“What is swing? If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” This is, of course, not emphatically true, but swing is undoubtedly a elusive notion to teach. The simplest explanation is usually to play pairs of quavers (or sometimes semiquavers) as if they are 2/3 and 1/3 of a triplet subdivision. However, this this only sounds right at certain tempi, and even then is not necessary or perhaps even sufficient to make the music swing.

Another rule often given by drum teachers is that the “skip” note in the “ding ding-ga-ding…” ride cymbal pattern remains roughly a constant distance from the downbeat, so at slower tempi the swing is more exaggerated, and at faster tempi it “straightens out”. This is more insightful, but still far from the whole truth. The most consistent definition might be “a feeling of rhythmic tension that carries the music forwards”, but this is arguably so broad as to be true of all good music. So what makes jazz swing?

Another important feature is that although the different voices in a jazz ensemble can be metronomically synchronised, they do not tend to play precisely in phase with one another. To be more explicit: the bass will tend to play ahead of the pulse, soloists will frequently lag behind, while the centre of the time feel is occupied by the drummer’s cymbals. All these elements as well as nuances of accentuation and articulation come together to make the music swing. One of the hardest aspects of drum kit playing is learning to balance these disparate elements: while the cymbals remain the centre of the pulse, the bass drum may be pushing ahead while the snare (interacting with the soloist) might need to lag behind.

 To play drums with swing is, clearly, an elusive skill indeed, but one that emphatically can be taught. The first place to start is with the ride cymbal and hi-hat ostinato, phrased for simplicity in triplets. Once this is mastered, the phrasing can be manipulated so the skip note falls nearer the down-beat, or nearer an even quaver feel. The precise placement of this skip at any particular tempo cannot be notated, but must acquired by osmosis, listening to and playing along with more experienced jazz drummers, both from recordings and live (e.g. with a teacher). Alongside this process, the player must learn to maintain a gentle but incessant bass-drum crotchet-pulse, called “feathering”. The bass drum ultimately falls slightly ahead of the pulse, mimicking the bassist, and like the ride cymbal phrasing this is acquired by experimentation (e.g. trying to push further ahead of the cymbals, without breaking the coherence of the groove) and osmosis. Lastly, the freedom of the snare drum accompanimental phrases can be built up by starting with simple exercises, and gradually increasing the complexity of the rhythmic figures, all laid over the basic cymbal and bass drum ostinato that makes the “groove”.

At the more advanced levels, a drummer must become proficient at playing apparently conflicting subdivisions at the same time, e.g. semiquavers against quaver triplets. Eventually, a listener will hear three apparently independent voices: a quiet but relentless bass drum forging ahead of a stoic cymbal pulse, while the snare drum “comps”, responding intuitively to the spontaneity of the soloist. And that’s just the beginning…