Chops: School of Swing

Steve Smith coaches rockers on the tenets of jazz drumming

Steve Smith
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Example 1
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Example 2
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Example 3
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If you’re a drummer who developed your approach and skills playing rock and you’re interested in playing jazz, you’ll most likely need to concentrate on three main areas: time-feel, touch and inner dynamics.

Most of today’s rock music is built on a feel where the quarter note is divided into halves or quarters, while in the swing rhythm that defines most jazz, a quarter note is subdivided into thirds. This hasn’t always been the case. Rock and roll from the 1950s and early ’60s was based on a shuffle feel, which is essentially the same as the jazz swing beat, with extra emphasis on the 2 and 4 backbeat. That shuffle feel is less common now, and drummers growing up on punk, metal and rock in general may never be asked to play a shuffle. Still, the shuffle of early rock can be a good place to start your studies as a jazz drummer because the quarter-note pulse is the same.

One way to play a basic shuffle is to play quarter notes with your bass drum as you play “hand-to-hand” triplets on the snare drum starting with your right hand. Accent your left hand on beats 2 and 4 and play all the other notes softly. (Ex. 1) Once you become comfortable and relaxed doing this, keep the left-hand rhythm the same and have your right hand play quarter notes on a ride cymbal in unison with your bass drum. (Ex. 2) Now you are subdividing the quarter note into thirds, with your left hand playing a syncopated quarter-note triplet to your bass drum, and your right hand playing quarter notes.

The next step is to play the jazz swing beat with your ride cymbal. To do that, have your right hand add the beats that your left hand is already playing just before beats 1 and 3-these are called the “skip-beats.” If you are playing with an evenly divided triplet feel, then the skip-beats will fall in the correct places for a basic swing feel. (Ex. 3) Play this beat over and over again until it becomes comfortable. I suggest playing this pattern along to some classic jazz recordings-like “So What” and “Freddie Freeloader” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue-to really get the feel of quarter-note swing.

Next you should focus on your touch. Most rock is played with electric instruments, so it’s easy for this music to be played loud; the players can simply turn up their amps. In this environment, the drummer is usually the only acoustic musician. In jazz you’ll mainly be playing with acoustic instruments, and you’ll need to control your overall volume in order to blend with the double bass, piano and horns. You do this with your touch.

The first step is to simply to allow your stick to fall to the cymbal and drums and not actually “hit” the instrument with any force. Gravity provides enough velocity to get a nice sound out of your instrument. Adjust your volume to sound musical in the size and acoustics of the room.

With rock drumming the inner dynamics emphasize the bass drum and snare drum rhythms; with jazz drumming the focus is the ride cymbal rhythms, and the snare drum and bass drum are played at a lower dynamic level. Except for occasional snare and bass drum accents, the predominant voice in jazz is the ride cymbal, and the other voices are played at a dynamic level below the volume of the cymbal.

You’ll also need to address tuning, starting with your bass drum. Take the pillow out of the drum and put a head with no hole on the front. You can use some dampening, but no more than a few felt strips, since you want a full sound with a minimum of sustain. Address your bass drum technique by keeping your pedal tension loose, and make sure the beater comes away from the bass drum head with each stroke and you don’t choke the sound by keeping your beater on the head. You may have to tighten your toms to get a more melodic tone versus a low-pitched thud. These adjustments will help you control your overall level, and the sound of the kit will blend with and support the other instruments.

As your swing feel, touch and inner dynamics develop, you’ll find that playing jazz relies less on the repetitive patterns of rock drumming and more on a swinging feel that can have a varied beat while maintaining steady pulse. For me that’s a lot of the fun of jazz. I can be creative and imaginative in what I play and make sure that how I play is supportive and complementary to the other players. Listen to a lot of classic jazz recordings to get an insight into the jazz-drumming concept and then play as much as possible-that’s where you’ll get your best lessons. Play, record yourself, listen back and discuss the music with your fellow musicians.

How will all of this affect your rock playing? You’ll become a more versatile musician, and your rock drumming will take on deeper roots because rock drumming actually developed out of jazz drumming!

Steve Smith is a drummer, bandleader and educator who has recorded and performed with many top jazz and rock artists, including Jean-Luc Ponty, Mike Stern, Hiromi and Journey, where he played on some of the most popular rock anthems of all time. His most recent album is Viewpoint (BFM), featuring the NYC Edition of his band Vital Information. For more on the connection between jazz and rock drumming, check out The Roots of Rock Drumming (Hudson), a book and DVD package co-authored by Smith and fellow drummer Daniel Glass.