Mike Portnoy is arguably one of the most influential drummers of all time. He spent most of his career playing drums for Dream Theater. While he took a break from the band for about a decade, he recently rejoined and is ready to tour the world again.
Portnoy was actually one of the first drummers to introduce me to Tama drums when I was younger. I remember seeing him play a huge double bass drum set with the Tama brand stuck up everywhere.
In this guide, I’m going to break down Portnoy’s most recent drum kit setup. I’ll briefly explain his choices and give an overview of all the pieces.
- Who Is Mike Portnoy?
- Mike Portnoy Drum Set Breakdown
- Bands and Associated Acts
- What Makes Mike Portnoy a Great Drummer?
- Frequently Asked Questions
Who Is Mike Portnoy?
Mike Portnoy was the original drummer and one of the founding members of Dream Theater. With Dream Theater often being referred to as one of the most influential progressive rock/metal bands of all time, that puts Portnoy in the top list of progressive drummers.
That’s how most people, including me, know him. However, he shockingly left the band in 2010 to pursue a few personal projects.
I remember watching a fairly comprehensive documentary about the band trying to find a replacement drummer, which proved to be a seriously tricky process. Mike was just such a vital player in the group.
While Mike Mangini filled in for the last decade, Portnoy rejoined Dream Theater recently.
You can often recognize Mike Portnoy by the colorful touch of his beard. He’s always added a bit of dye, making it one of his many quirks.
While he’s definitely a top prog drummer, I’d also say he’s one of the best overall drummers ever. Dream Theater has sold so many albums over the last few decades, with Mike Portnoy being crucial to the band’s success.
I saw somewhere that he used to be in charge of creating the band’s setlists for live gigs, which I think is just a cool nugget of information.
Mike Portnoy Drum Set Breakdown
Mike Portnoy has been using Tama drums and Sabian cymbals for as long as I can remember.
He’s probably one of the most loyal artists I’ve seen, sticking with the same drum brands for decades.
His setup has changed quite often over the years, but he tends to stick with a few constants on his kit.
Here are all the pieces of gear that you’ll regularly see him using:
Mike Portnoy’s Cymbals
Mike Portnoy is a big fan of Sabian’s HHX and HH cymbals, and he also occasionally uses Sabian AAX cymbals too.
The HHX line offers complex tones with incredible wash, while the HH cymbals have a bit of a drier, more vintage touch.
He also uses a few AAX cymbals, which are much brighter and more aggressive. That sound works really well in metal songs where you need to compete with distorted guitars and heavy vocals.
- Sabian 10” HH Mid Stax
- Sabian 14” HH Low Max Stax
- Sabian 19” HHX X-Plosion Crash
- Sabian 19” Paragon Chinese Cymbal
- Sabian 18” HHX O-Zone Crash
- Sabian 18” AAX X-Plosion Crash
- Sabian 18” HHX Chinese Cymbal
- Sabian 14” AAX X-Plosion Hi-Hats
- Sabian 22” HH Rock Ride
Depending on how large his setup, he’ll typically have a mixture of crash cymbals, chinas, and stacks. If it’s a large setup, he’ll use a few china cymbals. If it’s a small one, he’ll at least have one to play.
Mike Portnoy’s Snare Drum
Mike Portnoy has a signature snare drum with Tama called the Melody Master. There’s a 12” and 14” version of this snare, and you’ll mostly see him using these within his setup.
The Mike Portnoy Melody Master Signature Snare has a steel shell and die-cast hoops, leading it to produce a tight cracking sound that works perfectly for the styles of music he plays.
The explosive snare sound has become synonymous with his playing, and this snare drum just perfectly produces that iconic tone.
I’ve been able to play on it a few times, and I was surprised by how loud it was. I could only see myself playing metal music with it, which is exactly what Portnoy does.
Mike Portnoy’s Drum Kit
With the type of music that Mike Portnoy plays, he typically needs a very large drum set with two bass drums. The extra number of toms and small drums lend well to creative fills that create musical phrasings.
Since he’s a Tama artist, he’s always switched between using Tama’s Superstar, Starclassic, and Star drum kits.
He’ll always use several rack toms and floor toms. His rack tom tuning is typically quite high, while the floor tom tuning is low and booming.
He also regularly uses a set of Tama Octobans in his setup, which he uses to play punchy fills with articulate sticking.
Mike Portnoy’s Drum Heads
Mike’s also always been a Remo artist, using the drumheads all the way back in the 80s when Dream Theater started.
The Controlled Sound heads offer a bit of muffling to keep the drums sounding tight and clean. The Ambassadors are more for an open sound where the tones of the shells can freely resonate.
From my experience, Ambassadors work better for live gigs where your drums are sitting on a large stage and being projected to a crowd.
Mike Portnoy’s Drum Hardware and Other Gear
When it comes to drumsticks, Portnoy is endorsed by Promark. He has a signature pair of sticks with the brand called the 420 Signature Sticks.
They have a relatively thin shaft with a ticker than usual taper. It makes them feel surprisingly light to hold, but they boast plenty of power when you strike the drums and cymbals.
He also uses Tama hardware on all of his drum kits. This includes the Iron Cobra 900 Series, which is Tama’s top line of stands and pedals.
Bands and Associated Acts
Again, Dream Theater has always been Mike Portnoy’s big act, but he’s been part of several other projects that I think are really cool.
Around the time that he was still with Dream Theater in 2010, he was touring with Avenged Sevenfold. There was a bit of drama regarding his Dream Theater departure, so Avenged Sevenfold didn’t hire him again for their next tour. Those songs were epic with Portnoy on drums, though.
He’s been part of a band called Transatlantic, which is a supergroup composed of a few other famous musicians.
After Dream Theater in 2010, he played with a band called Adrenaline Mob for a few years. He then started Winery Dogs and Sons of Apollo. Those were two bands that he regularly performed with in the last decade.
He rejoined Dream Theater in 2023, which sparked the excitement of so many fans. While Mike Mangini was an incredible addition to the band, I can sympathize with people who grew up listening to Portnoy’s iconic playing style and want to hear it with the group again.
What Makes Mike Portnoy a Great Drummer?
The are two main things I’ve identified that make Mike Portnoy the drummer he is. Firstly, he’s an absolute expert at playing odd-time grooves and making them feel natural and groovy.
Some of the Dream Theater music is incredibly complicated, but he makes it sound so effortless and easy to listen to with the way he moves around the kit.
The second thing that I love about Portnoy is his music creating abilities. He creates such amazing drum parts that fit like gloves in all the songs he records. Avenged Sevenfold’s Nightmare album is my favorite in their discography, and it’s because Portnoy did the drum parts.
On top of being a good drummer, he’s an amazing musician who just knows how to make music that people will enjoy.
Regarding Dream Theater, Mangini is a far more skilled drummer, having the ability to play fills and grooves that most people can only ever dream of doing. However, Portnoy brings that calm and relaxed vibe that oozes musicality, and that’s why a lot of people prefer it when he plays DT songs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Did Mike Portnoy Leave Dream Theater?
Mike Portnoy had been with the band for decades, and he was excited to venture onto new projects where he could work with new people. Leaving Dream Theater was the way forward.
It was kind of like when someone stays in a workplace for too long and feels like they’re in a rut. He’s mentioned how he needed a big change to carry on enjoying his music career.
Is Mike Portnoy One of the Best Drummers Ever
He’s certainly one of the best progressive rock/metal drummers to play the instrument. People have been studying his Dream Theater drum parts for decades, and so many drummers cite him as their biggest influence.
I wouldn’t say he’s in the top ten of best drummers ever, though. He’s more likely to be in most people’s top 100.