Drum Roll Notation
Posted on January 14, 2024
My belated inaugural 2024 post is finally here, and I want to take some time to provide a guide on drum roll notation, which can come in a few different, often unclear forms. Most importantly for me, I’ll explain how to cobble this all together for the drum set. So let’s get rolling.
Tremolo slashes have long been used to notate the three major types of drum rolls: the closed buzz roll, the open double stroke roll, and the single stroke roll. The exact roll that’s being called for typically depends on the exact drum and the situation.
For concert snare drumming, tremolos almost always suggest a buzz roll. The exact number of slashes may vary, but this typically doesn’t affect how the drum roll is played. More important information can be found in the exact length of the roll and any articulation marks that may be involved. A short buzz is likely to be notated as an 8th note with a staccato dot and perhaps one slash, but the same buzz could very well be written the same with three slashes, meant to sound identical.
In orchestral percussion, most other instruments aside from the snare drum use tremolos to notate a single–stroke drum roll. This includes tympani, bass drum, suspended cymbal, and mallet percussion. Again, the number of slashes may vary, but this is more of an engraving decision. Much like the buzz roll, the number of notes and the subdivisions are not specified; how you play it usually comes down to things like tempo, the exact drum, and dynamics.
Things like tambourines and triangles will also commonly use tremolos for their respective rolls, which involve special techniques beyond the scope of this post.
When it comes to the world of rudimental drumming and drumline playing, tremolo slashes typically notate double–stroke drum rolls. There’s a rule of thumb that says each slash of the tremolo instructs you as to how to subdivide. A quarter note with three slashes through the stem would be subdivided three times:
Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. For instance, half notes may only be written with three slashes, but the likely interpretation is to play a drum roll as 32nd note doubles, which would require four slashes. Tremolos with four slashes do exist but are not common, and I don’t often see the “proper” style where a half note has four slashes.
In that same vein, whole notes meant to be played at 32nd note doubles are usually only written with three slashes, even though there should be five (I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than four slashes, and while examples might be out there, scorewriters like MuseScore don’t even have the option to do more than four).
Because of this ambiguity, I think the best way to write 32nd note doubles is to just write 16th notes with one slash each (if you have the space for it). In cut time, 8th notes may be written with a single slash to be played as 16th note doubles, which is acceptable given the oddities of cut time, but I do not approve of writing 8th notes with two slashes each as a way of notating 32nd note doubles.
I have to warn you that you might see some whacky stuff when going through snare drum books. For instance, Stick Control:
Or perhaps GL Stone’s later book Accents and Rebounds:
Neither one of those approaches is common in the wild. Ties are just meant to clarify when the roll should end, much like they would with a wind player’s sustained notes (a drum roll is the closest we can get to a long tone as percussionists). The two exercises from Stick Control would sound extremely similar if they were written for a symphony; a “9 Stroke Closed Roll” isn’t really a thing that gets used in a concert band... or anywhere outside of Stick Control for that matter. Once more, the exact pulsation of the roll is ad–libbed to fit the music.
Ties for open rolls don’t seem to be commonplace in modern drum corps engraving, and I don’t think they are necessary since these rolls are in strict time. People who spend too much energy staring at the rudiment sheet will insist on using ties, but in a drumline context, the following two rolls would sound the same:
Other Buzz Roll Styles
For modern drumline playing, buzz rolls are now delineated with a “Z” running through the stem. This is a fairly modern convention, and I don’t know exactly who’s responsible — it may be the Percussive Arts Society with the list of 40 rudiments from 1986 (in case you were wondering, NARD did not include the buzz roll on the earlier rudiment list, and never came up with a unique way of notating it).
While it’s new, it has become quite common in mainstream published drumline music, and I use it myself. However, I’m not aware of any composer in the last 50 years who has used the Z for buzz rolls in a symphony setting. Despite being ostensibly obsolescent, tremolo slashes are still the standard.
It’s also worth mentioning trill and mordent notation, which have been used for buzz rolls on the snare drum. I’ve also seen them for tympani and bass drum, which is a bit more unusual. My first thought in these situations would be to play whatever roll is most appropriate, but it could be possible that a composer is trying to tell you to play a buzz roll on a drum that doesn’t typically play one. If you see both tremolos and trills in the same score, you should consult your director.
I have seen some drumline music featuring trills as buzz rolls, but it’s not common; it seems to have been used to notate buzz rolls before the Z became a thing. Buzz rolls in general are not often played in a drumline.
Putting it Together for Drum Rolls on the Kit
So then, how do we notate the different rolls on the kit? Well, I use both tremolos and the Z, and again, it all comes down to the exact drum.
I will only notate buzz strokes with the Z, but as always, the tremolo is open to some Interpretation. When written on the snare drum, it means an open double, but for toms, it would typically mean a single–stroke roll.
Some people use tremolos as a sort of shorthand for discrete singles (to save space more than anything else), but I always write out every note of a drum fill. I only use tremolos on toms for trashcan endings where things are ad–libbed and perhaps rubato, such as the ending of “How Many More Times”:
Cymbals can be the most confusing. In the context of a groove, slashes through hi–hat would mean doubles. But for a crash cymbal, tremolo would probably mean singles à la an orchestral suspended cymbal.
Again, subdivisions can help. A half note with slashes written for the hi–hat would likely mean singles, but 16ths with one slash apiece would imply doubles.