Last month we studied a solo that trumpet great Freddie Hubbard played on the song “Make It Good” from the 1967 Duke Pearson album The Right Touch. I recommended listening to the solo to the point of being able to sing it before applying it to the drums. Here we’ll look at some of my suggested stickings and interpretations for this solo.

Remember, when implying a melody on the drums, higher notes are generally louder than lower notes on a horn because they require more air. Accent these higher notes with your lead hand. Also, utilize diddles when playing consecutive 8th notes. Legato phrasing is more easily achieved by occasionally using double strokes versus only using alternating strokes.

Let’s take a closer look at diddles. Although double strokes can help emulate a legato phrasing, something interesting happens if the first of two consecutive 8th notes falls on or off the beat. Play the following rhythms—taken from Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”—on the snare while playing the jazz ride pattern, and record yourself playing it.

Now listen back. Do the 8th-note combinations sound identical every time? Most likely they don’t. While the two 8th notes that start on the beat will come out sounding relatively even, the off-beat pickup notes will usually be tighter in spacing, which is more like a typical shuffle than a vocal-like “doo-wop.” This difference isn’t a big deal, unless your goal is to play these rhythms in the same manner.

Now play the previous snare excerpt using two hands on the snare while the hi-hat pedal keeps time on beats 2 and 4 and the bass drum feathers quarter notes. I would bet that the 8th-note combinations now sound nearly identical. Our hands can teach us a thing or two if we pay attention and listen to them.

Here’s Freddie Hubbard’s solo played on the snare with my suggested stickings. Consecutive 8th notes can be played any number of ways, including with alternating stickings. However, experiment with various patterns while paying attention to how close your playing sounds to the original solo in each instance. You might discover some pleasant truths about your phrasing.

Now try orchestrating the solo on the entire drumkit. The key to playing melodically, and selling it to the listener, is learning to trust the ring of the cymbals and the tone of the drums. It’s not necessary to fill every space with rolls, licks, and extraneous rhythms. Build up your comfort level when it comes to rests. Rests are pauses. And just like a great actor reciting Shakespeare, the goal is to communicate an idea and a feeling, as opposed to spitting it all out as fast as possible.

This concept of developing melodic phrasing and utilizing space effectively isn’t pie-in-the-sky drumming romanticism. I recently played a concert with Patrick Williams’ big band at the Fiftieth Annual Elmhurst College Jazz Festival in Illinois. One of the tunes with Pat’s band was a drum feature on the tune “In the Still of the Night.” What does that title suggest to you? Bombast and pyrotechnics, or Fred Astaire dancing away while whispering sweet nothings into his costar’s ear? I went the Fred Astaire route, and I cannot tell you how many people came up to me afterward to thank me for that performance. One band director told me, “I said to my drummer, ‘It’s not what you play, but what you don’t play.’” One thing I did during that performance was utilize combinations of alternate stickings and diddles to achieve maximum melodic phrasing. You can do this too.


Peter Erskine is a two-time Grammy Award winner and an MD Readers Poll Hall of Famer who’s played on over 600 recordings. He is currently a professor at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, and he teaches an online jazz drumming program at ArtistWorks.com.