Backbeat: How to Find the Rhythmic Centre of Every Song
The crack of the snare, the closing of the hi-hat, the clap of the audience—they share a common beat known as the backbeat.
In most popular western music—from rock to country, to hip-hop, disco, EDM and beyond—the backbeat is used throughout, it’s truly the center of rhythm for almost all modern music.
Knowing how the backbeat works, where to find it and why it’s important for understanding modern rhythm patterns.
In this article, we’ll explain what a backbeat is, why it’s so important and how you can use it in your own playing and music productions.
Let’s get into the pocket and find the backbeat!
What is the backbeat?
In music, the backbeat is a beat that’s played on the second and fourth beats in 4/4 time. In almost all cases this beat is played on the snare drum or with a clap—or with a closing hi-hat pedal to simulate a clap.
The backbeat creates a powerful, snapping pulse that aligns the band on where exactly the two and four—and by consequence, the one and three—are felt in a song.
Who plays the backbeat?
Playing the backbeat is almost entirely the job of the drummer—after all, aside from clapping, the instrument that plays the backbeat in almost all music is either the snare drum or the hi-hat.
That means the drummer has to pay close attention to the band’s rhythm and play “in the pocket”, that backbeat needs to line up with what the bass is playing along with the rest of the arrangement.
The instrument that plays the backbeat in almost all music is either the snare drum or the hi-hat
It’s well understood in drumming circles that when the backbeat falls out of time or gets “flipped” to the one and three—the music will be at risk of falling apart.
So if you’re a drummer, you need to practice playing and hearing the backbeat—and making sure it stays in time with the song’s rhythm.
A quick rhythm theory lesson
In terms of notation and sound, the backbeat is relatively simple to read and understand.
Here’s what a basic rhythm with a backbeat looks like in music notation.
And, here’s an example of a beat that heavily emphasizes the backbeat.
Learning to play the backbeat is another story—even the most seasoned drummers will practice their backbeat feel to a metronome and spend hours studying their favorite players.
I’ll suggest checking out this track from Vulfpeck where they contracted the help of Michael Bland—a heavy LA-based drummer who’s played with everyone, including Michael Jackson.
Listen to how hard he’s coming down on the snare drum and how he keeps his fills simple, always making sure to either hit or embellish the two and four counts during his fills.
Ringo Starr from the Beatles is another great drummer to check out—listen closely to how he never loses the backbeat during his fills, almost always coming down on the two and four.
How backbeats work in 6/8
Where does the backbeat fall for music written in different time signatures like 6/8?
The short answer is that in 6/8 the backbeat falls on the fourth count—this is where you’ll hear the snare.
Here’s how that looks in music notation.
If you want a deeper explanation of why, you’ll need to brush up on your rhythm theory—but in short, a bar of music will contain strong and weak beats that alternate.
In classical music theory, strong and weak beats are used to explain duple and triple time.
Duples are groups of two notes—strong-weak, whereas triples are groups of three notes strong-weak-weak.
For example, 4/4 time is a duple meter time signature with two groups of duples resulting in a strong-weak-strong-weak pattern.
But in 6/8, which is a duple compound time signature you’ll hear a strong-weak-weak strong-weak-weak pattern within each triple group.
But you’ll also hear a duple strong-weak pattern between to the two groups of triples.
That’s why rhythms with a backbeat reduce the 6/8 time signature to a duple meter, in that the two groups of three are felt as a single duple group.
In 6/8, the two groups of three are felt as a single duple group.
If that doesn’t make sense don’t worry, it’s mainly the reason behind why music is written in 3/4 and odd time doesn’t really have a backbeat—since these time signatures can’t be reduced to a duple group.
Back the beat
All this talk about strong and weak beats is a bit confusing, so let’s zoom out and look at why the backbeat is so special and how you can play around with it.
You may be wondering why would the backbeat, which is so important, fall on what classical music theory calls the weak beat?
Well, I’d argue that that’s what makes the backbeat so interesting.
It breaks the rules of western music theory by adding this off-kilter support to the rhythm and by putting a ton of emphasis on the drums in the kinds of music that use the backbeat.
If you’ve ever checked out classical music, there’s not much out there that features a snare drum slamming on the two and four.
That’s because backbeat-based rhythms are rooted in the early days of blues and jazz that came out of the southern United States—genres that broke all the rules of classical music.
It’s groovy, we instantly recognize it, it makes people nod their heads.
Yet that’s what makes the backbeat so interesting—it’s groovy, we instantly recognize it, it makes people nod their heads and it’s you can play around with it to get different kinds of feel.
It’s mind-blowing really, that possibly the only common musical feature between all pop, rock, EDM, hip-hop, country, blues and jazz all is that they all consistently feature a backbeat.
The backbeat doesn’t have to be rigid either, it creates tons of room for experimentation.
For example, drummers and producers constantly get creative with the backbeat by dropping it for a bar, doubling it, playing around it, or moving its timing like the legendary producer J Dilla did with his MPC
So learn to recognize and respect the backbeat in your playing and in your beats.
And never stop listening to the great artists from years past that worked hard to hone their feel and pioneer their own sound.
Alex Lavoie works as a staff writer at LANDR by day and writes indie post-punk tunes in his band UTILS while moonlighting as drummer for folk-rock outfit The Painters.
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