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Learn to Read Drum Notation


Reading Drum Notation

mp3: Reading Drum Notation
Drum Chart: Reading Drum Notation

Learning to read, transcribe and write drum parts will help fast track you becoming a better drummer and a complete musician.

To view the drum charts on this page you can click on each link next to the words Drum Chart (under the mp3/wma files) or click on the small drum chart to enlarge.

Each section comes with a drum chart and accompanying mp3/wma file that plays the examples on the drum chart so you can READ along with the drums as it's being played.

If you go through each of the drum charts, listening to the files on this page, you'll have everything you need to be able to pick up drum charts and follow along with the music as well as work out how to play the rhythms. It will be a slow process at first but it's not that difficult to do it. If you learn how to do this not only will you be able to read drum charts but you'll be able to think more clearly about playing your own beats as well as write your own drum parts. Writing drum parts away from the kit is a great way to come up with parts that are above your level. Once written out (or if you are reading other peoples parts) you can break them down and play them slowly until you can build them up to speed. By learning to write your own drum parts you'll also find that you are able to transcribe drum beats off your favorite records.

Transcribing (and learning) drum parts is the FASTEST way to become a great drummer.

Let's get down to business:

The first drum chart, Reading Drum Notation, shows you how drums are notated on music staff/manuscript paper. Music staff are the five lines written on pages to notate music. Drum notation is s a pretty simple system to pick up and follow.

Cymbals are always on the top line of the staff. For hi hats we use a 'x' to notate a closed hi hat. If you want to show the open hi hat then you put a 'o' above the 'x'.

Ride cymbals use a triangle at the bottom of the note and the crash cymbals use a square.

Other cymbals may use other shapes but they are the main ones.

The snare drum is notated either on the middle line of the staff or just above it. As you can see on the chart I notate it just above the line.

The bass drum is on the bottom line.

Toms (from high to low) are on the other lines - the small tom will be on a higher line to a floor tom.

For any other drums, percussive instruments you can either work it out by listening to the recording you are following a drum chart from or you can refer to the legend that will show you how that drum chart is showing what. If you are writing your own drum charts you should look at other charts to see what they've used or you can use shapes on lines that make it easiest for you to read.

The mp3/wma for Reading Drum Notation plays each of the sounds on the drum chart below so you can follow them and listen to what I've explained above.

Reading Drum Notation

Drum Note Values

mp3: Drum Note Values
: Drum Note Values
Drum Chart: Drum Note Values

Most of the music you listen to is in 4/4 ('four-four') time. A time signature in 4/4 means there are 4 quarter note beats to the bar. The easiest way for you to understand this is to count along with your favorite songs. Put on a song and count along with it, count: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4... Each time you get back to the '1' count you are at the next bar.

The main breakup of notes in 4/4 time are:

Quarter Notes; which are on each beat of a bar of 4/4 and you count: '1, 2, 3, 4...'

Eighth Notes; which add a note in between each quarter note so you count: '1 an, 2 an, 3 an, 4 an, 1 an, 2 an, 3 an, 4 an...'

and Sixteenth Note; which have four notes played over each beat of a bar in 4/4 so you count: '1 e an a, 2 e an a, 3 a an a, 4 e an a, 1 e an a, 2 e an a, 3 a an a, 4 e an a...'

Some people will say to count the 'an' as 'and'. It's the same thing. 1 e and a, 2 e and a. It's easier to say 'an' than 'and' especially when you start counting fast. 'an' rolls off the tounge quicker.

Try it: count fast: '1 e an a, 2 e an a, 3 a an a, 4 e an a, 1 e an a, 2 e an a, 3 a an a, 4 e an a...'

The second most common time signature is 12/8 time. (Or 6/8, it's the same feel). This is what is used for rhythms that have a triple feel to them where you'd count: '1 an a, 2 an a, 3 an a, 4 an a...'. Think of a Waltz (the greatest Waltz of all being Manic Depression by Jimi Hendrix). It's got a rolling feel to it: '1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3' or '1 an a, 2 an a, 3 an a, 4 an a'.

The blues uses triple rhythms extensively. This is where the shuffle rhythm comes from. If you take out the middle triplet you have a shuffle beat. 1 (an) a, 2 (an) a.. = 1 a, 2 a...

Listen to the mp3/wma file for Drum Note Values and you'll be able to both see and hear the above.

Other time signatures are good to know but only make up a very small amount of popular music. You can play 'odd time signatures' where you have 5 beats in a bar instead of 4. If you play these type of time signature then you will spend your days playing in small clubs that no one has ever been to, heard of or wants to visit. Anyone who does happen to be in that club is most likely there by accident or lost. If they aren't and genuinely want to be there to listen to you play odd time signatures, they are going to be so critical of what you play that you won't be able to please them unless your name is Tony Williams. Which it isn't!

So we're just going to stick with 4/4 and 12/8 time.

If you want to take it further you can look and listen to the tracks on the Play Drums Odd Meters pages and then you should seek out the book Master Studies by Joe Morello. Once you've done that come back to me and I'll tell you how to get to that club above that no one goes to!

ok - so I was being a bit mean on the odd time thing - listen to Soundgarden, Tool, Rush and Frank Zappa if you want to hear some awesome playing using odd meters.

Drum Note Values

Drum Rest Values

mp3: Drum Rest Values
: Drum Rest Values
Drum Chart: Drum Rest Values

The Drum Rest Values page and files show you the same note values as for when you are playing the notes. The difference is that with a rest you don't play for the length of the note. This page and its mp3 goes hand-in-hand with the Drum Note Values page.

Drum Rest Values

Reading Rhythms

mp3: Reading Rhythms
: Reading Rhythms
Drum Chart: Reading Rhythms

Cool - no you know what lines are for what parts of the kit and you have an idea of how the note values look it's time to get down to it and start reading drums charts. Here is the basic drum beat that everyone (your great Aunt included) can play. There is a four count in on the hi hat then the hats come in for two bars playing eighth notes. Then we add the bass drum on the 1 and the 3 for two bars and finally add the snare on the 2 and the 4 (known as the back beat). This gives us the first drum beat that everyone learns to play on the drums.

Everything after this is just a matter of becoming familiar of following, reading and writing out drum charts.

Reading Rhythms

Basic Drum Beat

mp3: Basic Drum Beat
: Basic Drum Beat
Drum Chart: Basic Drum Beat

Basic Drum Beat takes our basic drum beat a littler further than the above by adding some extra notes on the bass drum to give us a cooler beat as well as using and open hi hat at the end of each set of 4 bars.

Basic Drum Beat

Basic Drum Beat Two

mp3: Basic Drum Beat Two
: Basic Drum Beat Two
Drum Chart: Basic Drum Beat Two

Basic Drum Beat Two uses the same bass drum and snare part that is played in Basic Drum Beat but when it gets to the 5th bar we move from the hi hat to the ride cymbal.

Basic Drum Beat Two

There you have it!

Next Steps

If you've opened the drum charts above and followed the notation along with each mp3 file then you will now have a basic understanding of how to read drum charts.

Taking it further is really about familiarity. It's not overly difficult, like all good things in music you need to invest a little bit of consistent time into your practice so you can improve over the coming weeks and months.

The benefit of being able to read drums is that you'll be able to really break down music and parts. This will help you play more difficult rhythms as well as improving your interaction with band members. You'll not only be able to hear rhythms but you'll start to see them in your mind as well. The more you can do that the more you can lock in with rhythms other musicians are playing as well as come up with your own parts.

A great thing to do now would be to check out some music stores and find the complete Drum Charts to one or two of your favorite albums. Start with something basic so it'll be easier for you to read the drum chart.

What you do is get the drum book, put the record on and sit there following the drum notation along with the record. Just like if you were reading the words in your head along with a talking book!

Do this a few times with some songs you love and then go to your kit. Listen to the drum beats on the album again and then read the drum chart to play those beats.

Learn a whole song so you can read it and play along note-for-note with the record.

Then sit down with some manuscript paper, put the drum chart away, and write out the parts you learned from the drum book. Once you've written out some parts check it with the drum book to make sure you're on the track.

When you get comfortable with this you can move onto some songs that you don't have the drum charts for. Sit down with the manuscript paper and write out the drum parts off the record. This is called transcribing and will take your drumming and musicianship to a much higher lever and fast.

After you've transcribed some drum parts go to the kit and learn the parts. When you can play the drum parts comfortably play along with the record.

As you improve find more complicated (busier) music to transcribe and learn.

If you're not sure what album to suss out and learn get Nevermind by Nirvana and go through the steps mentioned above: reading, playing and finally writing out all Dave Grohl's drum parts. It's not a hard album to play yet it's one of the best records of rock drumming ever recorded.

If you want something ultra cool to aim for, aim to transcribe and learn John Bonham's drumming from your favorite Led Zeppelin album. If you don't know what album to get pick up Led Zeppelin IV and prepare to ROCK HARD.

Just remember one thing - always, ALWAYS, play from the heart.

Jam on!

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