Lessons From A Really Old Drum Tune

When I was a youngster and just getting interested in drums, the bar had been set -- likely unknowingly -- by a drummer named Ron Wilson. Wilson played with a band called the Surfaris and their single hit record was a drum feature called Wipe Out. After a creepy witch-like voice cries "Wipe Out", Wilson tears into it with 16th notes on the tom tom. The band joins in with a one-figure blues riff, and the rest is rock and roll history.

Although drums are a vital part of all modern music, it's rare to see them front and centre. So Wipe Out gets a nod for putting the drummer out there. But there are other features of the tune that are worth noting.

The basic rhythm pattern for Wipe Out is pretty simple -- one bar of straight 16ths and one bar of syncopation -- but its implications are far reaching. That bar of straight 16ths provides a lot of forward motion and quite a bit of primitive rhythm. The second bit is a structure that has been found in music for hundreds of years and is showing no signs of fatigue. There's an accent on the downbeat, another accent in the middle of the second beat and a final accent on the fourth beat. The effect is a bit like three beats where there ought to be four. Quite provocative (and also part of the important clave rhythm of Latin music). If we were to count out the pulses in 2/8 rather than 4/4, the first bar’s rhythm would come out as | 12 | 12 | 12 | 12 |. The next bar would flow out as two groups of 3 plus a group of 2 (3 + 3 + 2 = 8). Thus: | 123 | 123 | 12 |. Look around and you'll find this figure -- 123 123 12 -- almost everywhere. (For the theoretically minded, the structure is called a hemiola.)

According to Pat Connolly, bass player for the Surfaris, Wipe Out was inspired by a paradiddle ‘drum cadence’ that Wilson was working on for his high school parade band. If that's the case, then it's entirely possible that he was playing paradiddles throughout, and the easiest way to get that Wipe Out rhythm is to use groups of 2 and 3, i.e. single and double paradiddles:

    Singles: RLRR | LRLL| RLRR | LRLL
    Doubles crossing the bar line: RLRL | RR  LR | LRLL | RLRR
    More singles: LRLL | RLRR | LRLL | RLRR
    And finish with doubles: LRLR | LL  RL | RLRR | LRLL

The tune itself is 12-bar blues in its most basic form. The first 4 bars is a riff played on the tonic. The next four bars are the same riff, two bars on the fourth and two bars on the tonic. The final four bars wrap it up by playing the first bar of the riff on the fifth, repeating that on the fourth, and then finish on the tonic. Thus, the basic blues changes:

    1 | 1 | 1 | 1
    4 | 4 |1 | 1
    5 | 4 | 1 | 1
And there you have the basic form and changes for 12-bar blues.

Interestingly, Wipe Out is one of the most recognized pop music drum tunes of all time, and has been featured in more than 80 movies.


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