Without bass and drums, music would be a black hole of singers figuring out what to do with themselves while guitar solos devolved into aimless doodling. Okay, maybe there’s lots of that going on already, but things would be even worse if nobody was taking care of the groove.

Fortunately, we have no shortage of brilliant rhythm sections to celebrate. The question is, how do we pick just ten from this bounty? We’ll need to apply a few rules. First, we’ve limited the list, for the most part, to rock, funk, and R&B. Second, our selections are restricted to bass players and drummers who can function on their own as the engine of their band. This means we exclude The Rolling Stones, for example, because Keith Richards is too essential to their rhythmic feel for this article. Ditto Santana and other outfits sparked by multiple percussionists.

We also passed on bands that, in our judgment, feature an amazing drummer and so-so bassist, or vice versa. Balance is key; both players have to be good enough to inspire each other. A final note: Think of these duos more as archetypes, as models for how great rhythm sections get the job done in different musical settings.

And so, with a drum roll and a couple of thumb pops on the bass, let’s count it off! (Be sure to leave your comments below!)


Drums: Ringo Starr

Bass: Paul McCartney

Obviously, Paul and Ringo didn’t generate as much sheer heat as other pairings. But remember, The Beatles weren’t targeting dancers. They were playing to the rafters at the Ed Sullivan Theater or the bleachers at Candlestick Park. They were shooting electricity straight into the nervous systems of fans. They were changing lives.

With time, they changed, too. Composition became the band’s focus. As their ambitions grew, McCartney’s and Starr’s teamwork evolved. More and more, their parts became inseparable from the song. Could anyone else have created a bass line equal to the magnificence of George Harrison’s conception on “Something”? What other drummer would have pieced together the bits that defined and then unified every section of “In My Life”? Or come up with those stampeding toms on the choruses of “She Loves You”?

Was there ever a better ballad drummer than Ringo? Imagine a jazz journeyman getting called to fill in for him in a session. Would the sub have come up with that chugging beat and cymbal crashes — those two carefully selected crashes each chorus — on “Get Back”? What about “The Long And Winding Road”? Most of us would pull out some brushes and whisk away for a while. Not Ringo: His elegant fills and spacious phrasing brought something out in McCartney’s lyrics and vocals — a lift, a buoyancy.

So, yes, other bass-and-drum combos might burn the house down night after night. But only these two knew how to kindle flames that might warm us forever.


Drums: Bill Ward

Bass: Geezer Butler

There’s no better example of metal at its most primal than Black Sabbath. The relationship between Geezer Butler and Bill Ward shifts focus constantly, with the bass anchoring passages where drums play more freely and vice versa. Much of this is compositional, given the importance of riffs in their songs. But when during instrumental passages, both unleash themselves, pushing each other furiously and feeding the guitar solo as well, much in the fashion of Cream before them.

Examples abound throughout the Sabbath catalog. “War Pigs” opens with a heavy 6/8 passage, while Butler nudges along. When the lyrics come in, the time shifts to 4/4 and the band hits the riff solidly to punch Ozzy’s vocal. When a secondary riff comes in after two verses, this time Ward adds a few well-placed fills and a freer approach to playing against the riff and behind the vocal.

When the guitar solo begins at three-and-a-half minutes, Butler plays the root in octaves a few times, providing a foundation for Iommi and Ward to stretch out. His judgment is impeccably empathetic as he shifts from the root to lines. Butler is totally in the moment here but neither he nor the other players have fully opened up. When they do, over a chiming guitar motif, their sense of balance is maintained. Iommi’s solo is powerful but restrained, often played in quarter- or half-notes, which give the rhythm section freer rein.

Notice the similarities in “Iron Man.” Here, too, Butler locks down the riff at the top, with Ward emphasizing its construction while also hitting the backbeat. As the song progresses, the drums intensify with cymbal crashes and single-stroke fills. Then, when the guitar solo begins, Butler again sticks to an octave pulse, which serves the dual purpose of adding urgency while leaving room for Ward and Iommi to tear it up.

It’s classic rock rhythm-section artistry: simplicity and something less restrained, always in balance.


Drums: Benny Benjamin

Bass: James Jamerson

The Motown catalog of the 1960s emanated sensuality, romance, sophistication, and soul. Of course, the song lyrics had everything to do with this, but from Smokey Robinson And The Miracles’ “Tracks Of My Tears” to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” it’s the musicians who coaxed them to life.

In label head Berry Gordy’s innovative conceptions, string sections polished many of his artists’ biggest hits without soaking them in sentimentality. Mostly, the string players added both class and edge to the material as no one working had done previously in R&B.

All of this — the orchestrations, the smooth and soulful vocals — rode on an extraordinary rhythm bed, courtesy of bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin, who flavored each performance with his trademark fills.

One in particular — dotted quarter-note and eighth-note on the third bar of a phrase, straight eights on the first beat of bar four — crops up at an easy mid-tempo on The Temptations’ “My Girl,” amid a pounding four-beat feel on Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” and countless other songs.

In Jamerson, Benjamin found his musical soulmate. Probably his greatest performance animates The Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).” The balance principle plays out here: As Benjamin maintains a four-beat pattern, Jamerson sizzles through the verses until moving up to the third of the I chord. This creates a hint of irresolution, which builds as the song moves through a diminished chord and then peaks where the band drops out and the bass pushes into chorus. And here Jamerson hangs onto the fifth of the I chord for two bars before resolving it. Knowing how brilliant this is, Benjamin hangs back. It’s perfect rhythm section synchronicity.


Drums: Clyde Stubblefield; John “Jabo” Starks

Bass: Bernard Odum; Bootsy Collins; Charles Sherrell

After setting the music world ablaze with his pioneering, soul-flavored R&B and galvanic live show, James Brown ignited another wildfire in the late ’60s. This time it was all about the groove. Just as Sly & Robbie were doing in Jamaica, Brown’s band The JBs melted verses into extended jams, often anchored on just the tonic chord. What differentiated Brown’s approach was how everything he cut highlighted his flair for showmanship and his love for letting his musicians solo.

Before the group officially adopted the name The JBs in the 1970s, drummer Clyde Stubblefield drove the first of the classic JBs lineups with a style that flavored R&B with elements of jazz. In 1967, on the pivotal “Cold Sweat (Parts 1 and 2),” with the horns driving the band with a repeated riff, he frees himself from the backbeat to invent more complex counter-figures on his snare. The ecstasy of rhythm, rather than lead sheets and tunes, is the focus here, particularly when Brown commands bassist Bernard Odum and the rest of the band to “give the drummer some.” As on the famous “Funky Drummer” of 1970, with Charles Sherrell on bass, Stubblefield chooses to play around his pattern rather than blow everybody away with chops.

Things changed when Bootsy Collins and John “Jabo” Starks succeeded Stubblefield and his bass partners. The drums locked more onto patterns, often articulating the two and four, sometimes with a little variation, while the bass snaked and popped with extraordinary energy and imagination around each beat. The drumming started in a subtler way. On 1970’s “Super Bad (Parts 1, 2, and 3),” when Starks hits the first and fourth eighth-notes of each measure throughout the verses and then on the choruses switches his focus to the ride cymbal while alternating a new snare pattern and freer playing with every other bar, his concept and execution are nothing short of breathtaking.


Drums: Al Jackson Jr.

Bass: Donald “Duck” Dunn

No bassist on this list played less than Donald “Duck” Dunn. On most of what he recorded at the legendary Stax Studios in Memphis, he hung onto the central riff (i.e., Booker T & The MGs’ “Time Is Tight”), or alternated between the riff, the root of the chord, or a walking line, both of which he introduced at some strategic moment (for instance, the eighth-note walk up and down every two bars in the last moments of Otis Redding’s “Respect”).

This suggests that the drummer would assume a freer role. Instead, Al Jackson, Jr. followed the same path. His chops were strong, having been cultivated by playing big-band gigs since his early teens. But throughout the ’60s, the label’s golden years, he stuck to basics: a backbeat, steady hi-hat, a counter-rhythm on the kick. This left it to guitarist Steve Cropper to come up with the more spontaneous stuff — the sharp eighth-note chops and ringing V chord on the bridge of Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour,” the discrete bluesy elements on Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love,” that tasty lick leading from the IV to the I in the verses to Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood.”

All of this set up those moments when Jackson would add something extra, like a sudden swing around his kit as the band riffed behind Otis Redding on “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” or a three-note burst on snare and two kicks going into the final section of Sam And Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” In the context established by Dunn and Jackson, one tiny statement often said more than a full Buddy Rich solo.


Drums: Tim Alexander

Bass: Les Claypool

What’s a drummer to do when your bass player is a music god? Luckily, Tim Alexander figured out two answers: Sometimes you get out of the way. And sometimes you jump on the speeding train and help drive it even harder.

With Primus, the bass does most of the stretching. Discerning listeners, though, will note Alexander’s precision, imagination, and world-class chops. On “John The Fisherman” he cuts down to an essential groove as the bass cycles and prowls. Yet Claypool leaves space for Alexander to hit quick, punchy fills and to punch and elaborate on the backbeat. In contrast, Alexander’s decision to hold back on the kick allows their interaction to float toward a higher register on “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver.”

But fair is fair, so Claypool often cedes the spotlight. On “Frizzle Fry,” he restricts himself to hammering the riff or throbbing octaves on the tonic note as Alexander blazes on snare and executes kick fills that border on impossible.

Timbre is central to their teamwork. The best example of this comes on “Mr. Krinkle,” where Claypool bows the song’s central riff on acoustic bass. The reason becomes clear immediately, in the complexity of his articulation and in the recurring low, extended groan he wrings from the instrument. The real magic comes in the quieter passages, though, where he and Alexander play off of each other almost delicately, and the bass steps back at the end to let the drums expand on the beat with crackling sixteenth-note rim taps.

It can’t get any better than this.


Drums: Chad Smith

Bass: Flea

In their early years The Red Hot Chili Peppers pumped all their energy into a punk/funk fusion. As with most great rhythm sections, Flea and Chad Smith maximized these efforts through a constant shift in balance: intricacy and simplicity, impact and restraint.

Their cover of “Higher Ground,” from Mother’s Milk in 1989, is a good example. Smith, who had joined the band the year before, understood that Flea’s dissection of the main riff into sixteenth-notes was what separated their version from the Stevie Wonder original. It also drew attention to the edginess of their approach. So on this track, as well as on “Knock Me Down,” “Taste The Pain,” and other tracks from Mother’s Milk, Smith concentrated on the backbeat but made sure it was kept high in the mix to both complement and galvanize the bass.

Flea and Smith stayed faithful to this blueprint, with occasional variations. But over the next few years, as they began exploring the power of dynamics, their synchronicity grew even more impressive. It became a hallmark for them to begin many of their songs — “Scar Tissue,” “Otherside,” and many others — with Flea playing quietly, even introspectively. Smith would slip into the picture softly, as on “Californication.” Or, on “Under The Bridge” and “My Friends,” he’d lay down a basic beat as Flea played on the changes and added a few melodic fills.

In these settings, with John Frusciante having room to fill out the rhythm with well-defined guitar strums or accents, the Peppers configured their sound around a standard of musicianship that wasn’t always obvious in the beginning. Credit Flea and Smith for pulling that off. Maybe they don’t blaze like they used to but they simmer better than practically any other duo on this list.


Drums: Sly Dunbar

Bass: Robbie Shakespeare

On more than 200,000 tracks, Sly & Robbie, aka The Riddim Twins, adhered to the Golden Rule: When one player stretches, the other pulls back. But as the definitive reggae rhythm section, they applied it to a radically different setting.

In reggae, rather than follow a roadmap of verse, chorus, and bridge, songs often consisted of two chords alternating hypnotically and, it could seem, endlessly. So, for example, Junior Delgado’s “Fort Augustus,” released in 1979, consists entirely of G minor and C major, each playing for one bar over a sensuous, percolating rhythm behind Delgado’s understated but passionate vocal. Rather than build and release tension, Robbie Shakespeare prowls somewhat freely on bass, though he does occasionally repeat a quarter-note motif on the

minor I. Sly Dunbar sets up a mini-motif of his own, with a little loose-stick drag on the third beat of every other bar. Somewhat uncharacteristically, he also plays an extended fill now and then, though its purpose is to enhance the atmosphere rather than to mark the beginnings or endings of sections of the song.

In their later work, they were recruited by superstars who sought to expand their own approaches to groove and atmosphere. Dunbar and Shakespeare delivered the goods for Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Robert Palmer, and so many others, by finding the artist’s pocket and ways to complement it. Even after Dunbar more or less retired from playing in the late ’80s, they continued to contribute as producers by enhancing the trance elements of their feel through electronics and studio effects, never diluting but only strengthening and adding relevance to the roots of their music.


Drums: Greg Errico

Bass: Larry Graham

In just four years, Sly And The Family Stone spearheaded a musical revolution. It began in 1968, when CBS Records executive Clive Davis prevailed on them to brighten their already innovative proto-funk sound with more of a pop sensibility. The result was “Dance To The Music,” whose exuberant mashup of gospel, R&B, and psychedelia inspired Miles Davis, the Motown stable, and countless others to challenge their own creative resources.

On the group’s pre-Clive regional releases in San Francisco, bass guitarist Larry Graham, and drummer Greg Errico played with a choppier feel. For example, dramatic snare rolls in “Dynamite” (1968) interrupt rather than enhance the groove.

With “Dance To The Music” they pared their parts down, particularly Errico.

He does start “Stand!” with a massive roll but only to set up the initial punch of the beat. His only elaboration comes when he opens his hi-hat for each chorus, pounding it on the 2 and 4 or on all four beats before snapping it shut as the verse returns. Graham, meanwhile, does little throbs the tonic note on the and between all four beats. It can’t get simpler — or more irresistible — than that.

For more than five minutes they mercilessly drove the beat on “I Want To Take You Higher,” with Errico again adding a few open hi-hat hits while Graham prowled restlessly around the root of the chord. In 1970 he blew countless bassists’ minds with his pioneering string pops on “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” forever changing how his instrument would be used, especially in funk, and making a clear case for being one-half of the most influential rhythm sections of any era.


Drums: Keith Moon

Bass: John Entwistle

According to a story one can only hope is true, The Who — singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend, and bassist John Entwistle — were playing at a London club in the early ’60s. They hadn’t yet found a drummer they all liked, so for each gig they hired a temp. On this particular night, Keith Moon wandered up to the stage and asked if he could sit in. Within one song he had broken the kick drum pedal and pulverized a head.

That’s when everybody in the band knew they had the right guy.

Everything that followed was forecast in that first performance. Moon was unpredictable, excessive, undisciplined, sometimes embarrassingly bad, but more often staggeringly and uniquely impressive. Especially on their early hits, he confined himself to the basics.

On “I Can’t Explain,” he dutifully punches the hook on his kick and stays pretty close to the backbeat. But his frequent hits on the and after fourth beats suggested he was doing all he could to hold himself back.

On Moon’s last tracks with The Who, Townshend’s experiments with synthesizers challenged him to revisit his earlier beat-centered work while enhancing it with his unique energy. This led to his apotheosis, on “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” where he concocts a powerful three-part figure against the electronic pulse at the top of the instrumental section. As Townshend digs into his solo, Moon waits, waits, and then blasts into the glorious, anarchic rock drumming only he could command.

What was Entwistle doing throughout all this? Basically, aside from his break on “My Generation” and a few other hair-raising moments, he anchored everything, knowing better than to battle for the spotlight. Sadly, his virtuosity didn’t really become evident until after Moon’s death in 1978 — which, of course, is all the more to Entwistle’s credit in making this rhythm section achieve its potential.