A General Guide to Jazz Drumming

Sherrie Maricle

Dr Sherrie Maricle


Practice the standard 26 drum rudiments (and their variations) as a means to develop a solid foundation for your technique. There are many ways to orchestrate and apply rudiments to the drum set. Example: play all measured rolls (5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, and 17) in an orchestrated manner around the set while keeping a Samba pattern in your feet. You can play the rolls as eighth notes, sixteenth notes, triplets, etc. Although rudimental drumming is primarily concerned with single and double stroke combinations, it is also important to practice orchestral or “buzz”, “crushed” rolls. I recommend the following books for technical development: Stick Control (Stone), Wrist and Finger Control and Swingin’ the 26 by Charlie Wilcoxon, and Accent on Accents 1 and 2 by Fine and Dahlgren.

For developing single strokes and a deeper understanding of basic rhythmic subdivisions practice the following exercise. In 4/4 play the BD in quarter notes and the HH on beats 2 and 4. As a starting point set the metronome between 60 -80 and on the SD play 4 measures of whole notes, followed by 4 mm. of half notes, half note triplets, quarter notes, quarter note triplets, eighth notes, eighth note triplets, sixteenth notes, sixteenth note triplets and 32nd notes. Then repeat and orchestrate around the drum set. Keep all subdivisions even, smooth, connected and flowing. Increase the tempo as your chops develop. You can also play this exercise with double strokes and paradiddle stickings. Eventually you can add quintuplets and septuplets in their appropriate sequential order.

Bass Drum and Hi-Hat technique can be developed by practicing the single stroke exercise described above. As you orchestrate elements of technique exercise 1 and 2 make sure to include either the bass drum or hi-hat as a component of the orchestration.

Please remember that technique develops simultaneously with independence, time, reading, interpretation and soloing practice. The 3 suggestions listed above are intended to help you create a strong technical foundation on which to build creative musical ideas.

Finally, to be JAZZ DRUMMER it is important to practice with BRUSHES as well as sticks. Many of the exercises listed here may be applied to brush playing, BUT brushes have unique characteristics and technical requirements that must be studied separately.

I strongly recommend Steve Smith’s DVD, Drum Set Technique/History of the US Beat, for ideas on technical and musical development.


All drummers know that their primary function is to keep good time. You may have all the technique (chops) in the world, but if you can’t lay down a solid groove that feels good, you have very little hope for employment. As Baby Dodds said, “you must play for the benefit of the band.” Time-keeping is a skill that should develop into an intuitive (natural) ability. Good time creates a stability of feel and flow that should be established on the downbeat and stop on the cutoff. It is not only an essential element of the basic beat in ensemble and solo sections, but also necessary for fills, kicks, catching figures and drum solos. The TIME should NEVER STOP, no matter what musical event is taking place.

Practice “basic” time in a variety of styles at various tempos. It is very important to practice your “TIME” for several minutes…not measures! How many songs do you know that have a duration of 8-16 measures? Suggestions for practicing time:

Make sure all components of your time flow together in a smooth and connected manner. The beats (notes and rests) should always be legato.


You have to know the style in which you are playing. This seems obvious, but this detail is not always given the appropriate musical attention. Detailed, precise interpretation allows you to be “true” to the style and intention of the music. As a general starting point, stylistic interpretation can be as simple as deciding if the music is Jazz, Rock or Latin. However, in order to achieve an authentic interpretation, the understanding of specific styles within these general categories needs much deeper investigation. There are literally hundreds of possibilities within each. For example:

This list does not approach being complete. Musical styles are constantly being invented and redefined. The following books are excellent sources for studying prevalent styles of music. Afro-Cuban Rhythms for Drum set by Frank Malabe and Bob Weiner, The Art of Bop Drumming and Beyond Bop Drumming by John Riley, Advanced Funk Studies by Rick Latham, Brazilian Rhythms for Drum Set by Duduka Da Fonseca and Bob Weiner.

THE BEST WAY TO LEARN, interpret and understand various styles of music is to LISTEN DAILY as part of your practice regime. Once you can identify and play a certain style (music) or groove (drummer), check out the variations within. For example: play an exercise as Gene Krupa (Swing), then as Philly Joe Jones (Be-Bop) and then as Elvin Jones (Modern Jazz). I also suggest keeping a listening log or journal. This will help you keep track of areas in your listening that may need more attention. It will also generate an extensive “listening list” to share with others.


READING is a required skill for all serious musicians in most of today’s musical environments. One way to become a good reader is to read (sightread) a lot of music during your practice sessions (don’t practice, just read) and if you make a mistake KEEP GOING. Recovering from mistakes is an important aspect of being a successful reader. The music you choose to “practice-read” should be played in a pre-determined style and tempo (Ex: legit snare drum, jazz feel, funk feel, etc.). A common ability shared by good readers is the immediate recognition of rhythmic motives and phrases (groups of rhythmic figures). When you acquire this ability, your identification of, and reaction to, “the music,” will be instantaneous and precise.

Two excellent books for practicing reading skills are Modern Reading Text in 4/4 by Louis Bellson and Syncopation by Ted Reed. These books are also a primary source for INDEPENDENCE exercises. Independence allows you to respond freely to the music you are reading and interpreting. To that end I suggest practicing within the context of a Basic Jazz Groove while reading the written lines as follows:

If you want to further expand these exercises read the written line as follows:

One of my favorite books for practicing independence is Stick Control by George Lawrence Stone. Within the context of a Basic Jazz Groove play all notes marked with an “R” (right) on the BD. Simultaneously take all notes marked with an “L” (left) and play it on the SD or Tom-Toms. You may also practice the “R” and “L” as BD and HH or exchange any “L” note (freely or in a predetermined pattern) between the HH and SD/Toms.

CHART READING requires you to follow the form (road map) of the piece being played. Drum parts are notated in many ways. There is no “standard” notation that you can study/memorize that will apply to every chart you encounter. Some charts are very clear, precise and easy to follow with all necessary information included. Other times parts may be nothing more than a sketch (play 8 bars at letter A, 16 bars at B etc.), a rhythm section lead sheet or a copy of a horn part. Steve Houghton’s book Studio and Big Band Drumming provides excellent examples of several possible chart variations. No matter what kind of chart you are given, you are expected to accurately read the written music and, more importantly, to interpret, improvise, be creative and make the music sound and feel good. Ultimately your goal is to memorize the chart(s) so you no longer have to read. Keep the music in your head, not your head in the music. Section III discusses the basic “how to” of chart interpretation.


To kick, set-up, punch, hit, fill or “catch” a written figure means to accent, support and/or “frame” that figure in a musical and stylistically appropriate manner. Being successful at this requires going well beyond the notation. It requires creativity, improvisation, musical taste and INTENTION (what is your set-up supposed to accomplish?). Figure interpretation can be loosely divided into 2 categories: Hits and Punches usually occur during light ensemble, soli or background sections and may be played as part of the on going beat pattern. Kicks, Fills and Set-ups occur during tutti or shout sections. You may be required to “catch” figures from both categories simultaneously. It is up to you to determine what type of kick, hit, punch, fill or set-up is required. Keep in mind your job is to enhance, support and prepare ensemble entrances. The way in which the drummer sets up a shout section or catches the figures of a given chart often determines the feel, style, phrasing and dynamics for the entire ensemble, whether it is a trio or big band. Good set-ups will make the ensemble entrances powerful, clear and precise. A bad set-up may cause a “train wreck”. All kicks, fills, set-ups, punches and hits should be in the style of the music you are playing (no Virgil Donati fills for a Count Basie chart) and executed with solid time and a good feel.

There are three basic ways to learn figure interpretation.

Some of my favorite Big Band drummers are Mel Lewis, Buddy Rich, Jeff Hamilton, Jo Jones, Sonny Payne, John Von Ohlen, Shadow Wilson and Dennis Mackrel


The two general types of soloing include IN-TIME or OUT-OF-TIME.

AN IN-TIME SOLO can be any length of time from one measure (solo fill) to soloing on the form of a tune, to soloing on an un-structured form. The major, obvious requirement for an in-time solo is that it be in the TIME of the tune you are playing. In the freest situations the time can be manipulated (double-time/half-time) and the groove can change (latin to swing to rock), but the underlying pulse should always be identifiable. If you are playing within a particular style, structure or form your solo should reflect and embody characteristics specific to that musical situation. I also suggest playing Jazz Standards on the drum set, both the melody and soloing. An excellent example of this style of soloing is Jeff Hamilton’s solo version of Caravan on his trio recording, It’s Hamilton Time. Finally, it is extremely helpful for developing your soloing ability to transcribe (and play) numerous solos of varying length and styles.

THE OUT-OF-TIME or open solo is often one of the most exciting opportunities for a drummer. You are given an empty space of indeterminate length (often indicated by a fermata) and expected to play something AMAZING. An open solo is the perfect opportunity for the drummer to express their musicality (connectedness with the music being played), creativity (fresh ideas of sound and color) and technique (show-off your chops) in any way you choose.

IDEAS FOR SOLOING, as for an in-time solo, can be discovered (and hopefully applied) from doing a lot of listening/transcribing of both drum and other instrumental solos. To further develop solo ideas I suggest selecting ONE basic element of music, such as rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, orchestration, form, sound (color, touch and balance), phrasing, emotion, technique, etc. and exploring as many aspects of that selected element as possible. As your confidence and ability grows, combine the “elements” together as you choose. Although none of these elements exist in a vacuum and often occurs simultaneously, it’s important to begin simple and remember this is an EXERCISE. Let your ideas grow slowly and naturally along with your creativity and intuitiveness!

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