Jazz Drumming


About These Lessons
How Does Jazz Drumming Work?
Part One: The Basic Pattern
Part Two: The Jazz Shuffle
Part Three: Basic Left Hand Patterns
Part Four: Comping Phrases
Part Five: Solo Phrases
Part Six: Comping Phrases in 3/4
Part Seven: Solo Phrases in 3/4
Part Eight: Bossa Nova
Part Nine: Melodic Phrasing
Recommended Listening
Recommended Reading
Drummers to Know

About These Lessons

Here you’ll learn the basic skills needed to play in a jazz band.

I recommend printing Goals and Waypoints and using it as a progress checklist. This will show you how to apply these lessons and keep you accountable.

Reading isn’t a requirement, but drum notation is easy to learn and helpful as a visual reference. You’ll find a notation key here and basic rhythm reading lessons here. If you have questions or need support, just reach out and let me know.

As a beginner, I recommend taking simple rhythms and making them sound good. When in doubt, keep it simple. It’s the easiest way to sound like a professional.

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How Does Jazz Drumming Work?

The melody of the song is played at the beginning and the end, like an introduction and conclusion. Between the intro and outro or “head in” and “head out,” each player takes a turn improvising while the others back them up. Occasionally two or more players will improvise together, or the band will stretch into an all out free for all. The melody ties it all together and wraps it up at the end.

At first, our role as a drummer is just to keep time and support the other musicians. When you’re ready, you can take the lead and solo.

The single most important skill you will learn is keeping time, since it has such a powerful effect on the overall sound of the band. Let’s begin there with part one.

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Part One: The Basic Pattern

Practice Tips
  • Count triplets out loud. Counting connects your playing to the language center of your brain. At first it may seem more difficult to play while counting, but the quality and musicality you achieve by going through the process is the goal. You may already be able to play this pattern, but when you try to count or play slowly it sounds erratic and sloppy. If that’s the case, learning to play while counting is a great opportunity for improvement.
  • Take it slow. Remember that quality is the goal, not speed. Faster is not better, it’s just faster. The tendency to rush ahead is universal. If you can resist the temptation, take a deep breath and slow down a little, you will deepen your time feel and learn new material easily.
  • Strive for consistent, even, rolling triplets. Learn to play the blues and feel the connection. Work on counting, feeling and breathing the rhythm. The way you feel when you practice will become part of your time feel and will have a powerful effect on the overall sound of the band.
  • If you can make a simple pattern sound good, you are already playing at a high level.
  • Practice with a bass line. The bassist is your closest team mate. Work together with him or her to establish a solid time feel—providing the foundation for the band. It is easy to hear everything but the bassist. Train your ear to the bass.
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Part Two: The Jazz Shuffle

Practice Tips
  • Apply the counting method you learned in part one.
  • Practice with and without the feet.
  • Practice with a bass line.
  • The shuffle is the first left hand groove you will learn. It is a fantastic warm up and a great opportunity to develop your left hand coordination.
Supporting Content

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Part Three: Basic Left Hand Patterns

Practice Tips
  • Repeat these patterns as consistent grooves. Swing-era(1935-1945) jazz was the popular dance music of the day. Like rock and pop, repetitive patterns were used to build excitement and make music danceable. As jazz evolves into listener’s music in the bebop era, rhythmic phrasing becomes more melodic and less repetitive.
  • The first pattern adds a side-stick on count four.
  • The second pattern is an Afro-Cuban influenced jazz Mambo where the sidestick and tom represent the slap and tone of the conga pattern.
  • The last pattern is a simple backbeat. The snare plays together with the hi-hat to emphasize the strong beats on counts two and four. The backbeat is the common thread shared by all types of American popular music.
  • Practice with a bass line.
Supporting Content

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Part Four: Comping Phrases

Practice Tips
  • In this lesson you will learn to speak conversationally on your snare drum while keeping the basic time pattern. This is called comping.
  • Listen to these three songs and try to answer the question: What do all three have in common? (the answer is at the bottom of this page)
    1. Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
    2. So What by Miles Davis
    3. Blue Train by John Coltrane
  • This is a lot of material packed in to one lesson. Just work on one phrase at a time. If you learn one of these phrases each week, you will have come a long way towards being a competent improviser in just six weeks. Use short and longterm goals to stay oriented.
  • Start slowly and gradually work your tempo up in 5 BPM(beats per minute) increments. 60, 65, 70… 120. Don’t sacrifice quality for speed.
  • Repeat each pattern as an exercise until you have it memorized.
  • Once you’ve memorized the patterns, practice alternating one measure of the basic time pattern with one measure of the comping phrase. This will teach you to keep time, leave space and listen, then respond with the phrase. Listen back to Miles Davis’ So What for an example of this with phrase A.
  • After you’re comfortable inserting the phrases in time, practice creating longer phrases by alternating one measure of the basic pattern, one measure phrase, one measure of the basic pattern, one measure different phrase. For example: basic pattern, phrase A, basic pattern, phrase B.
  • If it helps you to have a visual reference, use the phrase worksheets linked below and fill in your own phrases.  Eventually you want to be able to phrase by ear.
  • Your default mode should be to keep time, leave space and listen. Then insert phrases where it makes sense conversationally.
Supporting Content

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Part Five: Solo Phrases

Practice Tips
  • Here we apply phrases A, B, C and D to the drums as accents in rolling triplets. If you are an advanced student you may want include E and F in your own practice.
  • The first 4 minutes and 10 seconds of the video are all single stroke patterns and are relatively easy. Beginning at 4:12, double strokes are introduced on the unaccented snare hits. If you have experience rudimental drumming you may want to tackle these now. If you are a beginner, continue through the series and return here after you have the basics down. Consider including rudiments in your practice routine to prepare for advanced soloing applications.
  • Once you have mastered the single stroke patterns, practice alternating one measure of a simple triplet single stroke roll on the snare drum with one measure of each phrase. Rolling triplets on the snare drum with no accents, then playing the phrase as you did with the comping phrases in the last lesson. Experiment with four measure phrases.
  • Once you are comfortable building four measure phrases, practice trading fours—alternate four measures of time with four measure of soloing. This is the starting point for taking drum solos.
  • Use the trading fours worksheet linked below. Add your own comping phrases and accents. Notice that the last cymbal hit is moved to the snare drum. This will help you lead into the phrase with your left hand and smooth the transition from time to solo. Stop time on beat four, and lead into the solo with a1, left-right. Then continue alternating triplets RLR LRL until you return to playing time. If you can perform this over a bass line at 120BPM you are well on your way to sounding great with a jazz band!
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Part Six: Comping Phrases in 3/4

Practice Tips
  • Apply the counting and independence skills you developed in the earlier parts of the series. Review above if needed.
  • Notice the bass drum only plays on beat one in this pattern, with the hi-hat on beat two.
  • Once you’ve worked the patterns up to speed, practice playing along with All Blues by Miles Davis on the album Kind of Blue. Skip the intro and start playing along at 1min 50sec.
  • Practice alternating the basic pattern with each phrase—leaving space and inserting the phrases at will.
  • Practice building longer phrases by combining and alternating phrases with space.
  • If it helps you to have a visual reference, use the phrase worksheets linked below and fill in your own phrases.  Eventually you want to be able to phrase by ear.
Supporting Content

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Part Seven: Solo Phrases in 3/4

Practice Tips
  • Start each phrase with your right hand and alternate. Notice, since you are playing in 3/4 time, the accents will switch hands each measure.
  • Notice which hand hits with which foot in each measure. Use these as anchor points to coordinate and synchronize the phrases.
  • Once you are comfortable with each phrase. Practice alternating one measure of a simple triplet roll on the snare drum (no accents) with one measure of each phrase. This will help you develop freedom with the phrases.
  • Next, practice building longer phrase combinations. For example ABAC.
  • The final step is to practice trading fours. Alternate four measures of playing time and comping with four measures of solo phrases. If it helps to have a visual reference, use the phrase worksheet linked below. Fill in your own comps on the snare drum and accents over the rolls. Eventually you want to be able to do this by ear.
Supporting Content

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Part Eight: Bossa Nova

Practice Tips
  • The Bossa Nova is a Brazilian rhythm which evolved from Samba. Bossa Nova is softer, club music and leaves more space for other instruments, while Samba is bombastic, exhilarating percussion ensemble music. Jazz musicians draw on the deep roots of African, Cuban and Brazilian rhythms for a never ending well-spring of ideas. While this represents the standard introduction to Latin music in a jazz setting, it is only scratching the surface. Check the recommended reading and listening to deepen your knowledge and go to the source.
  • Notice that the two rhythms are the same, just starting on their different respective measures. In the first pattern, there are 3 snare hits in measure one and 2 snare hits in measure two. This is the Brazilian 3-2 clave. In the second pattern, the measures are reversed as 2-3 clave.
  • The independence can be challenging at first. Remember that drum set independence is “coordinated independence” not just four limbs independently playing rhythms. Understanding the relationship between limbs—what hits with what when, will help decode these coordination puzzles.
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Recommended Listening

Tracks with an asterisk* are great listening for beginners. Most, if not all, of these tracks are available on YouTube. Just cut and paste the track and artist into the search bar and you will find both the original and a variety of other versions of the songs. Listening to a variety of versions of the same song will help you understand the freedom jazz musicians have within a form. This is also a great confidence builder as you will hear that you can play the songs your own way.

  • Artist: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
    Album: Moanin’ (1958)
    Track: Moanin’*
    Notes: Listen for phrase A, snare with the hi-hat on beats two and four, and side-stick on beat four.
    Track: Are You Real?
    Notes: Listen for phrases B, C, E, side-stick on beat four during the piano solo, phrases F and E during drum solos.
    Track: Along Came Betty*
    Notes: Listen for phrases E and F.
    Track: Come Rain or Come Shine
    Notes: Listen for phrases B, C and E
  • Artist: Roy Haynes with Phineas Newborn and Paul Chambers
    Album: We Three (1958)
    Track: Sugar Ray*
    Notes: Listen for phrase E during the piano solo.
    Track: After Hours*
    Notes: Listen for the slow triplet feel and phrase F.
    Track: Sneakin’ Around
    Notes: Listen for phase B and E.
  • Artist: Miles Davis Quintet
    Album: Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1958)
    Track: If I Were a Bell
    Notes: Listen for phrase C and side-stick on beat four during the piano solo.
    Track: I Could Write a Book
    Notes:  Listen for phrase C peppered throughout.
  • Artist: The Thelonious Monk Quartet
    Album: Monk’s Dream
    Track: Monk’s Dream
    Notes: Listen for phrase D.
    Track: Bright Mississippi
    Notes: Listen for phrase D.
    Track: Five Spot Blues
    Notes: Notice the melodic drumming. Listen for phrases D and E.
    Track: Blue Bolivar Blues*
    Notes: Listen for melodic, conversational call and response.
  • Artist: Miles Davis
    Album: Milestones (1958)
    Track: Milestones
    Notes: Listen for the side-stick on beat four.
    Track: Sid’s Ahead*
    Notes:  Listen for comping phrase B and E.
    Track: Straight No Chaser
    Notes: Listen for phrases B, C, E, F and side-stick on beat four during the piano solo.
    Track: Two Bass Hit
    Notes: Listen for phrases B, C and D
  • Artist: Miles Davis
    Album: Kind of Blue (1959)
    Track: Freddie the Freeloader*
    Notes: Excellent track to play along with.
    Track: So What*
    Listen for phrase A and all other phrases. Note the subtlety. Excellent track to play along with.
    All Blues*
    Notes: Listen for comping phrases in 3/4 time. Excellent track to play along with starting at 1 minute and 50 seconds when Jimmy Cobb comes in on the ride cymbal.
  • Artist: Max Roach
    Album: Clifford Brown & Max Roach (1954)
    Notes: All of the songs on this album are “standards.” These are great songs to have in your back pocket. The melodies are distinct and catchy enough that you can memorize them just by listening to the album over and over. Max Roach’s drumming on the album demonstrates musicality over “chops” or technical skill. Of course he had both, but the most direct approach to sounding great is to play musically rather than gymnastically.
  • Artist: Ahmad Jamal Trio
    Album: Cross Country Tour (1958‑1961)
    Notes: Good album to listen to while you are learning to hear and feel the pulse in jazz. The bass drum is strong on quarter notes under the ride cymbal, while it is usually feathered in other music from this era. Great examples of simple playing sounding very good. Check out the track But Not For Me, also on the album Live at the Pershing. The pulse is very strong and laid back. Listen for the second pattern from part three of this lesson series.
  • Artist: John Coltrane
    Album: Blue Train
    Track: Blue Train*
    Notes: Listen for phrase A call and response, comping phrases B, C, E and F.
  • Artist: Jeff “Tain” Watts
    Album: Citizen Tain
    Track: Bluetain, Jr.*
    Notes: Listen for comping phrases B, C, E, F and side-stick on beat four. Strong hard swinging pulse. Easy melody to memorize.
Brazilian Jazz
  • Artist: Antônio Carlos Jobim
    Album: Wave
    Notes: This is a hugely influential Brazilian Jazz album. Listen for the Bossa Nova and Brazilian clave. Listen for how the left hand side-stick on the snare drum “comps” with the rhythms of the guitar. The rhythms are more repetitive than most jazz comping but still loose and free.
  • Artist: Astrud Gilberto
    Album: The Astrud Gilberto Album 1965
    Notes: This is another influential Brazilian Jazz album. Most of the songs on this album are standards and are great to know. The laid back vocal style makes it relatively easy to play along with.
  • Artist: Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto
    Album: Getz/Gilberto (1963)
    Notes: Another influential Brazilian Jazz album on which most of the tracks on standards. As above, laid back and easy to play along with.

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Recommended Reading

  • Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer by Ted Reed
  • Stick Control by George L. Stone
  • The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary as Taught by Alan Dawson by John Ramsey
  • The Art of Bop Drumming by John Riley
  • Brazilian Rhythms for Drumset by Duduka Da Fonseca and Bob Weiner

Further recommended reading:
Twelve Classic Books for Every Jazz Drummer’s Library

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Drummers to Know

These are just a very few influential jazz drummers. Many have careers spanning decades and are alive performing today. Go out and see them play!

A great way to structure your listening is by drummer rather than by lead artist. Consider taking a different drummer each evening—do a YouTube/Google search and see what you find. A lot can be learned by listening to the way one drummer handles many different situations. Discovering what piques your interest will help develop your own style and direction.

The drummers in bold text are selected because they are especially helpful to listen to as a beginner.

  • Baby Dodds
  • Zutty Singleton
  • Sonny Greer
  • Gene Krupa
  • Papa Jo Jones
  • Buddy Rich
  • Big Sid Catlett
  • Louis Bellson
  • Kenny Clarke
  • Shelley Manne
  • Vernel Fournier
  • Max Roach
  • Roy Haynes
  • Art Blakey
  • Philly Joe Jones
  • Billy Higgins
  • Mel Lewis
  • Joe Morello
  • Paul Motian
  • Alan Dawson
  • Larry Bunker
  • Tony Williams
  • Elvin Jones
  • Billy Hart
  • Jimmy Cobb
  • Jack DeJohnette
  • Jeff Hamliton
  • Jeff “Tain” Watts
  • John Riley
  • Brian Blade
  • Marvin “Smitty” Smith
  • Bill Stewart
  • Eric Harland
  • Ari Hoenig
  • Chris “Daddy” Dave
  • Scott Amendola
  • Kendrick Scott
  • Alan Hall
  • George Marsh

Did I miss anyone? Absolutely! Jazz is a community. Many great players aren’t written up in articles or don’t have extensive recording/touring careers. They may not be motivated by name and fame, or may prefer to live in a small town, teach and play with the musicians in their community.  You don’t have to look far to find great players. Just go out to your local clubs and meet the teachers at your local music store.

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These are questions I’ve received via email, in private lessons and on YouTube. If you have a question, please ask here. I’d love to hear from you!

Question: When you are playing, are you mainly focused on the ride pattern and maintaining it throughout the whole song or are you not so concerned with it?  When I hear jazz, I hear the ride.  So I’m trying to focus on maintaining that more than anything.  I guess what I’m tying to ask is, what should I think about while playing jazz?  The hi-hat maybe?  Counting?  I don’t really ever count so maybe I should focus on that.  Maybe you’ll say ‘think about all of it’ which is fair.  I’m not traditionally trained so I mainly mimic what you and others do (and I’m ok at it) but I’m not sure if that is the ‘correct’ approach.

Answer: Great question. I’ll answer it in two parts. First, what I’m thinking when I’m practicing. Second, what I’m thinking when I’m playing with other people.

When practicing these phrases, at first, I am focused on counting. Counting is often underestimated. Playing slowly and steadily while counting out loud will work the phrases into your muscle memory and the part of your brain that controls speech. The music-language connection is important. (watch Jimi Hendrix sing while he plays guitar) Many students don’t want to count. It is distracting at first, or embarrassing. I encourage them, in that case, to count to themselves or sing the phrases in any way that makes sense to them.

The goal is to be able to play time(part one of this series) and put the phrases in wherever you want. So you are playing just the basic jazz rhythm with no left hand pattern, and you want to play a comping phrase “conversationally.”(part four) You can insert one measure of the phrase in at will. Knowing how and where to do this will be informed by listening and getting a feel for the pacing of the conversation. Playing with other people is like going to the country where the language is spoken. Studying the phrases is like working from a basic language phrasebook. Listening and playing along with music are good warm-ups.

When playing with other people, unless reading, you’re not counting. You will have the phrases memorized both physically and musically. You can call them up whenever you want. Now your focus shifts to listening to the other players so you can interact conversationally and focus on the song you are playing.

Most likely you are singing the melody in your head, you are aware of the form of the song and you are listening to the whole band, including yourself. You are stepping back out of yourself and taking a wide perspective on the ensemble while you have the song internalized. That is a cerebral state—more a way of focusing than a way of thinking.

So now, to answer your question about what I am thinking—I’m thinking about what I need to do to make the band sound good. Dynamics, contrast, texture, accents. The bus is cruising along. What am I going to do to make the passengers happy?

The subject gets pretty deep from there, but your ear will guide you. Just like conversation, it will come naturally if you listen a lot and learn the language. Some aspects can be analyzed and talked about in mechanical terms, but some aspects of improvisation, even scientists only have a vague grasp on. While you’re driving the bus, you don’t want to be looking down at your feet or under the hood. You’ve got that all out of the way by doing step one. Now you’re just enjoying the ride and keeping your eyes on the road.

Question: Does your band memorize the whole song or is it totally improvised?

Answer: Part is improvised and part is memorized/read. There are two basic forms that cover a large majority of jazz standards. The 12 bar blues and the 32 bar A A B A form.


12 bar blues: Blue Train, St. Louis Blues, Equinox, Straight No Chaser, Au Privave, Blue Monk, Tenor Madness, C Jam Blues, Mr. PC, Billy’s Bounce, Now’s The Time, Blues By Five, All Blues, Freddie the Freeloader, Footprints.

32 bar AABA: It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Moanin’, I’ve Got Rhythm, Take the A Train, Scrapple from the Apple, Anthropology, Dexterity, Oleo, Moose the Mooche, Cottontail, Rhythm-A-Ning, Salt Peanuts, Lester Leaps In, Steeplechase.

You’ll want to get comfortable keeping your place within those forms. That will allow you to play many songs without getting lost. In a jazz performance, the form is played over and over for the duration of a song. The first time through the form, the lead player (maybe trumpet or sax) plays the melody of the song over the form. Then as the form continues to repeat, players take turns improvising. When everyone is done improvising, the lead player plays the melody again and you’re done.

So it would look something like this:

AABA Trumpet plays melody, playing the 8 bar A section twice, the 8 bar B section once, then the 8 bar A section once again. The rest of band backs them up.
AABA Saxophonist plays a solo, with rest of band backing them up.
AABA Trumpeter plays a solo, with rest of band backing them up.
AABA Pianist plays a solo, with rest of band backing them up.
AABA Drummer play a solo, with rest of band backing them up.
AABA Bassist plays a solo, with rest of band backing them up.
AABA Trumpet plays melody, with rest of band backing them up.

While the melody is played at the beginning and the end, the chords and rhythm stay basically the same through the whole song. Only the lead part changes. Of course, you have some freedom there, but that’s the basic idea.

After you familiarize yourself with the basic forms, you will have an easy time getting to know the melodies of standard songs. Down the road, you’ll have a set of “standards” memorized and knowing the melody will guide your improvisation.

Drummers often sing the melody in their head or quietly to themselves. That singing eventually replaces counting, or merges with it. This guides the placement of comping phrases and helps keep your place while soloing.

Knowing the form and the melody is sort of like being in on the conversation. You know what you’re talking about. Maybe at first you’ll just keep the form behind the band and keep it simple. But as you familiarize yourself, you’ll have more to say.

There will always be new songs, often over the same 32 or 12 bar forms. You’ll lay back and listen, keep it simple and learn the song by ear pretty fast. Reading expedites the process, but that’s another conversation.

Question: Can you recommend some songs to start with?

Some of those songs you mention I’ve heard before but I don’t have them memorized. When you speak of the structure above, that makes perfect sense to me.  I just need to equate it with a song so I can understand it better.

Answer: My favorite song to start new students with is Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on the album titled Moanin’

It’s got a nice sort of call and response thing in the beginning you can pick up by ear. The horns play a phrase, then you play phrase A from part 4 of this series just on the ride and snare as an answer for the A sections of the melody. Then on the B section you play the third pattern in part 3 of this lesson series, the snare with the hihat on beats 2 and 4. Then the A section again, and then you’re just cruising along behind the solos. You can focus on your time feel or use the song as a backdrop to practice your comping. It is an AABA tune with a little outro variation at the end.

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*Answer to question: All three have the same pattern of call and response where the response is phrase A.

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Interactive, Goal Oriented