The Rhythm Section: The beat to your feet and bass in its place
It has been said that three fundamental things are needed to make good time music. Those are rhythm, bass and melody. Melodies are the part people find themselves idly whistling, but a song is more than just the melody. That whistled hook couldn’t have stuck had there been no groove, no rhythm. Here we take look at the foundation to those melodies.
Behind the singer and to the side of the lead guitar player is the rhythm section. In its smallest form a duo of Bass and Drums, often expanded to include a Rhythm Guitar Player and/or Keyboards.
Occasionally the section will be enlarged further with a percussionist or other rhythmic instrumentalist.
As the pumping heart of any band, keeping tempo and groove with empathy and at the singers’ whim the Rhythm Section must be well balanced and know each others musicality intuitively. This comes with mutually shared experience of hours of session time over a multitude of projects. All of the worlds’ most successful Rhythm Sections have performed and recorded together over decades making them tight and sharp requiring only a subtle nod or wink to take a running groove to a new place.
‘Break it down!’
The Bass Player: Keeping the bass in its place
“Its only got four strings, how difficult can it be?”
Often forgotten and maligned, without the bass player some of the worlds’ most famous songs, grooves and samples simply wouldn’t exist. Imagine Queens’ ‘Another one bites the dust ‘ without that insistent hypnotic bass intro or missing that fat bass groove on Chics’ ‘Good times’ famously sampled for Sugar Hill Gangs’ ‘Rappers delight’.
It is the bass players job to place the bottom end of the rhythm with the correct accent, pushed, straight or pulled on the correct beat in conjunction with the drummers kick drum and snare drum pattern. Bass players can often be seen staring at the kick side of a drummers kick drum, ensuring the bass note lands perfectly with the beat. Its not just about when the note starts, its also about when the bass-note finishes.
Take a listen to any good Dub Reggae record like ‘King Tubby meets the Rockers Uptown’ as a reference. Words like, solid punchy and fat are used when discussing what a Bass Player does but the bass is not just rhythmic however. It is simultaneously melodic or more precisely counter-melodic, running in unison or in harmony lending a depth and energy. The bass is in essence the bridge between melody and rhythm.
The Drummer: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4
There are many jokes and pointed one-liners directed at Drummers.
“What do you call a Drummer without a girlfriend? Homeless”. They turn up with all that kit, take up most of the stage with their scaffold like construction and are just loud. Loud true, but also an entirely essential ingredient in a groove.
Take a listen to ‘Cissy Strut’ by legendary New Orleans band The Meters. Drummer Zigaboo Modeliste pulls off the trick of appearing to do next to nothing, giving the illusion of just lazily falling between kick, snare and hi-hat. The very opposite is true, that opening riff is tight, so tight its like the masterfully sparse notes of bass player George Porter Jnr. are surgically sewn onto Modelistes’ kick drum allowing abundant breathing space for that million-times-sampled snare and hi-hat groove.
The opening bars of The Rolling Stones’ ‘ Honky Tonk Woman are a plainly sublime example of drum groove, even before Keith Richards idiosyncratic guitar riff comes in the rhythm is all there in evidence. Charlie Watts nails the groove and indeed sets the mood for the entire song with a simple 4 bar cowbell / kick / snare riff.
The Rhythm Section: A Team Game
Two US names synonymous with the infectious grooves of 60s soul, are Motown and Stax, from Detroit, Michigan and Memphis Tennessee respectively. Both record labels sold millions of records around the world sung by a myriad of artists. Both had house-bands, regular musicians on a daily rate, resident in the studio awaiting the next singer. Motown had ‘The Funk Brothers’, Stax had Booker. T and the MGs.
All those hits, still popular today on T.V radio and film all feature a remarkably small number of musicians. According to legend, in the 13 years of its existence the original Motown studio house band used only three different Bass Players and two Drummers over all of its thousands of recordings.
These players worked day-in day-out together in the same studio becoming tighter with every note and beat and it shows. Their testament today is filled dance-floors all over the world moving to the irresistible grooves they made.
Perhaps one of the worlds’ most famous rhythm sections are Jamaicans, Drummer Sly Dunbar and Bass Player Robbie Shakespeare more commonly known as Sly and Robbie. Since the mid-70s their stand-alone grooves have made hits for reggae and pop artists alike. Watching video of Sly and Robbie in their element on stage as the ‘riddim’ for Black Uhuru it is easy to believe that their intricately laced drums and bass come from one singular source. It is probable that when these two musicians are together they breathe in the same moment and finish each others’ sentences.
Like a well oiled machine
To use metaphor a rhythm section are the engine, clutch and gearbox to the other band members steering column and pretty facia. Without a solid rhythm and bass a melody can be left in a tempo-less acapella void. Its not easy to whistle a void.
Written by: R. Vee – 2018
Artists and music referenced in this article:
Queen ‘Another one bites the dust’ Live in concert
Chic ‘Good times’ Live at Glastonbury
Sugar Hill Gang ‘Rappers Delight’ Official video
Augustus Pablo ‘King tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown’
The Meters ‘Cissy Strut’
The Funk Brothers Live
Booker T and the MGs ‘Green Onions’
Sly and Robbie live with Black Uhuru