Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Playing Melodically

Part 1: “Billie’s Bounce”

by Peter Erskine

In this new series I hope to present my thoughts and pass along some experience and insights on playing jazz. Many of the upcoming topics will be drawn from a series of more than 200 lessons that form my jazz drumming ArtistWorks curriculum at artistworks.com.

These lessons will largely deal with the symbiotic relationship between playing what the mind hears versus what the hands and feet know. Am I proposing that drumming is a thinking person’s game? No. I believe music is a listening person’s game. And that small difference between musical choice and muscle memory can become a Maginot Line if a musician isn’t paying attention to what he or she is doing.

One of the more common questions I get from drummers is, How can I develop my melodic playing on the kit? A simple reply could be, “Try starting out by listening to a few Max Roach solos.” This wouldn’t be a bad answer. But anything worth learning requires deeper digging. So we can instead ask ourselves, How did master jazz drummers develop their sense of melody on the drumset?

The simple answer is that the creators of the jazz-drumming lexicon listened to and emulated the way soloists played—particularly horn players. This emulation of phrasing and style harkens back to the roots of jazz, especially in the call-and-response patterns found in African tribal traditions that were brought to the U.S. by way of the slave trade/tragedy and heard on plantations. Call-and-response later became a way of the jazz language, usually in the conversation between a soloist and the band (such as a drummer trading fours with an ensemble). This emulation has also been evidenced in the way that Frank Sinatra learned to phrase—purportedly by studying and listening to Tommy Dorsey—or similarly in the way that Jaco Pastorius learned to phrase on the bass by studying and listening to Frank Sinatra.

All to say, it’s a good idea to study and listen to horn players and singers to learn how to play melodically. It’s not enough to only listen to Joe Morello or Max Roach, although that’s a good start. But it’s always best to go to the source whence your heroes have drawn their waters of inspiration and knowledge.

And so, when teaching at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, I have my students listen to, memorize, transcribe, and learn solos by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Freddie Hubbard, Cannonball Adderley, Michael Brecker, and Joe Zawinul, among others, in addition to learning drum solos of note.

Now, you could ask yourself, How do we play a melody on a drum? I’m not necessarily interested in creating melody on the drums by changing the pitch of a drumhead with elbow or drumstick pressure. I’m more interested in suggesting or evoking melody by using dynamics and stickings while playing. So the challenge here is to suggest or imply melody on one drum.

I’ll suggest some simple rules to start with when interpreting a melody on the drums. Higher notes are generally louder than lower notes on a horn because they require more air. Play these higher notes as accents to whatever degree sounds and feels right to you. Use your lead hand for these notes. Also, utilize diddles. A smooth, legato phrasing is more easily achieved by occasionally using double strokes instead of alternating strokes.

Before we tackle the transcription and interpretation of a horn solo, let’s start with a relatively simple bebop melody, “Billie’s Bounce” by Charlie Parker. I’ve simplified the original melody by removing a couple of appoggiaturas, which are embellishing tones that precede a main note of the melody and are usually notated with grace notes.

I suggest that you try playing this first on the snare with brushes. Use a “dead-stick” technique by playing into the head and allowing the brush to stay on the surface of the drumhead until you need to move it to play the next stroke. This technique gives a nice spread to the sound of the brush and should help you hear the drum as a melodic instrument. Use accents and dynamics, and make it swing. Try to think of a smooth, legato feel with forward motion, in much the same way that trombonist J.J. Johnson plays the melody with Stan Getz on Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson at the Opera House. “Blow” through the phrase, as a horn player would, and sing the melody as you play it. Also learn the melody by ear and sing it as you play it. Use the following example for sticking suggestions, but get your nose out of the music as quickly as possible.

Now ask yourself, What other melodies might lend themselves to being interpreted on a single drum? Next month we’ll check out a Freddie Hubbard solo played on the snare.


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.

Want to study directly with Peter Erskine? Click here for info and free sample lessons.