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A Drummer’s Guide To Rock

Brandon Toews  /  Feb 4, 2019

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 rock drumming!

Rock: A brief introduction to the genre

Beginnings Of The Genre
The earliest form of rock music emerged in the 1940s and 1950s and was called rock and roll. I’m talking about Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly. These musicians all drew from their blues, gospel, and country roots, to create this new sound known as rock music. Rock and roll was music for a younger audience and was characterized by the sound of electric guitars and accented snare drum backbeats.

Rock Gets Rolling
As we move into the 1960s, we start to see the development of some different rock subgenres like surf rock, garage rock, psychedelic rock, blues rock, and progressive rock. Bands like the Jeff Beck Group, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones are all results of this era. A decade after the emergence of rock and roll, drummers were playing their instrument like never before – with aggression, power, and speed. When we compare the drumming of D.J. Fontana (Elvis Presley) to Mitch Mitchell (The Jimi Hendrix Experience), we can hear similarities in basic vocabulary between both players, but how they’re playing is where the real differences lie.

The Evolution Of Rock
By the 1970s, musicians were merging anything and everything with rock music. This is where we see the rise of subgenres like glam rock, punk rock, hard rock, new wave, and roots rock. During this era, the rock sound really started to develop into what it is today. Bands were releasing tons of iconic songs and albums that would pave the way for rock musicians decades later. Some of these bands were:

Since then, countless subgenres have emerged including grunge, pop punk, rap rock, post-hardcore, and indie rock.

No matter what the subgenre is, we can trace all elements of rock music including instrumentation, song structure, melody, harmony, and rhythm, back to its original form or rock and roll.

Learn Rock Drum Beats

The most important elements of rock drumming are the bass drum and the snare drum. In most rock songs, the snare drum is played on beats two and four. These are called the backbeats. If you listen to songs like “Back in Black” by AC/DC, “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, or “Come as You Are” by Nirvana, you can hear consistent backbeats being played on beats two and four. Here is what a standard rock drum beat looks like with the bass drum played on beats one and three and the backbeats played on beats two and four.

The backbeat can also be moved to beat three to create a
half-time feel. This type of beat is often heard in rock ballads. You can hear what this sounds like in the rock ballad “Send Me An Angel” by the Scorpions at 2:32.

bass drum pattern in a drum groove often follows the rhythmic pattern that the bass guitar player is playing. Check out Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and listen to how the bass drum and bass guitar parts are often played exactly in unison. When you play the groove below, imagine that there’s a bass player following your bass drum pattern. As another challenge, turn on your favourite song and try to follow the bass guitar part with your bass drum!

How To Modify Beats – Rock Style

Instead of playing eighth notes on the hi-hats, rock drummers will often play sixteenth notes with one hand (“Tom Sawyer” by Rush) or two hands (“Everlong” by the Foo Fighters). The tempo of the song will often determine which option you choose.

One Handed Version

Two Handed Version

Depending on the subgenre, drummers will modify their rock grooves by using different sound sources (open hi-hats, ride cymbal, crash cymbal, etc.), changing the rhythm of the lead hand pattern, and adding more layers to the groove (ghost notes, hi-hat foot). Let’s start with this basic groove:

Using Different Sound Sources

This variation is played with the hi-hats slightly open. You can hear this type of beat in styles like hard rock and punk rock.

This lead hand in this groove alternates between the bell and bow of the ride cymbal. This type of beat is used in all rock styles ranging from pop rock to surf rock to pop punk!

Modifying the Lead Hand Pattern

In this groove we’ll move the lead hand to the crash cymbal and play quarter notes instead of eighth notes. This groove can be used in styles like grunge and hard rock.

Now, move your lead hand to the ride cymbal to play this groove. These types of ride cymbal patterns are often used in styles like progressive rock.

Adding Layers to the Groove

Ghost notes are used in all styles of rock music. This is a great way to add rhythmic density, dynamics, and texture to your grooves!

The hi-hat foot is probably the least used and most underdeveloped limb among drummers. Incorporating your hi-hat foot into your grooves is great way to add texture and maintain a rock solid pulse (your band will thank you for this)!

Learn Rock Drum Fills

Drum fills are an essential part of rock drumming. These are most commonly used to signal a transition in a song, like from a verse to a chorus. It is important to remember that here is no “one” correct drum fill to play at a specific section in a song. Drum fills are also not restricted to specific genres. For example, you could use many of the same fills in a hard rock context and in a punk rock or progressive rock context. Be creative and most importantly, be musical! The following examples will introduce you to some one bar, half bar, and one beat drum fills. As you work through these fills, try experimenting with some different fill orchestrations as well!

One Bar Fills

This fill is known as an eighth note build. When you play this fill, make sure you crescendo throughout the measure.

This one is for all of you John Bonham fans. These triplet figures are known as Bonham triplets. You can hear what they sound like in Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” at 4:57.

Half Bar Fills

You may not always want to play a drum fill that lasts for an entire bar. In these situation, you can use half bar fills! Here are some that will get you started.

One Beat Fills

And if a half bar fill is still too long, you can use drum fills that only last one beat. These are subtle fills that can be very effective. Here are a few to start you off.

How To Play Common Rock Drum Fills

The Equipment

The Drums

Types & Sizes
A standard “rock drum-set” consists of a bass drum (20”-24”), two rack toms (10”-13”), a floor tom (14”-16”), and a snare drum (14”). While a standard rock configuration would include five drums, rock drummers are known for incorporating many additional drums into their setups. You will often see auxiliary snare drums and bass drums being used by rock drummers, as well as additional rack toms and floor toms. Even though jazz drummers had experimented with using additional sound sources before rock music even existed, progressive rock drummers were some of the first to start incorporating many different drums and additional sound sources into their setups in the 1960s to create massive kit configurations.

  • drumeo drum set
    Standard “rock drum-set”

Wood Types

Nowadays, drum shells are made from so many unique wood types including bubinga, mahogany, walnut, oak, and beech. However, the two most popular wood types are maple and birch.

Maple is the industry standard for recording. It produces warm tones with an even range of high, medium, and low frequencies. While there are exceptions, maple drums are typically more expensive than birch drums.

Birch produces a sharper, more focused sound than maple. This is due to the accentuation of birch’s higher frequencies. Many drummers prefer to use birch drums for live performance because of their focused and bright sound.

Oak Snare

Maple Snare

Walnut Snare

Birch Snare

Metal Snare Drums
Many rock drummers choose to use metal snare drums instead of wood snare drums. Steel, brass, aluminum, and titanium are some of the most common choices among rock drummers.

Brass Snare

Steel Snare

Titanium Snare

Aluminium Snare

Snare Drums

Aluminum: Ludwig Acrolite


Brass: Ludwig Black Beauty


Steel: Yamaha Recording Custom Stainless Steel


Titanium: Dunnett Classic Titanium


Oak: Yamaha Oak Custom


Maple: Sonor Maple


The Cymbals

Types & Sizes
There are four essential cymbals in a rock drummer’s cymbal setup: one ride cymbal (20”-22”), two crash cymbals (16”-20”), and a pair of hi-hats (14”-15”). Auxiliary crash cymbals, splash cymbals, Chinese cymbals, and other effects cymbals are used by many drummers as well. Cymbals that are used in a rock setting tend to be quite thick and bright sounding which allows them to be heard clearly in the context of a full band.

Popular cymbals used in rock are the Zildjian A Custom Series, Sabian AAX Series, Meinl Mb20 Series, and Paiste 2002 Series.

In addition to these popular rock cymbals, here are some other cymbals that you can check out that will work perfectly in a rock drumming context:

Ride Cymbals

Sabian 21” HHX Groove Ride


Zildjian 21” A Sweet Ride


Paiste 22” Heavy Ride


Meinl 20” Byzance Brilliant Heavy Ride



Sabian 15” Artisan Hi-Hats


Zildjian 14” A New Beat Hi-Hats


Paiste 15” 2002 Sound Edge Hi-Hats


Meinl 14” Byzance Brilliant Heavy Hi-Hats


Crash Cymbals

Sabian 19” HHX X-Plosion Crash


Zildjian 20” A Medium Thin Crash


Paiste 18” Signature Full Crash


Meinl 18” Byzance Brilliant Medium Crash


Effects Cymbals

Sabian 19” Paragon China


Zildjian 14” A Custom EFX


Paiste 10” Signature Splash


Meinl 18” Byzance Traditional China


The Drumheads

Material & Thickness
Both coated and clear batter heads are used for playing rock. For the sake of durability, two-ply drumheads are most commonly used. Clear drumheads provide a brighter sound with more attack than coated drumheads. Using a coated batter head will provide warmth and some muffling. As for resonant heads, one-ply clear drumheads are the most common choice among rock drummers. This allows for maximum resonance. Some resonant heads will feature subtle dampening to control unwanted overtones as well.

Here are some drumhead combinations that we recommend for rock drumming:

Bass Drum

Evans EMAD2 Clear Bass Batter


Evans EMAD Bass Reso


Remo Powerstroke P3 Clear


Remo Powerstroke P3 Ebony


Aquarian Super Kick II Clear


Aquarian Regulator Black


Snare Drum

Evans Genera HD Dry Snare Batter


Evans Clear 300 Snare Side


Remo Ambassador Coated


Remo Ambassador Clear Snare Side


Aquarian Texture Coated White


Aquarian Classic Clear Snare Side



Evans G2 Clear


Evans G1 Clear


Remo Ambassador Clear


Remo Diplomat Clear


Aquarian Response 2 Clear


Aquarian Classic Clear


Muffling & Dampening
Muffling is a common technique used by rock drummers to achieve a more focused, and less resonant sound. Nowadays, there are tons of drumheads that are designed to help dampen or muffle the drumhead, like the
Evans EC2 Series, which comes with a control ring mounted on the underside of the drumhead, and Evans EMAD Series, which comes with an externally mounted foam ring.

There are also many dampening products on the market that drummers use in recording, practicing, and performing environments. Some of these include Drumtacs, MoonGel, Drumdots, and Snareweight.

The Greats

Here is a list of ten drummers that have had a significant impact in the world of rock drumming. You can click on each name to watch a performance by each drummer!


Keith Moon


John Bonham


Ringo Starr


Roger Taylor


Ginger Baker


Mitch Mitchell


Stewart Copeland


Chad Smith


Carter Beauford


Taylor Hawkins

To learn about other influential drummers in the genre, check out this list of the top 20 rock drummers of all time!

The Records

Here are fifteen essential rock albums that every drummer should check out. These albums span a number of different rock subgenres including psychedelic rock, hard rock, progressive rock, and alternative rock!

Rock Listening List

Recommended tracks as curated by Brandon Toews

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Brandon Toews is an author, educator, and performer based out of Vancouver, Canada. He 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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