Help Drummers Get to the Heart of Swing

help drummers

Here’s a clear, stripped-down approach you can use to quickly and effectively get your drum students “swinging” without overloading them with excessive technical baggage.

What Is the Role of a Jazz Drummer?

For the first half century of its existence, jazz was a form of pop music designed to make people dance. The power of its groove lay in the unique mash-up of European-American rhythms and instrumentation matched with African-American interpretation. By combining these two elements, jazz drummers created a particular pulse that had forward moment, but also felt relaxed. During the big band era of the 1930s and ‘40s, this pulse – now dubbed “swing” wielded such power that it made jazz the most popular music in the world.

As modern elements like bebop entered the picture, jazz drummers began introducing more melodic ideas to accompany their timekeeping. This required ever-growing levels of coordination and limb independence.

As jazz moved farther and farther out of the mainstream, the primary path to learning moved from the bandstand to the classroom.  As a result, the study of jazz drumming today is often framed primarily as the pursuit of technique (in the form of limb independence) as opposed to a groove. Students begin by learning the “jazz ride cymbal” pattern, and then develop a catalog of syncopated ideas to play against that pattern. While this approach is certainly valid in that jazz drummers need to apply independence within their work, it tends to obscure the primary goal, which remains the creation of the uniquely “American” pulse.

Understanding “Pulse”

Simply put, jazz was and is groove music. When students put all their focus on technical elements, it can distract them from this fundamental principle. The fact that jazz rhythm sections have always employed terms like “shuffle” and “walking” should be a strong reminder that the intention of this music is to get listeners moving, even if today those movements usually manifest themselves as tapping feet or bobbing heads as opposed to actual dancing.

Without a proper understanding of pulse, even a highly developed jazz drummer can end up sounding mechanical. Essentially, his or her playing will not be in line with the musical goals of jazz. I always tell my students that the ability to play a beautiful stream of quarter notes on the ride cymbal offers a far greater chance of success in the highly competitive world of jazz than all the technique in the world.

Creating a Jazz Sound: The Role of the Four Limbs

I often describe the sound of jazz drumming to my students as follows: your sonic goal should be to make the tip of the stick on the ride cymbal, the “foot chick” of the hi-hat and the “chatter” of the snare drum sound indistinguishable these three elements should blend together like drops of water bouncing off a pavement.

Proper limb balance is at the core of what makes jazz sound like jazz. Having grown up playing rock’n’roll, most aspiring jazz drummers today are surprised at just how much effort it takes to adjust the balance of their limbs to achieve this effect. To that end, let’s take a minute to clarify the role of the four limbs, listed in descending order of importance.

1. The Ride Cymbal

In contemporary jazz settings, the ride cymbal is usually the dominant voice; the one responsible for driving the time and creating the pulse. As a result, the ride should be the student’s primary area of focus.

It’s important to stress that the “jazz ride cymbal” pattern is not simply a pattern. At its heart, it must incorporate the same flow of quarter notes (a.k.a. pulse) being produced by the rest of the rhythm section.

Therefore, it makes sense to start by putting the full pattern aside, and have students simply play quarter notes on a pad or other flat surface. To create the proper motion, think about what happens when you bounce a basketball. After each bounce, you respond to the upward motion of the ball before throwing again. In essence, you move with it.

By learning to react to the motion of the stick instead of trying to control it, students will begin to understand how a minimal, well-placed amount of downward force can “drive” the time. The goal is to create a single motion that includes both the “in” and “out” part of your stroke, allowing the pulse to have both forward momentum and remain relaxed at the same time.

Once the student can feel this dual-purpose motion, have him/her play it along with a favorite jazz or blues recording. Doing so offers the chance to lock in with a real player who is creating a real-time feel. Two favorite tracks I use with my students are Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” (from Kind of Blue) and Art Blakey’s “Moanin’” (from the CD of the same name). Eventually, the student should be able to upgrade to a shuffle or the full jazz ride pattern without sacrificing this commitment to the pulse.

2. The Hi-Hat

When first studying jazz, most students learn right off the bat that the hi-hat is supposed to be played with the foot on beats 2 and 4. Beyond that, however, things get a little murky. Why those particular beats? What purpose does it serve? Without answering these questions, many student drummers end up pasting the hi-hat onto their jazz groove without any real goal. Sadly, that’s just how the groove ends up sounding: out of sync, and lacking any focus or direction.

Here’s a bit of clarification. When played in conjunction with the ride cymbal, the job of the hi-hat is to state the backbeat, just as the snare drum does in rock’n’roll. It offers the ride cymbal pattern a landing point, something that completes one cycle and begins another. As such, the hi-hat should have a heavy “drop” to it, and a dominant position in the overall sound of a jazz groove.

To get the hi-hat to properly connect with the ride cymbal pattern, remember the following: if you want two limbs to come down together, then focus on getting them to meet at the top of the motion beforehand. By timing the setup of each hi-hat stroke to connect with the drive of the ride pattern, students will be able to produce a deeper “pocket,” one that is in keeping with the tradition of jazz.

3. The Bass Drum

Today, most young drummers’ first musical exposure is to rock or pop, styles that place a heavy emphasis on the bass and snare drums. Rockers tend to rely too much on these two elements when playing jazz, making their groove sound unnecessarily loud and heavy. To successfully make the transition, they need to consider the bass drum as a supportive force, not the focal point of attention.

When discussing the bass drum with your students, point out that those used in the pre-bebop eras of jazz were essentially large military instruments. The challenge for drummers of the time was to create a pulse that mirrored the “walking” feel of the upright bass without drowning out the other (quieter) instruments. They settled on a technique called “feathering,” which I often explain as “hitting the band in the butt with a pillow.” In essence, the goal of feathering is to give the bass drum a presence that is “felt” rather than “heard.”

4. The Snare Drum

Most courses of study encourage jazz drummers to integrate complex snare drum patterns from the start, but my suggestion is to have students keep the snare part as simple as possible while learning to negotiate the balance of the other three limbs.

If you listen to many classic jazz and swing artists like Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra, you’ll notice that the drummer lightly outlines beats 2 & 4 on the snare using only a cross-stick or very light backbeat.  By lifting the snare stick in conjunction with the motion of the ride pattern and letting it drop into these beats, the right sound can be achieved. To keep the snare from dominating the sound, students need only lift the stick three or four inches off the head.

As a jazz band instructor, fostering the development of a clear, consistent pulse and properly balancing the limbs should be your main objectives when working with drummers. When understood better, these elements can be the key to delivering a much more effective and powerful product, both in performance and in competition.

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