Short fills are an exception to the rule, as most drumming we hear today on the radio (and online) is based on patterns.

Somewhere along the road, drummers realized that playing a groove over and over again is better for public consumption—and for making people dance—than an improvised approach. In recent years, the availability of drum machines, programming, loops, and sampling has only amplified this trend.

It wasn’t always this way. Listening to Ginger Baker of Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Mitch Mitchell, and The Who legend Keith Moon makes it clear that risk-taking was a key element to their style—though they did, of course, play off patterns. Going further back, jazz greats like Papa Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, and Elvin Jones used creative approaches to playing time and delivered solos that energized audiences around the world.

The following exercises won’t turn you into a master improviser overnight, but they’ll get you started. It’s often said that musical style goes in cycles, so at some point, it’ll be time to turn off the drum machines and get back to a more organic sound. When that renaissance takes place, you’ll be better prepared for it.


The drum set is an orchestra of percussion instruments; the sheer number of options and possibilities can be intimidating. If you’re a beginning improviser, it helps to start by breaking down your choices between rhythm, melody, and harmony.

Listening to your favorite drummers—especially those who are creative time-players or soloists—is a great way to begin developing an improvisational spirit. I attended a Rod Morgenstein clinic many years ago, and right before he broke into an inspired solo, he talked about how drumming was not “rocket science—the least we can do is learn all the rhythms at our disposal.” One way to do that is learning to read, write, and play them.

Standard rhythmic vocabulary includes duplets, triplets, rests, tied notes, etc., while things like syncopation, odd subdivisions, polyrhythms, and metric modulation are considered more complex devices. Ex. 1 is a four-bar phrase that combines two measures of syncopation, two measures of consecutive seven-note groupings of sixteenths, plus one grouping of four sixteenths (7 [4x] + 4), which produces a polyrhythmic feel.

Rhythmic density—the number of notes in a phrase—is an important part of playing musically. Density includes the difference between linear (melodic) playing with one limb (note) at a time, and layered (harmonic) playing with multiple limbs (notes) at a time. Although filling every possible space can be a blast, it usually causes ear fatigue for listeners.

A sparse, two-measure melody (Ex. 2) is transformed into a higher-density phrase (Ex. 3) by filling in the spaces with a flow of triplets on the snare. Pay close attention to the sticking, which includes displaced six-stroke rolls: RLLRRL. Ex. 4 features two measures of bass drum and snare (two voices), followed by two measures with bass drum, snare, and floor tom (three voices) in Ex. 5, and two measures with bass drum, snare, floor tom, and hi-hat chick (four voices) in Ex. 6.


YouTube and Facebook are brimming with talented drummers offering awe-inspiring licks and grooves. They often play these at slow-to-fast tempos, which happens to be a great tool in soloing. One of my favorites is Tobias Ralph of the Adrian Belew Power Trio. Ex. 7, gleaned from one of Ralph’s Facebook clips, “And This Is Plain Nasty,” is ideal for gradually speeding up each time it’s repeated.


The drum set is comprised of instruments that produce short tones (snare, muffled bass drum, closed hi-hat, and rim click) and long tones (cymbals, toms, and open hi-hat). You can also manipulate these instruments’ note duration by using cymbal chokes, dead strokes, and short buzzes for shorter tones, or rolls on drums and cymbals for longer tones. Wielding these sounds effectively will help shape your improvised grooves and licks in interesting ways. Exs. 8–9 alternate between short and long notes, using a variety of sound sources and techniques.


Drums and cymbals take up an incredibly wide palette of the sound spectrum. Deciding between low to high sounds and how they fit with other instruments—or within your own improvisation—leads the listener on a sonic journey. In Ex. 10, notice how the first measure mostly operates in the mid to low range with high- and middle-toms, floor tom, and bass drum, while the second measure uses the high sounds of snare rimshot, hi-hat, and ride bell contrasted by low sounds of the bass drum.


When playing a drum solo, stringing licks together endlessly—even if in perfect time—can become monotonous to the audience. Listeners like to hear a balance of licks and patterns so that they can latch onto some semblance of a groove. In Ex. 11, the first four bars involve a flow of sixteenth-notes with the hands and
the bass drum dropped in as a “third hand,” followed by four bars of funk. Notice that every measure in the groove portion is slightly different, which also gives off an improvised vibe.


Calculating groups of notes while roaming around the drums might seem to be the antithesis of improvising, but at least the math here is pretty simple. There are 16 sixteenths in one measure of 4/4, and how you decide to divvy these up can make you sound structured, random, or somewhere in-between. Ex. 12 involves one- and three-note combinations. These odd groupings move unexpectedly from one sound source to the next. Ex. 13 uses a more structured approach, as each grouping is constructed from even numbers.


When improvising, it’s vital to be able to recognize two-, four-, eight-, and sixteen-bar segments of time. Only through repetition will this become second nature. Ex. 14 is two measures of funk followed by two measures of blank space for improvisation, while Ex. 15 is four measures of funk followed by four measures of blank space. Try these at various tempos with or without a metronome. Feel free to make up your own structures and try different types of grooves using the same process.


Interacting with other musicians who play along with, contrast, and supplement what you hear will inspire new and exciting ideas. In jazz, drummers comp (accompany) by not only reacting to what the soloist is playing but also internalizing the form of the song, the melody, and what the other rhythm section members are doing. Ex. 16 shows how Elvin Jones plays behind saxophonist Wayne Shorter on “Night Dreamer” using his iconic rolling triplet style.



You can also improvise by pulling a variety of sounds from your drums and cymbals. Exs. 17–20 begin to help you assimilate techniques like power flams, dead strokes, stick shots, rimshots, and rim-clicks into your toolkit.


Dynamics—including volume, accents, ghost notes, crescendos, control between the limbs, and much more—might be the unsung hero of improvisation. It’s a catalyst for what makes the listeners’ ears perk up. Though countless exercises have been written on this topic, the focus here is accenting on the toms (Exs. 21–22).


In drumming, ostinatos—repetitive patterns played by the hands or feet—provide an infectious backdrop for the remaining limbs to solo. In Ex. 23, the right and left feet play a samba ostinato while the hands execute a syncopated melody around the drums.


During a lesson I had years ago with jazz great John Riley, I asked him about a drummer who had blown my mind at a show the previous night. How was this person able to be both spontaneous and flawless while soloing? Riley’s response surprised me: This particular drummer, who was known as being incredibly diligent, had worked out his solos beforehand.

Scripting out solos is also a great teaching and learning tool. Lyle Lovett drummer Dan Tomlinson uses a 12-bar solo segment (Ex. 24) with his students to help them move fluently around the drums and experience various rhythms, while letting it be a catalyst for further exploration. Notice how the solo flows from duplets to triplets throughout, another valuable improvisatory tool that also helps develop time. It’s worth noting that this solo has become an expanded percussion piece called “Welcome To Phoenix,” dedicated to Steve Gadd, available on major streaming and download platforms.


In his Language Of Drumming DVD, Benny Greb reminds us of the importance of being aware of what we play by asking, “What would it be like to talk to someone without being able to control the words or being able to remember what you’d just said?” Greb demonstrates a fun exercise that puts the learner in a creative box: He improvises one measure and then repeats that same lick in the next bar before continuing on to the next two-bar phrase. Notice how Ex. 25, a result of my own experimentation using Greb’s format, starts simple and gets increasingly adventurous.


Licks are obviously a building block of improvisation, and for the most part, these can all be gleaned from rudiments. Ex. 26 is based on a Facebook video shared by UK master teacher Colin Woolway (Drumsense), in which he demonstrates a multitude of paradiddle-diddle orchestrations.


It helps to have the outline of a melody or rhythmic figure in mind when taking a drum solo. Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones, for example, often soloed over nursery rhymes. Latin, rock, and fusion drummers use the clave as an organizational device. Ex. 27 is a common Afro-Cuban groove using a 3/2 rumba clave (rim-click), cascara (hi-hat), and tumbao (bass drum). Exs. 28–29 use these rhythms as a basis for improvisation.


Jazz drummers are known for soloing over the entire form of a song. Ex. 30 is a snare solo using a flow of eighth-note triplets and accents on the snare. The solo is based on The Flintstones’ theme song, which has an AABA song structure with a short tag at the end of the form. Can you hear it? After you feel comfortable with this solo, orchestrate it around the drums by placing the accents on the toms. Try taking one more time through the form, but this time, improvise while humming the melody. 



Here are a few videos to inspire your improvisational side. Enjoy!

Hear the master Gene Krupa at work as he keeps the tune going while showcasing super chops with acrobatic, exaggerated arm motions.

Every time Keith Moon picked up a pair of sticks, there was bound to be a ton of improvisation in whatever he played. This rare clip shows off his “Animalistic” style within a song form.

Ginger Baker puts the entire kit, including both bass drums, to work in this 10-minute solo. Check out the phrasing, motifs, and speed in this well-composed piece.