The Fusion Legend’s Take on a Steely Dan Classic

If you’re not familiar with the Steely Dan album Alive in America, I’d highly encourage you to get a copy. The release, which was recorded during the group’s 1993 and 1994 tours, features two modern drumming legends: Dennis Chambers and Peter Erskine. In this lesson, we’ll focus on variations of a groove that Chambers plays on the song “Babylon Sisters.”

The Dennis Idea

Chambers mostly plays a classic half-time (or “Purdie”) shuffle throughout “Babylon Sisters.” But if you listen to the recording carefully around the 1:12 mark, you’ll hear a cool little 16th- note phrase, which sparked my interest. Here’s a transcription of this figure.

Babylon Sisters 1

Chambers uses a 16th-note double stroke on the snare to create an interesting push in the groove. To build on that, I figured that we could also play this idea as 16th-note triplets, as demonstrated in Exercise 2.

Babylon Sisters 2

Developing Precision

To play both of these ideas correctly, you have to be very precise with each note’s placement. I created the following exercises to help develop that phrasing. Be especially careful with how you phrase the 16th notes and the 16th-note triplets. They have to sound different, even though they’re closely related.

Developing Precision 1

Next, I practiced those rhythms while adding a bass drum on the last triplet partial of every beat. Again, be very precise about how you line up the notes on the bass drum and hi-hat.

Developing Precision 2

Varying the Main Groove

Now that you’re more comfortable with these new ideas, let’s insert them into the main half-time shuffle groove. This creates some cool variations that you can use at various opportunities when you’re grooving your way through
the pattern.

Let’s try this figure on the first beat.

Varying Main Groove 1

And now we’ll play it on beat 2.

Varying Main Beat 2

And finally let’s move the phrase to the third beat.

Varying Main Beat 3

Once you’ve made your way through all the variations, play them along to the Alive in America version of “Babylon Sisters” while trying to match Chambers’ feel. This will work wonders for your groove playing, note placement, and precision. I also suggest that you check out the rest of the record, as there are plenty of other rhythms from both Chambers and Erskine that will make your jaw drop to the floor. Have fun practicing!

Daniel Bédard is a Montreal-based drummer, educator, and clinician. For more information, visit