Big Band ‘Short’ Drum Set Master Class - By Gene Aitken

Attached are 20 of the most common big band ‘hits’ used in big band jazz ensemble music. Usually these ‘hits’ are for brass section/big band support, meaning trumpets and trombones together, or the entire big band. But, not always! Once you have these brass section/big band ‘hits’ down, it will open up a new world of drumming! All the suggestions below can be prefaced by the word ‘usually!’ These accompanying exercises were hand written by the big band drummer, Darryl Goes, who played in many of the well-known road bands many years ago! Darryl taught at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, CO.

It all comes down to the “4” truths in big band jazz ensemble music for supporting musical figures...

  1. The note is either ‘on the beat’ or ‘off the beat.’
  2. The note is either ‘long’ or it is ’short.’


If the notes are long in a brass tutti section in the big band ensemble music, then the drummer would usually support the figures with a crash cymbal and a bass drum together…producing a long sound. And, depending on the tempo, one might want to ’set-up’ the ‘hit.’ The ‘set-up’ needs to be brief and musical. Sometimes, depending on the tempo, the drummer might leave the ‘set-up’ and/or the ‘hit’ out, if not a musical result.

If the notes are short in a brass tutti section in the big band ensemble music, then the drummer would support the figures with a bass drum, a snare drum, or another drum…producing a short sound. And again, depending on the tempo, one might want to ’set-up’ the ‘hit’. And sometimes, depending on the tempo, the drummer might leave ‘set-up’ and/or ‘hit’ out if not a musical result.


If there are ‘hits’ written for the saxophones (long or short), they are usually not supported by the drummer. However, there are exceptions.

If there are ‘hits’ for the trombones only, or saxes and trombones are long or short, the drummer usually supports these rhythms in a musical context with a bass drum only and no cymbals.


An interesting way to practice these accompanying music ‘hits’ is to play 3 measures of time, then the ‘hit’…then keep playing and choose another ‘hit’ to play, not necessarily the next one. When that begins to sound pretty comfortable, then change and play 1 measure of time and then the ‘hit,’ etc. Please remember these exercises are developing motor skills, so practice slowly at first. Practice these ‘hits’ at varying tempos, styles, with different instrument combinations in mind. The next step is to take any drum jazz method book, such as the ones by Louie Bellson, Jake Hanna, etc. and do the same. And last but not least, is to listen to big band, jazz combo, and vocal jazz ensemble recordings to hear how the drummer supports the ensemble.


It is true good drummers will not support all the ‘hits’ in the jazz ensemble music that are written. The most important elements in jazz ensemble are playing TIME and playing MUSICALLY! With this in mind, it will help one to decide which choice(s) to make. Listen to the original recordings of the music the big band, jazz combo, or vocal jazz ensemble music you are playing, especially if the music is part of Jazz History. It is important to hear what the original drummers played. Then find the most recent recordings of the big band and/or vocal jazz ensembles and listen to those artists. The more you know, the more you listen, then the better musician and drummer you will become.


Finally, it is essential for jazz drummers who play in a big band, jazz combo, or vocal jazz ensemble to study the conductor’s score. Drum parts are sometimes the last part to be written and, as a result, may not have enough information. Or, sometimes the composer/arranger may not know what to write in the drum part. In many instances, only the rhythmic figure is written in the drum part, not the section playing it. Thus, the drummer usually only has half of the information needed to support the band!


Download the PDF of the exercises here.

Have fun and enjoy!!

Gene Aitken

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