As with the bassist, one of the roles of the drummer in traditional forms of jazz is to play a steady beat in the style of the song. By steady, I mean with regards to tempo, and do not mean to imply that you should not be creative and vary your patterns. I cannot shed much light on the specifics of drum techniques, but I can describe some basic patterns and styles, and give you some hints on other aspects of the role of the drummer.

The basic 4/4 swing beat consists of two components: the ride pattern and the hi-hat pattern. The fundamental ride pattern is the “1, 2 and, 3, 4 and” or “ding ding-a ding ding-a” pattern played on the ride cymbal with swung eighth notes. The hi-hat is normally closed sharply on “two” and “four”. This is what most simple drum machines will play when the “swing” setting is selected. This pattern is appropriate for many jazz songs, especially medium or up-tempo standards or bebop tunes. Slower songs like ballads often call for the use of brushes on the snare drum rather than sticks on the cymbals as the main pattern. There are a few books that can help you in constructing patterns for other styles; one such book is Essential Styles For The Drummer And Bassist. The most important of the styles you may be expected to play are described below.

The basic shuffle beat consists of eighth notes on the ride cymbal and possibly snare. The second and fourth beats are usually more strongly emphasized as well. The basic jazz waltz or 3/4 swing pattern consists of “one, two, and-of-two, three” or “ding ding-a ding” on the ride cymbal, with the hi-hat on “two”. Other variations include using the hi-hat on “two” and “three”, or on all three beats; adding the snare on the “and-of-two” or on the “and-of-one” and on “three”.

Three forms of Latin jazz you should be able to play include the bossa nova, the samba, and the mambo. The essence of most forms of Latin jazz is the clave, which is a type of rhythmic pattern. The basic clave is two measures long, and consists of “one, and-of-two, four; two, three”. There is also an African clave or Rumba clave in which the third note is played on the “and-of-four” rather than on the beat. The bossa nova uses a variation of the basic clave in which the last note falls on the “and-of-three” rather than on the beat. These clave patterns can also be inverted, meaning the two measures are swapped. The clave would usually be played as hits on the rim of the snare on a traditional drum set, although it is often not played explicitly by the drummer at all, in which case an auxiliary percussionist may play it.

The clave is supplemented with other patterns on other drums. The bass drum may play on “one” and “three” with eighth note pickups. The hi-hat is closed on “two” and “four”. Other patterns may be played on a cymbal or on a cowbell. Typical mambo patterns include “one, two, three, and-of-three, and-of-four; one, two, and-of-two, and-of-three, and-of-four” or “one, two, three, and-of-three; one, and-of-one, and-of-two, and-of-three, four”. A simple pattern consisting of “two, four, and-of-four” is played on the snare rim and the mounted tom instead of a clave. Bossa novas may use a pattern consisting of straight eighth notes on the ride cymbal. Sambas have a double-time feel. The cymbal pattern is usually straight eighth notes, and is often played on a closed hi-hat. The snare drum may be simply hit on “four” instead of playing the clave.

Certain compositions, such as Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” or Tony Williams’ “Sister Cheryl”, have unique drum patterns that are indelibly associated with the particular song. Listening to recordings of a song to be performed before trying to play it is probably more helpful for drummers than for any other musicians, since fakebooks generally do not provide many hints for the drummer.

A good drummer will not simply play the same pattern over and over for an entire song. For one thing, you may vary the pattern, perhaps by playing only quarter notes on the ride cymbal, or occasionally varying the rhythm to “ding-a ding ding-a ding”. Or, you could play the hi-hat on every beat. You may also want to use the other drums, such as the toms, as part of your basic beat for a song. Tony Williams is a master at varying his patterns in this way.

Often, a drummer will play a simple two-beat during the head, and switch to straight four for the solos. One of the easiest ways to change the feel of a piece is to simply switch cymbals for the ride pattern, for instance when there is a change in soloist, or to mark the bridge of a song. Marking the form of a tune is another important role of the drummer. Most typical song forms have 4 or 8 bar phrases. At the end of each phrase, the drummer often plays a more complex pattern or fill to lead into the next phrase. Another tactic is to change the basic beat from phrase to phrase. As a drummer, you should always be conscious of the form of the song, and know where any breaks, special introductions, or codas are. You should be able to sing to the melody to yourself during solos if necessary, so that you can outline the form for the soloist. This will help the soloist keep his place, by allowing him to recognize when you have reached the bridge, for example. Also, the soloist is usually structuring his own phrases along the lines of the original form. By adhering to that form yourself, you will usually be supporting the development of his ideas. Art Blakey is a master of playing the form and supporting soloists in this way.

During a solo, an instrumentalist may leave deliberate breaks in his phrases. As with the pianist and bassist, the drummer may decide to fill those spaces with some sort of answering phrase or counterrhythm. Drummers may also create tension through the use of polyrhythm, which is two or more different rhythms superimposed on each other; for instance, three against four. A drummer can either try to play two different rhythms himself, or work with the bassist or another accompanist, or the soloist, to create a polyrhythm between them. As with the use of counterpoint in bass lines, however, you need to balance the desire for rhythmic variation with the realization that clutter or chaos can result if you go too far.

Since everyone depends on the drummer to keep accurate time, rhythmic stability is essential. However, the rhythmic interest of the drum part is also important, and it is vital during drum solos. Percussion is not only about rhythm, either. As a drummer, you cannot play lines that are interesting in a traditional melodic or harmonic sense, but you can vary the timbre of your lines by playing across drums or cymbals of different pitches. You should still think melodically when playing the drums.