In jazz music, the ride cymbal is king. It shapes the feeling and rhythmic subdivision of the tune, and creates a foundation for everyone else to play off.
Unlike Funk or Rock music, which is built from the bottom up (meaning that the bass drum and snare drum are the essential parts of the drum beat), Jazz music is built from the top down. The ride cymbal is the most important part of a jazz drumbeat. It provides the drive and establishes the style and rhythmic foundation for the drummer to build on and the band to play along with.
For Jazz drummers, developing a strong jazz ride beat is a must if one wants to succeed in the business. Playing intricate snare/bass drum patterns is meaningless if the ride cymbal is weak. The ride cymbal is our rhythmic subject in the jazz conversation, so everything that we need to say has to be related to our subject. Otherwise, we are going to end up having a shallow and nonsensical conversation with the rest of the band and furthermore, with ourselves. Hence the importance of spending a good amount of time developing your ride cymbal technique, sound, and feel.
In this series of articles, we are going to narrow our focus in on just the ride cymbal. We are going to go through a series of exercises to develop a strong feel, pulse, and technique. So let’s begin:
Feel: through the years the Jazz beat has been standardized as a triplet-based rhythm, which makes sense because it is the closest subdivision we can relate to it.
Nevertheless, the ride cymbal beat does not always fit perfectly into the triplet subdivision; sometimes it feels tighter, leaning towards 16th notes subdivision.
Or it can have a looser feel, more into the straight 8th notes subdivision.
Playing either of these feels should be a conscious choice; depending on the desired feel we want to give to the music and the style of jazz we are playing. Usually, the triplet pattern goes well with looser and open rhythm sections. On the other hand, the dotted eighth-sixteenth note pattern works well with swing and big bands, because it tightens up the rhythm section, and giving a stiffer feel, which is ideal for dancing.
Tempo is also an important factor when choosing a feel for the ride cymbal. Generally, the slower the tempo, the more the ride leans towards the triplet or dotted eighth-sixteenth note pattern, and the faster the tempo, the more the ride pattern leans toward straight eighth notes. Obviously, these are not hard and fast rules, but they are applied more often than not.
Another aspect to consider when getting the proper ride cymbal phrasing is accenting. Very often, I hear inexperienced drummers playing jazz stressing beats 1 and 3. Usually, this is because they come from different traditions of popular music, in which beats 1 and 3 need to be heavy and emphasized. This can work in certain circumstances when playing jazz, usually when playing with a “two-beat” feel (bass is not walking, but instead playing half notes, beats 1 and 3).
However, when the bass is walking, and we are playing in 4, the ride cymbal should be stressed or emphasized on beats 2 and 4. This would help to create the proper amount of tension the music needs to achieve forward motion and flow.
Allow me to share with you some of the exercises I did and habits I acquired while I was getting my ride cymbal feel together.
First I made a list of my favorite Jazz drummer, the ones with the ride cymbal sound and feel that I liked. Here I’ll share my list and why I pick those drummers:
- Elvin Jones: the master of the triplet feel. His medium and slow ride cymbal feel on the “Coltrane Plays The Blues” album is a masterpiece. Check that album out.
- Tony Williams: Great technician, great triplet feel as well, but also known for his super-fast tempos, which are more in the straight 8th notes side. Any of his albums with the Miles Davis Quintet are great to check out.
- Roy Haynes: distinctive sound and feel, hard to describe but go and listen to Chick Corea’s album “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”
- Billy Higgins: he plays “in the crack” a term used to describe that unique New Orleans feel, which is in between the triplet feel and straight 8th notes feel. Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come” and Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” are good records to star checking this master out.
- Ed Blackwell: his drumming is heavily influenced by the African tradition and unique voice in the jazz world. His work with Ornette Coleman and Dewey Redman is highly creative and worth to check out. Take a listen to Dewey Redman’s album “Old and New Dreams”
Once you get your list down, is time to get the records and listen to some music. But not an “I’m going to cook while I listen to this record” kind of listening. We are going to carefully listen to the music and pay close attention to the ride cymbal. We are going to analyze it, not transcribing, for now, we just want to get the vibe, not the exact notes. Look for the kind of feel the drummer is playing, if he changes it in different sections of the tune, how he is accenting the pattern, try to look for all the aspect we have been discussing.
Remember as I told you before, we are narrowing our attention to just the ride cymbal, forget about the snare/bass drums patterns, licks, and all that stuff for now. We are targeting a goal here, and it is to improve our ride cymbal feel.
Now let’s play! Choose your favorite tracks from your list and try to play along with them. Again just play the ride cymbal, we don’t want to play a transcription of the tune, we just want to play along with the track to emulate the feel and vibe of the ride cymbal. Our attention at this point should be to make sure we are blending in with the drummer we are trying to imitate. We want to get that ride cymbal feel.
These exercises may seem simple and not a challenge at first, but once you start playing along to some of those records, you will realize that just keeping up with those guys’ tempo and feel is a difficult task. But, don’t worry. In part 2 of the article, we will cover the basics of ride technique to improve our sound on the cymbal and our ability to play faster and also some great exercises to improve our time feel.
Have fun and see you next time!