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What’s the Key to Creating the Tightest Rhythm Section Imaginable? Listen to the Greats.

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Many techniques and resources help you deepen your rhythmic skill set, and there’s no better classroom in which to learn the art of groove than on stages in front of audiences (and beside experienced rhythm section masters). But the second-best classroom might be inside your own headphones! Take a listen to some of these classic rhythm section players and see how they worked together to create legendary grooves.

[The third best classroom could be online! If you’d like to dive deeper, our upcoming series of free online courses, Writing for the Modern Rhythm Section, breaks down the essential writing and performing elements of all kinds of grooves for bass and drums. Sign up for our newsletter to be alerted when the course launches!]

We chose examples that have been influential on generations of rhythm section players, but there are of course plenty of great contemporary rhythm sections out there, as well.

Feel free to share your favorites in the comments below!

James Brown (with the JBs) — “The Big Payback” (1973)

There’s a notable three-way call and response among the bassist and two guitarists in the introduction, but take a closer listen to the two guitars starting at 0:39 when the main groove starts.

Notice how the guitar in the left speaker leaves beats three and four mostly empty every other bar. The wah guitar in the right speaker inserts a phrase on only those two beats, creating an infectious call and response.

The guitars almost never play at the same time. Instead, their consistent parts leave spaces, or “sockets” for each other to fill.

Next, pay attention to how aggressive, yet funky and danceable, the bass and drum hookup is and to how simple these parts actually are. These musicians create an extremely propulsive, locked-in dance groove precisely because they’re not seizing every opportunity for a fill.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Holding It Down: Some of the Best Rhythm Sections Ever”

Patsy Cline (with the Nashville A-Team) — “She’s Got You” (1962)

On this archetypal Nashville A-Team recording, pianist Hargus Robbins fills the space between each vocal phrase and is largely static when the vocal moves. Note how his wistfully lazy delivery seems to reflect the heartbreak and hopelessness the lyrics themselves convey.

Bob Moore’s upright bass (doubled by a six-string baritone “tic-tac bass” for the benefit of AM radio) is minimal and anchor-solid with a huge sound and authoritative stomp. But he plays a more active, blues-informed part on the middle eight, with guitarist Grady Martin also switching from straight backbeats to a more active, syncopated figure that underscores the song’s 6/8 meter.

This creates a contrast that effectively differentiates the bridge from the A sections. This recording is a great example of every part serving a distinct purpose and serving the song. It’s a beacon of both taste and restraint.

Dusty Springfield (with 827 Thomas Street Band) — “Son of a Preacher Man” (1969)

On “Son of a Preacher Man,” Tommy Cogbill’s bass is both active and virtuosic without stealing the spotlight away from Dusty Springfield’s lead vocal. He positions his busiest phrases as responses to her vocals, never competing with them.

There’s also a nice call and response between Cogbill and Reggie Young’s guitar in the introduction, both in the left channel. Bobby Wood’s tasteful Wurlitzer pads are subtle yet supportive. If they were gone, they’d be missed.

Now, listen to drummer Gene Chrisman’s minimal fill at 1:21 where he sets up the entrance to the bridge. Notice that he builds a bit of tension by simply omitting beat four on the snare drum, setting up the next, slightly more propulsive, fill.

This is a powerful, yet subtle, example that sometimes it’s not what you play, but what you don’t play that creates forward momentum!

On the out-chorus, right before the fade, the band (mostly Cogbill) becomes more active, and Chrisman switches to the ride cymbal’s bell, effectively building intensity.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Record pro-quality demos and songs from your bedroom studio with our free home-recording course, Demo Recording 101!

Chaka Khan — “Ain’t Nobody” (1983)

This is a shining example of how multiple similar-register instruments can consistently leave necessary space for others to operate. In the introduction, listen to how the clav-and-synth double leaves beat one entirely open.

The bass synth then steps in to play an active part only on beat one, leaving the bar’s balance to the clav to avoid collision. Despite sounding like every space is seemingly filled, a string pad manages to enter the mix and still stays out of everyone’s way!

This works for a couple of reasons. First, the synth plays in a much higher register. Second, it plays a series of long, sustained notes occurring on strong beats.

The contrast between legato and staccato, syncopated notes prevents any interference between the elements. When Chaka’s vocal enters, the bass synth stays active with no problem, because she doesn’t sing on beat one in the verse.

It’s no coincidence that the clav and synth switch to a simpler, less active part to avoid detracting from the rhythmic vocal delivery.

A pair of sustained, distorted guitars comes in on the verse’s repeat around 1:03. Like the strings in the intro, they play a sustained part emphasizing the strong downbeats.

When the chorus hits, multiple instruments provide a response to the chorus’ titular phrase in unison, getting out of the way before the next vocal phrase.

There are so many moving parts going on here — several keyboards, synth bass, guitars. They manage to avoid chaos because all the parts are well engineered to create a danceable, uncluttered whole. And most importantly, there’s still plenty of space for the vocals!

+ From the Flypaper archive: “Bill Clinton’s The Pres Blows and the Hilarious Public Response to a Legendary Jam Session”

Ahmad Jamal Trio — “But Not for Me” (1958)

Let’s start with a focus on the swinging hookup between upright bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier. Listen to how they set up contrast and build momentum by playing in a “two feel” (emphasizing beats one and three) for the melody chorus before moving to a walking “four feel” for Jamal’s solo around 1:05.

Beyond that, do you hear that space within the group dynamic? On the head in, listen to how Jamal, at the piano, leaves spaces for bassist Crosby to insert fills (and to how Crosby takes maximum advantage with logical, melodic responses).

Sam and Dave (Booker T and the MGs) — “Soul Man” (1967)

The authority of Al Jackson’s beat is underscored here by Donald Dunn’s bass. Notice how the bass part is melodic and active in the verses but statically drones a single note in the choruses. This helps shape an energy arc within the tune, even though Jackson stays on hi-hat in both sections. The cohesion between Dunn and Jackson is a result of a high level of empathy and listening to one another.

Steve Cropper’s guitar part in the verse is perfectly conceived to both create a hookup with the rest of the rhythm section, and keep the most active parts between vocal phrases. This frames the vocalists while leaving them space to operate.

The horns are honorary rhythm-section members, as their punchy stabs find a tiny hole within Cropper’s riff in which to place a single note. This is a classic example of the band working together like a well-engineered machine. Each instrument is a gear with a defined role.

Stay tuned and get ready to learn more with the release of our forthcoming course series, Writing for the Modern Rhythm Section. If you’d like to be notified when it comes out, sign up for our mailing list.

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Brad Allen Williams
Brad Allen Williams

Brad Allen Williams is a NYC-based guitarist, writer/composer, producer, and mixer. He has worked with artists such as Cory Henry, Bilal, Kris Bowers, and José James on stages around the world. As a leader, his 2015 album Lamar received critical acclaim in numerous mainstream outlets including The New York Times. In addition to being an in-demand session player, he collaborates with many artists as a writer, producer and mixer, working primarily from his home base The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn, a two-suite facility he helped to build.

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