How to Sound Like a Jazz Drummer

Acoustic drum kits are often configured to match a specific style, which is why rock-based drummers usually opt for a rock-configured kit, while jazz drummers are more likely to go for a little bebop kit. That said, there’s no reason why you can’t lay down jazz patterns with a rock kit or vice versa. Besides, a good drummer will always make sure that the sound of their kit matches the style of music, no matter how the kit is configured. Want to pull a more jazzy sound out of your kit? Read on for a few tips and tricks.


A lot of jazz drummers are using relatively small drums these days, like a 16-inch or 18-inch kick drum combined with a 10-inch or 12-inch tom and a 14-inch floor tom. However, that’s not to say that such humble set-ups are what you need when you’re after that classic jazz sound. A more general trend shows that shells are getting smaller while cymbals are only getting bigger. There are no limits or rules so use what you have and make the most of it!


Drumheads are one of the key sound-deciding factors for drum kits. Because they’re usually looking for a warm timbre, tonal fullness and sonic definition, jazz drummers like to use coated batter heads, like Remo’s Fiberskyn and Coated Ambassador heads, or Evans Calftone skins. The only real requirement when it comes to drumheads would be to kit out your snare with a coated batter head, which is basically essential for jazz-drumming with brushes.

Open Tuning

Instead of tuning to specific notes, jazz drummers usually go with an open tuning for little to no damping. A solid way to get a warm, open sound is by tuning the batter head and resonant head to the same pitch and going from there to see what works best for you. Resonant heads are often tuned slightly higher, and jazz drummers will rarely opt for any muffling. If they do, it’s usually in the form of damper pads, exterior mufflers or muffler strips.

Drumsticks and Brushes

Drumsticks are more important than you might think, and not only for playing comfort, but attack, definition and volume. Jazz sticks are generally relatively slim, think 7A-sized, though there’s no reason why good-old 5A or 5B sticks couldn’t work. Since ‘riding the cymbal’ to lay down a swing beat is any jazz drummer’s most important job, clear stick definition is crucial. That’s why you want a subtle wooden tip that’s not too big. As far as brushes go, most jazz drummers prefer retractable brushes with metal dowels — nylon brushes are a rarity. Usually, the left brush is spread out a little wider to get more body and volume, while the right brush is kept a little more narrow for more definition.

Jazz Cymbals

Jazz drummers have expensive taste when it comes to cymbals since most of them build their kits using B20 bronze cymbals. Jazz cymbals typically sound a tad dry and raw but offer a beautiful wash alongside rich-and-complex harmonics. While brilliant cymbals are a pretty rare sight in the jazz universe, in terms of finish, pretty much anything goes. The most important cymbals are your hi-hats and ride. Here, a clear ‘chick’ is demanded for the hi-hats, while the ride needs a certain degree of subtlety but also needs to be crashable. Large crash cymbals like 17-inch and 18-inch models are also commonly used, just like rivets or sizzler chains which work really well for ballads. Pro tip: you can get a similar sizzle effect by taping one or more coins to the top of your cymbal.

Inspiring Jazz Drummers

Not sure where to start and need some inspiration? Look up and listen to legends like Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Cindy Blackman, Art Blakey, Herlin Riley, Max Roach, Peter Erskine and Tony Williams, or discover the secrets behinds substyles like bebop, swing, second-line or cool jazz through a dedicated lesson book. I wholeheartedly recommend John Riley’s The Art of Bop Drumming, Mel Bay’s Studio/Jazz Drum Cookbook and Ed Thigpen’s The Sound of Brushes if you want to learn more. Of course, there’s also plenty more study material to be found online!

See Also

» The Groove: What It Is And How It’s Formed
» Drumming in Irregular Time Signatures: Examples & Exercises
» Independence Exercises for Drummers
» Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

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