I define “old-time rock and roll” as encompassing the period of 1955 to 1963 that mostly utilized two basic chord patterns. The first was the normal 12-bar blues pattern that may have originated in the cotton fields: I/ I/ I/ I/ IV/ IV/ I/ I/ V/ IV/ I/ I/. (Musicians use Roman numerals to denote chord patterns and “/” to denote the end of a bar or measure). The numeral stands for the root note of the chord based on a do-re-mi scale. In the key of C for example, the above blues pattern would mean that “I” represent a C-chord, “IV” would represent an F chord and “V” would be a G (or usually a G7 chord). Another very popular chord-pattern of the late 1950s was the doo-wop sound that had a simple 2-measure pattern repeated over and over: /I-I-VI-VI/ IV-IV-V-V/. So, in the key of C, the chords would be /C-C-A(minor)-A(minor)/ F-F-G-G/. Hundreds of songs in the 50s used this simple pattern (think “Sh-boom” or “Blue Moon”).
Old time rock and roll had a unique rhythm, too. Previously, pop music had a “bounce” to the beat that was very distinguishable. Think of a drummer’s right hand on the ride-cymbal going “ching-a-ching-a-ching-a-ching-a” over a 4-beat measure. The “ching” usually lasted twice as long as the “a” in every beat (representing a 67% bounce or swing). Sometimes, such as in certain jazz pieces, the “ching” would last 3 times as long as the “a,” representing a 75% bounce or swing. Then, musicians like Little Richard and Chuck Berry came along and the bounce became barely noticeable, maybe using only a 55% bounce (think “Johnny B. Goode” or “Long Tall Sally”) or a 60% bounce (think “Whole Lotta Shakin”). That’s what gave rock and roll the “drive,” (i.e. the almost-steady beat of the eighth-notes) making the teens go crazy and running to the closet to grab their boppin’ shoes. Today’s young drummers have a hard time emulating this beat.
In 1963, the Beatles’ music came to America. It wasn’t their mop-heads or Cockney, adenoid accents that made the biggest difference. It was the change in chord patterns and rhythm. No blues or doo-wop patterns; but instead, chords that would be more like those in folk music (which had its origins in the British Isles centuries ago). Even the chord-changes of their first international hits like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” despite the very simple (almost meaningless) lyrics, had chord progressions that were more like patterns of Celtic folk melodies than a Little Richard song.
Importantly, rhythm was something the Beatles concentrated on, particularly when they selected their second drummer, Richard Starkey (Ringo). The “bounce” was minimal, no more than 55%; think “ching-ching-ching-ching” on the ride cymbal or hi-hat.
Within a few years, Beatles’ lyrics had become much more sophisticated, as had the chord patterns. McCartney’s “Yesterday” (1965) and “Hey Jude” (1968) are genuine pieces of art. The basic chord pattern of “Yesterday” is F, E(minor), A, D(minor) or I-VII-III-VI. In “Hey Jude,” the unusual chord pattern of the coda (repeated 7 times at the end, to the lyrics “na-na-na-nananana-nananana-hey Jude”) is F, E-flat, B-flat, F. Nothing the rock-a-billy cats ever wrote sounded anything like that!
Originally posted on June 8, 2009.