When playing Jazz, drummers often have a hard time knowing when to keep playing with drum sticks or when they should do their Jazz drumming with brushes. In this blog post, I’m going to share 5 things that will help you decide which option is better.
Playing Jazz drums is different
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Playing Jazz on the drums is different than almost any other style of drumming. In the end, it’s not about technical ability or chops. It’s about the ability to share musical ideas with other musicians on the bandstand.
Jazz drumming is an act of conversing about a musical topic. In this conversation, we often share sound colors, textures and rhythmic and melodic phrases. Drum sticks can do a lot to contribute to this and so can drum brushes.
Jazz drumming with brushes or sticks?
So how do I know when to use drum sticks or drum brushes in a Jazz song? I listen for 5 key things that guide me.
- Energy level
- Balance of sound
Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.
1 – Dynamics of the Jazz song
Every Jazz tune has an overall volume to it. If it’s a ballad, then it’s almost always going to start off soft and end soft. If it’s a Bossa Nova like say Dindi, it’s probably going to be on the lower end of the volume register too. Brushes would work great for these playing situations.
If you’re playing fast Swing or Jazzy Hip-Hop, the volume will probably be louder overall. This would typically be the same for Mambo or Samba. In general, sticks would work great for these circumstances.
Having sticks and brushes in your Jazz drumming tool kit is essential for responding to the overall dynamic feeling of each song you play. With drum sticks, you can get pretty darn quiet but with brushes, you can create a completely different texture at decreasing volume levels.
Jazz drumming with brushes allows drummers to tap into softer sounds and textures that sticks alone can’t accomplish. By their design, brushes can play smooth and sustained sounds.
This allows us to blend with the tones and textures of the other instruments at lower volume levels. For example, having a sustained swish sound during ballads is a great way to fill in the sound without cluttering the music.
2 – Energy level of the song
Every song I play also has an energy level or intensity to it. Tunes like ‘Love For Sale’ or ‘Nica’s Dream’ have more rhythmic and harmonic intensity so sticks work great. Tunes like ‘On The Sunny Side of The Street’ or ‘In A Mellow Tone’ can sound great with just brushes.
See the video below of me performing Nica’s Dream at a recent gig. It’ll give you a better idea of the intensity I’m talking about. Drum sticks are a much better choice for this performance.
I also factor in the overall hard or soft sound of the other instruments. Is the pianist playing harder with shorter notes? Does the bass player like pulling heavy on the strings? Is the horn playing lots of accented staccato notes?
I simply listen to this overall sound and decide if drum sticks or drum brushes are a better fit. In general, when the sound of a song has shorter, accented notes, I’m going to move to sticks. When the song is softer with more open, long tones, I’ll usually use brushes.
Brush playing to sticks playing
By the way, switching from brushes to sticks is a very important skill too. Different drummers have their own unique ways of doing this.
I go into great detail how I switch back and forth between brushes and sticks in my Brushes Mastery Course. The course will also teach you Jazz drumming with brushes and a wide range of other styles.
You might notice, that I didn’t include song tempo as one of the things I use to decide between brushes and sticks. It’s also not in this section about energy level.
That’s because you can play incredibly slow or fast tempos with either brushes or sticks. Tempo can certainly change the energy of a song but we can burn at quiet or loud volumes.
By the way, here’s the Amazon affiliate link for the brushes I play. Buying through me is a convenient way to get your brushes and an easy way to support my blog. Thank you 🤙
3 – Balance of sound in playing Jazz drums
Now we come to something I also discussed in my article about dynamic drumming. I have found that there is one technique that easily helps me balance my sound with the other instruments on stage. This is to match my volume to the quietest instrument at any time during the song.
This is also where your brush playing skill can really help. There are times when the sound on stage is very unbalanced. One instrument is way louder than the others or you can hardly hear the vocalist.
Times like these call for a softer and less intrusive sound. In Jazz drumming, we are often the volume knobs for the music we play. If we play softer, other skillful Jazz musicians will decrease their volume. If we turn up the volume, they will also follow our lead.
Depending on the venue, we may also have to adjust our volume to support the other instruments. Some halls or clubs have really live acoustics. In these places, I have to control my sound so I don’t overpower the rest of the band.
There may also be a situation where the monitor mix is muddy and the pianist wants to hear my hi-hat clearly on counts 2 and 4. In a situation like this, I will play my left foot a little harder than usual to improve the balance on the stage. I may also switch to sticks and play a cross-stick on counts 2 or 4.
See my video below where I demonstrate 3 grooves that instantly lock the band together. One groove is with brushes and the other two are with sticks. One of the grooves uses the cross stick on count 2.
4 – Melody and Jazz brushes
The emotion of a melody also tells me if I reach for my brushes or sticks. For ballads, 99% of the time I will use brushes. If a song is not a ballad tempo but the melody has longer notes and more fluid phrasing, I might also use brushes.
I am always thinking about the character of a song. I also pay attention to the lyrics to get the mood of the story being told by the vocalist. If there’s no vocalist, I usually know the lyrics anyway (a good idea for all Jazz drummers), and may use brushes if that texture fits the mood.
Really knowing Jazz Standards’ lyrics, melody notes and kicks in the melodies are important. They’ll help you to know if you need more definition by playing with sticks or a smoother sound from your brushes.
5 – Contrast in playing Jazz drums
Dynamic, rhythmic, textural and sound color contrasts are some of the most important qualities we as Jazz drummers bring to every song we play.
If we play a song with sticks from start to finish it’s usually cool. However, if we can switch to brushes during the bass solo, it gives the song dynamic, rhythmic, textural and color contrast. Jazz drumming with brushes can add a deeper level of musicality to a song. I talk about this more in my blog post, The Art of Playing Brushes.
When we finish the bass solo, I can return to sticks and it’s a very satisfying feeling. The bass solo then becomes a bridge to the ending of the song simply by using contrast.
Responding to the on-the-spot arrangements of Jazz Standards is one of our jobs behind the drums. If we can use sticks or do our Jazz drumming with brushes at any time, we have the ability to participate in this spontaneous arranging. We’ll also make the music more dynamic and musical.
The next time you’re on the bandstand and playing down a Jazz tune, think about my 5 song qualities and see if you can respond better to the music. I know you’ll have more fun and you’ll probably get more gigs too!
If you haven’t yet explored using brushes in your playing or want to improve you brushing skills, I do recommend my Brushes Mastery Course. It’s helping drummers all over the World and I know it can help you too.
Keep swingin’ my friend!
Are you comfortable using both brushes and sticks on the gig?
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