Concepts for Drumset Improvisation

Concepts for Drumset Improvisation keyImprovisation is at the core of every great jazz performance, and as we mature as musicians we become more confident in expressing ourselves on our instrument. The rhythmic or melodic concepts that we play illustrate a particular mood, and the ideas that resurface often help define a player’s style. Listening to solos by masters like Roy Haynes, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, and Jimmy Cobb still has impact today, because each rhythmic concept is so strong, believable, and identifiable.

I recall my first teacher explaining that a good drum solo tells a story, with a beginning where major themes are introduced, a middle where those themes are developed, and an ending that can involve a recapitulation of earlier themes or state a new idea. At the time, when I was a young drummer, this made little sense to me. As I continued to study and listen to classic records, specifically the drum solos, I noticed how many of the ideas were logical, with organized themes and variations. Improvisation is essentially composition in the moment, and as drummers we have a myriad of sounds in our quiver to explore.

Solo Forms
Drum solos are as individual as their creators. There are, however, three basic forms that most solos adhere to: free, song cycle, and vamp. “Sing, Sing, Sing,” featuring Gene Krupa, and Buddy Rich’s “West Side Story” are free of a specific musical structure. If you listen to recordings, you’ll notice that Krupa and Rich solo for a period of time and then count (or cue) the band back into the arrangement. For an example of a more modern free-form approach, check out the work of Andrew Cyrille with pianist Cecil Taylor. In a 1981 MD interview, Cyrille expressed his thoughts on improvisation. “My role with Cecil was interpretative,” he said. “Sometimes I’d be accompanying, but other times I’d be soloing simultaneously with the featured soloist, listening to what was happening around me. I’d think of forming contrasting shapes, sounds, and rhythms by employing various timbres from the set. I’d project certain feelings and pulses by using parts of the set in a particular way.”

The second solo form was made popular during the bebop era, when drummers followed the cycle of the song itself, which was usually divided into four- or eightmeasure phrases. Listening to solos played by Max Roach with trumpeter Clifford Brown on standards like “Joy Spring,” “Parisian Thoroughfare,” and “Sandu” will provide the perfect example of melodic drumming that follows song form. Roach’s solos are considered masterpieces of melodic and rhythmic inventiveness.

The third type is when the soloist improvises over an established vamp or ostinato. This format is unique from the others because the drummer is accompanied by members of the band. One example is Joe Morello’s featured section on the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet track “Take Five.”

Essential Elements
As I gained more experience listening to records, it became easier to identify each solo type. And I started to be able to identify players’ styles as I acquired a greater appreciation and understanding of the rhythmic structures they were exploring.

What follows are some of my favorite transcriptions, which you can use for practice and inspiration. As a starting point, try making use of the different themes and phrasing. Horn players add space to their solo lines when they take a breath; a drummer uses space by inserting rests to frame musical ideas and to define phrase start/stop points. A theme is simply a musical idea within your solo, and combinations of themes produce phrases.

Here’s a solo transcription featuring Philly Joe Jones on the song “Half Nelson,” which appears on the Miles Davis Quintet album Workin’. Notice how Jones uses space (rests) to create an eight-measure phrase comprising quarters, 8ths, and 8th-note triplets. (0:00)

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The use of syncopation and accents can make solo statements more exciting. Accents give emphasis to certain beats in a measure, and syncopation is the placement of accents on weak beats within a phrase.

Check out the next example, featuring the great Jimmy Cobb, from the song “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” which appears on the Miles Davis Quintet album In Person Saturday Night at the Blackhawk. Notice how Cobb creates texture by incorporating buzz strokes, accents, hi-hat splashes with his left foot, and syncopated patterns on the toms. The example begins at the B section of the first time through the song’s AABA form. (5:45)

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Another consideration when you’re improvising is the use of dynamics and orchestration. Dynamics can help create solo ideas with character and shape, and without them we’re left with one-dimensional statements. Orchestration is applying a single rhythmic idea to the many tonalities of the drumset.

Our final example is a solo chorus accompanied by a walking bass line, from “Snap Crackle” by the incomparable Roy Haynes. This tune is featured on Haynes’ album Out of the Afternoon. The solo encompasses all of the qualities of outstanding improvisation: logic, syncopation, space, phrasing, orchestration, theme and variation, dynamics, individuality, and the element of surprise. (2:44)

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Steve Fidyk has performed with Terell Stafford, Tim Warfield, Dick Oatts, Doc Severinsen, Wayne Bergeron, Phil Wilson, and Maureen McGovern, and he’s a member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University in Philadelphia. For more info, visit