Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Bebop Syncopation

Part 1: Max Roach and Art Blakey

by Mike Alfieri

Ted Reed’s Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer is considered a timeless book by many leading drummers and educators. One page alone can inspire a lifetime’s worth of practice material. In this series of articles we’ll explore new approaches to Exercise One (found on page 38 of the most recently published editions) that are inspired by the styles of various jazz drumming masters. This month we’ll take ideas from Max Roach and Art Blakey and apply them to the rhythms in Syncopation to improve facility while also developing vocabulary.

Only the first line of Exercise One is used here, but these concepts should be applied to the entire page. Strive to read all of the figures while applying these ideas without stopping. Here’s the rhythm we’ll be working with for demonstration.

First, read the line as double stops (unison hits) on the snare and floor tom while the bass drum fills in 8thnotes. Play the hi-hat foot on beats 2 and 4.

Next, play the line by alternating double stops between the rack tom and floor tom. The bass drum continues to fill in 8thnotes while the hi-hat foot plays on beats 2 and 4.

Consider the sticking in Exercise 3. Art Blakey can been seen in videos playing the rack tom and snare combination with the left hand on the tom and the right hand on the snare, while Max Roach would play the opposite—right hand on the rack tom and left hand on the snare. Both would keep the right hand on the floor tom to avoid crossing over.

You may find one sticking to feel more natural at first, but spend time playing both. Taking yourself out of your comfort zone when practicing will foster the most growth. Also be conscious of your technique. Different players interpret technique differently, but whatever you use should result in a clean and comfortable execution of musical ideas. Start practicing slowly to be aware of your physical motions and develop muscle memory. I’ve found the most success when I stay relaxed and move the sticks laterally across the drums. I let each stick rebound, but I think of moving my hand away from my body, like I’m extending a handshake.

Now try playing the bass drum and hi-hat simultaneously to sound even more like Art Blakey.

Continue to experiment and explore your own combinations of these phrases. Mix and match different elements to find the vocabulary that gets you most excited about playing. This lick from Max Roach’s eminent recording of “For Big Sid,” from his 1966 album Drums Unlimited, illustrates a musical application of the concepts in this lesson.

Also check out this phrase from Art Blakey’s opening solo on “The Freedom Rider,” from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ 1961 album of the same name.

It’s very important to listen to the recordings to help you get a better feel for how each drummer put their unique stamp on these concepts. Go to the source to hear the masters, and then hit the woodshed!


Mike Alfieri is a freelance drummer in New York City and has a bachelor’s degree in music education from the Crane School of Music. He currently studies with John Riley at SUNY Purchase. For more info, visit mikealfieri.net.