The ride cymbal beat is the most important element of jazz drumming. It should be the core of your sound, a thing by which you can be identified. It contains all of the information that other musicians need to hear in order to play with you. It defines tempo and style. It is the essence of jazz on the drums, and can make or break a groove on the bandstand.
It’s not the hi-hat!
The foot-operated hi-hat can make a great ride beat even better, through its added heft and unique color. But it can’t do much on its own: it can mark time, not define style.
Too often young jazz drummers are told that playing “2 & 4” on the hi-hat is the critical element of a swing feel. This is wrong. Defining a swing feel with this concept will result in a misplaced emphasis that is worse in sound and style than none altogether.
A ride cymbal beat is a personal thing.
Listen to the ride patterns of Max Roach, Louis Hayes, and Elvin Jones. Wow! They are so different, yet all so swinging! No matter what their subdivision of the skip, these masters have patterns that are strong and musical. They dance, floating and propelling at the same time.
• Practice yours by playing just quarter notes first. You should be able to make just quarter notes swing.
• Add your skip back in and pay attention its placement. Is it where you think it is? Is it where you want it to be? How does it change depending on tempo? Recording is an invaluable tool here.
• Finally, hear what you play on your cymbal, and play it with intent – you’ll be on your way to a great feel that’s all yours!