Are you an unrepentant rock drummer who’s always liked to hit things hard? Do you have a large drum set with lots of cymbals and toms? It’s fun to play in this style and setup, but have you ever felt like a one trick pony? If you’ve ever wanted to venture beyond rock, I have a suggestion that doesn’t have to be as terrifying as it sounds: Learn to play jazz.

Learning the basics of jazz can bring new realms of nuance and detail to your drumming, improving improvisational skills, enhancing coordination, and expanding the sensitivity in your playing. Better still, these new abilities will enhance any style, including rock and roll.

Going straight from rock to jazz isn’t easy. It’s a little like deciding you’re tired of being a couch potato and want to run a marathon. This primer might be just what you need to get off that couch. Just like training for a marathon, even if you never complete the race, the training will do you good.

First, you need to understand that there are as many kinds of jazz as there are varieties of rock. Here we focus on swing style drumming, since that’s an excellent place to start.

Paradigm Shift

The ability to change your mindset to the style at hand may be your most formidable, but essential, task. Playing jazz like a rock drummer is just as bad as playing rock like a jazz drummer. There are many differences between rock and jazz, and you should try to embrace their stylistic differences while maintaining an appreciation for each.

Rule of Thirds

Rock usually has a straight eighth-note feel while jazz is based on triplets (Exs. 1-2). That’s why jazz has such a different feel than rock and learning to play it may seem harder. More beat divisions equal more possibilities.

Reading Jazz

Jazz feels like a compound meter since the beats are divided into thirds. Music with four beats per measure in compound meters is usually written in 12/8. However, jazz charts are commonly notated in 4/4 with the crucial cue “jazz” or “swing” written near the top of the chart. So, while you may see jazz written as it’s played (Ex. 3), it’s also frequently notated with quarter-notes and eighth-notes (Ex. 4), which keeps the music less cluttered, or in an old school “dot and cut” fashion (Ex. 5).

Like rock, most jazz tunes are written in 4/4, though other time signatures (like 3/4, used for jazz waltzes) are common too (Ex. 6). For the classic Paul Desmond/Dave Brubeck quartet tune “Take Five,” drummer Joe Morello played a triplet groove in 5/4 meter (Ex. 7).

To complicate matters, as the tempo increases past danceable ones, the ride cymbal pattern gradually flattens out from a compound triplet feel, “ding, ding-a-ding, ding-a,” to a simple straight feel, “up, giddy-up, giddy” (Exs. 8-9).

Most jazz songs are played well below the stratosphere, so becoming comfortable with triplets is mandatory as is the need to be able to slightly swing rhythms. The latter is necessary at faster speeds.

The Lope

Regardless of style, you can drastically change the feel of your beats and fills by learning to add a hint of swing. Delaying the midpoint of each beat will give your playing a swung feel. The easiest way to think of this is to go back and forth between a straight eighth-note pattern and a shuffle pattern (Ex. 10). You can practice this with a variety of stickings, like double strokes and paradiddles.

This shuffle can be played in varying degrees so as not to always be a strict triplet feel. At slow to medium tempos, this triplet interpretation works well, but as the tempo increases the shifted note gets closer to the true midpoint, but still is slightly delayed, so it is closer to a quintuplet or septuplet rhythm (Exs. 11-12). There’s no need to overanalyze this, it will happen naturally as the tempo increases.

Let’s use this concept to interpret and transform straight rhythms into swung ones. To do this, leave the notes that occur on the beats (1,2,3,4) as-is, but shift the notes on the “&’s” later to the third partial of each triplet. In other words, all the &’s will be shifted to become ah’s (Exs. 13-14).

Express Yourself

Playing drums to rock songs can feel like performing a part in a play. There is some freedom to express yourself, but often it’s within clear boundaries. Say the words with the right emotion and hit your marks at the right time. Play “Beat 1” in the verse, “Beat 2” in the chorus, and play the fills from the recording. Jazz is improvisational by nature and allows more freedom. There’s an outline of the song (the song form), but within each measure, it’s less rigidly structured. This can be either liberating or intimidating, depending on how comfortable you are at reacting to what’s going on around you as it’s happening. Written jazz charts reflect this difference by minimizing specific drumming suggestions and instead focus on outlining the song form, rhythms the other musicians are playing, ensemble figures (hits the entire band plays), solo sections, etc.

Think of it this way. Music is a language, and playing jazz is like having a friendly conversation. When playing rock, it’s common to play dramatic fills going around the kit ending with a loud crash. In jazz, less is usually more. Try making select musical comments on what is happening at the moment, rather than grandiose proclamations that can kill a conversation. Your comments don’t always require an obvious ending punctuated with a crash. Like a verbal conversation, these comments should be brief, allowing the other musicians to speak before you comment again. And you only need to comment if you have something valuable to add. Playing simple time is always appreciated more than someone who is overbearing and monopolizes the musical conversation.  

Some Grooves

The term “comping” is short for “accompanying,” but I like to think of it as “complementing” in that it refers to the subtle embellishments used to complement the music.

Rock music typically features a repeating beat through a section of music. That’s true in jazz as well, but you may also vary things in each measure. Learning a variety of these beats and being able to fluidly shift between them will expand the tools you have available to help the music while improving your groove vocabulary.

Exs. 15-30 demonstrate some common snare drum and ride cymbal comping figures while the hi-hat closes on counts 2 and 4. Be sure to experiment with varying dynamics and playing these patterns with cross-stick sounds too. Play these exercises slowly while counting. Counting shifts your brain into triplet mode and helps catch your mistakes.

If these are too difficult at first, try playing straight quarter-notes on the ride cymbal with each snare pattern before adding the “skip” or “push” notes on the ah of 2 and the ah of 4.

Next, practice the twelve bass drum patterns (Exs. 31- 42) by themselves. Once you’re comfortable with these, play each of them underneath the previous hand patterns (Exs. 15-30). Some of these combinations will be very busy and may be inappropriate for a lot of real-world situations, but they will help develop your swing independence.


It’s usually pretty obvious when a rock drummer plays a fill. The fills are louder, often traverse several toms, and end with a loud crash. Jazz fills are often at a similar volume as the time-keeping and can be as simple as moving the left hand to a rack tom and playing a comping figure there.

Rudiments and rolls are commonly used to embellish rhythms and can help you too. Here are a couple of rudiments to help you get your ideas flowing.

Puh Duh Duh’s

Many rudiments lend themselves to jazz. Working on them can help your hands gain speed and fluidity and help you create ideas on the fly. The Puh Duh Duh isn’t an official rudiment, but playing RLL or LRR in their various permutations are incredibly useful.

The most useful variations for right-handed drummers are RLL and RRL (Exs. 43-44). The double strokes are naturally a bit softer than the single stroke, so the single stroke is often played as an accent. If you combine these two variations, you’ll create the six-stroke roll RllrrL (Ex. 45). The six stroke roll is a great tool to help you rip sextuplet fills around the kit.

P Diddy Diddy

Another rudiment that’s perfect for jazz is the paradiddle-diddle, primarily because when inverted it outlines the jazz ride cymbal pattern.

The paradiddle-diddle is a non-alternating sticking pattern that is played RLRRLL or its opposite (Ex. 46). If you begin the paradiddle-diddle on its fourth note it becomes RLLRLR, and your righthand will be playing the jazz ride pattern while your left-hand fills in the spaces (Ex. 47). If you accent your right-hand notes and lower the height of your left hand to play ghost notes, this will become even more obvious (Ex. 48). You can count this as 1&a 2&a 3&a 4&a. To voice this idea on your kit, play the right-hand on the ride while the left plays ghosted snare notes (Ex. 49). Next, close the hi-hat on 2 and 4 and finally add the bass drum on 1 and 3 (Exs. 50-51). You can also substitute a bass drum note for some of the snare notes (Exs. 52-53). These can get pretty busy so don’t overuse them. Ex. 54 keeps the ride cymbal and hi-hat in place, but moves the left hand to your toms while the bass drum plays underneath.

These stickings can help you play triplet fills and solos, but also help you come up with exciting ride cymbal variations while playing time. Again, precise dynamics are required. By combining the Puh Duh Duh with the paradiddle-diddle patterns, we can create some hip 3/4 jazz waltz patterns (Exs. 55-57).

Buzz Off

Buzz rolls are frequently used in jazz. Simple roll crescendos leading into a solo and decrescendos at its conclusion can unobtrusively support a soloist and cue the band to section changes. If you don’t use buzz rolls often, you may not realize you can accent buzzes to shape them into phrases or add taps to them for even more staccato effects, much like Scottish pipe band drummers do (Ex 58).

Easy Does It

When playing a standard swing pattern on your hi-hat, you’ll need to make sure your hi-hat is at least partially open on 1 and 3. I once heard Peter Erskine say the open and closing sounds shouldn’t be too extreme and abrupt from very tight to completely open, since that sounds hokey (Ex. 59). Instead, open them more gradually (Ex. 60). And you don’t need to separate the cymbals completely — let them sizzle a bit.

Just Play Along

Practicing to recordings is always helpful and can help you absorb the feel of the music while learning practical set-ups, fills, and grooves.

However, if you’re coming directly from a rock background rather than digging into the Buddy Rich Big Band or Miles Davis’ recordings immediately, you might find it more useful to practice along with music that has a jazz ride pattern and a solid backbeat to get used to the triplet feel in swing.

Early swing music like Glenn Miller Orchestra or Duke Ellington’s music, or recent swing artists like the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Royal Crown Review or the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, can get you playing basic jazz patterns without having to catch a ton of hits or get lost in a tricky form. Even early rock music from Elvis Presley or Bill Haley And The Comets can be played with a jazz ride pattern.


There’s an old joke where a bandleader asks the drummer to play with more dynamics, and the drummer replies, “But I’m playing as loud as I can!”

If you’ve always secretly prided your ability to play the last song as powerfully as the first, and held a belief that drumming quietly was anemic, that attitude will hold you back when playing jazz. Jazz can be played loudly, but it usually isn’t. Playing softer may be challenging at first, but the real difficulty is maintaining intensity at quiet dynamic levels. While learning to play quieter is a valuable skill, if you find yourself needing to perform more quietly than you’re used to, here are a couple of low volume hacks to help you until you develop those skills.

Use different sticks. Jazz stick models are thinner and lighter than rock models. They typically bounce faster due to their longer taper but are less durable.

Use wood-tip sticks. Nylon tips are great for brighter cymbal sounds common in rock, but jazz drummers prefer the darker tones of wood tips.

Swap the sticks for rods. The timbre of rods is different, but the reduction in volume is often more important than a timbre change.

Learn brush patterns on the snare. Brushes can be played vertically like sticks, but learning a few basic patterns that incorporating sweeping the brushes horizontally across the head will help your low volume jazz playing immensely.

Mix and match. For example, you may want to play light hi-hat time with a rod in your right hand while you tap snare notes with a brush in your left.

Less Kick

Rock is driven from the bottom up, while jazz is driven more from the ride pattern. Rock drummers often play heel-up and bury the beater, producing loud staccato notes that help cut though amp stacks. Jazz drummers typically play heel-down, letting the mallet rebound from the head, creating lighter notes that ring longer.

Playing heel-down develops different muscles so you may notice your shins are sore afterward. Gentle stretching helps. Jazz drummers also rarely play as many bass drum notes per bar as rock drummers, so it won’t be as much of a workout for the right leg.

In swing music the bass drum patterns often have either a two-beat feel (Ex. 16) or a four-on-the-floor feel (Ex. 17). This depends on the tune, but many begin with a two-feel before switching to a four-feel for the solos where the bassist may play a “walking” (quarter-note) bass line. These feels are indicated in other ways like “In 2” or “In 4.”

Jazz drummers typically use smaller bass drums. There are many options available to convert a large floor tom into a bass drum if you don’t want to buy another kit. Some include bass drum lifts and add-on spurs that fit right into the leg brackets, making a surprisingly effective substitute.

Softer beaters are commonly used in jazz, and these can help keep your kick volume in check. (See our bass drum beater roundup in this issue.) I’ve occasionally found myself needing to reduce my bass drum volume drastically at restaurant gigs and have even taped a piece of foam rubber onto the head where the beater makes contact. The foam removes the mallet’s attack and creates a softer, rounder thump sound, which has helped me get through pianissimo sambas and keep my gig.

Rock drummers typically use larger drums and more elaborate kits. In lieu of adding more gear, jazz drummers pull more varied tones out of their kits by striking different areas of their drumheads and cymbals. Since jazz drummers tune their drums higher and don’t muffle their drums as much as rockers, these subtleties are magnified. If you’re going play jazz regularly, tuning higher and using smaller drums with thinner heads will help you get a wider variety of sounds out of your kit.

Listen, Watch and Learn

There are countless ways to improve as a drummer, but listening is paramount. You’ll never understand what’s appropriate if you haven’t spent time listening and developing an appreciation for the music.

If you don’t currently read music, seek out a teacher to help you learn. A teacher can also show you helpful tricks and correct any obvious problems quickly. This is especially useful when learning a new style. There are many great books as well, but some music reading skills will be necessary.

The best way to improve quickly is to join a group. Now, you don’t have to be the next Louis Bellson to play in a jazz group. Once you’ve developed your coordination, some stylistic vocabulary, and chart reading skills, you might be able to find a local big band, community jazz band, or small jazz group and further your development. Don’t be afraid of branching out, because you never know what it’s like until you try.

Here’s one anecdotal example. One of my students frequented a local jazz jam session and sat in with the band several times. One of the other players mentioned he had a big band and asked him to come to a rehearsal. This big band already had a good drummer, but he only wanted to play the gigs and didn’t want to rehearse. My student got to play with the band at their rehearsals, and though he may not have been as experienced as the other drummer, the other players liked him and offered helpful suggestions to him. I wouldn’t be surprised if my enthusiastic student eventually replaces the other drummer.

Even if you don’t play jazz now, or even think you’d want to, building that skill set can make you a better musician and ultimately a much deeper player. Have fun!