If you’re reading this article, you’ve decided to learn the drums. All I can say is, great choice!
Now, I might be biased as a drummer myself, but I can guarantee you won’t regret learning the drum set.
Out of all the fantastic things about this instrument, one thing in particular sticks out as a huge boon for beginner drummers: you can learn a lot of great songs in next to no time.
There’s a good chance that you’ll be rocking out with your favorite songs in a few hours of practice!
Some songs are of course easier to pick up than others, especially as a new drummer.
This list details some of the best songs to learn as a beginner. The songs are in no particular order, as each offers its own distinct benefits.
Some are easy songs with simple beats, useful for learning to play in time with music. Others offer specific learning opportunities, and as such might require a bit more work!
All of the songs listed are very popular and play-along tracks and tutorials can easily be found online.
Genre: Blend of Post-disco, R&B, Funk and Dance-pop
Tempo: 116 BPM online metronome
First up, we have Billie Jean by Michael Jackson. Released in 1983, this song was the second single from his massively successful sixth studio album ‘Thriller’.
The song enjoyed immediate critical acclaim, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and became his fastest-rising single since previous hits as a member of The Jackson 5.
While most know Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett as Michael Jackson’s drummer, it was actually Leon “Ndugu” Chancler playing on this recording.
This song is a concrete example of the saying “less is more”.
The drum pattern for this song is simple and repetitive, but is exactly what the track needs to sound its best. There are some small extras you can choose to learn (i.e. open hi-hats and floor tom hits later in the song), but the vast majority of it is a tight beat that keeps the music moving.
Learning this song will teach you a few things in particular:
‘Billie Jean’ features one simple groove and not a lot else. Straight eighth note hi-hats, and quarter notes alternating between the kick drum and snare drum. This pattern features on countless great songs in recent musical history.
It’s no wonder that most teachers introduce new students to this pattern in their first lesson.
Don’t be fooled by the pattern’s simplicity - this song is a tricky one to perfect.
If you listen closely to the sound of the snare and bass drum strokes, you’ll notice that they all have the same volume and tone. Try your best to emulate this to sound like a pro.
While this is certainly a simple song to learn, keeping up with the song for the full ~5 minutes is no mean feat for a novice.
At 116 beats per minute, it’s easy to get worn out if your technique isn’t up to scratch. If you try to use your whole arm to play the hi-hat pattern - as new drummers often do - you’ll find yourself very sore, very quickly.
It is essential that you stay relaxed and use smaller movements if you want to play the full length of this song.
An easy groove like the one on this tune gives you all the space in the world to focus ‘locking in’ with the track. There is a loud shaker playing 8th notes on the song. Mirroring your hi-hat pattern exactly, this is immensely helpful for those learning how to stay in time. Just listen out for this percussive element, and match your hi-hats to it.
You can then place the kick and snare underneath when you’re good and ready.
Many Michael Jackson songs contain simple drum beats, but Billie Jean is arguably the best one to start with. It is an opportunity to learn the most important concepts in drumming.
There is also some room for further learning in the open hi-hats and tom hits for an extra challenge, but the beating heart of this song is its groove.
Genre: Alternative / Indie Rock
Tempo: 123 BPM online metronome
Next up we have Seven Nation Army.
Released by the White Stripes in 2003, Seven Nation Army cemented itself quickly as a classic in the Rock world. The song received great praise from critics and has won a number of awards since.
Part of the beauty of this track is its simplicity. Not just in individual instrumental parts, but its overall arrangement.
A single, memorable guitar riff starts the song off and continues throughout almost the entire piece.
Meg White’s simple but powerful drums drop in soon after, keeping the piece moving and beautifully accenting the most impactful moments of the track.
Seven Nation Army is a uniquely great tune for beginners. Here’s why, and what you stand to learn from it.
The coordination in this piece is reminiscent of our simple rock beat from Billie Jean.
A large portion of the tune features a back and forth between the snare and kick, also known as a ‘backbeat’. However, on top of the snare hits on beats two and four, we don’t have 8th notes, but quarters instead.
This is reflected in our kick drum pattern too, where we play straight quarter notes for almost the entire piece.
A groove with four quarter notes on the kick drum in each bar is often referred to as ‘four to the floor’.
It’s a beat worth learning early in your drumming career; it crops up frequently in popular songs spanning numerous genres. Most importantly, it makes the audience want to move, whether that be headbanging or bringing out the ever-embarrassing Disco finger.
While this four to the floor beat is simple enough to play, your leading hand will not be spending any of its time on the hi-hat.
Instead, you will be moving between the floor tom and crash cymbals. This sounds easy enough to do. Just move your hand over from the hi-hat, right?
You’d be surprised…
Even with a sticking pattern you’re comfortable playing, a simple sonic change can really throw a spanner in the works.
Try playing any of the typical simple patterns (i.e. a paradiddle) on the snare drum. Now, move one hand to another drum. Unless you’ve previously practiced this, you’ll probably find that this movement trips you up.
Moving around the kit is of course a vital skill to any drummer, and Seven Nation Army is a brilliant introduction to the concept.
Not only will you have to move around the drums for this one, but you’ll also be faced with some interesting rhythmic and dynamic challenges.
While the drums play a lot of the same thing in this tune, they build up over two bars in the pre-chorus. Steadily rising in volume and intensity - another challenge in and of itself - the drums switch from straight quarter notes to a pattern involving one quarter and six eighth notes.
This happens between the crash, kick, snare, and floor tom. Keeping a smooth crescendo (a gradual dynamic rise), moving between these drums, and keeping the coordination together is challenging.
Once you’ve got that section down, you’re into the chorus. The pattern here is actually very simple… Except for one bar.
Every third bar you’ll hear the drums follow the guitar, playing what’s called a quarter note triplet. A genuinely tricky rhythm to get to grips with, this is three notes spaced evenly over two quarter notes.
Seven Nation Army is a great way to learn this rhythm - just follow that guitar riff!
Seven Nation Army manages to simultaneously be one of the easiest songs to learn on drums, and also one that presents numerous challenges and learning opportunities for a beginner.
Certainly a piece that should be on your priority list.
Genre: Disco / Dance Rock
Tempo: 109 BPM online metronome
Released by The Rolling Stones in 1978, Miss You is one of many number one hits from the iconic band. Not without reason either - its infectious groove holds up to this day! The Stones’ drummer, Charlie Watts, was a very well-respected player.
While he was known mainly for his work with the Stones, he was also heavily influenced by and involved with Jazz music.
Much like Seven Nation Army, Miss You features a lot of ‘Four to the Floor’. There is however a big difference in how this sounds between the two songs. Seven Nation Army is a Rock song through and through, but Miss You is heavily influenced by Disco.
In this bridge of this tune you’ll hear a sound which cuts through the rest of the instruments like a knife through butter. This sound is created by hitting the hi-hats while simultaneously opening them, and quickly shutting them afterwards.
This happens on almost every ‘offbeat’ in the bridge.
Typical of Disco, this pattern gives the beat a very groovy, danceable feel. Watts doesn’t pull this out of nowhere though. You can hear splashes of it tastefully placed throughout the rest of the song.
Opening and closing your hi-hats is an essential part of any drummer’s tool kit.
It can be a little daunting at first - using all four limbs at the same time is no mean feat! Take it slowly, and soon you’ll unlock a skill that is used in music from practically every genre.
Something which Miss You doesn’t miss at all is drum fills.
Our first two songs had a few, but this track has a healthy smattering of them to get you acquainted.
A fill is essentially a momentary break from the groove. Usually, this is to emphasize something in the music or transition to a new section.
Needless to say, fills are a non-negotiable concept to get used to and practice.
You absolutely must be able to move between grooves and fills while maintaining the tempo of the piece, and keeping track of where you are in the bar. Miscount and you’ll find yourself completely out of sync with the rest of the instruments. Quite a baffling experience for musicians and listeners alike.
Something to note is that a lot of the fills in this piece are based on 16th notes.
Next up is a song that I think is a great teacher on this topic, but be warned. It’s a toughie.
Genre: Hard Rock
Tempo: 136 BPM online metronome
Learn to Fly was released as the first single from the Foo Fighters’ third album in 1999.
It was received well at time of release, and has remained popular with fans since.
Taylor Hawkins was Foo Fighters’ drummer, and was an animal behind the kit. However, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist, Dave Grohl, is also a drummer and originally played in the band Nirvana.
Being self-taught, he is living proof that you don’t need drum lessons to create some fantastic music.
Grohl also has a self-styled approach to the guitar, and has stated in the past that he views it like a drum set.
This is clear to hear on most Foo Fighters tracks. Learn to Fly isn’t as obvious an example as some (i.e. All My Life, Everlong), but the interplay between low and high pitches in the main riff is extremely rhythmic and mirrors the drum pattern.
This is the hardest song on this list by a big margin, but it’s still attainable for newer drummers.
Should you accept the challenge, here are the song’s main teachings:
As I mentioned before, this song is an opportunity to get comfortable with 16th notes.
There are four 16th notes per quarter note, but playing them all sounds stale fast. So, to create more ear-catching grooves and fills, you’ll often hear drummers leave notes out.
You can hear this all over Learn to Fly, largely in the pre-chorus and chorus.
These patterns are challenging - it’s often the notes you don’t play that can mess you up. However, they’re also the ones that keep things interesting. I’m sure you’ll find this to be worth the practice.
16th note fills can be a little tricky as is, but Hawkins adds an extra layer of difficulty by starting them on varying beats of the bar.
This is yet another concept that you should practice to add intrigue to your playing. If you start every fill in the same place, it becomes predictable and severely limits your options when making music.
Along a similar vein, this song is a great introduction to the concept of ‘syncopation’.
Simply put, syncopation means disrupting an established rhythm by moving the strong beats or ‘accents’ around.
The groove found in the verse doesn’t move around much, but count along and you’ll realise there is a snare in an unusual place.
Instead of beat four, it is moved one 8th note ahead to the ‘and’ of beat three. Maybe this seems like a small change to make, but I can guarantee it’ll trip you up at first.
Finally, Hawkins uses flams extensively in this piece.
These are an essential part of any drummer’s arsenal. Flams consist of two notes played almost simultaneously to create a bigger, ‘fatter’ sound than any singular note could.
These are used all over this song, especially to punctuate fills and certain bars of groove.
While we’ve covered 16th and 8th notes extensively so far, there is another common subdivision yet to be seen: the 8th note triplet.
This is not such a basic rhythm, but it’s introduced in a manageable fashion by this next song.
Genre: Pop Rock
Tempo: 123 BPM online metronome
Believer, released by Imagine Dragons released in 2017, quickly became one of their most popular tracks to date.
It’s a simple yet powerful arrangement of catchy instrumental and vocal parts, interlocking to form a very memorable piece of music.
I’ve had countless students ask to learn this tune, and I’m never unhappy with that request.
Its drum parts might stay the same throughout, but there’s a great deal to be learned from Believer.
First and foremost, you can’t play this tune without understanding triplets.
They are audible in every single component of the song, from the drums to the vocals.
Earlier in this article I talked about subdivisions, meaning how the bar and beats are chopped up. 8th notes mean there are two notes per beat, and 16th notes mean four. Triplets, if you hadn’t already guessed, mean three evenly spaced notes per quarter note beat.
For this song’s main drum groove, there is only one triplet in each bar (found on beat four).
A lot of people count triplets as “1-and-a 2-and-a”, but I suggest counting “1-trip-let 2-trip-let”. This avoids confusion with 8th/16th notes which are counted “1 e and a”.
One of the most powerful points in this song is the transition between the pre-chorus and chorus.
The song builds to a hard stop on beat three. With explosive intensity, it returns in the following bar also on beat three.
Counting this gap without any hints from the other instruments is tricky.
The usual way to deal with this is counting the beats, but you can also tap or air-drum the missing beats.
I prefer this method as it keeps your body moving along with the pulse of the song.
As with any instrument, there is so much to learn on the drums. No single article, list, or tutorial is going to teach you everything you need to know.
That said, I think these songs are a great place to start.
They cover a range of difficulty, and demand that you learn lots of essential skills.
Once you’re comfortable with songs of this level, you’re well-prepared to explore a large chunk of contemporary music.
Kell graduated from the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance with a 1st Class BMus Degree in Popular Music Performance on Drums where he was fortunate enough to study under some amazing drummers.
He brings an excellent technical understanding of drumming in addition to a deep peripheral knowledge of the world that it inhabits: gigs, touring, recording, teaching, and the world of contemporary music as a whole.
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