New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer was a master at exploring the areas between straight and swing eighth notes. I once overheard Earl say, “If a cat’s going to play straight, I’m going to play swing. If a cat’s going to play swing, I’m going to play straight.” This strategy often created a groove with a tilt that was in between straight and swing.
When rock and roll was first introduced, Chuck Berry and Little Richard would approach drummers with a straight-eighths tune and ask them to put something to it. Drummers at that time had mostly jazz or blues backgrounds where the eighth-notes are played swing and they would often meet these songs halfway and play in between straight and swing. If you go back and listen to early Chuck Berry and Little Richard recordings, you can hear this tilt.
This is often overlooked and drummers play this style straight. But the original recordings did not sound the way drummers play those songs today. Fewer and fewer drummers acknowledge the subtleties that make the early rock and roll records feel the way they do. There is a great record out now called Earl Palmer, Backbeat. It’s a collection of early songs that Earl Palmer put his legendary feel on.
Here are a few grooves that touch on this style. Set your metronome to about 100 bpm. Start by playing straight. Then try to morph towards swing without rushing or dragging the backbeat. Eventually, you should be able to swim back and forth between the two and live comfortably in between them. You’ll want to use different degrees of swing and straight depending on what the song calls for and what the piano, guitar or bass is doing. Once you feel comfortable with all the examples and can play them at different tempos, try applying them to early rock and roll tunes with a bass player or even with a whole rhythm section. Have fun with these and remember to listen and experiment!