Rocking Rhythm Guitar: The Roots of Rock’s Rhythmic Foundation

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If you wanna rock, you’ve gotta know how to boogie.

The boogie rhythm is about as essential an element of rock music as there is. Devised at the dawn of the 20th century by a group of great black American pianists, it was eventually adapted to the guitar and formed the core of early rock and roll in the 1950s. For more than half a century, it’s proved to be remarkably adaptable, propelling glam rock, punk, metal and a dozen other subgenres

Basic boogie (or boogie-woogie, as it was originally called) is all about the establishment of an ostinato, a short pattern that repeats over and over. Harmonically, it’s based around root-5th power chords, but the 5th (E in the key of A) regularly alternates with the 6th (F# in A), giving the pattern a sense of momentum. Rhythmically, the boogie ostinato divides a bar of 4/4 into eight pulses, but those pulses aren’t even. Instead, they roughly correspond to a dotted eighth note followed by a 16th note, with the implication of a swing-triplet feel

Once guitarists got hold of the boogie rhythm, they took it in two very different directions. The first, exemplified by John Lee Hooker, dispenses with the harmonic motion between the 5th and the 6th, and emphasizes the off beats, almost completely erasing the “one.” The second, employed by Chuck Berry, keeps the harmonic motion and makes the eighth-note rhythm straighter, creating a chugging effect. From these two points, boogie has continued to evolve, as we’ll see in the following examples, all of which follow a simple I-IV-I progression in A.

FIGURE 1 replicates on guitar the kind of ostinato you’d hear from boogie-woogie piano players like Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. Note the triplet feel and the way that the 4th (D) and major 3rd (C#) of the tonic chord are briefly tossed in to fill out the harmony.

Though piano-derived, this ostinato is also common in guitar-based music—for example, Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”

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That harmony is simplified considerably in FIGURE 2, a John Lee Hooker–style pattern that never specifies a 3rd of any sort. The rhythmic feel of the previous example—where the emphasis was squarely on each “on” beat of the bar—is gone, and in its place is a far greater accentuation of the “and” beats, shadowed by pick strokes (denoted by the Xs) that are purely percussive.

Pick down on the bass notes and up for everything else. Consult the John Lee Hooker catalog or ZZ Top’s “La Grange” for more insight.

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With FIGURE 3, based on Chuck Berry’s classic rhythm style (which was itself based on the boogie-woogie figures of Berry’s pianist, Johnnie Johnson), we arrive at a sound that is indisputably rock and roll. The eighth-note ostinato is more even than the first two examples, and the introductory slide into each chord adds punch. There’s still no 3rd to be found anywhere, but check out the implied melody in bar 3, moving from E to F# to G and back again.

By contrast, this is all downstrokes. Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty Eight hits collection or the Beatles “I Saw Her Standing There” can be your guide here.

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From Berry, it’s only a quick jump to the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, whose own distinctive approach to boogie informs FIGURE 4. The chordal harmony quickly hinted at in FIGURE 1 takes center stage here, as the alternation between the 5th and 6th of each chord is paralleled by movement between the major 3rd and 4th.

You can alternate-strum these chords if you like. For further reference, check out Aerosmith, the New York Dolls, and the Stones’ Exile on Main Street.

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As rock got heavier in the late Sixties and early Seventies, chords were often de-emphasized in favor of riffs. FIGURE 5 is a good example of how a (mostly) single-note line can maintain the boogie feel. Essentially, it’s the same ostinato as in FIGURE 3 but with more notes and the addition—for the first time—of something a piano can’t do: bending!

Riffs similar to this abound in the music of Led Zeppelin, T. Rex, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses and on into the present.

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