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Reading notes
Reading notes
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Reading drum notes

The Basics

Music Staff Basics

The Staff

The Staff   The staff is where everything happens. It consists of five lines and all the information you need is contained within it (though some notes may be above or below the staff). All the notes (values explained below) reside either on a line or in a space.

The Drum Clef

Drum Clef   The drum clef denotes that the following music is not written for a pitched instrument; that the position of the note indicates the drum, cymbal, or other percussion instrument played (see the Notation Key). You can tailor your staff for specific instruments - just note them on a notation key.

   There are other clefs which you will run into; these are for playing pitched instruments. We will not deal with them here.

Time Signature

Time Signature   This is one of the most important parts of the staff for a drummer. This tells you how the following notes are to be played. The top number indicates the number of beats in a measure. The bottom note indicates the note that is to get one beat.

4/4 Example   This may sound complicated, but it's not. In our example the top four indicates there are four beats in a measure: counting "1, 2, 3, 4". Four beats. The bottom number indicates which note value is getting the "one". In our example, the quarter note (hence the "4") is getting the value, so in a measure of "4/4" four quarter notes would be counted "1, 2, 3, 4" This is also called Common Time, which is sometime indicated by a large "C" in place of the "4/4" (see Cut Time below).

   This will make more sense as you go along.

Cut Time

Cut Time   Cut time uses the large "C" discussed above with a vertical line through it, and halves both values. This basically has the effect of speeding the music up twice as fast. Don't worry about this right now.

Bar & Measure

Bar & Measure   Some folks would say the bar is where you play, but they don't read music! The bar separates the measures: each measure is contained within two bars.


   As mentioned above, our notes will sit on various lines of the staff, indicating which drum we are to play. The type of note will indicate the duration the note will have within our measure. The table below explains the relative values of the notes.

Values of Common Musical Notation

   There are two half notes for every whole note; two quarter notes for every half note; two eighth notes for every quarter note; etc.

  If we are dealing with a time signature of "4/4", then the above illustration would be one measure in length. A whole note would take up four beats: "1, 2, 3, 4"; a half note would take up two beats: "1, 2, 3, 4,"; a quarter note would take up four beats: 1, 2, 3, 4".

   In order to count notes smaller than quarter notes in our "4/4" example, we need to add some sounds. Four eighth notes, we add "and". Thus, counting 8 eight notes in our measure will sound like this: "1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and".

   Counting sixteenth notes involves adding some more sounds: "e, and, ah". Thus, counting 16 sixteenth notes in our "4/4" measure will sound like this (take a deep breath): "1, e, and, ah, 2, e, and, ah, 3, e, and, ah, 4, e, and, ah".

   This comes in handy when counting mixed-note measures. I'll get into that below. Just remember that each notes halves the value of the preceeding note.


Single-Measure Repeat   I'll explain all the repeats in the above diagram here. The first Repeat indicates that only one measure is to be played again (this is the measure immediately preceeding the repeat). The number above this indicates how many times the measure is repeated. It's not uncommon for writers to notate a simple rhythm in one measure, then put a repeat with a 7 or other number above the repeat, indicating the drummer is to play the measure seven more times. This is common in show music notation.

Two-Measure Repeat   The second type of repeat is the Two-Measure Repeat. This works in the same way as the previous repeat, except two measures are being repeated, not one. As in the regular repeat, the number over the repeat indicates how many times the 2 measures are to be repeated.

Multi-Measure Repeat   The most common type of repeat if the Multi-Measure Repeat. This is indicated by a thick bar at the end of a multi-measure phrase immediately preceeded by two dots (the one on the right of the two shown). If this is at the end of the staff and no bracketing repeat is shown (the one on the left of the two shown), the piece is repeated from the beginning. If there is a bracketing repeat, the measures repeated are those within the two repeat brackets. Unless indicated, thes repeats are taken only once. It is not uncommon to have a repeat within a longer piece of music - this saves on time writing out repeated notes.

   Exercises commonly have a multi-measure repeat at the end. This indicates that the exercise can be repeated ad infinitum to build chops.


Tie   The tie indicates that the two notes tied together are played as one. Thus, two tied quarter notes would be played like a half note. This is commonly done across bar lines and when linking notes of different values.


Ghost Note   The ghost note indicator (parenthesis) indicates that the note is to be played very quietly, as a ghost. This is common in funk and jazz notation.


Accent   The accent mark indicates that that note is to be played louder than any of the other notes. This technique allows for rhythmic phrasing using dynamics. Very common in ethnic rhythms.


Dynamics   Dynamic markings indicate the volume level of a given passage. p stands for pianissimo, or "softly". f stands for forte, or "loudly". When a letter is preceeded by an m, this means the note is played "moderately softly," or "moderately loudly", thus giving values between p and f. p and f can also be doubled and tripled (pp, ppp, ff, fff), meaning "very softly," or "very, very softly," depending on the usage.


Hand   This is used specifically in drumming notation. When placed over or under a note, it indicates which hand is to strike that note. You will notice these are used in certain exercises to build independence.


End   This solid bar at the end of a staff indicates that this is the end of the piece of music. If the music continues to another staff below or on another page, there will be a regular, thin bar at the end of the staff.


Tempo Indicator   You will often run into this over the beginning of a score. This indicates that the quarter note gets 132 beats per minute. That's really pretty fast, but this is a way for the composer to tell the performer how fast to perform the music. The note indicated here is usually the bottom note of the time signature, so if we were in "6/8" time, we would see an eighth note here.



   This diagram shows the rests for the given note value. A rest is just what it says: don't play. Note that the eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second rests are alike, one is added to the previous to indicate its value. As with notes, rests usually rest on the line for the particular voice (drum).

   These are the basic notations used on this web site and in most drumming books. There are other symbols used in other types of musical notation; you might want to get some music books and familiarize yourself with them.


   The following exercises will help you practice what you've just learned and give you some practical examples. In every case the exercise is followed by a written counting of the measure(s), where the bold numbers are the played notes, and the regular numbers are not played.

    Exercise #1

Reading Exercise 1

    One, two, three, four.

    Exercise #2

Reading Exercise 2

    One, two, three, four-and. | One, two, three, four-and.

   Note that the eighth notes in both measures are the same. It is a common practice to draw a line between the tops of the stem of these notes when they are grouped together like this. The next exercise also shows how this applies to sixteenth notes: there are two lines linking the stem! Thirty-second notes will have three lines!

    Exercise #3

Reading Exercise 3

    One, two-and, three-e-and-ah, four. | One, two-and, three-e-and-ah, four.

    Exercise #4

Reading Exercise 4

    One, two-and, three-e-and-ah, four-and.

    Exercise #5

Reading Exercise 5

    One, two-and, three-e-and-ah, four-and. | One, two, three, four.

   This one is intentionally tricky and introduces a new component: the dotted note. The dotted note (the third eighth note in the first measure) has a value of one-and-a-half eighth notes. Whenever a dot is added to a note (and it can be added to any note value), the length of the note grows by half it's value. Since half an eighth note is a sixteenth note, we can also think of this as three sixteenth notes, rather than one-and-a-half eighth notes.

   Note also that since we always have to come out with an equal amount of notes per measure, the fourth note in the first measure is a sixteenth note: we used up three of the sixteenth notes in this beat with the dotted eighth note, so the fourth sixteenth note stands alone.

   A tie between the last eighth note in the first measure are the first quarter note of the second measure. This means the two notes are played as one, as indicated by the text under the staff. (Note also the half note at the end gets two beats.)

    Exercise #6

Reading Exercise 6

    One, two, three-and. | One, two, -and-ah, three.

   Here's a measure in "3/4" so you can see how it's counted. Starting a measure with a rest can easily throw you off!


   You now should have enough under your belt to get you started. it's now time to go to the music shop and pick up a beginning drum method book. Rubank has three good books: beginning, intermediate, and advanced. Ask someone who knows how to help you through the rough spots.

   Reading music will open up doors to you that you have never even imagined. It will take some time, and you'll get frustrated along the way. Stick with it! The rewards are great.

. The Long Roll (or Double-Stroke Roll, or Buzz Roll)

The Long Roll

    2. The Five-Stroke Roll

The Five-Stroke Roll

    3. The Seven-Stroke Roll

The Seven-Stroke Roll

    4. The Flam

The Flam

    5. The Flam Accent #1 (pattern #1)

The Flam Accent #1 (pattern #1)

        The Flam Accent #1 (pattern #2)

The Flam Accent #1 (pattern #2)

    6. The Flam Paradiddle

The Flam Paradidle

    7. The Flamacue

The Flamacue

    8. The Ruff

The Ruff

    9. The Single Drag

The Single Drag

    10. The Double Drag

The Double Drag

    11. The Double Paradiddle

The Double Paradiddle

    12. The Single Ratamacue

The Single Ratamacue

    13. The Triple Ratamacue

The Triple Ratamacue

    14. The Single-Stroke Roll

The Single-Stroke Roll

    15. The Nine-Stroke Roll

The Nine-Stroke Roll

    16. The Ten-Stroke Roll

The Ten-Stroke Roll

    17. The Eleven-Stroke Roll

The Eleven-Stroke Roll

    18. The Thirteen-Stroke Roll

The Thirteen Stroke Roll

    19. The Fifteen-Stroke Roll

The Fifteen-Stroke Roll

    20. The Flam Tap (notation #1)

The Flam Tap (notation #1)

        The Flam Tap (notation #2)

The Flam Tap (notation #2)

        The Flam Tap (notation #3)

The Flam Tap (notation #3)

    21. The Single Paradiddle

The Single Paradiddle

    22. The Drag Paradiddle #1

The Drag Paradiddle #1

    23. Drag Paradiddle #2

The Drag Paradiddle #2

    24. The Flam Paradiddle-Diddle (notation #1)

The Flam Paradiddle-Diddle (notation #1)

        The Flam Paradiddle-Diddle (notation #2)

The Flam Paradiddle-Diddle (notation #2)

    25. The Ratatap (pattern #1)

The Ratatap (pattern #1)

        The Ratatap (pattern #2)

The Ratatap (pattern #2)

    26. The Double Ratamacue

The Double Ratamacue

Stick Control

Poor Stick Technique   OK. These photos didn't turn out as good as I would have liked, but they'll have to do. In the shot on the left we see a drummer holding the stick like a baseball bat. The only place the hand can get any movement is in the wrist. This doesn't lend itself to any great speed because:

  • The stick won't bounce very well,
  • The drummer can't control the bounce,
  • The wrists will fatigue very quickly, running the risk of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.

Good Stick Technique   The shot on the right shows a drummer holding the stick properly (I'm going to stick to matched grip here, all you traditional grip folks. Sorry!). Notice the differences: the stick is gripped only between the thumb and index finger, creating a fulcrum, and the other three fingers are not gripping the stick, but are used to push the stick forward, then released. The result:

  • The stick can move much more quickly and rapidly,
  • A natural bounce is easily attained,
  • The non-gripping fingers can control the speed, rate, and height of the stick movement,
  • There is little fatigue to the wrists.

A closer look at the grip   Another benefit to this method is that one can strengthen one's grip - and thus improve one's speed - by using wrist exercisers (the ones you squeeze). The shot on the left shows the thumb/index finger fulcrum without the other three fingers in the way. Practice on a pad so that your motions with each hand are identical.

Striking The Drums

   There as many ways to hit the drum as there are drums. Here are some standard techniques that will greatly improve your pallette. Keep in mind that while I am showing these to you on the snare, they can be used on any drum on your kit. The effect will be most pronounced on the snare, though, so experiment there.

Typical Tapping   The shot on the right shows what I call "tapping": hitting the drum only on the head. This method works for some styles, but not others. Most jazz, some country, ballade, marching, and show drumming pretty much requires this technique, and it should be done at the angle indicated here: any higher will run the risk of denting the head if struck with any force.

   This method doesn't work for harder-hitting forms of music. Many drummers "tap" their whole career and wonder why they can't get a big, fat, boomy drum sound. They try different tunings, different mufflings, when all they need to do is hit a rim shot!

Rim-Shot!   The shot on the left shows the rim-shot: hitting the drum and the hoop at the same instant. To do this properly requires some practice, and the angle you set your drums up to is crucial. However, the advantages to using this technique for harder-hitting styles of music are enormous.

   The first advantage is you are hitting the shell more directly - through the hoop - thus engaing its sound. This works particularly well with a metal shell. Another advantage is volume: you can get a louder sound this way than you can by "tapping". Also, you will prolong your head life (a trade-off: your sticks won't last as long!). Lastly, this technique, coupled with the area on the head you are striking, results in a huge increase in the types of sounds you can get from your drum.

   The following series of photos are all using rim-shots. As with any stroke, you can use the "tapping" method, but the effect won't be as dramatic (unless you are playing at very low volumes). Experiment with these areas - using both a "tapping" stroke and a rim-shot - and see how many different sounds you can get from your drums.

Stroke 1          Stroke 2

Stroke 3          Stroke 4


   This is basically how straight up you sit. It's best to sit on your throne with your back straight, with no slouching. Slouching impedes your arm movements and will give you a backache by the end of the night. If you have problems with slouching, try getting a back brace (the one that goes around your shoulders and pulls them back) from your doctor. Also, a throne with a back might help give you some reference as to how far you are slouching forward (if you're not touching the back, you're not sitting up straight!). Finally, you may have to move your throne in a bit to put the drums the same distance they were when you were slouching.

   I have a bad back and this is a huge problem for me. I'd hate to see anyone else repeat my mistakes.

Seat Height

   The basic rule with seat height says this: your knees should be bent at right angles when resting your feet on the pedals. This all relates to your legs, since drum height - if not limited by a huge bass drum and deep toms - can easily be changed. You will play more fluidly with proper seat height: not too much effort lifting your legs, not too much effort pushing them back down.

   It doesn't matter if you play heel-up or heel-down: you'll find it easier using proper seat height once you get used to it. Again, a change in this area may require a re-alignment of your drums. But, if you're having some problems with foot technique and you're knees aren't bent at 90 degrees, the hassle will be worth it in the long run.

Hitting Stroke

   There are a number of types of hitting strokes:

  • The full-bounce: starting at a good height, bringing the stick into contact with the head, and returning the stick to that height,
  • The half-bounce: starting at a good height, bringing the stick into contact with the head, and returning the stick to only a fraction of that height (just above the head),
  • The full-tap: starting the stick close to the head, tapping the head quickly, then returning the stick to just above the head (this is usually what you do when you do double-strokes), and
  • The half-tap: starting the stick close to the head, tapping the head quickly, then returning the stick to a good height from the head (the starting position for the full-bounce).
  • The pull-off: starting the stick close to the head, tapping the head quickly with great force, then allowing the stick to return a good height from the head under its own steam (the starting position for the full-bounce). This technique is usually used in combination with other strokes for accents.

   Practice these by themselves, in combinations, and integrate them into your rudimentary exercises.

   One other thing about the hitting stroke: don't get in the habit of resting your snare hand on your leg! I did this for years before I realized how much trouble it was causing me. Quickness goes out the window. Think about it: you're arm is coming to a complete rest on your leg and your muscles have completely relaxed: it will require more energy to re-engage your muscles and lift the stick back up than would be required if your arm were supported solely from your shoulder and was always in the "ready" position