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The Drum Set As Melody Instrument

The drum set as melody instrument       

Although rhythm is the drum sets primary mode of expression, contemporary jazz drummers can produce distinct melodies with the instrument.[1]  This expanded musical range means that the drum set can no longer neatly fit into the category of an unpitched percussion instrument, demanding a broader understanding of the basic nature of the drum set, as well as pointing to its future potential as a melody instrument.  In order to establish that the drum set should be re-evaluated in this fashion, two main questions need to be addressed: First, is the drum set physically capable of producing a melody?  And second, if the drum set is in fact capable of producing a melody, is melodic drumming a significant enough musical trend to justify this consideration?

Pitched vs. unpitched percussion

Based on the current consensus that the drum set is an unpitched percussion instrument, the answer to the first question would seem to be no.  Melody is defined in Grove Music Online as, “Pitched sounds arranged in time in accordance with given cultural conventions and restraints”.[2]   So a precondition of an instrument producing a melody is being able to produce pitches.  If the drum set is in fact unable to produce pitches, than there is no way it could be thought of as melodic in this sense. 

Percussion instruments are generally split into two discrete categories: pitched and unpitched.[3]  The drum set is not a single instrument, but rather a collection of instruments.  Nevertheless, it is conventionally thought of as an unpitched percussion instrument since all of its component parts (snare drum, tom-tom, bass drum, and cymbals) are classified as unpitched.[4] In order to understand what criteria are used to put a percussion instrument into one of these categories, it is necessary to understand what is meant by the terms pitched and unpitched.

A pitched percussion instrument is one that produces a definite pitch, meaning a pitch that a listener can relatively easily place into a frequency-based scale.[5]  Part of the reason why definite pitches have this property is because their harmonic frequency spectra are close to harmonic spectra.[6]  This means that the frequencies present in a definite pitch are close to mathematically basic ratios like 2:1. 

An unpitched percussion instrument is one that produces an indefinite pitch, meaning a pitch that a listener finds impossible or extremely difficult to place into a frequency-based scale.[7]  Part of the reason for this difficulty is that indefinite pitches either do not have harmonic frequency spectra or they have an altered one.[8]  An altered harmonic frequency spectra simply means frequencies that don’t have a basic mathematical relationship like 2:1.  To be clear, just because an instrument has indefinite pitch does not mean that it can’t have sounds with recognizably lower and higher pitch, just that these sounds are not easy to place into a frequency-based scale.[9]

The drum set doesn't have to be unpitched

All that being said, the problem with defining the drum set as unpitched is that each of the component parts of the drum set is considered pitched in certain situations. 

The snare drum for example is classified as unpitched for the following reasons: the snare wires’ buzz makes white noise that masks pitch, the two membranes of the drum have conflicting fundamental frequency/harmonic spectra, and pitches of the drum are unrelated to pitches played in the rest of the ensemble.[10] 

On the surface these all seem like convincing reasons why this drum should be thought of as unpitched, but if you dig a little deeper inconsistencies appear.  First of all, modern snare drums have the ability to turn off the snare wires, and doing this allows the drum to have a much clearer fundamental frequency/pitch.  Secondly, the interaction of the two membranes of the drum can mask pitch, but this has more to do with how you tune them in relation to each other, and not some fundamental characteristic of a drum having two membranes.[11]  There are numerous examples of drums with two membranes around the world that produce very clear definite pitch.   One brilliant example of this type of this is the Entenga drum from Uganda.[12]  Finally, the last point about the snare drum not having definite pitch because its pitch doesn’t relate to the rest of the ensemble has nothing to do with the physical properties of the drum, it simply has to do with traditional performance practice.  In other words, if someone hypothetically chose to tune the snare drum to a pitch that did relate to the rest of the ensemble they easily could, and in fact they frequently do.[13]

All these same arguments can be made about the pitch classification of all of the drums in the drum set, with some slight modifications.  The bass drum for example which is classified as unpitched in the context of the drum set, is considered a pitched percussion instrument in the context of a marching band.[14]  The tom-toms are very similar to the snare drum in size and makeup, and do not have the impediment of snare wires to mask their pitch.[15] 

One other important note about all these drums is that how they are played matters a great deal in terms of their ability to produce a definite pitch.  Any drum that is struck with a mallet as opposed to a stick produces a significantly clearer pitch for example.[16]  Similarly, any percussion instrument that is traditionally thought of as pitched will have its pitch significantly obscured by being struck with a drumstick as opposed to a mallet.

To summarize, all the component instruments of the drum set that are classified as unpitched can be pitched when played in a certain fashion or context.  This means that there is no objective physical reason why the drum set should be classified as an unpitched percussion instrument.  One very reasonable question to ask at this point is, if the drum set is in fact capable of producing definite pitches and playing a melody, why don’t people perceive it as capable of doing this?


In the pioneering acoustic work of Hermann von Helmholtz in the early 20th century, a direct correlation between frequency and perceived pitch was believed to exist.[17]  In other words, Helmoltz believed that a change in frequency corresponded exactly to a change in perceived pitch, and the closer to harmonic spectra a pitch got the clearer the pitch would be.

However subsequent research, particularly in the fields of cognitive psychology and psychoacoustics revealed that a number of other factors strongly influenced pitch perception.[18]  These factors boil down to the subjective musical, environmental, and cultural context of the individual listener.[19]  In other words, depending on these factors different people could hear the same frequency as a different pitch.  There is currently no scientific consensus on exactly what causes people to hear certain pitches the way they do, but one thing that has become increasingly clear is that a persons expectations strongly influence their perception of pitch.[20] 

Since its invention in the early 20th century for use in jazz bands, the drum set has been used primarily for maintaining a steady, danceable pulse.[21]  This traditional, exclusively rhythmic role of the drum set has over time created an expectation for listeners that the drum set will only be used in this fashion.  This expectation in turn creates a sort of aural bias that the drum set cannot be played melodically.  Because of the fundamental subjectivity of pitch perception discussed above, a listener’s expectation of what an instrument does largely defines what that instrument can do for that particular listener. 

The role of melodic drumming in jazz

Because the drum set can produce definite pitches and consequently could theoretically be used to play a melody, the next question is whether or not melodic drumming is a significant enough musical trend to merit reclassification of the instrument.  In fact, although its role in jazz is not widely discussed or studied, melodic drumming is central to this entire genre of music.  To illustrate this point, a brief history of the evolution of the drum set and its primary innovators reveals the central importance of melodic drumming to jazz. 

There are two types of melodic drumming in jazz.  The main type, which I refer to as “implied melodic drumming”, means using the large-scale techniques of musical architecture like form and head-solo-head order, as well as the small-scale melodic phrasing techniques of contour, dynamics, repetition, use of space, thematic development, and call-and-response to create tension and release just like a melody instrument would.  Importantly, this type of melodic drumming does not involve using definite pitches.  The second type of melodic drumming that I refer to as “explicit melodic drumming”, uses all the techniques discussed above, but with definite pitches.

the evolution of implied melodic drumming

Implied melodic drumming has been central to the development of the drum set, and to jazz music in general.  As jazz music has evolved, the role of the drums has become increasingly prominent.[22]   In fact, the drums have undergone perhaps the most radical change in role of any instrument in jazz music over the course of the last century.  From it’s beginning as a relatively limited accompanying instrument in the early jazz of New Orleans, all the way to contemporary jazz where the drums play an almost continuously improvised co-leading role. 

The primary indication of this expanded role is the degree to which the drums have a melodic as well as rhythmic function within an ensemble.   This expansion in the melodic role of the drummer has had a tremendous impact on jazz music generally; particularly in terms of rhythmic innovation and the way it brings the drums to the foreground of the music.

It is impossible to say for certain how far back the tradition of melodic drumming goes, but it is certainly the case that like most of jazz drumming its lineage can be traced to Africa.[23]  Of course there are no recordings of ancient African drumming, but based on some contemporary melodic drumming practices on instruments like talking drums or drum chimes, as well as the prominent role of the drum in most African music, it is certainly possible that early melodic jazz drummers were inspired by their heritage.[24] 

Baby dodds

One of the first drummers to express this heritage of melodic drumming was Baby Dodds, who is widely considered one of if not the first great jazz drummer.  In addition, he is also one of the first recorded drummers with a clear connection to the African drumming tradition.  According to Rudi Blesh, Dodd’s maternal great- grandfather would play talking drums for the family, and passed some of the traditional African rhythms to Dodds directly.[25] 

Dodds’ most famous recordings are with Lois Armstrong and the Hot Sevens.  Partly due to the limitations of recording technology at the time, Dodd’s primarily played a time-keeping and rhythmic function on all early recordings.  Dodds’ drumming was only occasionally featured in short breaks, but even playing without a bass drum Dodds still managed to interact with the melody instruments in a meaningful way.[26] 

In his later recordings, the full scope of his melodicism becomes much more apparent.  Gene Krupa, who was strongly influenced by Dodds, said he not only expanded the role of the drums beyond time-keeping, but that he could make you hear the melody of a tune on the drums.[27]  Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this type of melodic drumming is Dodds’ playing in the first ever drum instructional video recorded in 1946.  During one of the sections of this film called “Tom-Tom Solo With Foot Muffle”, Dodds plays an entire solo on the floor tom while bending the pitch of the drum with his foot.[28]  Interestingly, a pianist playing “Tea For Two” accompanies him and you can clearly hear the melody from both the piano and drums. 

Papa jo jones

The next major stylistic evolution in jazz drumming came from the drummer for the famous Count Basie Orchestra, Papa Jo Jones, who was primarily responsible for liberating the time feel of the drums by moving the main time-keeping instrument from the bass and snare to the hihat.[29]  This innovation shifted more of the time-keeping responsibility to the bass player, and freed the drummer to interact and play more melodically. 

Although his early recordings with the Basie band feature him in a relatively limited accompaniment role with only occasional solo breaks, the short solos he does play are full of sophisticated phrasing that anticipate the style of bebop drummers to come.[30]  Some of his later recordings, for example “Caravan” and “Cubano Chant” from his own album “The Essential Jo Jones” feature more of his soloing, and reveal the depth of his melodic concept.[31]  

Max roach

Max Roach, who was strongly influenced by Papa Jo Jones, did more than any other drummer before him to uncover the melodic potential of the instrument, and in doing so revolutionized the way that people approached and thought of the instrument.  His landmark solo drum recording, “For Big Sid” presented an entire piece of music with just the drums.[32] 

Roach’s performance on “For Big Sid” is a model of implied melodic drumming techniques.  From the opening descending phrase the solo has clear large and small-scale melodic content.  Not only does Roach follow a head-solo-head order and maintain a clear AABA form, he also uses the theme of the melody throughout his solo and makes extensive use of other small-scale melodic techniques like call and response.  By his masterful manipulation of these implied melodic techniques, Roach is able to generate tension and release throughout the piece, making it a classic example of melodic drumming.

In terms of Roach’s role in the evolution of the drums, he represents the first time that they could be considered the lead instrument in a piece of music; not as a drum feature or gimmick but as a legitimate melodic instrument.  The New York Times in its August, 2007 obituary of Roach put it this way:

In Mr. Roach’s hands, the drum kit became much more than a means of keeping time. He saw himself as a full-fledged member of the front line, not simply as a supporting player.  Layering rhythms on top of rhythms, he paid as much attention to a song’s melody as to its beat.

Chip Stern put it this way, “By liberating drummers from one-dimensional timekeeping duties, Max Roach became the Godfather of modern jazz drumming”.[33]  In other words, largely because of Roach’s pioneering insistence on treating the drums as a melodic instrument, he was able to significantly raise the profile of the instrument and influence generations of future drummers.

Roy Haynes

Roy Haynes was another bebop drummer and contemporary of Max Roach who was strongly influenced by Jo Jones, and who went on to be an innovative and highly influential presence on the jazz scene from the 1940’s to the present.[34]  Haynes was also a very melodic drummer, as evidenced by his performance on “In Walked Bud” from the Thelonious Monk album “Misterioso”.  This solo, like “For Big Sid” is a watershed moment in the history of melodic drumming.[35]  The solo begins with one chorus where Haynes quotes the melody of the tune nearly verbatim on the drums.  Although Haynes does not go so far as trying to produce actual pitches on the drums, he gets as close to explicitly melodic drumming as it possible to go without quite crossing that boundary. 

Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones represents the first major stylistic evolution of the drums after bebop.  His incredible playing in the classic John Coltrane quartet largely defines the role of the contemporary jazz drummer.  In addition to being rhythmically dense and spread across the entire drum set, it is also clear that Jones’ playing is very melodic.[36]  In an interview from “Different Drummer: Elvin Jones” Jones explains and demonstrates how he would solo over the relatively simple melody of “Three Card Molly”.[37]  He starts by playing the melody in a very straightforward fashion on the snare drum, before taking the melody and improvising with it over the whole drum set.  In this solo improvisation, the original melody becomes very abstracted, much like John Coltrane might abstract the original melody of a song in his solo. 

This gets at an important point about melodic drumming which is that just because a drummer is playing off of or being inspired by a melody, it doesn’t mean that an audience is going to understand what is going on.  In fact, more often than not an audience cannot hear or even imagine a drummer playing a melody because they are not used to thinking of the drums as a melodic instrument. 

This aural bias that was explained earlier in the paper, produces a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy; because people don’t think that the drums can play a melody, they won’t hear the melody in what the drums play.  Nonetheless, the key with implied melodic drumming is not whether an audience can hear the melody in what the drums are playing, but rather what is going on in the drummers head.  The great Shelly Manne put it very well, “Instead of letting the rhythm imply its own melody, my concept is to play melodically and allow the melody to create rhythm…Improvisation is the result of melodic, not rhythmic thinking.”[38] 

Jones’ playing in Coltranes quartet was so critical to the overall sound of the group, and so full of melodic richness, that the piano and bass would often drop out of songs entirely, allowing Coltrane and Jones to pursue their dialogue unhindered.  A perfect example of this kind of duet is their performance of “Impressions” on the TV show “Jazz Casual” from 1963.[39]  One of the fascinating aspects of this duet that also underscores the point about Jones’ melodicism is that even though there are only two instruments playing, there is no sense of the music lacking anything.  If either Coltrane’s rhythmic sense or Jones’ melodicism were not fully developed, this type of duet would be unable to sustain the listeners interest.

Explicit Melodic drumming

It is clear from this brief history that implied melodic drumming has been one of the central drivers of the evolution of jazz drumming.  It has also led to the point where contemporary drummers like Jeff Hamilton and Ari Hoenig use all the techniques of implied melodic drumming, but with actual definite pitches.  Although this explicit melodic drumming is a relatively recent phenomenon in jazz, it is certainly possible that it too can be traced back to ancient African drum tradition mentioned earlier.  What is definitely clear is that this explicit melodic drumming is a natural evolution of the much more prevalent implied melodic drumming tradition, and that it is playing an increasingly important role in jazz.

Two excellent examples of explicit melodic drumming are Jeff Hamilton’s performance of “A Night In Tunisia” and Ari Hoenig’s performance of “Moanin’”.[40][41]  In both of these cases the melody is startlingly clear, as well as musically compelling.  So much so in fact that in the case of Hamilton’s performance, a transcription of the drum solo had to include exact pitches!

The long and important history of implied melodic drumming, as well as the relatively recent and exciting emergence of explicit melodic drumming, conclusively show that melodic drumming is an important enough trend to justify re-examining how we hear and talk about the drum set.


Because the perception of pitch and melody is partially subjective, the main reason that the drum set is considered unpitched is that it has been played in a primarily rhythmic fashion up to this point.  The evolution of the drum set in jazz has brought the instrument to the point where it needs to be reconsidered as a definite pitched, melodic instrument.  To answer the two questions posed at the beginning of the paper, the drum set is physically capable of producing a melody, and it is being used to do just that.  In my opinion, the drum set may need a new classification, perhaps “conditionally pitched”, to describe its relatively unique ability to move between the worlds of pitched and unpitched percussion instruments.




[1] Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Gunther Huesmann, The Jazz Book (Chicago: Laurence Hill, 2009), p. 473.

[2] Alexander Ringer, “Melody”, Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Web, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/18357 (accessed 29 April 2014).

[3] Harry Olson, Music, Physics, and Engineering (McGraw-Hill, 1967) p. 109.

[4] ibid, p. 109

[5] ibid p. 248.

[6] Adrianus Houtsma, “Pitch Perception”, Hearing (San Diego, CA: Academic, 1995), p. 267.

[7] Thomas Rossing, The Science of Percussion Instruments (Singapore: World Scientific, 2000), p. 26.

[8] Houtsma, op. cit., p. 267.

[9] Rossing, op.cit., p. 1.

[10] Rossing, op. cit., pp. 27-28.

[11] Rob Toulson, “The Perception And Importance Of Drum Tuning In Live Performance And Music Production”, Journal on the Art of Record Production, September 2013.

[12] The Singing Wells Project , “Namaddu Troupe- Drum Solo.” Youtube, Flash Video File, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JVfW6HReew (accessed April 23, 2014).

[13] Toulson, op. cit.

[14] Wayne Bailey, The Complete Marching Band Resource Manual (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 2003), p. 131.

[15] Rossing, op. cit., p. 28.

[16] Rossing, op. cit., p. 62.

[17] Ian Cross, “Perception and Cognition”, Grove Music Online, Website, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/42574pg2?q=perception+and+cognition+&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit (accessed April 29, 2014).

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Theodore Brown, A History And Analysis Of Jazz Drumming To 1942 (PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1976), p. 96.

[22] Berendt, op. cit., p. 499.

[23] Brown, op. cit., p. 3.

[24] The Singing Wells Project , “Namaddu Troupe- Drum Solo”, Youtube, Flash Video File, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JVfW6HReew (accessed April 23, 2014).

[25] Rudi Blesh, Shining Trumpets (New York: Knopf, 1946), p. 157.

[26] Brown, op. cit., pp. 217-222.

[27] Brown, op. cit., p. 205.

[28] Warren “Baby” Dodds, “Tom-Tom Solo With Foot Muffle” Youtube. Flash Video File. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6N-A3owHDk (accessed April 23, 2014).

[29] Brown, op. cit., p. 444.

[30] Brown, ibid., p.448.

[31]Ray Bryant, Cubano Chant, Jonathan “Jo” Jones, Vangaurd, MP3, 1977.

[32] Max Roach, For Big Sid, Max Roach, Atlantic, MP3, 1966.

[33] Chip Stern, “The Max Factor”, Traps, December 2006, p. 45.

[34] Bill Milkowski, “The Renaissance of Roy”, Traps, January 2007, p. 33.

[35] Thelonious Monk, In Walked Bud, Roy Haynes, Riverside, MP3, 1958.

[36] Barry Elms, Elvin Jones: Defining His Essential Contributions To Jazz (M.A. Thesis, Toronto, 2005), p. 25.

[37] Ed Gray, “Elvin Jones: Different Drummer”, YouTube, Flash Video File, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qn1xMVmLbWk (accessed April 23, 2014).

[38] Ron Spagnardi, Great Jazz Drummers (Cedar Grove, New Jersey: Modern Drummer, 1992), p. 55.

[39] Ralph Gleason, “John Coltrane Quartet- Impressions”, Youtube, Flash Video File, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03juO5oS2gg (accessed April 29, 2014).

[40] Dizzy Gillespie, A Night In Tunisia, Jeff Hamilton, Mons, MP3, 2007.

[41] Bobby Timmons, Moanin’, Arig Hoenig, Naïve, MP3, 2011.

[42] Rodrigo Villanueva, “Jeff Hamilton’s Melodic Approach”, Percussive Notes (February, 2007), pp. 16-23 .


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Jeff Hamilton Style Brush Comping

Jeff's Brush Comping 

I am going to assume that if you are reading this blog you are already familiar with Jeff's incredible brush technique, as well as the video on the right where he describes his approach to brushes (and takes one of the best solos on a ballad that I have ever heard).  If you haven't yet had a chance to check out this video, I can summarize Jeff's approach as follows:

  • Strike the drum laterally instead of vertically 
  • Always keep one brush on the snare drum at all times
  • In addition to the two principles from Jeff above, I would add one more; try to keep your sweeping pattern mostly the same, don't change it to accommodate a particular rhythm.  Although Jeff doesn't talk about this in the video explicitly, I often see him model this behavior when he is playing.  

For me, this advice and Jeff's brush playing in general have been tremendously influential.  I particularly love the warm, legato sound he gets from the drum, and seek to emulate that sound in my own playing.

Andrew Hare, not an ambi-comper

Andrew Hare, not an ambi-comper

Brushes aren't sticks

In my last series of posts about brush comping, I started with the premise of getting my brushes to have more of the rhythmic freedom of my sticks.  In particular I noticed I was constrained by my comping only feeling good going in one direction (I'm not an ambi-turner!), and set about trying to change this.  Although I felt I was making some progress on my own, it wasn't until I had a lesson with my great teacher Chuck Redd that I had a real breakthrough.

Basically, brushes aren't sticks.  Specifically, trying to keep the right hand playing spang-a-lang while the left hand comps on the "+" of beats two and four sounds cluttered.  Why?  Because unlike with sticks, brushes are playing on one instrument.  When you comp on the "+" of beats two and four with sticks, it doesn't sound as redundant, because your right hand is getting a completely different sound on the cymbal than your left hand is getting on the snare drum.  With brushes you don't have this luxury, and so you have to make an adjustment to get a swinging and uncluttered sound.  

Chuck showed me a really simple solution to this problem.  Instead of playing spang-a-lang, sweep quarter notes with your right hand whenever you are comping on the "+" of beats two and four.  Playing this way you still get the sensation of continuity and swing from your right hand, and you can get a nice big hit with your left hand.  On the left is a video of me demonstrating some of this type of comping with "They Say It's Wonderful" from Chuck's terrific 2002 album "All This And Heaven Too".


Practical vs. Idealistic goals

Which leads me to a bigger point about setting musical goals.  For me, you always have to find a balance between what you would ideally like to achieve, and what you need to achieve in order to be a working musician.  The limiting factor of course, is time.  Especially as I get older, I find that more and more I am trying to set goals that will get me hired for gigs.  

That is not to say that setting super ambitious, really impractical goals is always a bad thing.  If Ari Hoenig had given up on playing bebop melodies on the drum set because people thought it was impractical, we never would have gotten to hear this.  And regardless of whether he is your favorite drummer, you have to admit that Ari's unique talent really opens up some new possibilities on the instrument.  

Of course, there are lots of examples like Ari's in the history of jazz.  Musicians who refused to accept what was possible or practical for whatever reason, and did things on their instrument that people had assumed was impossible.  The legend goes that when Loius Armstrong first went to Europe, other musicians kept on examining his trumpet, assuming that he was able to play so high because of some sort of trick instrument.  

That being said, you wouldn't know who Ari Hoenig, or Loius Armstrong for that matter, was if they weren't also able to do the things that got them hired for gigs in the first place!  In other words, Ari can't just play melodies on the drums all day, he also has to play good time, interact with the band, learn hits, read music, play with brushes, and do all the myriad other less glamorous things that make up a working jazz drummers stock in trade.  


A practical exercise for developing Jeff's brush comping sound

This exercise was looking me right in the face from the beginning, but it took me a while to realize it.  Here is what you do:

Syncopation Pg. 33-45

  • Both hands sweep continuously back and forth in a kind of windshield wiper motion 
  • Both hands play the written line, right hand plays notes on the beat, left hand plays notes off
  • Whenever you have to play a rhythm from the written line, add a little pressure to your sweep with your fingers
  • Feet play regular jazz pattern, right foot lightly feathering on all four beats, left foot crisply closing the hihat on beats two and four

Aim for a relaxed, legato sound while still clearly delineating the written line.  As with all things brush related, this is much easier to see and hear than it is to read about, so here is a video of me playing the first four lines from pg. 34.  



Philly Joe's Melodic Drumming

   Philly Joe Jones

   Philly Joe Jones

Melodic Drumming isn't new

Melodic drumming is not a new or avant-garde technique. Especially in the jazz tradition, drummers have been directly or indirectly referencing melodies for almost as long as the instrument has been around. Because the drum set is not considered a pitched instrument, many people (certainly including other drummers) don't hear the connection between what a drummer is playing and the melody.  The truth is, the way that drummers interact with the melody of a song has always been one of the fundamental elements of jazz drumming.


Philly Joe's Melodic Drumming

To help clarify my point about how inside of the tradition melodic drumming really is, I am going to use as my example Philly Joe Jones. Philly Joe is one of the most definitive and widely imitated bop drummers of all time.  For a good example of why this is the case, take a moment to listen to "Skatin'" by Wynton Kelly:

Now try listening to just the melody and then jumping immediately to Philly Joe's drum solo (starting at 3:51), you should be able hear a pretty clear connection to the melody.  If you can't, don't worry, I am going to break this down in great detail.  

Below is a rough transcription of Philly Joe's solo with the melody overlaid on top:

What Makes This Solo Melodic?

If you refer back to my earlier article on the definition of melodic drumming, you can see how Philly Joe uses the large scale element of form, as well as the small scale elements of phrasing to create tension and release in his solo just like a melody instrument would.  In this particular example, he draws these melodic elements directly from the melody of "Skatin'" itself!


First, the big picture.  Philly Joe tailors the melodic architecture or form of his solo perfectly to the form of the piece.  Overall "Skatin'" has a sort of AABB form, with the second chorus being more like AAB'C.  With just a superficial glance at the transcription provided, you can see that in the first chorus of his solo Philly Joe starts with one idea in the A sections and then moves on to a new idea in the B sections.  

Although this structure gets a little more abstract in the second chorus, he still starts with one kind of idea in the A sections and then moves on to new material in the B' and C sections.  


Next the smaller scale.  Philly Joe also uses some of the specific elements of the melody's phrases in his solo.  The three most obvious examples of this are call and response, repetition, and contour.  

Call And Response

The two opening phrases of the solo establishes a clear call and response structure just like the melody of "Skatin'".  First he plays a triplet figure on the snare drum by itself, then he plays a response on the tom toms.  Using call and response like this gives listeners a feeling of tension and release, as well as structure.  


To further emphasize the melodic intent of this solo, Philly Joe repeats the opening phrase almost verbatim in the next eight bars.  Repetition gives listeners a clear idea of the theme of the solo, as well as outlining it's structure.


Philly Joe even goes so far as to emulate the contour or direction of the melody in the opening phrase.  If you look in the transcription at bars three and seven, you can see Philly Joe matching descending and ascending motion of the melody by going from low to high on his tom toms.  

Playing Philly Joe's Solo Over The Melody

I think that the easiest way to understand the connection between Philly Joe's solo and the melody is to just hear it.  In the spirit of demonstration I recorded myself attempting this in the video to the above.  Please keep in mind, this doesn't sound...good.  That being said, I do think that it adequately demonstrates my point (incidentally this also makes for a terrific exercise if you are up for a challenge).

So What Is The Point?

If Philly Joe, the platonic form of a bebop drummer, plays a solo this brilliant with such a clear connection to the melody, then melodic drumming can not be seen as outside of the mainstream of jazz drumming.

To be clear, I don't think that Philly Joe always played with this degree of explicit reference to the melody of the song.  I do however think that melodic drumming is a hugely misunderstood and under-appreciated element of jazz drumming, and I hope that examples like this one help to clarify that point.  




Brush Comping and Sweep Direction Part 2

Picking right up where we left off with last weeks brush comping exercise:

3.  Practice comping using dotted quarter notes with music

By playing a simple dotted quarter note comping rhythm with your left hand, you will have a three bar phrase that uses every possible eighth note.  In other words if you start on beat 1, then the next note will be on the "+" of beat 2, the following note will be on beat 4, and so on.  I like this approach because it covers all the rhythmic possibilities without being too cluttered.  Make sure that you are not changing the direction of your comping to accommodate your comping rhythm.  Also, to make this phrase line up more clearly with the music, just add a fourth bar in which you comp freely.  So basically three bars of dotted quarter note, and one bar of whatever.  Focus on trying to keep your sweep sound as intact as possible and locking up with the bass player.  Here is my version:

4.  Comp freely with music keeping your sweeping direction steady

By the time you get to this step, you should be reasonably comfortable with the feeling of comping without changing the direction of your sweeping.  The idea in this step is to practice the way you want to sound when you are actually playing with other people.  In other words, try to sound good!  Don't overplay or rely too much on your new technique, just use it when its appropriate.  If you feel like you have to do extra thinking every time you want to comp in your awkward direction, then you probably aren't ready to use this technique in a real musical situation.  It has to be easy.  Also, this is a good time to try to pick up some ideas from Kenny Washington's beautiful and spare playing on this song if you haven't already.  Here is my version:


  • Start by practicing comping in your awkward direction with just your left hand
  • Practice only comping in your awkward direction with music
  • Practice playing dotted quarter notes with music
  • Comp freely with music

I like to go through "Lorelei" five times in a session, focusing on whatever of these steps is giving me trouble.  Just from the last several weeks of practicing like this almost every day I have noticed a significant improvement in the depth of my left hand comping.  It's not quite where I would like it to be, but this exercise has really been helping.  

I hope you enjoy the exercise, let me know if you have any questions. 



Brush Comping and Sweep Direction Part 1

A simple experiment

Recently I noticed something peculiar about my comping with brushes.  Depending on what rhythm I was comping, I would change my left hand sweeping pattern.  As with any discussion about brushes, this sounds more complicated than it actually is.  I suggest that you grab a pair of brushes and try the following experiment:

1.  Play your regular brush pattern and comp on the "+" of 1 with your left hand- does that feel comfortable?

2.  Try the same thing but comp on the "+" of 2- does that feel comfortable?

I have found that depending on how you hold the brush and what direction you sweep in, one of the two comping rhythms above will be significantly easier to execute than the other.  For me, comping on the "+" of 1 feels totally natural while the "+" of 2 does not.  

People tend to address this challenge in one of two ways, either they change their left hand sweeping pattern so that they comp the uncomfortable rhythm in a direction that is comfortable, or they just play the comping rhythm in their right hand.  Often times people (myself included) just cobble together some combination of these two approaches to find something that works.  

Integrating comping into your sweeping pattern

Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with finding something that works and sticking with it!   Recently however, I found myself feeling constrained by my brush comping.  I wanted to find a way to expand my rhythmic palette to make it feel more like comping with sticks.   I quickly realized that the most direct way to make my brush comping feel more like stick comping was to tackle the issue of integrating my comping into my sweeping pattern.  That is to say, learning to comp in whatever direction my left hand was naturally moving in.  

Those of you who are familiar with this blog know that I am a huge advocate of making every exercise as close to musical as possible.  With that in mind I came up with the following system:

1.  Practice only comping in your awkward direction with just your left hand

Before you do anything else with this, you have to work out the physical motion of your left hand that will achieve the comping sound you want without breaking up your sweeping.  This is more challenging than it sounds.  For example, I noticed that I put a little extra pressure on beats 2 and 4 in my left hand sweeping pattern.  So being able to release this pressure and get my fingers to snap the brush without breaking up the sweep entirely was hard.  What ended up working was thinking of the motion as the reverse of what I normally do on the "+" of 1.  So if I normally snapped my fingers out on that beat, I had to try to get a similar sound by snapping my fingers in on the "+" of beat 2.  Although this step can be really boring, don't skip it.  Everything after this will depend on your ability to get a good comping sound in your left hand.

2.  Practice only comping in your awkward direction with music

Now that your left hand is feeling at least reasonably good, it is time to get to the music.  For this exercise I highly recommend the song "Lorelei" from the Bill Charlap album "Written In the Stars".  Kenny Washington is playing drums on this album, and his brush sound, combined with the tempo and feel of this song, make it a perfect one to practice along with.  

For this step, simply practice playing time and comping consistently in your awkward direction.  For me this meant comping on the "+" of beats 2 and 4.  Don't worry about referencing the song too much in your playing at this point, just focus on getting a good sound and locking up with the bass player (the fantastic Peter Washington)  Here is what that will sound like with the melody:

Stay tuned for the second half of this exercise coming soon!



Food For Thought: A Minor "Stick Control" Revision

Lists imply hierarchy

Any list, no matter whether it is intended to or not, implies a hierarchy.  People generally seem to feel that things closer to the beginning of any list have a higher priority.  George Lawrence Stone's classic "Stick Control For The Snare Drummer" is easily the most widely used rudimental book.  It is also essentially a list of sticking combinations, or as Stone refers to them, "Single Beat Combinations".  That means that the section of the book with the highest priority, the first column, has become particularly important to many drummers practice routines.  Readers of this blog know that my personal favorite of the many fantastic methods using this first column comes from Alan Dawson, in John Ramsay's book "The Drummers Complete Vocabulary".  In a nutshell, this Dawson's method involves alternating between a line from the first column of "Stick Control" and groups of four, then eight, then sixteen notes on a hand.  Using this method means that your hands get very familiar with the first column of "Stick Control".

Something is missing

Recently while warming up with Dawson's method, I suddenly realized that something important was missing from the sequence in the first column of "Stick Control".  Having memorized this column years ago, it had been quite a while since I actually looked at the page, but when I opened the book it turned out that my sense that something was missing was correct.

In "Stick Control", Stone goes straight from double strokes starting on the right hand in line three, to double strokes starting on the left hand in line four.  On the surface this may seem perfectly logical, but to my mind the inversions of the double strokes were clearly missing (in my version of the book they don't show up until line 45!).  By inversions of double strokes I mean the following stickings: RLLR RLLR or LRRL LRRL.

My initial feeling that skipping over these inverted double strokes didn't really make sense was reinforced by the fact that Stone goes through all four inversions of the Paradiddle in the first column.  Going through the Paradiddle inversions makes perfect sense, but then why skip the double stroke inversions?

Why does this matter?

Skipping over those inverted double strokes wouldn't matter if it was just a case of being logically inconsistent.  The reason this omission is an issue goes back to the way we use "Stick Control", and the nature of lists.

Pretty much everyone I know who practices out of "Stick Control", myself included, spends a disproportionate amount of time working on that first column.  After all, that first column is the top of the list, and represents the fundamental components of good rudimental technique.  If you look at the rest of the "Single Beat Combinations" after the first column, you can basically see them as elaborations and combinations of the material from the first column.

It is also true in my personal (and admittedly highly subjective) experience that inverted double strokes have a tremendous amount of practical application on the drums.  This is by no means an original observation.  If you just listen and watch pretty much any drummer in any context you are bound to find examples of these inverted double strokes popping up all over the place.  The heart of my argument here is that leaving the inverted double strokes out of the first column of "Stick Control" means that many drummers are going to be much less likely to practice them. The result of this simple oversight is a tremendously valuable rudimental tool being somewhat obscured.  For that reason, I rewrote the first column of "Stick Control" as follows:

Stick Control First Column, Edited - Full Score


Andrew Hare



Uptempo Jazz 8: Fast Brushes Continued

Since my last post about uptempo brush playing I have made some progress and I thought I would share some helpful ideas.  

Take five of these and see me in the morning

The center of my practice is playing along with "Surrey With A Fringe On Top" from the Ahmad Jamal album "Live at the Pershing". This track is perfect for playing along with because the recording is very clear and concise, the tempo is strong, and Ahmad Jamal's drummer Vernel Fournier is an absolutely killer brush player (despite the fact that he said he never played brushes before being in Jamal's band!).   

The strategy I have been using is attractively simple, I just play along with this track five times a day every day. Within this basic framework I  have some additional recommendations:

  • Focus on your right hand first.  Always try to maintain focus on your right hand "spang-a-lang" and getting a clear sound while staying relaxed.  This really is the most challenging thing about these tempos, more on this in a moment.
  • Then focus on your left hand.  If your right hand is feeling good, try get your left hand sweep pattern as clear and focused as possible.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, like Kenny Washington I really am thinking of my left hand as a slightly rounded line that sweeps across the snare on every quarter note.
  • Learn the arrangement.  Once your hands are feeling good throughout the track, start focusing on learning the arrangement and the specific comping ideas that Vernel plays.  Pay particularly close to attention to how he plays the bass drum.  Vernel is originally from New Orleans, and like most drummers from New Orleans he has a very particular and very hip way of using the bass drum, even at this fast tempo.  
  • Record yourself!  At first, listening back to these recordings may be discouraging.  Use these recordings to identify specific problems that you need to address.  As you correct these individual problems, you will have recorded evidence of your progress.  The video at the top, although it does still have a couple of noticeable mistakes, represents a lot of progress for me.  I am much happier with my sound today than I am when I started this process!
Vernel Fournier 

Vernel Fournier 

Don't worry about accenting two and four with your right hand

My great teacher and mentor Chuck Redd is a masterful brush player and shared the following insight with me.  Although it seems heretical, at these fast tempos it really helps to not accent beats two and four of your spang-a-lang.  Instead just aim for relaxed, clear, and even eighth notes and allow the hihat to do the accenting.  Playing the spang-a-lang this way helps your right hand to play more nimbly and goes a long way towards clarifying the groove.  Try it for yourself!  



Create An Arrangement Part 2

1. Now's The Time!

In this installment of the series I tried to take my drum arrangement to the next step by actually playing the "pitches" of the melody.  You can hear the melody played through twice starting around   after the brief introduction.  Although trying to get even a relatively simple melody like this across on the drums is a lot of work, it can can also inspire some really fascinating musical directions in your drumming, so in my opinion it is well worth it.  


Here is the original Charlie Parker melody for reference:


2. How to develop an arrangement

In addition to the overall idea of staying in the character/form of the song discussed in the last post here are some more strategies for developing your own arrangement.  

  • Experiment with different sounds and use those sounds to dictate what/how you play.  For example in my arrangement I start with the open snare/tom sound.  This sound strongly influences my playing lending itself to less cluttered and more melodic style drumming.  After a couple of choruses of that sound I transition into a closed snare sound which leads me to more intense and busy playing that builds intensity. 
  • Use rudiments thematically.  For example listen to how I use flams in this solo.  I am not playing a flam and then moving right on to another rudiment, I am really trying to explore the sound and feel of the flam all around the drum set.  Using rudiments this way can help you develop your solo in an unhurried way.  In general playing an unaccompanied solo like this can make you feel a lot of pressure to play everything you know right away, it is just you up there after all!  So combat this tendency by using rudiments in this fashion.
  • Listen to the greats.  Max Roach springs immediately to mind, but there are many others.  I know I sound like a broken record with this, but the truth is that ear-training is the single most important part of learning the drums.
  • Use call and response.  The idea of playing a simple idea and then responding to that idea is probably the single most common/helpful phrasing technique for drum soloists.  This kind of phrasing not only takes a lot of the pressure of improvising off, it creates a structure that listeners can easily grasp.  Communicating with an audience is always a challenge, particularly when you are talking about drum solos.  The conversational nature of call and response phrasing is perfect for confronting this challenge, so try incorporating it into your solo.
  • Use mistakes and unintended things to grow your arrangement organically.  As you are practicing  you will often stumble across great ideas entirely by accident.  For example initially I meant to turn on the snare and leave it, but it slipped.  When I turned the snare on again I had the idea of alternating between the snare on/off sound.  The truly great improvisers can incorporate these kinds of ideas on the fly, but for right now just think of them as new compositional elements for you to incorporate into your solo over time. 

3. Overall map of my arrangement

Each section or idea usually divides along roughly the lines of the form, hopefully some of these ideas will be useful or inspiring to you!

  • Short intro 
  • Melody twice
  • Solo with pitch
  • With Flams/Pitch
  • Pitches again, but more aggressive and with rolls
  • Alternating between snare on and off sounds
  • Press rolls and cymbal chokes
  • Open playing around the drums
  • Staccato rolls followed by looser rolls with right hand lead
  • Floppy long roll
  • Head out
  • Short outro



Beyond A Beat Part 1

The Grady Bossa

My teacher (the great Chuck Redd) recently introduced me to a slick new way of playing the bossa nova that he picked up from listening to Grady Tate.  You can clearly hear and see Grady's Bossa at 7:58 in the video to the right.

The basic gist of this groove is that the right hand plays a guiro-like pattern with a brush instead of the typical eighth notes.  If you listen to how Grady plays this groove here, you quickly realize that this approach to bossa nova is much more than simply a beat.  Grady plays with such command that he is able to alter the beat to fit whatever is going on in the music.  In other words, Grady's bossa is beyond a beat, it is more like a style.  




Here is what the basic groove looks/sounds like:

Rather than simply showing you this groove, in this series of posts I am going to take you through the process that I am using to get myself beyond just playing this idea as a beat, in the hopes that it will help you navigate this process more efficiently yourself.

Step 1: Orient your ear

This step is reasonably self-explanatory but also surprisingly easy to overlook.  You need to know what a groove is supposed to sound like in context, so find some good recordings and dive in.  I would recommend a combination of really mentally engaged listening where you are trying to actively pick apart the groove, as well as more passive listening to let the overall sound wash over you.  For the Grady bossa, the song "O Grande Amor" from the Stan Getz album "Sweet Rain" is perfect:

Step 2: Get it in your hands

This step is reasonably self-explanatory but also surprisingly easy to overlook.  You need to know what a groove is supposed to sound like in context, so find some good recordings and dive in.  I would recommend a combination of really mentally engaged listening where you are trying to actively pick apart the groove, as well as more passive listening to let the overall sound wash over you.  For the Grady bossa, the song "O Grande Amor" from the Stan Getz album "Sweet Rain" is perfect:

Step 2: Get it in your hands

This step is all about the physical feeling of the groove, mastering the technique and coordination necessary to play the groove.  One really helpful tip with this step is get a lot of this work done away from the drum set.  This will help you use your actual time at the drum set more efficiently as well as open possibilities for more flexible practice. 

To the right is an example of me practicing the Grady bossa away from the set.

Once you feel good away from the drums, it is time to work out the basic groove on the drums. Chuck has hipped me to practicing at 100 bpm, as this is a very challenging "in between" kind of tempo that tends to either rush or drag.  Check out the video of me playing at the top to hear what this sounds like at this tempo.


Step 3: Generalize and expand possibilities

After you have a groove firmly in your ears and hands, the next step is to expand away from the basic beat by generalizing and working on variations.  In this case, generalizing means to find what makes a beat distinctive.  For the Grady bossa, the brush sweeping the guiro pattern over a bossa foot ostinato with a cross-stick sound in the left hand is what makes it distinctive.  But you can play just about any rhythmic variation with your left hand without compromising the distinctive sound of the groove. 

In order to get at some of these rhythmic possibilities, I like to use Syncopation to experiment. 



Here is a video of me playing through the first couple of lines of page 34 in this fashion again at 100 bpm:

In the subsequent posts in this series I will discuss more steps to getting beyond a beat, so stay tuned!



Play like it's fun!

David Sanchez, a great musician and teacher!

David Sanchez, a great musician and teacher!

Last week I had the privilege of studying and hanging out with the San Fransisco Jazz Collective.  This incredible group was engaged in a week-long residency at the University of Maryland where I am currently pursuing a masters degree. 

Play like it's fun

I wanted to share a profound observation that David Sanchez, the Collective's tenor saxophonist, laid on my group at one of these masterclasses.  We were playing "Freight Train" at an uncomfortably fast tempo, and everyone's playing, while technically correct, came across as tense and hurried.  David pointed out that an audience comes to enjoy themselves and have a good time, and that tension and stress on the bandstand translates directly into an unpleasant experience for the audience.  In other words, if you aren't enjoying the music you are playing, why would your audience? 

Like this

Here is an example of me playing the Monk tune "Pannonica" with a great group (Ted Baker on Sax, Tim Whalen on Piano, Joe Bussey on Bass) at Twins Jazz Club a couple of weeks ago:

If you mute the video and just watch us playing, you can easily tell how engaged we were in the music, and how much we were enjoying it.  Do you see how we are moving together and looking at each other?  This feeling of engagement and joy translated into a great night of music for our small but loyal audience. 

A simple reminder

No matter how hard the music you are playing is, how difficult the circumstances of the particular performance, how you feel about the people you are playing with, or what is going in your life, once you get on stage your job is to love what you do.  Music is meant to be enjoyed, and that enjoyment has to begin with you!



Newk The Bass Drum Part 2

St. Thomas appreciated here!

St. Thomas appreciated here!

St. Thomas appreciation week

It is apparently St. Thomas appreciation week here at the Melodic Drummer.  Today's post features a video example of me playing the first part of the bass drum exercise from the previous post in all its soul-crushing glory!




Preparing the bass drum mentally

I have spent a great deal of time practicing and thinking about the importance of preparing notes with my hands, but much less dealing with the issue of preparing my feet.  While practicing this truly difficult (to me) exercise, I re-discovered just how important preparing notes on the bass drum really is.  Doing something as simple as focusing on relaxing my foot and mentally anticipating/hearing the melody line was usually the decisive factor in a successful play through.  Quick quote from the bard that sums up my point nicely:

"All things are ready, if our minds be so" 




Making Weird Things Work

As promised in a previous post, here is a great example of how to escape from the sometimes monotonous head/solo/head format.  In this example of the song "Just You, Just Me", Chuck Redd (the vibes player) sets the pace by introducing a new melody halfway through the song.  This is not something that you can do lightly, and there are a number of instructive things that Chuck did to make sure that this unusual technique would work.  The following are three of these things extrapolated into general principles for making weird thing work. 


1.  Broadcast your intentions ahead of time

Chuck introduces the new melody ("Evidence" by Thelonious Monk) a chorus ahead of time by quoting it on the bridge at 3:26.  This gives the musicians in the band a heads-up that something funky could be going on (although I still totally bungled the transition to the new melody).  Of course there is nothing wrong with actually talking about an idea before you begin the song, but that is only if you think of it ahead of time and doing this can also take some of the fun element of surprise out of the music. 

2.  Listen

This is certainly not the first time I have brought up the importance of listening, but nowhere is it more obviously important than when something outside of the box is going on.  If you are just playing on auto-pilot and you aren't engaged in what is going on in the music around you, you will totally miss any subtle hints that something strange is happening and will most likely make a mess of things.  For example, notice how quickly everyone in the band picked up on the new melody.  Even though I was shaky for a second, because I was listening I could find my way back by the second A section.  

Another great example of listening is how Chuck picks up on the phrase from Nicki's solo (5:05) and turns it into a shout chorus!  

3.  Know what works and what doesn't

Chuck knew that "Evidence" fit well over "Just You, Just Me", and that it could easily be super-imposed for that reason.  Knowing when this sort of thing will work and on what songs is a key component to pulling it off.  Essentially, you can't move between melodies successfully in this fashion without a great deal of knowledge and experience.

This video is another from a great gig from several months back featuring my teacher Chuck Redd on vibes, Chris Grasso on piano, and Nicki Parrott on bass/vocals.  For residents of the DC area, if you want to hear some great jazz check out the calender at the Mandarin Oriental.  Chris books the shows there and always does a great job!



Music, Music, Music

Great album + Awesome pun = Highly recommended

Great album + Awesome pun = Highly recommended

Tommy Flanagan Trio "Overseas" aka "Elvin Plays Amazing Brushes"

I didn't get hip to this album until this year when it was recommended by Jon McCaslin at FOUR ON THE FLOOR, and it has been a joy getting acquainted with it.  It is too easy to form a one-dimensional picture of Elvin Jones.  The irresistible force of his playing in the classic Coltrane quartet overshadows the many other sides of his playing.  Not that I have anything but the deepest love for that group, but it is good to hear Elvin playing in other contexts, in this case a straight-ahead piano trio featuring the great Detroit pianist Tommy Flanagan.  Elvin was a master musician, capable of adapting to fit any context in the enormous range of jazz music.  

The big highlight of this album for me is getting to hear Elvin's nasty brush playing.  In my experience Elvin is a really underrated brush player, despite the fact that his deep, rolling, triplety vocabulary works equally well with sticks or brushes.  Just listen to the track at the top ("Beats Up") for proof!   



Create An Arrangement

Practice by creating an arrangement

I was feeling inspired by a fantastic solo by Jeff Hamilton where he plays a whole arrangement of "Caravan" (it seems to have disappeared from the internet) on the drums, so I thought I would record my own version of "St. Thomas" as well as share some thoughts on how to play an arrangement in this fashion.  Making an arrangement of a song is a great practice tool for internalizing whatever tunes you are working on, soloing more compositionally, and often inspiring some great ideas that you wouldn't have thought of otherwise.

Here are some basic techniques to use when playing an arrangement:

1.  Come up with an overall map of the arrangement

It is important to understand the over-arching structure of the arrangement you are going to play so that you can anticipate what is coming next.  The map of my very basic arrangement goes like this:

  • Brief rubato intro on the cymbals
  • Max Roach inspired latin groove taken from the original Sonny Rollin's recording
  • Melody twice- I tried to match the contour of the melody on the drums
  • Solo section
  • Melody twice again
  • Ending- I tagged the last four bars three times


2.  Stay in the character of the song

In order for this style of solo to come across to an audience you need to spend some time thinking about how to keep your solo in the character of the song.  To accomplish this, when I am soloing I am constantly thinking about the melody of the song (for more on this check out my


about the two songs of jazz).  If you listen carefully to my solo you will hear me referencing the melody, playing off of the call and response structure of the phrases, and also outlining the form of the song.  

This is the most important part of this exercise, and is also the most difficult.  Start with simple ideas that come to you from the melody or structure of the tune and then build off of them.  Often using the most basic call and response style phrases is a great place to start.  Don't worry about trying to play your fanciest, most technical ideas, this isn't really the place for that.  Just play what comes naturally and take your time.  

For more inspiration on how to keep a solo in the character of a song, I would check out Max Roach.  As a matter of fact, his classic solo on "St. Thomas" is a great place to start:

3.  Try to give your solo a shape

Once you start to hear the song in your solo and you are feeling more comfortable, you can begin adding a macro dimension to your solo, a shape.  In the most basic sense you can think of your solo as an arc.  It has to start low and build intensity to some sort of climax before coming back down.  There are different variations of this shape, starting high before coming down and building back up, multiple crests and troughs, ending at a high point, but they all work on the same basic principle of tension and release.  

This deceptively simple phrase basically describes why music works, it builds up tension and then it releases it.  The important thing to take away is that if the shape of your solo is too flat for too long, you will lose your audience.  

There are a number of elements you can manipulate to build tension in your solo including:

  • Dynamics- How loud or soft are you playing?
  • Texture/Orchestration- What parts of the drum set are you using?
  • Note density- How many notes are you playing or not playing?
  • Rhythmic phrasing- Call and response?  Reference to the melody?  A groove?  Rudimental ideas?  

Essentially, the degree to which you use your musicality to control these elements will determine how much tension and release there is in your solo.  This in turn will effect what impact your solo will have on an audience.  

More tension and release = Better solo.  



Newk The Bass Drum

Applying ideas from other instruments

As mentioned in a previous post, here is an exercise from my forthcoming book "Melodic Syncopation" that features Sonny Rollin's solo from "St. Thomas".  Just a friendly heads up, this exercise can be soul-crushingly difficult at first, so take your time!

Max #5.pdf

Just for reference, here is the melody used in the exercise again:



Brazilian Drumming For Jazz Musicians

1.  Don't be afraid to stretch

Zack Pride!

In my experience one of the biggest mistakes that drummers make when playing Brazilian music is that they get so caught up in trying to play the groove "correctly" that they forget to try to make music.  One of the really beautiful things about Brazilian music in general is how it is infused with the spirit of improvisation, so don't be afraid to experiment and go with your instincts!  

For example in the recording of "How Insensitive" at the top (with Chris Grasso on piano and Zack Pride on bass, make sure to listen with headphones), listen to how I start out with by just sketching a rhythm with my right hand during the A section of the melody, or how I go into a kind of weird Bolero on the snare drum on the vamp out.  These things aren't really textbook or correct playing, I just thought they sounded good at the time. 

Speaking of sounding good, how sick was that bass solo?!  Zack Pride  ladies and gentleman. 

2.  Check out Milton Banana

My excellent teacher Chuck Redd suggested that I check out some Milton Banana to help deepen my Brazilian concept.  I have absolutely loved learning about his music, and I highly recommend that everyone who wants to learn about Brazilian drumming make this a priority.  One thing I immediately noticed about the way Milton grooves is how he uses a strong bass drum (particularly on beats two and four) and an ever so slightly swung eighth note feel to give a strong, earthy samba feel to everything he plays.  Listen:

3.  "Brazilian Rhythms for Drumset"

If like me you have somehow gotten to this point in your life without checking out this fantastic book by Duduka da Fonsceca and Bob Weiner, there is no time like the present.  Here is a solid write up from Cruiseshipdrummer on all the relevant literature. 

Books like this can help you get a lot of essential information fast, but it is important to remember that you need lots of listening/application/experience for all of it to be useful.  



Food For Thought: Listening Outside Of Your Instrument

Listening outside of your instrument

In my experience, any musician can fall into the trap of only listening to their particular instrument for inspiration.  There are a number of advantages to listening outside of your instrument, particularly for drummers. 

1.  Rhythmic genius isn't drum specific

As I mentioned in another post, the jazz musicians who have made the biggest impact on the music all had really deep rhythmic vocabulary, regardless of their instrument.  My favorite example of this is the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins.  If you haven't already, check out his classic solo on "St. Thomas" (starts around :55):

Did you hear how he took that little two-note idea through all those hip rhythmic variations?  I have a whole exercise from my forthcoming book devoted to this solo, and you can easily see how Sonny's style of playing could translate on to the drums.

2.  Unexpected inspirations

Adapting vocabulary from other instruments can help you discover some things that you would never have thought of either on your own or from listening to other drummers.  An example from my own experience is my adaptation of the infamous "sippitydum" (basically a dramatic triplet arpeggio) bass line lick.  Here is a video of me playing this lick re-imagined for the drum set:

Of course it is possible that you could come to this same idea by listening to drummers, or from some sort of rudimental exercise/approach.  My point is that that isn't how I came to this idea, and that you can't really anticipate what you will be inspired to try when you listen outside of your instrument. 

3.  Shared vocabulary

Another really practical advantage to listening outside of the instrument is to get a better sense of other instruments vocabulary.  The more you know about how non-drummers play, the more you will be able to relate to your band-mates on the gig.  Remember, you generally aren't going to be playing with other drummers, so familiarizing yourself with non-drum vocabulary will go a long way towards helping you communicate more effectively. 

4.  Escape from rhythm/skull island

The big picture here is that rhythm is only part of music, melody and harmony are important parts as well.  Because of the constraints of our instrument, drummers can easily get a kind of rhythmic tunnel-vision that restricts our ability to listen to, understand, and play music.  And listening outside of the instrument is one of the best ways I know of to combat this jaundiced musical concept!



Food For Thought: Rushing

The great bassist Hassan Shakur!

The great bassist Hassan Shakur!

Rushing isn't necessarily bad

Saying that rushing isn't necessarily bad may be a somewhat controversial opinion, but I believe we need to rethink how we use this word.  Here is a simple experiment to illustrate my point: 

1.  Listen to the recording at the top (which features my great teacher Chuck Redd on Vibes, Ehud Asherie on Keys, and Hassan Shakur on Bass) straight through.  Ask yourself how it sounded and felt.  To my ear the whole things sounds pretty good, and the band is swinging throughout.

2.  Now listen again, but this time skip from the head in right to the head out.  We were definitely rushing!

Here is the thing, human beings don't really experience or play music non-linearly.  We can and should only play what feels good in the moment, and in general, what feels good in the moment isn't necessarily metronomically precise.  If we go back and analyze a recording, sometimes what felt good in the moment is essentially a gradual increase in tempo over the course of a song.  In other words, rushing.  I have found that this tendency to rush seems most powerful in a live setting. 

Another more famous example from Max Roach, try doing the same listening experiment:

Again, to my ear this recording sounds great all the way through, but man are they rushing like crazy!

Playing on top of the beat vs. Rushing

There are so many examples of classic recordings like the one above where the playing rushes, but still feels and sounds so great that labeling it as "rushing" seems completely irrelevant.  Many jazz musicians I know talk about playing on top of the beat as opposed to rushing, and I think this terminology makes a useful distinction.  Playing on top of the beat generally means playing with a sense of forward motion by slightly anticipating the quarter note pulse.  In reality, this type of playing often leads to an increase in tempo over the course of the song.  

I think that playing on top of the beat only becomes rushing (and hence a really serious problem) when it happens either so quickly or so dramatically that it disrupts the feel of the music.  In other words, a gradual increase in tempo of over the course of a song like in the examples above wouldn't really be rushing in this scheme, it would just be playing on top of the beat. 

Playing with or without metronomic precision can both produce great music

Let me make an analogy to art.  For most of the history of western art, the primary objective of the artist was to record the visible world as accurately as possible.  The attempt to translate reality onto the canvas produced some of the worlds greatest art and artists.  Look at the incredible attention to detail in this self-portrait by Rembrandt for example:

At some point, artists began to realize that there was more to art than trying to reproduce reality, that art could have other more abstract priorities.  This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that cameras were being invented, and the ability of a person to reproduce reality was being completely overshadowed by this new technology.  But regardless, this increasingly abstracted art also produced some of the worlds greatest art and artists.  Below is another self-portrait, this time by Picasso: 

Even though Picasso's and Rembrandt's paintings clearly do not have the same priorities, both produce a real emotional experience and both are masterpieces.  In a musical context, this means that a piece can have either a very strict or very loose relationship to metronomic precision and still produce a real emotional experience for audiences. 

Sorry, you still have to practice with a metronome

Although this idea would seem to suggest that I don't think practicing with a metronome is very important, this is not at all the case.  I think the skills you develop in pushing yourself to play accurately with a metronome are valuable regardless of whether you play with perfect precision on the bandstand or not.  There are lots of examples of things that you need to practice hard and then essentially forget about when you are playing, and in my opinion playing with a metronome is one such thing. 

The bottom line

There are two main points I want to emphasize:

1.  Music doesn't have to be metronomically precise to feel good.

2.  A gradual increase in tempo over the course of the song that feels good should be referred to as "playing on top of the beat", not "rushing" . 




One important technique that is also, due to it's nature, frequently overlooked is misdirection.  The point of misdirection is to lead your audience to pay attention to one thing so that another thing you are doing can appear startlingly effortless.  At around :30 in the clip above notice how I play a pretty bold comping figure with my L.H. while I am reaching over to switch to sticks.  This use of misdirection makes it so that my ride cymbal beat seems to just materialize. 

Make it look easy
What is the point?
The point of musical performance as opposed to say, magic, is not to confound but to move or inspire an audience.   The importance of misdirection therefore is not illusion for illusions sake, but rather to wrap what you are doing in a shroud of effortlessness.  The experience of watching a musician struggling can range from distracting to painfully awkward for an audience, so masking difficulty with some clever misdirection can remove a barrier between your audience and your music.  In other words, judicious use of misdirection can make for a better performance.

The master at work
Notice in the clip below how much Papa Jo does to give the impression of effortlessness.  Everything from his posture, to what he does with his hands, to his facial expressions seem to disguise how difficult what he is playing really is.  What we the audience are left with is an amazing show:



Soloing Over A Vamp

Tension and release in a solo over a vamp
The easiest and most effective device that you have at your disposal when soloing over a vamp is choosing when to play with the band and when to play something against what the band is playing.  This may sound like an oversimplification, but this is basically how the tension and release work in this kind of a solo.  Essentially, playing against what the band is doing produces tension that is released when you finally play something in unison. 

In the clip above notice how I would periodically release in this fashion by playing the hits of the vamp with the band.  In my experience, doing this occasionally helps keep the band together as well as the audience engaged in the music. 

Two tips
He is actually this cool.
The most important skill to develop to solo over a vamp is to try to sing or hear the vamp throughout whatever you are playing.  This idea goes back to my general philosophy of the two songs of jazz, but it is even more important in this case than in an open solo, because in this case there are literally two songs going on at the same time (your solo + the vamp = two songs).  How well you are able to interact with the vamp is directly tied to how well you can hear it in your head while you are playing.  

To practice this, try something straightforward like improvising a vamp, and then trying to sing it while you play against/with it.  You will quickly discover that this seemingly simple exercise is actual fraught with difficulty, and is something you really need to work at to develop.  

The other thing I would recommend you do is to listen to some great players soloing over a vamp.  One of the drummers I always love to listen to and draw from for this type of playing is Roy Haynes.  Check him out here with his band: