Making the Beat: Jazz Drums


Welcome to the fourth drum based tutorial in the series that will show you what the beats are and how to make them sound good. In this tutorial we are going to continue to cover one the hardest styles to sequence, Jazz.

Also available in this series:

  1. Making the Beat: Rock Drums
  2. Making the Beat: Afro-Cuban Drums
  3. Making the Beat: Brazilian Drums
  4. Making the Beat: Jazz Drums
  5. Making the Beat: Drum N Bass Drums

Jazz or swing has groove all its own that no other style can lay claim to. Whether its fast big band or a slow club feel, the Jazz sound is unmistakable. What makes Jazz drums so hard to sequence? The problem is every sequencer is usually set to have four even subdivisions per beat (these are your 16th notes). Jazz however has a subdivision of three (triplets).

But fear not, we will approach this tutorial in the same fashion, just keep track of the concepts and the numbers and you will be good to go! The last time we talked we built beats from smaller elements that when summed together formed our bigger beats; this tutorial will do so as well. With that all in mind, get ready to swing!

Setting Up

Setting Up: What You Need

If you have read my previous tutorials then this section will not be anything new to you. If you have not read it, then by all means do so! It is important to have an initial game plan on how you want to approach programming your drum beats, and this section will outline your options for you.

This tutorial is aimed to be predominantly DAW and plugin independent; you work with what you feel most comfortable using. However, some tools within the DAW or plugin are necessary to have in order to effectively complete this tutorial.

You will need either a step sequencer or a piano roll in order to place the rhythms.

A well rounded sample library for all drums and cymbals (you can use a drum synth if you so choose but make sure you can create a lot of different sounds with it).

The ability the change the volume of various hits throughout the drum pattern. Make some cymbal hits softer or louder than others, etc. Some may do it via MIDI, other might just change the actual volume of the hit.

Setting Up: What to Use

There can be features of a particular editor that make more advantageous over another when it comes to making drum beats on the computer; but it may have disadvantages as well. Here we will go over the different approaches to constructing drums on the computer and you can decided which methodology is works best for you.

Individual Sampler

This method involves loading samples into a sampler that can only play one sample at a time. Why use it? Usually these samplers have a lot of tools that allow you to manipulate the sample far beyond other samplers. Usually when using these samplers you either have piano roll access or a step sequencer. The disadvantage to this however is that most likely you will not be able to see the whole rhythm of the kit and will need to know exactly how the different instruments fit together.

Pre Constructed Kits

Some programs offer prebuilt kits and usually have the kit laid out across a piano roll so that you can see the whole kits rhythm. You usually will have finer control over the placement of each hit over a step sequencer. The disadvantage is that you may or may not be able to edit each individual sample to the fullest depending on the program.

Multi-Sample Sampler

These samplers are designed usually with drum sets in mind. They allow for multiple samples to be loaded in and sometimes multiple samples per instrument. Why would you want multiple samples per instrument? So that as you program volume changes the sampler will load different samples. This way you don't need 5 different hi-hats channels, 5 different rides, etc. You just program volume changes. Be careful though, sometimes these samplers can be very CPU intensive and can easily bog down your system if you're not careful. In regards to rhythm placement, some use piano rolls and others use step sequencers; it will depend on the plugin.

My Recommendations

I personally am an advocate of having the most versatility at my finger tips, but maintaining ease of use. I like the multi-sample drum samplers with piano roll access and mixer track access because I will have the most control over my sound without overloading myself with controls. If you are not looking for a lot of fine tuned control then try for a pre-constructed kit. If you are looking for glitch kit design or a lot of manipulation you might need the utmost intensive control and opt for the individual samplers. The choice is yours, and remember that these are general guidelines; there can easily be other approaches or different combinations of the above.

Need to Swing: Jazz Drum Theory

Jazz is an all American music and is Americas true form of music. Its roots come deep from the blues in both rhythm and chord progression. Jazz has a push and pull to it that is definitely felt and changes depending on style and tempo. A slow piece will have a much tighter swing where as a medium to fast tempo tune will be a bit looser.

For Jazz drums, the priority list changes a great deal from Rock and Pop drums but generally differs less from Latin. In Jazz terms, the offbeat accent is extremely important in coloring the rhythmic sound to give it some variety. Also the hi-hat is the rock solid foundation to the entire ensemble and is what everything else is based around. The ride also plays a big role in making sure the beats don't get too monotonous. Lets look deeper into the function of each drum in a Jazz setting.

The Kick

The kick drum in Jazz music is used as a color to accent the beat as a whole. You typically will not find the heavy downbeats on beats one and three like in Rock music (but you definitely still can if you want to). By mixing the kick between down beats and off beats it creates the form to the overall beat. In addition, it is also used to bring attention to various parts of the melody and help shape the form of the tune.

The Snare

The snare behaves much like the kick in Jazz music. It provides a counter to the deepness of the snare drum sonically, but still functions in much the same way. The snare also usually has a lot of interplay in between the ride patterns to keep the sound moving and accent various parts of the measure that might go unaccented. Also like the kick, the snare will help outline the melody and form of the song by accenting parts of the melody.

The Cymbal

The cymbals play a very crucial role in the Jazz drum sound. The hi-hat almost always is on beats two and four, no questions. The hi-hat usually has a very tight sound and needs to be very strict in tempo. The ride provides the basic rhythm that sits over top of the hi-hat and is what gives us that basic swung feel. The only issue the ride has is that if the ride pattern does not change it can become very cheesy and boring. As such, it usually changes to reflect different parts of the song and fit with the melody.

The Toms

The toms usually are not played outside of fills or solos. While they certainly can be (and have by many drummers) it is always safe to keep them reserved for fills and solos. The toms play a very key role in fills since they add a change to the same tired rhythms. Simply altering what beat gets hit by a tom instead of a snare or kick can make a very good fill.

Start Walking

Jazz is a art of creation and exploration. The best Jazz drummers create on the spot to whatever song they are playing. They can usually play along with just about anyone who knows the song and every performance is a new story. However to get that sort of control and artistry, they needed to know the basics. This section will cover the basics of Jazz drums and get your foundation more solid so that the rest is a piece of cake.

The format throughout the rest of the tutorial for presenting the actual rhythms will list each instrument and which notes the instrument plays on in a 12 note measure. A 12-note pattern assumes that your smallest note subdivisions are 12 triplets in a four beat pattern. Each pattern will be listed from top to bottom so that cymbals are on the top and kick are on the bottom just as you would see if reading musical notation. Each will be accompanied with a picture to help visualize the pattern.

Start Walking: Basic Jazz

The very first pattern is the most basic essential Jazz pattern. I give this one pattern its own short section because its that important. This will be the backbone on which all the other variations are based. I will not notate that part of the beat if it does not change since it is so integral you should know it by memory. Lets take a look at this most basic beat...

Basic Jazz Pattern

Cymbal: 1,4,6,7,10,12

Hi-Hat: 4 and 10

As I said before, this is the most fundamental Jazz rhythm. Slow or fast, loud or soft, you cannot go wrong with this rhythm. Internalize this rhythm so you don't even need to think about it, you just know what it is. Try to feel the slow phrasing from beats 2 to 4 and the quick phrasing occurring on the downbeat.

From here on out I will be using this pattern as a base on which to add the different drums.

Start Walking: Snare and Kick

Lets first take a look at adding the kick and snare to beats 1,2,3, and 4 and work from there...

Jazz Beat #1

Snare: 4 and 10

kick: 1 and 7

Very simple and has that very heavy emphasis on each beat like the basic Rock pattern. While this is all well and good, its very cheesy and usually is reserved for a situation that needs to sound corny or amateur. By simply removing some of the notes it can sound a lot cleaner and not so corny. Here are two examples...

Jazz Beat #2

Snare: 4

Jazz Beat #3

Snare: 10

kick: 1

Still very basic, but sometimes that is all you will really need. Lets try putting some hits on beats other than the downbeat and see what happens.

Jazz Beat #4

Snare: 6 and 10

Jazz Beat #5

kick: 1 and 6

These beats are far from complex but they add a nice variation to downbeat based rhythm. Incase you have not noticed, the 'offbeat' is not truly off like in rock and other straight styles. For swung music, the offbeat is the third note in a triplet beat. This a very important concept to understand and will help out immensely later on down the road.

Here is another offbeat pattern for your learning pleasure...

Jazz Beat #6

Snare: 9

kick: 1

Experiment with different placements of these single hits, don't start trying to add two in a row (that's what this next section is for). Jazz is a very creative art so be creative!

Start Walking: Adding more Notes

Next we are going to cover how you add more notes in a row to the beat. While this might seem like such a simple concept (and it is) you need to know how to do it so that it does not come across as cheesy. Yes, mathematically placing the notes will eventually render you the same rhythms but that's not the point. The point is to know why you are adding certain rhythms and how they actually function. I will add some additional notes to a beat and see if you can tell why I added the extra notes where I did...

Jazz Beat #7

Snare: 6,8,9

kick: 1

Give up? I placed it in the space between beats 3 and 4. If you were to look at the ride beat as musical notation, beats 1 and 3 are quarter notes. This is a very optimal place to add those additional notes. Here is another example for you to work with...

Jazz Beat #8

Snare: 2 and 3

kick: 9

Now you don't have to add the extra notes just in the space, you can double the ride in parts and can be just as effective. Have a look at this example and tell me what you think.

Jazz Beat #9

kick: 1 and 12

Simple yet effective if I do say so myself (anyone ever mention Jazzers can have egos?).

Here is one more variation to give you some more creative ideas to work with. Note how I use the snare and kick in sequence this time.

Jazz Beat #10

Snare: 3,6,8,10

kick: 1,9,12

Start Walking: Wrap Up

If you follow the above examples and experiment with your own you are very much on your way to making Jazz drums. Think of the groove as a whole and not just beat by beat. Try to make the snare and kicks outline different aspects of your melody in a song and don't feel like you need a lot of snare or kick motion; if it doesn't sound right it isn't!. These are just some beats though, now we need some variety to keep it interesting.

Swing It

This next section will revolve around making those beats have a little more character to them. Jazz is very much about touch and control and you need to reflect that as best as possible in your sequencing. One of the best ways to replicate this touch is through dynamic contrast. As I mentioned earlier, another characteristic of a good Jazz drummer is how they change the ride pattern. The final concept that will really set off your sequencing is knowing how to work in 3/4 meter; known more commonly as a Jazz Waltz. Lets look at these variations and concepts and see how they work.

Swing It: Dynamic Contrast

While our beats were cool earlier, they were a little flat sounding. Lets look at the multi-hit patterns and try to replicate how the drummer might play these.

The first trick is to not make any two hits or more the same volume. For a drummer this can be very difficult especially at fast tempos. Lets try making the last note and accent instead. Here is an example...

Jazz Dynamic #1

Snare Accent: 9

Snare: 8

Jazz Dynamic #2

Snare Accent: 3

Snare: 2

Kick: 1 and 6

Same types of rhythms as before but has a much more natural feel to it. Don't let this be your only trick however. Here is an example that accents the first note in the series instead of the last...

Jazz Dynamic #3

Snare Accent: 2

Snare: 3

Once again it works just fine. Try now combining both into single groove and see what you get. Here is what I came up with...

Jazz Dynamic #4

Snare Accent: 3 and 10

Snare: 2 and 11

Kick: 1,6,12

You can do these tricks with the kick and toms, not just the snare. Experiment with the sounds and see what works best for your beats.

Swing It: Ride Variations

One of the best ways to alter your sound is by changing the ride beat. Theoretically you could use any variation on the triplet to get your ride beat. However, I will show you some of the more prominent versions that will always be useful.

The most prominent variation is using simple quarter notes like so...

Jazz Ride #1

Cymbal: 1,4,7,10

We use this pattern when the piece needs a very tight straight ahead feel. Also at faster tempos a real drummer will probably use quarter notes more often since its easier on the hands. It also works well for those snare and kick patterns that bounce off of the quarter note ride like we talked about earlier.

This next pattern is a simple combination of the quarter note and traditional beats...

Jazz Ride #2

Cymbal: 1,4,7,10,12

Essentially we are keeping beat four the same as the original but making the first three beats the quarter variation. Try making beat two have the additional notes instead of the fourth for another variant.

This last variation is different than the rest and adds a syncopated feel to the ride. Have a listen...

Jazz Ride #3

Cymbal: 1,3,6,10,12

Cool right? Try to use this pattern less frequently so that it really hits home when you do use it. Using it at the end of a phrase works really well too.

You can really do any variation you want but these are good go to beats if you are unsure. Remember be creative!

Swing It: Waltz

For those of you unfamiliar with what a Waltz is, a Waltz is a dance done in a 3/4 meter. It has the 'boom-cha-cha' feeling to it with an emphasis on the downbeat. Jazz has its own version of this dance know as the Jazz Waltz. Lets look at how this version differs from the regular Jazz swing. Keep this in mind, since we are now in a 3/4 meter, we will have a maximum of 9 beats per bar instead of 12. These patterns I will show you encompass both feet and ride beats that you can intermix. Also try adding some of the snare and kick concepts from earlier to give yourself even more beats.

Jazz Waltz #1

Cymbal: 1,4,6,7

Snare: 6

Hi-Hat: 4

Kick: 1

Got that 3/4 feeling? It's a really cool feel if you want to try working out a song in a Jazz Waltz. Here is another beat to try out, keep in mind the hi-hat.

Jazz Waltz #2

Cymbal: 1,3,6,7

Snare: 7

Hi-Hat: 4 and 7

Kick: 1

This pattern really accentuates the three feel by having the hi-hat on both beats two and three. It mimes the 'boom-cha-cha' as best as one possibly can on the drums. The last hi-hat variation is to put a hi-hat on just beat three. However, there is one more common variation that involves the kick. Take a listen...

Jazz Waltz #3

Cymbal: 1,4,7,9

Hi-Hat: 4

Kick: 1 and 6

This kick pattern adds a nice syncopated feel to the groove can be used with any of the hi-hat or ride variants in a Jazz waltz.

Swing It: Review

Making Jazz sound right is not an easy task for sequencing. You will most likely need to write out every measure in your song as if you were the drummer to make it sound right; copy and pasting beats doesn't work that well. However, with these couple tricks up your sleeves your life will be much easier it making sure it sounds good. Dynamic contrast and the appropriate amount of variety are the key to making it sound right.

Sound Color

Now comes the part where we talk about the samples and what works and what doesn't for the style. Up until now we have focused on creating the beats in the Jazz style. However, we need to make sure we are getting a good sound out of each drum. If you read my previous tutorial then you know that some people are on a perpetual quest for the perfect drum sound. Once again, if you are one of these people let me tell you that it does not exist. When dealing with programmed drums trying to sound real, you need to have the best samples you can get a hold of; end of story. Process all you want, but good samples are key to good drum sound. Now, you still will need some processing regardless so do not count yourself out yet if your samples are not godly. What we will focus on is making the kit as a whole sound more live and real and what you need to do in order to achieve that end. As I said in the beginning of this tutorial, you will need a lot of samples in order to get a good feel out of your programmed kit. Now we will go in depth on how to use them.

Sound Color: The Kick

A good kick is key to the creation of a quality drum sound regardless of genre. The kick is not the center of the Jazz world but it is still important. With Jazz kicks you have a few choices to pick from. You most likely will have kicks that sound natural, full, or cushioned; sometimes crossbreeds between two of them but not very often How do you decide which to use? Think of how you want your kit to sound.

- A traditional jazz/Latin album will have a very natural sound and you will want to hear the sound of the drum itself, not some processed pop tone. Keep this mind as well, sometimes this sort of tone will remove some attack from the kick and give it that cushioned quality. I like kicks that have a little bit of a ring to them for Jazz; not too much ring either though!

-If you want a fuller more Hollywood style sound then you will want a kick that has a nice bottom end with some attack. It should not be completely pop sounding, but not the natural tone either.

These of course are just guidelines but it hopefully gives you a sense of direction when trying to figure out your kick sound.

When actually programming of the kick you should probably have two, but definitely no more than three kick sounds. The kick tonally stays the same most of the time when being acoustically played. You will probably want a kick sound for quiet passages and another for louder passages; also regular kick vs accented kick.

Like always, if you ever have two kicks in rapid succession make sure they don't sound exactly alike. As a whole, it is difficult for a drummer to keep them 100% the same that fast.

Sound Color: The Snare

The snare is an interesting subject in the Jazz domain. Some people are very snare heavy while others rarely use it. Either way, your snare should have a tight natural sound to it. Often times people will play the unaccented notes very softly and it sounds like just a little bit of noise. This is known as chatter in the drum world. Make sure you have at least two snare sounds, the accented and the chatter.

I recommend starting with a good open snare sound that compliments the kick and does not conflict with the hi-hat or cymbals. Whenever you do pick your snare tone, make sure you start with your primary snare sample and build off that. If you have a harmonically rich snare you sometimes can EQ off other parts to create your additional snare sounds instead of sample hunting. Generally the softer hits are slightly higher in pitch/tone than the heavier hits but it can change depending on the drum. You should however have more contrast in your snare samples than your kick samples.

Do not forget the snare clicks or rimshots either. Clicks work well when sparsely used in soft or slow passage and rimshots work great for loud fast solos.

Sound Color: The Cymbals

Cymbals tend to fall into two categories when it comes to the cymbals actual timbre; dark or bright. Dark cymbals tend to have a rounder, warmer, and heavy tone to them while the bright cymbals are cutting, sharper, and higher toned than their darker counter parts. Also, you can have a combination of both dark and bright cymbals and get what some call a rich cymbal. This applies not just hi-hats and rides, but crashes as well. While these might be the way we categorize the actual cymbals, we also have to consider how the cymbal is played.

You are going to want a tight set of hi-hats that when closed together will not leave any extra ringing and leave you guessing on the beat. Your ride cymbals should have a little bit of stick noise from the initial impact if you want a slightly more authentic sound.

If you want a tighter ride sound make sure your sample doesn't have too much of a ring afterwards. However if you want a more of a wash, go for that longer decay sample.

How do we use cymbal samples? This will by far be the biggest pain in the entire tutorial but one of the most essential. Your cymbal samples should be fairly similar, closer to the way we did the kick. Why? Because most people do not actually sit there and intently listen on the tone of the cymbals. There is always variety but it is usually subtle and so to should your samples. You usually have to randomly assign your cymbal samples to get that psychoacoustic effect of knowing it is there but not noticing it. However, if you are lucky enough to be using a multi-sample sampler, then see if your plug-in can randomly playback your samples for you in your cymbal channel (see what I mean when I said I love multi-sample samplers?) You generally will need about 3-4 samples to get the effect.

Sound Color: Toms

Toms fall back into their normal place in drumset music as almost strictly fill based. You still will want a good set of natural sounding toms. Some people like higher pitched ones for Jazz but plenty of drummers have still used a boomy set of toms. Whatever style of toms you decide to go with, make sure you have a corresponding set of rimshot samples to give your self some sonic characteristics to work with.

Sound Color: Review

As a hole you will about the same amount of samples in this tutorial as you did in the previous one. However, if you completed either one of my last two tutorials then you could probably use the exact same setup since Latin and Jazz usually go hand and hand. Make sure each sample fits well with the others and if you have to over process to make it fit, get a better sample. If you have the option of being able to randomly assign samples from a multi-sample sampler then by all means go for it; it will make your life a lot easier.

Fills, Fills, Fills

I like to repeat myself so once again we find ourselves in the final section of the tutorial; fills! As a drummer I have told your and will tell you again that fills are your chance to be expressive, and that the possibilities are beyond what you could write in words. Therefore, to me it is probably least most important section for programming drums; also in my experience most people don't want to be bothered to write out a drum fill so I won't flood you with long winded fills that you would have to painstakingly rewrite.

Fills, Fills, Fills: The Accent

Probably the most important aspect to fills and solos in the Jazz style is the accented notes (much like its Latin counterpart). When you look at the grooves, we accent certain aspects to draw attention. By carefully placing accents in your fills you can make them more melodic.

As with Latin music, off-beat accents are king in Jazz as well. The offbeat is where the syncopation comes in and is how your fills can sound less square. However, this does not mean you can abuse offbeat accents all the time. Add some variety between on beat and off-beat accents. Remember with triplets, the offbeat is the third note of each set of triplets; or if you prefer, notes 3,6,9,12

Here is a quick fill based around accents to get your creative juices flowing. Notice the offbeat accents in the beginning.

Fill Me In: And Lead Me In

Not all fills are long intricate ideas, some are simple a few notes long. These short quick fills usually lead into a big hit by the rest of the band. Jazz often makes heavy use of this technique. Most of the time they are not flashy and usually are played on their own without any moving notes from the rest of the band. Essentially the band plays, cuts out, the quick fill is played, and everyone comes back in full board on the last note of the fill. There isn't much more to say about these fills other than look at what I have come up with and get some ideas. You will hear one bar of groove and the last 2 beats of the second measure are the lead in fill...

Fills, Fills, Fills: Patchwork

There is no real trick to creating these other than experimenting. The only methodology you really have is to take one beat fragments and patch work them together until you get a fill you like. Again, break your fill ideas down into one beat fragments so that they are easier to manage and vary where your notes land on the different drums.

Another trick is to mimic the melody of the song but in the amongst the tone of the drum set. If you go this route, try adding various rhythmic flourishes to the melody and interject sections that are not the melody and are strictly just drum fill.

Here is a longer fill that encompasses different ideas so that you can hopefully get some ideas yourself...

Fills, Fills, Fills: Review

There is not much to say about Jazz fills other than be creative and don't be scared to try something new. Jazz fills can be extremely hard to do even for a drummer because they are so based off improvisation. If you are a more methodical person then try going the melodic mimic route. Either way should expand your mind and be creative; think like a musician!

Jazz in Review

Did I mention I like to repeat myself? I think I did. But if you didn't get the idea already here is something you may have heard before. That is an awful lot of material to cover! Jazz music is tricky to say the least and is not normally something you hear everyday since Jazz has somewhat fallen out of mainstream music. Keep in mind that the hi-hat is the grounding element to Jazz music, without it everything falls apart. Remember also that the offbeat accent is integral to a Jazz feel but it should be exploited either. I hope you have learned a lot from reading this tutorial and now have more musical choices at your disposal. Thanks for reading!