Rock & Jazz Clinic

Melodic Drumming

Tips for Mimicking Guitar Riffs on the Toms

by Jeff Salem

In this article we’re going to explore a way to represent a melodic guitar riff from a classic-rock tune on the kit, while playing the song’s drumbeat at the same time.
This is something I discovered accidentally one day when tuning my toms. I found that I was able to play the melody of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which got me thinking about ways to do the same with classic guitar riffs that consist of just three or four notes.
To achieve this, I tune my toms in thirds. Let’s say the floor tom is tuned to the note C. The second lowest tom would be an E, the next a G, and the next a B. (I chose C as my root note, but you can start on any note. Just go up from the bottom in thirds.)
If you have only three toms to work with, don’t worry. The riff will sound close enough when you use just one tom to cover the highest notes. If you’re right-handed, play the tom parts with the right hand, or vice versa if you’re left-handed. Start by getting just the melodic part down. Listen for the riff on the toms. You might have to make some tuning adjustments to get the right tones for the song you’re trying to play.
Next, work on playing the drumbeat with just your left hand. (Use your right hand if you’re a lefty.) I often have to make slight adjustments to the groove to be able to play it with one hand.
Once you can play the melody and the groove separately, bring both parts together very slowly. There is some independence involved that will take time to work out. Be patient.
All of the examples below are in 4/4 time. They comprise some of my favorites, including “Peter Gunn” by the Ventures, “Louie Louie” by the Kinks (the famous original version is by the Kingsmen), “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith, “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin, and “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple.
You can experiment with hundreds of other classic tunes that use only three or four notes. Have fun!
Melodic Drumming 1
Melodic Drumming 2
Jeff Salem is a freelance clinician and educator and is the owner of JS Music Studio. He is the author of the books Messin Wid Da Bull and A Rhythmic Twist, which are available through Hudson Music. He is also the founder of the group Enviro Drum. For more information, visit,,, and