An Ode To Female Drummers

By Molly Phelan

I was five years old, obliterating the $50 toy drum set my dad had bought at a garage sale the week before. I knew I had found my preferred method of expression. It wasn’t until middle school when I realized how lucky I was to have spent my entire childhood oblivious to what my chosen instrument would eventually implicate solely based on my gender. 

Everytime I enter a music store asking for new drum skins, I can feel the gaze of others directing me towards beginners merchandise because in their mind, there is no way I could have the potential to need equipment used by the pros. The phrase “you’re good….for a girl” has been echoed by many who fail to take into account the weight of their words. In drumming, among other things, women have to work twice as hard to be equally as noticed.

The act of drumming has always been seen as a masculine activity. Drums were originally used to command messages of war out to a broad audience as a form of mass communication. Historically in most cultures, women would never be the voice of representation, so why would we provide her with an instrument that publicly utilizes her emotions? Women are told to be quiet and subservient, but drumming teaches women to be loud, and never apologize for it. 

In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to shift the focus onto some musical prodigies that are often overlooked in the industry. The visibility for female musicianship is steadily growing despite the perceived lack of knowledge from the general public. One of the openers for this year’s Grammys featured all girl indie band, HAIM, showing off Danielle Haim’s incredible ability to drum while singing with perfect pitch. Building on the backs of pioneers who have come before, female drummers turn to the likes of Viola Smith, Dottie Dodgion and Honey Lantree, as a source of fuel to push towards proper acknowledgement in the music industry. 

While there are countless legends to choose from, here’s a playlist of some of my personal favorite female drummers who have inspired me and so many others over the years to make noise and break barriers.

“Caroline” by The Velvet Underground

Maureen (Moe) Tucker was an absolute trailblazer. She first picked up her sticks at 19 years old after hearing the Stones on the radio. She was known for her unique setup, with her bass drum often positioned upside down, her heavy use of tambourines and her habit of standing up while playing. All of this paired with her androgynous style and minimalistic yet girthy beats has made her a cultural icon. “Caroline” is my favorite song off of Squeeze, as it perfectly showcases Tucker’s stable yet forcibly driving rhythm in an upbeat bluesy style. This song always makes me miss my home state of California, as blasting “Caroline” on the way to the beach is an ethereal experience in and of itself. 

“Double Dare Ya” by Bikini Kill

Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill was one of the founders of the riot grrrl scene that blew up amidst the chaos of the punk rock movement. Often overshadowed by her counterpart Kathleen Hanna, Vail was the backbone of some of the most influential actions in the feminist scene of the 90’s. Creator of the popular zine, “Jigsaw,” Tobi Vail broadcasted opinions on the injustices and taboo topics that often silenced women. Bikini Kill gave women a space to feel represented and accepted unlike ever before. “Double Dare Ya” starts with Kathleen Hanna’s plea, “We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution, Girl-style now!” Immediately preceding, Vail absolutely demolishes the set, slashing the high hat and snare drum with sixteenth note fills what feels like every other bar, in iconic punk rock fashion. If you need a song to make you feel a proper dose of teenage angst, turn to Bikini Kill for inspiration. 

“Credit In The Straight World” by Hole

Patty Schemel is a household name for drummers and musicians alike, as she made it known that her talent was worth remembering. Being a part of iconic grunge band Hole, led by none other than Courtney Love, it was originally Kurt Cobain who suggested Schemel be their drummer. Her style is truly one to study, as each time she performed, she made sure it was unique to how she played at her last show. She wanted the audience to experience something worth paying for, so everytime she added something new to her beats to give a better sense of authenticity. “Credit In The Straight World” is my favorite song off of Live Through This because I think Schemel’s talent really shines through in her ability to simultaneously bounce rhythmic ideas off of guitar riffs. The contained aggression that Schemel was able to create in her career provided the foundation for grunge and rock drummers to mimic to this day. 

“Is It Day Or Night?” by The Runaways

Joan Jett and Sandy West founded the quintessential all girl rock band, The Runaways, when West was only 15. From the beginning, they set out to be bigger than all the other boy bands at the time that overshadowed female musicianship. Starting the band so young gave her the chance to grow as a drummer to learn how to express the emotional trauma she would go through in her personal life through her craft. Kicking beats out with absolute precision, West was the driving force behind their international success. Songs like “Is It Day Or Night?” highlight the true prodigy she was, providing a newfound sense of power and pulse from heavy bass hits with syncopated crashes. I remember the countless times in my upbringing that I sat on my DW kit, blasting this song through my janky headphones with my eyes closed, pretending like I was Sandy West because to me she was the ultimate image of both swagger and grace. 

“Beatnik Beach” by The Go’s-Go’s

The Go-Go’s were groundbreaking in their own right, being the first all women rock group to write and play their own songs and make it to #1 on Billboard album charts. Gina Schock was the facilitator behind their success. Moving to LA from Baltimore, she was destined to make it big. Slapping promotional posters on the walls of every Guitar Center, she ultimately heard about The Go-Go’s from a friend who knew Schock could be the finishing piece to their puzzle. Once she joined, she was surprised to find that her work ethic outshined all other members of her band, forcing them to practice five times a week instead of twice a month. You can hear it so clearly on “Beatnik Beach,” as her ability to stay right in the pocket is a result of her dedication to the craft. Her sound is still the reference point for all surf rock drummers to model themselves off of. Fast tempo, high frequency beats are kept in perfect tempo, which drives the upbeat feel that The Go-Go’s are known for. 

“Dance On” by Prince

Sheila E. is arguably the most commercially successful female drummer of all time. She played with legends from the likes of Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, Marvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock when her career was only beginning. Most notably, her partnership with Prince in the 80’s gave her an exponential rise to fame. “Dance On” is just an absolutely filthy techno drum beat which I think perfectly demonstrates her sound. The fills are tight, the tuning of the tom toms are precise, and everything comes together in a perfectly complementary pairing with Prince’s iconic falsetto tone. She is still kicking out records today and absolutely revolutionizing the dialogue for all female musicians in the industry. 

“Come On And Love Me” by Lenny Kravitz

Cindy Blackman is the quintessential face of jazz/rock/funk fusion drumming, bringing new passion and soulfulness to every performance. She auditioned for Lenny Kravitz over the phone in 1993, which led to an 11 year tour in the well received funk rock group. On Kravitz’s most critically acclaimed album, Are You Gonna Go My Way, I think Blackman’s raw talent is most visible on “Come On And Love Me“. She commands attention and sets the tempo, while the band simply reacts to her choice in rhythm. Drummers are often seen as the reactionary and supportive role in a band, but Blackman detests this theory, as her sound is the center of movement and she will be heard regardless of anything attempting to outshine her. In 2010, she married guitar virtuoso Carlos Santana, which led to collaborations in Latin rock and jazz fusion genres that pushed the borders of both of their musical expertise. She not only keeps time, but she creates and experiments with it too. I look to Cindy Blackman as a source of confidence and inspiration, as her power and technique represents everything I aim to become as both a drummer and a woman.