Before small groups reigned supreme and the ride cymbal became king, the beacon in jazz timekeeping was the hi-hat. Jo Jones with Count Basie and Ray McKinley with Glenn Miller were masters of the hi-hat. Both players could swing an entire arrangement simply by manipulating the open and closed sounds of the cymbals. Here, we pay tribute to greats such as Jones and McKinley by exploring ways to get more out of this unique instrument.

A key to creating a complete, swinging hi-hat sound is for the top and bottom cymbals to remain touching. Try resting your foot on the pedal and lifting your toes slightly. This creates a small opening between the cymbals, which is enough to make an open sound. If you lift your toes a little more, the sound will be louder.

In the traditional swing hi-hat pattern, beats 1 and 3 are open—but the cymbals are still touching—and beats 2 and 4 are played with the cymbals closed. The closed sound can be achieved with your left foot or by using your left hand to mute the cymbals. The “let” of 2 and 4 are played with the cymbals held between open and closed. The complete swing pattern leads to the strong beats of 1 and 3.

Classic Swing Sound 1

The following examples are the three most common ways of phrasing the hi-hat swing beat. In the first one, the phrasing is a dotted-8th/16th-note grouping, which produces a tighter feel. The second example is based on an 8th-note-triplet subdivision and is the preferred phrasing for a looser feel. The third variation illustrates the phrasing for fast tempos at 300-plus beats per minute.

Classic Swing Sound 2

Like your ride cymbal, your hi-hats should be versatile and full sounding when played with sticks or with the foot. Thick, heavy hi-hat cymbals tend to have a strong chick sound but don’t blend well with the ensemble when played with sticks. On the other hand, if the hi-hat cymbals are too thin, they won’t provide a sizable chick sound when played with the foot.

Jo Jones defined the swing feel of the Count Basie band in the 1930s and ’40s with his deft hihat work. At that time, the standard hi-hat cymbal sizes were 10″, 11″, and 12″, but Jones used larger 13″ cymbals, which helped him create a deeper sound. Thanks to Jones, jazz drummers began keeping time on cymbals, as opposed to the snare, the toms, or effects sounds like cowbells and woodblocks.

During the first chorus of Basie’s piano solo on “Honeysuckle Rose,” from the Complete Original American Decca Recordings, Jones plays on the closed hi-hat and on the stand. In those days, hi-hat stands were made of nickel, and striking the stand produced a bell-like sound.Classic Swing Sound 5

On the bridge section of the tune, Jones plays the following idea on the stand and closed hi-hat.Classic Swing Sound 6

On the last A section, he plays the traditional hi-hat pattern on closed cymbals while striking beats 2 and 4 with his left stick on the stand.Classic Swing Sound 7

For an example of hi-hat phrasing, check out the work of Ray McKinley on his recording The Class of ’49. On the track “Lullaby in Rhythm,” his light touch and phrasing beneath the piano solo make for the perfect accompaniment.

Classic Swing Sound 8

While you practice playing the hi-hat, listen to the sound you’re producing as you coordinate your foot, toes, and hands. Try working on these techniques with just a hi-hat and a metronome, away from the full drumset, so you can focus your attention more intently on this rich, colorful instrument.

Classic Swing Sound 3

The roaring ’20s saw the invention of the low boy. As its name implies, this device stood approximately 12″ high. When pressed down with the foot, the mechanism closed, bringing the two cymbals together. Early low-boy players include Warren “Baby” Dodds, Paul Barbarin, Ben Pollack, and Stan King.

The low boy was elevated twice during its development. It eventually grew to 20″, where it was known as the sock cymbal, before becoming the full-size but nonadjustable hi-hat that allowed swing drummers like Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Ray McKinley, and Jo Jones to play time on the cymbals with their sticks.

Classic Swing Sound 4




Steve Fidyk co-leads the Taylor/Fidyk Big Band (with arranger Mark Taylor), freelances with vocalist Maureen McGovern, and is a member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University in

Philadelphia. Fidyk is the author of several instructional books. His latest, Big Band Drumming at First Sight, is available through Alfred Publishing.