Below is an excerpt from my new article, “Teaching Jazz Drumset,” published in the October issue of the Jazz Education Network newsletter. To read the complete article, visit https://jazzednet.org/Teaching_Jazz_Drumset_Paul_Buyer.
The fundamentals of jazz drumming include time, comping, fills, soloing, brushes, and reading. [Note: The art of listening is covered in depth in the full article].
Time. No skill is more important on drumset than playing in time. Good time is best developed by practicing with a metronome, play-along recordings, or other musicians. According to legendary jazz drummer Sid Catlett, “Work on your sense of time and your feeling for the beat. That’s the important thing in drumming and without it all the technique in the world doesn’t mean a thing.”
Comping. As jazz pianists and guitarists know, comping refers to complimenting or accompanying. In jazz drumming, this is done by playing rhythms on snare drum or bass drum to compliment or accompany rhythms played by fellow band members. According to drummer Adam Nussbaum, “Concentrate on what the other instrumentalists are doing. So many drummers just listen to other drummers, but if you don’t hear the other parts, you’re missing what inspired the drummer to play what he’s playing.”
Fills. Fills can be very challenging to teach, since they are usually learned from listening to music as well as other drummers. According to Peter Erskine, a fill is “a short drum solo that is played in time, carries the music forward, is played in the style of the music, and can provide excitement…plus the unexpected.” Remember that fills are musical transitions that should always serve the music—not the drummer. Many years ago, I attended a Drumset Camp at Capital University where drummer Gary Chaffee taught us a game. He put limits or restrictions on what we could play during a fill, including rhythms, drums, and rudiments. Some examples were “snare drum only, using triplets,” “any drum, using eighth notes only,” and “snare and high tom only, using paradiddles.” This “fill game” forced us to do more with less and use our imagination and creativity. I remember one student who ended every fill he played on the floor tom. Gary promptly took the floor tom away!
Soloing. Without question, soloing is a topic that deserves its own article, but the fundamentals of playing a drum solo can be presented here by discussing the music of the great Max Roach, known as “the most melodic drummer ever.” According to drummer, educator, and author John Riley, [Max’s solos] “could afford one the opportunity to play more elaborately and/or more bombastically. However, Max is a mature musician, one who is more interested in developing a solo that builds on the moods [of the song he’s playing,] rather than using his solo space as a showcase for technical theatrics.” In short, play for the music—not for yourself. The paradox is that drum solos are an integral part of jazz, but the drumset is not a solo instrument. Rather, it is an ensemble instrument. Always ask yourself what the music needs, what it is hungry for, and feed it.
Brushes. Brushes are a beautiful art form and craft required in jazz drumming. While a variety of techniques, patterns, and approaches exist for playing brushes, it is ultimately up to the teacher to study the best practices, players, and concepts and create a system for teaching them. According to drummer Tommy Igoe, “I love playing brushes more than I can say—I think brush playing gives you a fresh perspective on ‘time’—and I truly believe anyone can play them reasonably well.” Listen to great brush players like Ed Thigpen, Peter Erskine, and Clayton Cameron and check out their resources. Regardless of which patterns or shapes you choose to create with your brushes, always strive for a legato sound, solid time, and a variety of textures you can contribute to the music.
Reading. Because drumset charts are only meant to serve as a visual guide, reading skills can sometimes be a double-edged sword. For the drummer who reads well, there is a tendency to follow the chart too literally, as if playing a written snare drum solo with the goal of playing correctly or “playing the ink.” This causes the drummer to “play by eye” rather than by ear, resulting in a lack of awareness and ear chops within the ensemble. For the drummer who does not read well, rhythms such as kicks, hits, and section/ensemble figures can easily be missed, resulting in a sub-standard musical product. The ideal is for the drummer to be able to read well and possess strong listening/ensemble skills.