How to play up-tempo jazz without getting tired, by Joe La Barbera

One of the most often asked questions I get at clinics is how to play fast tempos without tiring. To be able to play ANY tempo well, we have to make sure that a few things are correctly in place first.

The drum set is unique in that it is a collection of individual percussion instruments that must achieve a unified voice.  It’s like a combo with four musicians; it has to sound unified, not scattered or disconnected. If one member of the band is out of sync, the whole band sounds bad; this same principle applies to our time feel.

The first thing we must master at the drums is that all four limbs are unified by a common pulse or beat. We also have to make sure that there is a sonic balance among all four limbs. By balance, I do not mean equal volume.  Today, most drummers prefer the ride cymbal to be more dominant than the bass drum but this was not always the case. In the Swing era, the bass drum was played much louder. Use your best judgment or ask your teacher for advice or just listen to your favorite drummer to get a better idea.

Set your metronome to a comfortable quarter note pulse, somewhere between 100-120.  If this is too fast for you, slow it down as needed.

1.) Now start with the ride cymbal playing quarter notes to match the click from the metronome.

2.) Once this is feeling good, add hi hat on 2 and 4 and make sure they line up with the metronome. I strongly recommend heel down with on the hi hat pedal but you may prefer heel up. Try both ways.

With just these two parts of the kit, we should be able to generate a good time feel.

3.) Next add a slight accent on 2 and 4 on your ride cymbal by raising your arm up after beats 1 and 3 in preparation for the strokes on 2 and 4. Think Moeller: upstroke after 1/downstroke on 2/upstroke after  3/downstroke on 4. (See photos 1 and 2). Your right elbow should move slightly away from your torso as you prepare for the downstrokes.












4.) We can now add the “skip” beat or dotted 8th/16th note feel to beats 2 and 4. Again, make sure the ride cymbal and the hi hat line up with the metronome click.

5.) Next we can add the bass drum playing a feathered (quiet) four to the bar or “four on the floor”. This technique is often misunderstood as being old fashioned but Alan Dawson straightened me out on it back in 1966 when, as a student of his, I had the same misconception about its use. The idea is to underscore the pulse played by the bass, not cover it up. It is essential in big band drumming but also very effective at certain tempos in small group drumming as well.  When Alan told me that Tony Williams used this technique, which he learned from Max Roach, I was sold. However, as the tempo increases, you can change the 4 beat bass drum to syncopated beats.

We now have 3 separate limbs working together on the same common beat and we should be trying to make the metronome “swing”. This “swing” feel is achieved by finding a balance between the mechanical click of the metronome and where you place your beat. You have probably heard the terms “on the center of the beat, on top of the beat and in back of or behind the beat”.  The center of the beat means right on the click so that the click practically disappears. On top of the beat would be slightly ahead of the click but not rushing (bassist Ray Brown was a very good example of this feel). Back of the beat is slightly behind the click without slowing down (The feeling of the Count Basie Band best exemplifies this feeling). When you are comfortable with the center of the beat, experiment with the metronome by laying back a bit so that it feels like the metronome is pulling you along; then try getting on top of the metronome so that you are pulling it along. Hopefully, this will help you to understand these different time feels.

Once we have these 3 limbs happening, we can add some easy comps from the snare drum. Try the upbeat or “and” of 1 at first then add the upbeat of 3 as well. Experiment with the left hand by playing all the available beats in a measure of 4/4, one beat at a time. There are many books that deal with the subject of coordinated independence at the drums so choose the one you like and practice with the metronome.

O.K., so now back to the issue of playing up tempo (fast) without tiring. One major reason I have discovered over the years for fatigue is a lack of relaxation when playing. You may have seen some drummers who look like they are working very hard when they play fast while others achieve the same thing seemingly effortlessly.  One thing that has served me well over the years is the ability to stay relaxed at the drums. A very famous jazz pianist once described me as looking like a Gazelle when I play because of the motion in my arms!

While playing the previously outlined exercises, tune in to your body starting with your neck and shoulders. Ask yourself, “Do I feel tight in the shoulders? Do I feel tight in the arms or the wrists”? This relaxation should start at the neck and shoulders and continue to the tips of your fingers. This does not mean a loose grip or sloppy technique, but a controlled motion. Again, think Moeller in approach. The motion in your arms will assist you.

At slower tempos, the arm motion(upstroke/downstroke) is more exaggerated; as the tempo increases the motion condenses (gets smaller) but is still present and generated from the shoulders down to the fingers. The idea is to create a momentum that helps the arm achieve a perpetual motion.

Check out this video of Tony Williams on You Tube and watch his right arm flow. Most of the time he is altering the ride pattern but his motion is a very good example of what I am describing.

YouTube Preview Image

What I sometimes see from students is a locked arm position in both hands, but particularly the ride cymbal arm which then requires the wrist to work harder while playing time. (Photo 3)

It is possible to play this way, of course and many drummers do.  For many of us, this would not be much of a problem at a medium tempo, but as we get faster it can be.


Compare the 2 approaches for yourself and decide if it is easier with a little more motion in the arm.

Now comes the hard part: you have to practice!

You should practice with a metronome but I also highly recommend playing along with recordings as I did as a kid.  Pick a track that is around half note=90 and should be at least 7-10 minutes in length. As your ability improves, you can find tracks that are faster. Pay attention to how the drummer on the track you are playing along with interacts with the rest of the band and learn from this as well.

Remember to check your relaxation along the way because it is very easy to revert back to old habits. Take your time each step of the way to achieve full benefit from each step.

Hopefully, this will help you to be able to play faster tempos for longer periods of time without feeling tired.