Does your drumming feel stagnant? Have you ever gotten a little tired of listening to yourself play? You’re not alone. Over-familiarity can breed boredom and diminish your motivation to get behind the kit and practice, which is counterproductive.

One of the best reasons to practice is to discover new concepts that you can add to your musical vocabulary and rekindle your love of drumming on grooves drums. Restricting your playing can spark some creativity, so let’s try taking away one of the most prominent parts of the drum set—cymbals.

practice pad workshop for grooves drums

Lots of drummers get new ideas and inspiration temporarily by adding a new cymbal, drum, double pedal, or “toy” to their kit. These things can make it seem as if a new rhythmic world has appeared before you. Unfortunately, this effect gradually wears off, at least until you buy another new add-on, but if you’re not careful you’ll end up with a kit the size of Terry Bozzio’s.

A less costly and equally fun way to force yourself to come up with new ideas is to remove a part of your kit you rely upon. For this article, we’re going to explore grooving without cymbals, which isn’t as easy as it might sound. It will force you to rethink your standard approaches to grooving and help you get more out of your kit by coming up with some fresh sounds.

Typically, we use our dominant hand to ride on cymbals and to function as our primary timekeeping limb. If we can come up with substitutions for this automatic habit, we can instantly add some new textures to our drumming. I don’t suggest you sell your cymbals, or leave them at home at your next gig.

But by exploring this deliberate limitation over a few practice sessions, you’ll discover ideas that can differentiate you from every other drummer you know while challenging yourself creatively.  There are countless examples of great drummers creating memorable grooves without using their cymbals. We’ll check out lots of those too.

Here Are Ways to Groove Without Cymbals

Look At The Drum Right In Front Of You

Let’s start by focusing on the snare drum. There are dozens of ways to use your snare as a smart way to play grooves.

I never get tired of playing country train beats (Ex. 1). This groove emulates the sound of a locomotive and is played with sticks, rods, or brushes. This groove has a “two-feel” with its back-and-forth kick and snare accents. It’s challenging because you need to play the unaccented snare hits softly. These can either be played straight or with a hint of swing. I usually reinforce the snare accents by closing my hi-hat on the upbeats.

country train beat for grooves drums

Though a staple of country music, the train beat was the foundation of many hit rock songs, too. In 1973, British band The Sweet’s drummer Mick Tucker played a swinging train beat for their glam rock hit, “Ballroom Blitz” (Ex.2). The song’s riff and drum part were based on Bobby Comstock’s 1963 song “Let’s Stomp,” but while Comstock’s song had a straight bass drum part as a traditional train beat, Tucker played a more syncopated pattern at the end of each bar.

ballroom blitz for grooves drums

Golden Earring’s Cesar Zuiderwijk used a similar train groove for the intro of their rock anthem “Radar Love” (Ex. 3). There’s a lot of great drumming in this song, and we’ll check out another section later.

radar love beat musical notes

Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee took a slightly different approach to playing an upbeat “two feel” on their song “Kickstart My Heart” (Ex. 4). For his version, he played eighth-notes on the snare with his right hand and slightly flammed backbeats with his left for a rougher feeling beat that perfectly fit this hard rock song.

kickstart my heart musical notes

Eight Steps To Five Yards

If you’ve ever wondered how to use all those rudiments you practiced over the years, snare marches offer another useful approach to grooving.

Ringo Starr played a march for his tune “Back Off Boogaloo” (Ex. 5). This song has a four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern and syncopated sixteenth-note snare pattern on top. Starr embellished it with drags here and there, but gave it a bit of that “Ringo feel” by swinging it a bit.

backoff boogaloo by ringo starr

New Orleans second line grooves infuse a march with a son clave pulse. These patterns range from the traditional to more modern interpretations, but are all played with a greasy feel. Drummer Stanton Moore has helped re-popularize the style with a wider audience through his books, DVDs, and recordings. It is a must-know groove.

Ex. 6 shows a traditional approach to the beat. The bass drum plays 1 (2) & (3) 4 in the first bar and (1) 2 3 (4) in the second. For more variety, you can embellish these grooves with rudiments like flams and drags. These grooves always have varying degrees of swing applied to them, which is why they’re so funky.

new Orleans second line groove

Do you ever play on your drum hoops?

Frank Beard created an unusual and memorable groove for the verse sections of ZZ Top’s southern rocker “La Grange” (Ex. 7). He combined drags and flams in a triplet rhythm to create this unique beat that’s strangely similar to something you might play to an Irish jig.

La Grange by ZZ Top

Of course, you can use the hoops of your kit for all sorts of grooves, straight or swinging. Here are a couple of simple shuffles played on your rack tom’s hoop (Exs. 8–9).

Rim Shuffles

Swing Low

Focusing on your toms is one of the easiest ways to create a different-sounding beat. One of the best-known tom grooves was captured in a recording that Benny Goodman made of Louis Prima’s song “Sing, Sing, Sing” (Ex. 10), but it was Gene Krupa’s exciting drumming that stole the show.

This swinging floor tom pattern served as a vehicle to showcase Krupa’s prodigious talents, and this groove became a staple of his soloing.

Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman

Jerry Allison created his unique tom pattern for Buddy Holly’s hit “Peggy Sue” out of one of our favorite rudiments: the paradiddle (Ex. 11). The paradiddle has a sticking of RLRR LRLL with an accent on the first note, which is evident in the recording.

Allison’s pattern almost sounds like a drum solo, but it is one of the things that made this song so memorable. Allison moved these paradiddles around his 4-piece kit throughout the song at a brisk pace, giving drum teachers another good argument to get their students to work on their rudiments.

Peggy Sue

“Zoot Suit Riot” was a breakthrough hit for the punk/ska band Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, during the neo-swing revival of the ’90s. Drummer Hans Wagner seems to have channeled Krupa’s spirit when he crafted this catchy tom melody that’s based on a double-stroke sticking (Ex. 12).

Zoot Suit Riot by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies

One of my favorite melodic tom grooves is the one that Cesar Zuiderwijk played in the drum solo section of Golden Earring’s song, “Radar Love” (Ex. 13). I’m making an educated guess at the sticking, but this one fits like a glove.

Radar Love by Cesar Zuiderwijk

His bass drum pattern makes this one tricky.

The Beatles are loved for many reasons, and Ringo Starr’s unique drumming is high on many drummers’ lists. He’s revered for infusing his grooves and fills with a laid-back feel and hint of swing rather than technical prowess. “Ticket To Ride” is a beat that demonstrates all of his strengths (Ex. 14). It’s an unusual groove that comes alive due to Starr’s wonderfully human groove with a slightly lopsided lope, which is a little reminiscent of an egg rolling.

Ticket To Ride by The Beatles

The 3:2 son clave is the backbone of countless drum beats (Ex. 15). This two-measure pattern has notes on 1 (2) & (3) 4 (1) 2 3 (4). The son clave could be used as a simple Bo Diddley beat, though they’re often embellished and slightly swung (Ex. 16). Variations of this beat have been heard on dozens upon dozens of hit songs.

son CLave and Bod Diddley beat

Jungle beats are a standard tom pattern that are usually easy to play since they’re based on riding on your floor tom. Once you move your hi-hat hand over your floor tom, your other hand will have unrestricted access to the rest of your kit, creating some exciting melodic possibilities (Exs. 17–19).

Floor Tom Jungle Groove

Linear Jungle Groove

Ex. 20 is an unusual linear version of a jungle groove. Linear grooves have only one note played at a time and are another great way to break away from repetitive cymbal patterns.

Are you a single pedal player? You can emulate a double-bass pattern by playing alternating floor tom and bass drum notes, and then play snare notes over the resulting low-end rumble (Exs. 21–22).

Fake Double Bass

Fake Double Bass

Gregg Bissonette was the first drummer I heard play this ripping triplet double bass beat (Ex. 23). It’s just an extension of the previous fake double bass patterns, only this time you use your left foot to squeeze another bass drum note between every floor tom note. This pattern can also work as a killer fill.

Fake Triplet Double Bass

Floor tom riding is a staple of punk drumming. Ex. 24 takes a linear approach to playing a fast punk rock “two-feel.” The bass drum and snare alternate and the floor tom squeezes in between them. This is a fun pattern that can be played at a very fast tempo after a bit of work.

Linear punk Jungle Beat

Foreign Affairs

Most world grooves are created using hand drums and other percussion instruments. For those of us raised on rock, interpreting hand drums on the drum set isn’t exactly intuitive. To do so, we’ll have to condense the parts of several percussionists into a pattern that’s playable by one person behind a drum set and create sounds similar to those of a conga. Learning these grooves will increase your versatility while developing coordination musically.

Rumbas are fun patterns since they aren’t too hard to learn and can sound like several percussionists playing together. Ex. 25 uses a few different snare timbres over a simple bass drum pattern played on 1, 3, and 4. For this groove, you’ll need to turn your snares off to emulate a conga.

Note that even though the only left-hand note is playing a cross-stick sound on count 2, you’ll need to mute the drum by leaving your hand on the head, then lift it to create the open tones on 4 &. This might feel foreign to rock drummers at first.

Rhumba Groove on snare drum

You may find the next pattern easier (Ex. 26).

Rhumba Cha Cha Groove

The left-hand doesn’t have any muting duties, but adds cross-sticks while the right hand plays the final two notes on various toms, emulating a conguero playing several drums.

I confess — I love to steal grooves. While working on this article, I saw Justin O’Connell play the pattern in Ex. 27 and thought it was a fresh take on a mambo. There are lots of ways to play mambo grooves, but a less standard way is to use your floor tom in place of a cymbal or cowbell.

For O’Connell’s pattern, his right hand played the floor tom softly near the hoop, so as not to obscure the left-hand snare and tom parts. Later in the song, he played his right-hand part on the tom’s hoop for another texture.

Floor Tom Mambo

Dave Weckl introduced many drummers to the songo pattern (Ex. 28). One reason this is such a fun groove to play is that it’s linear, has a unique sound, and some very funky accents. Traditionally, the right-hand part would be played on a cowbell as it’s shown here, though many fusion drummers use the bell of their ride cymbal instead.

Songo grooves drums

The bossa nova is a staple of jazz, Latin, and jobbing work. Many years ago I saw jazz drummer Jack Mouse demonstrate how to play a bossa nova using a brush in one hand and a stick in the other (Ex. 29). This has been one of my favorite ways to play them ever since.

Bossa Nova grooves drums

The bossa nova bass drum ostinato is played on 1 (2) & 3 (4) &, while the left hand plays cross-sticks as notated. What’s different about Mouse’s approach is that he uses a brush in his right hand to sweep back and forth, creating the sound of a shaker (or a guiro) rather than play on the hi-hat.

I’ve notated the easier shaker pattern that sweeps using steady eighth-notes. For more of a challenge, the guiro approach uses a quarter-note followed by two eighth-notes repeatedly. Since the right hand plays a brush on the snare, you may choose to also close your hi-hat on 2 and 4.

Guaguanco isn’t a very popular drum set groove, no doubt due in part to its complexity (Ex. 30). It’s so cool, though, it’s worth the effort. For this version, your right hand will play a cascara pattern on the floor tom hoop. Traditionally, cascara patterns are played on a timbale shell, but out of respect for your kit’s finish,

I’ve used the hoop instead. The left hand has to play the melodic part that moves between the rack tom and floor tom, which are impersonating a conga and tumba (large conga). The bass drum plays two awkwardly placed notes on 1 and (2) & in the second measure, and the resulting groove sounds like several percussionists jamming at a descarga.

Guaguanco grooves drums

Like many drummers, there was a point in my life when I overused Afro-Cuban beats. In our defense, they are a blast to play. A traditional version (Ex. 31) uses the triplet type of rumba clave played on the cowbell, while the left hand imitates the slaps using cross-sticks and open tones of a conga drummer on the toms. Ex. 32 has a snare note on count 3, which creates a half-time version of this groove but is a bit simpler to play than the previous one.

afro cuban grooves drums

I associated the fusion version of this groove with drumming great Gregg Bissonette since he used it so effectively in his solos (Ex. 33). For this one, the right hand plays the same pattern as the previous groove, but now the left hand fills the spaces by playing ghost notes along with snare and tom accents.

The accented snare gives this pattern a half-time feel. Another fun way to play this groove is to feature your tom instead of the cowbell (Ex. 34). This works well for drum solos when you want a melodic jungle vibe.

Afro Cuban groove drum

Ravel’s Bolero (Ex. 35) is the most widely known bolero. It’s a good groove to have in your mental database. Surprisingly, this pattern was the basis for some famous drum set grooves in the ’60s and was featured in several hit songs. Drumming great Ian Paice offered his bolero (Ex. 36) in Deep Purple’s version of Jimi Hendrix’s classic song, “Hey Joe.” This version uses quarter-note triplets in a dramatic way.

Ravel's Bolero groove drum

Hey Joe Deep Purple Bolero groove drum

Perhaps the best-known version of this pattern was Jefferson Airplane’s classic, “White Rabbit” (Ex. 37). For this legendary groove, Spencer Dryden took a similar approach to the one in Ravel’s masterpiece by beginning very softly and gradually crescendoing, continually building intensity in the song. Ex. 38 shows a bolero groove adapted to the kit in a traditional Latin drum set context. If you’re on a jobbing gig and the leader asks for a bolero, start here.

White Rabbit Bolero groove drum

Bolero groove drum

Fly Swatters

One of the quickest ways to create different sounding grooves is to put down your sticks and pick up a pair of brushes, which are capable of producing sustained sounds by sweeping the brush across the head. If you’ve never played brushes, Ex. 39 is an excellent place to start. This jazz brush pattern has the left hand make circles on the drumhead while the right-hand taps out the traditional swing pattern: 1 2 ah 3 4 ah.

Younger drummers might not realize that Aquarian Drumheads founder Roy Burns had a great career as a jazz drummer long before venturing into manufacturing. I ran into him at a drum shop many years ago, and he graciously showed me his version of a swing pattern that works well at slower tempos (Ex. 40). This version is similar to the traditional pattern, but includes a right-hand sweep in place of taps for the quarter-notes. Thanks, Roy!

Jazz Brush Pattern for groove drum

When Two Is Not Enough

Here’s an idea you may not have considered. The Led Zeppelin song “Four Sticks” was unusual because John Bonham played his part by using — wait for it — four sticks! By holding two sticks per hand, he cleverly created the sound of several drummers playing at once due to the slight flamming of each note that occurred.

This is challenging for reasons beyond having to hold onto an extra stick in each hand. Not only does the time signature change back and forth between 5/8 and 6/8, but Bonham also played his hi-hat foot on the beats while his bass drum played the off-beats (Ex. 41). Little wonder that Bonham is a drum god.

Four Sticks by Led Zeppelin for groove drum

Four Sticks for sgroove drum

Speaking of drumming deities, Steve Gadd used this same technique for the Mozambique groove he played on Paul Simon’s “Late In The Evening” (Ex. 42). I transcribed this version from a live concert video of Gadd playing this song with Paul Simon from 25 years ago. This groove can be used for styles like soca too.

groove drum - Late in the Evening by Paul Simon for grooves drums

There are many other simple ways to vary the sound of your grooves. Holding a stick in one hand and a brush or a mallet in the other will instantly transform a familiar groove into something new. Play with your bare hands like Bonham, who used this as a dramatic soloing technique, although you can play grooves with your hands, too.

Porcupine Tree’s Gavin Harrison does a variation of this by tapping his index and middle fingers on his snare while playing cross-stick patterns.

Try a few of these ideas, and you’ll have some fresh sounds for your next jam, gig, or recording session.

Lesson: 40 Ways to Play a Single ‘Stick Control’ Exercise