RULE 7: Make It Swing


We spend thousands of hours learning to play our instrument and trying to get some level of mastery, then after a while you realize it’s not quite the physical sporting event it was when you first started out and you learn to stop wrestling and fighting your instrument ...I tell my students that the whole thing is a lot simpler than you may be prepared to believe. Just play what you’d like to hear next. I think when you put it in that context it demystifies the whole thing.
— Peter Erskine




I fondly remember a 1-hour lesson I took with Peter Erskine at his home studio back in 2008. At the time, I was a young college student in the middle of my jazz performance degree program at Indiana University. I had flown out to California that summer to play with the Disneyland All-American College Band. It was an incredible summer filled with some pretty wild and memorable musical experiences.

However, the one hour that I spent with Peter completely changed the way that I play the drums, even to this day. More specifically, Peter changed the way that I THINK about playing the drums.

How did he do this?

He did it by having us spend almost half of our lesson playing... ONLY THE HI-HATS. 

Huh?... the Hi-Hats?... Why was this so important? Why was Peter not interested in hearing my full-kit playing? Why were we spending so much time on this?

What Peter taught me through this simple (yet profound) exercise is that it really doesn't matter WHAT instrument you are playing... what actually matters is HOW you are playing the instrument. How can you make it sound GREAT? How can you make it SWING? 

In other words, by removing all other components of the drum kit, you are forced to make music from literally no other place but within YOURSELF. There are no crutches (more drums, more cymbals) to fall back on.

What I learned that day is that you can't expect to make your full-kit playing swing if you can't make one sound-source swing. Master jazz drummers like Peter Erskine have a deep understanding of this concept... It's not WHAT they're playing, it's HOW they're playing it. If you asked Peter Erskine to play a gig on a totally destroyed house drum kit, he's still going to sound like Peter Erskine... period.

Let's look at it from a different angle: Why are street performers so entertaining to watch? Why is is that they can put on an amazing show using simply a bucket? Is the music coming from the BUCKET or the PERSON?


The next time you are in the practice room, follow Peter's advice!

Spend some time playing ONLY your hi-hats. It may be helpful to actually move your hi-hats away from the kit so you won't feel distracted by other drums/cymbals.

Play swing time on the hi-hats over a 12-bar blues form in your head (singing the bass line). While playing, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my time solid?
  • How consistent is my tone?
  • Where/How are my sticks physically touching the hi-hats? (Experiment with placement and/or touch)
  • How many different sounds can I get from just my hi-hats?
  • Does my playing act as a cushion for another musician to easily play over?
  • Does my playing FEEL good?
  • If someone heard just my hi-hat playing, would they be able to recognize the form?
  • Am I playing the pattern or am I playing MUSIC?

Even if you do this for just 5 minutes today, you are very likely to have at least some sort of revelation in your playing concept. You should also repeat this exercise on the ride cymbal (or any other part of the kit).

To take this a step further, I'd also suggest getting together with a bassist and repeat the same exercise. You'll be amazed at how many new sounds you'll come up when you're relied on to support other musicians!


How can you apply this concept beyond the drums and into the rest of your life? Reply with your answer in the comments section of this post!


Peter Erskine appears on over 600 albums and film scores, and has won two Grammy Awards, plus an Honorary Doctorate from the Berklee School of Music (1992).

He has played with the Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson Big Bands, Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Diana Krall, Kenny Wheeler, Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Brecker Brothers, The Yellowjackets, Pat Metheny and Gary Burton, John Scofield, Michael Brecker, John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Marc Johnson in the legendary group Bass Desires, the John Abercrombie Trio plus Bob Mintzer’s Big Band, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Farrell, George Cables, and countless others.

Peter has been voted ’Best Jazz Drummer of the Year’ TEN TIMES by the readers of Modern Drummer magazine.

Peter is Professor of Practice and Director of Drumset Studies at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California.

Steve SuchComment