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One of the most common feels drummers play in jazz is swing. We can categorize swing into three primary tempo zones, slow, medium, and uptempo. Playing fast on the ride cymbal is one the most daunting tasks when playing uptempo swing, especially to drummers just beginning to explore the intricacies of improvised music.
You can play a fast jazz ride cymbal by using French grip, utilizing different ride patterns, choosing the right sticks, choosing a specific ride cymbal, and practicing a polished technique at slower tempos.
Uptempo playing is a test of a drummer’s dexterity, endurance, and execution. There’s a reason that many of the famous recorded “cutting contests” are uptempo numbers, such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “The Eternal Triangle,” as this kind of playing shows what a player is “made of.”
While the merits of approaching music as sport are certainly up for debate (I’m personally of the opinion that music is about self-expression and creating something honest and beautiful, rather than who has more chops), it’s important to understand the historical context of these things. There’s certainly room in music for good-hearted competition (music, like sports, is supposed to be fun after all).
The other merit of uptempo playing is that it is very high energy. An uptempo number well placed in a set list can give a concert a real dynamic peak, or a strong opener. In fact, studies have even shown there is a benefit to listening to fast music when exercising!
Why Should We Learn this Way of Playing?
There are many reasons, such as those established above, but adaptability is also a key reason. To be prepared for any situation is paramount as a drummer.
John Riley speaks of a concept called “headroom” here:
“Headroom” is an automotive concept, in which a car has excess performative capacity to do basic functions effortlessly. We want to be able to do the same thing as drummers.
Now that we’ve established the merits of uptempo playing, the question becomes:
Why is Playing a Fast Ride Cymbal so Difficult?
Not only is there a mental barrier with uptempo swing, but there’s also a physical barrier too. Playing a fast ride pattern at a fast tempo for extended periods is the drumming equivalent of running a marathon.
Luckily there are some techniques we can practice to make uptempo playing much more manageable.
Uptempo Ride Cymbal Technique
The first tip I have for drummers is RELAX! Often when playing things that are difficult or fast, we will habitually tense up to “get ready” to play. This is self-defeating as excess tension will only exhaust us more quickly, as well as can cause injury.
The irony of drumming is the more we try to control the stick, the less control we have over it! I equate hitting a drum or cymbal with throwing a baseball. A pitcher has to let go of the ball in the arc of their pitch, or else they’ll throw the ball straight into the ground.
Throw the Stick
We need to do the same thing with the drumstick when we play. At a certain point in the arc of our stroke, we “let go” of the stick and let gravity take over.
It allows us to play things faster for longer as we’re not straining ourselves. It’s easier said than done, though!
Now there are techniques that we can use to control the stick’s rebound. I use what is called a French grip. French grip is when you have your fingers perpendicular to the cymbal. It allows you to control the stick and cymbal with your fingers.
Most jazz drummers use what is called a drop catch technique, which is a technique that involves using body mechanics to your advantage.
- You start with a downstroke to hit the cymbal on beat 2.
- On the skip beat, you use the rebound of the stick to create an upstroke.
- Finally, you use your fingers to catch the stick, which lands on beat 3.
- The cycle repeats, and you’re playing the basic ride cymbal pattern.
Check out this video to understand it visually:
Touch is incredibly crucial on the drums. I’ve found a lot of drummers don’t explore the real depth of sound you can create on this instrument. If your drumming sounds good, it feels good.
The Sweet Spot
Now part of uptempo playing is having a great cymbal sound. Ride cymbals all have what’s called a sweet spot, where it sounds best. It’s usually somewhere in the 1st ⅓ of the cymbal.
The sweet spot is where there is a perfect balance of stick definition and wash. Stick definition is the sound of wood striking metal. Wash is the overtones of the cymbal, which creates the frequency space the cymbal occupies.
Find the Right Cymbal
Jazz drummers tend to generally prefer dark cymbals. They are lower in pitch and tend to be thinner. These types of cymbals often are the vehicle on which jazz drummers formulate their sound.
As far as modern cymbals go, I’m quite a fan of Zildjian K Constantinople line of cymbals as well as Istanbul Agops (I own 3 Agop rides, 2 Zildjian, and a ride modified by cymbalsmith Jesse Simpson)
But again, it’s essential to trust your ears, and find sounds that fit you. Each cymbal is its own unique identity. You have to form a relationship with the cymbal and discover the sound that resonates with you. Paul Motian famously played heavy Paistes and made them sound beautiful.
I’ve had cymbals where it’s taken me a year to understand it’s intricacies and know how to play it. I’ve had cymbals where it was effortless to get the sound I heard in my head on (my 22″ Istanbul Agop Om is a perfect example of that!)
There are great websites that have videos that let you hear the exact cymbal you’re buying, such as mycymbal.com, but nothing beats playing the cymbal yourself in person.
I strongly urge you to go to your local, regional drum store and try out the cymbals they have on display, and find one that fits your sound.
Always be listening to your ride cymbal, as the ride cymbal is the glue that holds not only you but the rest of the band together. Hear what works and what doesn’t when playing the ride.
Get the Right Stick
Sticks are also part of this equation. Like cymbals, the type of stick you use is a very personal matter. Two facets of the stick really affect the sound it makes on the cymbal: the kind of wood, and the tip. This article goes into greater depth into how these factor into the sound
For playing jazz, I tend to prefer lighter and thinner models of drumsticks. Hickory and Maple are suitable types of wood, and I like stick tips such as barrel or acorn-shaped. The principal sticks I use are the Vic Firth SD4s
Practice at a Slow Tempo Initially
When studying ride cymbal technique, practice slow! Practicing your ride cymbal playing at super slow tempos helps your uptempo playing too. When you play anything at a slow tempo, you have to understand all the intricacies of what you’re playing.
You can analyze so many things at slow tempos, such as:
How is my touch?
How are my body mechanics?
How accurate is my timekeeping?
Am I hitting each surface in the right place to get the best sound?
Practicing slow allows you to execute proper technique when playing the cymbal, which makes your life a lot easier when playing faster tempos.
Basic Ride Cymbal Patterns
Now that some basic ride techniques have been established, let’s talk about different cymbal patterns. One of the keys to uptempo playing is to be able to create varied phrases on the ride. The effect is twofold: not only does this generate interest in what we play, but it can also help us avoid fatiguing ourselves.
Basic Swing Pattern:
Our first example is a basic swing pattern. It’s essential to be able to play this convincingly at fast tempos, as it’s what I like to call our “home base” pattern.
We can also function from what I like to call a “quarter note base.” The basic pattern is just quarter notes. All the great drummers can make just simple quarter notes swing; it’s serious art. Quarter notes are great at fast tempos because they’re less fatiguing.
I call it a “quarter note base” because we can decide to fill in the eighth notes between any two quarter notes to create varied patterns. Here are two variations, filling in on the and of 3 and the and of 4.
Superimposing a Different Swing Pattern:
Another standard device drummers use is superimposing a swing pattern in 3 on top of 4 to create varied phrases. A master of this technique is Elvin Jones; He would play something like this:
As you can see, this pattern resolves every three measures. What drummers commonly do is play this pattern a couple of times as a way of breaking up their phrasing before going back to a regular swing pattern. The key is to use your ears. You can hear Elvin do this on McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance”:
Other drummers also use this concept but play different patterns. Roy Haynes often uses a pattern like this (you can hear him play it on the tune “Steps” by Chick Corea.
This is a great way to break up the time, as it leaves extra space. A variation of this concept that I like to use is this:
5 Step Pattern:
Tony Williams was a master of uptempo playing. He employed an extension of the “drop catch” technique we discussed earlier to get simple 5 note patterns on the ride, like this:
This Vic Firth “Inside the teaching studio” video goes more in depth on how to develop this technique.
You can watch Tony utilize this technique In this clip of the Miles Davis’ Quintet playing “Agitation”
Another thing I like to do is play a paradiddle diddle between the ride cymbal and snare drum starting on beat 2, like so:
The right hand plays the ride cymbal, and the left hand plays the snare drum. This pattern ends up being the swing pattern with filled in triplets, but takes less manual dexterity than just simply playing the ride cymbal
Something that modern drummers do often is use odd groupings to break up the time. I’ve notated these as the right hand playing the ride cymbal and having the left hand fill in on the snare, but you can do all kinds of different variations.
Groupings of 3 are the simplest, as they’re just like the cymbal patterns discussed earlier.
Groupings of 5 are incredibly popular among drummers today. This pattern of 8th notes resolves every five bars. The five notes are split as a group of 2 notes and a group of 3 notes. The way I like to think about fives in this pattern is that the ride alternates between consecutive downbeats and upbeats.
We can also utilize groupings of Seven grouped as 2 2 3 in the same way, like so:
I think about sevens as similar to fives, in that the ride alternates between consecutive down-beats and upbeats, except now it is three ride cymbal strikes for every grouping of seven, and the phrase resolves in 7 measures.
Playing Uptempo Brushes
Playing uptempo is one thing, but playing uptempo brushes is a whole other ball game. All the greats have different methods for doing this. The rebound of the brush makes it a lot harder just to play a simple swing pattern with the right hand.
There’s a standard trick drummers will do though to emulate the uptempo swing pattern on brushes, they’ll sweep on beats two and 4, and only play the skip beat and beats one and three. You can see this technique demonstrated here:
Another great video on uptempo brush playing is by Nate Smith, the 80/20 drummer, which you can check out here:
You can use all the cymbal patterns I’ve written out above too, but I would recommend playing them between the right and left hand, incorporating sweeps and accents to utilize the unique sound and texture brushes bring.
The other challenge of playing uptempo is to play a musical solo. Just like when playing the ride, we get psyched-out about the capabilities of our hands and freeze when it’s our turn to trade fours. On the bright side, there are approaches to improve your soloistic capacity and make your life easier on the bandstand. Here are four tips:
1. Be Melodic!
Melody is everything, even in drumming! Part of making something musical is to make what you’re playing sing.
Master Drummer Rakalam Bob Moses once told me, “if you can sing it, you can find a way to play it.” It was one of the most potent lessons I’ve learned. When we sing something, it comes from the body.
Rhythm has to come from within oneself. It’s something we feel with the core of our being. To sing a rhythm is to feel a rhythm and truly understand it.
Singing also trains us to hear what we are doing. When we improvise, we need to use our ears to guide us on our path. When we use our ears, the decisions we make as improvisers are informed and contribute to the flow of the music.
2. Time-Based Soloing
We can also solo while keeping time in the right hand. It’s a great way to start a solo, as it connects our solo to what we played before while comping. It also is a good starting point because it gives us room to take our solo in many directions. Often, I’ll start a solo from a time playing base, until I lock on to a motif I want to develop. Bill Stewart is a master of this approach. You can hear him do it on this performance of Miles Davis’ tune “Milestones”:
3. Imply Half Time
Implying half-time is another useful rhythmic device when playing uptempo. Half time is where you play rhythms at half the speed of a given tempo.
The effect is twofold: not only does it generate rhythmic interest, but it gives your hands a bit of a break too. You can also extend this concept to comping as well.
The members of Brad Mehldau’s trio are masters of implying half time and double time simultaneously. You can hear this style of playing on their version of “It’s Alright with Me.”
4. Use Different Stickings/Rudiments
Rudiments and different stickings are a valuable tool to use when soloing at fast tempos. Part of the appeal of rudiments is that they rely on the natural rebound of the drums, meaning they take less effort at faster tempos than single strokes.
Some great rudiments to use at faster tempos are the various forms of double stroke rolls, paradiddles, and paradiddle diddles. These are all rudiments that rely on a rebound at faster tempos, and cause less exhaustion in the muscles. You can also make up your combinations of singles and doubles. A common sticking I use is RLL.
When to Play Fast
There are many situations outside of playing uptempo where playing fast can have merits. Faster licks create density, which can be useful when building energy behind a soloist.
Jeff Tain Watts is a real master of using density to create rhythmic tension. You can hear this on this clip of Kenny Garret’s “Two Down and One Across”:
The other time when playing fast is useful is in playing what’s called double-time. Double-time is a form of metric modulation, which is when the tempo of a song is changed based on a rhythmic ratio related to the first tempo. In the case of double-time, the tempo is doubled.
Double-time is a device commonly employed during the solo sections of ballads, as it’s a great way to build energy and momentum. You want to be careful with applying double-time; you want what you play to be constructive, not distracting, to the soloist.
Now that you have a basic understanding of different concepts and ideas of playing uptempo on the ride cymbal and elsewhere, now comes the hard work of practice and absorption. There are a couple of ways you can approach practicing.
When starting to shed uptempo, it’s essential to start slower than your target tempo. We want to find what I like to call the “breaking point.” The breaking point is not the fastest you can play, but rather the point where what you play becomes sloppy, and you lack control.
When you find this point, go back at least ten bpm on the metronome, or to whatever tempo where you feel comfortable and in control, and start practicing there.
Start with your ride cymbal technique. Once that is comfortable, add the hi-hat. At this point, you can start practicing whatever comping figures you’re working on.
It’s essential to make sure what you’re playing is clean and comfortable before taking the tempo up. When you’re ready, go up 5 or 10 bpm on the metronome, and work those figures. When that tempo becomes comfortable, repeat the process.
Find standards that usually play uptempo, and listen to different versions. “Cherokee” is a common standard that is played up, as well as the newer version of “Milestones,” and “Seven Steps to Heaven.”
Listen to different versions of these tunes, and study how different drummers deal with playing uptempo (this version of Eric Harland playing “Cherokee” with Mulgrew Miller and Robert Hurst is a personal favorite of mine).
Once you have done some listening, you can play along to these tracks because it’s a great way to simulate improvising in a playing environment. At this point, try playing uptempo tunes with people and see how it goes!
John Dalton is a Boston based drummer, composer, bandleader, and educator. He is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He performs regularly as both a leader and a sideman. His modular ensemble “Spheres of Influence” has recently released their debut album, Indigo Skyline. You can find out more about him here : https://johndaltonspheresofinfluence.com