Drum patterns and exercises

In keeping with the constructivist value of working with authentic cultural materials, the exercises in the Drum Loop are based on rhythms drawn from actual dance music. Most of the patterns are breakbeats—drums and percussion sampled from funk, rock and soul recordings that have been widely repurposed in electronic dance and hip-hop music. There are also generic rock, pop and dance rhythms, as well as an assortment of traditional Afro-Cuban patterns.

In each exercise, the users are presented with a pattern. They may alter this pattern as they see fit by adding and removing drum hits, and by rotating instrument parts within their respective rings. There are restraints of various kinds, to ensure that the results are appealing and musical-sounding. The restraints are tighter for more basic exercises, and looser for more advanced ones. For most exercises, the learning value is in the user’s engagement with an influential or historic rhythm, and in the springboard for creativity that it provides. But in some instances, there is an additional pedagogical motivation, which is specified in the exercise description.

All descriptions of the following patterns are given in cut time. Unless otherwise specified, each pattern is sixteen steps long, two measures of cut time.

Classic Breakbeats

The cultural richness of hip-hop and dance beats lies not just in the rhythms themselves, but in their broader musical context. By tracing a breakbeat through the various songs that sample it, one can glimpse a small lineage within the broader musical genome. The web site WhoSampled.com is a crowdsourced repository of samples, interpolations and covers. It is possible to trace a sample through several generations of re-use and quotation.

What constitutes a “classic” breakbeat? I used two criteria: frequency with which the break has been sampled, signifying cultural significance, and musical distinctiveness, to give a diverse array of examples. The top ten most sampled breakbeats appearing in commercial recordings, according to Whosampled.com, are:

  1. “Impeach the President” by the Honey Drippers (1973)
  2. “Funky Drummer” by James Brown (1970)
  3. “Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss (1973)
  4. “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons (1969)
  5. “It’s a New Day” by Skull Snaps (1973)
  6. “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band (1973)
  7. “Papa Was Too” by Joe Tex (1966)
  8. “Hihache” by the Lafayette Afro Rock Band (1973)
  9. “The Big Beat” by Billy Squier (1980)
  10. “Ashley’s Roachclip” by The Soul Searchers (1971)

There is some musical redundancy in this list. For example, “Synthetic Substitution,” “It’s a New Day” and “Hihache” are all nearly identical patterns. So I chose to supplement the top ten with other well-known breakbeats in a broader variety of styles.

The Funky Drummer

“The Funky Drummer Parts One And Two” by James Brown and the JBs is one of the most-sampled recordings in history. It takes the form of open-ended groove, with extended solos traded back and forth between James Brown on organ and Maceo Parker on tenor saxophone. Four and a half minutes into the recording, James Brown tells the band: “Fellas, one more time I want to give the drummer some of this funky soul we got going here.” He tells drummer Clyde Stubblefield, “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got… Don’t turn it loose, ’cause it’s a mother.”

Though he was only eighteen years old at the time of the “Funky Drummer” session, Clyde Stubblefield was already a master drummer. On the recording, James Brown tells him not to cut loose and solo because it might break up the groove and let all the air out of the balloon. So when his cue comes, Stubblefield continues to play the main rhythm pattern, with more emphasis but not a lot of variation. James Brown does a short rap over the beat and then counts the band back into the original vamp. While the band plays, he names the tune on the spot:

The name of this tune is The Funky Drummer
The Funky Drummer
The Funky Drummer
The Funky Drummer
The Funky Drummer
The Funky Drummer

The Funky Drummer drum break was much-loved by the first generation of hip-hop producers. They sampled it enthusiastically and repeatedly. In 1986, Polydor capitalized on James Brown’s new-found cachet and released In The Jungle Groove, a compilation record of the hard-edged, open-ended funk grooves preferred by hip-hop listeners. This compilation was the first album release of “The Funky Drummer Parts One And Two.” It also included a remix called the “Funky Drummer Bonus Beat Reprise,” the Clyde Stubblefield drum break looped for three minutes with samples of James Brown’s raps overlaid periodically.

The Funky Drummer break has been sampled in thousands of tracks, from hip- hop to pop to rock to every flavor of electronica. James Brown even sampled it himself, on “She Looks All Types A’ Good.” Public Enemy used the break on seven different tracks, and they refer to it by name in opening lines of “Fight The Power.”

1989, the number, another summer
Sound of the Funky Drummer

Stewart (2000) traces James Brown’s rhythmic style to three major sources: African and Caribbean culture as filtered through New Orleans; a style of gospel singing and clapping known as “rocking and reeling;” and bluegrass and string band music. The Funky Drummer template is a cornerstone of hip-hop and many other American dance styles: a phrase beginning with an eighth-note/eighth-note/quarter-note figure (“boom-boom-cha”) that then becomes more varied and syncopated (Greenwald 2002). While the bass drum states the pulse in most dance music, in hip-hop, it does so only rarely. Instead, after sounding the first downbeat in each hypermeasure, the bass drum often falls into a sparse syncopated pattern. The snare drum is most often placed on the backbeats, along with additional weak beats.

Funky Drummer lesson

Exercise: the pattern is given, and steps one through five (the “boom-boom-cha”) are locked. Users are free to alter the rest of the pattern as they see fit. The pedagogical goal is to demonstrate the versatility of the Funky Drummer template: a simple boom-boom- cha beginning followed by a more complex or unpredictable response.

Take Me to the Mardi Gras (Agogô)

Bob James‘ instrumental version of Paul Simon’s song “Take Me to Mardi Gras” has a distinctive opening: a funk beat played on drum kit, an African bell pattern and samples of radio chatter and static. This introduction has been sampled in hundreds of hip-hop songs. Its most iconic usage is in “Peter Piper” by Run-DMC, which was itself sampled in “Work It” by Missy Elliott. The bell pattern is an example of Agogô, from a Yoruba word meaning gong or bell. Agogô spread from West Africa to America via the Caribbean, where it also became one of the foundational sounds of samba.

Mardi Gras lesson

Exercise: The pattern is given. The kick, snare and hi-hat are locked. The user is free to alter the bell pattern and hi-hats, and to add rim and ride cymbal. This is in contrast to the Afro-Cuban exercises described below, where the bell patterns are locked and the user is free to create rhythms around them.

Impeach the President

The opening seconds of “Impeach The President” by the Honey Drippers have become the most sampled breakbeat in the world. Shields (2010) claims that about one hip-hop song in five samples “Impeach The President.” That seems improbable, but according to Whosampled.com, the break has verifiably been sampled on at least one commercially released recording every year since 1987. Examples include:

  • Audio Two – “Top Billin’” (which was, in turn, sampled in “Real Love” by Mary J Blige)
  • De la Soul – “Ring Ring Ring (Hey Hey Hey)”
  • Digable Planets – “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”
  • Eric B and Rakim – “Move the Crowd”
  • Nas – “I Can”
  • Nice & Smooth – “Funky for You”
  • Notorious B.I.G. – “Ready to Die” and “Unbelievable”
  • Slick Rick – “It’s a Boy”
  • Wu-Tang Clan – “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ to F**k Wit’”


Impeach the President lesson

Exercise: the pattern is given. The two most distinctive features of the rhythm, the slightly asymmetric kick drum pattern and the open hi-hat accent, are locked. The user is free to create new patterns around them.

Cold Sweat

“Cold Sweat” by James Brown is a cornerstone both of hip-hop and more uptempo breakbeat-based music like drum n bass. On James Brown’s album of the same name, “Cold Sweat” sits alongside jazz standards like “Nature Boy” and run-of- the-mill blues and R&B. Compared to those more traditional songs, “Cold Sweat” sounds like it belongs in another era entirely. It has a radically simple two-chord structure and an African-influenced intricacy to its rhythmic groove, making it sound quite fresh more than thirty years later.

“Cold Sweat” has been a particularly rich source of inspiration for Public Enemy, who sample it on “How to Kill a Radio Consultant,” “Prophets of Rage” and “Welcome To The Terrordome.” The latter track has itself been sampled and quoted many times, by KRS-One, Non Phixion and Ice Cube, among others. Mongo Santamaria’s cover version of “Cold Sweat” spawned a much-sampled breakbeat of its own.

Cold Sweat lesson

Exercise: the pattern is given, and the driving quarter-note ride cymbal pattern is locked. The user must find rhythms within the constraint of the single-bar pattern and with its quarter-note pulse.

When The Levee Breaks

John Bonham’s drum intro from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” is irresistible to samplers for its stately grandeur and its arrestingly strange timbre. The song was recorded by engineer Andy Johns in Headley Grange, a Victorian-era poorhouse in England. Bonham’s drum kit was placed at the bottom of a large stairwell, and the microphones were placed at the top of the stairs three stories above. The stairwell created a huge natural reverb. The tape was then slowed slightly, lowering the pitch and giving the sound a thick, sludgy quality.

The Levee break is popular in hip-hop not just for its timbre, but for its kick drum pattern. While a typical rock beat has a kick on every downbeat, the Levee break anticipates its second kick to the and of four, giving it a syncopated funk feel. Outside of hip-hop, high-profile uses of the Levee break include “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” by Sophie B Hawkins and “Army Of Me” by Björk.

When the Levee Breaks lesson

Exercise: The pattern is given. The kicks on the downbeat and the and four are locked. The user must create a pattern that matches this asymmetry.

Genre templates

The central animating philosophy of the Drum Loop is to use real-world musical examples rather than artificially contrived ones. Nevertheless, there is some value in exploring generic examples of various major rhythm styles.

Basic rock

Rock beats are typically less rhythmically complex than dance or hip-hop. The vast majority of rock drum patterns feature kicks on each downbeat and snares on the backbeats. Aside from the backbeats, syncopation is limited to embellishments, or is entirely absent. Two conspicuous exceptions are found in “The Big Beat” by Billy Squier, which features a prominent kick drum anticipating the first backbeat, and “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, in which the kick anticipates the second backbeat rather than hitting it squarely. It is no accident that these two patterns are staple hip-hop samples, and they are addressed in other exercises. Here the purpose is to engage a more standard rock rhythm.

Basic rock lesson

Exercise: The kick and snare are locked on the downbeats and backbeats respectively. There are unlocked closed hi-hats on each quarter note. The user is free to alter the hi- hat pattern and the unlocked kicks, and to layer on other drum hits.

Basic hip-hop

Like rock, hip-hop beats are anchored by snare backbeats. Also like rock, there are typically closed hi-hats on the strong beats (or on every beat.) However, unlike rock, hip-hop kick patterns are highly syncopated after the initial downbeat. In fact, the kick is almost never found on the second downbeat in hip-hop beats.

Basic hip-hop lesson

Exercise: There is a locked kick on the first downbeat and locked snares on each backbeat. There are also unlocked closed hi-hats on the quarter notes and unlocked kicks playing syncopated accents. Users are free to change any of these; however, a popup text box encourages them to leave the kick off the second downbeat.

Four on the floor

Disco, house, techno and a great many other dance styles are based on a “four on the floor” kick drum pattern, with kicks on all downbeats and backbeats. There may be snares or claps on the backbeats, but unlike in rock or hip-hop, these are optional. Closed hi-hats often appear on beats two and four of each measure, with further syncopation being commonplace. “Four on the floor” patterns are essentially defined by the tension between the kicks on the strongest beats and higher-pitched sounds on the weaker beats.

Four on the floor lesson

Exercise: There are locked kicks on the downbeats and backbeats, the “four on the floor” pattern . There are unlocked snares, claps and hi-hats filling out a typical house beat. The user is free add additional kicks, and to add or remove the other instruments, guaranteeing a result that is within the dance idiom.

Afro-Cuban exercises

American popular music is saturated with Afro-Cuban rhythms, though we are frequently unaware of them. We may describe a piece of music as having a “Latin” or “tribal” feel, or we may simply unconsciously enjoy the extra syncopational richness. The Drum Loop includes six African and Latin American rhythms identified by Toussaint (2013) as “fundamental.” When viewed in circular representations, these six patterns share an interesting property: the pairwise sums of their “geodesics” (distances between beats) are all equal (Demaine, Gomez-Martin, Meijer, Rappaport, Taslakian, Toussaint, Winograd & Wood 2009).

Maximally even rhythms

For the first three exercises, the rim pattern playing the clave is locked, as is the kick on the first downbeat.

Son clave lesson

Rumba lesson

Bossa Nova lesson

For the other three exercises, the locked clave pattern is played on bells.

Soukous lesson

Gahu lesson

Compositional challenges

While the Drum Loop mostly adheres to the constructivist principle of working with authentic cultural artifacts, there are a few more abstract compositional exercises included as well. These are intended to serve more as “icebreakers” than as carrying any specific pedagogical or cultural content. Users who feel uncomfortable or uninspired working with the existing patterns may be liberated by the more abstract givens and constraints of these exercises.

Subtractive rhythm

Inspired by Ruthmann’s notion of carving from a “sound block” (2012), every beat is initially activated. Needless to say, this sounds terrible. Deleting the “wrong” notes can be easier than identifying the “right” ones. This exercise also communicates the idea that silences are not simply the absence of sound, but rather are crucial rhythmic elements in their own right.

Subtractive rhythm

Exercise: Create a rhythm by removing drum hits only.

The sound of silence (The Big Beat)

Beginner drum programmers have a natural tendency to want to make their beats more “interesting” by filling all of the available space with activity. It is a counterintuitive truth that simpler, less busy rhythms can be more attention-grabbing and compelling. Silences create anticipation and encourage the listener to imaginatively fill in the gaps, thus engaging them more actively with the beat. Some of the most effective patterns are composed mostly of silence. “The Big Beat” by Billy Squier is a classic example.

Sound of silence (The Big Beat)

Exercise: The Big Beat pattern is given. Any hit can be turned on or off; however, no more than half the wedges can contain a drum hit at any one time.

Monophonic rhythm

Over the course of implementing the iOS app, we have encountered some unexpected behaviors. While these have been mostly undesired, they sometimes stimulate new ideas. For example, while Christopher was able to make the app play monophonic sound quite effortlessly, polyphony turned out to be significantly more difficult. As a result, there was an extended period when the app could only play one drum sound at a time. While working to resolve this problem, Christopher created a series of monophonic drum loops, and these loops invariably sounded highly musical. This inspired me to create a new programming exercise: the user creates a monophonic loop in which no more than one sound plays in each wedge. Adding a sound to any wedge would automatically disable all of the other slots in that wedge. As with the previous exercise, it reminds users that an economy of musical material can give the most compelling results.

Monophonic rhythm

Exercise: A monophonic pattern is given. The user may alter it freely, but each wedge can contain no more than one drum sound at a time. A more advanced exercise for future addition: constrain the user to use each sound exactly once.

Random rhythm

This challenge is simple: aside from a kick on the first downbeat, the grid is filled at random. The user must make musical sense of the result.

Random rhythm

Exercise: The user adds or subtracts beats at will. In most exercises, the Reset button restores the pattern to its initial state; in this one, the Reset button generates a new random pattern.

2 thoughts on “Drum patterns and exercises

Leave a Reply