An Introduction to Drum Set Soloing
By Stockton Helbing

In 1938, the Benny Goodman Orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. It proved to be a major step forward for the validation of jazz as an accepted musical art form. It also proved to be an important day for the acceptance of the drummer as a soloist. Gene Krupa’s drum solo on Sing, Sing, Sing proved that the drum set could take center stage as a solo instrument and captivate an audience. Sing, Sing, Sing was so popular that it launched Krupa himself into the status of superstar, putting him on a level of fame similar to that enjoyed today by Britney Spears or Tom Cruise. The great reactions to Gene’s drum soloing encouraged many drummers to begin to experiment with the possibilities of the drum set as a solo instrument. Buddy Rich went on to make a career out of being an unbelievable drum set soloist. Max Roach proved that the drum set could play melodies and form, while Elvin Jones demonstrated that the drum set could be used to project raw emotion. Even in recent times, the boundaries of drum set soloing have been further expanded by the amazing Latin ostinato approaches of Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, the chromatically pitched solos of Terri Bozzio, and the minimalistic but melodic solos of Ari Hoenig. So how does one begin to approach soloing on the drum set? It is best if first we examine the three types of drum solos that are possible: 1) soloing over a song form, 2) soloing over a vamp, and 3) open soloing.

Soloing Over A Form

It is important for a drummer to first learn to solo over a song form. Soloing over a song form gives the drummer certain target areas, or goals, to aim for. A twelve bar, or measure, blues song form is a good place to start. This gives the drummer a definite length of time in which to create his solo. We know that each chorus (a “chorus” is one time through the song form) of the solo will last twelve bars long since the song form is a twelve bar blues, therefore, the drummer can already pace himself for the solo. For instance, the drummer may decide “I think I’ll solo for two choruses.” Therefore the drummer knows that he has a total of twenty-four bars to solo. He also knows that after the twelfth bar the form repeats back to the top of the form. This section is known as the “turnaround,” as the chord changes to the song progress in a way that turns around, or leads, back to the beginning of the song form. This is an important target area to highlight in a solo, as it helps aid the audience, as well as the other band members, in knowing where the drummer is in the form. The drummer also knows that towards the end of his second chorus he should start winding down the solo and begin to play in a way the will clearly signify that the drum solo is coming to an end and that the rest of the band should now rejoin him at the beginning of the next chorus.

The melody of the song form is also very important to the drum soloist. Even though the drum set is not an instrument that plays accurate pitches, such as a trumpet or saxophone, it may still play the melody of a song through the use of rhythm and articulates (such as flams, drags, rim shots, buzz rolls, etc.). The melody provides many elements that the drummer may borrow from in order to create a solo. For example, the drummer may take the rhythmic outline of the first two measures of the song, and use them as a motif, or reoccurring statement, for an entire twelve measures. Another option is the drummer could play off of the melody’s rhythms on the snare drum, and fill in the spaces of the melody on the toms, all while playing beats two and four on the hihat. The possibilities are endless. It is also possible for drummers to play melodies of songs verbatim on the drum set. It is possible to cover a range of pitches accurately by altering the tension of the drums. Ari Hoenig, an amazing contemporary jazz drummer, is able to play entire bebop songs on the drum set just as a horn player would. It can be fun to surprise the other musicians in the band by playing the melody note for note on the drums!

Understanding how to solo over a song form also aids a drummer in understanding how to “trade fours.” Trading fours is a call and response jazz tradition in which a soloist will play several bars of a solo and then the band will all stop playing while the drummer solos. Often this is done in groups of four measures at a time, hence the phrase “trading fours,” though any length of trading is possible. So, to continue with our 12 bar blues example, trading fours over two choruses would look like the following (we will use a trumpet soloist as the other trading partner for this example):

Chorus 1:
trumpet solo - drum solo - trumpet solo
4 measures - 4 measures - 4 measures

Chorus 2:
drum solo - trumpet solo - drum solo
4 measures - 4 measures - 4 measures

It is interesting to note that a twelve bar song form is one that takes two choruses of trading in order for it to work out that the trading ends with the person with which it began. This obviously is not the case with song forms that are even divisions of eight measures, such as a sixteen measure song form or a thirty-two measure form.

Trading solos with another soloist in the band is a great way for an inexperienced drummer to gain more confidence and vocabulary for soloing. You have to walk before you run. If a drummer cannot play four measures of soloing, an entire chorus will obviously pose too great a challenge. Also, trading with another soloist helps the drummer get more intimately acquainted with keeping the song form and using the songs elements for soloing springboards.

It is also recommended that while practicing soloing over a song form that a metronome be used. The song form is not the only element that continues to progress during the drum solo. The tempo should also progress just as accurately as it did during the other parts of the song.

There are many elements that need to be considered while the drummer is soloing over the song form. As we have discussed, these elements are the song’s melody, the song’s form, and the song’s tempo. Each of these song elements is important for the drummer to pay attention to. Making use of the song’s elements in a drum solo is what makes a drum solo pertinent to the song, and not just a bunch of random drumming noise. Neglecting these song elements will lead to all of a drummer’s solos, despite the song, sounding the same.

Consider the following example: You and two other people are chosen to give a group presentation about a new car. The three of you decide that you will speak on a different aspect of the new car. Person A will talk about the safety features of the new car. Person B will talk about the fuel efficiency of the new car. Your assignment is to talk about the sleek, sporty appearance of the car. When the three of you give your presentation Person A goes first, followed by Person B. After they speak, you feel that you really have the crowd in the palm of your hand. All you have to do is seal the deal by wowing the audience with the details of the car’s appearance. So what would you do? Would you recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Or would you comment on the ballgame that you are going to next week? Of course not! You would give your presentation on the appearance of the car, just as you planned. You would stay on topic, and therefore you would succeed in staying on topic with Person A and Person B’s presentations, therefore you would succeed in convincing the audience about how great this new car is. Well, that is exactly what a drummer has to do while soloing over a song form. A drummer must stay on topic. Quite often simply practicing with the awareness of the song’s various elements can greatly improve the quality of a drummer’s solos.

Soloing Over A Vamp

The second type of drum set soloing is soloing over a vamp. A vamp is a repeated musical pattern. When a drummer solos over a vamp, the vamp is usually a bass line or melody that is catchy, yet leaves room for the drummer to create over the top of it. The vamp is usually relatively short in length, often four, eight, or sixteen measures long, and is repeated as many times as the drummer wishes (or, more accurately, as many times as the bandleader wishes!). Vamps do not have melodic elements like song forms do, so the drummer does not have those aids at his disposal.

The drummer needs to pace himself while soloing over a vamp. No one wants to hear a constant barrage of sound. Non-stop note cramming is as annoying as listening to a person who talks too much. It just gives you a headache and you stop paying attention to what is being said, or in this case, played. A drummer should play ideas that will draw the audience into his solo. One of the simplest ways to do this is by playing a simple, short phrase several times, in essence creating a melody. This gives the audience, which is almost surely not a bunch of drummers, something tangible to latch on to. After a drummer gains the audience’s interest, he can start to play more intensely and gradually get more and more rhythmically sophisticated.

It is usually a good idea to have constant forward motion throughout a drum solo over a vamp. A simple way to ensure forward motion is through the use of dynamics and note density. At the beginning of a solo, a drummer could play fewer and softer notes. As the solo over the vamp progresses, the drummers could increase the amount of notes played and the dynamics at which they are played. It is a lot like telling a ghost story around a camp fire. You suck your audience in with a quite voice, and slowly creep them out by added details and raising the volume of your voice. Or, conversely, sometimes the scariest, or most profound things, are told in a whisper. A drummer should try to do the same, always including some whispering and a few “boos!”

One element that soloing over a song form and soloing over a vamp have in common is the consistency of tempo. A drummer should never allow time to be lost for the sake of showing off during a solo. A steady tempo is of the utmost importance. Tempo discrepancies can sabotage the other musicians that are playing the vamp. Even when the solo spotlight is on the drummer, he must remember that timekeeping is his responsibility.

Open Soloing

The most challenging type of drum set soloing is open soloing. Open soloing means that the drummer is free to solo however he wants with no tempo, song form, or melody to be responsible for. The rest of the band stops playing and the spotlight is given to the drummer to play whatever he desires. Often drummers are totally stumped as to what to play in this situation.

The key is for the drummer to remember that while he is no longer required to play the tempo, song form, and melody of the song, he is still allowed to play them if he so desires. Choosing certain elements of the song and then expanding on them may provide launch points for a solo. Even if a drummer chooses to ignore these elements, he could still create his own new tempo, song form, and/or melody to use for the open solo.

An open solo gives the drummer the opportunity to entice the audience into his world for a brief time. The use of dynamics is a nice way to grab the audience’s attention. What do you do when a person whispers to you? You lean forward and listen intently. Why not grab the audience’s attention by whispering on the drums? What could be more unusual that quite drums? It is exactly like the ghost story analogy from earlier. The open solo provides the drummer with the chance to tell a story. It can be scary, with drastic dynamic changes, or funny, with quirky sounds and rhythms. It can be more groove oriented, making use of a constant pattern that makes people want to dance, or it can be very minimalistic, making use of silence as much as sound.

One option that is often implemented by drummers during an open drum solo is the use of an ostinato. An ostinato is a constant, repeating rhythmic pattern, such as playing half notes on the hihat with the left foot. This obviously requires a certain level of coordination, demanding a drummer to be able to execute an ostinato on one limb while soloing with the other three limbs (or playing an ostinato between two limbs while soloing with the other two limbs, etc.). Often drummers who use an ostinato will build tension by playing solo ideas that really clash with the ostinato, displaying their ambidextrous control.

Another way to expand the sonic pallet during an open solo is to make use of various implements, other than sticks, to strike the drums with. Brushes have the ability to create sounds from both vertical motion and horizontal motion, especially when using coated drum heads. Tympani mallets are also great tools to use in order to create unique sounds on the drums. Jazz drumming great Matt Wilson is well know for making use of many unconventional implements on the drum set including spoons, forks, chains, knitting needles, and chop sticks.

With out a doubt, one of the most important things for a drummer to remember in order to be successful at playing open solos is that ramming as many notes as long as possible accomplishes nothing other than causing fatigue. As we have discussed in the previous two sections, the drum set is capable of being played in a musical fashion. Prolonged density of notes and extremely loud dynamics do not guarantee a musical solo. It is the context in which the note density and loud dynamics are used. A drummer should think like a novelist while soloing. Create a plot, characters, and a storyline. Let the open drum solo be the recitation of your novel. Save the climaxes for the times when they will make the greatest impression on the audience.


Drum set solos can be as musical as a solo by any other instrument in the band. It just takes the willingness of the drummer to think like the other musicians. Making use of the elements of a song during a drum solo is an easy and reliable way to ensure that the drummer is staying on topic with his solo and connecting with the audience. If these concepts are thoroughly practiced and reflected upon, the drummer will have complete confidence that he will be able to play a solo that is as pleasing to listen to, as it is to perform. Who knows, maybe if more and more drummers solo in this musical fashion, one day on MTV might air more drum set solos than bad reality shows! One can only hope.

© 2005, © 2011, © 2012 Stockton Helbing Music
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