The drums seem like a simple instrument—there’s no chords or keys or musical notes, just a couple drums being struck to a beat.
But anyone who’s played in a band or even produced music knows that drums are incredibly difficult to get right.
That’s partly because drums are the center of rhythm, and rhythm is easily the most difficult and most important of playing any instrument—it’s the musical language that helps us play together, to one beat.
But the other reason why drumming is so challenging to get right in music production is because there are so many different kinds of beat—each stemming from different musical traditions.
In this article I’ll unpack a handful of quintessential drum beats, each belonging to a different genre of drumming.
I’ll also share a MIDI pack you can download to write the drum beats in your DAW.
Let’s get started.
1. When the Levee Breaks
Rock drumming wouldn’t be rock drumming without John Bonham, he’s easily one of rock’s greatest drummers.
Rock drumming wouldn’t be rock drumming without John Bonham.
His most iconic drum beat is definitely the pounding drums that set the stage for the epic track that is “When the Levee Breaks”.
The original recording was done in the stairwell of an English school hall, which explains hugeness of the boomy drum tone.
The huge sound lends itself well to the overall heaviness of John Bonham’s playing—and it’s probably why the drum break has been sampled so many times, like in The Beastie Boys chart topping track “Rhymin & Stealin”.
2. Amen Break
The Amen Break is pretty much universally accepted as the most iconic drum break ever.
It’s been used countless times in so much music, especially hip-hop—and it inspired an entire genre of electronic music called drum and bass.
The original came from the track “Amen Brother” on a rare record from 60s soul group called The Winstons.
This drum beat is well-loved for its groovy swing, heavy-hitting production sound and long standing legacy.
3. Dem Bow
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Switching gears, the Dem Bow is another iconic drum beat that also serves as the back bone for an entire genre of music—reggaeton.
The name for this off-kilter beat comes from the song Dem Bow by Shabba Ranks, it was one of the first big tracks to use the beat.
Interestingly, the Dem Bow beat is essentially the first have the clave rhythm that is central Latin American music.
This makes the Dem Bow beat an incomplete rhythm, with no rhythmic cadence—which is what gives this drum beat its driving quality.
4. Bossa Nova
It makes sense that we should talk about the Bossa Nova beat after going over the Dem Bow beat, since that’s where the Dem Bow beat comes from.
If you’ve listened to Brazillian bossa nova music, you’ll notice that the drumming style used throughout most of it sounds pretty special.
It’s not fully swung, but it’s fully straight either—and the bossa nova clave pattern played on the cross stick throughout.
Here’s how the Bossa clave pattern sounds and looks like in a DAW.
Jazz music is another genre that relies entirely a specific kind of drum beat.
Since most of the genre is swung—specifically be-bop, swing and other classic jazz genres—drummers played drum beats that lent themselves to swung music.
The most common jazz drumming pattern is lovingly dubbed spang-a-lang—an onomatopoeia for of the sound the ride cymbal when playing this kind of drumbeat.
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Listen to most swung jazz and you hear variations of this ride pattern played throughout.
Here’s what the most essential spang-a-lang pattern looks and sounds like.
Afrobeats music originated in Nigeria—at the center of the genre are a handful of unique drum patterns.
Tony Allen is credited with being the godfather of this genre and was at one time listed as Rolling Stones greatest drummers alive—before his death in 2020.
The drum beats used in Afrobeats draw on jazz influences but use some fairly complicated syncopation and usually are not completely swung or straight.
This particular characteristic of not being swung or straight is called “playing in the cracks”, somewhere between the straight-eight notes and swung eight notes.
Afrobeats are super cool and the entire genre is worth checking out—especially because a lot of the rhythms coming from this genre are creeping into new pop music.
Here’s an example from one of Tony Allen’s essential Afrobeats drum beats.
He explains more about his Afrobeats drum beats in this video as well.
7. Scond Line
Second Line drum beats come the cradle of modern music—New Orleans.
If you haven’t brushed up on your music history, pretty much all modern American music can be traced back to the ports and thrift stores of New Orleans—where jazz and blues music originated.
Drummers in the early 1900s would pick up discarded Navy snare drums, bass drums and cymbals in auctions and thrift stores to use as percussion behind New Orleans’ brass bands.
These drum lines and brass bands are where 1930s big band producers like Duke Ellington and Count Basie would draw inspiration from.
Its also where the modern trap set originated since these drummers would put together the snare drum, bass drum and crash cymbals originally intended for military marching bands.
Second Line grooves are important to know—they’re super joyful (even though they were originally played at funerals) and you’ll recognize their inspiration in lots of pop music—especially hip-hop, R&B and funk.
Here’s a stripped-down example of a Second Line MIDI pattern in a DAW.
But I don’t think you can really re-create a second line drum pattern in a DAW using a MIDI editor, so here’s a video of Bernard Purdie doing it best.
8. Purdie Shuffle
Speaking of the absolute legend of a drummer, Bernard Purdy’s shuffle pattern is maybe one the most important drum beats to know.
The deceptively challenging beat is used in so many tracks like Toto’s “Roseanna” to Death Cab for Cutie’s “Grapevine Fires”—and learning it will help you understand much about swung funk drumming and 12/8 time.
I love how this groove lends itself to slow, ballad-esque music while still being heavily rhythmic syncopated.
If you’re a drummer, you gotta learn this one!
The Purdie Shuffle groove lends itself to slow, ballad-esque music while still being heavily rhythmic syncopated.
Here’s how the basic groove looks and sounds like in a MIDI editor.
Okay, let’s back up into simpler territory, with easily one of the most heavily used drum beats of all time—disco style four-on-the-floor.
Four-on-the-floor gets its name from the kick drum that’s played on every quarter not in most disco, funk and almost all electronic music.
Literally, there are four notes played on the floor for every measure—this creates a thumping pulse that is essentially designed to tell the dancers on the dance floor how fast to move.
If you want to get people dancing—the first ingredient is a four on the floor drum beat.
10. Trap Hats
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One of the most instantly recognizable drum beats in modern music is the trap hat pattern.
If you’ve ever walked down a busy street, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ve heard the blaring out of a loud car stereo—and the second you hear them you know what’s coming.
Trap hats use highly syncopated grooves and don’t shy away from triplets and fast thirty-second notes, often jolting between each other.
These fast and complicated hi-hats, complement the slow, huge and boomy sound of the 808 kicks used throughout trap music.
Here’s a basic example of a trap hat drum beat—note how the triplets are the way these producers create that driving, off-kilter effect.