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How To Play the Bo Diddley Drum Beat

Once you hear it you’ve got to start movin’. You may not know how to dance; you may not even want to dance. But once you hear a Bo Diddley beat, your body starts to move in mysterious ways.

The Bo Diddley drum beat is the last of the 6 beats that I think can be used to play every one of the most popular rock, pop and country songs over the past 50 years.  Read these posts if you’d like some background information on my idea: 6 Simple but Powerful Drum Beats – Part 1 and Part 2.

Who was Bo Diddley and Why Should You Care?

Bo Diddley was a guitar player who, in the 1950’s, popularized the West African 3-2 clave beat (pronounced claw-vay). He used the distinctive rhythm in so many of his songs that it became known as the Bo Diddley beat. The reason it’s called a 3-2 clave is because the phrase is made up of 3 long notes, a pause and then 2 short notes.

It has been used as the beat for many popular songs like The Who’s Magic Bus, Bow Wow Wow’s I Want Candy and Guns N’ Roses’ Mr. Brownstone. Linkin Park drummer Rob Bourdon plays a variation of the beat on the 2003 hit Numb.

The great thing for a drummer about the Bo Diddley beat is that there are so many variations. You can play the loud notes (also known as “accents”) on the snare drum, the tom-toms or the bass drum. And all of the different ways to play it sound cool. You’ll learn a simple version of it here, but I encourage you to experiment and come up with your own version.

Learn the Bo Diddley Beat

Start by listening to a couple of the Bo Diddley-style songs mentioned above. Then sit down behind the drum set and try playing your own version of the beat. It doesn’t need to sound “like the record.” Just keep it steady.

Now that you have the basic feel, let’s break down a simple Bo Diddley beat. Keep in mind that this is just one of many ways to play the beat. Here’s what it looks like on paper:

You’ll notice a couple things that are unique about this beat:

  • Play alternating sixteenth notes (right, left, right, left…) on the snare drum while keeping a steady beat with the bass drum and hi-hat.
  • Notice the accent (>) above some of the notes. When there’s an accent above or below a note, play that note louder than the other notes. Accenting these notes is what gives the Bo Diddley beat its unique feel.

Here’s a step-by-step break down of how to play the beat:

  1. Start by playing your feet. Play the bass drum on each beat. Rock your hi-hat foot; heel on “1”, toe on “2”, heel on “3”, toe on “4.”
  2. Now start counting in time with your feet:  1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4-e-and-a.
  3. Next say “1” louder than the other words. Repeat as many times as it takes to feel comfortable:  “1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4-e-and-a”.
  4. Now say “1” and the first “a” (“uh”) louder than the others and repeat until it feels good:  “1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4-e-and-a”.
  5. Next add the “and” after “two” as a loud word and repeat until comfortable:


  1. Now add the “and” after 3 to your group of loud words. Remember to play your feet:


  1. Finally, say “4” louder. Here’s the entire phrase:


  1. Repeat the phrase until you get the feel of the 3-2 clave rhythm:

________  3 ________    ______ 2 ______


Here’s another way to count it:

1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2-3-4 1-2 1-2-3-4

  1. Now let’s try it with sticks. Try playing the following phrase, accenting only “1”:

  1. Add an accent on the “a” after 1.  This may be the most difficult part of learning the beat because your left hand is not playing with any other limb (like your right or left foot). Be patient and don’t give up.  If necessary, play it super slow until it feels good.  Then increase the speed gradually until you’re playing the beat at 60 beats per minute (bpm).

  1. Next add an accent on the “&” after 2.  This is another accent that is played alone but it should not be as difficult to learn as the “a” after 1 accent.

  1. Add the accent to the “&” after 3.  This is similar to the “&” after 2 accent, played with the right hand but not with any other limb.

  1. Finally, add an accent on “4”:

Congratulations! This is one of the hardest beginning rhythms to learn. Make sure to have some fun with the beat and make it your own. Want to try something really cool? Play the beat on your snare drum with the snares turned off so it sounds like a high tom. Or try playing the beat on your floor tom.

Now, instead of just listening, try playing along to a Bo Diddley-style song. My three favorites are:

  • The original Bo Diddley by Bo Diddley,
  • Willie and the Hand Jive by Eric Clapton (This is a nice slow groove and even though the recorded accents are played on the bass drum, you can play them on the snare), and
  • Desire by U2.

Leave a comment below and tell us your favorite Bo Diddley song.

3 Responses to “How To Play the Bo Diddley Drum Beat”

  1. Jane C says:

    Thanks so much. Very helpful. Love Bo Diddley.

    • Doug says:

      Thanks, Jane. The Bo Diddley beat is the basis for so many other beats and fills. There’s something about that basic syncopation that really feels good.

  2. rasila queen says:

    This was very well thought out and presented in a way any level drummer could get it. Thanks so much!