Jazz Drumming

Posted in Guides And Tips

Ignacio Berroa playing on the drums, black and white picture

Playing jazz drums might be one of the most widely misunderstood things in the drumming world. There are so many different opinions and misconceptions surrounding the idiom, that it can be tough to know where to start.

First of all, there is already a huge debate among musicians about the word “Jazz”. Some people feel it defines a specific style of music that occurred at a specific time in history, and all modern off-shoots and evolutions should be called something else. Others believe jazz is a state of mind, and a way of approaching music, meaning that almost all forms of improvised music can be considered jazz, at least in some way.

I would say that each of these views has some truth to it. Either way, it’s important that we understand the basics of jazz, and that we understand how we would like to approach the music.

I’m going to teach you the basic mechanics of playing these beats, but more importantly, I’m going to teach you how to focus, and what to do with your mind during playing.

  • Basic Cymbal Beat
  • Comping
  • A Couple Different Jazz Grooves

The Basic “Jazz” Ride Cymbal Beat

So many drummers I know think of this rhythm when you say “jazz drumming”…

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing this groove as is, without variation. I’ll tell you right now that so many jazz drummers think they need to be changing things in every bar. They think they need to be improvising constantly, playing new licks and figures in every measure. In reality, they just need to make that cymbal beat feel good.

You don’t need to be constantly varying your groove and “interacting”. By playing solid time, you ARE interacting. You are supporting the music, and allowing others to play.

Now that that’s been said, here are some tips regarding playing swinging jazz time…

  • Whenever possible, feather the bass drum. This means playing all the quarter notes lightly on the bass drum. They should be felt rather than heard. This helps to lock in with the bass player’s quarter note and just solidifies things overall. All the great master drummers did it, and it’s a big part of the tradition. You can even do it in half time by feathering on beats 1 and 3.
  • Just because you’re improvising, doesn’t mean your groove is allowed to suffer. I’ll take a drummer who plays “less” creative material but grooves really hard over a drummer who has a wealth of ideas but doesn’t feel very good.
  • Also, remember that your cymbal beat is the most important aspect of playing jazz drums. Focus the majority of your attention on it, and treat it like a melody rather than an ostinato pattern that you “comp over”…

Comping

When I first began playing jazz drums, comping on the snare drum was such a nebulous concept. It seemed very arbitrary and random. I thought drummers just played “whatever”. This attitude leads me to play way too many “comping” figures on the snare drum and bass drum.

Finally, a teacher (Hal Galper) showed me what comping is really about. It’s 2 things: It’s a part of the groove, and it’s a a way of continuing a soloist’s phrases.

As a rule of thumb, bebop phrases tend to end on or around strong beats like 1 and 3. If you want to be continuing solo phrases, then a good place to put your comping accents is on the “and” of 1 and the “and” of 3. You’ll be starting your comping phrases just as the solo phrases end, and you’ll have a greater chance of nailing them.

As I mentioned before, you don’t have to over comp. You don’t always have to be playing accents that stand out when you are comping. You can simply play subtle snare drum figures like ruffs, or drags, or the charleston, lightly under your cymbal beat.

Don’t forget that you're snare drum is accompanying your own cymbal beat as much as it is accompanying the rest of the group

This applies just as much to straight-eighth based jazz grooves as it does to traditional swung grooves.

March Beat

To understand jazz drums, and the swing time feel, as well as the comping that occurs in the style, we need to understand that this all evolved from The New Orleans march beat.

The second line groove (as it’s often called) is a great way to figure out what figures to play when we comp.

It’s a simple process: play a second line groove, move the right hand up to the ride cymbal, add the required notes to fill out the cymbal beat, and what you’re left with in the left the hand is some decent coming ideas to build off of.

Different Jazz Grooves/styles

Even within “jazz drums”, there are several different but common grooves that drummers play. There is the obvious “jazz ride cymbal beat” that I mentioned earlier, but that’s just the start.

I urge you to check out and dig around and find examples of these other grooves.

  • Various bossa nova, latin grooves
  • The “ECM straight 8ths feel”
  • Playing in odd meters, straight or swung!
  • The Jazz Waltz! A great, standard groove that is worth learning.