Beat Analysis: Why I think the Jeff Porcaro’s Rosanna Shuffle is the best rock beat ever

Unless you’re someone like my dad who listened to precious little beyond John Philip Sousa marches and ragtime, you’ve probably heard the song “Rosanna”, the grammy-winning first single from Toto’s 1982 album Toto IV. The tune peaked as high as Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks, and it’s still played in heavy rotation on classic rock radio forty years after it was released. The foundation of the song, drummer Jeff Porcaro’s “Rosanna Shuffle,” is both notoriously difficult to play and probably the sickest beat in a rock song ever. I’ll play it for you and tell you why I think it is. 

Jeff Porcaro. Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Denise Marie Luko.

I’ll be the first to admit that I generally listen to heavier music than Toto, but “Rosanna” is an Olympic-level banger, and the band’s songs “Hold the Line” and “Africa” are cheesy classics. The group was formed in 1977 by a cohort of prolific session musicians who played on albums by Boz Scaggs, Sonny and Cher, and Steely Dan among others. They had a crazy musical pedigree, but the band was never a darling of the critics: Despite Toto IV‘s Number 2 status on the charts, Don Shewey from Rolling Stone compared Toto’s output to a different kind of number two, writing that the band “lacks at least two elements crucial to good rock: A singer and a writer…Toto is a band of skilled craftsmen without a mesmerizing mastermind: pros, but no poetry1.” 

I find Shewey’s assessment fair to the point that, ultimately, critics don’t pay the bills. The fans do! And since Toto just announced that they’re joining Journey on a 38-city tour next year, clearly their music still resonates with the fans. A big part of why they echo with me, specifically, is Jeff Porcaro’s groove: On “Rosanna,” he threw the Bo Diddley beat and the Purdie Shuffle into a big blender, let it mix, and added his own spices to the resultant goop. In doing so, he created something unlike any other drum groove ever.

Here’s the Bo Diddley beat noted for percussion.

To understand the Rosanna Shuffle, we’ve got to check out the Bo Diddley beat first. If you remember any of these songs…

  • “Rum and Coca Cola” by The Andrews Sisters
  • “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly 
  • “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame” by Elvis Presley
  • “Mr. Brownstone” by Guns N’ Roses
  • “Magic Bus” by The Who
  • “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” by KT Tunstall
  • “New York Groove” by Ace Frehley

…you’ve heard variations on this rhythm before. Its origins were in the 3-2 clave beat, a widely-played pattern in Afro-Cuban music. The rhythm got its common name when drummer Clifton James played it on Bo Diddley’s eponymous debut single, which was released in 1955. 

The Bo Diddley beat, recorded on October 22, 2022.

The beat starts about two seconds in. Ignore the “chick” of the hi-hat pedal: I only played it to keep time since the 3-2 beat is pretty syncopated without a reference. I played the rhythm on different configurations of the kick, toms, and snare to give a feel of some different contexts.

The Purdie Shuffle.

The Purdie Shuffle is the other groove Porcaro borrowed from on “Rosanna.” Ideated by the legendary R&B and funk drummer Bernard Purdie, the beat is a half-time blues shuffle with syncopated ghost notes on the snare that line up to the middle note of a triplet bookmarked by galloping notes on the hi-hat. Purdie played the beat on “Babylon Sisters” and “Home At Last” by Steely Dan, but variations can be heard as played by John Bonham on Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain”, Stewart Copeland on “Walking on the Moon” by the Police, and, of course, the Rosanna Shuffle. A fill precedes the actual groove in my recording. I ran through two bars of the beat with the hi-hat and two on the ride cymbal:

The Purdie Shuffle, recorded on October 22, 2022.

Notice how authoritative that last kick drum sounds underneath the snare at the end of the second and fourth bars, but also how its absence gives the laid-back shuffle room to transition to that commanding variation in the first and third measures. Bernard Purdie is a master of playing in the pocket, and it’s that kind of detail that entrenches his shuffle firmly inside it.

If you’re interested, all of the beats I’m playing were recorded in my garage on an Alesis DM8 Pro electronic drumset that I played to an in-ear click track to keep time. I’ll probably go into more depth about how I record drums from my home studio in a later post.

Jeff Porcaro’s Rosanna Shuffle.

A combination of the feel of the Bo Diddley beat on the kick and snare with the interplay of the snare and hi-hat from the Purdie Shuffle pretty much leads to the Rosanna Shuffle. Here it is, as generally written in notation and played.

The Rosanna Shuffle, recorded on October 22, 2022.

Isn’t that a sick groove? It’s complex, but manages to stay nimble as it pushes the song forward at about twenty beats per minute faster than the Purdie Shuffle. I learned the “Rosanna” beat from drumset sheet music when I was seventeen or eighteen, and it was an absolute monster to wrap my head around at first. I remember mentally deconstructing the beat down to just the kick drum to get the pattern right, which I realized was the Bo Diddley pattern- especially if you added the snare on beat two of the second measure. I added the rest of the main snare notes gradually, and then filled in the the triplet-based gallop of the hi-hat. Once I realized the ghost notes on the snare completed that triplet, the beat clicked for me: It finally made logical sense.

The Rosanna Shuffle with just kick and snare drums, recorded on October 22, 2022.

As a younger drummer, the Rosanna Shuffle taught me that individual components of a beat don’t need to make sense in a vacuum, and while the ghost notes and hi-hats might sound bizarre on their own, magic happens when they’re put together.

It’s amazing that such a huge hit was built from this shuffle since it’s not very straightforward to play and it’s pretty complicated, at least as far as rock drums in 4/4 time go. You could add the rest of Rosanna’s instrumentation just to that basic track and be fine, but we’ve got a whole drumset to use, so we might as well add back in the hi-hat and ride cymbals to mirror my process in learning to play it as a teenager. 

The Rosanna Shuffle without the ghost notes, recorded on October 22, 2022.

Now the beat’s really coming into its own, though it sounds a little dainty with the prancing hi-hats there. I’ve heard amateur covers of the song played like this, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But there’s something missing that gives the Rosanna Shuffle all of its depth, and that’s the ghost notes on the snare drum. Ghost notes are snare hits played much softer than the primary snare notes to imply the presence of the snare. They’re noted in the sheet music as eighth notes surrounded by parenthesis in the third space of the staff. 

The full Rosanna Shuffle again.

There’s the full beat again. That said, another reason that the Rosanna Shuffle is the greatest rock beat of all time is because it actually evolves and increases in complexity over the course of the song: Porcaro actually only played one ghost note in the first two bars of the song. He doesn’t get to peak shuffle until twenty-six bars in, after around forty seconds elapsed in the original recording.

Jeff Porcaro was a musician’s musician, and the piece of pop-music drumming he gave to “Rosanna” is an amazing bit of technical work that still stands up today. Sadly, he isn’t around to see the continued legacy of his masterpiece: The drummer, one of the most highly-regarded and recorded session musicians in history, died in 1992 at the age of thirty-eight after suffering a heart attack that was apparently brought on from an allergic reaction to pesticides he was spraying around his house2. Well, either that or years of cocaine abuse and an underlying heart condition3.

Toto as the band appeared in 2010. David Paich (second from left), Steve Lukather (center), and Steve Porcaro (second from right) are all members from Toto’s classic era. Porcaro’s replacement, Simon Phillips, is at far left. Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Maltesen.

That being said, Porcaro left behind a mighty legacy that belies the joke his band has since become. Have you heard Thriller? Porcaro played on “The Girl is Mine,” “Beat It,” “Human Nature,” and “The Lady in My Life.”

Even though it’s been four decades since “Rosanna” was released, it’s still paying dividends for the band in live shows, greatest hits albums, and even unexpected covers after the nerd-rock band Weezer recorded it in in 2018. Pat Wilson -Weezer’s drummer- was pretty far out of his element there. As are most of us not named Jeff Porcaro, for that matter! In Toto, Simon Phillips, Keith Carlock, Shannon Forrest, and Robert “Sput” Searight have kept Porcaro’s music alive over the past thirty years.

Jeff Porcaro, courtesy Wikimedia user Knieps Oliver.

Beats today can be synthesized with software in any matter of complexity. Hell, I guess they were back during Toto’s heyday as well, since it took both Jeff Porcaro and percussionist Lenny Castro to play the memorable looped-and-overdubbed drum track on “Africa.” 

Overdubs are fine when they’re necessary, but it’s a wonder to see the different layers of complexity add up into one astounding beat that’s playable by a single person at a single time on a single drumset. As far as I’m concerned, the Rosanna Shuffle stands tall as the king of all rock drumming patterns. It’s unlikely to be topped, and anyone who can master it is a solid drummer in my book.

Sources Cited:
1 Greene, A. (2020, November 20). Bless the Rains: Inside Toto’s Slow Fall and Surprise Resurrection. Rolling Stone. Web. Retrieved October 22, 2022.
2 Jeff Porcaro of Rock Band Toto Dies of Apparent Allergic Reaction (1992, August 6). AP. Web. Retrieved October 22, 2022.
3 Tamaki, J. (1992, September 4). Drummer’s Death Linked to Cocaine, Coroner Says : Autopsy: Report finds no evidence to support earlier belief that Toto’s Jeff Porcaro died of an allergic reaction to a pesticide. The Los Angeles Times. Web. Retrieved October 22, 2022.

3 thoughts on “Beat Analysis: Why I think the Jeff Porcaro’s Rosanna Shuffle is the best rock beat ever

  1. This was interesting. I know very little about drumming and this explanation pulled back the curtain a bit. Now I’ll have to listen to Rosanna again.

    Like

    1. This reminds me that I liked Toto more than most bands of that era, as I found them more musically interesting. Rosanna had always been lower on my Toto hierarchy, but it has moved up. I had never listened for the drums before.

      Liked by 1 person

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