In the most straightforward terms, “breakbeat” comes from the beat the drummer played in soul and funk tracks during the break (when the rest of the band took a breather).
Breakbeat as we know it today stems from hip hop production, as a lot of hip hop tracks used those drum breaks as the basis for their tracks.
The lack of other instrumentation in those sections made it easy for producers to extract a clean take and eventually mash them together with other clean takes. In that sense, “breakbeat” could also mean “broken beat”, but I’ll leave believing that up to you.
When producers took these drum samples, they tended to use a 1 or 2 bar loop instead of using the entire section. This created an odd combination of human playing and rigid computer looping, which can make for some interesting feels.
A lot of breakbeat drumming is done by computers, or looped humans, but don’t aren’t you sick of these computers coming over here and taking hard-working drummers’ jobs? Learn some of these beats in the hope of making rent this month (or at the very least, having something to talk about at parties).
This beat comes from the James Brown track, Funky Drummer, which has a break at about 5:20 that last for about 20 seconds, a break that has become something of a producer’s paradise. Funky Drummer is one of the most sampled breaks of all time (I’m not gonna do the counting, but it was definitely used in the title music for The Powerpuff Girls, so yeah…) and I won’t lie to you, you’ll never be able to play it like Clyde Stubblefield.
There’s a bit of beat development throughout the break, but you don’t want to read 38 bars of almost identical score (if you do, I’ll let you do that in your own time). I’ve picked a bar that’s pretty representative of the whole thing and there’s plenty of room to play around with sizzles and ghost notes etc.
There’s a lot of humanity lost with this computerized reproduction of the beat, but that’s where you come in: add your own humanity and make the beat your own. You’re a drummer not a computer (I hope).
This is another groove that is in competition for “most sampled of all time”, and like the previous one, it’s all about making it yours. G.C. Coleman drummed on this Winstons track in 1969 that has seen airtime in all sorts of genres, from hip hop to drum n bass and a bunch in between.
There’s some slight variation throughout, as well as a cheeky crash cymbal on the & of the 3rd beat, which throws me off from time to time. Again, you’re not going to sound like Coleman, but it’s a good beat to have under your belt because everyone knows it (even if they don’t realize) and it’s really fun to play.
The Next Movement
This beat is taken from The Roots’ album Things Fall Apart and it features the incomparable Questlove behind the kit. The song features a 2-bar phrase with the odd bit of development thrown in there, but this is kind of the main beat. Questlove’s grooves can be difficult to write and even more difficult to read, because of his tendency to play behind the beat. Get to know the track first, then use the sheet music as a visual aid, rather than trying to play it verbatim.
I included this beat, from The Lonely Island’s YOLO, as a bit of a joke, although the track does have a really cool beat, in keeping with the breakbeat style I’ve been talking about. There’s a lot of room for feel in there, as it’s mostly a 1-bar looped phrase and as with the previous groove, it’s a little tricky to read without hearing the track first.
There’s actually a video of The Lonely Island performing this with The (aforementioned) Roots in an appearance on The Tonight Show, in which Questlove drums on the track, taking time to add his own flair and ridiculously laid back style. You can find it on the band’s Youtube page, if you’re so inclined. You never know, you might learn a thing or two from this comedy group.
If you want to learn (a lot) more about breakbeat drumming, like a full book worth of stuff, you’d be wise to look into The Breakbeat Bible by Michael Adamo. It’s got chapters full of exercises designed to teach you every tiny element of the style.