Perfect Sound Forever

Bo Diddley's Beat

Not Just Clave and Ring Shout
by Charles O'Neill
(August 2015)

As thousands before me have redundantly pointed out, Bo Diddley’s claim to fame is the legendary “Bo Diddley beat,” referring to the strumming pattern on his genius debut “Bo Diddley.” The pattern is almost always compared to the clave rhythm of son, the mother of all Afro-Cuban beats; Robert Palmer describes it as “three strokes, a rest, and two more strokes spread over a 4 beat measure.” It is certainly true that Bo’s drummer Clifton James is playing that exact pattern on his tom-tom, filling the gaps with quiet sixteenth notes on a snare drum with disengaged snares. It would also be foolish to deny that the clave establishes the atmosphere of the song, which is an innovation in itself: the pattern is usually played on the high-pitched clave instrument, designed to sit on top of the rest of the band, almost like an accessory. Nevertheless, reducing Bo’s guitar playing on this song to a mere fusion of the clave and rock and roll isn’t just lazy. It does a major disservice to his revolutionary rhythmic conception.

For the most part, Bo plays a variety of strumming patterns on “Bo Diddley.” In fact, he doesn’t explicitly accent the clave notes until the second measure after the first guitar interlude; everything before is a variation thereof. Considering the sonic limitations imposed by all the tremolo feedback he used, the consistency of his timing is impressive, especially considering how inconsistent his strumming patterns are. Since these were the days before metronomes, maintaining a consistent tempo was vital, especially through the rumble of the tremolo. Bo explained to his biographer George White: “It was a trip tryin’ to play with the sound disappearin’ an’ comin’ back – you get all out of step.” This disappearing and coming back is exactly why Bo’s guitar playing is so radical: before him, the guitar was used to accompany the piano, with driving bass notes on the low E string as in Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” or quick jabs on the high strings as in Billy Ward’s “Sixty Minute Man.” Indeed, Bo is not using his guitar to fill up space in his music: he is using it to create a rhythmic space, and the combination of his choppy, percussive strumming and the tremolo insures that nothing leaks into it. As he said himself: “If you listen to the stuff I’m playin’, you won’t find any gaps in there.”

It is worth noting that Bo wasn’t even trying to replicate the clave when he wrote “Bo Diddley.” In an interview with Afropop Worldwide, he explains: “I just put a drum beat on the guitar with six strings. And what I was trying to do was play Gene Autry’s `I Got Spurs, that Jingle, Jangle, Jingle’ and I stumbled up on Boom-ba-doom-ba-doom, ba-doo-doo. You know?” I bet Palmer didn’t see that coming. Yet this quote speaks volumes about both Bo’s approach to arrangement and his unique guitar playing. In White’s Living Legend, Bo explains: “I play first an’ second guitar at the same time.” The “boom” represents the first guitar, while the “ba” represents the second guitar. He is, in a sense, playing parallel to Clifton, who accents notes on the tom-tom and fills the space between the accents with sixteenth notes on his disengaged snare. There is no doubt that Bo successfully managed to turn his guitar into a percussion instrument in this song. And it goes far beyond the simple clave pattern.

Indeed, among the layers of tremolo lies “a philosophy of rhythmic orchestration,” as Palmer puts it. Many of the rhythmic qualities embedded in popular Western music today can be traced back to the ring shout, and according to Palmer, Bo “considered the shout . . . the essential source of his own music’s feeling and momentum.” In his description of the ring shout, Samuel A. Floyd, a scholar who has studied the history of black music in extreme detail, points to a few different rhythmic components within the shout. As the participants walk in a circle (counter-clockwise, mind you), they move and dance in jerking motions, and these movements are “based” by others in the group (probably with some kind of responsorial device and by hand-clapping and knee-slapping). The “thud” of the basic rhythm was continuous, without pause or hesitation.” He goes on to note that shuffling against the floor also provides additional rhythmic content . As Palmer points out, each of these carries a distinctive timbre: the “thud” represents the consistent boom-y low end, the shuffling feet on the ground contrasts with the low end to provide sonic texture, and the percussive attack of hand-clapping and knee-slapping sits on top. Arranging instruments in this way provides the full sound that Bo was seeking from the very beginning, as we’ll see in “Say Man” in a moment. Finally, there is another key similarity between Bo’s approach and the ring shout: the music is designed to make people dance. Floyd writes: “the appreciation of black music and its traits, elements, and practices depends upon our understanding these [musical] features (…) as accompaniments to and ingredients of black dance.” Similarly, Bo explains: “I like that uptempo stuff that makes people feel good. I like to play happy music.”

“Say Man” treats us to some of Bo’s finest rhythmic orchestration (and is, oddly enough, the only song of his that crossed over to the pop charts). As a whole, the song has a double-time, uptempo feel. Although they are barely audible, Clifton’s bass drum and hi-hat (which is being played on the hi-hat pedal with his left foot) provide a steady backbeat throughout the song. In fact, on the alternate version, “Say Man, Back Again,” he plays a more traditional backbeat with his bass drum and snare. The faux-backbeat on “Say Man” was surely useful for time-keeping purposes when recording the track, as all the other instruments (excluding Bo’s guitar) are executing more syncopated patterns. The bass drum is hit on every quarter note (as well as the upbeat of the fourth quarter note, adding emphasis to the end of each measure) and the hi-hat is played on the upbeat of every quarter note, providing a consistent “thud” as in the shout. The hi-hat, in this context, performs the role of a snare drum in a typical double-time drumbeat, but it is so quiet that it doesn’t provide a whole lot of high end. Setting the bass drum and hi-hat up in this fashion pretty much replicates how one would deploy samba drums, the only difference being that in the samba pattern, the bass drum plays an extra sixteenth note right before the downbeat. This setup allows the drummers to free up their hands to play more complicated patterns, which is exactly what Clifton does in this context: he lays down a pushy sixteenth-note groove on his snare and tom-tom that is arguably an expanded version of a 2/3 clave pattern (the traditional clave being the 3/2 clave, so in effect it is simply reversed). Clifton’s groove outlines the frantic sixteenth-note patterns played on the piano, which in turn weaves around his drums. In terms of rhythm and timbre, the piano’s role parallels that of a ride cymbal in Brazilian drumming. A clear example of their similarity in timbre can be heard in measures three through six of the song, where Clifton plays straight sixteenth notes on the ride (presumably to set the tempo for the rest of the song) and the piano comes in playing the rhythmic pattern that it will very loosely follow throughout the rest of the song. (It is worth noting that, according to drummer Zack Albetta in a YouTube video called Latin Drumming, Brazilian drumming allows room for improvisation with the drummer’s hands due to the stability of the bass drum and hi-hat. The piano’s varying rhythmic patterns, then, seem logical in this context, as Clifton’s drums barely vary in the song and they contain virtually no high-end besides the very quiet hi-hat). Strangely, Clifton jumps into the song playing straight sixteenth notes on the hi-hat in measure two before switching to the ride for measures three through six, abandoning the straight sixteenth notes for the snare and tom-tom groove in measure seven, which he plays throughout most of the song. This is probably because the band was, according to rock historian Richie Unterbeger, “fooling around in the studio” when they were recording this song.

We are now left with Bo, maraca player Jerome Green, and bassist Roosevelt Jackson. Jackson’s bass is so close in timbre to the bass drum and tom-tom that it is virtually inaudible, but if I’m hearing him correctly, he is playing quarter notes that match those on the bass drum, and as the song progresses, he switches to a two-note pattern where the first note is played on the upbeat of the first and third quarter note, and the second note in the pattern (which is accented) is played on the second and fourth quarter note. In essence, his bass is serving as a second drum, providing a consistent, booming sound. Unlike Jackson’s bass, Green’s dynamic maracas are loud in the mix, the only instruments surpassing him in volume being Bo and Green’s vocals. Green essentially plays three sixteenth notes repeatedly: the upbeat of each quarter note, the sixteenth note following it and then ending the pattern on the quarter note itself. Towards the end of the measure however, he tends to play straight sixteenth notes with no pauses to add emphasis, much as the bass drum does. High in pitch, the maracas provide a more stable replacement of the drummer’s right hand (usually a ride or hi-hat) than the constantly shifting piano does. The juxtaposition of the rock-solid maracas and the fluid piano result in wonderfully intricate high-end counter-rhythms that drive the song for its entirety. Palmer says of the ring shout: “handclapping patterns, high-pitched and sharply accented as opposed to the more booming drumming of the dancers’ feet, carried counter-rhythms, often at double the tempo of the dancing.” Indeed, the maracas and piano are playing fast sixteenth notes while the bass drum, tom-tom, and double bass provide the slower quarter note “thuds.” Accompanying the high-pitched maracas and piano is Bo’s guitar, whose sound is atypical for him. Indeed, usually coated in sustaining tremolo, his guitar in this instance is remarkably dry sounding, and his playing serves an almost purely rhythmic purpose. The only real variation comes when he unmutes his guitar on the upbeat of the second and fourth quarter notes, and he isn’t particularly consistent about that either. Another fascinating aspect of his guitar in this song is that it sits so low in the mix. The snare, whose timbre and percussive attack is similar to those of Bo’s muted guitar and sits slightly higher than Bo’s guitar in the mix, intensifies this effect. Rhythmically, Bo plays sixteenth notes with emphasis on the tonal change in the second and fourth upbeat. He will occasionally drop a sixteenth note at the same time as Jerome, suggesting that his guitar’s function in this song is to provide additional rhythmic content, guaranteeing a full, loud sound.

It is safe to conclude that Bo approached rhythm unlike any of his contemporaries. While Little Richard helped invent the rock and roll backbeat with his physical right hand on the piano and Chuck Berry with the aggressive and direct yet melodic guitar playing that has shown up time and time again in this music, Bo’s genius lies in his pioneering ability to fuse rhythmic and sonic novelty. As Bo proudly exclaims: “My stuff is no copy: it’s original, an’ I’m the one that was the first one doin’ it.” As recently as two years ago, when My Bloody Valentine released their long-awaited m b v, Bo’s influence is easily heard on “New You.” Not only that, Bo’s full-bodied rhythmic arrangements presage the Phil Spector-influenced production values that will permeate popular music in the not too far future. These days, producers will do everything in their power to create a full, loud, booming sound, and while they may give credit to the likes of Spector or George Martin, maybe they need to look 10 years earlier at the man who literally invented his own sound with scrap electronics, produced many of his own recordings, and implemented a sonic and rhythmic depth that is hard to rival 60 years later. That exhausted “Bo Diddley beat” is the reason why songs like the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” and Primal Scream’s “Movin’ On Up” are in my iTunes library today.

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