Drum Patterns

Drum Patterns in Popular Music

Below are several drum patterns we looked at in class, extracted from popular songs and realized in the drum editing view of a DAW. In most cases, the column duration is set to sixteenth notes, so that there are four sixteenth squares per beat and four beats per measure. The higher the note velocity, the deeper the color for the note. Only one measure of the pattern is shown; repeat this to make a longer beat. Drummers always vary the realization of such patterns, sometimes adding or dropping notes, playing fills (usually faster flourishes between phrases), playing notes with varying strengths and subtle timing differences. None of this is reflected in the notation shown below.

Drum patterns used in many styles of Western popular music typically feature an alternation between kick (i.e., bass) and snare drums, with the kick on beats 1 and 3 (in 4/4 time) and the snare on beats 2 and 4 (the backbeats). A more constant, faster-moving part on hihat or ride cymbals completes the texture. Think of the patterns below as variations on this particular setup.

Try recreating these patterns in Reason’s Redrum or Kong (using the Reason Sequencer in Drum Edit mode), and experiment with your own variations.

Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) (1967)

This is a straight-forward rock beat with clear alternation of kick and snare and a fairly constant eighth-note hihat part. (Try to ignore the shaker sound in the left channel when focusing on the hihat.) The hihat notes are not all of the same strength.

Play an excerpt of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Led Zeppelin: When the Levee Breaks (1970, written by Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie in 1929)

This heavy beat by Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham, is similar to Ringo’s pattern in Sgt. Pepper, except that the kick drum has some syncopated sixteenth notes.

Play an excerpt of When the Levee Breaks.

Scott Henderson Trio: Lady P (2002)

Take the basic quarter-note alternation of kick and snare from the Sgt. Pepper pattern and move the first snare note and second kick note earlier by one eighth note. The resulting pattern sounds intriguingly off balance, especially when combined with the frequently syncopated guitar and bass parts. (Listen for the occasional fourth-beat, low tom-tom note, as well as the soft snare rolls leading into the first kick note. These details are not notated below.)

Play an excerpt of Lady P.

Kraftwerk: Pocket Calculator (1981)

Stylistically, this music seems worlds apart from the rock and blues/rock examples above. But the basic drum setup is similar. The main difference, of course, is the prominent “four on the floor” bass drum pattern in relentless quarter notes, so characteristic of disco and house styles. Another characteristic of these styles is an emphasis on the off-beat eighth notes in the hihat part, which are played much louder than the on-the-beat eighths here.

Rather than the subtle human timing flexibility found in the other excerpts, this example — from the fathers of techno — revels in the robotic nature of machine-made drumming, with every note precisely quantized to a grid of sixteenth notes. Notice that there is a softer, closed hihat part that plays a stream of sixteenth notes, which is not notated here.

Play an excerpt of Pocket Calculator. The beat starts about one third of the way in.

James Brown: Funky President (1974)

The funk style of drumming typically features an active kick drum part with an emphasis on syncopated sixteenth notes, even as it mostly preserves the snare backbeats from basic rock patterns.

In the notation below, the hihat part is split into two lines to show the contrast between open and closed hihat notes. The sixteenth notes in the kick drum part are played with a swing feel, as triplet sixteenths. (So for example, the sixteenth kick note just before the first snare hit is played even closer to the snare note than the notation shows.)

Play an excerpt of Funky President.

Funky President is in the top three or four most widely sampled songs.

The Winstons: Amen, Brother (1969)

This short drum solo, by G. C. Coleman of The Winstons, has found its way into a large number of tracks by other musicians — cutting across hip-hop, drum ’n’ bass, and other genres — by virtue of appearing on the seminal Ultimate Breaks and Beats bootleg sample collection in 1986.

This excerpt features the original drum solo, followed by slowed-down and speeded-up versions. The slower version is closer to the samples found in many early hip-hop hits, while the fast version is similar to those found in British oldschool jungle tracks from the ’90s. It is known as the “Amen break.”

Notice that the Amen break shares some characteristics with the rock patterns above (the prominent snare backbeats and the consistent hihat pattern), and that its snare drum part features ghost notes — soft hits appearing on weak sixteenth portions of the beat.

Here is a famous example of the Amen break’s use in a hip-hop track. This is the introduction to NWA’s 1988 song, “Straight Outta Compton.”

Check out this rapid-fire compendium of many one-measure ’90s jungle excerpts that use the Amen break and variants.

Kendrick Lamar: Swimming Pools (Drank) (2012)

A typical hip-hop drum pattern is a rock pattern with a more active hihat and a fairly slow tempo. The drums are often electronic sounds, as produced by the classic Roland TR-808 drum machine and its successors.

Notice the continuous sixteenth-note hihat part, in place of the eighth notes that are typical in rock. Hip-hop hihats often subdivide even further, playing intermittent strings of 32nd notes, or even faster notes, as in the chorus of this example.

(The example begins on the 4th beat of the measure before the one notated above.)

Steely Dan: Home at Last (1977)

This pattern is called a half-time shuffle and is attributed to Bernard Purdie, the drummer in this Steely Dan song. It features a strong contrast between loud snare hits (deep red) on beats 2 and 4 and soft snare hits (light red) — the ghost notes mentioned earlier — that complete the triplet sixteenth figures played lightly on the hihat. Note that the quarter notes in this pattern are divided into six parts (sextuplets), instead of four parts, which gives the pattern more of a swing feel. The kick drum part in this recording is a bit more complex than the notation here, which represents a simpler variant of the half-time shuffle.

Even with all these details, the basic alternation between kick and snare heard in the Beatles excerpt above is still clear in this shuffle pattern.

Play an excerpt of Home at Last.

A related example:

Led Zeppelin: Fool in the Rain (1979)

Just the drum track of Fool in the Rain (note that Bonham’s countoff corresponds to eighths in our notation, not quarters).