How To Think Like A Jazz Drummer

Thinking like a Jazz drummer goes way beyond drum beats and drum fills. It’s a skill that deeply connects drummers to the music they play.

In this article, I’m going to share how you too can think like a Jazz drummer. It will make you a better drummer in any style of music you play.

Beginning drummer thinking

When I was young and starting out, I didn’t think at all like a Jazz drummer. I was really only thinking about beats and drum fills. That’s pretty much it. Most beginning drummers think this way too.

As I matured and learned more about Jazz drumming, I could see that this thinking was limiting my growth. I felt more like a beat maker rather than actually being a part of the music.

Instead of beats and fills, I needed to really understand what was going on in the music. Then, I had to figure out how my drumming was related to the other musicians’ playing.

Learn to think like a Jazz drummer in private Zoom lessons with Von Baron.
One of the camera angles in my private Zoom drum lessons.

I often tell my in-person and Zoom drum students that learning Jazz will help them to play ANYTHING they want to play. That’s not only because of the technical skills you learn in Jazz drumming. It’s also about the thinking involved as you play Jazz on the drums.

Playing Jazz drums is a conversation

Of course, drummers in all styles of music need to think about their drum parts and how they fit into the music. In Jazz drums though, it takes things to a completely different level. That’s because when we perform Jazz, we are having a musical conversation with the other players on the bandstand.


You might also enjoy my article on The Secret Of Jazz Drums Comping. This also goes deeper into the concept of the musical conversation.


It’s just like talking to your friend about a particular topic. For instance, I say to my friend, “Hey did you see that baseball game last night on TV?” My friend says, “I sure did. That was a great game!” We’re having a conversation.

Thinking like a Jazz drummer means staying on topic in the musical conversation.

What I often hear beginning drummers do, goes something like this. The friend says, “Hey did you see that baseball game on TV last night?” The amateur drummer says, “I like to drive my car REALLY fast! Let me show you how fast I can drive!!!”

Being a good Jazz drummer means not changing the topic of the musical conversation to show off.

The amateur drummer’s response has nothing to do with the topic of the conversation. Baseball wasn’t even mentioned. Instead, the drummer wants the attention and focus to be on them and how fast they can drive (play).

Big band drummers

Big band drummers are known for their acute musical sense. They’re great at dynamics, slow and fast tempos, various feels and leaving space or filling in at appropriate times.

The reason, they’re so good at these skills is because they are constantly thinking about how their drumming is interacting with the band. The drum set is one of about 18 instruments in a band that all have to blend together in an arrangement.

When the dynamics get super soft, the drums also have to decrease in volume. When the band launches into high energy kicks (rhythmic hits), the drummer has to deliver powerful, punctuated drumming.

Check out this great video of the Count Basie Orchestra with drummer Rufus Jones. It’s a super example of dynamic drumming and playing with the band.

Big band music, demanded that the drummers play as a member of an ensemble and interact with the other musicians. This has remained same “thinking” or approach that we use even today in modern Jazz drumming.

Professional drummers

The most successful professional drummers also know and regularly use this kind of group thinking. I have another article, The Most Popular Drummers Do This, that dives deeper into why some drummers get all the gigs.

Drummers like Steve Gadd and Vinnie Colaiuta are on thousands of recordings in part because of the way they think and interact with the band. They’re always thinking about how they can support the band and make the music sound great.

This thinking comes from their foundation in Jazz drumming. This foundation has seeped into all other aspects of their drumming and allowed them play music in any style at the highest level.

How to think like a Jazz drummer

So how do you think like a Jazz drummer? Well, I did a series of YouTube videos on “How to think like a Jazz drummer.” I recorded myself performing at my Jazz gigs and broke down what I played in 4 different musical contexts.

The first video is about what to play during a sax solo. Here as with all of the videos, I give you the detail of why I play what I play, when I play it.

My hope is that this series will help drummers understand the thinking involved in Jazz drumming and apply this thinking to their own drumming in any style.

The second video is about playing during the piano solo.

The third video is about how to play during the bass solo.

The final video is how to play a drum solo. Even during the drum solo, we have to stay connected to the song form and interact with the other players in musical conversation. Most of the time, it’s not a free-for-all stadium Rock drum solo.

Thinking and listening brings greater creativity

The goal with this kind of thinking, is to get out of thinking about the drums and focus almost 100% of your thought on what the other musicians are playing.

When I consciously connect my playing to the rhythmic ideas and phrases of my fellow musicians, the music and my creativity are elevated.

Being able to connect my ideas to the other musicians’ ideas also requires that I listen intently to what everyone else is playing. For this reason, I often tell my drum students, “Don’t listen to yourself.”

When you are playing, listen to yourself last. Listen to everyone else first, so you’ll know exactly what to play.

You can also, ask yourself these questions when you play.

  • Are you joining the topic of the musical conversation?
  • Is the music better because you are playing?

When you think and listen as a Jazz drummer, you will be able to answer these questions with a big fat, YES!


You might also enjoy my blog post about listening. In it, I explain how to listen to the other instruments on the bandstand.


Practice thinking like a Jazz drummer

To really improve your thinking (listening and music conversation skills), it’s important to play with other musicians. That’s really the only way to improve these skills.

Jam with your friends, join a Jazz jam session or book your own gigs, you can create opportunities to practice thinking like a Jazz drummer.

Sometimes these options might not be readily be available but don’t despair, I have some great solutions to help you.

I hired two of the top Jazz musicians in Japan to record some Jazz backing tracks for drum practice. Also called drumless tracks my Almost Jazz Standards Volumes 1-3 are MP3 drum practice tracks with drum charts (drum sheet music).

You can use these to improve your thinking and connect your drumming to the what the piano and bass are playing. There are even kicks in the music to hone your skills at playing unison rhythmic punches.

Because you’re playing with real musicians, these drumless tracks will also help you prepare for real gigs. They’ll kick your playing up a notch or two every time you practice with them.

Conclusion

Thinking like a Jazz drummer is all about listening and having a musical conversation with the band.

So often in Jazz playing, virtuosity is applauded and teamwork is forgotten. It’s the teamwork and communication between the instruments that truly make Jazz music special.

When we think, listen and converse we create something together far greater than we could alone.

That my friend, is where the REAL fun begins!

Do you think like a Jazz drummer when you play drums?


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Get ready for your Jazz drumming gigs. Download high-quality, effective DRUMLESS TRACKS. Improve your time, feel, comping and soloing. Learn to play better with real musicians.

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