Jazz drumming uses many feels but the one that’s the hardest to master is the plain old Swing feel. In this article and Jazz drums lesson, I’m going to share about the one accent that will instantly make you swing better and have more fun on the drums.
Jazz drums feel
When I was at Berklee College of Music, many moons ago, I listened a lot to the drumming great, Elvin Jones. The legendary recordings he made with John Coltrane had a drive and 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 but I just couldn’t figure it out.
“The” Jazz drums accent
I decided to take my rhythmic question to my weekly Jazz drums 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 great recordings of Elvin in action. I could hear that feeling in other recordings 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:
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.
Jazz drumming basics
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.
In beginning Jazz drumming, start by feeling this 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.
Check out my article on dynamics for drummers to learn how dynamics can make a huge difference in getting gigs.
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 feel that triplet accent.
Start off by playing the triplet pattern above on your snare drum from start to finish of the tune. After you’re comfortable with that, move on to adding this accent to your Jazz Swing ride cymbal playing. The next part of this Jazz drums lesson, I explain how to do this.
Jazz ride pattern with the accent
Only on your ride cymbal, play the following pattern. Be careful to accent the ride cymbal on the “a” of counts 2 and 4. We normally also accent counts 2 and 4 when we play Jazz Swing. To learn how to play a solid Jazz Swing beat on the drums, check out my Intro To Jazz Drumming course.
Let’s take it a step further now and add a snare hit to counts the “a” of counts 2 and 4. If you want to, you can also add your hi-hat to counts 2 and 4 and your bass drum on counts 1,2,3 and 4.
Now you’ll really be feeling that forward motion as you play those accents with both your ride and snare drum. Next, to “Elvinize” the groove, let’s add one more snare note on “+” of each count.
If the coordination for these grooves is challenging you might want to check out my article about how to learn any new drum groove fast. It’ll help you put things together quickly.
Listen to the masters
The real Jazz drums lesson is listening the master Elvin Jones play this accented groove. A couple of albums I recommend are:
- Speak No Evil by Wayne Shorter. Listen to the title track beginning at about 2 minutes. Elvin Jones really starts cooking on the up-beat triplet accent.
- A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. Listen from Part 2 Resolution to hear his driving accents.
You might notice that his drum fills also use that accented pattern to move the music forward. With his Swing feel and fills all accenting this way, give all of his recordings that same powerful musical motion.
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So if you’re struggling with your Swing feel, I encourage you to give my triplet accent exercise a try. I think it will help you find your swing and deepen your groove.
As you begin to work on this new way of feeling rhythm, try and also sing the accent phrase. The syllables “tih-kih-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.
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.
Jazz music is incredibly fun to play and and so much sweeter when you can swing. Keep swinging!
How is your Swing feel?
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