“To get your playing more forceful, hit the drums harder.” - Keith Moon

In jazz drumming, you have to be more nuanced in your approach More people like jazz than you’d first think. Generally, it’s the older generations that prefer it. It’s because of jazz that drummers exist as they do today.

Jazz made the drummer an important part of the band and put a focus on the rhythm and drum beat.

So how can you play jazz drums?

In this article, we're going to look at what's so special about this music genre and how the drums make it what it is.

Learn about the different drum techniques.

What Is Jazz?

Jazz was born in the 20th century in the United States and has Afro-American roots. It came from gospel music and religious hymns used in ceremonies.

When was jazz music created?
During your drum tutorials, you might cover the fascinating history of jazz music. (Source: tatlin)

Following a boom in brass bands, jazz sprung up in New Orleans. There were several influential eras in the history of jazz:

  • Swing in the 1930s with a trumpet and trombone.
  • Bebop in the 1940s which were quicker.
  • Cool jazz and hard bob in the 1950s.
  • Free jazz in the 1950s which broke away from standard jazz conventions (saxophone, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, etc.)

Jazz has continued to evolve other the years with musicians like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Buddy Rich, and Weather Report. Latin jazz, jazz rock, and jazz funk appeared.

Freedom is at the heart of jazz music. Jazz is seen as an uncompromising musical style. Some musicians consider it the creme de la creme and only for the very best musicians in the world.

Jazz music is a great way to broaden your musical horizons, experience new ways to drum and have fun playing interesting music. It’s also great for improving your creativity as it requires a lot of improvisation.

This doesn’t mean that a jazz drummer has to constantly be doing drum solos but rather that all the musicians need to be listening to one another. Thus, even though you can find sheet music for jazz, it’s more about the group and how they improvise. That’s what makes a lot of people think jazz is inaccessible to many.

Jazz drummers, saxophonists, guitarists, bassists, and pianists can all have a lot of fun when they play with other jazz musicians. However, before you start improvising, you need a good understanding of the fundamentals.

Brushes: The Drumstick of Choice for Jazz Musicians

In jazz music, drummers often prefer to use brushes rather than traditional sticks. Metal or plastic brushes are used instead of wooden drumsticks.

How do you use drumsticks and brushes?
Jazz music often uses brushes rather than your typical drumstick. (Source: StockSnap)

While jazz appears to be unplanned, rhythm and timing play an important role. You can hardly compare a jazz drummer to a rock drummer and a jazz drum kit looks different to a rock one.

Brushes allow you to express ideas you can’t with traditional drumsticks and you'll need to learn to play with them if you really want to become a master of your instrument. They first appeared in the 1920s as a way to decrease the noise created by snare drums. This is because jazz was first played in small venues and rooms.

Brushes allow you to play more quietly. They’re very useful for ghost notes. These notes are soft strokes on the snare drum.

You’ll find tonnes of different types of brushes in a drum shop: retractable brushes, metal or plastic brushes, woven metal brushes, etc. Light drumsticks are useful for those just starting out because brushes require a drumming technique that a lot of new drummers won’t be familiar with.

Jazz Drumming Technique

Jazz technique can be tricky for beginners. First and foremost, you need to have good rhythm and timing. It might be a good idea to start out with rock music first as the drum beats are better suited to a beginner.

How much do jazz drumming tutorials cost?
While other musicians might steal the spotlight, the drummer is probably the most important musician in jazz music. (Source: SocialButterflyMMG)

However, for those wanting to get started with jazz music, it’s recommended that you start with blues music, which is a great way to prepare yourself for jazz rhythms.

No need for perfection when you first start learning. Jazz is for everyone and there’s nothing stopping you playing it just for fun. You mightn’t become a jazz master, but that mightn’t be why you’re learning the drums. You just have to get started with learning how to play the drums!

Triple Meter

Jazz is often in a triple meter. This means that each beat is divided into threes. You usually count a jazz beat like:

"1-and-a-2-and-a-3-and-a-4-and-a"

A jazz beat accentuates the first and third triplet of each beat. These beats are swung to create what we call the shuffle feel. It’s essential that you’re familiar with music theory if you want to know how to play jazz music.

Mastering the Drive

Percussion instruments (such as the drums) guide the other instruments. This is even truer when it comes to jazz music. You need to drive the group.

If there’s one thing you have to remember about jazz music, it’s that the drummer is essential. The drummer drives the group with the aptly named ride cymbal. It plays alongside the bass and double bass.

If you want to keep a big band together, you’ll need to carefully work the ride. This allows you to keep time.

Chabada

Chabada is when you play triplets on the ride cymbal. You do this with your right hand and replace the regular beats you’d find in a binary rhythm such as the Charleston rhythm.

Jazz rhythm can be counted in standard time (4 beats). In rock, the rhythm is binary. In jazz, the four beats are counted differently. The spacing is regular.

I’d recommend carefully listening to jazz music to get an idea of this, especially if you’re not familiar with it. It’s not entirely obvious at first. This allows more freedom for each limb. When you first start, just use the ride cymbal.

Why not learn how to write music for the drums?

Using the Hi-hat

Freedom is very important in jazz, especially in terms of your right hand and left foot. While the right-hand plays the ride cymbal, your left foot can open the hi-hat on the 2nd and 4th beats.

You lift your foot to open it and put it down to close it.

You can also count “1, 2 and 3, 4 and...”

  • 1: Ride cymbal
  • 2: Ride cymbal and hi-hat
  • “And”: Ride cymbal
  • 3: Ride cymbal
  • 4: Ride cymbal and hi-hat
  • “And”: Ride cymbal
  • Repeat.

Set your metronome to 60bpm and practice until you get it right. Then set it to 120bpm once you’re getting the hang of it.

This forms the foundation of jazz drumbeats.

The other drums, such as the toms and bass drum, are played in a ternary rhythm on the first and third triplet of each beat in the measure.

Advanced Jazz Drumming: Adding the Bass Drum and the Snare

Of course, the drums are more than just the ride and hi-hat.

Where can you learn to play jazz drums?
Jazz drumming can sometimes be more complicated than it first seems. (Source: nadfrank)

Jazz drumming lessons uses all four limbs independently:

  • Right hand: ride cymbal
  • Left foot: hi-hat
  • Left hand: snare
  • Right foot: bass drum

Once you can keep time with the ride and hi-hat, you can add the bass drum and the snare to get more of a jazz feeling.

Here are some examples:

  • 1st Measure
    • 1: Ride cymbal and bass drum
    • 2: Ride cymbal and hi-hat
    • “And”: Ride cymbal and snare
    • 3: Ride cymbal
    • 4: Ride cymbal and hi-hat
    • “And”: Ride cymbal
  • 2nd Measure
    • 1: Ride cymbal
    • 2: Ride cymbal and hi-hat
    • “And”: Ride cymbal
    • 3: Ride cymbal
    • 4: Ride cymbal and hi-hat
    • “And”: Ride cymbal

The second measure is there to give us more of a jazz feeling. The snare is played offbeat, which might seem strange to those used to playing binary rhythms like those found in rock music.

The bass drum is only struck lightly. We’re looking for nuance over power.

Make sure you keep time whilst doing this exercise.

Again, start at 60bpm before moving onto 120bpm.

If jazz isn’t your thing, have you consider learning to play metal or rock?

Jazz Drumming Glossary

You’ll not be able to improvise until you’ve been practising jazz drumming for a few months or years (in some cases). That said, you should still be familiar with some of the terminology.

The following glossary terms and definitions have been excerpted from Elephant Drums.

Accent - A louder note within a group of notes. An accent pattern creates a distinct rhythm within a pattern of notes.

Backbeat - Accenting beats 2 and 4 within a bar of a 4/4 groove.

Comping - Usually a jazz term meaning “accompanying” or “complimenting”.

Dynamics - How loudly or softly a section of music or specific notes are played.

Eggbeaters - A drum rudiment played as a quintuplet, formed of a triple stroke in one hand and a double stroke in the other.

Flam - A flam is a rudiment consisting of a quiet note played by one hand followed immediately by a louder stroke on the other. The two notes are played almost at the same time, creating the effect of the two notes “as one”.

Ghost Note - A note played very lightly, usually on the snare, between other notes within a groove.

Half-time Feel - In 4/4 time signature, half time would be a groove with a snare backbeat on beat 3 of the bar and a bass drum downbeat on beat 1.

Independence - Playing different parts with your different limbs independently, whilst being coordinated so that the greater pattern sounds “together”.

Jamming - Improvising without preparation, usually with other musicians – but as a drummer you might jam by yourself or along with a recording to make up new drum parts.

Ostinato - A repeating pattern played by one or more limbs while other limbs play parts across the pattern.

Permutation - Moving a phrase so that it starts at a different point, creating a new rudiment or phrase.

Quintuplet - A group of 5 notes taking the space of one beat.

Rudiment - A pattern that forms the basic building blocks or ‘vocabulary’ of drumming; e.g. Single Strokes, Double Strokes, Paradiddles, Flams.

Syncopation - The placement of notes in an “unexpected” arrangement to create a distinctive rhythm.

Tempo - The speed the music is played, measured in beats per minute (BPM).

Up beat - Opposite of the Down Beat (which is the strong pulse emphasised as part of a rhythm), so the Up Beat is usually the weaker note falling between the notes of the pulse. “Upbeat” can also mean up-tempo.

Rim Shot - This is when the drumstick hits the rim of the drum rather than the skin. After playing drums for a bit, you'll probably come across this in your drum lessons.

Groove - Repetitive rhythm which repeats with a few variations in order to keep time.

There is a whole language for understanding the drums! (Source: Unsplash - Adi Goldstein)

Who’s the Greatest Jazz Drummer of All Time?

So, now we’ve run through the origins of jazz, common jazz drumming terms and some important exercising for mastering jazz drumming, let us now take a look back through the archives to see just who really was the greatest jazz drummer of all time.

There are certainly many strong candidates for that prestigious crown, so instead of making some kind of ranking judgement, let’s take a few names which are widely agreed upon as some of the greatest jazz drummers, and learn a little bit more about what made each of them unique and so universally admired.

Buddy Rich

Buddy Rich is an amazing case study of human potential.

Having never received a formal drumming lesson, and refusing to practice outside of performances, Rich was nevertheless a prodigy from an extremely young age. He began drumming aged just 18 months, and carried on with his drumming career until his death in his 70’s.

Regularly performing on Broadway at the tender age of 4, Rich quickly became the second highest-paid child star in the world.

His jazz career began at the age of 20, performing around New York with extremely high profile Jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa.

Buddy Rich was known for his energetic style as well as his ability to adapt to different bands as well as audiences’ changing tastes in various venues. He often played jazz as well as rock in the venues Buddy’s Place and Buddy’s Place II, both of which he established in New York.

His pedigree is such that when he passed away in 1987, none other than Frank Sinatra delivered his eulogy.

Witness his incredible soloing ability in the twilight of his illustrious career here.

Art Blakey

Art Blakey had his first foray into music, like so many African-American jazz artists of the era, in the church, where he learned bible verses, hymns and also how to play the piano.

He later became an accomplished jazz pianist, however, he was forced off the piano and onto the drums in an infamous incident in a Pittsburgh nightclub, where he was told at gunpoint, to move from the piano over to the drums to make way for another talent.

This bizarrely turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Blakey, as he warmed to his new role as the rhythm and driver of the band, undoubtedly inspiring and boosting the careers of many jazz artists around him.

Blakey visited Africa in 1948, where he learned polyrhythmic drumming, adding another layer of depth and richness to his already impressive drumming ability.

His trademark move is to use the hi-hat pedal on the 2 and 4 beats of every bar to maintain a consistent groove over which he could place incredible fills using his snare and tom-toms.

His Jazz Messengers’ band left an imprint on jazz, which is still felt to this day. All those who were lucky enough to play with Art Blakey, or hear his music live, were able to capture that spirit and carry it forth into present-day jazz drumming. The message lives on.

Elvin Jones

Born in 1927, Elvin Jones is another American Jazz drummer who used African-inspired polyrhythmic techniques to elevate his playing to a new and exciting level.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Jones brought “a forceful polyrhythmic approach to the traps set, combining different metres played independently by the hands and feet into a propulsive flow of irregularly shifting accents.”

He began his professional jazz career in Detroit in 1949, before moving to New York City in 1956 to play with immortal jazz legends such as John Coltrane and Pepper Adams.

Jones’ extroverted polyrhythmic style (which means he was able to carry out multiple, seemingly contradictory, recurring rhythms with his left hand, right hand and feet simultaneously), became a main feature of two of jazz’s defining records; My Favourite Things (1960) and A Love Supreme (1964), both of which he recorded with John Coltrane.

Many drummers model their sound on these guys! (Source: Unsplash - Vlad Shalaginov)

How To Learn Jazz Drumming

Finally, to conclude this article we will offer some suggestions about where people can access great jazz drumming teachers and mentors.

Superprof

Superprof is a tutoring website which allows would-be students of any skill to search a catalogue of private tutors and contact the one who they think will be great for them. You can do this with jazz drumming, piano or bass guitar lessons. Just search your query into Superprof’s Australian website and you will find many results from your local area.

To contact your tutor and book a lesson, you will have to pay Superprof’s $39 monthly subscription fee. This gives you access to the contact details of as many teachers as you wish to get in touch with for one full month. Not just for guitar, but for anything you want to learn.

If you don’t find a teacher who is teaching the skills you want to learn, you will not be charged for anything.

Many tutors offer their first lesson for free. This allows you to get to know them, invite them into your home (online or face-to-face), and see if they are the right tutor to teach you going forward.
Superprof is a fun, secure, and cost-effective way to take a class in just about anything! Just read the profiles of our great jazz drumming teachers and see if one fits the bill!

Join a band

Websites such as Bandmix and Meetup offer public forums where people advertise the type of people they want to meet and hang out with. If you already have beginner or intermediate drumming skills, then maybe the most fun way for you to improve is to get experience jamming out with other musicians. Just find a piano, saxophone, guitar and bass player near you and start your own jazz band! That way you can learn in the most invaluable way - through experience.

Take Online Lessons

There are so many good online courses out there now, so if you can find the right level drumming one (a quick google search for courses on trusted online-education websites such as Udemy and Coursera should do the trick), then you can simply park yourself in front of your kit, with your laptop playing on the side and go ballistic! This could be a fantastic and cost-effective way to learn from some of the best drumming teachers in the world! Like their courses? Give them a positive review so that other learners such as yourself can easily find the best learning material going around!

Be the next jazz icon in the record collection (Source: Unsplash - Mick Haupt)

Get started today!

In this article alone, we've covered the origins of jazz, the common vocabulary used by jazz drummers as well as reviewing some of the best jazz musicians of all time with sticks in-hand! We've also looked at where you could go to further your jazz drumming journey. So now there's little more left to do than to get out there and keep improving! What are you waiting for?

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.