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In Time - Player Profiles

Inside the Radiohead of Phil Selway

I’ve been a big fan of Radiohead for a number of years. In fact my first ever concert was Radiohead, in 1997, on the Ok Computer tour. It was an amazing experience and I still maintain that they are the best sounding live band I’ve ever heard.

The engine room of the band is a drummer by the name of Phil Selway. He’s perhaps not the most famous of drummers in the world which is a shame as he’s a very, very good player. He has amazing, almost machine like time and an instantly identifiable sound, harnessed from his time studying at Drumtech


For this post, I’m going to look at a selection of Radiohead songs from ‘The Bends’ through to ‘In Rainbows’ which I consider to be typical of Selway’s playing – creative and consistent. As ever, click the highlighted title for the PDF.


High and Dry

High and Dry was a huge single from ‘The Bends’ which starts off with the drum groove. An 8th/16th note groove in the hats, syncopated bass drum pattern and cross stick. The cross stick evolves to main snare halfway through the verse.

The pre-chorus fill into the chorus is a very typical pop/rock fill, simple yet effective. Selway plays it into every chorus and it becomes like a drum ‘hook’ which is a big feature of his playing. The chorus groove is again a staple of the pop/rock genre, and was featured heavily at the time period of The Bends (1995) and again Selway drives along the band without over powering them. A great part for a great song.


Paranoid Android

Paranoid Android was the first single from ‘Ok Computer’ which was the beginning of Radiohead’s departure from their sound of the first 2 albums. At over 6 minutes in length, it was unusual for a band to have a song that long in the charts and on the radio.

The groove at letter A is the verse groove, which features a syncopated pattern between the bass drum and cross stick, which never wavers, allowing the song to comfortably sit and groove. He occasionally switches from hi hats to ride cymbal, without letting the groove falter. It’s also helped along by the use of shaker and cabasa played by some of the band.

The groove continues until the band change pace and begin to rock pretty hard. The groove switches to main snare and at 2.55 there is a section in 7/8, (letter B) which features a nice bell hit on the last note of the bar. This section comes and goes through the song, moving between that and the previous groove in 4/4.
Letter C shows a typical fill of the song – a 32nd snare and cymbal fill which is a feature of Phil’s playing at times on Ok Computer.


Subterranean Homesick Alien

Another song from ‘Ok Computer’ A simple 6/8 groove is the ticket for this song. Letter A, the snare drum part mirrors the bass drum part which helps the groove move along and also echoes the guitar part at the beginning of the song.

1.26 sees letter B come in, which is the chorus of the song. A 16th note open hi hat pattern, which is phrased in groups of 2 takes up the first 2 bars which is followed by a half bar of groove and a half bar 32nd fill which repeats (2 different fills). This is again a kind of drum hook feature and happens each time the chorus comes back.

A perfectly constructed part for the song.


Pyramid Song

This song was a big departure for the band. It’s from the album Amnesiac which was recorded alongside Kid A and has influences of electronic music, classical, krautrock and in this case, a very heavy jazz influence. Inspired by Charles Mingus’ ‘Freedom’, it’s a heavily syncopated, piano led tune, that has a kind of 3 over 4 feel, with the piano being played in groups of 3 yet the song remains wholly in 4/4. Selway uses simple triplet fill ins every 4 bars to cadence the band back to beat 1.


15 Step and Idioteque

15 Step is the first track from In Rainbows. It’s in 5/4 for the whole tune and starts with programmed drums for the vocals to lay over with the acoustic drums coming in at around 0.24. As is the want of Radiohead, the acoustic drums are blended and mixed will with programmed beats and layered percussion, which helps the grooves create a hypnotic effect, especially when they stay static for the tune.

Phil has a tendency to switch to the ride cymbal unannounced (i.e. without a fill to get him there) and he does it again with this tune, which really helps the groove open out. From his profile it says he uses a K 20″ Dark ride which provides plenty of wash and therefore lift for the song/groove/band.


Idioteque is a song from the Kid A album and the reason for the mention here is twofold. Firstly it was a complete departure for the band at the time and the track features no acoustic drums at all on the album. It features a programmed groove that varies between 2 bars in structure and 5 bars in structure which creates this almost trademark Radiohead effect of a hypnotic groove.
The live version is very different however, and I’ve chosen the Glastonbury 2003 version to look at. The second verse features very heavy acoustic drums, almost drum and bass like, alongside the sampled drums which has an amazing impact when it comes in. Selway treats the tune much the same way as the programmed drums and creates a 5 bar pattern. The pattern is embellished with ghost notes but I’ve chosen to outline the main groove (bass drum and snare drum hits with hats).



So hopefully from these grooves you can get an idea of the kind of creativity that goes into Phil Selway’s parts. None of the music calls for insane chops but it does call for strong consistency and amazingly strong time which Selway delivers in spades. It also, for me, highlights, that a little time and effort into creating a drum part rather than just knocking out beats goes a long way to creating better music. If you haven’t heard him play, I suggest you go check him out. You won’t be disappointed.

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