Drum solos are entertaining and bring a ton of energy to the performance. However, they can also be a nightmare, because keeping your place during a drum solo is not always an easy task.

For me, drum solos are challenging to follow because:

1. They are usually unaccompanied, No one is there to play changes or help define the tempo and form.

2. Drummers, in general, have a deeper understanding of rhythms. They play more intricate and complex rhythms that can throw bandmates off.

That being said, there are some skills we need to develop to be more comfortable keeping our place during drum solos. Let’s go over 4 tips for not getting lost during a drum solo.

1. Familiarized yourself with the jazz drum set language. 

Music is a language, and as such we learn it by listening and getting familiarized with the expressions, words, their meaning, and pronunciation. Just like kids do.

Getting acquainted with the jazz drumset language is an essential task for any aspiring jazz musician. Once you do so, drum solos are not going to sound so abstract anymore.

The first thing we need to do is start checking out more drum solos. Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and Philly Joe Jones are an excellent place to start.

Pay attention to the feel, the organization of ideas, the kinds of notes they use, the development of motifs, the phrasing, and the standard landing points.

Drumset improvisation works similarly to melodic improvisation. We use some of the same resources; the only difference is we don’t have pitch, but instead we build upon the rhythmic fabric of the tune.

Check out my lesson Learning To Solo In The Style Of Max Roach. In it, I analyze and break one Max’s solos down. You can follow that as an example of what you should do when checking out drum solos in general.

Once you start doing the homework, you’ll find that just like any other melodic player, drummers also have licks and idioms we use all the time.

Analyzing and breaking drum solos down is going to help you get a better understanding of what’s going on when a drummer is soloing. You’re going to be more familiar with the language and idioms we, the drummers, use to improvise. Also, it is going to help you strengthen your rhythmic foundation and give you new rhythmic ideas to apply to your playing.

2. Strengthen your rhythmic foundation.

Rhythm is an essential element of music, but more often than not it is neglected. We focus on scales, licks, chords and rarely work on challenging rhythmic exercises. We forget how much can be said with just a few notes if we play them with intricate rhythms.

If we observe all of the most celebrated musicians in any music genre, we will find one characteristic present in all of them, and that is they have a strong sense of rhythm.

If we do have a solid rhythmic foundation, keeping our place in a drum solo is going to become an easier task.

There are many things we can do to improve our rhythmic sense. I would recommend working on polyrhythmic exercises and implied metric modulations since they are tools frequently used by drummers to expand and develop their ideas.

Once you start getting familiar with the jazz drum set language, you’ll notice that polyrhythmic ideas like 3 against 4, and 6 against 4 are part of the tradition. You can find drummers using these devices as ways to embellish ideas in recordings from the 50’s and 60’s. It is not a new radical concept.

Focusing on those two polyrhythms which are highly used by jazz drummers would be a great idea. Start working on them, and get familiar with the sound and feel of these rhythmical concepts.

Working steadily on this will ultimately deepen your sense of rhythm and internal clock, and of course, change the way you hear and feel drum solos.

In my lesson A Beginner’s Guide To Implied Metric Modulations, I explain the subject in more detail and give a series of exercises for you to start working on it.

3. Understand the big picture of phrasing.

One common mistake when trying to follow a drum solo is to count every beat and every bar. If you do so, you are going to get lost.

When drummers solo, we rarely think beats and bars. We think of phrases. We feel the music in larger chunks, like 4 bar phrases or 8 bar phrases.

For instance, when I think of a solo on an AABA form, I don’t see it as a 32 bar solo, but as “four phrases,” each phrase being 8 bars long.

That causes us to play more loosely and take more risk regarding the tempo. That’s why if you’re counting 1,2,3,4, you are going to get lost.

But if you are aware of the big picture, and you are feeling the 8 bar phrases or 4 bar phrases, everything is going to make more sense.

One way to practice this is using records with drum solos.

Let’s work on Daahoud, a great track from “Clifford Brown and Max Roach” Album, the song is an AABA form, and Max takes a fantastic one chorus solo, quite simple to follow but it is a good start.

Step 1: we count, but only half notes. We have to keep track of the 8 bar phrase. So since we are feeling the music in 2, our count should be 1, 2 | 2, 2 | 3, 2 | and so forth until we get to 8 bars. Then we repeat the process four times until the form is complete.

Step 2: Now we are going to feel only the whole note, so our count should be only on the 1 of each bar. Again, make sure you are keeping track of the 8 bar phrase.

Step 3: Now we are going to stop counting, but we are going to clap every two bars. Remeber the idea is that you avoid counting or keeping tempo, just feel the 2 bar phrases and clap. Every four claps is an 8 bar phrase.

Step 4: We are going to do the same but now every 4 bars. So two claps is an 8 bar phrase.

Step 5: Let’s clap now every 8 bars.

The goal is to feel the phrases, instead of counting bars. If you pay attention, Max’s phrases are pretty clear and easy to grasp. Try with different solos, do this often. It is a great exercise to train your rhythmical ear.

The more you do this, the more natural it will be to keep your place during a drum solo. In addition, I guarantee you that this is going to improve your overall musicianship.

4. Deepen your knowledge of the jazz standard repertoire.

You have to know your tunes inside out. You have to be able to play the melody on your instrument but also sing it. You have to know the changes, its harmonic rhythm, what they sound like, and the color they give to the music.

A good drummer is going to draw from all of those elements of the tune to develop the solo. The better you know the song, the easier it will be to hear what the drummer is trying to convey.

We can practice singing the melody of tunes along with drum solos using records too. Find songs you like with drum solos and try to keep your place. Don’t let the busy drumming and odd accents get in your way. Concentrate and sing the melody. It is a great exercise.

As a final thought, being able to keep track of a drum solo requires a combination of all the skills listed above.

You have to be familiar with the drum set language, have a strong rhythmic foundation, understand the big picture of phrasing, and know the tunes thoroughly. If all of those things are in place, no drum solo is going to throw you off. 

Hope this is helpful, and remember, feel free to leave a comment or share your thoughts in the comment section below. Also, you can hit me up on any of my social media profiles Instagram or Facebook, and I’ll be glad to answer your questions.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing

15 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks, very informative article/information. I have been confronted with this very problem (Dr solos) for years. Don Parrish (Trb/piano).

  2. I'm a keyboardist and I understand polyrhythms and find polyrhythmic drum solos very satisfying but the drummer really needs to have really good meter for it to work. I've worked with drummers who claim I'm just not getting it and sometimes it's the drummer who is not getting it. For instance setting up to land on a strong 4 on the bar as if it were the first beat, if it's not in time, it can be ambiguous as to which beat the drummer is setting up for. Also it can be complex as all getout but if it's not musical, it won't make any sense.

  3. Hey, great article, thank you !

    I have a question about jazz drum solos : here in France, when I go to a jam session, there is never any 32 bar drum solo without any other instrument, the drum solos are always a few bars of drums alone, then a few bars of all the instruments, one of them soloing, and this pattern repeating, with the soloist in between drum solos changing constantly, as well as the length of the drum solos/parts with all the instruments together (they get shorter or longer). I didn't find any information on that kind of solos, and all the instrumentalists at the jam session clearly know the pattern so I guess it's pretty standard, but I can't find anything, could anyone help on that ? Or any chance that this would be a local thing (which I doubt) ?

    Thanks you again for the article,

    Jimmy

    • It sounds like the band is "exchanging" 8s, 4s, 2s. – these are lengths of phrases BY BAR. The band plays four bars then the drummer plays the next four bars. etc., etc. In any event, what is important is that the basics of the melody and harmony of the tune is maintained throughout.

    • Hey Jimmy, Nick pretty much explained it. We call that "trading solos" and most common trading are 2s, 4s, 8s. 16s or 12s (In the case of 12 bar blues from).

      It is an standard practice in Jazz, You basically are keeping the form, and exchanging solos with the drummer. EX, on a AABA tune, Sax would take first A section, Drummer Second A section, Sax takes the B section and Drummer would take the last A section.

      Hope this help to clarify your question.

  4. I'm so glad you wrote this article. It is a problem that has vexed me frequently and on which I have needed some guidance. It looks like your exercises with the Max Roach solo will be very helpful indeed and I will work on them.

    One further, related issue is that sometimes I will be listening and trying to count the drum solo but then I start to get the notion that perhaps the drummer has gone free-form, and isn't really playing the form of the song at all. That's when the panic starts to set in, since I not confident I will know when to come back in (often with a restatement of the head). Some drummers sometimes give a very pronounced indication that the end of their solo is arriving; others, not so much. But counting is futile if they've "gone off the reservation"…

    Any tips for this situation?

    • If a drummer leaves the "form" which is easy to do (especially if it is an "open" or extra long drum solo, a good drummer will always give some sort of cue when his/her solo ends – like four bars of time, or some rhythm from the "head" of the tune – to set the band back up.

      • OK, but my problem is that I don't KNOW that they've left the form, and I'm still trying to count it and failing, and left wondering whether or NOT they've left the form, or maybe I'm just a lousy counter. If they haven't left the form, then there may not be any pronounced cue given at the end… It's the uncertainty of knowing which scenario I'm in that creates the most concern. I guess I just have to become a better counter and will work on your exercise as a good way to start.

    • One tip to know if the drummer is keeping the form have to do with phrasing, if the drummer is playing the 8 bar phrases is most likely he's keeping the form. If you feel the drummer has left the basic 8 bar form. I guarantee he is not on the tune's form.

      Thus, the importance of understanding and seeing the big picture of phrasing. it's not about couting bars but feeling phrases.

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