The steppers beat is one of the bedrock grooves in roots reggae drumming. In fact, the steppers, rockers, and one-drop beats comprise the very foundation of roots reggae music’s golden age, which spans roughly between 1975 and 1985. In this column we’re going to focus on one aspect of steppers that can really bring the groove to life: the rim click.
First let’s talk about the other two pieces of the steppers beat, the bass drum and hi-hat. Steppers rhythms are also referred to as four-on-the-floor patterns, which are grooves in which the bass drum plays solid, driving quarter notes on each beat. While the hi-hat pattern can vary, we’re going to stick with a straight 8th-note pattern so that we can concentrate on getting creative with the rim click.
As you get comfortable with these exercises, feel free to spice them up by simply adding a couple 16th notes to the end of beat 1 on the hi-hat or by throwing in an occasional 8th note on the bass drum in between the four-on-the-floor pattern. One of the things that I love most about the steppers beat is its tough, militant feel. And with the pulsating bass drum, you can create some very cool interplay between the kick and the rim click.
We’ll start with a pretty standard pattern that drops the rim click on beat 3 of each measure, but throws in a couple of 8th notes to give it a push-pull effect. The bass drum is pushing, but the 8th notes on the “&” of beat 4 in measure 1 and beat 1 in measure 2 give it some of the interplay that I referred to previously.
This next example explores a great groove inspired by one of the steppers masters, Sly Dunbar. His sound and precision represent the hallmarks of this style of drumming. This rim click pattern plays a 3:2 clave with a slight variation on the last note. In a traditional 3:2 son clave pattern, the last note would fall on beat 3 of the second measure. This pattern moves the last note to the “&” of beat 3, giving it kind of a cyclical feel. You can hear Sly play this beat on the Black Uhuru tune “Plastic Smile,” starting around the 0:20 mark.
This next pattern builds on Exercise 1 by adding 8th notes on the “&” of beat 3 in both measures. Again, notice the interesting combinations created between the rim click and bass drum by simply adding a few 8th notes.
For this next example we’ll drop some 16th notes into the mix in the first measure. These figures give this groove a different flavor. I learned this pattern from a rare recording of Liberation Group’s song “Namibia,” which can be found on the compilations Studio One Scorcher and Studio One Muzik City. Liberation Group was one of the names used for the house band of Studio One, a prominent reggae record label and studio in Kingston, Jamaica.
It’s very important to keep the 8th notes on the hi-hat nice and steady while the rim click pattern weaves between them. This beat’s circular African drumming vibe is a lot of fun to play.
In the first four examples, the rim click pattern unfolded over two measures. In the next two grooves, we’re going to cut its length in half so that the entire pattern will be one measure long. These shorter phrases obviously have fewer notes, so you can trance out on them more easily.
This next pattern incorporates the 16th-note figure that we played in Exercise 4. You might recognize this rim click pattern as a 2:3 son clave, which works well in this context.
I play these last two examples in the tune “Hard Man Fe Dead” from the album Fireflies, the most recent release by my band John Brown’s Body. This track is a good example of an up-tempo steppers beat. The majority of the tune features a two-bar pattern. What I really like about this beat is the way the rim click pattern syncs up with the rhythm of the lead vocals in the chorus. Little subtleties like this are important in reggae drumming and can add a unique element to a song. (140 bpm.)
I play this final example during the song’s outro; it gives it a double-time feel that sends the tune out on a high note with an extra shot of energy. This is a repetitive two-beat pattern, but I’m writing it out as a one-bar pattern for consistency. Start slowly on this one, and work it up to speed while keeping the 16th notes crisp.
These examples represent a variety of approaches to the steppers beat. They’re practical, and most importantly, a lot of fun to play. Once you’re comfortable with these, create your own patterns of varying lengths. Another idea is to take one or two of the notes in these patterns and move the rim click to a tom or the snare, or move the hi-hat to the ride cymbal. There are so many rhythmic possibilities you can use to create a memorable beat using the rim click over the groove’s signature, driving bass drum pattern. Step it up, and have fun!
Essential Steppers Beats
Black Uhuru “Plastic Smile” (Sly Dunbar)
Keith Hudson “Rasta Country” (Eric “Fish” Clarke)
Sugar Minott “Mr. Fisherman” (Sly Dunbar)
Bob Marley and the Wailers “Exodus” (Carlton “Carly” Barrett)
Tapper Zukie “M.P.L.A.” (Sly Dunbar)
Tommy Benedetti is a Boston-based drummer and one of the founding members of the reggae band John Brown’s Body. He has recorded eleven records and toured internationally with JBB since 1998. Tommy also performs regularly throughout New England with Dub Apocalypse and Organically Good Trio. He endorses Walberg & Auge, Vater, and Evans products.