Jazz Drumming Jumpstart
by Kevin Barrett

Gaining experience in the area of jazz drumming can seem like a daunting task.  Listening to advanced players, and perusing books on jazz coordination, may cause the inexperienced player to think the process is far too complex.  This does not have to be the case.  I believe we can identify some simple concepts and principles, and by developing them go a long way toward becoming proficient jazz players.  That's what this article is about:  explaining some of the basic concepts of jazz drumming and demonstrating simple ways to get started.  'Simple' will be the key word here.  There are enough books and materials dealing with the complexities of jazz.  This article takes a different approach and looks at some characteristics of jazz drumming that you can develop quickly and apply.  In that regard, this article is a jumpstart in jazz drumming.  It is not meant to be a definitive explanation of every aspect of jazz drumming, rather it is intended to explain the most essential principles.  I have tried to focus on those elements of jazz drumming that will provide the biggest payback and get you started the quickest. Included are suggestions and exercises that will help you develop the basic skills necessary to play good sounding jazz drums.  I have also provided some Do's and Don'ts that may help you avoid common pitfalls.  I hope that by understanding and applying the concepts outlined in this article your jazz drumming will become more mature, authentic, and stylistically correct.

Part 1 - The fundamentals

The aural tradition
An important point to keep in mind when learning jazz is that the process is an aural one.  This means that we should focus on sound rather than written examples. Many people try to learn jazz drumming by buying a book and working through the exercises.  I do not feel this is the best approach.  Instead we should focus on jazz as a language and learn its vocabulary.  One of the best ways to learn any language is by immersion.  Immersing yourself in the language of jazz will go a long way toward helping you build a stylistically correct vocabulary.  The importance of listening to, and absorbing as much jazz as possible, can not be overemphasized.  This is the single most important key to your success.  If you are going to communicate intelligently in the jazz idiom you must know the vocabulary. 

Sound should precede notation
When learning jazz we are actually trying to develop our ears.  We want to involve ourselves in the jazz tradition and learn its language.  After we have a good grasp of the language of jazz we can begin studying its notation.  Think of notation as a way to communicate what others have played. It should not be our starting point.  A good analogy is the way in which young children learn to speak.  Children learn to speak by listening to those around them. They imitate the sounds they hear and learn the language in a natural way. Most children learn to speak several years before they start to read. Learning jazz is a similar process: sound should precede notation. If you want to learn how to play jazz you should listen to skilled jazz players and imitate their playing.  Don't worry about books, but focus on sound. I am not advocating that we totally disregard reading or notation.  I am just suggesting that we start by listening to, and imitating good jazz drummers.  Too many people get hung up on studying jazz books at too early a stage.  There will be time for books later.  After you have spent a reasonable amount of time assimilating the jazz language it will be much easier to grasp the written notation.

A comment about the notated examples
In view of the fact that notation is secondary to sound, you may wonder why there are notated examples in this article.  The answer is convenience. In a written article notation is the easiest way to communicate and clarify a musical idea.  That being said, the notation is really not that important.  The important thing is to understand the concepts and apply them in your playing.  All of the notated examples are very simple and can be quickly grasped.  Once you understand a concept, forget about the notation and concentrate on its musical application.

Now that we have covered some background let's get into the principles that will allow you to jumpstart your jazz drumming.


The foundation:  the ride cymbal
The foundation of modern jazz drumming is the ride cymbal.  It will be our starting point.  The essence of a good jazz cymbal rhythm is the quarter-note pulse.  Try playing straight quarter-notes on your ride cymbal as in Example 1.  The normal playing area will be approximately half-way between the edge of the cymbal and the edge of the bell.   This playing area will give a nice blend between definition and wash.  Closer to the bell equals more definition.   Closer to the edge equals more wash.  At this point it might be good to mention that the cymbals typically used in jazz playing are thinner than those used in rock or pop music.  In jazz, the ride cymbal provides a cushion or drone effect.  A heavy cymbal with a lot of ping will negate this effect.  It will not have the necessary sustain to provide a cushion for the soloist. Choice of sticks is also important. Select a stick that is not too heavy or with too large a bead.

Ex. 1

The quarter-note ride cymbal rhythm is our foundation.  Find some slow to medium tempo jazz recordings (a few are suggested at the end of this article) and practice your quarter-note ride cymbal pattern by playing along with them.  Focus on getting a good sound out of the cymbal.  The quarter-note pulse should be straight-ahead.  There should be no uneveness or accents from beat to beat.  Listen to the music and try to fit your quarter-note cymbal rhythm into what the other musicians are playing.  The goal is to swing.  This is largely conveyed by an attitude and a conviction in your playing.  Don't overlook the importance of a good, solid quarter-note cymbal rhythm.  You will build on it for the rest of your jazz drumming vocabulary.  Beyond it's usefulness as a learning device, a straight quarter-note cymbal rhythm is a practical and useable pattern in it's own right.  Many players have used a simple quarter-note ride cymbal to great effect.

The hi-hat
Now let's add the hi-hat.  In straight-ahead jazz drumming the hi-hat is typically played on counts 'two' and 'four' of the measure.  There are at least three techniques that may be employed: 1) the rocking motion 2) bouncing the whole leg 3) flat-footed.  While each technique is important and has its uses, the one I will describe is the rocking motion.  This is a good fundamental hi-hat technique and worth mastering.  The technique is executed as follows:  On count 'one' the heel comes down on the heel-plate, while at the same time the ball of the foot is raised off the pedal.  On count 'two' the ball of the foot comes down on the footboard and the heel is raised, thereby closing the hi-hat cymbals with a tight 'chick' sound.  On count 'three' the heel comes down on the heel-plate and the ball of the foot is raised.  On count 'four' the ball of the foot comes down, closing the cymbals as the heel is raised.  (See Example 2)  This technique produces a nice, steady, quarter-note pulse in the hi-hat foot:  heel, toe, heel, toe, etc.  It's important to remember that the heel always comes down on counts 'one' and 'three'.  The ball of the foot comes down on counts 'two' and 'four'.  The hi-hat should produce a tight 'chick' sound when closed on counts 'two' and 'four'.

Ex. 2

The bass drum
In much of modern jazz drumming the bass drum takes on the role of a third-hand.  That is, its role becomes more like that of the snare drum as it interjects rhythmic ideas into the overall mix.  Nevertheless, it is still a good idea to develop the ability to play four-on-the-floorFour-on-the-floor simply means playing straight quarter-notes on the bass drum.  This was one of the primary time keeping devices in the swing era. With the advent of be-bop the bass drum took on a more 'soloistic' role and began to participate in the rhythmic 'comping' previously reserved for the snare drum.  Even though the bass drum became less of a time keeper during the be-bop era, many drummers still maintained the ability to play four-on-the-floor.  It's a useful technique and should not be neglected.  The main point to keep in mind when playing four-on-the-floor in a modern jazz context is that it should be played very softly.  This technique is sometimes referred to as feathering the bass-drum.  The beater will be released only an inch or so from the head.  A heel-down approach seems to work best for this bass drum technique.  Don't mash the beater into the head.  Release the beater and let the natural tone of the bass drum resonate.  Keep the volume of the bass drum very low.  It should almost be felt rather than heard. Example 3 shows the bass drum and hi-hat combined.

Ex. 3

You should be aware that many modern players do not play straight quarter-notes on the bass drum.  In these exercises we are primarily using four-on-the-floor because of its value as a foundational technique, although it can also be very practical.  The ability to lock down the time while adding an extra element of 'low-end' can tie everything together, particularly when playing earlier styles of jazz.  Just be aware that despite its usefulness, four-on-the-floor may not be applicable to every playing situation.

Combining hi-hat, bass drum and ride
We will now combine the hi-hat, bass drum and ride cymbal. Start by practicing the 'two' and 'four' hi-hat with the four-on-the-floor bass drum.  After this is comfortable add straight quarter-notes on the ride cymbal.  (See Example 4)  Return to your recordings and play along with some slow to medium tempo jazz tunes.  Keep the quarter-note pulse on the ride cymbal very even.  Focus on your sound and the balance between the hi-hat, bass drum and ride cymbal.  The ride cymbal should predominate.  The hi-hat adds weight to counts 'two' and 'four'.  The bass drum should be extremely soft.

Ex. 4

Practice this with various tunes until it becomes comfortable.   Try to project a feeling of swing in your playing.  Listen carefully to the rhythm section you are playing with and copy their feeling while still maintaining a strong quarter-note pulse.  Once you are comfortable with this it will be time to move to the next section: the skip note.

The skip note
At this point we introduce the device that gives the jazz cymbal rhythm its unique identity:  the skip note.  The skip note is simply the third note of an eighth-note triplet. Typically this occurs on the eighth-note triplets on counts 'two' and 'four'.  (See Example 5)
Ex. 5

When playing this pattern be sure not to accent the skip note.  The emphasis should be on the quarter-note pulse.  Strive for a smooth sound, where each note is connected to the note that follows.  Maintain the triplet subdivisions.  Count out loud, "1-trip-let, 2-trip-let, 3-trip-let, 4-trip-let", etc.  Some people use a mnemonic device such as saying, "dog.... walk-the-dog.... walk-the-dog", etc., to get the feeling of the jazz cymbal rhythm.

Next add the hi-hat to the cymbal rhythm.  (See Example 6)  Use the rocking technique on the hi-hat and make sure the cymbal and the hi-hat strike exactly together on counts 'two' and 'four'.  There should be no flams between the hi-hat and cymbal.

Ex. 6

Once you are comfortable with the hi-hat and cymbal, add the bass drum on straight quarter-notes. (See Example 7 Play the bass drum very softly. The bass drum strikes exactly with the ride cymbal on counts 'one, two, three, four'.  The bass drum, hi-hat, and ride cymbal strike together on counts 'two' and 'four'.  You may want to record yourself playing this pattern to make sure there are no flam sounds.

Ex. 7

Practice this pattern along with a variety of jazz recordings until it becomes comfortable.  Balance the sound between the bass drum, hi-hat, and ride cymbal.  Above all, try to make your playing swing.  Spend a reasonable amount of time becoming comfortable with this pattern.  This will be the basis for the next section:  'Comping'.

Note:  Before continuing with Part 2 of Jazz Drumming Jumpstart, make sure you are comfortable with the concepts and examples given in Part 1.

Part 2 - Comping

What is Comping?
Comping is short for "accompanying".  Comping is how the rhythm section instruments, such as piano, guitar, and drums support the soloist.  Comping provides rhythmic variety and impetus for the soloist.  The drummer's job is to support the soloist.  As a drummer you should play a variety of rhythmic ideas which contribute to the flow of the solo you are accompanying.  Comping is a give-and-take between soloist and accompanist (i.e. drummer).  Sometimes the drummer will interject new ideas to push the soloist.  Other times he may lay-back and respond to ideas played by the soloist.  As a jazz drummer, comping will be your main improvisational activity.  You will spend a great deal more time accompanying other soloists than you will playing solos yourself.  For this reason, it is critical that you understand the basics of comping.  Comping seems to be one of the primary areas where novice jazz drummers encounter difficulty.  Repetitive, plodding and uninteresting comping is a dead give away of an inexperienced jazz drummer.  In the sections that follow, I'll try to explain the basics of comping on the drumset, and also give some suggestions on how to make your comping sound like that of an experienced jazz player.

Comping and coordination
The essential technique for effective comping on the drumset is coordination.  The drummer must develop the ability to play rhythmic phrases in a coordinated manner.  In its simplest form this type of coordination will consist of a repetitive pattern played in one or more limbs, while another limb improvises rhythmic ideas.  The repetitive part can be considered an ostinato.  The Harvard Dictionary of music defines an ostinato as, "a clearly defined phrase that is repeated persistently, .... usually throughout a composition or section."  In traditional jazz drumming, this is often the role of the ride cymbal, hi-hat, and possibly bass drum.  Therefore, these comping examples will consist of repetitive, or ostinato, patterns played in the ride cymbal, hi-hat and bass drum, while the snare drum improvises. This is the most common type of comping found in jazz drumming.

I like to think of comping as the practical application of jazz coordination. This is an important point to keep in mind.  Many players spend thousands of hours developing complex coordinated patterns, but sometimes these patterns aren't particularly useful in real playing situations.  In my opinion, the main purpose of jazz coordination is to play swinging time, while providing the soloist with interesting musical accompaniment.  This does not have to be a difficult, complex, or esoteric process.  The goal is to make music.  Everything we practice and play should be directed toward that goal.  This is an area where we can really jumpstart our playing by focusing on the essential ingredients used in effective jazz comping.

Developing basic comping skills
So how do we go about developing practical jazz coordination?  We can start by analyzing the playing of experienced jazz drummers and developing some general rules of thumb.  Despite the seeming complexity of jazz drumming, it's been my observation that a good deal of practical jazz coordination can be broken down into a few basic patterns.  We will begin by looking at two of those patterns.  The first pattern involves playing the snare drum on quarter-note pulses.  In other words, the snare drum will be played on some combination of counts one, two, three, or four.  The second pattern involves playing the snare drum on the third note of an eighth-note triplet. These notes can be felt as anticipations to the main quarter note pulses.  By developing these two simple ideas we will start to build the foundation of our jazz comping vocabulary.

As you study these examples, keep in mind that you are learning the jazz language.  The point is not to memorize a collection of licks or patterns.  The point is to develop the coordination and musical skills that will allow you to create and communicate in the jazz style.  In that regard, playing along, and listening to as many jazz recordings as possible is very important.  Always try to apply what you learn to real playing situations.  One of the best ways I know to learn jazz drums is to play along with recordings.

Comping using quarter-notes
Lets start with something very simple.  Practice the following quarter-note comping exercises. (See Example 1) The ride cymbal plays straight quarter-notes*.  The snare drum plays various quarter-note patterns.  Play 'two' and 'four' on the hi-hat.  The bass drum should play straight quarter-notes. Remember to play the bass drum quietly.  All unison notes are struck exactly together; no flams.  Practice each measure many times until it is completely comfortable.

(Note: To simplify the notation, these remaining exercises do not have the hi-hat and bass drum notated.  You should continue to play the hi-hat on 'two' and 'four' with the bass drum playing straight quarter-notes.  Later, you may omit the bass drum if you prefer.)    

Ex. 1   (Remember to play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)

* These initial comping exercises use straight quarter-notes on the ride cymbal.  This will allow you to concentrate on the comping figures played in the snare drum.

Practice suggestion for the remaining examples.

Example 2 contains additional quarter-note comping figures. Practice each measure separately at first, then mix the patterns up and combine them in different ways.  Although these are very simple comping patterns, they will help you develop the coordination needed for more complex patterns.  Make sure that all unison notes are struck exactly together.

Ex. 2  (Play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)

After you become comfortable with these patterns practice them with some jazz recordings.  When playing with the recordings vary the patterns and mix them up.  Strive for variety in your comping.  In some measures don't play the snare drum at all.  In other measures play different combinations of snare drum quarter-notes.  Concentrate on the sound and balance between the various voices of the drumset, and as always, try to swing.

Adding triplets
Now let's try some patterns with the snare drum playing the third note of an eighth-note triplet.  This type of pattern is extremely common and very useful.  An easy way to think of this pattern is that the snare drum is slightly anticipating the cymbal notes.  You don't need to get caught up in the math of the eighth-note triplets.  Just feel the snare drum notes as anticipations to the cymbal notes. You will hear patterns like these played by almost every jazz drummer.   

Ex. 3   (Play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)

Tip:  Snare drum patterns like those above are some of the most useful comping figures you will learn.  Make sure you master the ability to play the third note of any triplet in the measure.

As usual, practice these patterns with as many recordings as possible.  Vary your comping patterns and make it swing.

Combining quarter-notes and triplets
Now we will begin combining the two ideas.  Example 4 combines the snare drum played on quarter-note pulses with the snare played on the third note of eighth-note triplets.  Think of the quarter-notes as being played in unison with the ride cymbal.  The third note of the eighth-note triplets anticipate the ride cymbal notes.  Practice each measure separately until it is comfortable, then mix the measures up and combine them with other patterns.

Ex. 4   (Play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)


Example 5 consists of snare drum notes on the first and last note of an eighth-note triplet.  (The middle note of the eighth-note triplet is omitted.)  Be sure to close the hi-hat cleanly on counts 'two' and 'four'; no flams between the hi-hat, cymbal and snare.  Practice each measure many times, then practice them with some recordings.

Ex. 5    (Play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)

Example 6 consists of more patterns utilizing only the third note of eighth-note triplets.  As mentioned earlier, this is a very useful figure.  Make sure you can play the third note of any triplet in the measure.

Ex. 6   (Play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)

Practice all of the preceding exercises with as many recordings as possible.  Keep a steady quarter-note pulse on the ride cymbal and keep it swinging.  Remember that all of the above comping figures are based on only two rhythms:  1) straight quarter-notes  2) the third note of an eighth-note triplet.  That's pretty simple stuff.

Incorporating the 'Skip' note
So far we have developed some basic jazz coordination while playing straight quarter-notes on the ride cymbal.  The next step is to incorporate the 'jazz cymbal rhythm'.  This simply means adding the 'skip' note to counts 'two' and 'four'.  You will recall from Part 1 of this article that the jazz cymbal rhythm is played like this:

Practice the previous examples again, but this time using the jazz cymbal rhythm instead of straight quarter-notes.  The hi-hat will continue to play on counts 'two' and 'four'.  You may also play feathered quarter-notes on the bass drum.  Practice each measure separately repeating it until it is comfortable.  As you become familiar with the various examples mix them up and combine them in different ways.  Variety is important in your comping.  Don't be afraid to leave space.  You don't have to play a comping figure in every measure.  Strive for a smooth and legato sound from the cymbal and make the patterns swing. Practice all of these patterns by playing along with recordings.

Ex. 7 (Remember to play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)

Tip: You should practice the jazz cymbal pattern to the point where it becomes automatic. Once you can put the cymbal rhythm on 'auto-pilot' it will become much easier to feel and play the comping figures below. Remember that the third note of an eighth-note tiplet is felt like an anticipation to the main cymbal notes on counts 'one, two, three, four'.

Ex. 8  (Play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)

Ex. 9  (Play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)

Ex. 10  (Play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)

Ex. 11  (Play the hi-hat on 2 and 4.)


Here's an MP3 of Examples 7 through 11 played at a medium-slow tempo.  Each measure is played twice.  The examples are played one after the other in succession.  This MP3 is only intended to quickly demonstrate what the examples sound like.  This is not how they would normally be played or practiced.  Refer to the suggestions following Example 1 for tips on how to practice and utilize the examples.

 MP3 of Examples 6 thru 10

By this point you should be well on your way to developing a good basic vocabulary in jazz coordination and comping skills.  Here are a few more suggestions to help your playing.

Good luck and have fun!

In Part 3 of this article we'll look at a few more comping figures and some other musical devices commonly used by jazz drummers.  See you next time!

Here are a few suggested recordings for 'play-along' practice.

These are just a few suggestions.  There are hundreds of good recordings from the 50's and 60's.  Many were recorded on the Blue Note, Atlantic, and Impulse record labels.  It won't be difficult to find a vast assortment of great practice material.  Look for recordings featuring drummers such as Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, Shelly Manne, Billy Higgins, Art Taylor, Louis Hayes, Frankie Dunlop and Mel Lewis.

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Copyright © 2001Kevin Barrett. All Rights Reserved.