What is a drum solo?
A Jazz drum solo is a different animal than your typical drum solo. Any drum solo is an opportunity for drummers to play by themselves but a Jazz drum solo has a unique way of doing this.
Drummers in Rock, Pop, Gospel, Hip-Hop and other styles of drumming often use the drum solo as a chance to display their most impressive drumming chops.
In Jazz, we use the drum solo in a different way. In this article, I’m going to share with you the secret to playing great Jazz drum solos. Being able to play great Jazz drum solos is loads of fun and will get you more gigs!
The Jazz drum solo
Jazz drum soloing follows the same concept as Jazz solos in general. Jazz music is a conversation. All musicians continually talk to each other through their instruments from the beginning to the end of a song.
For example, even when a horn player is soloing, they’re listening intently to what’s being said around them by the other instruments. They then respond musically in ways that support the overall sound and musical ideas of the moment. This kind of playing is one of the highest levels of improvisation in music.
Drum soloing and trading fours and eights in Jazz drumming are also a continuation of this musical conversation. Thinking about fours and eights this way will make your drum solos more creative and more connected to the music.
How to solo on drums when trading fours and eights
In playing Jazz, there is often a time when the drums will trade solos with other instruments and maybe even with a vocal scat solo. The solos follow the form of the song and alternate in four or eight-measure phrases.
16-measure song form
For example, the pianist will play four measures of solo and then the drummer will play four measures of solo. They will go back and forth usually for 1 or 2 choruses (1-2 times through the song form).
On a tune like St. Thomas by Sonny Rollins, there are 2 opportunities per chorus, for a four-measure drum solo. The song St. Thomas is only 16 measures long.
So, piano would start for four measures, then the drums for four measures. Piano again plays four more and then the drums finish out the song form with the last four. Typically, the drums are second in the solo order.
Here’s the song form for St. Thomas.
32-measure song form
For 32-measure songs like tunes based on Rhythm Changes, trading eights works nicely giving each musician more time to solo. Trading fours on a slower 32-measure Swing tune also works well.
Here’s the song form for Rhythm Changes. Rhythm Changes-based tunes follow the song form of I Got Rhythm by George Gershwin.
Here’s an example of a 32-measure song where we traded fours. The fours begin at 05:47 and go for one chorus.
Did you notice how my solos continued in the overall mellow feeling of the performance? I could have played louder with more notes during my fours, however that would have been a stark contrast from the mood of the song. I opted instead, to stay in the “conversation.”
Misconceptions about trading fours and eights
Drummers often think of trading solos as an opportunity to play their best chops. It’s a time to blow away their fellow musicians and show off their percussive prowess. When this happens, it often means that the drummer is abandoning the musical conversation.
A musical conversation is the communication between musicians through their instruments. This happens more in Jazz than in any other music. Conversation is the hallmark of Jazz music.
When drummers abandon the conversation to play self-gratifying drum licks, the music looses. The chance of elevating the music and the band’s musicianship to the highest level of artistic expression, is lost.
It’s like the rest of the band is talking about a fine 5-course French dinner and the drummer is talking about eating a hotdog at a baseball game. We’re still talking about food but…
Trading solos can elevate the song energy
Trading fours and eights is a nice easy arrangement for any Jazz standard song. You can simply add it at the end of the regular solos on a song. It then provides a nice transition back to the last head (melody).
When drummers, stay connected to the conversation, we can inspire the other musicians to play with more creativity than if we weren’t there. We will also play with more creativity leaving the whole band and the audience feeling musically satisfied at the end of the tune.
Blues song form
Below is a video example of me trading twelves (choruses of a Blues song form) and then fours. This is another common way to trade solos over Blues tunes. Here’s what a typical Jazz Blues song form looks like.
Again, I match the energy of the conversation and this time elevate the energy. I then bring the energy down again on my last four to transition back to the head. Trading choruses begins at 09:14.
Rhythmic phrasing on the drums
When I play my Jazz drum solo, I’m always thinking of rhythmic phrases or melodies. I am never thinking about hand patterns or drum licks. Thinking of phrasing allows me to tap into the creative center of my brain.
I can connect what the soloist said before my solo to what comes after. All the while, I stay focused on listening to every note that is being played around me. If I hear a nice phrase from the soloist, I may also weave it into my solo.
Check out my article about how being a good listener will lead to more and better gigs.
The next example is trading fours, beginning at 06:38. I quote the pianist, Phillip Strange in my solos in a couple of places. Listen at 06:51 at the end of his four. He plays a distinctive musical phrase and I then play it as the beginning of my four. Also at 08:09 I quote the quarter note triplet fill he is playing at end of his four.
How to trade fours and eights
I have several videos on my YouTube drumming channel that teach the nuts and bolts of how to trade fours and eights on the drums. Here’s a video that’s a nice overview of trading fours.
My 3-part series on trading fours and eights is my how-to series. The videos will help you understand the concepts of trading and teach you some important musical skills you can use in your Jazz drum solos.
The first video is about the special rhythmic phrasing found in BeBop Jazz. This phrasing and feeling lays nicely over the drums. These videos also use some of my Trading Fours and Eights Jazz Swing backing tracks for drums.
The next one helps you figure out what to play during your fours and eights. When I started out, I always got nervous during my fours and eights. These ideas will help you feel more confident when it comes time to solo.
The last video in the series goes into soloing over the song form. Like the example above with Bag’s Groove, this video also uses the Jazz Blues song form to teach this concept.
So what is the secret to playing a great Jazz drum solo? Stay in the conversation. Connect your rhythmic ideas to the musical ideas that the other musicians are playing.
Stay focused on listening and your creativity will flow. You’ll be able to move beyond chops and into a deeply satisfying world of musical expression.
I hope this blog post is helpful in understanding the purpose and musical potential of trading fours and eights on the drums. Double down on the musical conversation and elevate the music to new heights.
Draw your soloing inspiration from what you hear the other musicians play. As long as you keep your ears and mind open you can’t go wrong.
Have fun conversing! Keep swingin’ my friend! -Von
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