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Can You Get Sheet Music for Drums?

Want to know every single note that drumming great Kenny Aronoff played on the John Cougar Mellencamp hit Hurts So Good?  Did you ever wonder at what tempo Green Day drummer Tre’ Cool played American Idiot?  Do you know what Charlie Watts played at the beginning of the Rolling Stones hit Brown Sugar?

The answers to these questions and much more can be found in books like the one on the left.  These books contain note-for-note copies of drum parts for hit songs, called drum transcriptions.  They are the closest thing that a drum set drummer has to the sheet music provided for other instruments, like piano and violin.

I was asked this question recently: “aw hey i’d love to learn drums this might be a dumb question but can you get sheet music for it or is everything done by ear?”

First of all: Great question!  Drummers are always ready and willing to help others learn so you can become a member of our drumming community, too.  And we always learn something about our own playing when we answer a question from someone else.

I think this is really three questions in one:

  1. Can you get sheet music for drums?
  2. Is sheet music used when you play drums in a band?
  3. Should you learn to play the drums by ear or by using sheet music?

Each question deserves an in-depth answer so we’ll tackle the first one in this post and the other questions in future articles.

Drum Sheet Music
As we learned above, the short answer to Question #1 is “Yes”, you can get sheet music for drums.  And you can even make your own drum sheet music.

Drum sheet music comes in many different shapes and sizes.  Here is a list of the different types of drum sheet music and a summary for each type:

  • Drum Transcriptions: Note-for-note copies of drum parts.
  • Rock Lead Sheets: Musical chords in a song structure with lyrics (but no drum parts) on one page.
  • Jazz Lead Sheets: Musical chords in a song structure with a melody line and accents (but no specific drum parts) on one page.
  • Studio and Big Band Charts: Song sections, accents and suggested drum parts on multiple pages.
  • Scores: Exact notes to be played by percussion instruments in an orchestra, such as, snare drum, bass drum, and cymbals on multiple pages.
  • Doug’s Song Sketches: My own custom charting method that includes song structure, accents and some “exact” drum parts & fills on one page.

By the way, the words “Transcription”, “Lead Sheet”, “Chart” and “Score” are used interchangeably, with the most popular word being “Chart.”  In other words, any of the above formats could referred to as a “Chart.”

Now let’s dive into the details and take a look at some examples.

Drum Transcriptions
A drum transcription is a sheet of music that shows exactly what a drummer played on a recording.  It shows the song structure, the exact drum beat for each section and the exact fills that were played on the recording.

Drum transcriptions usually come in book form with each book having a theme.  Themes can be a collection of hits (such as, Classic Rock Drum Play-Along ), greatest hits from one band (such as, Foo Fighters Ultimate Drum Play-Along) and all the songs from one CD (such as, Led Zeppelin II Platinum Album for Drums).

You can buy drum transcription books from your local drum store or order from an online retailer. Your local drum store will be able to suggest a good book for your playing level and you’ll get to “look inside” before buying.  Musician’s Friend has a large selection of drum books and pretty prices.. Amazon has great prices but a smaller selection.  For online searching use the phrases “drum play along book” or “drum transcription book.”

Rock Lead Sheets
Recently, a keyboard playing friend of mine, Gary, asked for a jam session as a birthday present.  So a bunch of us got together at his house: 3 guitarists, a bass player, Gary on keyboards, 4 singers and I played drums.

Gary is really good about writing out and saving charts in what I call Rock Lead Sheet form. It’s called a Lead Sheet because it helps “lead” musicians through a song. Over the years Gary’s created an impressive “book” of over 300 tunes by everyone from The Allman Brothers to Warren Zevon!

During the birthday jam, we went around the room taking turns selecting songs to play from Gary’s “book.”  Someone would “call a tune,” we’d flip to it in the book, have a short conversation about the arrangement, I’d count it off and away we’d go.  Without Gary’s collection of Rock Lead Sheets, we would have taken a lot more time to figure out the arrangements and the band wouldn’t have sounded as good.  By the way, Gary is an accomplished composer/arranger and he’s written an in-depth book about how to write songs: Songwriting: Magic and Sweat.

A Rock Lead Sheet is a list of musical chords with song lyrics on one sheet of paper.  The chords are organized in the structure of a song, such as, verse chorus, bridge. The lyrics are usually written above the chords.  Rock Lead Sheets are usually written on blank paper instead of the lined, musical staff paper.

There may be some accents (or “punches”) written for the drummer but usually it’s up to you to write your own notes. I usually note the style and an idea of the tempo. For example, I might write “med rock” for medium tempo straight rock beat or “slow blues” for a 12/8 blues feel.

Jazz Lead Sheets
When jazz musicians get together to jam or play a gig, their bible is something called “The Real Book.” Just like my friend Gary has a rock “book,” this is a “book” of jazz tunes. It’s a collection of songs in Jazz Lead Sheet form that have become standards in the jazz world. And the songs are from all eras: big band swing, bebop, cool jazz and jazz fusion.

Jazz Lead Sheets are similar to Rock Lead Sheets except they’re on musical staff paper because the melody is written for each song. Jazz Lead Sheets are usually on one sheet of paper that contains the chords, melody and some notable accents in song structure form.

Big Band and Studio Charts
Drummers who play in jazz big bands with multiple trumpets, trombones and saxophones are reading music from a “Chart.” Charts are also used by studio musicians who record soundtracks for movies, video commercials and solo singer projects.

Charts are written representations of what a song writer or arranger is hearing in their head.  Therefore, the drummer is expected to play exactly what’s written on the page.

A chart will have a melody, chords and rhythmic accents in detailed song structure form. A chart may or may not have the drum patterns and fills written out. Usually the band director will give you a general idea of what to play and leave it up to you to make up your own drum beats and fills.  Sometimes, however, the beats and fills are written in detail.

Drummers in symphony orchestras are called percussionists because they do other things besides hitting drums; like tapping on a triangle or clashing 2 cymbals together. Have you ever seen symphony orchestras where the percussionists in the back are looking at music that is draped over a music stand?  And every so often they have to adjust the music in order to see the next section. The sheet music they’re reading is called a Score.

A Score can contain the musical parts played by one percussionist of multiple percussionists. For example, the snare drum and bass drum parts may be on one score, and the triangle and crash cymbal parts may be on another.

As a symphonic percussionist, you are expected to play EXACTLY what’s written.  And it’s considered a major error if you don’t!  There is a lot of time in symphonic music where the percussionists are not playing, so a big part of their job is counting measures of rests…measures and measures of rests!

Doug’s Song Sketches
Over the years, I’ve come up with my own way for writing drum sheet music as I learn a song. That’s what helped me learn 40 songs in 2 days.

My idea is to write down just enough information so I can remember the song structure along with the drum beats and fills I want to play. Check out this post to learn how to make a song sketch. Feel free to modify my song sketching method to meet your own needs.

Can You Get Drum Sheet Music?
So, in conclusion, “Yes” you can get sheet music for drums. You can buy it or get it from your fellow musicians.  It may be given to you by your band director, orchestra conductor or studio arranger.  And if you’re in a band trying to learn new songs, you may need to make it on your own!

In the next post, we’ll explore whether or not drum sheet music is used when playing in a band.

One Response to “Can You Get Sheet Music for Drums?”

  1. Kourtney says:

    A wonderful job. Super helpful inrnomatifo.