What makes Dave Grohl‘s drumming so unique?
If you’ve ever wanted to play drums like Dave Grohl, or simply understand what makes him such a unique drummer, then this article is for you.
We take an in-depth look at Dave Grohl’s skills, style, drum kit, drumheads, and why he’s been such a key part of rock drumming for decades.
Since he made the move from drum throne to frontman, Dave Grohl has undoubtedly become one of the most accomplished and authentic rock stars in modern history.
The founding Foo Fighter had already built up quite a legacy behind the drum kit as the relentless force which helped propel Nirvana to global mainstream success, before Kurt Cobain’s death prompted a drastic change in career path.
Grohl went on to lead his own rock band from the front, and has had 25 years of incredible and sustained success since.
Drummer Or Guitar-Swinging Frontman?
Despite arguably being more well-known as a guitar hero these days, it’s usually Dave Grohl’s drumming with Nirvana that ensures he is ever-present in conversations about the greatest rock drummers of all time.
Along with his work in Nirvana, Grohl’s drumming on early Foo Fighters records, as well as his flings with Queens of the Stone Age, Tenacious D, and Them Crooked Vultures all provide a wealth of amazing and inspiring drumming.
Beyond these bands though, Grohl has recorded drums with Slash, The Prodigy, Garbage, Nine Inch Nails, Killing Joke, and a huge range of others.
He’s also been erroneously credited as the drummer on a Michael Jackson track (Grohl agreed to do the track, but he’s not actually the one drumming on the recording).
Ever since he burst onto the scene in the early 90’s, skinny as a rake and with the grunge prototype long straight hair obscuring his toothy grin, Grohl has played drums with a naturally tight yet stunningly raw style which has earned him distinction among his peers.
There are a number of elements which make Dave Grohl’s drumming uniquely his, and why he is so highly thought of in the rock drumming community.
Let’s explore exactly what goes into Dave Grohl’s playing.
Dave Grohl: Playing Thunderously
Kurt Cobain once said that Grohl had a really hard time bringing down the volume for the now universally acclaimed MTV Unplugged show in 1993.
Of course, being Dave Grohl – and armed with brushes instead of sticks – he performed the set marvelously and ultimately demonstrated his deep musicality and adaptability.
That being said, it perhaps makes sense that he was having trouble to begin with, given his track record up to that point.
Despite demonstrating his own unique brand of dynamics (which we’ll get to) on tracks littered throughout his back catalogue, Grohl is most famous for his thunderous drumming.
Check out this isolated drum track to see Grohl in action, without anything else getting in the way.
As a kid, Grohl’s family couldn’t afford drum lessons, and he has stated many times that he learned to play by ‘listening to Rush records and playing on pillows with big thick marching band sticks’. Without any rebound or sound for reference, it’s no surprise he became one of the hardest hitting drummers around.
Grohl gained recognition by playing hardcore punk in the notorious Washington DC scene for ‘Scream’, before he was recruited by Cobain to replace Chad Channing who had just left Nirvana. Now playing grunge music, this is where his signature style began to shine.
Pulling inspiration from the grooves and rhythms of classic rock ‘n’ roll – John Bonham in particular – and fusing it with his relentless hardcore punk technique, he became the most globally iconic rock drummer of the 1990’s.
In an interview with Spin, Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins said of playing his band leader’s drum parts:
‘You have to be an athlete to play these drum parts – I play really hard, and that’s the key to playing drums for Dave Grohl – you’ve got to beat the shit out of the drums’.
That last part was essentially Grohl’s modus operandi on the drum kit. He even famously used 5B and 2B sticks the wrong way around to generate an even more powerful stroke.
His thunderous drumming in Everlong is a go-to for drummers everywhere. Even though Taylor Hawkins is featured in the track’s video, it’s Dave Grohl who played drums in Everlong. Taylor Hawkins wasn’t actually part of Foo Fighters when Everlong was recorded.
Dave Grohl’s Drum Kit, Drumheads & Cymbals
Given the incredibly heavy handedness of the man, Grohl was always going to need a particular kind of drum kit to not only withstand the power but to transmit that energy into appropriate sound.
Despite claims that he didn’t particularly care about gear or tuning it, it’s pretty clear that what he did use was chosen with purpose.
Dave Grohl’s Drum Kits
In Nirvana, Dave Grohl used various Tama drum kits – Tama Granstar, Granstar II and Artstar II. His set-up almost always looked like this:
- 8”x14” Birch Snare
- 14”x15” Rack Tom
- 16”x18” Floor Tom
- 16”x24” Bass Drum
- DW 5000 Turbo bass drum pedal
- Tama Hardware (Except for a Sonor hi-hat stand; see below for why)
The thing that will jump out at most drummers here is that everything is really big. Despite being 6ft tall, Grohl was dwarfed by his drum kit’s deep shells and highly placed cymbals.
Like Bonham before him, Grohl played with a huge 16”x24” booming bass drum in Nirvana, which brought an astounding heaviness to the band’s sound.
He often played the strikingly deep rack and floor toms together, for example in the chorus of ‘Heart-shaped box’ (which is almost impossible not to headbang to).
Dave Grohl’s Cymbals
Along with high-mounted drums, Grohl used a special Sonor hi-hat stand to ensure the hi-hats were placed at almost head height. This meant he could naturally hit them with the thickest part of the drum stick shaft (especially as the sticks were upside down!).
Dave Grohl uses Zildjian cymbals, with a typical Nirvana-era setup comprising of:
- Zildjian 15” A Custom Hi-Hats
- Zildjian 18” A Custom Crash
- Zildjian 20” A Custom Crash
- Zildjian 22” A Custom Ride
Large cymbal choices not only meant that Grohl could get through a few shows without cracking them (maybe!), but that he also had a fuller and deeper sound to fill the percussive space in Nirvana’s 3-piece rock setting. Those 15” Zildjian hi-hats may well have been inspired by John Bonham too, as Bonham famously played 15” Giant Beats by Paiste.
Dave Grohl’s Drumheads
It will come as little shock to learn which attribute is rated highest by Grohl when it comes to choosing drumheads – durability. As every stroke is essentially an assault on the skins, long lasting heads (and heads that can take a pounding) are an absolute necessity for him.
Nirvana drum tech Barrett Jones states that Dave Grohl’s drumheads include:
- Snare Drum: Aquarian Hi-Energy (Top), Remo Ambassador Resonant Snare-Side (Bottom)
- Toms: Clear Remo Pinstripe (Top), Clear Remo Ambassador (Bottom)
- Bass Drum: Remo Clear Powerstroke (Batter), Remo Ebony Ambassador with 6” port hole off-center (Resonant)
While the above list is a typical combination of drumheads for Dave Grohl’s time in Nirvana, he’s also been known to use Remo Controlled Sound drumheads on toms and the bass drum, as well as sometimes using no resonant bass drumhead at all (as pictured above).
Drum tech Barrett Jones has claimed that for drumheads, Dave Grohl only ever used Aquarian Hi-Energy heads on the snare drum as ‘they were the only brand that wouldn’t break’.
Grohl’s tom heads were changed before every show due to the battering they had taken the night before. Remo Pinstripe are fairly thick drumheads that are built to last, but it sounds as if they lived short lives in the company of the grunge legend.
Dave Grohl: Signature Beats & Fills
Let’s get into some of the tricks and tropes of Dave Grohl’s drumming, and what makes it distinctly his.
One of the greatest compliments you can pay a drummer is that you instantly know it’s them playing when you hear their tracks. In Nirvana and on the early Foo Fighters records, Grohl parts are not necessarily technically profound or progressive. Despite this, so many of his grooves and fills have become timeless signature parts.
Let’s start with the obvious one – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The four flams that introduce classic album ‘Nevermind’ have become etched into rock ‘n’ roll history forever, not least because they lead into an irresistible beat to jump around to – one that loops along with the famous guitar riff beautifully.
This trait of mimicking the guitar riff on the drums is something that can be heard across Dave Grohl’s drumming career.
‘Heart-shaped Box’ is another explicit example of this. The way Grohl flips from snare to cross stick in the verse adds a kind of call-and-response feel to Cobain’s guitar riff (and creates an iconic, tension-building drum part). That tension is released expertly in the chorus as he plays the same rhythm but with heavier instrumentation.
‘In Bloom’ offers another insight into Dave Grohl’s ability to compose from behind the drum kit. While the main guitar riff is a perfectly serviceable four chord riff, the hard-hitting descending flam fill adds heaviness and notoriety that otherwise wouldn’t be present.
The list of Grohl signature fills like this is not a modest one. The intro to ‘Hey, Johnny Park!’, the kick into ‘Up the Arms’ and the chorus of ‘No-One Knows’ by Queens of the Stone Age are great examples from said list.
Of course, we can’t talk about Grohl’s signature beats without talking about ‘My Hero’ by Foo Fighters. On this track he created one of the most famous rock drum intros of all time, which according to engineer Bradley Cook, was achieved by recording the same thunderous tom beat in two separate locations and laying one on top of the other.
Cook stated that this was done without any ‘studio magic’ which is why if you listen closely, you can hear some slight and random flamming. This only adds even more Grohl seasoning to the piece, and produces an intro for the ages.
Dave Grohl: Knowing When To Leave Space
Let’s go to an under-appreciated element of Dave Grohl’s drumming now – sitting back and leaving space.
Fans of the ‘nicest guy in rock’ understandably aim their plaudits towards the heavy and relentless style most associated with him, but there is so much more to Dave Grohl’s drumming than that.
Some of Nirvana’s biggest hits feature verses where Grohl takes a back seat, often playing 8th notes lightly on the ride cymbal and applying bass and snare or rim to create a subtle yet driving backbeat.
Take ‘Lithium’ and ‘Come As You Are’ as prime examples of this. By applying this technique, the song (and Cobain’s vocals in particular), are given space to breathe. Through the lighter instrumentation, there is a far more atmospheric feel to these classic tracks.
With the Foo Fighters, there are many more obvious and natural opportunities to apply this concept as the style in general is lighter than Nirvana. It’s worth pointing out the effectiveness of leaving space in certain tracks like ‘February Stars’ and ‘For All The Cows’. Adding a laid back feel to the verses aids the eventual kick in the choruses, and emphasizes the washier cymbal choices in the heavier choruses.
Dave Grohl: Building Tension Through Drumming
Dave Grohl has a couple of drumming techniques he has used repeatedly across his career, to build-up tension as a song works towards a release.
One that will stand out in many fans’ minds is the single stroke snare roll complete with pounding bass drum.
The intro to ‘Breed’ is perhaps the standout example of this: It was such an effective tension builder that Nirvana often opened their live shows with it (Most notably at Reading ’92). The exact same technique is used in the intro of ‘Territorial Pissings’, making it clear that Grohl loves the aggressive and forthrightness of this build-up.
Another effective tension builder Grohl has used repeatedly is the bass drum.
Listen carefully to how he subtly adds more bass drums in the second half of the pre-chorus in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The way it drives the riff on to the eventual release of the chorus is both deliberate and expertly executed.
The outro in ‘This Is a Call’ is another fabulous example of this. Again, he divides the part in two and in the second, he doubles the bass drum pattern to build tension until the drums suddenly cut out. The basic part he plays in the first half would have been perfectly serviceable throughout, but the addition of a relentless kick produces an urgency which elevates it to a different level.
Dave Grohl: Personalizing Flams & Single Stroke Rolls
We covered single strokes above for building tension. However, this is not the only way Grohl incorporates single stroke rolls into his playing. Like most drummers, these are used extensively in his fills too.
However, Grohl often manages to put a signature touch to these fills to make them feel personalized and deliberate.
Terrific examples of this can be found in each of the three pre-choruses in ‘This is a Call’ (the video is above if you want to check this out). In the first two instances, he chooses to leave out a single note which creates a kind of falling momentum to the fills. In the final one, he plays it straight for some variation.
Perhaps the most popular track Grohl has played on outside of his two main projects is ‘No One Knows’ by Queens Of The Stone Age.
Most listeners would focus on the limelight-stealing fills in the chorus, but the epic bridge towards the end of the track is a wonderful illustration of what I’m talking about here.
Laying into that iconic bass line with a single stroke snare roll, Grohl plays off the riff by adding expertly placed crashes, toms, and space, building eloquently to the 32nd note fill crescendo – a truly brilliant example of taking a drumming trope and making it one’s own.
Flams are another drumming tool which are utilized with a personal touch by Dave Grohl on the drums.
Having already mentioned the iconic parts in ‘My Hero’ and ‘In Bloom’ (which include signature use of flams), there are a couple more outstanding examples worth pointing out.
Along with the aggressive bass drum, the repetitive flam fills are the driving force behind ‘Go With The Flow’ by Queens Of The Stone Age, helping to create a hard-rock anthem.
No conversation about Grohl’s flams would be complete without including the opening beat from ‘Scentless Apprentice’ by Nirvana. It’s a monumentally powerful rock beat when played conventionally, but when you add the single flam placement the beat transforms into an instantly recognizable riff (and one which feels like it could only have been created by Grohl).
Dave Grohl’s Lasting Influence
Dave Grohl is rightly considered one of the greatest rock drummers of his generation. He has beat the skins as part of a number of bands that have had immeasurable effects on both popular culture and youth sub-culture in modern times.
From a drumming point of view, Grohl has taken elements of classic rock ‘n’ roll, punk, and hardcore to create a style that is all his.
With huge yet minimal drum kits, aggressive yet relatively simple playing, hard-hitting yet astonishingly fluid technique, and traditional yet unmistakably personalized ideas, he continues to influence young rock drummers across the globe to this day.