How To Play Jazz Drums: Improvisation Tips

In learning how to play Jazz drums, improvisation is at the heart of everything you need to learn. Mastering the art of improvisation is essential for any aspiring Jazz drummer. In Jazz drumming, improvisation requires the ability to listen and respond to other musicians in real-time.

In this article, we will explore some tips and for developing your Jazz drumming improvisation skills and creativity.

Learn how to play Jazz drums and work on your improvisation.

Develop Your Ear for Harmony

A little known but essential skill for Jazz drumming improvisation is developing your ear for harmony.  Jazz music is based on a series of chord progressions and if you listen closely, you’ll start to hear tension and release from one chord to the next.   

This harmonic tension and release helps us to know where we are in the form of a song. For example being in the A or B section of a song. It also helps us to easily feel 4 and 8-measure phrases.

One thing drummers often tell me is that they get lost during trading 4 and 8-measure solos.  Being able to hear the harmonic motion of a song completely eliminates this problem. 

One way to develop your ear for harmony is to practice playing along with recordings of Jazz standards or Jazz drum play alongs. Try to hear the tension and release in the chords being played and feel those 4 and 8-measure phrases.

Also, listen to how the drummer follows the harmonic motion. This will help you develop your ability to hear and respond to harmony during your improvisation.

How To Play Jazz Drums with Dynamics

Jazz music is dynamic, and the ability to play with a wide range of volume levels on the drums is essential. A good Jazz drummer knows how to also use dynamics to create volume contrast in the music. 

For example, next time you’re playing a standard 32-measure AABA Jazz Standard song with a group, try and play the A’s in a softer volume than the B section. Even if the chords were the same, this alone will make the A’s and B’s sound different.

Another example is to support other soloists with dynamics. Help a pianist start off their solo at a very quiet dynamic and gradually increase the volume.  Dynamics alone will create incredible energy and give solos shape.  

Learning how to play Jazz drums requires attention to dynamics.

Listen and Respond

The main thing that separates Jazz from other styles of music is the musical conversation.  The “conversation” is improvising while listening and responding to the other musicians in the band.

As a Jazz drummer, it’s important to be aware of what the other musicians are playing and to respond in a way that complements their playing. Simply throwing beats, accents and drum licks at the music won’t work in Jazz drumming. Everything you play will have to be connected in someway, to the music being played by the other musicians. 

Like for learning harmonic motion, practicing with play alongs and famous Jazz Standards recordings will quickly improve your listening and responding skills.

Listen to the other instruments in your favorite recordings or play alongs and try to respond to what they are playing. This will help you learn how to play Jazz drums and develop your ability to listen and respond in real-time when playing with other musicians.

Check out my article about the best way to listen on the bandstand.

Create Contrasting Rhythmic Patterns

Jazz drumming is often uses contrasting rhythmic patterns, which help to create interest and variety in the music. One way to create contrasting rhythms is to play off-beat rhythms against the underlying pulse of the music.

For example, try playing a simple pattern of quarter notes on the ride cymbal while accenting the off-beats with the snare drum. This will create a syncopated rhythm that adds contrast to the music.

You can also experiment with playing polyrhythms, which involve playing multiple rhythms against each other simultaneously between your hands and feet. Learning Afro-Cuban Latin drumming will help you immensely to do this. 

Improvisation is a huge part of learning how to play Jazz drums.

How To Play Jazz Drums by Using Space

Another important aspect of Jazz drumming is using space. Jazz music often includes sections where the drummer can play fewer notes and let the other musicians take the spotlight.

Knowing when to use space and when to play is an important skill for all Jazz drummers to know. This again requires that we listen not to ourselves but to everyone else in the band. 

One way to practice using space is to focus on playing simply during sections of the music where the other musicians are taking solos. This will help you develop your ability to use space and guide the music to new heights of creativity.

From Copying to Creativity

Jazz drumming improvisation is all about using your creativity to express musically appropriate ideas at the right time. But how do we develop our creativity?

At first, it’s cool to copy what other great Jazz drummers have played. Learn both the technical aspects of how they groove, solo and comp, and the feel of their grooves. 

Eventually though, you want to be creating your own ideas in your improvisation. This is when we simply return to listening to what the other musicians are playing on the Jazz recordings, Jazz drum play alongs and when you are playing music with other musicians. 

We have to learn the language of Jazz music, not just Jazz drumming to become fully literate and competent as a Jazz drummer.  Copying and drawing inspiration from the other instruments will give you more creative language than you’ll know what to do with!

Join my Secrets of Jazz Drumming Course and dive deep into all of the concepts I shared in this article.

Learn How To Play Jazz Drums with Play-Alongs

As I’ve said many times in this article, one of the most effective ways to develop your Jazz drumming improvisation skills is to practice with play-alongs. 

Play-alongs are pre-recorded backing tracks that you can play along with.  They give you a realistic and dynamic musical environment for practicing your improvisational skills. 

I have created hundreds of play along or drumless tracks for Jazz drum practice. Since I’m a drummer, I also structured them to help you with your core Jazz drumming skills. 

These include trading fours and eights, other drum soloing, Jazz drums comping, groove practice, timing, feel, listening, overall improvisation and many more skills.  Check out my Trading Fours and Eights drumless tracks to power up your Jazz drum solos.


Jazz drumming improvisation is a challenging but very rewarding part of drumming that requires a unique set of skills and creative abilities.

So practice learning to hear chords, playing with dynamics, listening and responding, creating contrast, using space and developing your creativity.  These skills will make your Jazz drumming improvisation soar and make every band you play with sound better than if you weren’t there. 

Have fun working on your new Jazz drumming skills and keep swinging my friend! 

Do you want to play Jazz on the drums?

Hey, I’m Von Baron. I’m determined to help you become an AMAZING Jazz drummer.  My only question is, are you ready?

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