The Secret of Jazz Drums Comping

Jazz drums comping is probably the most mysterious part of Jazz drumming. How to comp on the drums is the question I get asked the most by my drum students. In this article, I’m going to share what Jazz drums comping is and how to do it.

The Jazz drum set

The modern Jazz drum set has gradually evolved over the past 100 years and is really a collection of individual percussion instrument. The way to play it has also evolved from playing with just hands to using our hands and feet.

Being able to use all of our limbs makes it possible to create more complex and interesting rhythmic patterns than if we only used our hands. It also allows us to “comp” the other instruments in a Jazz band. So what is comping?

Jazz comping

The word “comp” comes from the word “accompany.” It means to support and play along with other instruments. Typically, its the piano, guitar and drums that provide the comping in typical Jazz group.

Comping in drumming, is usually thought of as a coordination exercise between the snare drum and bass drum. Because of this, many drummers are never able to comp musically. They get stuck in playing Jazz drumming patterns rather than feeling the satisfaction of playing music.

Jazz drums comping is an important skill in Jazz drumming.

Comping is an essential part of a Jazz performance. In fact, all of the instruments in a Jazz band comp with each other continuously from the beginning to the end of a song.

Jazz drums comping is a conversation

Jazz is a unique style of music. It’s a democratic art form where everyone constantly communicates with each other in a spontaneous musical conversation.

Great Jazz drummers like Jimmy Cobb were masters of Jazz comping. Jimmy Cobb knew how to play the right number of notes at the right time to support the musical conversation that was going on around him.

He was able to do this by listening closely to what the other musicians played. He always contributed rhythmically by staying on topic. No over-the-top drumming here. Just everything to make the music sound great.

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How to do Jazz drums comping

Jazz comping on the drums involves a high level of coordinating your limbs to play specific rhythmic patterns. It’s also usually played in the context of a Swing groove.

A lot of drum comping, is playing hits on the bass drum or snare drum. There is usually a lot of interplay between the snare drum and bass drum.

The hi-hat generally continues to play counts 2 and 4 and the ride cymbal bangs out the spang-ga-lang pattern. The ride cymbal will also hit unison accents with the snare or bass drum.

In my YouTube video about Jazz drums comping, I also talk about the importance if hitting your comping rhythms on the up-beats (last note of the triplet eighth notes) and on counts 2 and 4.

Using triplet accents in Jazz drums comping is also effective.
Accenting the third note of each triplet

Placing your comping notes on those counts will more often than not line up nicely with the rhythm that the other musicians are playing. I have another good article about the most important accent in Jazz that dives deeper into the triplet accent concept.

Jazz drumming patterns

When I teach Jazz comping to my drum students, we start with coordination exercises. This helps to improve their ability on the drum set. From there, we work on connecting that new coordination ability to the music.

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We listen to great Jazz music and analyze what each instrument is doing throughout a song. At first we don’t listen to the drummer. Listening instead for space in solos and the rhythmic phrasing used by the piano or guitar, will act a solid guide for when we can comp.

Once we feel we understand the basic rhythmic conversation, we listen back to the drummer. My student then clearly understands why the drummer played what they played.

My student Ian Wacksman is very skilled at Jazz drums comping.
At a drum lesson with my former drum student Ian Wacksman. He has gone on to become a very skilled Jazz drummer!

We then take this new perspective and use it play snare drum and bass drum notes in the appropriate places while playing along with the same music. Sometimes we also use my Jazz backing tracks for drums. These are specifically designed to help you with your Jazz comping.

Tips for great Jazz drums comping

So as we practice our coordination and think about the function of drum comping, we want to always keep our ears on the music. Music is and will always be our best teacher for how we play Jazz drums.

Here are some tips for Jazz drums comping:

  • Keep your ears open, don’t listen to yourself. Instead, focus all of your concentration on the other musicians’ playing. When you can feel and understand the rhythmic pulse of the band, you’ll know exactly what you should play when you comp.
  • Try using both your snare drum and bass drum. This interplay will also create some contrast between the low tones and high tones of your drum kit.
  • Don’t overplay it. At the start of each song, take your time. Allow more space in your drumming and as the energy increases, you can also increase the number of notes you play. Still, remember not to overpower everyone else with your comping.
  • Use dynamics in your comping. Play accents on the snare drum or bass drum when the music is louder and softer notes when it’s quieter. Try not to play all comping notes at one dynamic range throughout a song.
  • Try not to copycat or play the exact same rhythm right after another instrument has played it. If used too much, this will take a cool idea played by another musician and make it sound silly.
  • Try not to anticipate and play the exact same rhythms at the same time as the piano, guitar or soloist. This will stomp on their creativity. Sometimes it’s cool but use this approach sparingly.

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I hope I’ve taken some of the mystery out of Jazz drums comping for you. Drum comping begins with improving your drumming coordination and ends with playing great music.

Comping is a fun way to interact with the other musicians on the bandstand and support each other’s musical ideas. It’s an important part of the Jazz conversation.

When you are totally focused on the music, your comping will feel effortless. Everything you play will sound musical and you’ll have a heck of a lot more fun playing Jazz.

If you need some extra help with your Jazz comping please feel free to book a private Zoom drum lesson. I’d be happy to help. KEEP ON COMPIN’!

Do you feel comfortable with your Jazz drums comping?

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