As most drummers will tell you, learning to play jazz involves both technical skill and a high level of creativity.
Whilst learning drum solos of the greats is an important exercise, there are some classic books out there which have stood the test of time in music education.
For this article, we highlight 10 of the very best jazz drumming books out there.
A brief glance at the search results of any online drum shop shows how many educational books are available to the aspiring jazz drummer.
This can be confusing.
The fight to stand out on the bookshelf has led to many of the publications on offer to promise a solution for all the diligent student’s needs.
The reality is that most of this instructional literature rehashes the same old topics: practice your rudiments, learn some time patterns, memorise these 600 licks to make you ‘sound like Tony Williams’, etc. etc.
We would hate to call this a cynical attempt of what has become a major and profitable industry to persuade you to impart with your hard-earned cash. However, the reality is that good books are hard to find and are only one small part of the puzzle.
The only way to fully absorb the fundamentals of jazz drumming is to approach them from every angle possible.
Listening to the jazz greats, practising, playing, taking lessons, going to gigs, studying the history and, yes, seeking advice from books by reputable authors is just the beginning of a long to-do list.
And by reputable author, we mean a musician who has cut his teeth both in the classroom and on the stage.
Too often the writers of these manuals are people who have no real experience in either forum.
The examples in this article not only tick these boxes, but also encourage the well-rounded education discussed above. Many of them have accompanying CDs and DVDs to make sure the autodidact is on the right track.
So here’s our guide to some essential jazz drumming books for players of every level.
Table of Contents
New Orleans and Second Line Drumming (Herlin Riley and Johnny Vidacovich)
Stylistic analysis is interspersed with interviews with and pictures of some of the genre’s leading exponents. This gives a social context to the exercises and technical guidance.
Appropriate equipment and the drummer’s roles and responsibilities are also covered, and there are extensive discographies for further study.
New Orleans and Second Line Drumming is not a book to be ‘completed’ – you’ll find yourself coming back to this for new inspiration for years to come.
Beyond Bop Drumming (John Riley)
John Riley’s sequel to The Art of Bop Drumming continues the thorough and expansive approach established in the first volume.
It contains plenty of down-to-earth exercises to get your teeth into, and there are frank discussions about technical difficulties faced by drummers who want to explore jazz from the ’60s and after.
Riley’s awe of the greats is evident in his writing, and it’s infectious. Particularly exciting are some carefully transcribed solos with motivic analysis and ideas for variations.
As in the prequel, the discography is conveniently ordered by drummer rather than leader, and the list of recommended books and videos is bulging with great suggestions.
The Sound of Brushes (Ed Thigpen)
Notating the lateral motions of brush playing is a tricky business. With only a few strokes the illustrations can quickly come to look like a football tactics diagram.
However clear the graphics are, playing brushes will always be easier understood by listening and showing. The CD, and DVD if accessible, are therefore indispensable additions to this jazz drumming classic.
That said, the instructions are as clear as can be and are presented on the page as music notation, diagram and a hybrid of the two for clarity.
Ed Thigpen not only takes the reader through basic time patterns but also gives practical advice on how to incorporate rhythmic language.
Modern Rudimental Swing Solos (Charley Wilcoxon)
Celebrated by drum aficionados as a source of Philly Joe Jones’ prodigious technical skills, these snare drum solos by Charley Wilcoxon from 1941 are written with suggested stickings, as is traditional in the rudimental literature.
Although they were not composed specifically with jazz in mind, you’ll hear Philly Joe’s phrasing in them and no doubt realise just how slick his hands were!
It is recommended that, after learning each solo, the student practise them to music and experiment with orchestrating them on the kit in order to feel the benefits in real-world playing scenarios.
The Essence of Jazz Drumming (Jim Blackley)
The exercises in The Essence of Jazz Drumming approach playing drums from a musical angle.
Technical exercises are expressed as musical phrases, which encourages the learner never to lose sight of the ultimate goal of playing music rather than drums.
In his introduction, Jim Blackley promotes ideas which would seem radical in your basic rock drums book: we are to learn the piano, sing melodies, practice at very slow tempos, pay attention to the form of the tune, and treat the drum set not as an opportunity to just play sticking patterns but as a musical instrument.
This brand of sage and austere instruction is also present in Syncopated Rolls for The Modern Drummer by the same author, which is well worth owning as a primer for this volume.
Intro to Polyrhythms (Ari Hoenig)
Like Blackley, Ari Hoenig advocates learning to hear rhythms away from the instrument before applying them.
This eradicates any possibility that the technical aspects of your instrument might interfere with the exercises.
As a drummer himself, Hoenig notates the assignments in his book Intro to Polyrhythms for drummers – but provides advice on how a pianist or bass player might repurpose them.
Together with its sequel Metric Modulations: Contracting and Expanding Time Within Form, a musician has the tools to master the language of metric modulation.
These books are also great to work through with some rhythm-section friends!
Gene Krupa Drum Method (Gene Krupa)
The Gene Krupa Drum Method is the first of its kind; previous jazz drumming books had either dealt exclusively with the snare drum as a rudimental instrument, or with percussion used in orchestras.
It is fascinating to see how quickly Gene Krupa introduces concepts and terminology universal in music, and concurrently develops reading and technical abilities.
Rudiments are broken down into their underlying rhythms and motions, and good sound production is discussed at great length. His notes on equipment are also invaluable.
The edition in print today also includes a few transcriptions of Krupa’s feature arrangements.
This book is a must-have for any jazz drum enthusiast!
Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer (Ted Reed)
Reading jazz drum charts is an integral part of being hireable, but this task is two-fold: you have to both read the rhythms and interpret it as a drummer.
Not only that, but it can be difficult to find a systematised approach.
Enter Ted Reed and his Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer.
Although it can be used as a technique guide for beginners, it works just as well as sight-reading material, with different rhythms gradually introduced and combined.
After securing a solid foundation the student can go back and apply his musical interpretations to the lessons.
The best books can be used many times in many ways, and the flexibility of Reed’s book certainly holds up.
The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary as taught by Alan Dawson (John Ramsey)
Aside from his own illustrious career as a sideman, Alan Dawson is famous for being the teacher of the great Tony Williams.
Williams attributes his sense of clarity in his ideas to his tutor, and this book goes some way to explaining why.
Firstly, the heavy emphasis on rudimental exercises, culminating in ‘The Rudimental Ritual’, will sharpen up even the sloppiest of players.
Secondly, four-way coordination exercises are given a melodic spin which gets the drummer thinking musically across the whole instrument.
The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary as taught by Alan Dawson will not only be precious reading material to fans of Dawson or Tony Williams, but will also give any aspiring jazz drummer a lifetime of practice ideas.
Exploring Your Creativity on The Drumset (Mark Guiliana)
Even the best jazz drumming books do not attack the subject of creativity head-on.
There’s a reason for this: it’s much easier to impart tangible ideas of stick movements and stickings than it is to talk about where inspiration comes from.
There are some practical steps you can take, however, and Mark Guiliana has compiled a few of them in this publication, Exploring Your Creativity on The Drumset.
Such concepts as dynamics, space, orchestration and phrasing are tools we can use to get closer to the elusive well-spring of creativity.
Guiliana’s approach might seem like it gives prominence to drumming mechanics, but if you dig down below the surface, he’s really referring to the nuts and bolts of music-making.
A handy reminder of big-picture practice, the musical awareness propounded will give the assiduous student an edge worth shedding for!
Thank for reading! Of course, learning the great jazz drum solos is a sure way to improve your drumming skills, but these books are a great way to ensure a solid foundation and technique to build upon.
If you’re looking for more drum-related content, head over to the jazz drums homepage which includes recommended gear and articles on many of the jazz drumming greats.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!