Substituting Complex Beats – For Rolls


Contemporary drumming is filled with countless examples of this technique.  How often it’s utilized, the placement of the substitutions and the specific types chosen… go a long way toward defining a drummer’s individual style.

In this tutorial, I'll examine & demonstrate practical applications, using 3 distinctly different rhythmic structures.



Technically speaking, is there a point at which so much complexity has been added to a beat...that it should be called a roll? Who knows? Certainly not me! But as far as I'm concerned, life's too short to split musical hairs over correct terminology. So....within the context of this tutorial, they'll be referred to as beats. For the most part, when I add complexities to fundamental beat patterns, the specific drum-set elements being utilized don't change. In other words, if the basic beat pattern is being performed on hi-hat, snare & bass drum. So is the embellished version. In my mind, that makes them more a-kin to beats, than rolls! You of course, are welcome to decide for yourself. My primary concern here is your understanding of my chosen terminology.


The "Whys"

In case you're wondering why a drummer might want to substitute beats -for rolls, here's a short list of my reasons:

  1. It's one more means by which variation & color can be built into a drum part
  2. For some drummers, the change from a hi-hat, snare, bass drum beat...to a snare-tom roll creates challenges with both body balance & timing. By substituting a complex beat in place of that roll & maintaining the same basic set-elements, you eliminate one opportunity for those problems to occur. Depending on the drummer, it can make for a smoother, more consistent sounding drum part.
  3. I've always found improvisation easier with beat complexities, than with rolls. As with every new skill, there is a learning curve...a period of adjustment. But once you gain a level of comfort with it, you may find that you like it too!


Example #1

For this example, I'm going to borrow a 2-measure pattern from an earlier tutorial - "Fundamentals of Beat Building". If you're interested in seeing it in written form, there is a chart contained in that earlier article. This is a commonly used pattern and generates a rhythmic feel & flow comparable to what's found in "Brilliant Disguise" by Bruce Springsteen. In this first video, I'll run through the basic pattern a few times to give you a good feel for it. Then I'll begin sprinkling in variations.


Example #2

For example #2, I've chosen a shuffle/triplet type of beat. "Chain Lightning" by Steely Dan makes a decent reference point for this kind of rhythmic structure. The biggest difference being...... I opted for a little quicker tempo in the video.


Example #3

For this final example, I'd like to reference an old Allman Brothers tune..... "Southbound". Back in my band days, I absolutely loved doing Allman Brothers material! In "Nickels", we did a lot of it. The Allman Brothers were one of the first bands I'd ever encountered with double-drummers. For a single drummer, trying to emulate the feel of 2 drummers was a license to overplay. It was fun, challenging & taught me a lot about improvising variations on a beat. Unfortunately, I don't do much of this nowadays. So I've taken the easy way out by slowing the tempo of this next video down just a tad. Hopefully, it still serves to get my point across.



I considered calling this tutorial "Utilizing Complex Beat Variations In Place of and In Combination With Rolls". Honestly, that seemed a bit long to me. But it does more accurately describe the topic.

My intent here wasn't to suggest that you stop using rolls. Complex beat variations are simply one more piece in your drummer's toolkit. They're meant to be used in combination with all of your other skills. In many instances, they are interchangeable with rolls, either-or. In the end, it's all of these little choices that make your style of playing, just a little different than the next drummer's.

As Sly and the Family Stone so aptly put it:

"different strokes for different folks"

Hey, maybe that should have been the title of the article?

Nah, probably too 70's!

Discuss this article in our Music Forum.

About Tom Hoffman

Tom Hoffman currently lives in the Midwestern section of the USA. He started playing drums at the age of 13. That began the first phase of his musical journey. Seven months later he joined his first band. From that moment on, he was hooked! By age 15, he was functioning as both a drummer & a singer. At 16, like many other aspiring musicians, he began teaching in conjunction with local drum shop programs. From age 20 to age 23, he was one of the founding members of a band called "Nickels". During that period, Nickels was a common fixture throughout the local club circuit. The band was also given the opportunity to serve as opening act for a number of national groups appearing at local concert venues. At age 23, for various reasons, he decided to end the first part of his musical journey. He left Nickels, sold all his equipment and stopped playing altogether.

.....anyway, onward & upward into Phase #2. Apparently, Tom never lost the itch to play an active part in music. At age 40, he was looking to scratch that itch. He had something different in mind this time though...... not performance..... writing. He'd always wanted to become more involved in the creative end of things, so that was the goal this time. One small problem though..... he lacked all of the skills, knowledge and equipment necessary to make it happen. That didn't turn out to be an insurmountable obstacle though. Over the next 2 years, he went about the task of addressing his musical shortcomings. By age 42 he had achieved a reasonable level of competency as a drummer, guitarist and bass player. He had also managed to acquire a fundamental knowledge of both music theory & home recording.

Tom is now 56. For the past 14 years he's been primarily an amateur singer-songwriter, but has never lost the passion for his first love....drums. He's still an active drummer and intends to continue in that capacity. In recent years, many of his songs have achieved various levels of recognition in international writing contests. He's been a finalist, a 6-time semi-finalist and a runner-up. He has also received a number of honorable mentions, but has yet to win. "Winning" is still a work-in-progress. For anyone interested, the following link contains a detailed breakdown of the award results. Tunesmith Awards.


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