Swing interpretation is something we use a lot here, and I’ve mostly assumed people know what it is— you probably wouldn’t be reading all of this high-flying jazz drumming nonsense if you didn’t. It’s still a good idea to spell it all out, so people aren’t working with partial information; so here are my ideas about it. I’m a player who happens to also be a teacher, and not a scholar, so other people may have different, better, or more complete ideas about it, despite the unequivocal-sounding title of the post.

Swing is a way of playing 8th notes. If you look at a fake book, a big band chart, or sheet music for standard tunes, for the most part they are written in regular old 4/4, using mostly 8th notes and longer rhythmic values:



Often explanation of how to play that with a swing feel is limited to this, or its verbal equivalent:


Swing = triplets. Got it. NEXT!

Except… no. Swing = triplets approximately the same way a “flesh”-colored Crayola = the color of human flesh:

That is, the circumstances under which flesh is flesh crayon colored are actually rather few, depending on the complexion of the individual, and the lighting in which he or she is viewed. Likewise with music, swing interpretation varies according to the player, the tempo and style of the piece, and what’s going on musically at the moment.

The triplets are actually incidental to the swing feel— it may happen to line up with triplets under certain conditions. Those conditions are actually pretty common in jazz, but still, adhering rigidly to a triplet interpretation can make your playing very non-swinging indeed. Like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Those things are not generally considered to swing in a jazz sense.

Referring back to the written music, there are fewer 8th note triplets present than you might expect, and a definite triplet feel is something of a special occasion, when the leader or arranger specifically requests 12/8, a shuffle, a triplet or 12/8 ballad, or an Afro-Cuban 6/8, in which cases you keep a pretty definite triplet feel throughout.

So our first principle, then, is not “swing = triplets”, but “triplets = compatible with swing sometimes— often, even, but not always.” Unless a definite triplet feel is called for, I generally try to think legato and round off the hard edges of the triplet, pushing the ‘&’ one way or another based on the tempo, on what I am hearing from the other players, and what I am trying to accomplish musically. And of course, at faster tempos the swing 8ths will tend to even out, towards a more “legit” interpretation.

So far we’ve been discussing strictly the rhythmic interpretation of a melodic line, but at least as important to swinging is the dynamic shape you give the line. And as a rhythm section player and drummer, your treatment of quarter notes generally, and your ride cymbal pattern in particular are also primary concerns— we’ll go into those subjects later.