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Hi Hat Pays The Bills


It’s funny that we call it “the DRUM kit”. Because although it is true that the drum set is a collection of drums and cymbals, the most played instrument is not even one of the drums, but instead the 2 splashy cymbals operated by our foot, famously called the Hi Hat.

It wasn’t until the late 50’s that this instrument knocked out the ride cymbal from the throne of time keeper. In fact, during the swing/bebop era the hi hat was mainly stomped on 2 and 4 while the ride was doing all the work. With the arrival of Rock’n’Roll and the invention of the electric guitar though, the hi hat suddenly became one of the most, if not the most indispensable asset for a drummer.

The importance of this instrument is very undervalued. Usually we are thought to practice on a snare, or to get faster strokes with our kick pedal.. but it’s almost impossible to find books or dvds that focus only on the Hi Hat. As the famous saying quotes “Fills bring the thrills, but Groove pays the bills”, then we should be practicing every day how to use this key instrument way more. Many times we get frustrated because our grooves don’t sound as good as the original and I believe that most of the times the answer lies in the way we play our hi hat.

To show how crucial the Hi Hat can be in music, have a listen to these few examples. There are 2 main factors that contribute in making some supposedly simple beats to sound so groovy:


-Vinnie Colaiuta (Sting)

If you’d have to break down this groove, the kick is playing on “1” and “and of 2”, while the snare is hitting on beat “4”. When you listen to the hi hat part, Vinnie is not playing some boring 16th notes. He plays accents that make the groove flawless, even though the song is in 5/8.     

-Steve Jordan (John Mayer)

Again, check out how Steve Jordan adds up to this groove one little accent on the hi hat on the “and of 4”. It’s not very noticeable, but makes a huge difference!


-Nat Kendrick (James Brown)

Notice how Nat Kendrick is playing an in between straight and swing 8th notes on the hi hat and how powerful it sounds. If you would have to take out the HiHat out of the mix the whole vibe of the song would be gone.

-James Gadson (Bill Withers)

This video is another example of how to keep that straight vs swing feel. This is probably one of the hardest grooves to recreate and James Gadson is the king of 16th note feel on the hi hat.

-J Dilla

This is a perfect example of how such a simple four to the floor plus snare beat can become so infectious when you add the hi hat part. Just the first few seconds give you an idea.

I’m sure there are another million great examples of amazing HH playing and if you have any recommendations of cool Hi Hat songs please let me know in the comment section.

‘till next time!

Chris Castellitto

Author Chris Castellitto

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