recorded several solo jazz albums. She took her unique talents to Lenny Kravitz’s backing band where she played for an arena filled with 70,000 people for the first time. It was daunting for a woman used to playing in jazz clubs.
“To drive an audience of 100,000 into complete oblivion by playing a groove so strong … I love doing that. I love the chance to show versatility,” she said. Blackman is adamantly against being labeled a female drummer, and she’s not wrong considering drums have nothing to do with gender. “Me being a female drummer has nothing to with anything except for the fact that I wear bras and panties and guys don’t,” she said.
Jess Bowen (The Summer Set, Nekokat)
Jess Bowen picked up the drums at 11 years old and hit the road at the ripe age of 18 with her band The Summer Set. She’s always been ambitious, and her hard work paid off. Since then, Bowen has toured all over the world including opening slots for Mayday Parade and Sleeping with Sirens along with a major stint on the Vans Warped Tour. Her band’s music has even been featured in an episode of Dancing with the Stars.
After The Summer Set went on hiatus, Bowen didn’t put down her sticks. She headed out on tour as the drummer for 3OH!3, who’s iconic single “Don’t Trust Me” catapulted their album Want to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Today, Bowen shreds in the infectious synth-pop band Nekokat.
Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint)
Warpaint’s intricate drum parts are a hallmark of the California-based outfit which wouldn’t be possible without Stella Mozgawa – and she had big shoes to fill. Before she joined up with the band in 2009, Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist Josh Klinghoffer played drums on Warpaint’s 2007 EP Exquisite Corpse. With Mozgawa behind the kit, the band signed to Rough Trade Records and recorded their first full-length The Fool.
Since then, Warpaint has seen great success. They graced the cover of Beat magazine and were nominated for BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll. They toured the world with the XX and played numerous festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo.
Tobi Vail (Bikini Kill)
Tobi Vail’s drumming isn’t just good, it’s important. Vail coined the “grrl” in riot grrl playing alongside feminist icon Kathleen Hanna in Bikini Kill. Before working with Bikini Kill, Vail dated Kurt Cobain and the couple wrote a few tracks together that ended up becoming Nirvana songs. Vail was the drummer who used Teen Spirit deodorant, the brand that inspired Nirvana’s breakout hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Vail wasn’t just a profound drummer who formed an important feminist movement (one that’s still kicking today), she’s also a prolific writer whose work has been published by NPR, Maximum Rock & Roll, and eMusic. She also plays guitar and sings in Spider and the Webs.
Elaine Bradley (Neon Trees)
In 2008, Neon Trees’ hit “Animal” was inescapable. It soared to the upper echelons of Billboard’s Alternative Song and Hot 100 charts garnering them a Billboard Music Award for Top Alternative Song in 2011. The band has gone on to have two singles certified double platinum by the RIAA and touring credits alongside Duran Duran, 30 Seconds to Mars and Maroon 5. A huge portion of this success is because of their lively drummer Elaine Bradley.
Bradley managed to balance her rock and roll lifestyle with motherhood (she has four children) and her dedication to the Mormon Church. In addition to Neon Trees, she drums in Noble Bodies, a project she was working on long before she became famous with her other band.
Gina Schock (The Go-Gos)
The Go-Gos are iconic. The all-woman band has sold over 7 million records worldwide and penned the anthemic tracks “We got the Beat” and “Get Up and Go.” They spent the majority of their career hanging out on the Billboard charts but never forgot their punk roots. This is exactly why Gina Schock’s drumming felt like a refreshing take on ’80s pop. To this day, she remains a prolific drummer with a bounty of credits including some work with Disney’s biggest stars.
Though she could probably rest easy on the Go-Gos ongoing success, Schock became a songwriter for pop artists later in life. She penned the title track for Miley Cyrus’ Breakout, which debuted at No. 1 in 2008. She also wrote Selena Gomez & the Scene’s debut album Kiss & Tell.
Anne-Marie Vassiliou (White Lung)
Canadian punk rock band White Lung only have two albums under their belts, but they’re two important albums. They were nominated for the Punk/Hardcore Artist/Group of the Year at the 2011 Canadian Music Week Indie Awards and renowned punk publication Exclaim! named their full-length debut 2010’s punk album of the year. With thrashing, fast-paced beats, Vassiliou is White Lung’s fiery backbone.
Vassiliou has a mastery of intricate, fast-paced music that causes even the most proficient drummers to falter. She makes it look easy, barely breaking a sweat. Once you’ve seen the chemistry between Vassiliou and frontwoman Mish Barber-Way, it’s no surprise that their second album received glowing reviews from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Spin.
Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney)
During the ’90s wave of feminist punk, Sleater-Kinney were icons. Most recognize the hilarious frontwoman Carrie Brownstein from her work on Portlandia, but Janet Weiss actually worked on the film behind-the-scenes as a permit manager. Weiss is a multi-talent, but her drumming is what bolstered her into mainstream fame.
Weiss has indie credits that would make Pitchfork weep, with stints touring and recording alongside the likes of Bright Eyes, The Shins, Elliot Smith, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and Wild Flag. LA Weekly named her one of the top 20 best rock drummers of all time.
Sandy West (The Runaways)
Sandy West broke down barriers for female musicians when she teamed up with Joan Jett and producer Kim Fowley to form The Runaways. West was just 15 years old, but her ambition was astounding. The teenage rock band crafted a legacy with the hits “Cherry Bomb” and “You Drive Me Wild.” They were even the subjects of a Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning biopic.
After The Runaways disbanded in 1979, West pursued a solo career. Despite her massive talents, it didn’t make enough money for her to live so she took up a normal job in construction and also worked as a bartender and veterinary assistant. It’s an unfortunate reality for many amazing talents and even The Runaways weren’t immune. West died of lung cancer in 2006, after a lifetime of heavy smoking.
Jen Ledger (Skillet)
Hard rock drumming is typically a boys club, but Jen Ledger doesn’t mind. The percussionist and vocalist has been touring with the Christian rock band Skillet since she turned 18 years old.
Though Ledger has yet to reach her 30s, she’s got a career longer than most in the music industry, and she’s been playing drums for even longer, having picked up the instrument at age 13. Ledger is most known for her work with Skillet, but her pop-solo project recently signed a deal with Atlantic Records. She released her debut EP Ledger in April 2018.
Maureen Tucker (The Velvet Underground)
Maureen Tucker, who’s best known by her nickname Moe, crafted an indie rock legacy alongside Lou Reed in The Velvet Underground. She was asked to join the project when she was still in college and was forced to drop out. Fortunately for Moe, this was the best decision she could have ever made.
Though Moe temporarily quit the music industry in the ’70s to have a family and work at Walmart, her credits are astounding. She wrote and performed with The Velvet Underground at the band’s height and is credited as a composer for songs by the likes of Phish, Kenny Rogers, and Yo La Tengo.
Kate Schellenbach (The Beastie Boys)
The Beastie Boys may have risen to fame as a duo, but Kate Schellenbach was behind the iconic band’s earliest records. Schellenbach played with the Beastie Boys from 1981 to 1984, penning hardcore-influenced drum arrangements for New York Thrash and Polly Wog Stew. Shellenbach bounced right before the band made a true transition to hip-hop and embarked on a career-defining tour with Madonna, but her talent set them up for their mainstream success. She went on to play in Luscious Jackson.
Schellenbach may have retired from drumming, but she did find success in the world of TV and film. She became an Emmy Award-winning segment producer for The Ellen DeGeneres Show and has credits with Chelsea Lately, Lopez Tonight, and The Late Show With James Corden.
Brittany Harrell (Veara)
Pop-punk drumming isn’t easy – it’s fast, it’s technical, and your energy has to always be on. This is where Brittany Harrell excels. Harrell holds down the drums for Georgia-based pop-punk act Veara. The band has a decade of experience and two albums with iconic punk label Epitaph under their belts. Veara gained critical acclaim from rock-centric publications like Alternative Press and were hailed for their message of friendship and always being themselves.
“We don’t really think too much about trying to please anyone but ourselves. We play music we like to play and I think everyone digs that about us,” she said. Unfortunately, the band went on a hiatus and fans are eagerly awaiting Harrell’s next project.
Emily Maxwell (Daddy Issues)
Daddy Issues may be newcomers, but Emily Maxwell is a force to be reckoned with. In a three-piece band, there’s no room to hide mistakes. Maxwell is the backbone and can never falter. She’s solid as solid can be and anyone who’s ever seen the trio live knows exactly why their single “Ugly When I Cry” went viral on Soundcloud with over 300,000 plays.
Daddy Issues has been hailed by The Fader and Paste Magazine. They’ve worked with industry all-stars like Robert Ellis Orra, whose credits include Taylor Swift and Reba, and Casey Weissbuch, who worked with Lorde opener Mitski. We can only expect to hear more great things for Maxwell and co.
Meg White (The White Stripes)
Meg White has faced a lot of criticism for her drumming style, but there’s no denying the girl is solid. She’s got her own her unique spin – simple, strong and never overdone. In a world where females are constantly expected to jump through hoops and outplay their male counterparts, Meg makes no fuss. She doesn’t feel a need to overplay and everything she does perfectly suits Jack White’s guitar. She’s the solid backbone – and no one notices a backbone until something is wrong.
Remember, the White Stripes are a duo. That leaves no room for error on White’s part. She can’t rely on a bassist to fill in the blanks if she falters. She is in charge of the way a song goes, and she hasn’t taken this power for granted.