Birth Of Rock Drumming: Backbeats & Straight Eighths

birth of rock drumming

When rock and roll first hit the scene in the early 1950s, it was hailed as a musical revolution, but also caused a lot of controversy. Teens loved the big sound and crazy energy of rock, while many of their parents were horrified by it. So what made rock so different from its predecessors that it caused such strife? Answer: big changes in the groove. The next few MIH columns will focus on these various changes, and show how the turbulent early years of this new music craze created a drumming blueprint that we follow to this day.

The first rock element we’ll explore is the backbeat, the accented stroke that you hear on beats 2 and 4. Backbeats had always been a part of the drummer’s vocabulary, and you can hear examples in early jazz, swing, and bebop. In all these cases, however, the drummer would only lay down backbeats near the end of a song, at the emotional high point. Generally, it was considered bad form for a drummer to play loud all the way through, not to mention unmusical.

By the end of the 1940s, some early R&B recordings, most famously “Good Rockin’ Tonight” by Wynonie Harris, started to break these barriers by incorporating backbeats from start to finish. The risk paid off, as kids actually preferred dancing to a heavier beat, and kept “Good Rockin’” at the top of the charts for six solid months. The die was cast, and within a few years, continuous backbeats became a defining element in rock and every other pop style to emerge thereafter. It’s a trend we still follow today.

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.