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Great RHYTHMS are music's "bones"!

Updated on June 19, 2009

An infinite array of rhythms from this giant drum set

Bo Diddley's rhythm and its influences

Bo Diddley across 50 years of music

Let's discuss the use of RHYTHM in popular music as it was used in every decade from the 1950's to today.  

This article will use the June, 2008 death of rock pioneer Bo Diddley, to show how the rhythmic influences of one musician affected those in future generations.

Play my introductory video to the right. Then, when I'm done talking, play the Bo Diddley song below it, to get a real feel for his unique and groundbreaking style.

Bo Diddely

Rock & Roll hits the "Ed Sullivan Show", 1955

"The Ed Sullivan Show" was a TV program which was extremely popular across the USA and broadcast every Sunday night at 8PM, one of the most watched hours of the entire week. In a future chapter we should be able to show you some clips of musicians who got their big break perfoming on Ed's weekly show.

Remember, up until this point there was NO rock music. So far, there had been only one rock song, "Rock Around The Clock" from a year earlier (1955). There was NO dancing where you didn't touch your partner throughout the whole dance. There were NO musicians that didn't swivel their hips, that didn't happen for another year (1956) when Elvis came along to become the first rock star. This stuff was all very new, nobody really even called rock'n'roll a movement....yet. I mention this because you'll see this "new" type of dancing in the next video.

Watch the next video to see and hear Bo Diddley perform his signature song about himself, that's why he titled the song "Bo Diddley". This is from one of his early television appearances. Keep an ear on the RHYTHM of this song, which stands out far more than the melody and the harmony.  

Rolling Stones "Not Fade Away" (1964)

Bo's rhythm, used by the Stones

Now, fast forward 9 years. Still remember the Bo Diddley rhythm from the last video?  Well, play this video to the right, to watch and listen to the Rolling Stones (frontman Mick Jagger and lead guitarist Keith Richards, before their names were famous) doing their song "Not Fade Away".

Notice the identical rhythm from the Bo Diddley song is used in the Stones song, as the underpinning structure.  This Rolling Stones song is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SONG with a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MELODY and all new LYRICS, but it contains exact SAME RHYTHYM.  It's Bo Diddley's rhythm, used as the background rhythm for the whole song. Enjoy.

More about RHYTHM in popular music - Tom Zarecki

Class lecture: more about rhythms

After watching the Rolling Stones above, play this 10-minute classroom discussion. This will give me a chance to tie everything together so far for you: specifically, what we've seen...and to "set you up" for what's coming next.

NOTE:  You don't need to follow the HubPages links mentioned on this class video, since you're already here on this page.   That was for any web surfers who may have stumbled upon my lecture by accident on YouTube and wanted to learn even more about rhythm, they can read this article, too.  

Bo's rhythm used AGAIN in the 1980's

Fast forward into the 1980's and you'll find a giant hit song called "Faith", written and performed by George Michael, a British pop singer. You'll hear in a moment that his song, "Faith", ALSO contains exactly that same Bo Diddley rhythm, yet it's a completely different song that George wrote. Click this link to watch the video for that song. Note that this video is very quiet at first and takes almost 90 seconds before the real rhythm of the song gets going.

Bo's rhythm used AGAIN in the 1990's by U2

Speed further almost to the 1990's, and watch this video from 1989's "Desire" by Bono (lead singer), the Edge (lead guitarist) and the band U2. To watch and listen to "Desire", simply click this link. If it doesn't play, just go to YouTube and type: "U2 Desire" in the search box. That should bring you to the best version, the one labelled the "regular" version, which I used in the link above.

That SAME RHYTHM from Bo Diddley back in the 50's is used by U2 in the 1990's, but this time sitting nicely as the centerpiece of a completely different song.

Gee, that might mean that if you're in a band and you write your own material, you may want to consider adding the Bo Diddley rhythm behind your song....but only if you're looking for a hit! 

The Bottom Line: There are HUNDREDS of rhythms in popular music which were invented long ago and continue to be used over and over again.

That's because a MELODY becomes the property of the composer once the proper copyright is obtained, but a unique RHYTHM cannot be owned by anyone, because it has no notes...just a beat, the rhythm. That's means that once a rhythm is created, as long as it has no notes (like the Bo Diddley rhythm), anyone can use it, without paying rights fees to anyone, and without breaking any copyright laws.

However, once a rhythm has melody added to it (like "Fantasy" and "China Grove" above) you can actually sing the notes, which means it can then be copyrighted and become the property of the composer. But rhythms themselves without notes, can be used and re-used, and make great music live forever!

Earth, Wind and Fire "Getaway" (1976)

Other songs powered by RHYTHM

The last two songs in this chapter are NOT derived from Bo Diddley, but they ARE here to show you that although all songs have some mix of melody, harmony and rhythm, sometimes the rhythm is the driving force behind the song. These are just two great examples.

Earth, Wind & Fire

For those who think that rhythm is just drums and cymbals, this funk-rock-blues band from the 80's also shows us that rhythm can be all sorts of instruments and sound combinations that make up the rhythm of a song.

As Earth, Wind and Fire demonstrates, they have plenty of power in their award-winning horn section. Listen to the precision and timing necessary for the entire brass section to stay in sync. Not an easy feat. Just click the yellow box on this page to listen to "Getaway" by Earth, Wind, and Fire, highly powered by the rhythm of all the instruments, but especially the brass section, of the song.

Doobie Brothers

And, a final example of a rhythm-driven song, this one's from the mid 70's. The Doobie Brothers is a guitar-based rock band who wrote and played this now classic rock anthem, and I'm glad they did, because it can serve today as another example of how strong rhythms can become the "meat" of a song.

To listen and watch the Doobie Brothers at the peak of their popularity as a rock band, click this link to view them performing live in Germany in 1973 . Sorry about the announcer talking over the beginning, this was the only available online version I could find, but it's still rockin' and it's still an excelllent example of a band using RHYTHM to power this song.

RHYTHM assignment

Find one popular song from your personal collection or online, where the rhythm seems to be more important in the song than the melody or harmony. Do the best you can with this, one of these songs may not be easy to find, but then again, you may find one right away. Send me the title and artist of the song and a link to it, if you can.

Describe briefly why you think the rhythm in that song is so important and what instruments are contiributing to the rhythm. If you wish, you can refer to the song's melody and/or harmony in your answer. Remember, a short answer is fine.

That's it for now. The midterm is coming up the week after next. The next email from me will review the main concepts we've covered so far, and what you'll need to know for the midterm.  Then, we've got the rest of the semester to explore a wide variety of musical genres. 



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