PLAYING JAZZ DRUMS – BRUSHES OR STICKS?

In the world of Playing Jazz drums, drummers often have a hard time knowing when to keep playing with drum sticks or when they should grab their brushes. In this blog post, I’m going to share 5 things that help me decide which option is better.

Playing Jazz drums is different

Playing Jazz 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 fluidity of sharing 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. Sticks can do a lot to contribute to this and so can brushes.

Sticks vs. Brushes in playing Jazz drums

So how do I know when to use sticks or brushes in a Jazz song? I listen for 5 key things that guide me.

  1. Dynamics
  2. Energy level
  3. Balance of sound
  4. Melody
  5. Contrast

Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.

Playing Jazz drums is a team effort and constant conversation from the start to the end of every song.

#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.

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.

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.

#2 Energy Level of the Jazz 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 than say ‘On The Sunny Side of The Street’ or ‘In A Mellow Tone.’

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.

I also factor in the overall hard or soft sound of the other instruments. Is the pianist playing harder with shorter notes? Is the bass player really 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.

By the way, switching from brushes to sticks is a very important skill too. You can learn that in my Brushes Mastery Course. It’s the most complete online brushes course every created.

You might notice, that I didn’t include tempo as one of the things I use to decide brushes or sticks. It’s also not in this one 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.

#3 Balance of sound in playing Jazz drums

Now we come to something I also discussed in my blog post, Music Dynamics For Drummers. 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 simply terrible. 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 respond in kind. If we up the volume, they will also follow our lead.

Depending on the venue, we may also have to adjust our volume support the other instruments. Some halls or clubs have really live acoustics so I have to control my Jazz drumming sound so I don’t overpower the rest of the band.

Playing Jazz drums often requires a light touch to balance the sound of the band.

There may also be a situation where the monitor mix is muddy and the pianist wants to clearly hear my hi-hat on 2 and 4. I may 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 approach.

#4 Melody

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. 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 became a bridge to the beginning and ending of the song simply by using contrast.

Von Baron is playing Jazz drums gigs with vocalists and this requires a great deal of dynamic contrast.

Sum it up

Responding to constant changes in impromptu arrangements of Jazz Standards is our job. If we can use sticks and brushes at will, we have the power to make the music infinitely more musical.

The next time you’re on the bandstand and playing down a Jazz tune, think about these 5 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 highly recommend my Brushes Mastery Course. It’s helping drummers in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia and I know it’ll help you too!

Keep swingin’ my friend!


Learn to play Jazz brushes in the THE BRUSHES MASTERY COURSE. It’s the most complete online drum brushes course ever created.

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.

Book some private ZOOM DRUM LESSONS to take your Jazz drumming to new heights.

Leave a Comment

This is copyrighted material.