Picture yourself on your way to a destination. Where you're going or how you're going there doesn't matter. You decide you want some music to put you in a traveling mood. What song will you choose to listen to? Maybe a slow and sensuous song for the long road ahead? Or perhaps something groovy, more funky than mellow? Or how about a simple upbeat pop bubble-gum favorite to get the you bouncing along?
Where's the backbeat?
Whatever the tempo, you can be confident your first pick for this situation will have a backbeat. So will your second and third. In fact, without this basic beat pattern, the musical genre we call rock and roll wouldn't exist. And that's not all. Rap? Gone. R & B? Not any more. Jazz? Maybe, but you'd wonder where most of your favorites went.
Your Backbeat and You (beep)
All you need to create your very own back beat is a sense of rhythm, one hand, and chair to sit on.
- Beat - Sitting comfortably, take your dominant hand and begin slapping your thigh (same side). Keep it relaxed, about two beats a second: tick, tick, tick, tick. But try to make every slap sound about the same. This is called a steady beat.
- Measure - Next start counting out four beats at a time: ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three, etc. Make beat one "loud" and beats two through four "soft". You have just made a four beat measure (in 4/4 time). Each beat where you say "one" starts a new measure. These are the downbeats. The partner of the downbeat, beat three (not called the upbeat, by the way) is often accented as well, forming a virtural 2/4 time where both are downbeats.
- Groove - Now comes the fun part. Keep counting off four beat measures, but close your hand into a fist for beats one and three (pound gently, please), and open it back up to clap using your palm on beats two and four. Those open palm beats are the "un-downbeats", the off beats, a steady backbeat .
The (not so) Wild Backbeat
The drum line for songs with a backbeat tends to sound remarkably like the example above. The bass drum will hit the downbeats and the snare drum will keep the backbeat. No kidding, 90% of the time that's it. While drummers often embellish around it with hi-hat or other cymbals, they keep the backbeat as simple as possible. Why simple? Why the snare? I'm sure there's a complex and in-depth psychoacoustic explanation involving the distictive sound of the snare, but that's not true to the nature of the backbeat.
You can't lose it
The backbeat is older than any instrument we use to play it today. It traces its roots back through Blues and Country to the peasant feastival music of Europe and tribal music of Africa. "Weird Al" Yankovic basically follows the backbeat when turning all those pop hits into polkas. Forget depth or subtlty , the backbeat was created for one purpose: to keep everyone in earshot jumpin' and stompin' and clappin' and singin' outloud through longest night and longest day. And that's exactly what it does.