Jazz Drummer’s Workshop
Swing Style 101
Part 2: The Other Half
by Justin Varnes
One of the main reasons why it can be so hard to make jazz sound and feel right is that here the basic timekeeping elements of the drumset are the opposite from most other styles of music. In rock, hip-hop, country, and pop, we rely on the bass drum and snare to provide the pulse. We often don’t even use the hi-hat foot to do anything but hold the cymbals closed. That creates balance and dynamic issues when all of a sudden the left foot and right hand (our “other half”) get called into action in jazz. Couple that with the snare hand and bass drum foot needing to play a more subordinate role, and it can feel even more awkward to play a swing beat after decades of favoring kick/snare-heavy grooves.
So how do we train our limbs to switch roles? Here’s an exercise to gain more control over your limbs so that you can keep your balance while adjusting the emphasis on each limb according to the style you’re playing. It’s a variation of an exercise Jojo Mayer taught me. In this case we’re going to play a basic jazz groove that uses all four limbs, but the concept can be applied to any pattern.
Play the following groove with a metronome and start at a medium volume. Slowly raise the volume of all four limbs until you’re playing as loud as you can. (Note: Be mindful not to get so loud that the groove suffers or the sound of the instrument is compromised.) Now slowly lower the volume of all four limbs until you’re playing as softly as you can. Finally, slowly raise one limb at a time, all the way up to as loud as you can play, and then bring it all the way back down without the other three limbs changing dynamics. Play the 8th notes straight or with a swing feel.
Now let’s practice the snare/bass drum comping figures from part one of this article series, but with some specific dynamics to adhere to. Play the ride cymbal loud (forte), the hi-hat moderately loud (mezzo forte), and the snare and bass drum moderately soft (mezzo piano).
Experiment with different snare/bass drum orchestrations of the following figures using the same dynamics as before (ride = f, hi-hat = mf, snare and bass drum = mp).
Once you get the hang of the new dynamic hierarchy of jazz, you should start to feel the ride cymbal and hi-hat drive and push the time, while your snare and bass drum sound like subtle syncopation against the pulse of the “other half.”
It’s natural for your brain to want to keep your top half (hands), bottom half (feet), left side, or right side together. So don’t be surprised if your bass drum starts getting louder while you’re trying to make only your hi-hat louder. This is normal, and it’s one of the things you’ll be much better at controlling after you conquer these exercises. Also, the hi-hat has the narrowest dynamic range, so don’t worry about trying to play it as loud as you can play the snare, for example. Remember that we don’t always play jazz using the specific dynamics listed here, but it’s a great place to start.
When done correctly, the four-limb dynamic exercise with a single groove should take about five minutes to complete. If you’re finishing in two or three minutes, try taking longer to crescendo and decrescendo through the dynamics. Using a metronome is crucial, because our tendency is to rush as we get louder and drag as we get softer.
Most important, play along with great jazz records to get a sense of the different dynamic levels of various drummers. If you’re like me, you didn’t learn how to make a rock or funk groove feel good by seeing it written out; you did it by playing along to James Brown, Led Zeppelin, the Roots, and other legendary artists. The same goes with learning to swing, except now the names you should be checking out are Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, and so on.