by Chuck Israels

Lesson 12 - The Rhythm Section


How do jazz drummers play? How is it that the sound of the cymbal “ride” patterns of great jazz drummers is so personal that it can be identified by an experienced listener in a matter of a few measures of listening? What is it that identifies so clearly the playing of Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Pete La Roca, Larry Bunker, Donald Bailey, Bill Goodwin, Mel Lewis, Billy Higgins and other great jazz drummers with identifiable personal styles?

It has been recommended by some jazz educators that student drummers should play strong accents on both the high hat and on the ride cymbal on the 2nd and 4th beats of every measure. This seems a perverse suggestion in light of the fact that not one of the above mentioned great drummers remotely approaches this way of playing! In fact, this way of playing could not possibly “swing” in 4/4 meter as it would effectively create a discontinuity in the rhythmic line, cutting each measure into two disparate parts. This would only be useful and appropriate in creating a strong “2” feel such as might be needed in the last chorus of an Ellington composition of the 1930’s. Even then, the strong accent is confined to the high hat and snare while the ride continues to be played in a more evenly accented “4” pattern.

So, to return to the question of what the playing of these great drummers may have in common, it is important to recognize that judged over a period long enough to be heard as a musical phrase, they all share an approach that creates a certain even proportion of accents in all parts of the measure. The ride cymbal beat expresses a rhythmic “line” rather than a “one note at a time” pattern. That line is built on a base (not bass) line of evenly accented quarter notes into which are added subtly accented nuances. This takes place over rhythmic phrases that stretch across several measures creating an expression of human breath.

Into this quarter note line, shorter note values are interjected at a reduced volume before the 3rd and 1st beats. The relative dynamic level and rhythmic placement of these smaller notes create an identifying characteristic of each drummer’s style. It is more enlightening to consider these notes as interjections in the basic quarter note line than to try to understand them from the point of view of conventional music notation, which over-emphasizes their importance and intensity in relation to the more important 1st and 3rd quarter notes of each measure. They are better understood as embellishments of the essential quarter notes that follow them rather than as individual entities. They act in fact as “grace” notes and are usefully understood in that way.

These small note values establish the basis for rhythmic unity and swing in the ensemble by delineating the subdivisions within the quarter note pulses that make the duration of those pulses reliably predictable by other members of the ensemble (and the audience). These subdivisions, established by the drummer’s cymbal ride, may or may not be adhered to by other ensemble members but the quarter note pulses must be, unless the swing is to be put at risk. It is the help these “grace” notes give to the establishment of the quarter note stability that makes them useful.
(It is a useless oversimplification of jazz rhythm to suggest that these “grace” notes in the ride cymbal pattern should always control the way the rest of the band phrases and subdivides the music. The integrity is in the quarter note pulse. Reducing it further renders the music monotonous.)

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

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This ride pattern must do its job in such a way as to be infectious and inspiring rather than irritating and distracting to the overall effect of the music. It is a wonder that this can be done in such a wide range of ways, from the enormous roar of Blakey at his loudest, to the subtle lift of Kenny Clarke or Larry Bunker. (The most effective drummers are those who are able to whisper and roar with equal intensity at appropriate moments in the music.) As this style of jazz drumming has developed over the last 50 or 60 years, the placement of these smaller notes in the ride pattern has taken on an increased freedom and variety, with the result that, in the best cases, the tyranny of the down beat has been minimized, and the rhythmic line has been equalized and extended. This is done by occasional omission of the expected “grace” notes or placement of them in a less predictable way on other beats. This development has had a felicitous effect on a style of music which otherwise has a preponderance of events happening on the first beats of the measures where most significant harmonic changes take place.

One less fortunate effect of this freedom to place the grace notes differently or to omit them has been the tendency of insensitive or inexperienced drummers to exacerbate the problem of the over accented 1st beat by insisting on playing a pattern like this:

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It is hard to imagine a quicker or more effective way to destroy the fluidity of the music.

So far the discussion has been confined to ride cymbal patterns and the emphasis on the 1st and 3rd quarter notes of 4/4 measures created by preceding those quarter notes with grace notes. This emphasis is effectively counterbalanced by subtle use of the foot-operated high hat cymbal on the 2nd and 4th quarter notes, re-establishing equality and smoothness to the rhythmic line. This in fact, is the most effective use and purpose for the “high hat on 2 and 4”. Exaggerated and disproportionate accents on 2 and 4 only serve to interrupt the flow of the music. “Shuffle” patterns are a variation on the previously described styles in which the off beats are lightly emphasized by the snare drum in conjunction with the ride cymbal pattern. This technique is most effective at medium tempos in which the extra “weight” on the quarter note pulse is desired as a contrast to the usual more “horizontal” flow of the normal ride pattern.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

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Also usefully interjected into the flow of the ride pattern are light accents played on the snare, bass drum and tom toms, which provide “conversational” encouragement to the music. These accents must correspond in volume and intensity to the prevailing dynamic level, lest they overpower other elements and become interruptive rather than supportive.

All of this being said, it is important to point out that the most interesting drum parts, those that make the greatest contribution to variety in the rhythmic texture, are those that judiciously abandon the “ride cymbal beat” in order to play fills and new accompanying patterns. While the ride cymbal sound can make a useful contribution to the rhythmic life of the music in the hands of a great drummer, nothing can so quickly freshen the ear of the listener as periodic relief from its sound. In the best cases, every opportunity to add interest to the music by changing the role of the drums must be sought. In seeking ways to make these changes, balance must be maintained by continuing some rhythms for a long enough time to set up a pattern of expectation in the music, lest constant change become a predictable pattern in itself.

variety may be created in one way by doubling the time values of the cymbal ride pattern, slowing it down and creating a “2” feel while keeping the high hat playing on the 2nd and 4th beats.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

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The bass part must then be based on embellished half notes. (It is essential for the drummer to avoid playing anything on the 2nd quarter note of measures which establish a “2” feel and conversely, to make sure to play the 2nd quarter as soon as a change to 4/4 feel is desired.) Another way to find variety is to double up the occurrence of the high hat beats while maintaining the 4/4 ride.

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

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This creates a lilting “double time” feel and can be used to stimulate or support solo passages that contain a prevalence of 16th note patterns.

All of the preceding techniques can be equally effective when performed with wire brushes on the snare drum rather than with sticks on the cymbals and drums. This is a much under-used texture and a return to the use of brushes would do much to improve the balance and general acoustic blend of jazz ensembles.

Another technique best reserved for ensemble sections with a 2 beat feel (or specialized 4/4 sections), is to play on the high hat cymbal with sticks - alternately opening and closing it in this pattern:

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

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This is a common sound in opening sections of compositions in the style of Count Basie’s band and listening to that music will go a long way towards showing how that technique might best be applied to other music.

Whatever happens in the form of the music, it is usually the responsibility of the drum part to direct changes of texture and dynamics in jazz ensembles. In order for this to be accomplished effectively, these changes must occur in that part (and often in the bass and piano parts as well) significantly earlier than they occur in the rest of the ensemble. The implications of this aspect of the role of the drums are far reaching and are little understood by many drummers and arranger/composers, let alone by other musicians less involved in rhythm section practices. volumes could be written about ways in which to realize this element of the drummer’s role but the best way to learn it is to study the wonderful examples in the work of Philly Joe Jones, Larry Bunker, Bill Goodwin, Billy Higgins, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Pete La Roca, Donald Bailey, Max Roach, Mel Lewis, Jack de Johnette, Tony Williams, Joey Baron, and all the others I can’t think to mention. This is a significant, though certainly incomplete list. Arrangers might well consider taking advantage of the examples provided by the legacy of great improvised drum parts.

Many other techniques have been established in Jazz drumming and rhythm section styles that can usefully be studied and applied to new situations. The Ahmad Jamal Trio of the 1950’s, with vernell Fournier and Israel Crosby provides a wealth of examples. Connie Kay’s work in the Modern Jazz Quartet offers a number of useful techniques. Elvin Jones and Tony Williams offer passionately varied ways of playing that might apply to a number of musical situations

Much remains to be done in the development of jazz drumming styles and an informed knowledge of the creative choices made according to the musical surroundings by some of these extraordinary drummers can provide fertile ground for the growth of new styles.


How doThere is a long-standing tradition of including the guitar in the rhythm section, and Freddie Green, the guitarist in count Basie’s band, set the standard for the integration of the un-amplified guitar in the jazz rhythm section. The quality of Freddie Green’s playing in this 4/4, quarter note style was so compelling that most arrangers simply write his name above the guitar part when calling for this kind of playing. The style is characterized by simple chords played on the lower strings of the guitar on every quarter note. The chords often omit the 5th string, if the 6th string is played (in order to maintain clear sounding voicings in that register), and some chords are played with the 5th in the bass (on the 6th string). (This does not produce a true 2nd inversion sound, because the volume of the un-amplified guitar is weak in comparison with the string bass, or other instruments that may be playing in the bass register.) Arrangers rarely take responsibility for writing out chord voicings in this style, writing only slash notation with chord symbols. Experienced guitarists will interpret this style correctly, choosing suitable voicings and playing quarter notes with the correct articulation.
(This articulation requires that the guitarist lift the fingers of the left hand off the strings on the last triplet eighth note of each beat, lightly damping them and precisely ending the sound of the chord, so that the short silences between each quarter note add as much to the perception of the rhythm as the attacks. This effect is subtle, but its correct execution adds immeasurably to the swinging feel of the rhythm section pulse, especially when combined with string bass quarter notes that provide continuity to the line by ringing quietly into the next attack.)

Score References & Musical Examples Using JABB:

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I have often heard the admonition that guitarists ought not to comp in the style of the preceding piano examples at the same time that a pianist is comping, lest the different rhythmic and harmonic ideas create excess conflict. However, my experience in ensembles with good pianists and guitarists belies this advice. Of course, alternating accompanying instruments can add variety, but there are times when musical excitement invites both instruments to participate in an accompanying texture. What seems to work best is to have the guitarist limit the chords to simple voicings, interjecting them between the piano chords. This technique can create an exciting, dense, accompaniment that is a useful addition to the arsenal of comping textures. And rhythmic riff figures are just as good on the guitar as they are on the piano.

Some understanding of the guitar fret board is helpful in learning how to write more detailed music for the instrument, but there are few melodic limitations that require special attention. Rapidly alternating notes on the same fret present special problems, but experienced guitarists are used to coping with this issue. Most chords are available in “drop 2” voicings (where the second voice is dropped an octave, leaving what was originally the third voice as the next below the lead – the new second voice), and there are a few that can be played in closed position. There are a number of useful sounds available on three adjacent strings, some of which include the interval of a second. Drawing a fret board diagram for the notes in question is a good way to discover what is and is not practical on the guitar.

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Coming Next Lesson: Lesson 13 - Writing for Two Voices