Let’s begin by putting an end an age-old myth once and for all: you do not need to be able to read sheet music in order to be a good, successful musician. That being said, the ability to read music is an extremely handy asset to have as it enables you to improve your technique and learn new things while still remembering everything you’ve learned before. This blog is full of tips and tricks to help you decipher drum notation so you can transcribe and play any rhythm you want.

Rhythmic notation

It’s essential for drummers to know – and more importantly to feel – where the beat is at any given time and how many beats are in a measure. Most popular music is written in the four-four time signature (also known as common measure), which means there are four beats per measure and the quarter note is one beat. The key below shows the different note values and what they look like:

Rhythmic notation

Drum notation

Instead of traditional sheet music, drummers read drum notation. A drum kit consists of different components that produce different sounds, so each one has their own unique notation symbol. There are various drum methods that go into more detail about drum notation symbols, but this blog will focus mainly on the symbols used in the following key:

Drum notation

Various methods

Drum notation follows a few guidelines, but there are really no clear-cut rules. Because there are multiple methods, it can sometimes be challenging to decipher and transcribe rhythm parts correctly, but don’t worry! The Tips & Tricks below are sure to help you along the way.

Cheat sheet

A cheat sheet enables you to see how a song is put together at a single glance. Most popular music is structured in the same way in blocks of 2, 4, 8, 12, 16 or 32 measures. Using a cheat sheet is a great way to beef up your repertoire for gigs.

Making your own cheat sheets

First, separate the blocks and name them: A for the Verse, B for the Chorus and C for the Bridge. Write down the rhythmic parts for each block and be sure to note if there are any breaks or accents. You should end up with something that looks like this:

Making your own cheat sheets

Now you’ve got a clear, visual guide of what needs to be played and when. Any drummer who can read drum notation should be able to decipher and play a cheat sheet like this without a hitch.

Tips & Tricks

#1 It’s always a good idea to keep track of the count. The easiest way to do this is by grouping the notes per count.

#2 Notes directly underneath each other in drum notation are to be played simultaneously.

#3 If the note stem points up, the note is generally played with your hands. If the stem is pointing down, the note is usually played with the feet.

#4 Symbols with a cross are almost always cymbals, unless specified otherwise.

#5 If you’re only using a kick, snare and hi-hat, use a scale with three bar lines instead of five. Don’t forget to note the tempo!

#6 Focus on variation and play the constant pulse (usually on the hi-hat) on automatic pilot.

#7 Make a cheat sheet that indicates the basic rhythm, variations, accents and breaks.

#8 Simplify your writing methods. Instead of using triplets and quintuplets to write out a jazz ride pattern, simply write the word ‘swing’ on your cheat sheet.

#9 Since most popular music is written with four bars per line, it’s recommended to stick to that in the notation.

#10 Keeping time for a long period can be difficult. You can make it easier for yourself by writing down what the other instruments are playing (e.g. 8 bars rhythm guitar, 4 bars sax solo). This will give you some mental handholds.

Drum transcription

Can you guess which song + artist is written out in the drum notations above? Let us know in the comments!

2 responses
  1. Tim Ellingson says:

    Your Tips and Tricks section is confusing:
    1. ?
    3. ? “stick facing down”: Does this refer to the mote’s “stem”?
    9. ?
    I would also add this tip: Write in what intruments are playing the melody in the
    different sections of the music. This helps to keep the mind involved when “keeping time” for a long period of time.

  2. Will Jones says:

    I’m a veteran drummer, but have been learning notation for the last few months and I think I’ve just about become good enough to know it’s Smells Like Teen Spirit!

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