Rock Drumming System

Learn How To Count Time As A Drummer

One of the main jobs as a drummer, is to be able to count, and stay in time. This is the one skill that most musicians need to have in a drummer. So what happens if you are asked to play half time, or double time? Would you be able to deliver? We all know that we should play the drums with a metronome, now we just have to define the note values. Counting can sometimes seem like a very difficult thing to do; however, it’s actually very easy. By taking things slow, you will see how easy it actually is to count every type of time signature.

How Time Signatures Work

Notes, Bars, Measures, time signatures …

Before we start out with counting, I feel I should explain what each term means. Feel free to read my article on drum notation; this may give you a more in depth looks on things. A note, in drumming terms, is basically a stroke. It can be on any drum, cymbal or pad, and can be long or short. It is the symbol used to represent a stroke on the drums. A bar is the same thing as a measure. It is the space in which the beat is played. A time signature is a fraction that tells you how many notes is a measure. Here is a very basic diagram for you.


Drum Notation

Different Signatures

Although the most common time signature you will see is 4/4, there are many others out there. As a drummer you should become familiar with each, and learn to count every one. Time signature fractions usually look like this: 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 7/8, 9/8

The number on top will show you how many notes there are per bar., while the bottom number (or denominator) will show you the value of the notes you are playing. A little confused? Let me show you what I mean. The bottom number indicates the value of notes you are counting the time signature at. Look at this:

Denominator             Value

1 --------------------------Whole Note

2 --------------------------Half Note

4 --------------------------Quarter Note

8 --------------------------Eight Note

12 -------------------------Sixteenth Note

So, let’s break a few down. The most common time signature for most rock beats is 4/4. The top number is 4, which tells us there are 4 notes to the bar. The bottom number is also 4, so, looking at the chart, we see that these are quarter notes. Therefore, this signature has 4 quarter notes per every bar. What about 7/8? Well, the top number tells us there are 7 notes, and the bottom number tells us they are eighth notes. Therefore, 7/8 has 7 eight notes.

This does not mean you can only play 7 eight notes per that bar, or 4 quarter notes for every bar, this just gives you the guideline to count the measure. In 7/8 for example, you could play seven 16th notes, however, you would count it as 7 eight notes.


Quarter notes- Now that we have a bit of a grasp on time signatures, we can get into counting them! This is very easy, simple count the number of notes. So for 4/4, we would count 1 - 2 - 3 - 4. That’s all you need to know about counting quarter notes.

Drum Notation

Eight notes- Again, eighth notes are very simple as well. There are 2 ways to count it. You can simply count out the notes, 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8. Or you can make it a little simpler, and count half the notes, 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. This way is more common, as it is easier to count, and easier to read.

Drum Notation

Sixteenth Notes- You use the same concept to count 16th notes too. However, the more notes you play, the harder it is to fit all the numbers in. Especially if you are playing at a faster tempo.  To fix this, we will simply cut the time down. Instead of counting 16, 16th notes, count 4 quarter notes. Say it out loud to keep yourself on time. 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a. You will get confused if you start saying numbers with more than one syllable, mistaking each syllable for one note. This is why we use e’s, a’s, and &’s. They seem to flow of your tongue a lot easier.

Drum Notation

Triplets- Counting triplets is simple once you get the feel for it. A triplet is simply playing a group of 3 notes in a given beat. There are two ways you can count this as well. You can count it like this 1 - Trip - Let. Or like this 1 - 2 - 3. Either way works. With this example, you will notice that the first note of each triplet will change in regards to where it is played.

Drum Notation

Odd Times- Counting odd time signatures is where it gets a bit trickier. Not in the way you count it mind you, but in the way you think about it. Normally, your mind is used to counting in fours. When you start experimenting with different time signatures, you will notice the rhythm does repeat itself early, or later. (Depending on the beat) Just take your time, and remember to count out loud.

Drum Notation

Counting these beats is very easy to do. Like all the other beats, just count the number of notes in the signature. So for example, 5/4, you would count: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5. You would repeat this after the 5th beat. For 7/8, you would count: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7. Remember what I said about syllables? The word seven has 2 syllables, which may mess you up. So, instead of saying the word seven, try shortening the word to just sev.


I hope this has helped you out with your counting!& It is a tricky category to explain in writing, but I think it is pretty straight forward. Remember to always count aloud when you are practicing. It will help you stay on time, and prevent you from messing up. Also, feel free to come up with your own words for counting you can use what ever you like. These are the most commonly used methods, but I have heard others making up their own ways, which work just as well. Feel free to email me if you have any comments or further questions about counting!

By: Dave Atkinson

Related content you may also be interested in...

Understanding Drum Notation And Sheet Music - Music theory is something most drummers do not consider learning. However, as musicians, it is vital to learn the basics. This will teach you note values, as well as othe key points to music theory!

Understanding Drum Notation And Rests - Wondering what those squiggly lines are in some of your music? They may be rests. Read this article to learn about all the different rests, and what they all look like!

The Importance Of Rudiments - Drum Rudiments are the most important aspect to drumming.  They are the fundamentals to all percussion, and should not be ignored. Learn some of the pros and cons of practicing your drum rudiments.

Single Stroke Roll - One of the most essential rudiments drummers must know, is the single stroke roll.  It is what most beats, fills, and solo’s are constructed from. Every drummer must master the Single Stroke Roll.

Learn To Play Drums The Easy Way - Do you want to learn how to play the drums? Think it may be too difficult or require a lot of coordination? I've got great news for you! The truth of the matter is - if you can count to four, you can play the drums!