Hotlicks: The Early Drummers Of Rock And Roll

Rock and roll began as a fusion of R&B chord patterns, boogie-woogie piano rhythms, and a strong backbeat, which made the music exciting and danceable. Other artists mixed popular country influences with R&B, creating what was later dubbed rockabilly. But this music was more than rhythms and chord progressions. Culturally, it marked the beginning of the slow change in race relations in the U.S. and the gradual acceptance of minorities, first as entertainers and athletes, by the white majority. In this era, the music was often recorded directly to acetate, which forced the musicians to get it right on the first take. Let’s take a look at some of the drum parts that launched a musical revolution.

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“Maybellene” by Chuck Berry

This gold record from 1955 was Chuck Berry’s first hit and shows why this talented guitarist and showman became one of the stars and catalysts behind rock and roll. “Maybellene” was closely based on Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys’ western swing song, “Ida Red,” and featured a guitar solo that showed off Berry’s double-string bends, signaling the new sound of rock and roll. It became a racial crossover hit and was even covered by Elvis before his rise to stardom. On the song, we hear the two-beat feel (accents on 2 and 4) of Jasper Thomas’ drum groove that would become a rock and roll staple. He plays this beat without fills throughout the song, proving all you really have to do is groove well.

DRUM! Notation Guide

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“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry

This was one of Berry’s many hit songs and its intro has carved itself into all our heads. It was on “Johnny B. Goode” that Berry first employed the new studio technique of overdubbing to record the guitar solos on this song. Fred Below recorded the drums on many of Berry’s Chess Records hits, and like much of the music from this era, this song has a light swing feel that falls somewhere between a sixteenth-note and a triplet feel.

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“Keep A Knockin’” by Little Richard

Most drummers don’t know that John Bonham based his intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Rock And Roll” very, very closely — or perhaps just plain stole it — from Charles Connor’s intro to Little Richard’s song “Keep A Knockin’.” Like “Rock And Roll,” the intro is all in 4/4, and starts on the & of beat 3, though some drummers prefer to think of it starting or ending with a measure of 3/8. It definitely helps to count it out. If you listen to the two songs back to back, there are subtle differences, but it’s obvious that Connor’s stellar drumming made a huge impact on Bonzo.

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“Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & the Comets

This classic slice of Americana was one of the very first rock and roll hits, and it features an interesting drum part — or a couple of them. The intro section has unison hits on the snare drum with the rhythm section. During the body of the song there appears to be a couple of simultaneous drum parts — one playing a shuffle on the rim of a drum (notated on the high tom rim) and the snare kicks, and the other playing the hi-hat — though it’s possible one drummer played the entire part. Session drummer Billy Gussak was used for the recording of this track instead of Haley’s regular drummer, Dick Richards. The bass drum (if played during the recording) is inaudible in this section, though could be played on counts 1 and 3 or on all the downbeats. The hi-hat part gets busier later in the song, and was probably played with a stick, though I wrote it here for drummers who want to test their left-foot coordination.

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“Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins

This song was one of rock’s first hits that also performed well on pop, country, and R&B charts, and was the first Sun release to sell a million copies. Out of friendship, Elvis delayed the release of his version until after Perkins’ original single had peaked on the charts. The beginning of this song has some 6/4 measures, which, according to drummer W. S. “Fluke” Holland, were the result of the band’s inexperience rather than an intentional compositional choice. The breaks later in the song revert to 4/4. Fluke went on to join Johnny Cash for a two-week tour, which lasted for the next 40 years. He also recorded all of Cash’s hits and was the first drummer to play a full set of drums at the Grand Ole Opry. We’ve notated the rim part as a tom rim, though it might have been played on the snare rim, and if there was a bass drum part, it isn’t audible.

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“Great Balls Of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis was one of early rock’s most dynamic and scandalous performers, who mixed boogie-woogie, R&B, and gospel music to create his exciting and raucous songs. He was kicked out of Bible school for playing the Devil’s music, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his hit, “Great Balls Of Fire,” was considered blasphemous when it was released. There actually are only two instruments on this recording: Lewis’ piano and voice, and the great drumming of J.M. Van Eaton, who was one of Sun Records’ session drummers and played with many musicians of the era, including Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. It has a straight-ahead rock and roll groove and memorable intro that’s worth checking out. The snare notes sound like he was hitting the rim of the drum instead of the head.

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“Ain’t That A Shame” by Fats Domino

You may be more familiar with Cheap Trick’s remake of this early rock hit than the 1955 original, but Fats’ voice and superb piano playing, coupled with the deep pocket of Earl Palmer’s drumming, made this song a classic.

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“I’m Walkin’” by Fats Domino

This song’s funky intro will get your toes tapping and Earl Palmer’s two-handed snare RLRL groove is another great drum pattern every drummer should know. The handclaps on the counts 2 and 4 keep the feel upbeat and moving. He plays this variation of a train beat with a light swing and a syncopated bass drum note on the ah of beat 2 in every other measure, which makes his groove ever-so-funky.

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“A Little Less Conversation” by Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley was known for fusing R&B and country together, but this song is pure rock and roll. However, if you’re only familiar with Junkie XL’s remix of this song you’ve missed out on the funky drum fill that kicks off this cool track. The fill may sound a little odd since it starts on beat 2 — the sticking used was probably RL LR RL LR. The song has a boogaloo groove that’s got a nice little ghost note on the e of 2. The tasty fill in the third measure uses a RRL RRL sticking. DJ Fontana was Elvis’ drummer for 14 years and recorded well over 400 songs with the King, including this one, and he continues to record and tour.

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“Little Sister” by Elvis Presley

For this twangy rock and roll song, DJ Fontana chose to play a twist beat (snare on 2 & and 4) over and over. This transcription shows the economical way DJ sets up the first break.

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“Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley

This tribal groove is based on a Latin 3:2 son clave, which as many of you know, is a rhythmic pattern whose accents fall on 1 (2) & 4 2 3. The original recording is of very poor quality and I can’t make out a bass drum part at all, but was a bit surprised to detect the two-tom melody that is usually ignored. Drummers often play the classic groove on the floor tom and play either the clave pattern or straight quarter-notes on the bass drum. It can also be played as a N’awlins second-line groove on the snare drum with rudimental flourishes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t source the original drummer from the 1957 session.

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“Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly

Here’s another version of the Bo Diddley beat. The accents vary from a 3:2 son clave pattern at the intro, though the first two bars of the verse outline the clave more closely. For this song, drummer Jerry Allison thought outside the box and played one (a box) instead of his drums for the recording of this classic rock track. Question: can a cardboard box be properly called a cajon?

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“Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly And The Crickets

Originally titled “Cindy Lou,” drummer Jerry Allison suggested a new title for the song and also offered an unusual and signature sixteenth-note tom-tom groove that helped the song stand apart from other songs on the radio. More than a drummer, Allison cowrote “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be The Day,” “Not Fade Away,” and “More Than I Can Say,” though the band’s manager altered the songwriting credits. Years later, the drummer married Peggy Sue Gerron, the high school sophomore the song was named after. Allison never changes the drum part during the song, but occasionally adds brief crescendos to this two-and-a-half minute tom roll.

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“The Twist,” “Let’s Twist Again,” and “Slow Twist” by Chubby Checker

The twist beat is a classic drum groove that features a snare pattern of three notes that fall on 2 & and 4, adding a little syncopation to the standard rock beat with backbeats on 2 and 4. Ironically, neither “The Twist” nor “Let’s Twist Again” uses that drumbeat. However, Checker’s duet with Dee Dee Sharp on “Slow Twistin’” does employ the beat the dance style is associated with. Ellis Tollin was the creative drummer behind these slyly suggestive songs.

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