5 Ways To Use Syncopation

by Dave Johnstone

The classic Ted Reed book, Syncopation, has been used by many great drummers for over half a century. Pages 37-44, in particular, contain a highly useful series of eighth note and quarter note rhythm combinations with limitless applications to the drumset. With a little creativity, we can transform these seemingly simple rhythms into a springboard for simultaneous work on reading, 4-way coordination, time, and feel. In other words… all the important stuff!

Before we get started, a few ground rules:

    • Disregard the quarter note bass drum line. We are only looking at the top snare drum line.
    • Do these with a metronome. Gradually increase your tempo over time and keep track of your progress.
    • For our purposes, all of these should be interpreted as swung eighths.
  • It needs to FEEL GOOD! If it sounds like a mechanical exercise, you’re doing it wrong. It has to sound and feel like you are laying down a track for an album. No exceptions.

Having said all of that, let’s dive into these five (of many) ways to practice these.

#1 – Snare Drum Only

Before you do anything else, play through all eight exercises on just snare drum. Hand to hand alternating sticking is fine; the important thing is playing the rhythms accurately. If you are new to reading rhythmic notation, really take your time on this and be sure you are comfortable before you move on.

For our example, let’s use just the first four measures of Exercise 1 on page 37:

#2 – Left Hand Reading Over an Ostinato

Now we get into some 4-way coordination. You will play an ostinato (a repetitive, non-changing pattern) with your right hand, left foot, and right foot. Your right hand will play the ride cymbal pattern, left foot will play 2 & 4, and right foot will feather quarter notes (remember, swung eighth interpretation):

Then, your left hand will read the line along with all of that. So the first four bars would look like this:

#3 – Articulation

Now that you are comfortable reading the rhythms over an ostinato, we are going to add some articulation and change up the coordination in the process. Your left hand is now going to play any note that is an eighth note in duration, and your right foot is going to play anything that is a quarter note or longer. (This applies to tied eighth notes as well.) The idea behind this, in addition to the obvious coordination benefits, is that you are now thinking more musically; you are applying musical articulation to these rhythms. In other words, short notes are played by a short, staccato voice of the kit (snare drum) and long notes are played by a longer legato voice (bass drum). Here are the first four bars using this system:

#4 – Triplets with Bass Drum/Snare Drum

Ok, now it gets fun! For this more advanced approach, you will read the entire line with your right foot, and fill in all missing triplet partials with the snare drum. This will stretch your coordination while also reinforcing your concept of swung eighths within the triplet grid. This ends up creating some nice right foot/left hand interplay that is directly applicable to real-world gig situations.

#5 – Triplets with Snare Drum/Bass Drum

This one is similar to #4, but in reverse. This time your left hand will read the line (just like in #2), but now your right foot will fill in all of the missing triplet partials. Take your time on this one and don’t get frustrated. You will be playing a lot of consecutive triplets with your right foot, which will be a limiting factor tempo-wise. That’s ok. It doesn’t need to be fast, it just needs to swing and feel good!

I hope you find these exercises to be both challenging and useful. Thanks for checking it out and have fun!

Dave Johnstone grew up in St. Louis, MO, where he began playing local
jazz gigs at age 15.  After high school, Dave attended Berklee College of
Music in Boston. Since moving to Los Angeles, he has worked with a wide
range of artists, including Aubrey Logan, Adriana McPhee, Liza Minnelli,
The Dan Band, Eden Espinosa, Cortes Alexander, Allison Janney, The
Pussycat Dolls, Lily Tomlin, and The Running Jumps among many others.