side of drumset

How Do Jazz Drummers Keep Time (Why It’s Different)

* receives compensation from the companies whose products we review. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. We receive a commission if you click the link and make purchases. This is no extra cost to you, the purchaser. Thank You.*

A Jazz drummer’s approach to keeping time is similar to drummers of other styles in that a foundation of four limb independence and proficient stick technique is developed to play numerous rhythmic ideas at a steady tempo.

Jazz drummers keep time by focusing on where the time is played (ride cymbal, hi-hat), and how it is felt (swinging). 

How do Jazz Drummers Count Time?

To keep the time feeling good, and not rigid, a Jazz drummer will focus on beats 2 and 4 when playing in 4/4 time at a medium to medium-fast tempo. The use of the hi-hat played on beats 2 and 4 with the left foot assists in this focus on what we might call a light backbeat. In a Big Band setting, drummers will sometimes lightly play the bass drum on quarter notes to help keep the pulse steady while maintaining the hi-hat on 2 and 4.

Emphasizing Different Beats in a Measure

As mentioned above, emphasis on beats 2 and 4 is common practice in Jazz drumming. However, as Jazz drumming evolved through the 1960s and up until today, the style has opened up and relied less on beats 2 and 4 as an anchor for everything else that takes place on the drum set.

Playing Accents Off the Beat

Using the hi-hat sparingly and playing a slight accent on beats 2 and 4 on the ride cymbal lets the time breathe a little bit more. Placing accents off of the beat can push or pull the feel of the time depending on where you put those accents. 

Here are two examples of ride cymbal playing that both have a great swing feel, but the cymbal pattern of Al Harewood is more consistent, while Billy Drummond’s pattern is a little more creative and the hi-hat is used sparingly.

What impresses me most about Billy Drummond’s playing in that example is his ability to keep the time swinging as he incorporates more of the drum set into his phrasing. Good Jazz drummers can replicate the feel and consistency put on display by Al Harewood before tackling the ideas we heard played by Billy Drummond.

Break Up the Time

In this next example, you’ll hear drummer Clarence Penn break up the time with his ride cymbal and leave a little more space at certain times while playing behind the soloist. This use of space has a lot to do with what the bass player is playing. I’ll talk about the relationship between the drummer and the bass player later.

Did you notice that the hi-hat was rarely played on beats 2 and 4? This is a really open and expressive style of drumming. What all three examples have in common is the prominence of the ride cymbal and how important it is while marking time.

Jazz Drummers Rely Heavily on Triplets for Time

The triplet rhythm is an essential aspect of the Jazz drummer’s vocabulary and technique. The swung eighth note in the Jazz ride cymbal pattern is placed on the third partial of the eighth note triplet grouping. Many of the comping phrases that are played on the snare and bass drum will be played as triplets so as to line up with the rhythm being played on the ride cymbal.

Straight Eighths and Sixteenths in Time

There is plenty of room for straight eighth note and sixteenth note rhythms in Jazz drumming, especially at extremely fast or slow tempos. At medium speed tempos, transitioning between straight eighth notes, eight note triplets, and sixteenth notes can give the drummer’s time a feeling of tension and release without sacrificing the steady pulse of the music.

Elvin Jones was a pioneer in bringing this elastic feeling of playing time to Jazz drum set playing.

How Do You Practice Triplet Rhythms with a Focus on Jazz Drumming?

The most popular book among young drummers getting familiar with Jazz drumming is Ted Reed’s Syncopation. There are numerous triplet exercises to play based on the eighth note rhythms written throughout the book. There are also rudiments with triplets that all students should practice applying to the drum set in a Jazz context. 

Review Ted Reed’s Syncopation Book

Half-Note Triplet Pulse

For more advanced students, practicing rhythms that are embedded within a half-note triplet pulse will, at the very least, strengthen your eighth note triplet pulse. At best, it will enable you to play phrases comparable to what’s been played by Jazz greats like Elvin Jones, Jeff Watts, and Adam Nussbaum.

A simple exercise to get you started on counting and playing through half-note triplets is to play Paradiddlles as eighth-note triplets and accent the first note of each group of four eighth-note triplets. You’ve now moved your primary pulse from 4 quarter notes to 3 half-note triplets; this is called metric modulation.

How Do Fast Tempos Affect A Jazz Drummer’s Approach to Playing Time?

When a tempo is set to 280 BPM and higher, there is less space for a swung eighth note to swing, and the ride cymbal pattern tends to straighten out. A seasoned Jazz drummer will be able to create just enough space between the two eighth notes on beats 2 and 4 to keep a fast tempo swinging.

Keep the Fast Tempo Swinging

Keeping those fast tempos swinging isn’t just about feel, but also technique. If a drummer is just throwing the stick on the ride cymbal on beats 2 and 4 and hoping that it bounces three times in the right spots, the time will be sloppy and absent of any swing feel. A bounce – catch technique needs to be developed to keep the ride cymbal swinging at faster tempos. Here’s a good explanation by John Riley of the bounce – catch technique.

A Jazz Drummer Will Count Up-tempo Fills Differently Than Medium Tempo Fills

As the eighth notes start to straighten out when the tempo increases, it’s a good idea to count in cut time. A measure of 4/4 time with 8 eighth notes will be counted as if it were a measure of 2/4 time with 8 sixteenth notes. This approach is especially helpful when playing rolls since most drummers learn how to play rolls by doubling or buzzing sixteenth notes.

Counting in Cut Time

Counting in cut time is helpful when keeping track of your four measure and eight measure phrases while trading solos with other members of the band. Trying to keep track of 16 or 32 quarter notes flying through your head is going to impede your flow and creativity. Counting in cut time will give you a little more room to breathe.

A lot of rhythmic ideas that come from Rock, Funk, or Fusion are based on sixteenth notes. If you get comfortable counting your current Jazz solo vocabulary in cut time, you’ll have an easier time adapting some of these licks from other styles of music into your Jazz playing.

How Does a Jazz Drummer Interact with Other Members of The Rhythm Section?

The most critical relationship in any Jazz ensemble is the one between the drummer and bass player. The time needs to lock in and feel good between these two players for the rest of the group to sound good. Sometimes a bass player and drummer might not feel the pulse in the same spot because of personal tendencies to play in front of or behind the beat. A compromise needs to be made between the two musicians so that the other members of the group can settle into a groove and take care of business.

Transitioning to Different Time Feels

In the listening example above featuring Clarence Penn on drums, the bass player and drummer are always in agreement as to when they should emphasize a quarter note pulse or break up the time with syncopated rhythms and fills. Going back and forth between time feels is an effective way of creating tension and release within a song.

Interacting with Comping Musicians

The comping instruments in a Jazz rhythm section are usually piano or electric guitar. A drummer will interact with the comping musicians by playing the snare and bass drum. In climactic situations, it sounds good when the drums and piano are playing their comping rhythms in unison, but throughout most of the tune, it should be a back and forth conversation that doesn’t get in the way of the soloist.

How Can A Jazz Drummer’s Time Keeping Complement a Soloist?

Good listening skills and good judgment are the keys to accompanying a soloist well. A good Jazz drummer is attentive to the soloist’s phrasing and picks appropriate spots to add a comping rhythm that enhances the solo, rather than detract from it. The use of dynamics can influence the direction a solo takes just as much as the comping rhythms played by the drummer.

There have been times where I might have been listening to the soloist too intently. In other words, I forgot my responsibility as a timekeeper, and I just kind of went along for the ride, and the trip ended up in a ditch. This is where your judgment comes in, and your ears need to get really big and assess everything that’s taking place in the band as it relates to tempo.

How Does a Drummer’s Time Feel Affect the Quality of a Tune?

The focus that Jazz drummers put on beats 2 and 4 in a measure of 4/4 time and their application of triplets to the ride cymbal pattern and comping rhythms lays the groundwork for a standard swing feel. Beyond the essential swing feel that is needed to play much of the standard Jazz repertoire, a musical feel with well-focused energy is necessary to lift a performance from good to great.

Your Personality Will Show in Your Time

In my personal observations, I’ve noticed that a drummer’s feel on the drum set usually coincides with the qualities of their personality. This isn’t to say that high strung musicians rush, and mellow ones drag. Rushing and dragging on the drums has more to do with technique and mindfulness of the current playing situation, than personal demeanor. Art imitates life.

What Are Some of The Different Time Feels that Jazz Drummers Bring to The Table?

Relaxed and light – Here’s an example of Billy Higgins playing with Joshua Redman. The ride cymbal playing sounds effortless, and the comping on the snare drum is understated.

Fire and Ice – The tempo in this next example is straightforward to lay back on, but Bill Stewart brings a lot of energy and creativity to this tune while keeping the groove in the pocket with bassist Dennis Irwin:

Aggressive – There are few Jazz drummers I know of who dig into the ride cymbal any harder than Jeff “Tain” Watts. Everything he plays on this track pushes the music forward. Try playing along with this recording and match your ride cymbal pattern with his, it’s quite the workout.

The Best Drummers Have a Distinct Approach to Playing Time

Each one of the drummers listed in the listening samples above is instantly recognizable to an avid Jazz music listener. Billy Higgins, Jeff Watts, and Bill Stewart have been on so many albums that they’ve become familiar to Jazz fans, and there’s a reason they’re on so many records, musicians enjoy playing with them and want their signature sound on their recording.

Developing Your Signature Time and Sound

Developing a signature sound requires a lot of practice, but more importantly, a lot of gigs. Adjusting your playing to different musical situations, learning from feedback you’ve received on gigs, and experimenting with the sound of your instrument will put you on a path to playing time in your way.

The Organic Qualities of Jazz Time Keeping

Jazz music doesn’t swing if the tempo is as perfect as that of a drum machine. A Jazz drummer should try to keep the tempo as steady as possible, but it needs to breathe a little. The Billy Higgins track above is very steady but has a joyful bounce to it. The example of Jeff Watts’s playing speeds up a little in the solo section, but nobody in the band is fighting each other to get there, the excitement just took the band’s tempo up a few clicks.

Elvin Jones is a drummer who developed a unique style of playing time in the mid 1960s that was considered revolutionary for the drum set. At times, Elvin sounds like a soloist interacting with a soloist with his triplet figures and over the bar phrasing. Elvin’s time has a wide-open feel, and the energy is raw.

A Perfectly Imperfect Example of Jazz Time Keeping

I gave some examples earlier where the tempo rushed just a little bit, and the tune didn’t suffer. But the sound of a tempo dragging is usually enough to take the air out of a Jazz club. On the classic recording of Milestones by Miles Davis, the tempo starts to drop slowly during the alto saxophone solo, then settles in at about 5 or 6 clicks slower than the original tempo during the Trumpet solo.

The Time Felt Good

So why didn’t they just scrap the tune at the end of the take? Why didn’t Miles tell the engineer to stop the reel when it was his turn to solo? Maybe because that pocket felt really good one chorus into Cannonball’s solo. 

For all we know, Miles might have been signaling to the rhythm section to gradually bring the tempo down for his solo. The bottom line is that the time felt good, and that’s the top priority for Jazz drummers when playing time, make it feel good.