Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Swing Style 101

Part 1: Avoiding the 1

by Justin Varnes

Chances are, not many of us launched into a career in drumming after hearing a Papa Jo Jones record and asking our parents for a set of brushes for our birthday. Coming from the world of rock, I know I didn’t. But somewhere along the way, it’s possible that you’ve been bitten by the jazz bug, like I was. Maybe it’s because as you’ve gotten better, you’ve sought new challenges. Or maybe it’s because the band you play in gets asked on occasion to play a set of light jazz during cocktail hour. However it happens, there are a few big obstacles that can stand in the way of sounding like a “real” jazz drummer, and that’s what this three-part series is designed to address. We’ll begin with one of the more challenging concepts for drummers with a background in rock, pop, or R&B: avoiding the downbeat.

A crucial difference between jazz styles and most contemporary popular music is the way beat 1 is treated. When you play with a proper swing feel, you need to have a delicate balance of downbeats and upbeats. The groove can feel overly heavy if you land on the downbeat too often, particularly at the end (the resolution) of key phrases. In the places where the listener is expecting to hear a big downbeat, jazz musicians often anticipate it by resolving on either beat 4 or the “&” of 4. This provides syncopation and keeps the music from becoming predictable.

Let’s take a look at a melody from the classic Neal Hefti swing tune “Cute.”

Notice how each phrase ends on the “&” of 4. That anticipation keeps the momentum going, which is necessary for a good swing feel. So let’s steal from the best. We’ll take the first two-bar phrase of “Cute” and voice it in different ways. Here are four options for orchestrating the rhythm between the snare and bass drum while the ride and hi-hat remain steady.

Now let’s do the same with the one-bar phrase in measure 9 of “Cute.”

Here are some rhythmic phrases that resolve on beat 4 or the “&” of 4. Practice them using a combination of snare and bass drum sounds, and by adding a crash. Changing up the orchestration is what keeps these common rhythms from sounding the same every time you play them. Remember to keep the ride cymbal and hi-hat steady throughout.

Practice Tips

Try creating four- and eight-bar loops with these rhythms, where you play basic time, with a metronome, for the first three or seven measures and then play each of the figures at the end of the phrase, varying the orchestration each time you repeat. As you get more comfortable with phrasing rhythms that avoid beat 1, try improvising your own ideas in the bars leading up to the ending figure. With diligent practice, you’ll be swinging hard in no time!