Review: The Art of Bop Drumming by John Riley

Posted on October 31, 2021

Now that I’ve written about Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer, I don’t want to wait too long before writing about its unofficial companion piece, The Art of Bop Drumming by John Riley. As previously mentioned, both books are go–to answers for the question “how do I learn jazz drumming”. But as I wrote a few months ago, I think Advanced Techniques is a poor introduction to the style and has few musical applications overall. Is The Art of Bop Drumming any better?

Well… yes it is. In fact, I don’t think it’s even close. First published in 1994, The Art of Bop Drumming seems to have caused quite a splash when it came out, probably because there was nothing quite like it at the time (and there really still isn’t). The Art of Bop Drumming isn’t quite a method book; rather, it’s almost a sort of jazz study guide. In addition to notated exercises, there are lengthy sections of the book written in prose and featuring detailed discussions of a variety of topics.

The star of the book is probably the comping patterns that take up about 15 of the 80 total pages. These start off pretty simple, with exercises written just for the snare. The bass drum eventually gets added in, and the last page of the comping section is quite challenging. There is a good difficulty curve to these exercises, although the final patterns are a bit limited in their practicality — they are busy and dense, limiting the situations in which they would sound musical, or would even be playable.

The presentation of these exercises is a little strange, as the comping part of the book uses two–bar patterns. I think it would have been better to use one bar exercises, or perhaps do what Syncopation does where the same measure is repeated four times to fill up and system of music.

If the intention was to get a drummer to think about melodic, dynamic comping patterns, the solution here is to use summary pages (à la Syncopation), where the different comping patterns are strung together to create an etude of sorts. You could do this yourself, but some two–measure exercises don’t work well when you try to play them one after another (you’ll occasionally run into quadruple strokes on the kick or snare).

It’s worth noting that, unlike Advanced Techniques, the ride cymbal pattern is not written in for these exercises. I think this creates an unnecessary learning curve to starting these exercises. I can understand why the ride cymbal isn’t there, as learning how to apply/orchestrate rhythms in isolation is a very important part of swing drumming. But I still think the ride should be there. It can be tough to realize you’re playing things wrong unless you go through the book with a teacher.

To be clear though, even the most torturous comping motifs are still much more applicable than most of Advanced Techniques, and more importantly, The Art of Bop Drumming doesn’t go overboard with it. This is why I think The Art of Bop Drumming is a much better book, as much of it just has more useful licks than the needlessly difficult independence patterns of Advanced Techniques.

Another reason why people tend to think The Art of Bop Drumming is the better book comes from the sections that discuss the many facets of jazz drumming. But for me, these are a little hit or miss.

For instance, there isn’t a great discourse on what “swing” means. In The Art of Bop Drumming, Riley takes the “swing = triplets” approach, but the truth is that you can create a swing feel with a variety of subdivisions. I guess Riley wanted to keep things simple — since most drummers use triplets to create a swing feel, Riley probably thought it would be best to cut to the chase.

But Riley likes to get abstract and philosophical, and I think that mindset is better applied to a discussion of what swing is rather than some of the other topics Riley opines on. For example, there’s a tuning section that’s lacking in specifics and is not especially informative. There’s a pretty good discussion of bass drum feathering, but it gets bogged down with some over–detailed explanations of the heel–toe technique. The comping section has brief passages discussing pacing and “Rhythmic Transposition”, but these are hard to make sense of without some real musical accompaniment. I guess just being aware of these ideas is the important takeaway.

Aside from the famous comping section, the next big chunk that involves extensive drumming exercises is the solo section. I’m always a little wary of written–out drum solos. They can be fun reading challenges, but it’s hard to develop a drum solo method, since memorizing 32 bar solos seems to have diminishing results.

Thankfully, Riley keeps things simple with what are essentially one–measure fills, which are usable enough, although there are far too many straight 16th notes for my taste. More interestingly, there’s an extensive demonstration of how to take one fill and modify it by way of orchestrations, removing notes, going into double–time/half–time, and using 3–beat fills in 4/4 (essentially polymeter).

There are some longer written–out solos, but they come across as elementary and mechanical. They don’t sound like anything you’d hear on a jazz record, or any record really. Meanwhile, there’s a brushes section, which is ok — it could be a little clearer, but writing books about brush playing can be notoriously challenging. There’s also a bit of lip service to other styles like Sambas and Mambos.

The final big chunk of practice materials comes from lead sheet playalongs. There are six original tunes included and while they aren’t as exciting as something like a big band chart, they are still quite valuable.

So all in all, there’s a ton of content in The Art of Bop Drumming. Some of it might get a bit too theoretical, but ultimately Riley seems to know that listening is the best way to understand the genre, and the finale of the book is a lengthy recommended listening section.

Ultimately, whenever I revisit The Art of Bop Drumming, I find myself going back to the comping section more than anything else. I’m not sure what kind of endorsement that is — it seems clear that most of the book is “one and done” if you follow. Nonetheless, the comping section alone is worth the price of admission.