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ike many in the academic percussion world, I began my career playing drumset in rock ’n’ roll bands in high school. I don’t think I feel as comfortable anywhere else as I do when sitting behind a drumset playing tunes from my favorite rock bands. So, as I began my undergraduate studies, joined the jazz ensemble, and was required to be fluent in some new and different styles of music, I felt very uninformed and uncomfortable. It was very difficult to play and improvise in not only typical jazz styles, but especially in Latin music styles such as the bossa nova and samba. The feel of this music is completely different from what I was used to, and it was quite a few years before I felt comfortable sitting in with a group and improvising appropriately. In this article I would like to present three simple steps to very quickly expand your vocabulary in both the bossa nova and samba styles. Hopefully, these will quickly make your playing more diverse, as well as more authentic sounding. These three steps are: 1. move the right hand; 2. move the left hand; 3. make it more authentic. Here are the typical patterns that most of us first learn as a bossa nova and samba:

changing anything else, is an easy and effective way to get a different feel and sound out of these patterns. Just as you might move over to the ride cymbal when a rock song reaches the chorus, you can do the same when a Latin tune, or chart, reaches a louder, chorus-like section. So simply moving our right hand to the ride, the patterns now look like this:

Bossa Nova Very simple, but very effective. Along the same lines, you could also move your right hand to the shell of your floor tom or rim of your snare drum to produce a more authentic kind of sound. This works very well in the samba feel, especially during solos and quieter sections. With our right hand on the shell of the floor tom, the samba pattern now looks like this: Samba

These may vary slightly from what you have learned, but they should be fairly similar. Now let us apply the first of our three steps to these styles: move the right hand. It may seem like an obvious thing to say, but just moving the right hand to a different spot on the drumset, without PERCUSSIVE NOTES

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Now let’s apply our second step to these styles: move the left hand. Up until now, our left hand has primarily played cross-sticks on the snare. If we simply alternate between cross-sticks and toms, our patterns open up a little bit, and once again begin to sound more authentic. Let’s follow a simple left-handed pattern of cross-stick, high tom, cross-stick, low tom, and keep the right hand on the ride cymbal. The patterns now look like this:


We can emulate this with our right hand on the snare drum, even while we continue to play cross-sticks in the left hand. Combine the guiro pattern with the bossa nova pattern, and we now have this: (Guiro pattern played on snare drum)

This, like before, is great for louder, chorus-like sections of tunes, but also works well during solos when a shift in sound and feel might be needed. Another way to open these two styles up is to simply switch your left hand from cross-sticks on the snare, to normal notes on the snare head. This is great for louder sections, especially in the samba. Now let’s apply our third and final step: make it more authentic. This is a little more difficult than the previous two steps, but is perhaps the most effective, as the hardest challenge of playing these styles of Latin music is sounding true and authentic to the style. The primary aim of these drumset patterns is to emulate what you would hear in authentic musical settings. This is difficult because in a lot of these settings, the percussion parts are covered by more than one person. So it is our job to try and emulate all of those sounds—such as bongos, congas, timbales, cowbell, claves, shakers, and surdos—by ourselves. So let me give you a couple of ways to adjust these patterns to sound more authentic. First, let’s emulate the sound of a cowbell with the bell of our ride cymbal. If we play the bell of the ride on each quarter-note beat, we mimic the sound of a quarter-note cowbell pattern. Notice that in the bossa nova, we play the cowbell sound on every quarter note, but only on beats 1 and 3 in the samba. This adds to the overall feeling of “cut time” in which samba is typically played. By inserting this into the two styles, we now have:

In the bossa nova, we can emulate the sound of a guiro with our right hand. The typical pattern played on the guiro is this:

Finally, let’s mimic a surdo sound in our samba style. In samba school music from Brazil, the large surdo typically plays on the second beat of each measure (counting in cut-time). We can add this sound by playing the floor tom on the second beat of each measure. This not only sounds more authentic, but gives a very cool off-beat feel to the style. With the addition of the surdo floor tom note, our samba style looks like this:

When you feel comfortable enough to begin combining all of these, your vocabulary should begin to grow and develop. The goal of this article is to not only get you playing and improvising more in these styles, but also to engage you and make you want to learn more about this music. The best advice you will ever get is to listen to authentic recordings as much as possible. This is by far the best way to become more familiar with the true sound and spirit of Latin styles, but for now, hopefully these examples and ideas will put you on your way to further enjoying these wonderful genres of music. Aaron Graham is an award-winning composer and performer. He received his bachelor’s degree in Percussion Performance from the University of Kentucky, under the study of James Campbell, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, under the study of Vern Griffiths. He won the 2014 PAS International Percussion Composition Contest with his percussion ensemble piece “Sleeping Bear.” Aaron’s works have been performed across the U.S. and Canada by professional and university ensembles alike. He resides in Vancouver, B.C. and maintains a full schedule of private studio lessons, teaching percussion, piano, and guitar, as well as composing and performing professionally. For more information concerning his work or schedule, he may be reached at AaronEarlGraham@gmail.com. PN

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Final latin drumset  
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