Rhythm Workshop: A Brief History of Early Rock & Roll

Some say the blues had a baby and they called it rock ’n’ roll, but it takes at least two to tango.
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Some say the blues had a baby and they called it rock ’n’ roll, but it takes at least two to tango. Early rock and roll—played on amplified electric guitars from its inception—was a generational crosspollination of not only country and blues elements, but swing and Latin rhythms as well.

For instance, forefather Chuck Berry borrowed rhythms and phrasing equally from country, big band, and blues styles, but, ironically, he became best known for the straight-eighth, barrelhouse/boogiewoogie style spotlighted in Ex. 1.

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The infamous “Bo Diddley Beat” illustrated in Ex. 2 is itself an adaptation of a long/short Latin clave rhythm that had already been modified and ingrained in American culture as “shave and a haircut, two bits” by the time Bo had made it famous in hits like “Hey! Bo Diddley.” Mr. Diddley preferred his F chord with a capo at the first fret and a touch of amp tremolo. (Tip: Add as many eighth-or sixteenth-note muted string “chicks” as you like.)

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There has probably never been a clearer melding of country and blues than the Elvis Presley/Scotty Moore collaboration on the King’s “Mystery Train.” Moore made rockabilly history with moves like those in the next four examples, which adapt the alternating-bass fingerstyle made famous by Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Ex. 3a utilizes an E-E6 movement, while Ex. 3b reverses their order. Ex. 3c adds a hammered 3 (G#) and barred A/E fragment in place of E6 and E. The last variation, Ex. 3d, is also the trickiest. Here, the third-less E chord on beat two is spread across four strings, and we hammer on the 6 (C#) while simultaneously thumbing the E bass note on beat four. You can also play these examples with your pick and middle finger. When you’re ready, transpose them up the fingerboard to A at the 5th fret and B at the 7th fret to cover the IV and V chords, and formulate an entire 12-bar blues progression. (Tip: Add a splash of slap delay.)

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Single notes provided another platform for early rock and roll rhythm figures. Ex. 4a shows a root-3-5-6 riff (E-G#-B-C#) that would feel right at home dropped into an Eddie Cochran song like “Twenty Flight Rock,” while Ex. 4b adds two more notes—a b3 (G) passing tone, plus an extra B. With its added F# and octave E, straight eighths, and slower tempo, Ex. 4c could easily pass for the unison guitar/bass riff from the Temptations’ “My Girl.”

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Finally, Ex. 5 splits a left-and right-hand boogie-woogie piano figure into two complimentary guitar parts. Guitar 1 handles the bass line, while Guitar 2 punctuates staccato E6 I-chords on both the and of beat one and on beat three. Kick on some slap, and go cat, go!

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