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Playing softly but still laying down the groove
Posted On 08/08/2010 22:52:42 by KenSanders


I perform frequently in venues where patrons come to enjoy acoustic jazz.  A drummer and friend recently wrote to say: 




Let his observations sink in just a moment.   



Well, there are several aspects to being able to do that.  However, be warned now.  If you are only willing to play those gigs where you get to beat the hell out of your drums…..then stop reading this right now.  This article is not going to help you with that style of playing. 


I perform several styles in venues of various size and at whatever volume level is required.  However, this particular blog is about playing soft and moderate volume levels with style and control.  Here are some tips from my experiences in jazz clubs.


1.      Select the drums and the heads you will use with the purpose of low volume playing in mind.


You can’t play as softly and yet produce full musical tones with gear that is designed to be played much, much louder.  Smaller drums with coated single ply heads and having them tuned up a bit higher are two very key factors.  Slightly tighter tension for your toms and bass drum (now...not table top hard, just not rock “thud” loose) will allow them to respond instantly and not require a heavier stroke to set the head in vibration.  Lighter sticks with tips that extract lighter cymbal sounds; and felt bass drum beaters help accomplish a full, yet low volume tone, also.


Your snare drum needs to be tuned to produce a musical sound without a hard stroke.  You may find that means tuning the bottom head tighter than the top head…..and yet tuning both heads in a kind of medium range.  The snare wire tension needs to produce a pleasing tone without rattling and yet not be so tight that you have to whack the batter head to hear the wires sound off.  This may be the most difficult challenge to accomplish because the snare drum shell material and the actual drum size is such a matter of personal choice.  I’ve seen drummers accomplish a pleasing sound with just about every possible kind of snare drum.


My personal choice for acoustic jazz playing is a 4” x 13” light weight steel shell snare drum with triple flanged hoops and Fat Cat adjustable tension snare wires.  It is a VERY sensitive snare drum.  The thinner depth makes the drum more immediately responsive to every stick or brush stroke.  I use an Aquarian Focus X batter head and an Aquarian clear snare side head.  Heads are, of course, another personal choice, but thick, clear, 2 ply heads, are not designed to be as sensitive.


If you analyze the sound of your toms and bass drum, you can find a snare sound that fits into the sound palate of your drum kit.  I'd say however, that the sound that you might like when playing rock covers in a bar-band gig  just likely ain’t going to work very well for light volume  playing, because those tunings require more physical impact to produce the tone.  What you need to be going for for light volume playing is full tone with a  light stroke.  


2.      The cymbals you select must be able to blend with the music rather than cut through the music.  A piercing cymbal sound will likely be too edgy to fit within a jazz vibe.  Thinner hi hat cymbals and smaller (and perhaps also thinner) mounted cymbals will more likely render usable sounds than cymbals designed for high volume styles.


 My personal choices include a splash and crash cymbals that are thin or paper thin weight, and a ride cymbal that sounds nice with only a light touch.  Here again, you have to experiment with combinations to find what fits the music for your playing needs.  I do know that the heavier weight ride and crash cymbals that I use for contemporary work and for arena-sized shows are great cymbals, however……they just don’t fit into the softer vibe of a jazz club gig.


3.      I discovered that sticks made out of maple have a reduced weight (compared to hickory or oak sticks of the same size) and they allow me to play with a softer feel.   Using smaller sticks in general, is the easier way to bring down the volume. In playing acoustic jazz, the tip of the stick you choose, will impact the sound and feel of your ride cymbal.  A stick with a nylon tip will produce a brighter and livelier ride sound.  A wooden tip will be darker and more organic sounding. Which do you choose.  I use both according to the charactertics of the tune being played.  Who said it has to be one or the other, but not both?


4.      Your touch is yet as important as setting up your gear to play softer. 


I have found that playing with a lighter and more relaxed touch results in greater dynamic control, the ability to perform with increased confidence and endurance, and improved ability to play very fast tempos without tiring.   You simply have so much more control when you're not slamming your drums. Instead of pounding you need to let the strokes flow.





In much of our Rock music and other contemporary styles, the bass drum is laying down a deep and powerful foundation; the hi hats are playing the cymbal pulse/pattern; and the snare drum is playing a solid back beat   In acoustic jazz, the pulse is usually carried by the ride cymbal and the back beat pattern is mostly played with your foot on the hi hats.  The snare drum, bass drum, and toms? Well they add in the accents, the colors, the additonal tones and the more obvious patterns and fills. You have approach your playing techniques from a slightly different position of creativity.  For example:


Think....driving the band with a burning groove instead of kicking their ass with a heavy backbeat.


Consider sweeping your wire brushes across the snare head to play something musical but not rhythmic in the otherwise OPEN SPACES.  Create an emotion to go with a soft melody.


In jazz playing you might also consider being more judicious and hold the cymbal crashes for an accent was needed to frame a figure or a soft to medium swelling roll to gently build up a transition figure.


Like I said, acoustic jazz playing approaches the drummers role from a different perspective.  It’s not so much the rock solid beat as it is the pulse.  It’s not so much the powerful fill as it is the color palette and texture choices.  It’s not so much in-your-face as it is about feeling something that's not so immediately obvious.


If you are still reading this, I hope that sharing some of these thoughts was interesting and maybe even of benefit.


IBJAMN in Nashville

Ken Sanders

Tags: Jazz


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