Basic Drumming Vocabulary

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Basic drumming vocabulary, or the language of drumming, like any other language, is made up of a collection of words and phrases. The words and phrases describe specific areas of drumming. As a developing drummer, it’s essential to learn the basic language and terminology.

You can then take that a step further by learning the language of music. This applies more to musicians such as pianists, guitarists, and so on. Still carries weight in a conversation between musicians and drummers. Knowing their language goes a long way to establishing yourself as not only a drummer but as a musician.

So, first things first. Let’s get a grounding in the basic drumming language.

Basic Drumming Terminology

As suggested, with any musical instrument. There is a specific vocabulary used when talking about drums. This can be confusing for beginners starting out. But once you learn the basic terms, it will be much easier to discuss drumming with other people. Here are some of the most common terms you are likely to come across:

  • Beat – The basic unit of rhythm, consisting of a set number of beats per minute, usually lasting a whole bar of music.
  • Bar – A measure of music that is divided into four beats (when the music’s written and played in the 4/4 time signature). In drumming, bars are often referred to as “bars of four, eight, twelve, or sixteen.” These are usually verses and choruses within a song for example. It’s also important to know that a measure, can denote a single bar or a series of bars as suggested above.
  • Time signature – A symbol that indicates how many beats there are in a measure and what type of note gets one beat. In 4/4 for instance, the first four indicated that there are 4 beats in a bar. The second 4 describe what length of note they are. In 4/4, the notes are called crotchets, or quarter notes.
  • Measure – A section of music that begins with time signature markings or double bar lines. As suggested, these can be 1 or more bars or measures.
  • Tempo – The speed at which a piece of music is played. Tempo is measured in beats per minute (BPM).
  • Drum set – A collection of drums and cymbals that are played together. Drum sets usually include a bass drum, snare drum, and two or more tom-toms. A single hi-hat (two cymbals, one on top of the other that move together when you press your left foot on the hi-hat pedal). One or more crash cymbals, and one ride cymbal.

So, let’s add a few more words to the language.

More Basic Drumming Vocabulary

The sounds produced by drums can convey a wide range of emotions. From joy and excitement to anger and frustration. Sadness and melancholy and so on. Drummers use their skills to create music that speaks to the soul and moves the body. The idea of drumming is to put forward an emotion through the drums. The emotion is usually related to the piece of music that’s played.

Having said that, drumming may also be rhythmic only.

Here are some terms that are often used in drumming:

  • Groove: A term used to describe the feel or pocket of a piece of music. Grooves can sound laid-back or funky, fast or slow. In this case, it’s all about the vibe the drummer creates!
  • Fill: A drummer’s opportunity to show off their skills by playing either a single note. One single bar or measure. Or a complete drum solo lasting several bars. A solo is usually played in sequences of 2, 4, 8, 12, 16, or 32 bars for example. A fill could also be a simple embellished section within a song. Fills help to add interest and keep the groove moving forward. They often come at the end of one section leading into the next section.
  • Phrase: A phrase can refer to a single drum phrase (collection of notes in a specific pattern). Or to a phrase played by other instruments that the drummer must interpret. A brass section playing staccato rhythm or phrase for example. See the free document at the end of this post for more specific drumming terms.

All these terms are important to understand to communicate through drumming. By learning the basic drumming vocabulary, you will be better able to express yourself. And thus, connect with other musicians.

There are also less formal terms such as in the pocket and “tight”. Which of course refers to the precision level of a piece of drumming. Precision in regards to metronome time as well as more staccato sounds. Staccato means short (tight) notes. And of course, there is also the term “loose” which means what it says, played in a loose fashion.

Other Instruments and Words Associated With Drumming

When most people think of drums, they envision a loud, energetic instrument. That is mostly used to create a driving beat. Yet, drums can actually be quite versatile in the sounds they produce. And so they come in a wide range of sizes, styles, and configurations. Drummers can also use a variety of techniques to create different sounds. And they often use a variety of accessories. Such as:

  • Tambourines,
  • Different Sticks,
  • Mallets,
  • Woodblocks,
  • Cowbells,
  • Cymbals,
  • Bongos,
  • Congas
  • Timbales

..and other percussive add-ons to the main drum kit. There are others but these are the main ones.

Besides being used in music, drums are also used in many ceremonial and cultural contexts. For example, Native Americans traditionally use drums to summon spirits and Sacred Hoops. In many parts of Africa, drums are used to communicate over long distances. And in Japan, taiko drums are often used to celebrate festivals. As well as other special occasions. Whether used for music or ceremony. The drum is an instrument with a long and rich history and versatility.

Different Drumming Techniques

Drumming is a complex and nuanced art form. And there are a variety of different techniques used to produce different sounds. For example, drummers can use their hands or sticks to strike the drums. They can vary the amount of force they use to produce either a soft or loud sound and everything between. Drummers can also change the position of their hands or sticks when striking the drums. Which also alters the sound.

By experimenting with different techniques. Drummers can create an almost infinite range of sounds. This makes them an essential part of any band or orchestra. Here are three different techniques you can try.

  1. Digging your elbow into the snare drum then use the other hand to play the notes. You can then apply more force to the drum head with your elbow to bend the sound.
  2. Hitting the edges of the cymbal with the butt end of the stick produces a smaller staccato-type sound.
  3. Choking a cymbal with one hand to stop it from ringing after you have struck the cymbal. This is usually done when choking small splash or crash cymbals.

Different Types of Drums

There are also many different types of drums, each with its own unique sound and purpose. I am not personally knowledgeable in these areas but they do provide a source of research. So the drummer can dig into more exotic drums and the basic drumming vocabulary used within each area.

  • Barrel drums, for example, are used in folk music and have a deep, reverberating tone.
  • Frame drums, are often used in religious ceremonies and have a more hypnotic sound.
  • Bodhran drums, are used in Celtic music and have a sharp, high-pitched tone.
  • Djembe drums originate from Africa and are often used in traditional dances.

This is only a small sampling of the many different types of drums that exist. In reality, there are hundreds of different kinds of drums, each with its own distinct sound. It is up to the individual drummer to decide which type of drum best suits their needs. And then to learn all about the area he is particularly interested in.

Different Drumming and Playing Styles

The term “drumming” covers a wide range of activities. From the informal banging of pots and pans to the highly structured playing of a marching band. Similarly, the term “playing style” can refer to anything drumming-related. From the way, a particular drummer plays along to the sound of a band, to a particular brand or genre of music.

When it comes to drumming, there are four basic styles:

  • Rudimental, (or marching drummer).
  • Orchestral, The use of a more rudimentary style is again, very prominent.
  • Jazz,
  • Rock.

Each style has its own characteristic techniques, rhythms, and tempos. Rudimental drumming is the foundation of all other styles. And is typified by its use of complex rhythms and sticking combinations. (right and left-hand combinations and sequences), and fast tempos when developed. Orchestral drumming is characterized by its use of Silver Age techniques. And is often played at a slower tempo than rudimental or jazz drumming. Jazz drumming is distinguished by its use of swing rhythms and improvisation. Finally, rock drumming is defined by its forceful playing and use of backbeats.

Different drummers will often use different combinations of these four basic styles. Depending on the type (genre) of music they are playing.

Similarly, bands will also develop their own unique playing styles. Based on the blend of styles used by their individual members. It is the combination of different drummers’ styles. And a band’s playing style that creates the distinctive sound of each group.

When choosing your own favorite style you have a much wider pool to choose from these days. Including:

  • Rock,
  • Jazz,
  • Latin,
  • Big band swing,
  • Reggae,
  • Heavy rock,
  • Melodic rock,
  • Heavy metal,

…and others you may be familiar with.

Recommended Reading Materials

Any aspiring drummer needs to have a strong understanding of music theory. Coupled with drumming terminology. Here are some reading materials that will help you develop a solid foundation in both areas. But remember that reading all kinds of drumming books is a great strategy.

Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert

Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert. This is an excellent starting point for those who are new to music theory. It covers all the basics, from note values and scales. To key signatures and chord progressions.

Best of all, it’s written in a clear and concise manner, so you can easily digest the information.

But having said that, it does contain theory around music and not so much drumming. But it is still a good resource to have in your library.



The Drummers Bible

For a more in-depth look at drumming terminology, check out “The Drummer’s Bible”.

It contains more than 450 musical examples in standard notation. Showing grooves and practical variations. Plus, overviews of the history and development of almost all popular music styles. Each includes innumerable helpful performance tips.

You’ll also find helpful tips on how to develop your own unique style.



The Art Of Bop Drumming

Finally, “The Art of Bop Drumming” by John Riley is a must-read for any serious drummer.

In this book, Riley breaks down the bebop drumming technique. And explains how to apply it to your own playing.

If you want to take your drumming to the next level, this is the book for you.




Some Final Words:

Drumming terminology and basic drumming vocabulary is important to know as a developing drummer. By first understanding the language of drumming. You can communicate more effectively with other drummers and musicians. And have greater understanding of concepts and techniques used in playing the drums.

Drumming language is constantly evolving. As new words and phrases are created to describe specific techniques or sounds. Used in the evolving world of drumming. If you’re a developing drummer, it’s essential that you learn the basics of this language. So you understand what the heck other drummers and musicians are talking about. And thus, to get ahead as a drummer.

Do you have any terminology to share? Let me know in the comments below – I would love to hear from you!

And don’t forget to claim your free Glossary of Musical Terms below…

The Drum Coach


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