Arranging: Starting with Snare & Bass Drum

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by Conrad Albrecht

So, you have a chord progression and maybe a melody, and now you want to create a full instrumental arrangement. How do you start?

The bass drum (BD) and snare drum (SD) provide the rhythmic foundation of most popular music. So, you might create the BD and SD notes for a section of your song first. If they don't turn out sounding great with the other instruments you add later, you can go back and change them.

How to choose your BD/SD rhythms? Let's look at the BD/SD patterns in some popular music. Then it's up to you how much to "follow the examples" or try something different.

BD on 1 & 3, SD on 2 & 4

Most songs have a one-measure "groove" BD/SD pattern that repeats over and over. Different songs use different groove patterns, and most songs don't use the groove pattern forever with no changes; some measures are different. But you can find a repeated one-measure BD/SD groove in most songs.

The BD/SD groove is usually built on the framework of BD on beats 1 & 3, SD on beats 2 & 4:

Most grooves don't use this bare framework "as is"; they add extra notes to it. One song which does use the above pattern as is, nothing added, is Billy Jean (Michael Jackson).

Adding BD Pickups and Afterbeats

The most common way grooves add notes to the bare framework above is to add BD "pickups" and "afterbeats": notes a half-beat before or after the main BD notes on beats 1 and 3.

The all-time most-popular BD/SD groove just adds a BD pickup on beat 2½:

Songs which use the above groove include:

Another variation adds the BD on beat 4½:

Stairway To Heaven (Led Zeppelin) and Hotel California (The Eagles) both use the above groove. (Interestingly, those are both slow songs.)

Respect (Aretha Franklin) adds the afterbeat on beat 3½:

Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana) adds both afterbeats:


Let's not forget that some songs have no BD/SD groove at all. For example:

Some More Variations

Walk This Way (the Run-D.M.C. version) adds a ¼-beat pickup (and ½-beat afterbeat) around beat 3:

Superstition (Stevie Wonder) plays the BD on all 4 beats:

Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen) leaves out the BD on beat 3 (but adds offbeats around beat 3):

Then, halfway through the verse, Born To Run switches to a groove with the SD on beat 2½ instead of beat 2:

Things to Do

  1. Add BD/SD grooves to your own songs, experimenting with the ideas above.
  2. Figure out the BD/SD parts in other songs to get more ideas.
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