From Nirvana to Now: A Journey Through Dave Grohl’s Drumming Evolution

Exploring Dave Grohl's Unique Impact on Modern Drumming

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If you caught my commentary on Drumeo’s look at Joey Jordinson, you’d know how impressed I was with their deep dive into the iconic metal drummer.

I enjoyed it so much that I’ve decided to look at another of Drumeo’s ‘The Genius of…’ videos. This time, it’s Dave Grohl.

Unlike Joey Jordinson, I’m not very familiar with Dave Grohl’s back catalog; but I have a (very vague) personal connection.

The Foo Fighters once played a relatively small club in the UK during the band’s early days. Around the middle of the set, Dave Grohl made a rock star move and chose a girl in the crowd to ‘propose’ to. He was joking around, of course, and I guess most people would have laughed along and said, “Yes.”

This girl was a little introverted, though, and she didn’t know who he was. So she said no, and found out about his fame afterward!

I know this story because – a few years later – she married a friend of mine. I sometimes reflect on how smug my friend must feel – his wife turned down Dave Grohl, but said yes to him. That seems like a win to me!

Of course, I share this story in good fun; Dave Grohl has become a living legend. So let’s look at why.

A Career in a Nutshell

Dave Grohl started his musical journey around his twelfth birthday by picking up his first guitar. It took a couple of years, but he finally saw sense (ha!) and began hitting drums in his early teens.

Grohl never had formal lessons on either instrument but taught himself to play by listening to punk rock and prog rockers Rush. He did a great job teaching himself because when he was seventeen, he joined the punk band ‘Scream’ and toured the world.

Dave Grohl in 1989 with Scream
Tobby Holzinger / Agentur Spirit, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1987, he played with Iggy Pop in Toronto; and by 1990, he’d joined one of the bands he’s most famous for – Nirvana. Grohl played in Nirvana for four years, which is a short time for such an influential band.

After Kurt Cobain’s untimely death, Grohl took a six-month break before playing with Tom Petty and Pearl Jam. Soon after, he developed his solo material, which turned into the debut Foo Fighters album in 1995.

Alongside Grohl’s work with Nirvana and Foo Fighters, he also played drums in rock bands Queens of the Stone Age, and Them Crooked Vultures; he even has playing credit with Queen guitarist Brian May.

It’s been a promising career for Dave Grohl thus far! To top it off, he also has a reputation for being the ‘all-around great guy’ of rock. His philanthropic ventures are easy to find out about with minimal research, and he’s well-known for championing young drum talent too.

Drumeo’s ‘The Genius of…’ Exposé

Drumeo’s ‘The Genius of Dave Grohl’ is presented by Brandon Toews. He sets things up in a pretty exciting way.

The first sixty seconds of the video touches on Dave’s early history of drumming. Grohl’s resumé speaks for itself.

I missed the bit where he played with Animal from The Muppets, and I didn’t know that he once broke his leg on stage and carried on playing guitar anyway!

Danazar, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You probably knew about both these things, and I’ve been living under a rock. So there we go!

As an aside, this is what I love about the Drumeo’ Genius of…’ videos. The moment you start watching one, you immediately see the kind of qualities that the iconic musicians have.

The talent, charisma, and sheer, dogged hard work immediately appear. The latter is incredibly inspiring.

Hard work is – by definition – difficult, but you get everywhere with it and nowhere without it.

The Drumeo’ Genius of…’ series highlights the impact of someone’s consistent, hard work over time, and it makes me want to apply the same ethic to the things that I do, too.

Legendary Drum Intros

This early section of Drumeo’s look at Dave Grohl is fascinating. I don’t usually think of drums kicking off a song, although – of course – they often do. Drumeo chooses Foo Fighters’ song My Hero to open this section, and it’s easy to see why.

The slamming kick, snare, and tom groove, which jump-starts the track, hit hard, and it’s an immediate hook for the listener to grab onto.

Next, they highlight Smells Like Teen Spirit for that killer kick and snare fill, which everyone knows. Brandon comments on Dave Grohl’s use of flams in the fill and then goes on to demonstrate it. When I see the fill played, I get a sense of the energy and power within that relatively simple motif.

The sheer drive needed to play this kind of fill can be hard to appreciate because Grohl makes it seem so easy, but it launches the listener into the track like an accelerating race car. It’s super effective.

Brandon then demonstrates the Smells Like Teen Spirit intro groove. It oozes the best kind of dance energy.

Scentless Apprentice is up next. Unfortunately, I’m not the most Nirvana-educated person, so I hadn’t heard this song before watching the video. It’s highly groovy, though, and again, flams are Grohl’s calling card. They serve to add an extra dimension to the feel.

Song for the Dead by Queens of the Stone Age is the final example. Again, I loved watching Brandon play this.

And with the flams (and why the heck not?), there are also some pretty Bonham-like triplet patterns in this intro.

From these examples, it’s easy to see how Dave Grohl has become one of the archetypal rock drummers.

Hard-hitting and hooky, Grohl’s playing is undeniable and contains all the fireworks that people love to see from a drummer.

The Drum Fills

At the start of this section, Brandon points out Grohl’s precision and unique phrasing within his fills. I am – again – relatively new to much of his playing, so watching these examples is interesting.

Watching Brandon join the dots is eye-opening, and I can now hear the common threads in Dave Grohl’s playing and how those elements are unique to him.

Brandon draws particular attention to No One Knows by Queens of the Stone Age and again comments on his signature triplets and sextuplets.

After this, Brandon highlights Grohl’s hand-to-foot patterns in You Know What You Are by Nine Inch Nails, Binge by Scream, and No One Loves Me and Neither Do I by Them Crooked Vultures.

The video highlights the last of these songs in particular, which is revelatory to me as a non-expert on Dave Grohl. You can see his rock-star quality shining through in this video clip. His long black hair and wild facial expressions seem perfectly matched with the raw, primitive power which flows from his playing.

Around 4.45, there’s a super exciting clip of Dave Grohl talking about his drum influences. It surprises me to hear him name disco music as one of his main inspirations.

He says, “I pulled so much from The Gap Band, Cameo, and Tony Thompson… that’s only disco!”

I will remember that gem next time I’m tempted to write off an entire genre of music (as I often am with disco)!

Everlong by the Foo Fighters is the final clip demonstrated by Brandon. He talks about Grohl’s tendency to play three-beat fills that cross the bar line.

I notice a similarity between this type of fill and one of the fills utilized by Joey Jordinson in the last ‘Genius of…’ Drumeo video.

It’s interesting to see how iconic drummers can use ideas common to a genre but add their own twist to keep things interesting.

Building Tension

I was super interested in this section of the Drumeo video because, here, Brandon breaks down one of my favorite aspects of any drummer’s approach.

I love hearing about drummers who approach the arrangement of a song just like a composer would. Here Brandon highlights how Grohl builds tension and intensity within songs.

Firstly, he highlights Aneurysm by Nirvana. It’s interesting to listen to Grohl playing straight eighths on the toms, underpinning Kurt Cobain’s wailing guitar part.

You can feel the stormy friction within the song, but the guitar stays the main focus for the listener. It’s pretty clever.

In This Is a Call by Foo Fighters, Brandon highlights Grohl’s initial punk groove, which develops with straight eighths forming the latter half of the build.

This is super effective because Grohl builds the track without breaking the flow. I like how Brandon sums this section up.

He says, “You’re going to hear these sorts of ideas in tons of other music that [Dave Grohl] has recorded, with a whole bunch of different artists. This is a big part of what makes Dave such an impactful and musical drummer…”

‘Impactful’ and ‘musical’ – are two words which seem perfect for Dave Grohl.


In this next section of the video, Brandon starts things off by looking at the drums in ‘Tribute’ by Tenacious D.

(Yup, if you didn’t know already: Dave Grohl plays drums in this too!)

Brandon comments on the simplicity of the Tribute drum part and references other tracks with a similar approach, including Nirvana songs like Come As You AreLithium, and Heart-Shaped Box; and Foo Fighters songs such as For All the CowsBig Me, and February Stars.

He says, “At the core, these are pretty simple songs with straightforward drum parts; but they’re extremely effective. Dynamics are there, texture changes are there, and Dave lays down some absolutely killer drum parts on all of these songs. Even though they’re not full of chops, which we all know Dave could’ve played if he wanted to.”

Listening to these clips made me wonder if Grohl’s approach is primarily influenced by his guitar work. Here’s a guy who knows what playing a different role in a band is like. I imagine him having a real handle on the bigger picture.

Next, Brandon shows us a clip of All Apologies by Nirvana, played at their MTV Unplugged show in 1993. This clip sounded Beatles-like to me. Here, we see Grohl playing with Hot Rods (or similar) and again keeping things simple and unassuming.

Perhaps this is a quality that all top players possess – the ability to lift their eyes from what is right in front of them to bring the best out of everything they set their drums to.

Signature Drum Grooves

In the final section of the video, Brandon demonstrates three songs: Hanging Tree by Queens of the Stone Age, The Metal by Tenacious D, and My Hero by The Foo Fighters.

Brandon doesn’t talk about these very much – instead, opting to let them speak for themselves.

You can hear everything he’s already talked about earlier in the video: the raw power and energy, the flames, and the use of toms and big cymbals. You can also hear the use of groupings and shifting accents in each of these parts.

Now, many of these elements are common in rock drumming; but it can be hard to separate correlation from causation.

Given Grohl’s longevity and his role within some of the most iconic and influential rock bands of the last thirty years, it’s hard not to believe that some rock ideas are now common because he was among the first to champion them.

Summing Up

At the start of this article, I mentioned that I had yet to take the time to dive into Dave Grohl’s back catalog. But, of course, there’s no real reason for that; I just never made the time. (Unless you count the fact that the boyfriend of one of my first crushes loved him – but that was about twenty years ago now, so I think I’m over it!)

Toward the end of the video, Brandon starts to tie things together by saying: “Dave Grohl is truly a perfect example of what it means to be a rock drummer.”

I don’t know if I fully appreciated it before, but Brandon may be spot on here.

One thing that draws people to great rock drummers is the exhilarating power and energy that runs through their playing like electricity through a circuit.

Dave Grohl has this in abundance, and so much of his work is related to sheer size – those big flams and tom grooves being two examples.

The simplicity in his playing also shows a tasteful side, which could be easy to miss if you only focus on the fireworks.

The extremes are super effective. A lot of music is built from contrasts: we notice the quiet because we’ve just had the loud, and vice versa.

Grohl understands this and paces the exciting moments with periods of calm, which makes both poles all the more effective. Brandon goes on to reflect that Dave Grohl is,

“…probably one of the drummers who inspired many of you watching to start playing drums – or even guitar – in the first place.”

I like this quote. One danger of a resource like Drumeo – or even this blog – is that musicians can become a little tribal. We want to stay in our crowd.

But music is also usually about communication – between groups of musicians, between artist and audience, and between us and ourselves. Music helps us to communicate and process things that are hard to put into words.

Highlighting Grohl’s broader musical journey reminds us that we drummers are part of a larger whole, working with people who have other skills – and who come from different musical disciplines – to create a beautiful big picture.

One comment under the video reads, “Dave is a genius, there’s no doubt about it, but what makes him so special [is] that he’s so humble and down to earth. A legend, truly a legend.”

I don’t usually throw words like ‘genius’ and ‘legend’ around too often. I’m a little suspicious of how easy it is to declare something a work of genius just because we happen to like it.

But having seen Drumeo’s ‘The Genius of Dave Grohl,’ I understand why someone would draw that conclusion. I need to go and listen to some of his iconic work!

A Little on Drumeo

If you caught the last article I wrote on Drumeo’s look at Joey Jordinson, you’d know that I ended by talking a little about Drumeo more generally.

If you’ve seen some of the ‘Genius of…’ videos, you’ll have a sense of some of the great resources that Drumeo offers.

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I’m not sure if Drumeo is intended to be a total replacement for lessons with a great teacher – it’s tough to see the blind spots in your playing, and an experienced tutor will help you to identify these.

But it seems undeniable that what Drumeo offers is an almost unbelievably extensive bank of learning resources to challenge and inspire drummers of any level.

Growing on our instrument can be a lifelong adventure; keeping inspired is half the battle. With Drumeo, you get a ton of lessons covering a host of styles and approaches.

There are also interviews, reviews, and exciting video clips to slake your drumming thirst. So take a look, and see what you can find. Until the next one: happy drumming!

Chris Witherall

Chris Witherall is a pro drummer, producer and songwriter from London, England. He loves talking about music, and helping people to reach their music goals.

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