The rhythm section. Often overlooked or altogether forgotten, but nonetheless essential to the Jazz, Funk, Soul, and Rock genres. Yes, it’s true that without bass and drums, music would be nothing more than an endless void of overly flamboyant lead singers and noodling guitar players.
Bass players and drummers hold down the groove of the song, and in some instances, these players are so talented and charismatic in their own right, they themselves function as the literal engine of the band. For the sake of keeping this article rhythmically sound, I’ve chosen to specifically focus on the Jazz, Rock, Funk, and R&B genres. I’ve also chosen to exclude groups, who, for example, feature an incredible drummer but a mediocre bassist, and vice versa.
When it comes to music, balance is incredibly important, and so in an article pondering the merits of various musician’s ability to ‘groove’ balance is also key. The idea is to spotlight duos who truly inspired not only one another but, furthermore, inspired truly artistic and seminal art. With that said, let’s get started:
5) Bill Ward & Geezer Butler
In the late 1960s, the world was just coming out of the Flower Power era. A time laden with Sunshine Pop, long drawn out Psych-Rock, and a lot of filler. As the Vietnam War raged on, certain darkness began to creep across the land, and eventually, that darkness took the name of Black Sabbath. Deep dark grooves, chugging riffs, primal drums, and menacing and at times deranged sounding vocals, the likes of which no one had ever heard before, set sail an entirely new genre we have come to know as Heavy Metal. Sure, Tommy Iommi had the riffs, and Ozzy Osbourne was the voice, but Black Sabbath was always a groove-centered band, with Geezer Butler and Bill Ward front and center. Geezer Butler’s unmistakable low end provided a breeding ground for Tommy Iommi’s riffs, and Bill Ward’s thunderous and primal Jazz beats provided the overdriven punch that was and still is Black Sabbath’s music, the likes of which Ozzy Osbourne could spew his gothic lyrics over. Early Sabbath was as much about a vibe as it was the music. Geezer Butler and Bill Ward were that vibe.
4) Keith Moon & John Entwistle
In life, Keith Moon was entirely unpredictable, and thus, his drumming was as well. Immensely talented and completely drug-addled and deranged, oftentimes Keith Moon was more concerned with how hard he was hitting the drums, rather than how well he was playing them, and therein lied the magic. John Entwistle was a true virtuoso of his instrument. He played the bass as if it were a rhythm guitar, which was perfect considering The Who had only one actual guitarist in Pete Townsend. John Entwistle’s ability to simultaneously act as a rhythm guitarist, hold down the groove and manage the eccentric time signatures Keith Moon would come up with on the literal spot was nothing short of a miracle. His ability to follow along with Moon’s powerfully overwhelming and fill-heavy style while teetering on the edge of a train wreck was exactly what made The Who great. Their signature sound was chaos, and they dealt in excitement. Though they would soldier on without Moon, and later Entwistle, they could never harness that same energy again.
3) Tiki Fulwood & Billy Nelson
Here is where I take a left turn. Many of you won’t know these two, but you should. Those of you who are hardcore crate-diggers, Hip-Hop heads into sampling, or fans of down and dirty Funk probably do. These two held down the early incarnation of the seminal George Clinton lead Funk band, Funkadelic. While it’s true that Parliament-Funkadelic has had many members (fifteen of which have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to date), there was never a better rhythm section than Tiki and Billy. Tiki, known for his loud, hard-hitting, and raw drum style combined perfectly with Billy, who had mastered the ability to lay down the funkiest and dirtiest of bass grooves. Without these two relatively unknown giants of the genre, Funk music would never have been the same. In the vast array of P-Funk’s eclectic and downright massive catalog, it’s easy to overlook these two, especially considering they both quit the band around 1971, due to royalty disputes (George Clinton is a greedy bastard), just after they finished their part in recording the genre-defining Maggot Brain. Alas, one can only think about what could have been. George Clinton, and the various incarnations of both Parliament and Funkadelic alike were always downright awesome, but in my opinion, they were never better than those first three albums, culminating in Maggot Brain, and that is in no small part due to both Tiki Fulwood, and Bill “Bass” Nelson’s contributions.
2. John Jabo & Bootsy Collins
These two only played together for a moment, but their influence is nothing short of legendary. Are you looking for some downright, groove-laden, gritty R&B? Look no further than the “Original” J.B.’s. Who were the J.B.’s, you ask? The J.B.’s were formed as James Brown’s backing band in early 1970 after the members of Brown’s previous band walked out on him due to a pay dispute (James Brown was also a greedy bastard). The initial “Original” band featured the legendary John “Jabo” Starks on drums, and the well-traveled, groove master, none other than William “Bootsy” Collins. This particular incarnation of the J.B.’s was only together for a short year or so, but during that time, they churned out some of James Brown’s most intense Funk recordings, including “Get Up (I feel like being a) Sex Machine,” “Super Bad,” and “Soul Power.” Not bad, right? Furthermore, together they recorded two instrumental singles, “The Grunt” and “These Are the J.B.’s,” both of which would go on to become two of the most sampled songs in Hi-Hop history. Jabo and Bootsy were the literal drive shaft of the band, and the sound that they created together has been mimicked by countless Soul, Funk, and live instrumental Hi-Hop outfits. While they were only together as a rhythm section for a short time, the thunder they created is still reverberating to this day.
1) Elvin Jones & Jimmy Garrison
In 1962 what would become known as John Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet” was formed. They would go on to become a group that would both redefine and reshape Jazz forever. John Coltrane was a master composer, and his stature as an artist and Jazz legend does not need to be reviewed or proven, that is to say – it’s already a known fact. That being said, when you combine his prowess as a composer and add in the thunderous drums of Elvin Jones and deep, upright double bass plucking’s of Jimmy Garrison, you simply come away with something special. This group of men, along with the accomplished Jazz pianist, McCoy Tyner would go on to record some of the most seminal albums in music history, all the while kicking off the Free Jazz movement that would ensue in the mid to late 1960s. Albums such as Impressions, A Love Supreme, and the live album, Live at Birdland demonstrated Jones and Garrison’s ability to create a deep, tight, and booming pocket for Coltrane and Tyner to improvise and solo over. The duo created space and atmosphere not seen before in Jazz music. For the most part, Jones and Garrison would stick with Coltrane until his death in 1967, both as the “Classic Quartet” and as large ensemble groups Coltrane put together as his interest in both Free Jazz and Psychedelic drugs increased (check out Ascension for a deep dive into that). The influence of these two on Coltrane and his music was palatable. The effect and shock waves they sent through the genre are still ringing in the ears of both Jazz fans and the Hi-Hop producers who sample them alike. Jones and Garrison were truly special. What they accomplished can never be recreated, and I don’t believe I am alone in thinking that I prefer it that way. Theirs is a legacy truly unto themselves and of their own.
So, that wraps up my Top-5 list of legendary rhythm sections. I hope you enjoyed reading (and hopefully learning from) it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I find it interesting that the drummers (sometimes) and bassists (especially) are so often overlooked in all genres.
As fans of vinyl, I like to think we take the time to pay special attention to the music we are listening to. Large artwork and the physical act of putting on a record require time and attention, and today I ask that next time you put on your favorite record, take the extra time to sit back and pay special attention to the rhythm section. Dig into the bassline, and allow it to pulse through your veins. Allow the punch of the drums to kick you in the gut. Come up for air, and then take in some more. A good rhythm section holds the song together, and so don’t forget to give your favorite drummer or bassist their due. Cheers!
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