Basic Beats Every Drummer Must Know

The beat you play has to gel with the band. But every beat must also be interpreted correctly so that it makes rhythmic sense within the context of its particular style. So no matter what style you are asked to play, you must never forget that the patterns you play are only as important as the way in which you play them.

In this article we attempt to marry those two concepts together. The following 18 grooves span a wide variety of styles — from funk and reggae to punk and flat-tire shuffles — presented as both musical notation and tips on how to manipulate the feel of the notes.

Since our goal is to help you play each beat with the appropriate groove and feel, we intentionally pared the following examples down to their most fundamental forms, without fills or variations. After all, you can always elaborate on our suggested patterns in the privacy of your practice room.

Let’s check out some grooves and styles and how they are often interpreted.

Rock

Tempo: Varying tempo
Beat Placement: On the beat
Time Feel: Even or slightly swung
Dynamics: Varying, but when in doubt, play loudly

Rock is usually played on the beat with a straight, even feel. Think Bon Jovi. Sure, drummers sometimes add a hint of swing to grooves, like John Bonham did, but generally those drummers are the wonderful exception to the norm. The drumming tends to be very loud, so wear earplugs.

DRUM! Notation Guide

rock beat

Swing

Tempo: Wide range
Beat Placement: Sometimes manipulated for effect
Time Feel: Usually has a triplet feel, but this straightens out at faster tempos
Dynamics: Varying, but when in doubt, play softly

Drummers often think swing is based on triplets. While that is generally true, it can vary depending on tempo. At most medium tempos, the standard jazz ride pattern is played in triplets. However, at slow tempos a drummer may choose to play something closer to a dotted eighth-note followed by a sixteenth-note to keep a sense of urgency in the groove. At very fast speeds the cymbal pattern tends to straighten out into a quarter-note followed by two eighth-notes. This occurs not primarily out of choice but out of necessity since at very high speeds it becomes physically impossible to articulate a strict triplet spacing. So even if a drummer could play it that way, it would sound “wrong” to our ears since we never hear it played like that. These differences in feel occur gradually as the tempo changes, so you may find yourself playing anywhere between two of the notated feels depending on what’s physically necessary.

rock beat

Reggae

Tempo: Slow to medium
Beat Placement: Behind the beat
Time Feel: Varying degrees of swing
Dynamics: Wide range

Most reggae has a laid-back, behind-the-beat feel. At faster tempos, the feel moves more toward the middle. Tip: remember to start all reggae tunes with a peculiar fill!

rock beat

Hip-Hop

Tempo: Slow to medium
Beat Placement: Behind or on the beat
Time Feel: Varying degrees of swing
Dynamics: Varies

Obviously, a lot of hip-hop music uses samples and drum machines, and the feel can be straight or swung. While dynamics may be pretty flat, ghost notes are often used to add dimension to the groove. Patterns are often repeated without variation, so the ability to hold a tempo and control your dynamics is very important in this style. Instead of a traditional fill, you may just stop playing for a measure to set up a chorus.

rock beat

Funk

Tempo: Medium
Beat Placement: On the beat, but can vary
Time Feel: Even or swung
Dynamics: Wide range

Hip-hop artists frequently use funk grooves for their samples. Funk is often played with a wide dynamic range, buzzes, bounces, open hi-hats, and unusual snare placement. So if you want to become a good funk drummer you’ve got quite a task ahead. Lots of funk grooves are medium tempo, which gives the drummer the option of playing the beats straight or with a little swing.

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Ska

Tempo: Medium to fast
Beat Placement: On the beat
Time Feel: Even or slightly swung
Dynamics: Medium to loud

Ska has an energetic quality like punk, but at times can also be reminiscent of reggae. The dynamic level is usually loud since the drummer has to compete with those darn horns!

rock beat

Disco

Tempo: Medium dance tempo
Beat Placement: On the beat
Time Feel: Even
Dynamics: Loud

The quarter-note bass drum pattern and open hi-hat on the &s of the beat are the signature characteristics of disco. Those two attributes didn’t evolve independently either. If you play both feet together on the quarter-notes while playing 2 and 4 on your snare you will get an opening on the &s of the beat. Some disco grooves only use the upbeats on the hi-hat, which helps enhance the “pea-soup” sound of the groove.

rock beat

Double Bass

Tempo: Medium to insanely fast
Beat Placement: On the beat
Time Feel: Even. At fast tempos there just isn’t enough time to play around with the feel.
Dynamics: One dynamic level — loud! However, speed-metal drummers tend to play everything at medium or softer volumes since it’s easier to play at supersonic speeds when you use less power and minimal stick-stroke height.

Obviously, fast double bass is challenging to play on a physical level. Achieving high speeds takes lots of endurance, practice, and discipline, and serious metal drummers regularly work with a click to both check their speed and increase it.

rock beat

Ballad

Tempo: Slow
Beat Placement: Generally, most drummers play ballads slightly behind the beat. Now, keep in mind we’re talking about subtle milliseconds of delay, not huge sixteenth-note beat displacements. That’s why people don’t dance to Dave Weckl.
Time Feel: Even or slightly swung
Dynamics: Wide range but generally quiet to enhance the introspective and confessional quality of the lyrics. By the way, it’s not considered cool to quietly weep while playing ballads.

Ballads are often challenging to play because the tempo is so slow and there’s so much room between notes. For this reason, most drummers play sixteenth-notes on their hi-hat during slow ballads, to makes it easier to lock everything together. Adding a light hi-hat accent on the eighth-notes can propel the music and add a subtle swing to it. Practice your ballads with a metronome. Unless you play a lot of dirge material, you are likely to gradually speed up your tempo. Simply gaining control of your tempos can do wonders to help lock in any groove.

rock beat

Pop

Tempo: Medium to fast
Beat Placement: On the beat
Time Feel: Even or slightly swung
Dynamics: Wide range, though pop-rock is more medium to loud

There are many flavors of pop music and all are variations on vanilla.

rock beat

Punk

Tempo: Fast — at least until the drummer gets tired
Beat Placement: On top of the beat
Time Feel: Even
Dynamics: Loud!

Punk music is often played very fast. The Circle Jerks and Ramones were never known for their ballads. Fast tempos even out and straighten the time feel. Many punk drummers tend to play on top of the beat, and this often propells the music more if it doesn’t outright cause it to rush. Dynamics? What are dynamics?

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Second-Line

Tempo: Mid to fast
Beat Placement: Behind the beat
Time Feel: Swung
Dynamics: Yes! This groove uses lots of accents and buzz rolls and your dynamics will contribute a lot to the feel.

A New Orleans second-line march has more in common with a Scottish march than those we played in high school. Second-line refers to the band that follows the hearse and family that lead New Orleans funeral parades — and you thought death metal had dark origins! Surprisingly, this music has a cheerful, upbeat swinging quality. The drumming is based on a unique blend of Civil War–era marches and African and Caribbean rhythms, creating a funky, laid-back groove that every drum set drummer should have in their trick bag.

rock beat

Country Train Beat

Tempo: Medium to fast
Beat Placement: On the beat
Time Feel: Even or swung
Dynamics: Wide range of volumes, often accenting to lift the music.

While this groove is used in many country songs, it’s also found in certain rock songs like Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” or Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.” When swung hard, this groove is very similar to a shuffle and can be thought of as a hand-to-hand shuffle since it uses a RLRL sticking. When played straighter, it has more of the sound of a train gradually churning along. In country music, it’s often played with brushes (or rods) for a lighter train-like sound.

rock beat

Latin

Tempo: Wide range depending on style
Beat Placement: Varying
Time Feel: Varying
Dynamics: Wide ranging

“Latin” encompasses a wide range of grooves, since these patterns come from a variety of countries, each with its own groove contributions. The most common styles we play are bossa nova, samba, mambo, and rumba. Drum set originated in the United States and is used to impersonate the sound of several percussionists playing hand drums, which are used in Latin music. Since groups of individuals have their own unique ways of interpreting time, the ability to bend the note placement of your hands over a steady foot pattern will create more realistic results than completely accurate metronomic playing. Fills and grooves in Latin music are somewhat ametrical in rhythm, and can even oscillate similar to an egg rolling. Often, the difference is somewhere between even spacing and a triplet feel, but is actually not quite either. It can also shift back and forth between those divisions, first hinting one way, then the other. That is the reason Latin music is so challenging and rewarding to play.

In this example, we see a typical samba (or bossa nova) pattern followed by a rhythmically distorted fill above it. The ability to play evenly with your feet while changing the note spacing played above it certainly won’t come overnight but is definitely worth the effort if you want to play Latin music styles more authentically. These techniques can also be used in jazz and rock. Ringo Starr accomplished similar oscillating feels on The Beatles song “Ticket To Ride.” To learn this technique with a samba foot pattern, you’ll need to be able to put your feet on autopilot while you focus your attention on the note spacing and rhythm of your hands.

rock beat

Slow Blues

Tempo: Slow
Beat Placement: Behind or on the beat
Time Feel: Even
Dynamics: Wide range

Blues is all about the feel. It is usually played with a 12/8 time signature, and slower songs usually have a behind-the-beat feel, although you don’t want the tempo to drag.

rock beat

Shuffle

Tempo: Medium to fast
Beat Placement: On the beat
Time Feel: Even
Dynamics: Wide range but usually medium

As blues music speeds up beyond our ability to play all three cymbal notes per beat, we drop the middle note, leaving the first and third note to create the cymbal pattern characteristic of a shuffle. Shuffles can also be played with a jazz ride pattern or straight quarter-notes with the snare and bass drum outlining the shuffle rhythm. There are dozens of varieties of shuffles, just like you’d find with rock, jazz, or Latin grooves.

rock beat