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.

3 thoughts on “Chameleon Drum Transcription”

  1. Michael C. Goncalves

    I want to learn Music Theory out of penance…I seduced a Georgia Bar Maid who professed to me an secret appreciation of JAZZ. I asked her who was her favourite Jazz Musician and she said KENNY G. I screamed “Oh, Hell No!!!”, stopped the car at the nearest record store (remember them?) and bought her two ? CDs, Miles Davis’ ‘COOL-JAZZ ‘ classic Kinda Blue (1959) and Herbie Hancock’s Fusion (Rock-Funk) Jazz masterpiece HeadHunters (1973). As to “Chameleon/Thank You for let me be myself again”. I directed ‘Shelia’ (sic) to Mason/Malpin’s bass-drum synchronization, BS’d an explanation and it got me laid.

    Then I went out with a college professor who applied Music Theory to my favourite Beatles Songs and I felt ashamed what I did to Shelia (my one night stand)

    I want to know WHAT Mason is specifically doing in Chemelon, why he did what he did and where he was planning to go with it in the song. If he added a triplet, did he do it just to show off? Did he use it as a transition to the next set of notes or did he want to play with Time signatures to alter the feel & pace of his attack? I am an Audiophile not a musician.

  2. The bass drum is actually on 2 & 4 in the middle section, not 1 & 3. I watched Harvey play this w Herbie shortly after the record came out. You are probably not feeling “one” because the bass part is so syncopated. .

    1. Good shout – yes, I think you’re right. When I count-in from the proceeding section it does sound more like the bass drum is on 2 and 4.

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