Drummers depend on the bass drum to help drive the band and provide depth to their time feel. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, the bass drum was the “solid four” timekeeper of the rhythm section. Many modern jazz drummers use the bass drum to attain a softer, feathering pulse in union with the acoustic bass. A dynamically controlled quarter-note pulse on the bass drum, played in sync with a walking acoustic bass line, can help expand an ensemble’s sound and reinforce the swing feel. The bass drum can also be used as an accent texture for stressing ensemble rhythms or as a third hand to execute patterns that are generally played on the snare drum or toms.
To achieve a round tone and a consistent swing pulse with the bass drum, it’s essential to have control of the heel-down foot technique. This approach works particularly well when you’re playing rhythms at a softer dynamic range (pp–mp). I find that when my foot is resting on the pedal as I improvise, I have greater control and an improved sense of balance.
I achieve my bass drum sound by tensioning the batter head until there are no wrinkles around the perimeter. For the resonant head, I start by matching the pitch with the batter side, and then I tighten each lug approximately a half turn to produce a somewhat higher tone.
For dampening, jazz legends Joe Morello and Buddy Rich would put a 3″ felt strip against the inside of the batter head. Swing drummer Dave Tough placed torn newspaper inside his bass drum shell. Mel Lewis would tape a piece of paper napkin to the edge of the batter head to help decrease the overtones. Experiment with your sound to find something that supports the music you’re playing.
In this article series, we’ll examine repetitive riff-style bass drum comping rhythms, first in 4/4. (Future articles will explore ideas in 3/4 and 5/4.) The phrases included here are intended to help you develop balance between your bass drum foot and your upper appendages.
As a starting point, center your attention on the ride cymbal, hi-hat, and bass drum, and keep the instruments balanced dynamically so that they sound like one entity. As you practice the following pattern, focus on keeping the bass drum beater rebounding off the head at approximately 2″ for a soft, feathered pulse.
Now try playing the following bass drum riffs in conjunction with the ride cymbal and hi-hat.
Once you can play the previous three-voice examples with control, add the following two-measure snare drum patterns to complete the riff.
As you practice, you’ll probably discover that these bass drum riffs produce a great deal of musical tension when combined with the ride, hi-hat, and snare. Have fun!
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. He’s also the author of several instructional books. His latest, Big Band Drumming at First Sight, is available through Alfred Publishing.