5 Essential Tips for Playing Blues Drums like a Pro
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. Practice playing with a shuffle rhythm
  2. Learn the 12-bar blues structure
  3. Play with dynamics for effect
  4. Listen to and learn from the greats
  5. Improvise with the blues scale

Do you dream of mastering the thunderous, soulful rhythms of blues drumming? Are you eager to learn how to play drums for blues, but don't know where to start? Well, you're in the right place! In this blog, we'll guide you through five significant steps that will help you play blues drums like a pro. Let's jump right in and start with a crucial rhythm in blues drumming — the shuffle rhythm.

Practice playing with a shuffle rhythm

Shuffle rhythm forms the heartbeat of blues music — it's the secret sauce that gives the blues its unique, infectious swing. As a budding blues drummer, getting the shuffle rhythm down pat will be your first big leap towards mastering how to play drums for blues.

Understanding the shuffle rhythm

The shuffle rhythm is a rhythmic pattern that alternates long and short beats, creating a 'swung' rhythm. In other words, instead of the even rhythm you'd find in, say, rock or pop, the shuffle rhythm gives the blues its distinctive loping, swinging feel. Here's a simple way to understand it:

  • Even rhythm (like in rock or pop): ONE-and-TWO-and-THREE-and-FOUR-and
  • Shuffle rhythm: ONE-and-a-TWO-and-a-THREE-and-a-FOUR-and-a

Practicing the shuffle rhythm

Now that we've understood the shuffle rhythm, it's time to start practicing. Here's how to play drums for blues using the shuffle rhythm:

  1. Start slow: Begin by playing a simple shuffle rhythm on your hi-hat or ride cymbal. Remember, the key to a good shuffle is to keep the 'swing' consistent.
  2. Add the snare: Once you're comfortable with the hi-hat, add a snare beat on the two and four counts.
  3. Bring in the bass drum: Lastly, bring in the bass drum. This can be on the one and three counts, or it can 'walk' with the shuffle rhythm.

Don't worry if it doesn't come naturally at first — even the best blues drummers had to start somewhere. With consistent practice, you'll soon find your groove!

Experimenting with shuffle variations

Once you've got the basic shuffle rhythm down, it's time to take it to the next level. Experiment with different shuffle variations to add depth and variety to your blues drumming. Remember, the blues is all about emotion and feeling, so don't be afraid to let your personality shine through in your playing!

Learn the 12-bar blues structure

Now that we've got the shuffle rhythm under our belt, it's time to explore the backbone of any blues song — the 12-bar blues structure. This classic pattern is found in countless blues songs, and learning it is a significant step in understanding how to play drums for blues.

Understanding the 12-bar blues structure

The 12-bar blues structure is a chord progression that is built over twelve measures or 'bars'. It has a simple and repetitive pattern, which makes it easy to follow and remember. The structure typically looks like this:

  1. 1st to 4th bar: The first four bars are played in the 'I' chord (the root chord).
  2. 5th and 6th bar: The fifth and sixth bars shift to the 'IV' chord (the subdominant).
  3. 7th and 8th bar: The seventh and eighth bars return to the 'I' chord.
  4. 9th and 10th bar: The ninth and tenth bars move to the 'V' chord (the dominant).
  5. 11th and 12th bar: The eleventh and twelfth bars come back to the 'I' chord.

Applying the 12-bar blues structure to drums

As a drummer, your job is to support and enhance the 12-bar blues structure. This can be as simple as playing a solid shuffle rhythm, or as complex as adding intricate fills and accents. Here's a basic way to apply the 12-bar blues structure to your drumming:

  • Bars 1 to 4: Play a steady shuffle rhythm on the hi-hat, with a snare hit on the two and four counts.
  • Bars 5 and 6: Add a small drum fill or a cymbal crash to signal the shift to the 'IV' chord.
  • Bars 7 and 8: Return to the steady shuffle rhythm.
  • Bars 9 and 10: Play a more pronounced drum fill or a cymbal crash to highlight the move to the 'V' chord.
  • Bars 11 and 12: Play a final drum fill or cymbal crash to signal the return to the 'I' chord, and then start the pattern over again.

Remember, the goal is not to overshadow the 12-bar blues structure, but to enhance it. Your drums should add depth, groove, and swing to the blues progression, making the music come alive.

Experimenting with the 12-bar blues structure

Once you're comfortable with the basics, don't be afraid to experiment with the 12-bar blues structure. Try different drum fills, accents, and rhythms to add your personal touch. Remember, playing drums for blues is not just about following rules — it's about expressing emotion, telling a story, and most importantly, having fun!

Play with dynamics for effect

Alright, we've mastered the shuffle rhythm and the 12-bar blues structure. Now let's stir some life into our drumming with dynamics. The concept of dynamics revolves around controlling the volume and intensity of your playing. This, in turn, adds an emotional layer to your performance — an element that is key to the blues genre.

Understanding the role of dynamics

Dynamics in music are all about variation in volume. That might seem like a small detail, but it can make all the difference. By varying the intensity of your playing, you can make your drumming more expressive, giving it a 'voice' that can whisper, shout, or anything in between. Now, how does that translate to playing drums for blues?

Applying dynamics to blues drumming

Here's a basic way to incorporate dynamics into your blues drumming:

  • Quiet sections: In more subdued parts of the song, play softer and lighter. This could mean using brushes instead of sticks on the snare, or playing the hi-hat with a less aggressive touch.
  • Loud sections: During the more energetic parts, let loose and play with more volume and intensity. This could involve hitting the snare harder, opening up the hi-hat, or incorporating more cymbal crashes.
  • Transitions: Smoothly ramp up or down your volume to create seamless transitions between different parts of the song. This could mean gradually increasing your intensity as you approach a chorus, or slowly lowering your volume as you move towards a quiet verse.

Incorporating dynamics into your drumming is like adding salt to a dish — it enhances the flavor, bringing out the richness and depth of the music.

Taking dynamics to the next level

Once you're comfortable with the basics, it's time to push your boundaries. Try experimenting with extreme dynamics, like playing whisper-quiet on a verse or thunderously loud on a chorus. You could also play with sudden changes in volume, like a dramatic cymbal crash in the middle of a quiet section. Remember, the goal is to make your drumming more expressive and emotionally resonant, just like the soul-stirring blues music you're accompanying.

Listen to and learn from the greats

Mastering the technical aspects of blues drumming is a giant leap forward. But, if you're wondering, "how to play drums for blues with soul?" — well, the answer lies in the music of those who have walked the path before us. Listening to the blues greats isn't just an enjoyable pastime; it's an essential part of your learning journey. Let's explore how.

The importance of active listening

As a blues drummer, your playlist should consist of blues greats. Not just for entertainment, but for education. By actively listening to blues drummers, you can absorb their style, feel, and approach to the genre. You'll begin to understand the subtleties that make each drummer unique.

Who to listen to

So, who should you be listening to? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Buddy Guy: Known for his energetic and passionate style, Buddy can give you a masterclass in how to express emotion through your drumming.
  • Elvin Jones: If you want to learn about dynamics, there's no better teacher. Elvin was a master of volume control, and his playing can teach you how to whisper and shout with your drums.
  • John Bonham: While primarily known as a rock drummer, Bonham had a deep love for the blues, and it showed in his playing. His powerful, groove-heavy style is a must-listen for any aspiring blues drummer.

Learning from the masters

Now that you've got a playlist, how can you learn from these greats? Start by listening. Really listen. Pay attention to their use of dynamics, their rhythm, their groove. Try to understand what they're communicating through their drumming. Then, try to replicate their style. Get behind your drum kit and play along. It won't be perfect at first, and that's okay. The goal isn't to become a carbon copy, but to absorb their approach, their feel for the blues, and make it your own.

There's an old saying: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." As you learn how to play drums for blues, remember that you're part of a rich tradition, following in the footsteps of some of the greatest musicians in history. Embrace that, learn from it, and let it inspire you to become the best blues drummer you can be.

Improvise with the blues scale

When you've got the rhythm, the structure, and the greats in your corner, the next step on your journey in learning how to play drums for blues is improvisation. No two blues songs are the same, and the same goes for blues drumming. The blues scale is your key to unlock this part of your drumming journey.

Understanding the blues scale

Wait a minute, isn't the blues scale for melody instruments? Yes, you're right. But, as a drummer, knowing the blues scale helps you anticipate chord changes, follow the melody, and add complementary drum fills. It's like knowing the language of the blues, helping you to communicate and improvise more effectively.

Using the blues scale

Now that you understand why the blues scale is important, let's talk about how to use it. The blues scale isn't something you'll play note-for-note on the drums. Instead, it can guide your drum fills and solos. For example, if a song is in the key of A, you can use drum fills that match the A blues scale. This can add a level of cohesiveness and musicality to your drumming that is sure to impress.

Improvisation is key

Blues drumming is often about feeling the music and responding in the moment. This is where improvisation comes in. Using the blues scale as your guide, try to play what you feel. Don't worry about getting it perfect. Improvisation is about expression, not perfection. Over time, your ability to improvise will improve, and your unique voice as a blues drummer will start to shine through.

Whether you're jamming with friends or playing along with your favorite blues records, improvisation is a skill that will take your blues drumming to the next level. So don't be afraid to let loose, experiment, and put your own spin on the blues.

If you enjoyed learning about playing blues drums and want to improve your skills even further, don't miss the workshop 'How to Get Better at What You Do - Go from Good to Great!' by Debbie Knox-Hewson. This workshop will help you refine your technique and give you the tools to progress from a good drummer to a great one, in any musical genre.