In Jazz drums, you have two kinds of drummers. Those that can really feel the Jazz Swing groove and those that don’t yet know the power of “the” Jazz drumming accent. When I go to hear other drummers, the first four measures of their playing tell me if they’ve got it or not.

Jazz drums feel

When I was at Berklee College of Music, many moons ago, I listened a ton to the drumming great, Elvin Jones. The legendary recordings he made with John Coltrane had a drive, a forward motion that propelled the music like a runaway train.

I remember playing along with the recordings and trying to figure out what made his feel and groove so sweet. I knew there was a secret sauce like in the McDonald’s Big Mac but I just couldn’t figure it out.

I learned the power of Jazz drums accents at Berklee College of Music.
Me standing outside the Berklee Performance Center at 150 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. Taken about 1991.

“The” Jazz drums accent

I decided to take my rhythmic question to my weekly lesson with my drum teacher John Ramsey. I asked him about this feeling. I wanted to know what the heck was going on and how I could drum like that too.

John listened carefully to my question and then played some recordings of the also great drummer Art Blakey. Blakey had that same unstoppable momentum in his playing. I could hear the similarities but still couldn’t put my finger on what was happening.

John then shared the secret with me. “Accent the third note of the triplet”, he said. “That’s it?”, I said. He said, “Yup.” Actually, though, there’s more to it than just that.

Here’s an example of that written out:

I learned the power of the most important accent in Jazz drumming at Berklee College of Music.

Limitations of modern music rhythm

It’s not so complicated to read and understand. It is, however in the beginning, difficult to put into action while drumming.

So much of what we listen to in music today, has a heavy emphasis on counts 1 and 3. It’s like we’re always looking for the downbeat of a measure. We’re often lost without that assurance of where count 1 is.

How many people have we seen clapping to Jazz music on 1 and 3 instead of 2 and 4? Too many! I used to work with a singer who counted off tunes snapping his fingers on 1 and 3. OMG. I broke his habit pretty quick and showed him the light.

Be free!

One way to free us from that timing dependence is to get REALLY comfortable with the playing and feeling that 3rd note of each triplet. This is true in playing Jazz Swing, drum fills and other triplet-based grooves.

When you can really internalize that 3rd note of each triplet, you’ll unlock a Swing and momentum that will move every band you play with. They’ll know from the first measure, that you mean business.

Great for subdivision too

If you’re counting off a Swing tune or trying to stay in time in a slow Swing ballad, feeling this accent pattern will keep your tempo and timing in check.

Feeling your Jazz drums accent

A quick and easy way to start feeling that third note is to play alternating singles on the snare drum. Then add an accent to every third note like the example below.

The first two notes of each triplet need to be really soft so you can make the third one pop. Dynamics and dynamic contrast are important to create the feeling of forward motion in your Jazz drumming.

Speeding up is one tendency that naturally occurs when starting to use this accent pattern. We feel that forward motion and misinterpret it as going faster.

Working with a metronome will help ground your timing and keep you from speeding up. You can also practice with your favorite recorded Jazz music. This will help keep your hands and the accents falling in the correct place at the correct time.

I also have some dynamite drumless tracks that can help you. “Shady Side” from my Almost Jazz Standards drumless tracks is a great one to use.

Practice your Jazz drumming accents with the Almost Jazz Standards drumless tracks.

Be sure to check out some recordings of Elvin Jones and Art Blakey and hear for yourself how they drive the band by accenting the third note of the triplet. Play along too and try to match their feel.

In my Brushes Mastery Course, I also go into great detail about the most important accent in Jazz drums. The course is a great way to become really confident with your Jazz brushes playing and will strengthen your Jazz feel too.

Learn the art of Jazz brushes with the Brushes Mastery Course

Jazz drums accent concluding thoughts

As you begin to work on a new way of feeling rhythm, also try and sing the accent phrase. The syllables “ti-ki-TA” work pretty good. Try singing it while in the car or when you’re taking your dog for a walk. Use your downtime as practice time.

My Jazz drums playing really expanded during my time at Berklee College of Music.
Around 1993 during my time at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

When I was at Berklee, I used to sing rhythms anytime and everywhere I walked. I know some people thought I was loosing my mind but I was actually finding my rhythm.

Try it out. You just might have a ball like I did. In fact, I scat sing rhythms and melodies when I’m on my way to gigs here in Japan. People still think I’m nuts but hey, I gotta do what I gotta do!

As always, I wish you the very best in your playing and music. Keep swinging and KEEP ON DRUMMIN’!

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