Billy Cobham

William Emanuel Cobham Jr. (born May 16, 1944) is a Panamanian-American jazz drummer who came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s with trumpeter Miles Davis and then with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. According to AllMusic's reviewer, Cobham is "generally acclaimed as fusion's greatest drummer".[1]

Billy Cobham
Cobham performing at WOMAD in July 2005
Background information
Birth nameWilliam Emanuel Cobham Jr.
Born (1944-05-16) May 16, 1944
Colón, Panama
Occupation(s)Musician, songwriter, bandleader, educator
InstrumentsDrums, percussion
Years active1968–present
LabelsAtlantic, Columbia, CTI, Elektra, GRP
Associated actsMiles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jack Bruce, New York Jazz Quartet, Jazz Is Dead, Bobby and the Midnites, Mark-Almond

He was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 1987[2] and the Classic Drummer Hall of Fame in 2013.[3]


Born in Colón, Panama, Cobham moved with his family to Brooklyn, New York, when he was three. His father worked as a hospital statistician during the week and played piano on weekends. Cobham started on drums at age four and joined his father four years later. When he was fourteen, he got his first drum kit as a gift after being accepted to The High School of Music & Art in New York City.[4] He was drafted in 1965, and for the next three years he played with a U.S. Army band.[1][4]

After his discharge, he became a member of Horace Silver's quintet. He played an early model electric drum kit given to him by Tama Drums. He was a house drummer for Atlantic Records and a session musician for CTI and Kudu, appearing on the albums White Rabbit by George Benson, Sunflower by Milt Jackson, and Soul Box by Grover Washington Jr.[4]

Cobham started the jazz rock group Dreams with Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, and John Abercrombie.[1] He moved further into jazz fusion when he toured with Miles Davis and recorded Davis's albums Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. In 1971, he and guitarist John McLaughlin left Davis to start the Mahavishnu Orchestra, another group that fused rock, funk, and jazz.[4] Cobham toured extensively from 1971 to 1973 with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which released two studio albums, The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973), and one live album, Between Nothingness & Eternity (1973). The studio versions of songs on the live album were released on The Lost Trident Sessions (1999).

Cobham's debut album, Spectrum (1973), surprised him and his record company when it reached No. 1 on the Billboard magazine Jazz Albums chart and No. 26 on the Top 200 Albums chart.[4] Cobham started experimenting with different drum equipment; in 1974 for Crosswinds he used a fiberglass shell snare built for Cobham by Al Duffy, and he used Duffy's custom chain-drive kick drum pedal.[5] In another experiment, drum roadie Jeff Ocheltree helped Cobham convert the inner snares from the usual thin steel springs to teflon-covered cables.[6] Cobham's massive drum kit in the mid-1970s, based on a clear acrylic set by Fibes Drums, contained two Fibes kick drums, a custom Duffy/Ocheltree snare, two flared-shell rack toms by North Drums, four Fibes rack toms, two Fibes floor toms, two gong drums by Duffy/Ocheltree, a hi-hat, five Zildjian cymbals, and one hanging 36-inch gong.[7] This expansive kit and Cobham's dynamic style influenced later drummers.[8]

In 1980, he worked with Jack Bruce in Jack Bruce & Friends. For this group, Cobham used a very large custom drum kit designed for him by Tama Drums, featuring three kick drums with linked pedals, and three snares including a piccolo snare and a Hinger Space Tone expanding snare.[9][10][11] Cobham said this kit adapted to fit the music, and the music adapted to fit the kit – "a continual chicken–egg–chicken scenario."[9] On October 30, 1980, he joined the Grateful Dead during the band's concert at Radio City Music Hall. He performed a long drum solo session with the band's two percussionists, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, also known as the Rhythm Devils. In 1981, Billy Cobham's Glass Menagerie was formed with Michał Urbaniak on violin and EWI, Gil Goldstein on piano, Tim Landers on bass, and Mike Stern on guitar. Dean Brown replaced Stern when he left to play with Miles Davis. Glass Menagerie released two albums for Elektra Musician.

In 1984, he played in the band Bobby and the Midnites, a side project for Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, with Bobby Cochran and Kenny Gradney, and recorded the album Where the Beat Meets the Street.[12]

Cobham moved to Switzerland in 1985.[4]

In 1994, he joined an all-star cast Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and the results appeared on the album Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton, Billy Cobham, Najee and Deron Johnson Live at the Greek. The concert was predominantly Clarke's music, but all the musicians contributed material.

In 2006, Cobham released Drum 'n' Voice 2, a return to the 1970s jazz-funk sound, with guests including Brian Auger, Guy Barker, Jeff Berlin, Frank Gambale, Jan Hammer, Mike Lindup, Buddy Miles, Dominic Miller, Airto Moreira, John Patitucci, and the band Novecento. The album was produced and arranged by Pino and Lino Nicolosi for Nicolosi Productions. In 2009, he released Drum 'n Voice 3. Guests included Alex Acuña, Brian Auger, George Duke, Chaka Khan, Bob Mintzer, Novecento, John Scofield, and Gino Vannelli.

Cobham played his drums using the open-handed technique, which allows the player to play without crossing his right hand over the snare drum.

In December 2011, Cobham began teaching drums online at the Billy Cobham School of Drums, a school in the ArtistWorks Drum Academy.[13]

Praise from other musicians

Many musicians have cited Cobham as an influence, including Kenny Aronoff,[14][15] Steve Arrington,[16] Ranjit Barot,[17] Danny Carey,[18] Jimmy Chamberlin,[19] Dennis Chambers,[20] Brann Dailor,[21] Matt Garstka,[22] Chris Hornbrook,[23][24] Thomas Lang,[25] Mac McNeilly,[26] OM,[27][28] Opeth,[29] Chris Pennie[30] Mike Portnoy,[31] Thomas Pridgen,[32] Sivamani,[33] Bill Stevenson,[34][35] Jon Theodore,[36] and Tony Thompson.[37]

In addition, other musicians have been quoted expressing admiration for his work, including Steven Wilson,[38] and Dave Bainbridge.[39]


  • 2000 – North by Northwest
  • 2001 – Drum & Voice 1(All That Groove)Nicolosi Productions
  • 2002 – Culture Mix
  • 2003 – The Art of Three
  • 2006 – Art of Four
  • 2006 – Drum & Voice - Vol.2. (Nicolosi Productions)
  • 2007 – Fruit from the Loom
  • 2008 – De Cuba y Panama
  • 2009 – Drum & Voice - Vol.3 (Nicolosi Productions)
  • 2010 – Palindrome
  • 2014 – Tales From The Skeleton Coast
  • 2015 – Spectrum 40 Live
  • 2016 – Drum & Voice - Vol.4 (Nicolosi Productions)
  • 2017 – Red Baron


  1. Huey, Steve. "Billy Cobham". AllMusic. Retrieved August 17, 2017.
  2. "Modern Drummer's Readers Poll Archive, 1979–2017". Modern Drummer Magazine. Retrieved September 4, 2018.
  3. "The Classic Drummer Hall of Fame". The Classic Drummer Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 4, 2018.
  4. Hobart, Mike (April 25, 2014). "Interview: Drummer Billy Cobham and His Fusion Jazz Career". Financial Times. Retrieved June 9, 2017.
  5. Geoff Nicholls (1997). The Drum Book. Hal Leonard. p. 19. ISBN 9780879304768.
  7. Jon Cohan (1994). Star Sets: Drum Kits of the Great Drummers. Hal Leonard. p. 31. ISBN 9780793534890.
  8. Matt Dean (2012). The Drum: A History. Scarecrow Press. p. 286. ISBN 9780810881709.
  9. Don Ketteler (December 1980). "A Session with Jack Bruce & Friends" (PDF). Modern Recording & Music. Vol. 6 no. 3. p. 46.
  12. "Interview: Billy Cobham". Hit Channel (in Greek). January 4, 2014. Retrieved August 17, 2017.
  13. Reesman, Bryan (October 31, 2003). "10 Questions for Billy Cobham". Drummin Fool. Retrieved August 17, 2017.
  14. Amendola, Billy (March 2017). "On The Cover Kenny Aronoff". Archived from the original on April 26, 2017. Retrieved April 25, 2017. When I first started playing with Mellencamp, I was trying to be Billy Cobham. [...]
  15. Mattingly, Rick (April 1993). "Kenny Aronoff: Rock Drumset Goes to College". Percussive Notes (31). I had no respect whatsoever for simple rock and roll drumming, I only liked heavy fusion and technical drumming like Billy Cobham [...]
  16. J-Zone (July 29, 2016). "Give the Drummer Some: Slave's Steve Arrington". Red Bull Music Academy. Archived from the original on August 19, 2017. Retrieved April 19, 2017.
  17. Sibley, Rod. "Drummer Ranjit Barot Interview". Archived from the original on May 25, 2008. Retrieved August 19, 2017. [...] When I heard Cobham play, and I tell you this in retrospect: I'm a fan of every drummer on this planet. I think there are so many, so many great drummers out there that it's hard to create a list. But Cobham is a pioneer, for sure. Cobham is the closest I've heard a drummer playing with an Indian soul. He had the whole speech thing down. [...] Cobham, when he played, I could hear him talk. His snare drum, that's the heart of his language. He really had this speech happening on the kit. That's what stopped me in my tracks. Because I'd been listening to tabla players, and I said, Hold on. This guy, he understands. He understands where this whole thing is coming from. So he was probably the first big influence. And I just love everything he's done, man.
  18. Oriel, Jane (November 21, 2006). "Handyman: Danny Carey, Tool's drummer, talks to DiS". Drowned In Sound. Archived from the original on December 11, 2009. Retrieved March 14, 2017. [...] I drew my influences from some of the more jazzier guys like Billy Cobham (John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis) [...]
  19. Peiken, Matt (May 1996). "The Smashing Pumpkins' Jimmy Chamberlin" (PDF). Modern Drummer. p. 33. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 25, 2017. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
  20. Chambers, Dennis (October 1, 1999). Common Ground: Inspiration (audio and video). Alfred Music. ISBN 978-0769291963. Dennis Chambers: I keep my ideas fresh when I listen to people like Vinnie Colaiuta, Gary Husband, Lenny White and Billy Cobham
  21. Kearns, Kevin (May 12, 2004). "Brann Dailor of Mastodon". Modern Drummer. Archived from the original on March 6, 2017. Retrieved March 24, 2017. You must have a big list of drummer influences.
    Brann Dailor: [...] for jazz, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Billy Cobham [...]
  22. Lentz, Andrew (June 16, 2014). "Matt Garstka: Let's Get Technical". Drum!. Archived from the original on November 11, 2016. Retrieved April 28, 2017.
  23. Coleman, Danny (March 21, 2017). "Interview: Chris Hornbrook Never Lets His Senses Fail". Archived from the original on March 27, 2017. Retrieved March 27, 2017.
  24. Mohler, Jordan (March 9, 2015). "Interview: Chris Hornbrook (Senses Fail, Poison The Well)". Archived from the original on March 15, 2017. Retrieved March 14, 2017.
  25. Mitchell, Sean (May 22, 2015). "Thomas Lang" (video and text). Event occurs at 11:34. Archived from the original on August 8, 2015. Retrieved April 28, 2017.
  26. "From The Desk Of The Jesus Lizard: Rock Drummers". Magnet. June 8, 2014. Archived from the original on December 29, 2014. Retrieved March 14, 2017.
  27. "An Interview with Al Cisneros & Emil Amos of Om". BrooklynVegan. New York. September 25, 2008. Archived from the original on April 20, 2017. Retrieved April 19, 2017. Emil Amos: [...] Musically, when we first met, the three things that we immediately in conversation bonded on was dub, Pink Floyd, and Billy Cobham, the great drummer.
  28. Babcock, Jay (February 5, 2007). ""Most High": How and why Om builds its minimalist, contemplative metal". Arthur. Archived from the original on April 14, 2009. Retrieved April 19, 2017. Al Cisneros: [...] I think I was 17. I was at a friend's house and he was saying, 'I can't believe you haven't heard this.' Put it on, put it on. It was "Inner Mounting Flame," and on the song, "Awakening" the break with Billy Cobham on the kit...He throws down this one break after McLaughlin subsides these chords. It was so decisive that we just got up and left the room. There was no point in continuing conversation. It was done. That evening had been closed by that drumbeat. And to this day I think that in terms of drumming, "Inner Mounting Flame" with Cobham is Mount Olympus. There's nothing more. It's all. Saying Billy Cobham is a great drummer is like saying the sun's bright, but...I don't even know what to say about Mahavishnu. It was so humbling. It was an epiphany to hear the potential of these musicians and their conviction. Hearing something like that can make you feel like you've just been messing around in a sandbox your whole life.
  29. Hodgson, Peter (September 16, 2011). "Interview: Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt". Archived from the original on October 15, 2011. Retrieved March 14, 2017. There's an obvious fusion feel to a lot of the material on Heritage. Where did that come from?
    Mikael Akerfeldt: [...] the fusion aspect comes from Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Cobham... [...]
  30. Worley, Gail (April 10, 2009). "Coheed & Cambria's Chris Pennie". Archived from the original on May 2, 2016. Retrieved March 16, 2017. Q: Which players have most influenced that aspect of your style, especially with respect to the polyrhythms?
    Chris Pennie: [...] Billy Cobham from the Mahavishnu Orchestra are important influences.
  31. "FAQ home - Drum Playing (Techniques)". Archived from the original on July 17, 2009. Retrieved March 14, 2017.
  32. Jones, Dave (July 20, 2013). "Thomas Pridgen". Manchester, United Kingdom. Archived from the original on March 27, 2016. Retrieved March 14, 2017. [...] when I was growing up played with so many different types of people, and did so many different styles. Everyone from Billy Cobham to Art Blakey [...]
  33. Saravanan, T. (August 24, 2016). "Drumming is his heart beat". The Hindu. Archived from the original on August 19, 2017. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  34. Bidwell, Stephen (September 29, 2014). "Influences: Bill Stevenson". Modern Drummer. Archived from the original on March 25, 2017. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
  35. Shteamer, Hank (September 21, 2011). "Bill Stevenson on jazz". Archived from the original on October 1, 2011. Retrieved March 24, 2017. I play drums as well, and I sometimes feel like it's almost impossible for a drummer to be truly great at playing both rock and jazz. Do you think you have to pick one of the two and focus on that?
    Bill Stevenson: I think so. What I was trying to do was to be both. I reckon Billy Cobham is maybe the closest: He's the everyman's drummer, like he can playing everything better than everyone. And I felt like I was heading that directionmaybe I wanted to be Billy. [...]
  36. Worley, Gail (June 23, 2004). "My Favorite Martian: An Interview with Jon Theodore of The Mars Volta". Archived from the original on March 15, 2017. Retrieved March 14, 2017. I have to say that my all-time favorite guy ever is Billy Cobham. I even listen to The Traveler and Power Play, his '80s records. [...] I'm totally infatuated with him. I love the way he plays and I think it's so natural, powerful and dynamic at the same time. I pattern a lot of stuff after him.
  37. Amendola, Billy (July 19, 2005). "Tony Thompson". Modern Drummer. Archived from the original on April 20, 2017. Retrieved April 19, 2017. [...] I would go down to 7th Ave. South. That was a club in New York City that The Brecker Brothers used to own. [...] I saw Billy Cobham for the first time and saw God. When they broke into "The Inner Mounting Flame," it was the most awesome performance I've ever seen in my life. My God, it's still embedded in my soul seeing him play like that. To have that command and power plus his chops were just super-human. Before that, I'd never seen anyone like Billy Cobham.
  38. Prasad, Anil (2013). "Steven Wilson - Past presence". Innerviews. Archived from the original on May 10, 2013. Retrieved March 14, 2017. [...] Listen to Billy Cobham on a Mahavishnu Orchestra album. It's like a juggernaut heading towards a cliff edge. It has a feeling of momentum and rushing towards something.
  39. Strik, Henri (January 2015). "Interview Dave Bainbridge - "With this album I was aiming to recapture some of the emotions that first motivated me to devote my life to music"". Archived from the original on February 14, 2017. Retrieved March 14, 2017.
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