In this new series we’ll be taking a close look at some of the most influential, practical, and essential drum grooves of all time, studying a pattern’s history and learning how to play it step-by-step.
If you’re serious about getting better at your craft, there’s no better way to improve your marketability than by expanding your knowledge of musical styles. It’s all about being able to answer “yes” when someone asks if you can cover a certain style. In many cases, it’s not that the grooves are difficult to play—it simply comes down to knowing how to play them.
In keeping with the theme of this month’s issue, let’s dive in to a classic disco beat, which was all the rage in the late ’70s. Even rockers like the Rolling Stones, Kiss, and Rod Stewart explored this style. But what was it about disco music that made people want to dance? The answer is the bass drum.
The classic disco beat has lured audiences on to the dance floor since the big band era, and it remains a staple in modern pop and dance music, among other styles. It uses what drummers refer to as a four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern. This simply means that the bass drum plays on every quarter note, as notated in Exercise 1.
In This Lesson
What’s a four-on-the-floor drum pattern?
What are offbeat hi-hat openings?
Which songs feature classic disco grooves?
Another characteristic unique to disco grooves is an offbeat hi-hat pattern, which typically opens on the “&” of every beat. Let’s try it.
While putting the bass drum and hi-hat patterns together, note that your bass drum and hi-hat feet play in unison. Let’s isolate the feet.
Next let’s combine the open hi-hat pattern and the bass drum. Alternate between two measures of the isolated foot pattern followed by two bars that add the open hi-hat phrase.
Next we’ll incorporate the snare. It’s notable that the four-on-the-floor pattern was used in disco without the hi-hat opening on the “&” of each beat. On Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (which was co-written by the singer’s drummer at the time, Carmine Appice), the following groove appears throughout most of the song.
During the saxophone solo after the bridge, Appice opens the hi-hat on the “&” of each beat. By 1978, the year this track was released, this pattern had become the standard disco beat.
You can hear heavy doses of the disco groove in songs like Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” which features the drumming of James Gadson and won a Grammy for best female R&B performance in 1978. The tune opens with a rubato intro before jumping into the groove. Gloria Gaynor also followed this formula with her smash hit “I Will Survive,” which features Gadson as well.
If you listen closely to these grooves, you can hear a clear accent on each hi-hat opening. To practice this, isolate the hi-hat and bass drum. Notice that the quarter-note bass drum pattern and the hi-hat accents cause the hi-hat hand and feet to play opposite each other, so spend some time getting comfortable with the coordination.
As you put this groove together, start slowly and practice with a click. If you have my book Survival Guide for the Modern Drummer, you can use tracks 88 (80 bpm) and 57 (116 bpm).
Finally, let’s add a simple but effective fill that can be used to frame the musical sections of any disco tune. When playing pop music, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you play a fill. Sometimes the simplest fills are best.
See you next time!
Disco Drumming: The Essential Tracks
James Gadson on Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”
Steve Gadd on Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony’s “The Hustle”
Carmine Appice on Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”
Clem Burke on Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”
Anton Fig on Kiss’s “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”
Jim Riley is the drummer and bandleader for Rascal Flatts. His book Survival Guide for the Modern Drummer is available from Alfred Music. For more information, visit jimrileymusic.com.