How to Play the Blues on Drums

By any measure, drummers are the unsung heroes in a band, because they must set the pace for everybody else. If drummers have a bad night, the audience knows immediately. This rule goes double for blues drummers, whose major challenge is keeping the groove alive, often within the most elementary rhythmic structures and time signatures imaginable. But for drummers ready to answer the call, there is no lack of work waiting for them, if their job is done properly.

Know the role you play. Blues drumming stays "in the pocket," meaning that beat and groove dynamics are the most crucial part of the job. For this reason, avoid slamming the crash cymbal until the last beat of a phrase, so that other players can be heard. Resist the natural temptation to show off, and play what the song demands.

Keep your bass drum work light, either in a simple "four on the floor" pattern---the term for a uniform beat anchored around the bass drum---or an equally simple swing groove that parallels the beats being laid down by the bass and guitars. The type of song played will determine the basic drum pattern. Some songs may require a driving, straight eighth-note feel, while others demand a swing feel, with powerful triplets repeated for emphasis.

Play your beats crisply and distinctly, keeping the feel uppermost in mind. Learn the differences between relevant beats and time signatures, which are crucial to success on the bandstand. Leading that list is the shuffle, a swing rhythm with heavily syncopated triplets that remains the signature blues beat. Other common rhythms and time signatures include 4/4 time, with swing eighth note feel, followed by 6/8 and 12/8, which often figures prominently in slow blues.

Save drum fills for creative bursts of punctuation, instead of splashing them throughout the whole song. When that happens, do not merely settle for the standard trip around the tom toms; try to throw a little variety into the proceedings. Control your triplets, as well, to ensure greater dynamics between louder and softer passages.

Keep your head up as much as possible, to better follow the bandleader's cues. This is even more important if all the players know each other, and you are an unfamiliar commodity. It only takes a subtle nod or hand gesture to change the song on a dime---and if you miss it, you may not get invited back. However, if a mediocre rhythm guitarist knows exactly where your beats and, her own playing will look better, and so will yours. Proceed accordingly.

Learn as many blues standards as possible. Calling out for classics like "Got My Mojo Workin'," or "Sweet Home Chicago," will get you through many a blues jam or band rehearsal---especially when stepping into an unfamiliar playing situation. Lock in with the bass player to create a smoothly firing groove. If you play in a band, spend some time running down problem sections with your fellow rhythm partner. Practice with classic blues recordings and instructional DVDs. Do not just settle for the current crop of musicians. Many drummers, like Chess Records session ace Fred Below---or S.P. Leary, who powered many of Muddy Waters' classic recordings---remain unknown to the general public but are mandatory listening within blues circles.

Develop a keen sense of song construction, which helps in memorizing the relevant tempo and feel changes. Failing to do this kind of homework can mean the difference between a regular gig, and not being invited back after the first practice or blues jam. Do not neglect big band swing, funk and soul drumming styles, which often share similar feel and technique with the blues.

Approved by Jesse Anderson