Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Swing Style 101

Part 3: The Most Common Song Forms

by Justin Varnes

If you’ve practiced the exercises in the first two “Swing Style 101” articles, you should have your syncopated comping (“accompaniment”) and basic swing feel together. To finish out the series, we’re going to prepare you for when it comes time to play some jazz tunes on the bandstand, by discussing the most standard forms used in this style. Understanding these forms is the key to turning the exercises into music.

In popular music, there are some common ways to identify song sections such as the verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge. As drummers, one of our jobs is to shape these sections. Maybe you do that by going from a hi-hat/rimclick pattern in the verse to a hi-hat/snare groove in the pre-chorus, and then for the chorus you go to the ride cymbal. The same basic idea happens in jazz, but within slightly different forms and with different devices to shape the sections. First let’s identify the four most common song forms used in jazz.


This is most often a twelve-bar structure using an AAB format. The blues form is very common in American music, including jazz. The jazz blues form isn’t noticeably different from a standard blues. It’s just played with more of a swing feel and with some fancier chords. The AAB blues form comprises a four-bar melody (A) that gets repeated (the second A) and then concludes with a different four-bar phrase (B), which is often referred to as the turnaround.

Here’s an example of an AAB blues form using lyrics sung by the great Joe Williams.

You’re so beautiful, but you gotta die one day. (A)

Baby, you’re so beautiful, but you gotta die one day. (A)

All I want’s a little lovin’, before you pass away. (B)


The second most common jazz form is AABA, which is often a thirty-two-bar structure made up of four eight-bar phrases. Here, an eight-bar melody (A) gets repeated and then followed by a contrasting section (B), often called the bridge, before returning to another statement of the original melody (A). Sometimes the B section contains a new melody, and sometimes it’s the original melody played in a new key.


This is another thirty-two-bar structure with four eight-bar sections. The difference between ABAC and AABA is that songs using ABAC feel as if they have two halves. This form comprises an eight-bar melody (A), a different phrase that doesn’t feel resolved (B), a repeat of the first melody (A), and a variation of the B section that has a resolution (C).


This structure is also referred to as a short form, because it’s usually only sixteen bars long, with two eight-bar sections. Tunes in this form have two halves: an eight-bar opening melody (A) and a contrasting eight-bar phrase (B).

There are slight variations on all of these forms. For example, sometimes the last section is extended for four bars, and sometimes the sections are sixteen bars long instead of eight. But if you know how to identify the four basic song forms, it will be obvious when they’ve been slightly altered.

Listener’s Guide

Here are some common jazz tunes broken down by form. Listen to classic versions of them recorded by the greats, and be able to identify the forms and the changes to new sections. A lot of these songs have lyrics. Learning the words is a great way to keep track of the form. You can also find sheet music for the tunes, which may help as a visual aid. But don’t become dependent on the chart. Memorize the tunes!

Blues: “Freddie Freeloader,” “All Blues,” “Now’s the Time,” “Sonnymoon for Two,” “Footprints”

AABA: “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “So What,” “Cherokee,” “There Is No Greater Love,” “My Funny Valentine”

ABAC: “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” “All of Me”

AB: “Giant Steps,” “Blue Bossa,” “Summertime,” “Tune Up,” “Doxy”

Shaping the Form

One you’ve studied the tunes and memorized their forms, the next step is to get on the drumset and practice using comping, fills, and orchestration ideas to shape the structures.

The most common ways to do this:

1. Play a fill when the form repeats back to the beginning. (Each repetition of the entire form is called a chorus.)

2. Play a fill to mark the top of the B section in an AABA tune or the second half in an ABAC or AB form.

3. Change to a different cymbal to keep time during different sections or when there’s a new soloist.

4. Tell a story through your comping over several choruses, changing the material you play thematically with each repetition of the form.

Additional Practice Tips

After you’ve memorized the suggested songs and forms, and you’ve experimented with different ways to outline the structure of the tunes, put on headphones and play along to the classic recordings. Try coming up with your own comping ideas and fills leading into the different sections. Compare your playing with that of the drummer on the recording. After a while you’ll internalize the timing of when to fill, as well as when not to, and when you should change up the feel or the ride source.

Justin Varnes teaches drumset at Georgia State University and online at Jazz Drummer’s Resource. He has performed with Mose Allison, Kenny Barron, Earl Klugh, and Phoebe Snow. For more info, visit lessons.justinvarnes.com.