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I'm a jazz pianist who frequently plays with a drummer who can't swing. The thing is, I just can't figure out why. He seems to be going through the correct motions. Even when I ask him to play simply, focusing only on the ride and hi-hats, it still doesn't swing. We're playing standards in a trio setting... so we're doing lot of bebop, post-bop, nothing complicated. It doesn't feel good and I want to point this drummer in the right direction.

So what is it? What do you all find as common reasons why a drummer doesn't produce a good swing feel? Is it just general sloppiness? Subtle rushing or dragging? Not listening to recordings enough? Poor stick technique? Dynamics? Misunderstanding of what swing means?

  • Do you mean he plays straight eights to everything? – Tim Aug 2 '17 at 16:11
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    To me swing is a feel. He probably has to listen to a play along with enough recordings so that he can feel it. He could play with an even triplet pattern but that doesn't always feel like swing to me, it feels like triplets. – Todd Wilcox Aug 2 '17 at 16:33
  • Try telling him to really strip to the basics -- sharp quarters on the ride and 2&4 on the hi hat, and build it up from there. Swing is hard, and it requires a lot more subtly and control than one might think. – Linuxios Aug 2 '17 at 16:34
  • @Tim: Not straight, it's definitely the textbook triplet pattern. – qce88 Aug 2 '17 at 17:23
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    Does your drummer listen to swung music? A lot of drummers are raised on rock, and just haven't internalized the feel of jazz. – Xiong Chiamiov Aug 3 '17 at 1:54
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There are many things that could be going wrong, but in my experience, not swinging (or having a bad swing feel) is usually a result of small technique-related issues. In particular, it can include: (a) not playing the different pieces in unison, (b) playing the triplet rhythms unevenly, and (c) playing certain pieces too loud. All of these things can be cured with practice (starting at slow tempos and gradually increasing).

To try and diagnose the issue, you can have the drummer play at 80 bpm with the ride cymbal only on quarter notes and the high hat on beats 2 and 4. If the left hand and right hand are striking in time together, it should be easy to imagine the eighth notes--and it should sound swinging. It should also sound controlled: the volume should be even and there shouldn't be random notes that are played more loudly due to weak technique. Next, add in the feathered bass drum. The drummer probably doesn't play four to the floor, but go ahead and do this to ensure the bass drum isn't interrupting his hands' timing. You also want to listen for the bass drum being too loud. Not feathering the bass lightly enough (e.g., because the drummer comes from a rock setting, etc.) can hurt the feel.

Once you and the drummer have identified that this sounds good, add in eighth notes on the ride. If the drummer doesn't have a rigid practice routine, the triplets could very likely be uneven. Putting the eighth note triplets at the wrong spot rhythmically can really hurt the feel. Check to see if the triplet rhythms are being played evenly/correctly by turning the metronome on and adding clicks for the eighth note triplets. The ride pattern should be exactly in unison with the metronome. Turn up the metronome 5-10 clicks and make sure the ride is still right with the eighth note triplet beat. Continue increasing the metronome like this until you've reached the tempos of the fastest tunes you play.

You can have the drummer add in the snare, but he's probably playing something more modern-sounding than just 'snare on beat 4.' The genres you're playing are different from older swing/big band music, and so part of the issue could be stylistic. In my opinion, the single best thing a drummer can practice for a bebop/post-bop feel are Elvin Jones inner triplets. To quote a small passage from Jon McCaslin's site, which goes more in depth:

The first patterns that Elvin demonstrated deal with different ways that he voiced inner triplet subdivisions around the drum set in the context of the jazz ride cymbal rhythm. By exposing and giving more attention to those inner triplets, it serves to help open up and stretch the beat quite a bit. This is something Elvin was renowned for.

Play the following pattern with the Right hand on the ride cymbal, filling in the missing triplets on the snare drum with the Left hand:

enter image description here

The basic sticking pattern resembles this:

RLL RLR RLL RLR RLL RLR RLL RLR etc.

He goes more in depth and has additional exercises. This type of inner triplet practice (starting at very slow tempos and gradually increasing) creates a great feel for the styles you're playing.


Here's a video that goes through the process of stripping down the feel and adding elements back in one piece at a time:

Here's a phenomenal example of the Elvin Jones inner triplets at a medium tempo (from 0:42 to 1:45), to give a sense of what the inner triplet exercises are working toward and why they're valuable to practice thoroughly:

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    I'm glad to see someone else say that swing is triplets - so many others seem to disagree. It's not that all the time, but most is more tripletty than any other rhythm, to my ears and feel. +1 – Tim Aug 4 '17 at 15:17
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Swing feel is not triplets! It's approximately a triplet but unless you're Elvin Jones, if you play it in strict triplets then it sounds almost as bad as playing it square (as eighths).

Paul Berliner in "Thinking in Jazz" writes:

Within the realm of beat subdivision, myriad nuances of phrasing in between an even eighth-note subdivision feel, a dotted-eighth and sixteenth-note feel, and a triplet eighth-note feel are associated with the dynamism of swing.

Swing feel is a feel and all the members of the band have to agree on where that swung note is going to hit. What is happening is that the drummer is not locking with the rest of the band. Maybe he's playing square but he's definitely not listening to the rest of the band.

So what I would do is put on a jazz recording that has the swing feel you like and then have the drummer play along with the swing of the drummer in that recording. If he can't do that then he's hopeless until he develops an ear. Send him home with the recording and tell him to play "like that".

If he can play along, then first play the recording with him playing along, then you start playing along and then finally you continue to play without the recording.

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    Agree entirely. If you listen closely to e.g. a Basie recording you will hear that the occasional sax section triplets are really cross rhythms. To me it's all about the little grace notes before the downbeat. They are there to stretch out the fourth beat properly so the next one comes on one (and in turn so that the dancers hit the floor in time, because they can't speed up while in the air). Regardless of the tempo, these grace notes are generally the same length, rather short. It is in fact exactly the same the endless discussion as in classical circles about how long is a double dot. – user207421 Aug 3 '17 at 1:20
  • Swing may not always be triplets, but it's a darn sight closer to triplets than to dotted quaver/semiquaver. In fact a lot of the time it's so close to, or actually is a triplet feel. Some of the notes are pushed, true, but a lot of that time, they equate to triplets. – Tim Aug 3 '17 at 12:00
  • @empty, how do you reconcile the claim hat "swing feel isn't triplets" with Elvin Jones's style of drumming? Is it correct to say that either Elvin isn't playing triplets or he isn't swinging? When you say "swing feel isn't triplets," is this what you mean: jazz drummers who swing don't play triplet rhythms on the ride cymbal? Or am I misinterpreting? – jdjazz Aug 3 '17 at 21:12
  • @jdjazz I'm saying that when drummers swing, they don't play strict triplets. – pro Aug 3 '17 at 21:22
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    I agree with this answer in principle but there's a bit more nuance here. Swing certainly can be triplets; the reality is that swing is a range with the triplet on one end and some indeterminate area just before dotted eighth-sixteenth on the other. A lot of drummers push the swung eighth well past the eighth note triplet and perhaps an even greater number play a nearly textbook triplet. There's a lot of talk of drummers here, but really the bassist has a lot to do with this too; you're probably not going to hear a relaxed string if the bassist is always pushing ahead. – Fugu Aug 4 '17 at 0:27
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The excellent answer by jdjazz covers swing drum technique in depth. If the problem is more one of feel, see this jazz lesson video by Aimee Nolte, “How to Freaking Swing”:

Rather than focusing on triplet rhythms, Nolte emphasizes the anticipatory nature of swung rhythms. The meat of the lesson starts at 4:37, where she describes an ear training exercise:

  • listen to jazz recordings with good swing feel
  • sing along “chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk” on the quarters
  • each chunk should last the whole beat
  • you can lean into the chunk on two and four
  • feel the way the swing rhythm rubs against the quarters

This gets you away from thinking of swing as triplets, and more about the way the swung notes anticipate and rub against the beat. Specifically, it uses your voice to feel the development of each beat, beginning (ch), middle (u), and end (nk). This helps you feel how swung notes and anticipations relate to the beat overall, so that you can internalize the subtle timings involved. This is why she emphasizes that you should say “chuuunk-chuuunk-chuuunk-chuuunk” and not “chunk— chunk— chunk— chunk” along with the music. The idea, like a lot of voice/ear training, is to use your voice to develop muscle memory for the timings.

The second half of the lesson (starting about 7:25) focuses more on melodic anticipations that may be more useful to vocalists and pianists. It’s worth watching to get a feel, but it’s more applicable to swinging a melody than, say, swinging eighths on a hi-hat.

  • This is outstanding advice, but I think her lesson focuses on how to swing a melody line. I'm not convinced this is relevant to (or good advice for) a drummer. In a bebop setting, playing eighth notes behind the beat (which is what she's doing at the ~11 min.) works because of the contrast with the drums. I don't think her intent is for drummers to play eighth notes that far behind the beat--it would become a 16th note pattern, which sounds more like you're about to lead into a double-time section than an easy swing feel. That said, the chunk-chunk ear training would probably be helpful. – jdjazz Aug 2 '17 at 19:21
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    Aha, thanks for the feedback! As I’m a bassist & pianist I wasn’t sure how useful this would be to a drummer. I do think it’s useful to understand that swing is about not being square rather than triplets per se, and I personally found this lesson eye-opening in that light. But I definitely think your answer is more on the nose for drummers, @jdjazz. Nice work. – Bradd Szonye Aug 2 '17 at 19:58
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    I absolutely agree--it is really eye-opening. I'm a huge fan of her video lessons. The chunk chunk singing exercise is probably still a great thing for drummers to practice. – jdjazz Aug 2 '17 at 20:06
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    Normally a video would be in support of a complete answer, as opposed to the answer being contained in the video only. This is because we want the answers here to be viable for a long time and we can't predict the future availability of the video that is hosted elsewhere. Summarizing in the text of the answer the part of the video where anticipation over triplet feel is discussed would turn this into a much better answer, IMHO. – Todd Wilcox Aug 2 '17 at 20:49
  • I watched a couple of times, but seem to have missed the point. She presents extremely well, but the 'chunk, chunk, chunk,chunk' only equates to the four beats in each bar. They have to be sub-divided, and could easily be so in straight 8 as well, or even dotted quaver/semi. I could feel any of these in the chunk,chunk. What have I missed? – Tim Aug 3 '17 at 12:03
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In addition to technique, the drummer (and everyone) also needs to recognize that swing is relative.

If you've got a blazingly fast piece, the eighth notes are going to sound more straight. And the same goes for the opposite: if you've got a slower piece, the swing is going to be more pronounced and bouncy.

A drummer may be producing a poor swing feel because they were taught to swing using a certain technique (whatever technique) at a very narrow range of tempos. This would mean that the drummer would run into swing problems if they were to play pieces at different tempos than they are used to.

I ran into this problem on the saxophone where I was taught to swing using my tongue at around a medium tempo. So when it would come to playing slower songs, my swing was too straight and boring.


Also, tell your drummer to do more listening where he's paying attention very closely to the drummer. Even better: tell him to listen to the drummer playing the songs that you guys are playing. Find as many recording as possible.

Tell the drummer to try and mimic how the people in the recording create the swing feel. Specifically to pay attention for how exaggerated the swing is, the accenting, the dynamics, etc.

Another reason why a drummer may be producing a poor swing is because they haven't really focused on the drummer swinging on a recording. Jazz is an aural tradition, so the best way to learn is to learn from the masters. Listening to recordings of great jazz drummers really swinging. A really good example of this is Steve Gadd.

  • I agree that at blazing tempos, eighth notes are straight, not swung. I'm not sure whether the asker is working in that context, but regardless, how would you translate this recognition into advice for the drummer? What are the ways in which recognizing this fact would inform the drummer's practice or improve the drummer's swing feel? Or do you mean that there's nothing wrong with the drummer's playing--rather, it's the listeners' expectations that are off? – jdjazz Aug 2 '17 at 19:28
  • @jdjazz Well, if the drummer recognizes this, then they may have a better time trying to create a swing that has a proper swing feel for the tempo given. Right? – SirPython Aug 2 '17 at 19:31
  • Got it--I see your point now. (Agreed!) I think this is really helpful guidance for the drummer, but I'm not sure it answers the question "What are the common reasons why a drummer doesn't produce a good swing feel?" I might be missing it though. – jdjazz Aug 2 '17 at 19:33
  • Hmm, fair point. I see I didn't really answer the general question. I'll fix that now. – SirPython Aug 2 '17 at 19:34
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I had the opposite problem some years ago! We had a function band and recruited a drummer with only jazz experience. He wanted the job, and a few lessons with a good teacher (RIP Bob Armstrong, who we lost only recently) quickly got him on the right track.

I've heard a couple of great drummers make this point: Swing isn't about the backbeat. It isn't about playing clever cross-rhythms and fills. It isn't about 'laying down a groove'. It's primarily about making it absolutely clear where beat ONE is.

Could be worth trying that concept on your drummer.

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I'm no drums expert, but maybe he's too stiff? Try telling him to relax and feel the swing with his whole body. Trying to imitate swing by doing it rationally doesn't usually feel right, on my experience.

  • I think relaxed playing comes as a result of a solid practice routine. I agree that achieving this sort of relaxation is important, but I think it's achieved through practice (and not achieved through a verbal instruction to relax). In order to play relaxed, one must be relaxed when practicing. I didn't start playing relaxed until I started practicing really simple phrases at really slow tempos. Any faster, and I would tense up. When practicing, simplifying the beat/figure/phrase and slowing the metronome can create good conditions for developing a relaxed, non-tense technique. – jdjazz Aug 2 '17 at 18:31
  • I think I misused the word relaxed, wasn't exactly what I was going for... I meant that he may have to let go of thinking too hard on doing the 'swingy' tempo, and focus on let the tempo flow on its own. But I see what you mean. – kkatzer Aug 2 '17 at 19:00
  • Note that swing is a rhythm concept, not a tempo. – Todd Wilcox Aug 2 '17 at 20:52

protected by Dom Aug 3 '17 at 1:03

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