In this article we will discuss some of the most common and popular phrases you might hear when people discuss drumming.

When it comes to different styles of drumming, this could be referring to many aspects. For a start, just like you can have a style of music, you can have a style of drumming to go with it. Jazz, Blues and Rock all have certain nuances, phrases, techniques, and sounds which are associated with the style of drumming that accompanies them. Alternatively you can also compare acoustic drumming and electronic drum sets.

In this article we will go into more depth as to what distinguishes each style from the next.

Within the world of drums there are drumming styles too. One player may play rock differently from another player, for example. This can be down to an individual’s own personal style and sense of timing. We will discuss some terminology which goes some way towards explaining these styles and nuances and hopefully enlighten you more about the world of drumming.

Rock and Pop Drumming

Rock music is a huge genre. It encompasses everything from the 1950’s to modern day and beyond.

What really distinguishes rock music from any other music is the use of a backbeat. The backbeat became popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s and took off in its own way to spawn lots of different types of music.

A backbeat is typically a snare stroke which is placed on beats 2 and 4 of the bar, in a standard bar of 4/4. The effect a backbeat has on a song is undeniable and infectious.

Before backbeats were widely used jazz drummers would often accent beats 2 and 4 of the bar. This would be in a typical swing pattern. The way they would accent these beats was by pressing down on the hi-hat pedal and playing the ride cymbal a little louder. This extra volume on these two beats really enhanced the “swing” feel.

So this style made its way into early rock’n’roll music. The hi-hat and ride combination was replaced with a stronger snare stroke. Also swing eventually gave way to a more straight sounding eight note pattern. The result is a typical rock beat that you might hear today.

Here’s an example of a typical rock beat with ZZ Top’s smash hit “Gimme All Your Lovin”:

While rock music has a tendency to involve heavy drumming, the format of rock songs can vary a lot. You can have straight rock, funk rock, pop rock, blues rock, and much more. Some rock songs are based on blues and jazz forms, which we will discuss later.

Rock drums have changed in style too when it comes to the actual drum sound. A typical rock drum kit will have big loud drums with equally loud cymbals. The way to achieve this sound is through purchasing a suitable large sized drum kit and tuning the drum heads nice and low so that they produce a deeper tone.

Drum head manufacturer, Evans, has produced a great set of drum heads which are tailored for rock. They come with 5 different heads and are suitable for a size 22 inch bass drum.

When it comes to pop, pretty much the same rules apply. Plenty of rock songs have become popular and made it as “pop” songs so it’s kind of irrelevant to distinguish between the two styles here.

One thing that can be said about pop music nowadays is that it tends to be more radio-friendly, so in other words, maybe dial down the drums a little for pop music.

This can be a matter of experimenting with smaller drum sizes and more musical tunings. With that said, one person’s rock song is another person’s pop song.

Blues Drumming

Blues is closely related to rock and quite close to jazz, too, in some ways. Blues drumming can usually be divided into one of three categories to begin with. You can have straight eight blues, shuffle blues, or 12/8 blues. There are more variations but we’ll deal with these three as they happen to make up the majority of cases.

Straight eight blues is close to the rock beat as demonstrated in the earlier ZZ Top demonstration. “Straight eight” really refers to how the time is played. The hi-hats in this example are played straight, so this means that the timing between consecutive eight notes is equal. You can mix up the placement of both snare and bass drum to create new patterns but the main timekeeper here is played straight.

Shuffle blues on the other hand means that the pattern is not straight. Instead, the eight notes are played with more of a bounce where the notes are not equally spaced. This feel is very familiar and can be heard in countless tunes from jazz, rock, pop, and more.

Here’s a blues shuffle feel. Notice the timing of the ride and snare hands and how they aren’t equally spaced as in the earlier rock example.

This video shows a “Texas Shuffle” which is one of the most difficult beats to play on the drums. If you’re looking to get into blues music and blues drumming, this one is a must.

It’s worth pointing out that a “shuffle” or “swing” feel is not only a feature of blues. You will hear it in many, many genres.

Jazz Drumming

Speaking of swing, the origins of swing are in jazz music. Since the late 19th century, jazz musicians were swinging out to compositions. Jazz was the pop music of its day.

One of the most famous examples of the swing ride pattern, which is essential to jazz drumming, is on the soundtrack to the legendary Pink Panther movie. Take a listen to it here:

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The full drum kit comes in at around 45 seconds. You can hear a swing pattern being played on the ride cymbal. Also, as we touched on in the section on rock drumming, the drummer plays the hi-hat on beats 2 and 4, for some extra “swing” feel.

Swing patterns in jazz can be played on any drum or cymbal. Quite often the hihat is chosen to do the time keeping. In this case, when combined with the pedal work on beats 2 and 4, you get this kind of effect:

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Notice how the drummer in this clip (at the current timestamp of 2:36) uses his hand to close the hi-hat cymbals for the same pedal effect.

Jazz is in no way restricted to swing. In fact, jazz may be the most all-encompassing music out there, as jazz musicians are constantly welcoming new styles and sounds into the idiom.

You’ll find plenty of straight eight jazz music, as well as shuffles and pretty much any other rhythm there is.

Reggae Drumming

Reggae can also be swung or played straight. One of the most common characteristics of reggae is the avoidance of overplaying on beat 1. Emphasizing the first beat is more common in lots of rock and pop tunes and not so common in the likes of jazz and reggae.

Effectively, this means that you shouldn’t play too loud on this beat. More popular beats are the 2, 3, and 4 of the bar. Expert reggae drummers will craft fills and beats to highlight these beats.

Here is one such example which shows the “1-drop”:

The “1-drop” is a common reggae beat which utilizes the jazz emphasis on beats 2 and 4 as well as accenting beat 3 with a rim click and a bass drum together. This beat can be played either with a swing or a straight feel. This comes down to personal taste and what suits the song best. To switch between straight and swing feels, simply adjust your sixteenth note hi-hat pattern.

For added variety you can play around with the bass drum placement too. Try putting the bass drum on beats 1 and 3. Then try it on all eight notes. You’ll find this gives a very different feel to the beat.

Latin Drumming

Latin music on the drum set can be quite daunting. Some of it consists of beats and styles that we have already discussed, such as straight eight rock grooves. Other Latin music will need a familiarity with traditional patterns and the clave.

The clave is a rhythmic pattern that is common in Latin music and is almost like the heartbeat of the song. From a drumming point of view, the clave represents the road map which to play on. It’s kind of like a guide as to which beats you can emphasise and play around with. Claves are often two bar phrases which can be split up and rearranged.

Here is a demonstration of the 3:2 clave as applied to the drum set:

Notice how the first bar contains 3 rim clicks and the second bar contains only 2. This is where the 3:2 is derived from. You can also reverse the order of the bars to create a 2:3 clave. The clave in this example is a 3:2 “rumba” clave. There is also a “son” clave which is a slight variation on the theme.

Latin music is often played in 6/8 timing, too. This means the clave is applied but with a different feel. Hear how this 6/8 rumba clave sounds in comparison to the above 4/4 rumba clave:

Getting to grips with the time feel is a big part of mastering these rhythms. Immerse yourself in the music and you will develop a greater understanding of the musical language involved.

Matched Grip vs Traditional Grip Drumming

There are two main grips in drumming which the majority of players will use. They are called the matched grip and the traditional grip.

The matched grip is the simpler of the two as both hands grip the drumstick in the same way.

The grip feels natural and is pretty much the same grip that a small child will use to strike a drumstick. The main points of this grip are that each hand matches and the palms point downwards or slightly downwards.

Here’s Ringo Starr, one of the main ambassadors of the matched grip in the early days of kit drumming:

The traditional grip came about from marching drummers. When marching with a drum hundreds of years ago, there were no fancy drum harnesses that we have today. Drummers would place the drum to one side for comfort as it was near impossible to march with the drum in front and center. With a drum to one side it is harder to use matched grip. For this reason drummers invented what is now known as the traditional grip.

The traditional grip is not matched so each hand holds the stick differently. One hand uses the above technique as explained in matched grip, while the other uses an inverted grip. This inverted grip is palm up with the stick lying across the palm and under the thumb. You will see this grip often in old footage of jazz drummers from the mid 20th century. This grip is still used today and is favored by some drummers.

Here’s YouTube instructor Rob Brown with an interesting discussion on the differences between the two grips and whether there are any major benefits to either:

Open-Handed Playing

Open handed playing refers to the setup of the drum kit and the placement of such drums and cymbals like the snare and the hi-hat. Traditionally, the hi-hat is placed to one side of the snare drum. Most drummers play “cross-handed” with their leading hand over the other hand. The leading hand in this case crosses over the other hand to play the hi-hat.

One reason for this is so that the drummer can keep their dominant side on the bass drum pedal.

For example, a right handed drummer would typically play the bass drum with their right foot and the hi-hat with their right hand. In order to play the pedal of the hi-hat, they must then position the pedal where their left foot would usually be. When it comes to the hands this means that to lead with the right hand you must cross over the left hand to reach the hi-hat cymbals.

This is how the majority of drum kits are set up. Open handed playing, on the other hand, disregards crossing the hands. This means that instead of crossing over hands, the drummer plays the hi-hat and snare “open-handedly”.

Naturally, to accomplish this you will need to swap the position of both the hi-hat stand and the bass drum pedal. Open handed players are quite common. Some such players are Carter Beauford from the Dave Matthews band and Mike Bording from Faith No More.

Here’s Carter demonstrating some open handed drumming on the track “#41” by the Dave Matthews Band:

Playing in Odd Time Signatures

Odd time signatures are when we play anything other than 4/4 or other common time signatures.

Odd time signatures, as the name suggests are usually involving odd numbers such as 5, 7 or 9. That said, 3/4 is technically an odd time signature yet it doesn’t sound alien to our ears. This is because we have heard it lots of times in popular songs.

Learning to play in odd time signatures is similar in that the more you listen and familiarise yourself with them, the easier they are to comprehend and play.

Here’s the infamous jazz tune “Take 5” with Joe Morello on drums. This song is in 5/4 timing:

Count along “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” and see if you can stay with the rhythm all the way through the song.

Playing On/Ahead/Behind the Beat

Playing on the beat means just that. It’s as if you’re aiming to nail the metronome right in the middle of the beep or click it makes. When you do actually accurately play along with the metronome this is called playing “on the beat”.

Playing ahead of the beat can be done in a few ways but the most popular is to use the placement of the snare. So, in other words, play a regular groove but place the snare slightly before the hi-hat stroke. This gives the groove a little edge.

Conversely playing behind the beat is done by relaxing the stroke of the snare backbeat a little. Place it just after the hi-hat on beats 2 and 4 to hear how playing behind the beat sounds. This style has been around for a long time and is used by drummers, most of the time unknowingly. It’s a great way to either relax a song or put a bit of energy into it without altering the tempo.

Free-form Drumming

All the types of drumming we have discussed so far have been tempo based. This means that they involve a common meter with which the band members play along to. There is also another style of music which does not involve tempo or beats per minute. Free jazz is one such example. Free jazz became common in the early 1960’s among artists such as John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders.

Take a listen to some of John Coltrane’s free jazz with the legendary Elvin Jones on drums. The drums begin at around the 1 minute mark:

Notice how the playing is totally improvised and all the musicians have total freedom to play whatever they feel like. There is no common tempo here for the most part. You can use this free-form concept in your drum solos.


We hope that this drumming styles list has explained some of the different styles of drumming terms that get bandied about nowadays. There are many types of drummers and many types of music. Each has an individual style that we can learn from and borrow. Go exploring, do some exercises,  and find the individual styles that appeal to you!