If you are a pianist, guitarist, bassist, drummer, vibraphonist, or any other designated chordal or rhythmic instrument, you are a part of the rhythm section family. You are a vital part of what makes a great jazz group really come together and sound tight.

As a professional musician and bandleader, when choosing rhythm section musicians for my band, I want players who can react and adapt to the different situations they might face on the bandstand. People who can be reliable, good accompanist, improvisers, can read efficiently, and people who are knowledgeable about the style in which we are going to be playing. If we are playing jazz standards, someone who knows the repertoire.

The idea is to find well-rounded musicians who can adapt quickly and put the music first over the ego. Here’s a list of what I personally believe are the qualities of a great rhythm section player:

  • Adaptability: ability to react and adapt.
  • Versatility: ability to play in different styles.
  • Repertoire: knowing the music you are going to perform.
  • Tempo and Time Feel: good technique, know the language.
  • Reading and interpretation: ability to interpret a chart with taste and musicality.

As a rhythm section player myself, I make sure in my daily routines that I’m working towards developing these qualities in my playing and personality. We have to realize that as rhythm section musicians we are accompanying 80% of the time, and If you are a drummer or a bass player it’s even more than that.

This being the case, you should spend a good amount of your daily practice time developing these skills. Ultimately these are the skills you need.

In this post, I’ll be specifically discussing adaptability, versatility, and reading. In addition, I’m going to share with you some tips and exercises I do to keep myself in shape and make sure I’m a musical, tasteful and reliable rhythm-section player.

Adaptability

Being able to adapt to your musical environment is extremely important. Whether it’s the style you’re playing, the skill level of musicians you are playing with, or the physical environment you are playing in, a good rhythm section player needs to rise above all of it.

Having the ability to adapt has to do with two main things:

  1. Wanting to adapt to the situation (personality/ego related issue).
  2. Experience to make the right call and adjust your playing as needed (technical issues).

With regard to the personality/ego issues, it is good to remember that music is a team activity. When you play a gig you want the band to sound good, not just you. The venue owner is not going to say, “I’m going to hire these guys again because even though the band sounded like crap, the piano player was killing it.” No, that’s not going to happen. They will hire you again if the band as a whole sounded good.

So make sure you leave your ego at home and show up to the gig (or jam session) with a positive attitude and ready to help everyone in the band sound and feel good.

Now, when we talk about the technical issues, playing with other musicians and having that experience is the best way to go. So get yourself out there and play as much as you can with as many different people as you can. The practice room can only prepare you for so much.

Among the things we can do to improve our ability to react and adapt, there is one thing I love to do and it is practicing along with records. If you do so, you’ll notice the difference between playing along with a Ray Brown record and a Paul Chambers one, or the difference between Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes’ time feel.

Records help you to learn what to listen for, note placement, dynamics, phrasing and how to react and make adjustments in your playing. In addition, you can address other problems like learning repertoire and language which are vital if you want to be a good rhythm section player.

So it is a great thing to make some room in your practice time to listen and play along with records. I posted another lesson entitled Why Every Jazz Musician Should Practice Along with Records. Make sure you check it out. I gave away some really cool tips and ideas on how to use records for your own benefit.

Versatility

This is another big one for a rhythm section player. An exceptional rhythm section player can’t get away with faking a style of music. They are the ones driving the groove and making the band sound authentic and true to the style being played.

If you are a pianist, bassist, guitarist or a drummer and want to be a well-rounded player, make sure you are doing your homework. Research, listen and take lessons with the people who can really play the styles you want to learn. Go to a reliable source, the idea is to sound authentic.

As a gigging drummer, I had to familiarize myself with styles like Brazilian music, Afro Cuban music, funk, rock, etc. And even though I’m not an expert by any means on some of those styles, I studied them until I was capable of performing and giving them a traditional and authentic feel.

However, at some point I chose to specialize in jazz and pop music because for me that was what the scene I was playing in demanded. As a musician, I developed in a very competitive scene, in which specializing in a few styles was the best shot you had. There are great players in every style so you really want to be experienced in one style so you can get into that scene. Specialize in one, but be well-rounded.

Reading and Interpretation

When we talk about reading abilities for rhythm section musicians we also need to talk about interpretation. In some musical situations, rhythm section players are going to have a chart to read some rhythmic hits and maybe a few lines here and there.

A big part of the rhythm section player’s work is to interpret that chart with confidence, make it feel good and within the style the tune requires.

So, here is where different skills are needed. For example, if you are a bass player and the band leader pulls out a chart that says “samba,” you might be the best sight-reader in the world but if you have never played samba, I guarantee you are going to suck playing that. Or if you are a drummer in the same situation, the entire band is going to get pulled down.

That being said, yes, you have to be a good sight-reader. But in jazz and popular music other skills are needed in the mix, just like versatility, in order to be a good interpreter of the music you are reading.

When practicing reading, add a few of these exercises so you get the most out of your time:

  1. Try to play your reading exercises in different styles. For example, If you are working on a Violin Partita, swing the 8th notes or play along with a Brazilian record and try to play it with that feel. Or if you are working on a swing big band chart, play it with a rock feel. Go back and forth between different styles. You’ll see how challenging this can be.
  2. Use different sounds and texture when reading. This one is good especially for drummers. It helps to be creative and create unique grooves and beats even though you are sight-reading a chart.
  3. Try different dynamics and tempos. This is pretty self-explanatory, but challenge yourself taking this to the extremes. Burning tempos and ultra pianissimo, or slow tempos and Ultra fortissimo, etc.
  4. Combine 1, 2 and 3: You’ll realize with patience and discipline, you’ll go from just being an okay sight-reader to an efficient and musical sight-reader.

I would recommend checking out Tempo vs. Time Feel another lesson I wrote last month, with great information for rhythm section musicians. And also, check 50 Jazz Standards You Need To Know for a great list of repertoire you should get familiar with.

Remember, when setting up a practice routine make sure you spend some time addressing the things you really need for the real world as a rhythm section player.

For question or comments please feel free to drop a line in the comment section or follow me on Instagram and Facebook and DM me, I’ll be glad to hear your thoughts.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing
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Diego is a professional jazz drummer, composer, and educator. He is originally from Venezuela and currently living in New York City. He attended The Collective School of Music and The City College of New York where he earned, with honors, a Bachelor degree in Jazz Performance.

Diego has become an active member of the exciting city’s jazz scene, both as a performer and educator, playing with artists such as Will Vinson, Doug Weiss, Kenny Werner, Tim Hagans, Mike Holober, Mimi Jones, Lukas Gabric, Josiah Boornazian, Antonio Mazzei, Brent Vaartstra, Coyote Anderson, among others.

Diego is an Agean Cymbals Artist.

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