JMI Blog: Three Beat Phrases in Jazz Drumming

by Dave Sanders, drum lecturer at JMI

Many of the syncopations in Jazz music are created from rhythmic phrases that use  groupings of three. These provide a rolling feel that crosses bar lines and create excitement. A musical example is in bars 5 to 8 of It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Aint Got That Swing) by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills:

We can practice comping phrases that use these groups in a very easy way.

In these examples I will reference the comping rhythms from The Art of Bop Drumming by John Riley. As before we deduct beat 4 to get a three – beat phrase:

Comping example 1,  bar 1 and 2


We then can take each bar and play that phrase over three bars of 4/4 time.

Bar 1 becomes:

Combined with time keeping pattern it will sound like this:

Bar 2 becomes:

Combined with time keeping pattern it will sound like this:

The next rhythms are from Comping Example 3, bar 1 and 2:


We can take either bar and play that phrase over 3 bars of 4/4 time.

Bar 1 becomes:

Combined with the ride cymbal and hihat playing time it sounds like:

In depth listening to the great drummers will reveal that they don’t always maintain a constant ride cymbal beat. They sometimes “turn it around”. I would recommend that you practice with a constant cymbal beat pattern.

You may want to also play through this style of material with the Ride cymbal playing ¼ notes:

These will get even more interesting when triplets are added! The onus is on the student to be diligent and work through this material. You may have to occasionally write out some rhythms to be able to “see how they land”. I think this is a good thing to do. The last thing you want to be is confused!

“Bill Stewart Threes”

The great drummer Bill Stewart uses groupings of notes very creatively. In footage from a Modern Drummer concert in 1997 bill plays a solo while holding down 8ths notes grouped in threes on the bass drum. One way to develop this is to play a three bar ostinato that has the bass drum playing groups of threes.


Working with each permutation of a single 8th note can help develop your coordination:

Single notes:

Single notes over 3 bar ostinato:

Single notes #2

Single note #2 over 3 bar ostinato:

Reading text with three bar ostinato.

When working with reading text I suggest you start by working on each bar , repeating it at least three times to get all the possible combinations that the three bar ostinato creates.

1st bar of reading text:

1st bar of reading text over 3 bar ostinato:

The obvious conclusion is to be able to play reading text over the three bar ostinato.

Reading text:

Here is how the above reading text will sound with  the three bar ostinato:

Once you are comfortable you can try improvising with this concept. Try playing groups of five 8th notes over the three bar ostinato. How many bars will it take for both rhythms to meet back at beat 1?

Five 8th phrase:

If you want to learn more about jazz drumming from Dave, check out our Bachelor and Diploma courses available in 2019!  You can get weekly lessons off Dave in these courses – information about how to apply is available here

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