An Introduction to Big Band Drumming  
by Stockton Helbing

One of the most fun, and most challenging, genres of drumming is big band drumming. No other style of music demands as much from the drum set player. In big band music, the drummer is at the helm of the ship, steering anywhere between eight to eighteen other musicians toward one common musical goal. This task can seem overwhelming at first, but by following a few simple guidelines, even an inexperienced drummer may soon enjoy the fun of making music en masse.

It Helps to Have a Clue (or so I’ve heard)

If you have never listened to big band music, therefore big band drumming, you really are wasting the band’s time, figuratively and literally (I went a long way for that joke). That is not to say you should not dive right in and try, but after a few attempts, try to locate and listen to some recordings of big band music. Music is an aural tradition; it demands that you listen to it so as to be better acquainted. Some great bands to start with are the Count Basie Orchestra, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Those are four of the most influential bands of the early big band movement. For some more modern big bands check out the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra (now the Vanguard Orchestra), The Buddy Rich Band, and the Stan Kenton Orchestra.

When I was young, I loved to listen to the big bands of Buddy Rich and especially Maynard Ferguson. One great thing about the recorded history of Maynard’s bands is the great stylistic variety they offer. Maynard is the only person whose career spans so many years and stylistic periods while maintaining great popularity. (Maynard is also the only big band leader to have achieved a top ten Billboard hit!) On top of that, his recordings always have a great drummer. His past drummers have included such big band experts as Mel Lewis, Frankie Dunlop, Peter Erskine, Dave Mancini, Greg Bissonette, and Jim White. (I asked Maynard once if Buddy Rich ever sat in when their bands were on tour together and Maynard said, “No way! Buddy never would have gone for it!”)

Listen to what you like! If you listen to some of the above big bands and really do not like them, keep searching. There are a lot of big band recordings available; I am confident that you can find one that you enjoy. Once you do, listen to it intently. Play along with it. Learn the charts by ear. It is not required to have a big band chart in front of you to enjoy playing big band music. Now that you have familiarized yourself with the way a big band sounds, we may proceed with some more specific guidelines to big band drumming.

The Foundation: A Solid Time Feel  

Big band drumming, just like any style of drum set playing, requires a solid foundation comprised of confident, metronomically consistent time. A drummer must have a grip on his own time feel if he is to have any hope of working with multiple musicians in a large ensemble.

Why is a solid time feel so important? Think of it this way. Have you ever been in church, or any other large gathering of people, where everyone attempted to clap together along with the music? Remember that one person, or more likely those several people, who just could not seem to clap consistently in time with the music? You probably had a grin on your face as you watched them struggling to clap along with everyone else. Now imagine if those rhythmically deficient clappers had been playing musical instruments. Get the picture? It would be a mess! Well, that is the same type problems that a drummer will face in a big band.

The drummer’s job is to get the band to “clap together,” or play their various instruments together consistently; the problem being that this is about a million times more challenging than clapping together on beats two and four in church! That is why it is imperative that a drummer be assured in his own time feel before he attempts to direct a big band’s time feel with his playing. As a matter of fact, big band drumming can be successful by making use of only solid time and no other elements. That is how big band drumming began; as simple time keeping. For evidence of this, listen to some of the original big bands of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Often the drummer would only play time on the hi-hat and four on the floor on the bass drum; and they were quite successful at it. The music swung! Simple time keeping allows the horn players to lay their parts on top of a solid time foundation. This same formula was masterfully done some years later by drummer Art Taylor on Miles Davis’s Miles Ahead record. Art was not well versed in reading big band charts and playing big band setups, but he possessed a great, consistent, swinging time feel that Miles loved, so Miles used him on the record date despite it being a large ensemble situation. The result was some great swinging big band music, even though it lacked ensemble setups.

Let that be a lesson to any beginning big band drummer. If you start with, at the least, a solid time feel you will be successful. I am constantly amazed at the amount of young drummers around the world that I meet and listen to who do not have a grasp of this idea. I cannot count the number of times that I have listened to a young drummer struggle on stage with a middle school, high school, or even college big band, due to a complete lack of a solid time feel. You must start from somewhere! Providing the band with solid, swinging time will always be appreciated.

Equipped for Sight-Reading

 Before a drummer can begin to play in a manner that helps the big band, he must be able to clearly discern from the written music, or drum chart, what the band is going to be attempting to play. This means that a basic understanding of reading music is required. A drummer must be able to confidently read rhythms on a big band chart if he hopes to be able to play in a manner that will help the band precisely execute the written figures. This is an important step in the big band drumming process that proves to be a stumbling block for many drummers.

Reading music well is a precious resource for any drummer. Solid music reading skills are invaluable in many styles of drumming other than big band drumming. When a drummer possesses a firm grasp on reading music it expedites the process of learning new music with other musicians in various settings ranging from fusion music to country music to rock music to funk music to latin music.

It is advised that basic rhythmic sight-reading be first studied away from the drums, being practiced through clapping and verbalizing written rhythms. Only after a drummer grasps reading music in his mind may he be equipped to approach interpreting written music at the drum set. Then the drummer will be ready to lend his aid towards helping the ensemble achieve effortless execution of a big band chart. It is also recommended that a drummer be able to play any written figure on any of the four limbs (right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot) and any combination of any of the four limbs (for example: right foot and left hand together or right hand, left foot, and right foot together)

Setting Up the Ensemble

Now that we have addressed some basic time feel and music reading concerns, we will take a look at what else can be done to help the ensemble be successful at making music together. The big band drummer has the responsibility of reading a chart accurately, discerning what the band will be playing from the chart, and then playing, or setting up, the ensemble in a way that makes it easy for the band to perform the music flawlessly. Let’s take a closer look at each one of these responsibilities.

The big band drummer has the responsibility of reading a chart accurately. We covered the basics of this responsibility in the above section Equipped for Sight-Reading, but I would like to elaborate on a couple of points. Reading rhythms accurately is not the only aspect of reading a big band chart. One of the most difficult parts of a big band chart is what is referred to as the “road map.” The road map of the chart is the various path and order in which your eyes must read the music. Very seldom in big band charts is the drummer required to simply read left to right, jump down to the next line, read left to right, jump down to the next line, etc. Big band drum charts are complicated by arrangers’ efforts to condense the chart to as few pages as possible. Arrangers economize drum charts by the use of repeat signs, first and second endings, D.S. signs, D.C. signs, and Codas. Trust me, this is a good thing! The last thing a drummer wants to worry about is how he is going to make page turns on top of reading the chart, setting up the band, listening to the band, being wary of the time feel, watching the conductor, and interacting with the soloist and rhythm section (as in a Bob Brookmeyer chart). That is why it is a good idea for a drummer to familiarize himself with a chart before attempting to play it with the band. Ensuring that a drummer knows in what order his eyes are supposed to look where will remove one variable from the big band drumming equation.

Another often forgotten aspect of accurately reading a drum chart is paying attention to the dynamics. Dynamics are a vital part of music and, as we will discuss a little later, they are extremely important to a big band drummer. A drummer must not let himself get so caught up in the roadmap and rhythmic aspects of a chart that he disregards the dynamics of the chart. The big band drumming equation simply cannot be balanced without close attention to dynamics. Drummers often fall into the habit of playing with one dynamic level at all times (usually loud). The use of dynamics is always a sign of a more experienced and musically mature drummer.

The big band drummer has the responsibility of discerning what the band will be playing from the chart. This is different from reading a chart with rhythmic and dynamic accuracy. Due to a lack of universal guidelines for writing big band drum charts, it is often left to the drummer to decipher which instruments are playing what rhythms when. Many times this is further complicated by arrangers’ attempts to write drum grooves into the chart. I prefer arrangers to simply write in a style description such as “rock feel” or “jazz waltz,” instead of writing out what they feel a jazz waltz should sound like. This is because arrangers, though they usually possess great musical talents, often are clueless when it comes to writing out entire four-limb coordinated drum grooves. Therefore, it is good for big band drummers to think of a big band chart more as a general guide, rather than a piece of music that should be played verbatim at the drum set.

It is also challenging for the big band drummer to decipher which figures are being played by which parts of the ensemble. Often arrangers will write into charts textual clarifiers such as “sxs” to represent figures that will be played by the saxophone section, “trpts” to represent figures that will be played by the trumpet section, or “brass” to represent figures that will be played by the trumpets and trombones. These can greatly aid a big band drummer in determining how to best setup the figures.

What does a drummer do if the chart lacks such textual clarifiers? He should use his ears. The big band drummer should listen to the band, take note (aurally) of which sections of the ensemble are playing which figures, and then pencil in reminders to himself onto the chart (I always have a pencil on my music stand for jotting down such reminders in any music situation, but especially in a big band situation). As a drummer gets more and more comfortable listening to the ensemble, he may start to hear figures that are not written into his drum chart. If he feels that proper setups from the drums will help the band negotiate these figures more accurately, he should take the liberty of penciling them into the chart. Attentive listening to the band is the best way for a drummer to discover what he should play and when. It is also advised that a drummer memorize a chart as soon as he can so that he can concentrate even further on listening to the ensemble and shaping his playing accordingly. This will be explained more in the following explanation.

The big band drummer has the responsibility of playing, or setting up, the band in a way that makes it easy for the band to perform the music flawlessly. Imagine that you were trying to teach a very young child how to speak. What approach would you use? Would you quote an entire line of Shakespeare to the child or open the encyclopedia to “metaphysics” and read aloud, hoping the child might pick up a few words here and there? Probably not. You would use simple words such as “Dad” or “car,” words that are easy for the inexperienced speaker to grasp. Then you would repeat the simple word over and over so that the child would have several examples of hearing the word pronounced before attempting to speak; a call and response method of teaching.

In the same way, the big band drummer should remember that it is his job to clearly and concisely setup, or instruct, the ensemble; taking every step to ease the music making progress for every other musician on the band stand. This does not mean playing every written figure with the ensemble. Playing the written figures is not necessary since the ensemble is already playing them. By playing a figure with the ensemble, the drummer only helps accent that figure.

The big band drummer must play a setup that will foreshadow the figure that the ensemble is preparing to play. One simple way to do this is to play the exact figure that the ensemble will be playing, but ahead of the ensemble, creating a call and response effect; or at the least, foreshadowing with a rhythmic skeleton of the figure (a basic outline of the figure). It is a lot like a wedding ceremony. The pastor will say to the groom “Repeat after me: I, Stockton Thomas Helbing,” then the groom repeats the words exactly, “I, Stockton Thomas Helbing.” Then the pastor says, “Take thee, Jennifer Love Hewitt,” and then the groom says, “Take thee, Jennifer Love Hewitt,” etc, etc. The pastor’s call is then followed by a response that is echoing the call. In big band drumming the responses are the written figures. Using them, the drummer must provide the calls to the ensemble’s responses. The most obvious way to do this is to simply call using the exact response, as in the previous illustration.

In that line of thought, the drummer does not have to be concerned with creating setups. All of the setups, the calls, are already given to him, since they are identical to the ensemble figures that are written on the chart, the responses. This helps ensure that the drummer is playing fills that make sense in relation to the chart. Often big band drummers falter when they play setups that are unrelated to the music. Setting up a big band is not the time for trying out the latest Dennis Chambers lick that you transcribed. Setups must be related to the figure they are prompting stylistically, rhythmically, and dynamically.

One of the other dangers that big band drummers face is the danger of getting too rhythmically complex in their setups. Drummers live and breathe in the world of rhythm. Horn players are different in that their thought is divided between rhythm and harmony. Big band drummers should always remember this, and should set up the band appropriately. I cannot even count the number of times I have sabotaged a big band with an inappropriately complicated set up. Horn players never enjoy having their job complicated. The way to be a successful big band drummer is to play for the ensemble and not for the self.


In a big band, the drummer has more responsibility than any other player in the ensemble. This means that a drummer must be well prepared if he hopes to be successful in contributing to the big band music experience. Though it is challenging, it is also a very creative position to be in. A great big band drummer can make every performance fresh and exciting for both the ensemble and the audience, but the bottom line is drumming in a way that contributes to the ease of the ensemble’s execution.


© 2005, © 2011 Stockton Helbing Music

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