Driver’s Seat

Understanding Phrasing

by John Pickering

Because of the limitations of his instrument, the drummer need be concerned only with notes of two basic durational values.
LONG AND SHORT. Generally, and unless otherwise indicated, quarter notes and all notes of a lesser durational value are considered to be relatively short in duration. Short notes can be played on any of the drums, but are usually most effective when played on the snare or bass drum.Written as Section Accent:
Drivers Seat 1

The choice of which drum to use when playing section figures is entirely up to the musical judgement of the individual drummer. However, the following suggestions may prove helpful: If the above accent were played by the trumpet section, it would be wisest to use the snare drum because its sharper attack is most similar to the natural crispness of the trumpet tone. (Example A) On the other hand, if the same accent were played by the trombones or the baritone sax, it may be more effective to use bass drum because the natural timber (tone color) of a trombone or baritone sax is a thicker, broader sound than the trumpet, and the tone of the bass drum most closely parallels it. (Example B) Quarter notes can be interpreted as long or short notes, depending on the context in which they are used. They may be played on the snare drum or on the bass drum and cymbal. Generally, quarter notes are not played staccato unless a dot appears over the note.

Written as an ensemble accent:
Drivers Seat 2

Both B and C above are two sample solutions to the ensemble accent given in example A. They are both basically the same except that C makes use of a simple fill-in to increase interest and build excitement. Note that in both examples, the short note (2&) is played with an accent on the snare drum. In most cases, the snare drum is the best choice for playing short or staccato ensemble accents.

Theoretically, the bass drum could be used to play the accent, but because the accent is an ensemble accent, (being played by a majority of the band, if not all of it) considerable volume and definition are needed for maximum dynamic effect, and the capabilities of the bass drum are limited in this respect. That is not to say it can’t be done, only that the snare drum accent is the safer alternative.


From a drummer’s viewpoint, long notes are generally considered to be any note longer in duration than a quarter note. Long notes are most effectively played by hitting the cymbal and the bass drum together. The cymbal adds the sustaining quality that makes it a long note and the bass drum adds the bottom and the strength and power to the accent figure. To sharpen the attack, the snare drum is often added. When playing ensemble accents and figures, a cymbal crash without the added bass drum is usually considered too thin a sound to be effective.
Drivers Seat 3

Note that in both the above examples the accent (2&) was played by the bass drum and cymbal. Occasionally, when an accent occurs on 4 or 4& and is tied into the next bar, the arranger simply writes the first note with the tie sign and omits the second note of the tie. These notes should still be considered long notes and played as such.
Drivers Seat 4

Reprinted from Stage Band Drummers Guide, by John Pickering. Published by Mel Bay Publications, Inc., Pacific, Mo. Used by permission.