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Birth Of Rock, Part 2: Straight Eighth-Notes

Moment in History

In the April issue we talked about how a solid, continuous backbeat was one of the key elements of the rock and roll revolution. Another important rhythmic milestone that led to rock’s dominance was the shift from swung to straight eighth-notes.

Previous forms of American popular music – including New Orleans jazz, swing, and rhythm and blues – all had their rhythmic foundation in the “swung” eighth-note, a bouncy feel based in triplets. In the mid-’50s, however, certain R&B musicians found that by speeding up the feel of a boogie-woogie shuffle, you could “straighten out” the bounciness and create a relentless, driving “chuck-chuck-chuck” of eighth-notes that is now the recognizable trademark of rock. Interestingly, the move toward straight eighths did not originate with drummers, but with other instrumentalists, notably piano player Little Richard, and guitar players Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Earl Palmer, who played on many important early rock recordings, described it thusly:

“The only reason I started playing what they come to call a rock and roll beat came from trying to match Little Richard’s right hand. With Richard pounding the piano with all ten fingers, you couldn’t very well go against it. I did at first – on ’Tutti Frutti’ you can hear me playing a shuffle. Listening to it now, it’s easy to hear that I should have been playing that rock beat.”

Fred Below, who played on most of Chuck Berry’s hits, did just the opposite, playing a shuffle against Berry’s straight-eighth guitar strumming on tunes like “Johnny B. Goode.” The result is an unusual “in-between” feel that has also come to be associated with the 1950s rock sound, and can be heard on the likes of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock,” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.”

As the 1950s wore on, the straight-eighth feel became increasingly popular with teens, and by the arrival of The Beatles, in 1964, it had become the dominant groove in rock. Next month: rock and roll fills.

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