drummer playing in studio

How Do Drummers Learn Songs? (Tricks of the Trade)

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I have years of experience learning how to play certain songs as a drummer. I’ve learned songs while playing in rock and jazz bands on the West and East Coast.  There are a few different methods you can use to learn a song.  I’ll discuss some beginner songs you can try, faster ways to learn songs, and some tricks to help you learn a song on the spot.

Beginner Rock Songs for Drummers:

Honkey Tonk Woman – Rolling Stones

What can I say? Charlie Watts? He’s one of my favorite drummers of all time. Before I was a drummer, I thought Charlie Watts was a lame rock drummer. Obviously, I knew nothing.  Play along with this simple beat and provide a solid backbeat for the band.

Highway to Hell – ACDC

Phil Rudd is very underrated drummer.  The more you play drums, the more you will understand that Rudd and Ringo Starr are very good drummers.  Non-drummers don’t get it.  Play along with this one and have fun while you drop into a simple groove.

Hungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen

Weinberg is great on this one. Very solid, simple 4 beat. I’ve practiced to this tune many times in the past.  Can you play this one dead on?

Let me know.

Creep – Radiohead

Simple rock beat.   On the chorus it goes to a typical beat on the ride cymbal. Nothing special, but should help you learn the basic structure of a rock song.

Beginner Jazz Songs for Drummers:

Autumn Leaves – Chet Baker

This is one of my favorite versions. The drumming is exquisite.  Don’t try to match it, just see if you can play along with the general 4/4 swing time.

C Jam Blues – Oscar Peterson

This is a classic jazz blues that every budding jazz musician should learn.

Freddie Freeloader – Miles Davis

Perfect, classic jazz tune for any kind of beginner jazz musician.  Get into the feel and pay attention how Jimmy Cobb plays very simple quarter notes on the ride cymbal, which gives the song its feel.

How Quickly Can a Drummer Learn Songs?

There are different lengths of time to learn a song as a drummer, but there are some tips to learning fast.

One of the biggest factors to learning song quickly is being familiar with the genre.

If you’ve listened to a lot of jazz music, you can usually learn a jazz tune quickly.

Learn the basic parts of the song by glancing at the sheet music helps you learn it fast. iReal Pro on my iPhone is good for that.  After glancing at it, you quickly know what to expect with the general feel of the tune.

If I substitute for a jazz group and they’ve been playing a song for months, I can quickly look at the structure and have a basic idea of what to play. Sometimes, I’ve never heard of the song title even if it’s a jazz standard out of the Real Book.

How Do Drummers Know How to Play a Song Without Sheet Music?

Play Along with a Song Using Headphones:

This is my favorite way to learn a song on the drums. I’ve been doing it for years.

Hot Tip: Leave one headphone halfway off the ear so you can also hear yourself in the room playing the drums.  You don’t want to be completely sheltered inside the headphones.

While you’re playing along using headphones, you can slow down the the speed of the song using apps like YouTube or iReal Pro.  This is helpful in case you can’t conceptualize what is happening on a fast song.  Break it down by slowing it down.

You can play a song as many times as needed until you understand it inside/out.

Having A Lot of Experience in the Genre:

If you have a lot of experience in the genre of particular music, you learn songs faster. 

For example, I can play almost any rock tune in 4/4 time because I’ve heard and played rock for many years. I know typical rock fills that I can use in almost any rock song.  I know when to emphasize certain parts of the song or accent certain hits.

You don’t know this unless you have a lot of experience in the genre.

Methods for Learning Songs as a Drummer

Listening carefully before playing a song on the drums:

As a drummer, you can listen carefully to a tune a few times before you even sit on the drum set. In fact, I highly recommend it.

I do this with jazz tunes that are assigned to our ensemble.  I’ll pop in the tune when I’m driving around Boston running errands.  Even if you’re not playing along with it, you’re internalizing the tune and it’s feel.

Learn a Song with Sheet Music:

The more experienced you become as a musician, the more desire you may have to learn a song by looking at the musical notation. 

In the beginning, I shied away from looking at sheet music because I didn’t think it was necessary. Now, as a jazz musician, I love to quickly glance at the sheet music to see if its 4/4 time and see how many changes are in the tune.

Does it have a bridge?  How many different sections does that song have? How many times does a section repeat?

In time, you can glance at a tune’s sheet music, and it makes sense to you very quickly.

This is a great way to help you learn a song.

Conclusion About Learning Songs as a Drummer

One thing I should mention:

It is such a great feeling when you “know a tune” really well. Why? Because your fellow musicians really appreciate it. If you know a song really well, you provide “just the right feel” and it effects all of the other musicians you are play with in the band.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting in a studio playing a tune with others and feeling a sense of accomplishment afterwards. Why? Because I knew the tune so well that I was able to play it perfectly while adding my personality into the drumming. 

It’s almost a feeling of mastering the tune or craft. It feels great and your fellow musicians appreciate it!

Vice versa, nothing is more frustrating than not knowing a tune well.  You’re playing just to keep up with the band and you are “guessing” certain parts in the tune and “how” to play it.