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Drummers of James Brown

Hi this is Nick, drummer for Day vs Night. There’s a million words I could write about the many drummers of James Brown and those combined with pictures would never do their music justice. As a drummer and contributing musician, 60s & 70s funk plays a huge role in our music, and I’m quite giddy to discuss it.

The two most famous drummers of James Brown are Jabo Sparks and Clyde Stubblefield, so I’m going to focus on them as a pair. James Brown’s bands weren’t like contemporary rock bands. He easily had five drummers on stage at any performance, sometimes playing in tandem, other times, all but one drummer would sit there and focus on looking good, and that one drummer would play as hard as he could. Especially because early on, the drummers were completely unmic’d. I read interviews with both those guys and they both talk about blood on their hands from bashing so hard.

Now, what defines their style most poignantly, and the concept I incorporate most visibly is the displaced back beat. A typical James Brown song with a displaced backbeat is “Cold Sweat”. The drummer shifts the backbeat of the snare by an eigthnote, and the subsequent rhythms are played as if the down beat was the up beat, and then with a little funk magic, it all resolves neatly on the one. Typically each time through the rhythmic sequence was two measures, 8 total quarter notes. This observation I have on the modality of 2 measures in rhythmic figures is also a major concept in my scripting, and I’ve noted it in Dave Grohl’s & John Bonham’s drumming as well. I will discuss this at length later.

While that typified them and came to define a whole genre, the essential quality all of James Brown’s drummers had is CLARITY OF RHYTHM. It is hard to sit through a movie where the actors cannot enunciate or speak clearly. Akin to this, drummers who slur their rhythms make messes out of their band and have no tightness. This is not a rant against a shuffle, as a shuffle can be either consistent, or inconsistent. Inconsistent drummers are bad. The Drummers of James Brown play rhythm like it was crystal, so clear, with no flubbing or sloppiness. Rhythmic articulation is the first step in to excellence as a musician overall, nevermind drummers.

There’s a lot of amazing things to learn about the drummers of James Brown. I own “Give the Drummer Some”, “Rhythm Sections of James Brown” and I’m dying to get “Groove Alchemy” by Stanton Moore. More than anything this funky music introduced me to the concept of rhythm as the melody. It also kept me enchanted, with the raging, incessant pulse pounding rhythms.

In our music, the EP is soon available on iTunes, and we have a track available at the end of this article, the displaced back beat, as well as our crystal clear rhythm, is evident in Caught on the Radio, Twisted and Summertime. All three of these have different points where I play a back beat on the & of 4 and skip right over 1, so I can really attack beat 2. Skipping beat one of a measure is also super funky and I believe I learned it listening to the drummers of James Brown. Also I remember a lot of songs where Police drummer Stewart Copeland skipped beat 1 too. He’s also to be discussed in the future, and lately I notice Jack White drumming, skipping beat 1 for maximum groove in many Dead Weather songs.

Download an MP3 of our track “Caught on the Radio” here.

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