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A Drummer’s Guide To Jazz

Brandon Toews  /  UPDATED Apr 23, 2024

This is an excerpt from The Drummer’s Toolbox: The Ultimate Guide To Learning 101 Drumming Styles. The book goes into even more detail about jazz drumming!

Jazz: A brief introduction to the genre

Jazz music originated in New Orleans, Louisiana in the late 1800s. For African-Americans living in New Orleans during this time, jazz music was a way of responding to cultural issues like racism, segregation, and discrimination.

At that time, styles of music like blues and ragtime were major influences on the development of jazz music. Over the past century, many subgenres of jazz have emerged including Dixieland, big band, bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, free jazz, Latin jazz, jazz fusion, and many more!

Most styles of jazz music feature a rhythm section with upright bass (sometimes electric bass), drums, piano (sometimes keyboards), and one or more instruments responsible for playing the melody of the music – like trumpet, trombone, saxophone, or voice.

Jazz is an incredibly unique genre where musicians are constantly innovating and pushing musical boundaries. Jazz presents drummers with the opportunity to improvise and interact with other musicians in real time. This makes for the perfect creative opportunity to explore the drum set in brand new ways.

The Fundamentals

Jazz is triplet-based music that has a swing feel (yes, there are exceptions). In jazz music, rhythms are interpreted differently than they are in pop and rock music. When we see an eighth note rhythm it will be interpreted in eighth note triplets.1
The most important element of jazz drumming is the ride cymbal pattern. As drummers, we need to establish the swing feel for the rest of the band by playing that consistent ride pattern. Here is what the standard jazz pattern looks like.

Another essential element is the hi-hat which is played on beats two and four (when playing in 4/4 time). Here’s what the ride cymbal pattern looks like accompanied by the hi-hat foot pattern.

Jazz music is interactive. Musicians accompany and react to other musicians based on the melodic and rhythmic motifs that they play. This act of accompaniment and reaction is known as comping. As drummers, we can comp for other musicians with all four of our limbs. Practicing comping is also an excellent way to develop independence in a jazz context. Here are some examples of comping ideas applied to each separate limb and to multiple limbs as well.

Comping with the snare drum



Comping with the bass drum



Comping with the hi-hat



Comping with the ride cymbal



Comping with multiple limbs



Whether you’re playing rock, pop, jazz, or any other style of music, it is important to have vocabulary that can be used in specific styles of music. One of the best ways to learn new vocabulary is by listening to your favorite drummers and trying to imitate them – we’ll look further into this in the next sections. In the meantime, here are a few phrases that can be played in a jazz context. You can orchestrate these patterns in different ways to develop your own unique vocabulary as well!

Phrase inspired by Max Roach

Phrase using a repeating snare drum/bass drum figure


Phrase using double stops (unison strokes)


Playing with brushes is another essential part of jazz drumming. Brush playing can be heard on countless jazz recordings, from ballads to up-tempo swing tunes! You can learn more about brush playing in this lesson with Peter Erskine:

The Equipment

Today, “jazz drum sets” generally consist of a bass drum (16”-20”), a rack tom (10”-13”), a floor tom (14”), and a snare drum (14”). In the past, the sizes that jazz drummers chose to use depended significantly on what type of jazz music they were playing and the size of the ensemble they were playing with. For example, big band drummers would often use bass drums that were 22” or larger while drummers who were playing styles like bebop would often use 18” bass drums. Today, many drummers will look for a drum set that is versatile (one that can be used for a variety of musical styles) or they will have two separate drum sets: one with smaller shell sizes and one with larger shell sizes.

The majority of jazz drummers use one or two ride cymbals (20”-22”), one crash cymbal (18”-20”) and a pair of hi-hats (13”-15”). You will also see jazz drummers simply using two ride cymbals and a set of hi-hats (with no crash cymbal at all). In general, cymbals used in jazz music will be thinner than cymbals used in pop and rock music. Thinner cymbals are generally more responsive than thicker cymbals. They also “open up” much more easily than thicker cymbals which makes them ideal for brush playing. Ride cymbals and crash cymbals will often have cymbal rivets in them as well.

Jazz drummers almost always use coated drumheads. These produce a warmer sound with less attack than clear drumheads. While both single and double ply drumheads are available, single ply drumheads are most commonly used for jazz because of their sensitivity and their “open” sound. Coated drumheads are also necessary for playing with brushes.

Snare Drums:

81V5FT2P71L. AC US160

Ludwig Acrolite


61Mo2YVObHL. AC US160

Yamaha Absolute Hybrid Maple



Gretsch USA Custom


Ride Cymbals:

22″ Istanbul Agop 30th Anniversary Ride



21″ Sabian HH Vanguard Ride


61Qu8ZEFbHL. AC US160

22″ Zildjian K Constantinople


710Q1VLJ48L. AC US160

20″ Paiste Masters Mellow Ride


22″ Meinl Byzance Jazz Thin Ride



81NVXW8Gu3L. AC US160

15″ Istanbul Agop 30th Ann.


81taDGVaSsL. AC US160

14″ Sabian HH Vanguard Hats


71Kl6X%2BZs6L. AC US160

14″ Zildjian K Constantinople Hi-Hats


614gf m4Q3L. AC US160

15″ Paiste Masters Dark Hi-Hats


91I5a0EU zL. AC US160

14″ Meinl Byzance Jazz Thin Hi-Hats


Crash Cymbals:

18″ Istanbul Agop 30th Ann.


41kAiCkTSjL. AC US160

18″ Sabian HHX Manhattan Jazz Crash


61gySgtVzEL. AC US160

18″ Zildjian K Constantinople Crash


61Y1OaP7lrL. AC US160

19″ Paiste Masters Dark Crash


91KVAO4rsuL. AC US160

18″ Meinl Byzance Jazz Thin Crash


Bass Drum Heads:

81KWy%2BCz rL. AC US160

Evans Calftone


61g4ZSF%2BiCL. AC US160

Remo Diplomat Fiberskyn


Aquarian Modern Vintage II


Snare Drum Heads:


Evans G14 Coated


71IsqH%2BAcAL. AC US160

Remo Fiberskyn


Aquarian Modern Vintage Thin


Tom Heads:

61nZ5gWiWmL. AC US160

Evans G1 Coated


71kczMWzfpL. AC US160

Remo Ambassador Coated


21biSnmTvWL. AC US160

Aquarian Jack DeJohnette Sig.


The Greats

Here is a list of ten legendary jazz drummers that you can check out. You can click on each name to see a performance by each person. During their career, each one of these drummers made a significant impact on the development of jazz drumming.

the greats buddy rich

Buddy Rich

the greats tony williams

Tony Williams

the greats max roach

Max Roach

the greats elvin jones

Elvin Jones

the greats papa jo jones

Papa Jo Jones

the greats art blakely

Art Blakey

the greats gene krupa

Gene Krupa

the greats joe morello

Joe Morello

the greats roy haynes

Roy Haynes

the greats philly jo jones

Philly Joe Jones

The Records

Listening to music is an important part of learning a new style. Here are fifteen essential jazz albums that every drummer should check out.

Clifford Brown & Max Roach - Clifford Brown & Max Roach (1954)

Clifford Brown & Max Roach
“Clifford Brown & Max Roach” (1954)
Drummer: Max Roach

Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Colossus (1956)

Sonny Rollins
“Saxophone Colossus” (1956)
Drummer: Max Roach

Miles Davis - Milestones (1958)

Miles Davis
“Milestones” (1958)
Drummer: Philly Joe Jones

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Out (1959)

The Dave Brubeck Quartet
“Time Out” (1959)
Drummer: Joe Morello

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue (1959)

Miles Davis
“Kind of Blue” (1959)
Drummer: Jimmy Cobb

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers - A Night in Tunisia (1960)

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
“A Night in Tunisia” (1960)
Drummer: Art Blakey

Hank Mobley - Soul Station (1960)

Hank Mobley
“Soul Station” (1960)
Drummer: Art Blakey

John Coltrane - Coltrane (1962)

John Coltrane
“Coltrane” (1962)
Drummer: Elvin Jones

Thelonious Monk - Monk’s Dream (1963)

Thelonious Monk
“Monk’s Dream” (1963)
Drummer: Frankie Dunlop

Miles Davis - Seven Steps to Heaven (1963)

Miles Davis
“Seven Steps to Heaven” (1963)
Drummer: Tony Williams

Herbie Hancock - Maiden Voyage (1965)

Herbie Hancock
“Maiden Voyage” (1965)
Drummer: Tony Williams

John Coltrane - A Love Supreme (1965)

John Coltrane
“A Love Supreme” (1965)
Drummer: Elvin Jones

Joe Henderson - Mode for Joe (1966)

Joe Henderson
“Mode for Joe” (1966)
Drummer: Joe Chambers

Buddy Rich Big Band - Big Swing Face (1967)

Buddy Rich Big Band
“Big Swing Face” (1967)
Drummer: Buddy Rich

Bill Evans - At the Montreux Jazz Festival (1968)

Bill Evans
“At the Montreux Jazz Festival” (1968)
Drummer: Jack DeJohnette

Drumeo Live – Jazz Lessons

Here are 4 incredible jazz drum lessons from Drumeo.

Mark Guiliana Drum Lessons

Mark Guiliana (Avishai Cohen, Brad Mehldau)

Steve Lyman Drum Lessons

Steve Lyman (Chase Baird, José James)

Peter Erskine Drum Lessons

Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Steps Ahead)

Dave King Drum Lessons

Dave King (The Bad Plus, Happy Apple)

Jazz Listening List

Here are some jazz tracks we think you’ll like:

Wow! You made it to the end!

Even though it’s the end of the article, it’s not the end of the great content we have available. If you want to become the best drummer you can be, check out Drumeo Edge.

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  • 230+ play-along songs
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  • Helpful community forums

Includes song breakdowns for:

  • Miles Davis – Freddie Freeloader
  • Buddy Rich Big Band – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
  • Glenn Miller – In The Mood
  • Benny Goodman – Sing, Sing, Sing

Drumeo Edge exclusive courses by:

  • Steve Lyman
  • Peter Erskine
  • Billy Cobham
  • Mark Guiliana
  • Dave King

Check out Drumeo Edge »

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Brandon Toews is an author, educator, and performer based out of Vancouver, Canada. Brandon is the author of The Drummer's Toolbox, co-author of The Best Beginner Drum Book, and the Content Director at Musora, home to the award-winning online music education platforms Drumeo, Pianote, Guitareo and Singeo.

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