Chameleon drum transcription

Chameleon Drum Transcription

Are you looking for a drum transcription of ‘Chameleon’? If so, some of this might interest you. ‘Chameleon’ is the first track on the landmark 1973 jazz album by Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters. For several years after its release, it was the largest-selling jazz record of all time. As with a lot of jazz, the music is instrumental, with veteran Hancock playing all the synthesiser and keyboard parts. There’s no guitar on the album. Instead, Hancock plays a clavinet. The drummer on the album is Harvey Mason. His jazz/funk leanings are crucial to the feel of the music. It’s so goddamn funky it hurts. His drum sound alone deserves a blog post, with its dry as a desert rattle snake rolls.

As is so often the case, I was introduced to this tune by one of my students.  He was really into Mason’s drumming, so I offered to transcribe some of it. Obviously, with a running time of 15’45” I wasn’t going to attempt all of it, but the first few bars provide enough food for thought. In fact, for the first half of the tune, the drums and synth bass are locked into a tight groove with the occasional fill turnaround to give things a bit of structure. 

And so, onto my ‘Chameleon’ drum transcription (or bits of transcription), which you can download here.

The Opening Section

The beat itself is pretty simple but Mason plays it with such flare and feel and swing, you just HAVE TO DANCE! Or if you can’t dance, rock gently in your seat. A point worth mentioning is the snare on the ‘a’ of beat 1, slightly pre-empting where you’d expect it to be, i.e., on beat 2. Interestingly, the groove is close to the 3/2 clave pattern. Try counting  1e+a2e+a3e+a4e+a, emphasising the bold print.

Chameleon drum transcription

The tune starts with the squidgy synth bass riff. Then at 0’12”, the drums enter with a swingy funk pattern. Sometimes drags are inserted before beat 1. The hi-hat pattern is straight with emphasis placed on the beats 1-4. Lighter hi-hats are played on the ‘ands’.

Chameleon Opening bars

The Middle Section

The really fancy stuff takes place from 7’30”, which features some very tasty snare work. Drags feature prominently but there’s also an interesting use of the open hi-hat coming in on the ‘a’ of 2 and 4. The bars below precede a ridiculously funky section with all sorts of interesting bass drum syncopations. Transcribing would take long while, so I’ll leave that for someone else. Here though, the bass drum is fairly rooted to beats 1 and 3. The stepped hi-hats come in to fill out the beat more. 

Chameleon Middle section

Harvey's Hi-hats

It’s worth mentioning that Mason’s hi-hat sound can be very textured with lots of subtle variations that are tricky to transcribe. Check him out in this video, where you can see his foot pumping away on the hi-hat to create all sorts of chokes and barks when he plays it with a stick.

And finally...

If you’ve found any of this helpful, please leave a comment. If you think it’s the worst piece of crap you’ve ever read, please also leave a comment. You maybe interested to know there’s plenty of other people on the net who’ve tried to transcribe this tune, but not so many have attempted the tricky middle section.

2 thoughts on “Chameleon Drum Transcription”

  1. Hi!!!
    Your trascription is so usefull and I am lucky I have found it… I am Italian and I am about to graduate at the Conservatory, in drums. My thesis is about Harvey Mason and Mike Clark in the 3 Herbie Hancock albums Head Hunters, Thrust and Man-Child, it is so difficult to find material to analized all the tracks of the 3 albums, I have to talk about all the instrument or as much as I can… not only about drums. Can you help me in find some more material? I am blessed I have found you… Thank you so much!!!

    1. Hi Enrica, I’m glad you’ve found this article useful. Makes it all worthwhile! Unfortunately, I don’t have any more material on this piece or any of the albums but I’m sure there’s more information out there… good luck with your thesis!

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