How to Read Drum Lesson Sheet Music

Want to be able to play drum beats and fills from standard drum notation? You need to learn the art of reading sheet music. Let's start by reviewing the different symbols used to indicate the various elements of the drum set.

Playing the Hi-hats
The hi-hats are marked just above the top line of the measure with a simple "x" symbol. The image below shows four hi-hat strokes. These are to be played with a drumstick while the hihats are closed the entire time (using your left foot on the hi-hats pedal).

You can also play the hi-hats with the foot alone. In other words, instead of hitting them with a drumstick - you use your foot to open and close the hi-hats. This is marked on sheet music with the following "x" symbols below the last line of the measure.

Playing the Ride Cymbal
The ride cymbal is similar to the hi-hats in that it is often used in drum beats as a method of keeping steady time. In fact, most all beginner-to-intermediate rock beats have steady strokes on either the hi-hats or the ride. So, with that in mind - you'll notice that the ride also uses an "x" symbol for drum notation.

Above you can see that the ride cymbal is actually played on an imaginary line above the measure. The small line segments in the middle of the "x" make the symbol look like a star, but mentally you should see this as an "x" sitting on a line. These stokes would be played with a drumstick on the "bow" of the ride cymbal. This is the part between the edge and the bell - the largest surface. While some heavy rock tunes may require you to crash the ride cymbal (by playing the edge) - you will find that it typically sounds better to play the bow.

Playing the Snare Drum
The snare drum is the most important part of any drum set. It is a vital part of virtually any drum beat, and is the foundation of the rock back-beat. Here is how drum sheet music indicates a regular snare drum stroke (played with a stick hitting the middle of the drum).

As you can see, the snare drum is marked with a simple note on the middle line of the staff. Some books will put this in the second space, but this simpler system makes it easier to differentiate the snare drum from other tom toms (as you will soon see). For now, just keep in mind that the snare drum is in on the middle line. The snare can also be played using cross-sticking. This technique will be explained in a future lesson, but here is how it is indicated in drum notation.

This is the last of the drum symbols that uses an "x", and unlike the hi-hats or ride cymbal notation - it is circled.

Playing the Bass Drum
The bass drum is played with the right foot on the bass drum pedal. Here is how four strokes are displayed on drum sheet music.

Like the snare drum, this notation shows a simple note. However, the position is in the bottom space of the measure. That is what indicates this note is to be played with on the bass drum. Some drum sets include two bass drums, or double pedals that allow for both feet to operate the same bass drum. In either case, drum notation has a way of indicating a note that is to be played with the "left" foot on a second bass drum pedal.

As you can see, this second bass drum cymbal is on an imaginary line below the measure. It may seem a little confusion, but don't worry - this is very rarely seen in beginner to intermediate drum lesson material. By the time you need to use it - reading most drum sheet music will be second nature to you. Playing the Tom Toms Playing the toms is probably the most difficult part of drum notation to sight read. However, once you understand the three simple symbols, you will be well on your way to developing this important ability. The smallest tom (aka "hi-tom") is indicated with this symbol.

All the tom toms are to be played with a drumstick hitting the center of the drumhead. This produces the clearest tone from the drum, and with practice, will ensure you don't hit the rim of the drum. The second tom (aka "mid-tom") is marked with the same note, but in the second gap.

And finally, the last tom (aka "low-tom") is indicated with a note in the third gap.

Remember, the snare is on the middle line, and then ALL toms are in gaps between lines. This is what makes it easier to differentiate between playing the snare or toms. Keep that in mind when playing fills, and you will have a much easier time sight reading. Note: Some drum sets have more than three toms. Unfortunately, standard drum notation does not have symbols for these additional drums. However, you can feel free to be creative with most tom tom patterns, and break them up over whatever drums you want. Perhaps for one fill you can use the symbols to indicate toms one, two, and three. Then, for a second fill use them to indicate toms one, three, and five (all depending on your set).

Understanding Time & Basic Counting
In order to properly play any drum beat, fill, or rudiment - you must first understand the basics of counting time. This is the primary job of every drummer, and so it absolutely must be taken seriously. In this lesson, we will be reviewing 4/4 time. Don't worry about playing the beats as shown below. Instead, focus on understanding how the beats should be counted, and how the subdivisions relate to each other. You can tap the timing out on a single drum for now. Just be sure you count out loud as you do. This will become an important part of learning new beats, and more sophisticated subdivisions in the future. Check out the article on reading drum notation if you don't understand how to read the music measures below.

Quarter Notes
Let's start by counting simple quarter notes. Each measure of 4/4 time has four quarter notes. These quarter notes can be divided into other note values, as you will see below, but for now - let's just count.

1... 2... 3... 4... that's all there is to it. It's simple enough, but vitally important when first learning the drums. Whenever you are starting a new beat or fill, be sure you count each note as you go. You'll notice there are two measures of quarter notes there. Each measure is marked with thick black lines between them, so you can easily see where each starts and stops.

Eighth Notes
Now, if all drum beats and fills only used quarter notes - things would get very boring and monotonous in a hurry. Fortunately, there are ways to subdivide notes to create a wide variety of timing options. Here are eighth notes:

Each measure of 4/4 time can contain eight of these eighth notes. They are to be counted in a similar manner as the quarter notes, but with "and" counted for every off-beat eighth note. Note: You may have already noticed that the 1, 2, 3, and 4 are lined up exactly as quarter notes would be. The extra "and" notes are what makes these eighth notes. It's also helpful to note that eighth notes are connected with a single solid line along the top.

Combining Quarter & Eighth Notes
Now, time doesn't have to be stuck in a steady pulse of one set of note values. This next example shows how you can combine quarter notes with eighth notes to mix things up.

These are counted the same way as before, but this time you will be mixing counting techniques. Just be sure you focus on keeping the quarter notes steady. The "and" notes should fit in between a steady count of one... two... three... four... Example: the first bar above would be counted like this: one... two... three and four and one... two and three... four and

Sixteenth Notes
When quarter notes and eighth notes aren't enough - it's time to add sixteenth notes into the mix. These are one further subdivision of time, and are fairly straight forward to count.

As you can see, there are still only four numbers in each measure. These line up with how quarter notes would be counted, but are sixteenth notes due to the fact that they are fully divided with the "e + a". You may also notice the "+" signs line up with the "and" counts from the eighth notes. They are in fact pronounced the same. So, all together, you pronounce these extra notes out loud as "e and a". It's important to note that sixteenth notes are joined with TWO solid lines along the top of each group of four notes. It's also important to recognize how the divisions have been working so far. For every one quarter note - you have two eighth notes. For every two eighth notes - you have four sixteenth notes.

Combining Eighth and Sixteen Notes

Here is an example of how you would count a mixture of eighth and sixteenth notes that are combined over two measures. Just as the steady pulse of 1... 2... 3... 4... should stay even - the "and" counts should also be continuous and even. The "e" and "a" notes should fit smoothly in between without a slow-down.

Combining Quarter, Eighth, and Sixteen Notes
Finally, you can combine all three of these divisions over two bars as shown below. This is where it is very important that you focus on keeping the 1, 2, 3, and 4 counts as steady as possible.

Use a metronome when first starting out, and just tap out the notes on a single drum. Set the metronome to just play quarter notes, and then fill in the other note values in the gaps between the pulse of the quarter note clicks.

How To Play The Drums (first lesson)
So, you decided that you want to learn how to play the drums, but you don't exactly know where to start. Well, you've come to the right place. This drum lesson is designed to teach you the complete basics of playing the drums! We're going to start from the very beginning - although it may be worth your time to read the drum lessons on understanding time and reading sheet music. That said, this lesson should still cover all the basics you need to play your first few drum beats!

Your First Drum Beat
Let's get starting by learning the most basic beat. As simple as this groove is - it is still popular in todays rock music. More importantly, it is the foundation of many rock beats you will be learning over the coming weeks and months.

Play MP3

This beat really only uses three moving limbs. Your left foot rests on the hi-hat pedal keeping it closed, but doesn't have to play anything else. The structure is built around the four hi-hat strokes with your lead hand (right hand if right handed, left hand if left handed). Start by just playing the hi-hat part of the beat with your lead hand. Count out loud as you play - one, two, three, four. Start out slow, and add the kick drum on the one and three counts. Play this for a while until it feels comfortable. Then, remove the kick drum and just play the hi-hats again. Add in the snare drum on beats two and four, and keep this steady for a while. Really focus on keeping the four hi-hat strokes steady and even. When you feel you are ready - add in all elements. Remember to KEEP COUNTING out loud. This is very important, as it will help you keep track of where you are in the beat, and will assist in keeping time.

Drum Beat Variation #1

Here is a simple variation on the first beat. All that is changing is that the bass drum is being played on all four counts with the hi-hats. This is a great way to start developing limb independence. If you are having any difficulty - just start out with the hi-hats and add one element at a time until you can play it consistently and a steady pace. Play MP3

Once you can play this groove with confidence - try playing the original beat and then change to this beat without stopping. Continue counting out loud, and make a smooth transition from beat to beat. You can play the first one four times and then play this four times, or just switch off after one through each beat. You make the call. Mix it up and just have fun!

Drum Beat Variation #2
When you are ready to move on to the next challenge - you can try this next beat. It is very similar to the original beat, but moves the pattern a quarter of a beat. In other words, instead of counting the the snare on two and four, you now count the bass drum on those counts. The beat will sound identical, but the counting changes how it relates to each measure, and in turn, how it will relate to a band or playalong. Play MP3

Once you are able to count this out loud as you play it - go back and try playing it in transition with the other patterns you've learned. Develop the ability to move from beat to beat while playing steady and continous quarter notes on the hi-hats. When you are ready for more drum lessons - check out the beginner drum beats page or read the article on how to play drums on the HowToPlayDrums.com website.

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