Rhythms of Progressive RockTomás Howie Drumming Web
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Rhythms of Prog




   Progressive Rock was a child of the 1960's English counterculture. It grew out of the psychedelic movement and was an attempt to broaden the scope of rock music through the integration of other musical styles and devices: classical, Anglican church, jazz, folk, medieval, and African (among others). Music was structured around classical composition styles; two important elements in this music were 1.the juxtaposition of electric and acoustic sections - the male and female elements of the musical subtext - 2. the development of musical themes. These were sometimes done to great effect, the result being the broadening of rock music's possibilities. The genre resulted in some tremendously creative work before its decline in the late 1970s.

   At the outset, before 1970, progressive rock drumming was basically standard rock drumming: it provided a solid foundation that gave the other instrumentalists something on which to "anchor" their parts (the notable exception was Carl Palmer of ELP). Very quickly, however, some young drummers got it into their heads that the drum parts should be as exciting and challenging as the compositions themselves, and through their efforts the style of rock drumming was broadened and changed forever - for the better, I might add.

   I'd like to look at some representative samples and see why they stand out and how they contributed to the genre, and to drumming in particular.


Heart of the Sunrise

   Bill Bruford's work with Yes prior to 1971 - while interesting within the confines of a jazz-influenced rock beat - did not stretch the drumming vocabulary. With the release of FRAGILE, Yes began to become far more adventurous in their musical explorations. Bill rose to the occasion, particularly on a song that has become a Yes standard: "Heart of the Sunrise". Here's the pattern from FRAGILE:

Heart of the Sunrise 1

   This rhythm is echoing the bass and guitar lines almost to a T. This full frontal assault on the listener is done to great affect, and the technique would be picked up years later by the proponents of speed metal, albeit without the finesse afforded by Yes' virtuosity. Rhythmically, the figure in the first measure is almost a Flam Paradiddle-Diddle without the flam, and using 16th notes throughout. It's an easy pattern to play; what makes it interesting are the accents and the juxtaposition of the different rhythms in the two measures.

   The piece rocked, but Bruford's technique kept it light. When Alan White joined Yes the basic rhythm mutated into this pattern:

Heart of the Sunrise 2

   What may seem as a cop-out in technique proved quite successful on stage (where Alan has performed it exclusively with Yes). It tends to drive the rhythm section with a great deal more raw energy.

   Interestingly, when Bruford rejoined his former Yes-men in 1989 for the ABWH album and tour, he also changed the basic pattern:

Heart of the Sunrise 3

   Note the second measure, where he borrowed from White. Music should not remain static, and while the rest of the song has not changed in performance throughout the years, it's nice to see the drum part mature.

Watcher of the Skies

   Just about the same time Mr. Bruford was shaking things up, another young drummer named Phil Collins was causing some heads to turn over in Genesis. Up until FOXTROT Genesis was content to paint its rhythmic variations with a broad brush: whole segments were pieced together using rather intricate bridging bits, but as a whole the rhythm tended to remain pretty straight-ahead. With "Watcher of the Skies", however, Mssrs. Collins et al were approaching the same type of rhythmical unity Yes had achieved with "Heart of the Sunrise" (interestingly, where Yes continued to develop this direction, "Watcher" remains Genesis' only foray into this area).

Watcher of The Skies

   Again, Mr. Collins keeps this rather syncopated beast light and airy - a difficult feat - while he is joined primarily by the bass (with some guitar). What's interesting about this piece is that this rhythm continues underneath a melody line that stresses the beat, creating a bit of tension with the underlying syncopation. In contrast, the segment from "Heart of the Sunrise" stands alone as an instrumental section. Genesis, in this regard at least, seems to have surpassed Yes in its willingness to integrate such a disquieting rhythm within a more "traditional" melodic development. The whole is greater then the sum of its parts.

Thick as a Brick

   Similar things were happening over at the Jethro Tull camp. Barriemore Barlow had just replaced Clive Bunker on drums and he immediately brought a much more sophisticated sense of rhythm to the band. THICK AS A BRICK shows a more mature sense of rhythmic adventurousness, mirroring the whole-band approach of Yes and Genesis. The following pattern appears throughout the album and seems to be an anchor.

Thick as a Brick

   Again, the whole band plays this line, and the effect if rather hypnotic. As with Yes, this would be a technique Tull would develop to great lengths.

   It seems early progressive rock drummers were attempting to break out of the traditional rock drummer's role by doubling other instruments. They would often return to this method in subsequent albums.

The Ancient

   When Bill Bruford moved to King Crimson, Alan White stepped in to fill the drum throne. His first recorded work with Yes - TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS - displayed a great deal of creativity within the rock drummer idiom. Alan pulled back a bit from Bill's wild phrasing on "Close to the Edge", yet his statements were thoughtful and precise.

   On "The Ancient" he and the band return to the technique outlined above.

The Ancient

   This is a very powerful section in the midst of a wild guitar solo by Howe. Just when the music seems to be going over the top, they nail it to the ground. While this passage isn't as technically difficult as other passages on TALES, it does seem to take Yes' use of the doubling technique to its logical conclusion.

The Third Hoorah

   Back at the Tull camp, the boys had also been expanding on this technique. The next series of charts follows the rhythmic progression of the piece from the opening notes, which are played on the flute. The drums come in immediately:

The Third Hoorah 1

   Barriemore starts the development on the bass drum. As interesting as this is by itself, what makes it work is the obvious counterpoint to the flute line, which appears on the upper half of the staff:

The Third Hoorah Flute/Bass Drum interaction

   Note how the drums double only in the last measure.

   The pattern is repeated, this time adding the snare. The technique is borrowed from medieval music, which was beginning to become a major influence in Ian Anderson's writing.

The Third Hoorah 2

   Once this pattern finishes, the drums fall into a straight four-note pattern, while the flute continues the theme begun above.

The Third Hoorah 3

   While this may not seem particularly remarkable, the pattern - played by drums and bass - offer an interesting contrast to the flute, which continues on its airy way, seemingly oblivious to the hammering going on at the bottom of the track.

   However, just when you thought things were getting mundane, Barlow brings a marching cadence, which had been lurking in the shadows during the preceding section (you could almost smell it hiding there!).

The Third Hoorah 4

   In this pattern, the snare is finally echoing the flute - you sense that it was holding back all this time. In doing so, a certain tension is released, but the real release doesn't come until the closing fill, which is the lead-in for the rather straight-ahead shuffle pattern below (remember, the flute hasn't changed its melody line).

The Third Hoorah 5

   After almost a minute of development, we've finally settled into a typical rhythmic pattern that we're familiar with! The release has finally come, and our toes begin tapping. But, in keeping with progressive "tradition", Ian and the boys don't let us get too comfortable before they throw us a major curve (even the melody line changes!):

The Third Hoorah 6

   This phrase signals a change from the light, airy introductory melody to a somewhat heavier section that begins developing the musical structure that will accompany the lyrical content - the song proper.

   As the introductory section developed progressively, this section too gives way to a more elaborate structural development.

The Third Hoorah 7

   There are echoes of previous rhythmic patterns in this section. However, the song is clearly losing its airiness for a heavier feel, a precursor to Anderson's biting lyrics. The bass and guitars are doubling the snare. This section plays straight through, repeated as indicated, and is concluded by the following section before settling into a rather straight-ahead shuffle pattern that underpins the vocals.

   I followed the development of this piece in detail because of the way it plays with counterpoint and its method of shifting back and forth between rather typical rhythmic patterns and the echoing technique favored by many prog bands of the era. It is the result of sophisticated thinking and a mature musical approach.


   Yes' RELAYER album contains the next two examples, both showing a maturing rhythmic style; Alan White is beginning to find his role as drummer after a rather hesitant start on TALES. Both charts seem to be following the echo technique, but in reality are well-disguised rhythmic developments and augment and offset the music that is happening on top of the bass/drums.

   The first, from "The Gates of Delirium", comes from the middle instrumental section of the piece. Here, a war between two societies is raging: violence, pathos, and suffering are portrayed in exquisitely dramatic fashion by the instrumentation. The drum pattern both supports the overlaying music, and at the same time throws in an unsettling instability that threatens to topple forward unimpeded, reflecting the senseless juggernaut of the subject matter.

The Gates of Delerium

   The production is brittle, harsh, and knife-edged. The music is chaotic and at times displays the genius of the insane. Gone forever is the airiness of the Bruford era.

   The second example is from the other full-tilt song, "Sound Chaser". This is the one song I play for my musician friends when I want to see their tongues hit the floor. The musicianship is impeccable. Jazz and rock have never fused more successfully. It's hard to tell what this song is about, but there is no denying that Yes deliver this piece with a wild abandon, with the conviction of the anointed.

Sound Chaser

   The above chart is the fundamental rhythm. It starts at a leisurely pace, but Yes isn't comfortable with just playing a tricky pattern. Unlike "The Third Hoorah", Yes doesn't develop this pattern by adding instruments. Instead they change the tempo; just like that. One minute it's going along at a good clip, the next minute it's going twice as fast; there is no bridge; then it slows back down. After a guitar solo and a recapitulation of the opening keyboard/drum solo, this rhythm returns, only faster than before! Patrick Moraz plays a brilliant jazz synth solo over the underlying maelstrom. When that's finished, the rhythm again doubles its pace and finally ends in an explosion of sound. The listener is exhausted.

   The pattern is propelled by the hi-hat work, which is quite spirited. The snare and bass drum work merely serve as a kick in the backside to keep the thing going. You really need to hear this one if you haven't already.

Cold Wind to Valhalla

   The Tull guys seem to have picked up the Yes edge by osmosis. This song also careens on the edge of disaster, offering up a seat-of-the-pants rhythm that borders on the surreal. The guitar and drums double here, leaving room for Anderson's vocals to take a more leisurely pace.

Cold Wind to Valhalla

   The guitar work is particularly fine, and the drums provide the perfect foundation for Barre's excellent solo. It seems that Tull had taken this idea as far as they could go, for their subsequent albums pulled back from the brink and offered up more traditional drumming fare.

Frame By Frame

   While many other prog bands were developing interesting musical ideas, few were pushing the drums to the edge quite the way Tull and Yes were. One band that was playing on the extreme was King Crimson. Their 70's work was highly improvisational, and many great examples could be shown here. However, I would like to flash-forward into the 80s, long after prog proper had fallen into dusty ruin. It is here that Crimson really shone, providing a beacon for the continuing progression of popular music. While the rest of prog had settled into the formula of the genre, Crimson was busting out of the genre and daring others to follow.

   The first piece from the landmark album DISCIPLINE, "Frame By Frame" shows both Bruford's incredible inventiveness and his economy of means. While the rhythmic pattern he uses here could have easily gone over the edge in the hands of a less disciplined musician, he displays a great deal of restraint in the midst of the accompanying instrumental barrage.

   The song has two parts, an introduction, and a vocal section. Here's the introduction:

Frame By Frame 1

   The top line is played on octabans. This section works because of the strategically-placed accents. All the while this is happening, the guitars are whirling like a dervish: the overall effect is a clattering almighty noise, with little resemblance to western music. This settles down a bit when the vocals come in, so as not to get in the way. However, the playfulness of the rhythm remains.

Frame By Frame 2

   It's interesting that the instrumental section is in 4/4, and the vocal section is in 7/8: this is exactly the opposite of many prog bands. Maybe they were trying to make a point? Also note the hi-hat seems to want to nail the rhythm down to a 4/4 feel in the 7/8 section. Not for everyone's taste, but certainly progressive in the true sense of the word!


   The title song of the album takes the ideas that have been developed to their logical conclusion. At once a monotonous collection of ostinatos, upon closer listen this song reveals a very sophisticated series of rhythmic patterns that play upon each other in apparent counterpoint. The effect is hypnotic, and very disturbing.


   Bruford plays this pattern throughout the development section of the piece. Note the lack of time signature. The song seems to be timeless, and this rhythm contributes to that "otherworldly" feeling. It makes a fantastic exercise: don't miss the flams.


   Meanwhile, over at the Yes camp, the boys - headed by Trevor Rabin - had gone whole-hog into rock and roll: straight fours laid down with some authority. Nothing could have been farther from the Crimson camp than 90125! Yet, tucked away in that album is a small song that bears the working name of the band before Anderson rejoined: "Cinema".

   White's drumming is reminiscent of "Sound Chaser", his snare work augmented by quick, well-timed hits on the hi-hat. The drum work is what really propels this piece, since everything else is pretty straightforward. While displaying White's chops - and showing that he hasn't lost the prog edge - this is the last interesting rhythmic construction Yes-West would do until 1991's UNION, almost 10 years later.


   Yes won their one and only Grammy for this song.


   King Crimson broke up in 1983, only to reform almost ten years later and put out a series of four albums based on one album's worth of material (talk about milking an idea!). Thematically, the band pretty much picked up where they left off after THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR; this reforming didn't represent a major advance in Fripp's vision as DISCIPLINE had.

   But, the music was engaging, and the rhythm section once again proved why Mr. Bruford is considered in such high regard. Take, for example, the drum duet he performs with Pat Mastelato, "B'Boom". It is based on the following pattern:


   This rather tricky-sounding rhythm is really very simple to play. Just pay attention to the accents. It gets complicated when one adds the hat and bass drum to the pattern: the snare alone is quite easy. However, as with the classic "Industry", Bruford expands on this foundational pattern in rather startling ways during his solo spot. He seems to be interested in taking a straightforward ostinato, breaking it down to its component parts, and reassembling it in frighteningly convoluted ways. It's no wonder he recorded "The Drum Also Waltzes" on the Moraz/Bruford album FLAGS. Max Roach's classic dissembling is right up Bruford's alley!


   One of the great myths surrounding prog drumming is that it is "difficult". As these examples show, the drumming itself isn't particularly tricky; it is, however, thoughtful, well-placed, and highly complimentary of the music surrounding it. Everything works together.

   The future of progressive rock drumming is in doubt, as is the future of progressive rock itself. Yes seems to be attempting to make interesting music, and White's drumming on KEYS TO ASCENSION 1 & 2 is remarkable in places. With the sole exception of Crimson, who seem to be teetering on the brink of repetition, every major prog band of the 70s has seemed to abandon its genre for more popular pastures.

   Yet, even as we speak, new, young bands are emerging that will challenge us as listeners, and as drummers. Spock's Beard and Liquid Tension Experiment lead the new brat pack. Let's give them a listen.

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