Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Practicing Musically


by Lenny Rothbart

Many serious drummers have at some point in their study, spent a great deal of time on technical exercises of a mechanical nature (rudiments, stick control exercises, reading texts, etc.), all done with only the best intentions and sincere dedication. For a while this may be necessary to gain familiarity and ease with the instrument and train the muscles to respond properly to the demands made on them.
In every musician’s life comes a time when the skills developed in these exercises must be shaped into music. If this transition is difficult, the practice has not fully served its purpose. It is hoped that this article will help less experienced drummers to develop musical, as well as technical skills, and give seasoned players and teachers a new perspective.Truly beneficial practicing should be a well-rounded program including technique, listening, and practical musical applications. Let us discuss each of these aspects and see how they interrelate with each other.

As established before, technique is necessary. Any good drummer has it to some degree, whether or not he has spent time specifically for the purpose of developing it. A very good drummer may have limited technique, and a poor drummer may have excellent technique.

Contrary to popular belief these days, it is possible to go too far with technique. How can this be? Well, first let’s recall that chops are merely a means to an end, nothing more. One of the other tools needed is a secure knowledge of the style being played and the medium used (small group, vocal, show, big band, etc.). In other words, Charlie Barker’s “Dexterity” and Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” each require different musical knowledge to be played properly, apart from stick control, rudiments, and basic moving-around-the-set. If you’re not familiar with the respective styles of these tunes, and the tunes themselves, you won’t be able to play them properly, no matter how many exercises you’ve worked on.

Having the ability to play anything you want implies that you know what you want. If your technical facility exceeds your understanding of how to apply it practically in a musical situation, you have too much chops. This can be remedied by restructuring your practice time, which bring us to the second aspect of a musical practice program, listening.

The first change you can make is to spend less time on pure technique and use it instead to listen. This is just as important to musical development as playing the instrument. If done with the right attitude, it can and should be considered practice time. One must practice with the mind as well as the body.

The essential thing is to learn to listen analytically. This need not be separate from listening for enjoyment – again, it depends on your attitude. If you listen to all elements, (including expressiveness and interaction between players), you may find you enjoy listening more than before. Little else can be said about it; it simply must be done, rather than read about.

This leads us to the third aspect, that of placing technique within the proper context, involving among other things, playing with recordings. If you don’t have the facilities for this, do whatever you must to arrange them. It will be worth it.

At first, copy what the drummer on the recording does as closely as possible, especially kicks and fills. If the drummer is comping on the snare drum, just notice the type of things he is (or isn’t) doing. It is good to learn specific beats, but stick to things within your present ability, working up to more complicated ones.

Learn tunes and arrangements. Try to discover cliches in each style. That is, find some simple, standard patterns you can use exactly as they are when accompanying certain common rhythmic figures in a band. Don’t go for flashiness or technical intricacy, seek clarity and simplicity at first. Pay close attention to dynamics, tone, and balance. Also notice what the other instruments are playing, as the drummer is creating his part to accompany them.

Study a variety of styles and artists. Don’t be overly concerned with developing a personal style. If you have really solid knowledge of a musical style, a personal one will come out without being forced. You probably couldn’t stop it if you tried.

Of course, the program described here is no substitute for playing with other musicians. It will, however, expand your knowledge of what to do in an actual playing situation. If you’re not playing with people regularly, it will enable you to continue advancing musically and increase your chances of finding people to play with. If you feel your present practice routine isn’t taking you exactly where you want to go, this approach is definitely worth a try.

Following are some listening suggestions for the drummer who wishes to expand knowledge of styles. The list is not intended to be comprehensive, merely introductory. With one exception, specific recordings are not listed because style is more important here than a particular selection of tunes.

If you use records on this list to practice with, remember — many noted drummers (including Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Billy Cobham, among others) include unusual personal touches in their styles. These embellishments, while impressive to a listener, make it extremely difficult to distinguish the cliches from which they grew, unless one already knows what the cliches are. It is important to study and know the work of these drummers, but keep in mind that they are not “the basics”. Copying their styles too closely will leave little room for the student’s personal style to develop.

It is not necessary to take this list in any particular order, but it is best to concentrate on one or two areas at a time.

SWING: Anything by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Dorsey Bros., Glenn Miller; (they used a variety of drummers, any of whom are good for study) – particularly seek out Jo Jones and Louis Bellson.

BIG BAND: Mel Lewis (early 60’s Maynard Ferguson, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra), Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson (50’s Duke Ellington and under his own name), Jo Jones (30’s and 40’s Count Basie).

BE-BOP & HARD BOP: Max Roach (Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, and under his own name), Philly Joe Jones (50’s Miles Davis), Elvin Jones (John Coltrane and under his own name), Tony Williams (early 60’s Miles Davis).

JAZZ-ROCK: Tony Williams (late 60’s Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and under his own name), Billy Cobham (Dreams, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and under his own name), Alphonze Mouzon (Weather Report, Eleventh House, and under his own name), Lenny White (Return to Forever and under his own name), John Guerin (Tom Scott and the L. A. Express).

ROCK: Jim Gordon (Eric Clapton, various sessions – look for name on albums), Russ Kunkel (James Taylor, various sessions), John Guerin (Joni Mitchell, various sessions).


THE DRUMS, Impulse ASH-9272-3 —a 3-record set, very good cross section of jazz drummers and styles, early to modern.