An Introduction to Jazz Drumming
by Stockton Helbing

One of the most fascinating parts of the history of the United States is the birth and growth of jazz music. Jazz music’s colorful history is heavily intertwined with the history of the drum set. The drum set evolved through the explorations of early jazz percussionists in New Orleans. These drum set “inventors” constructed drum sets that would provide them with the capabilities of achieving sounds they heard in their heads; the sounds they felt would compliment the other musicians with whom they were creating music.

After the basic drum set setup was codified, the philosophies as to how to play them developed. The drum set evolved from being just a repetitive time keeper to becoming an active voice in the “conversation” of jazz music. Today, close to a hundred years after the birth of jazz drumming, inexperienced drummers are having difficulties determining what exactly to play in a jazz situation. Let’s take a look at some essentials to jazz drumming.

Know the Subject Matter

If your literature teacher were to ask you to write a report for class, you would first want to know what topic you are assigned before you began the paper. How else would you know what to write about? The same is true for jazz drumming. You must listen to jazz music before you can intelligently play jazz music. Wouldn’t you expect your dentist to know a little about teeth before he tells you to open your mouth for a drill? In the same way, musicians will expect you to have a basic knowledge of what jazz music and jazz drumming sounds like before you attempt to make music together.

Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis, is a great album for inexperienced jazz drummers to listen to for an introduction to the jazz drumming idiom. Kind of Blue features Jimmy Cobb on the drum set; a great jazz drummer who holds a prominent place in the history of jazz music. His playing demonstrates many characteristics that are invaluable to a jazz drummer. Jimmy has a great consistent, swinging time feel; he interacts with the soloists while not playing a lot of superfluous “licks;” and he clearly delineates form (plays in a way that helps the other musicians know where in the chord progressions of the song they currently are). Listening to Jimmy’s playing on Kind of Blue will definitely help establish a concept of what jazz drumming should be in the mind of an inexperienced jazz drummer.

The Supreme Importance of the Ride Cymbal

Perhaps the greatest difference between jazz drumming and all other styles of drumming is the role of the ride cymbal. In jazz drumming, the ride cymbal is the most important voice of the drum set. It is also the element that most distinctly establishes a jazz drummer’s identity as a player; his own unique sound. Therefore, one must learn to properly manipulate the ride cymbal if he hopes to become a competent jazz drummer.

The ride cymbal in jazz drumming should have a basic quarter note pulse as its foundation. The quarter notes are what the entire band will zero in on while making music together. The quarter note pulse also unites the drummer with the bass player, making them both “keepers of the quarter notes.” This is not to say that a person is limited to playing only quarter notes, this is simply enforcing the idea that a jazz drummer must use quarter notes as the reference point for everything played on the ride cymbal. That is why it is a good idea for beginning jazz drummers to start by working on playing quarter notes on the ride cymbal only. Play along with recordings, using only quarter notes. One should try to make his quarter notes line up perfectly with the recording, simultaneously observing how the drummer on the recording adds “skip beats,” or inflections, in his ride cymbal pattern while still adhering to a consistent quarter note pulse. The quarter note pulse is always there, whether it is obvious or not.

Just remember, the ride cymbal should be able to stand alone. It should be able to make the music happen by itself. That is the true test for determining if the ride cymbal is being played properly. Adding other voices of the drum set to the ride cymbal will be of no benefit if the ride cymbal is not making the music swing and sound good by itself.

Practice time dedicated to the ride cymbal is practice time well spent. It is good to practice emulating the ride patterns and feels of the great jazz drummers. Along with Jimmy Cobb, other masters of the ride cymbal are Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, Mel Lewis, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. They each have very distinct methods of playing the ride cymbal that have contributed to their status as master jazz drummers.

Basic Feet Incorporation

Adding the left foot into the jazz drumming equation will spotlight a very big difference between jazz music and other music. Most inexperienced drummers are more familiar with the feel and sound of pop music, therefore, they are accustomed to hearing the rhythmic emphasis in music placed on beats one and three (here we are dealing with a four/four time signature). The exact opposite is true of jazz music; the rhythmic emphasis is placed on beats two and four. The jazz drummer enforces this difference with the hi-hat. When playing a basic jazz time feel, the hi-hat should be played on beats two and four.

As far as the bass drum is concerned, it is best if inexperienced drummers stick to a “four on the floor” feel. Four on the floor means that the drummer lightly plays, or “feathers,” quarter notes on the bass drum. As a rule of thumb, the feathered stroke should range from a vertical position to striking the drum; equaling a total distance of movement of an inch to an inch and a half. Four on the floor played on the bass drum, added to playing two and four on the hi-hat, then combined with a consistent ride cymbal pattern will provide a nice foundation for playing jazz music.

Snare Drum Comping

The snare drum is used for comping in jazz drumming. Comping is short for complimenting, meaning that the snare drum will interject ideas that compliment what the soloist and other rhythm section members are playing. Snare drum comping is also used to play ideas that help to delineate the form of the song that is being performed.

It is best if inexperienced drummers begin by keeping their snare drum comping fairly simple by making use of quarter notes and eighth notes exclusively. Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones are examples of drummers who make great use of such basic rhythmic frameworks. Remember, as one of my former teachers, Jim Hall, used to say, “Less is more.” What you do not play on the snare drum can help accentuate what you do play. Leaving space can be just as musical and exciting as filling up the space. Once a drummer gets comfortable comping with quarter notes and eighth notes, he should start experimenting with different triplet frameworks. Elvin Jones is the master of, and the definitive source for, triplet based comping.

Putting it All Together

One of the biggest hurdles inexperienced drummers will face when trying to combine the above described methods will be dealing with the coordination required to play all four limbs simultaneously. It is important for them to realize that this is a universal problem for all beginning drummers of any style music. A drummer must condition his mind and body to move each limb independently of the others. There are many drum set books that deal with this subject, such as Essential Techniques for Drum Set: Book 1 by Ed Soph and Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer by Jim Chapin. A beginning drummer should explore the various approaches to four way coordination that are out there until he finds one that appeals to his own tastes.

Though coordination exercises are great for developing the abilities to move each limb independently of each other, they are still only the means to an end; the end being the execution of quality jazz drumming. Always remember that making music is the goal! That should always be the bottom line of all practicing, listening, and thinking; to create music.

Hopefully these basic explanations of jazz drumming will provide a solid starting point for inexperienced jazz drummers. Please remember, these are only starting points, not limitations or rules for jazz drumming. If there is one rule of jazz drumming it is that there are no rules. A great jazz drummer plays whatever it takes to make the music a success. It takes a constant, humble attitude to be willing to do whatever it takes from the drum chair to contribute to the overall quality of the music. Don’t forget that inspiration and instruction are always readily available from all of the rich recorded history of jazz and all of jazz music’s master drummers. Even the jazz drumming masters were inexperienced at one point! They became masters by being dedicated to steadfast practicing and committed to sacrificing anything for the sake of the music. I hope these basic jazz drumming techniques serve as a catalyst for turning an inexperienced jazz drummer into the next master jazz drummer.


© 2005, © 2011 Stockton Helbing Music

back to top

back to education index