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Hearing the “Bo Diddley Beat” in Everything

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By Anthony Pappas

From The Strangeloves’ catchy 1965 bubblegum pop tune “I Want Candy,” to George Michael’s 1987 hit “Faith,” you know the “Bo Diddley beat” when you hear it. You just might not know you’re hearing it. In fact, this beat has appeared in some of the most memorable popular music of the 20th century.

The Bo Diddley beat was named after the one and only R&B artist, Bo Diddley, after he used this rhythmic pattern extensively throughout his early career, most famously in his 1955 song titled “Bo Diddley.” Take a listen.

It’s a simple, syncopated 3-over-2 clave rhythm played in a 4/4 time signature that has a direct lineage in Afro-Cuban music. It’s employed in the above form as a one-bar phrase, but can also be divided into two bars and counted as such. Here’s the clave rhythm spelled out in a single phrase in boldOne e and ah, two e and ah, three e and ah, four e and ah.

Listeners assumed Bo Diddley himself had a direct connection to Afro-Cuban music, but according to him, he learned the beat in church in various gospel music applications. It turns out that I, too, have grown up hearing this beat in everything, throughout my own musical journey. But I’ve got Bo Diddley to thank for that.

As a lifelong music lover, and a young person trying to find my voice as a musician, I’ve historically fallen into the trap of attempting to find what I would call my “musical tribe,”  disavowing allegiance to any musical genres I’d previously found fun and interesting. Conflicted internally, I would ask myself: “I’m a metal guy… right? How can a metal guy enjoy pop music?”

The truth is, theoretically and historically, genres that once seemed so vastly different actually do have common threads. You can find common chord progressions and extensions in metal, prog rock, jazz, funk, etc. — and rhythms that, although played on different kits with varying intensity, actually remain perfectly intact as they cross genres. In the music of the 1980s — the music of my youth — it couldn’t be any more apparent.

Appetite for Destruction, Guns N’ Roses’ pioneering 1987 debut release, was a breath of fresh air, in the way that it unabashedly merged pop and thrash metal. At the time, the heavy metal community was having a bit of an identity crisis as mainstream glam rock and aggressive speed metal were beginning to butt heads.

The album is chock-full of hits, but one of the songs that stands out as an emblem of this sonic merger is “Mr. Brownstone.” The song took me by surprise when I first heard it, but it eventually became one of my favorites. Its focal point is not lead guitar, but the driving rhythmic force of the hypnotic Bo Diddley beat — showcased in the drums, bass, and rhythm guitars. It has a soulful vibe, drawing in a more eclectic audience than the band’s core contemporaries, who emphasized slam dancing and head-banging.

While at a dance party in college, I remember hearing a familiar rhythm in an entirely different rock context and had to find out what the song was. It turned out to be The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” and it was my first taste of a band that would go on to have a significant impact on my life, challenging my previous affinity for music that had a more polished approach to composition and production, and music that was harder and harsher.

I grew to love the raw emotions of The Smiths, which cut through their lyrics, lo-fi instrumentals, and drumming. If it weren’t for the dance-pop-tinged rhythm of that song, its familiar “where have I heard this before?” beat, I may never have taken a second listen.

I kept hearing the beat. A less commercially recognized but tremendously innovative act that also took hold of my listening hours was the Rhode Island art-rock band Throwing Muses. Embracing ethereal, watery vocals, layers of fuzzy guitar instead of solos, and an aesthetically pleasing wall of sound, their music was more reminiscent of painting than anything else.

Once again, my “way in” was through the rhythms. Drummer Dave Narcizo’s only prior musical experience before joining the band happened to be playing the snare drum in his high school marching band; the band placed an emphasis on natural musicianship. Their song “Golden Thing” was the primal groove I needed to hear before diving in for more.

The distinct yet familiar beat made famous by Bo Diddley connects all of these 20th-century songs, but it actually connects us even farther back than that. Although Bo Diddley didn’t draw direct influence from the music of the Afro-Caribbean, he did experience it in the roots of gospel, which links back to the music that African slaves brought over to the American South in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The 3-over-2 clave rhythm of the Bo Diddley beat is equally distinctive and reminiscent of a musical technique called “hamboning” that connects to street performance and plantation songs. Street performers hambone by tapping a beat on their bodies while simultaneously improvising lyrics.

The hambone, also known as the “Juba Dance,” originated in African American slave culture, on and off the plantations in the American South, and was used in gatherings as a form of communication. Slaves often were not allowed rhythm instruments, except on Sundays to use in church ceremonies, so they had to utilize their own bodies to make beats. In this way, music was not simply entertainment for them; it was a form of liberation — a call to personal power. And it became deeply integrated in the music of Southern christianity after slavery was abolished. (For more on the music of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, read Charles Burchell’s article here.)

As I continue to expand my own musical horizons, I always look out for new versions of the same old sounds, a lens through which I can link something new with what I hold close and familiar. It’s a way in for my own tastes, but it also helps to understand and internalize how meaningless musical boundaries can be, today more than ever.

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Anthony Pappas is an author, musician, and therapist.  He provides in-home services for individuals with autism, using music therapy and person-centered life coaching techniques to develop a wide range of communication skills based on individual needs, with the goal to empower these individuals in breaking down barriers between themselves, their families and the surrounding community. 

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