One of the greatest things about getting your first drum beats and fills down is being able to play with other musicians, or even simply jamming with recordings of your favourite songs. Listening to the way drum parts are crafted in context with the other instruments in a band setup is a core skill for any drummer, and not only is it a lot more fun than drilling exercises (although you should do that too), it’s also an excellent way of developing strength, stamina, timing and more without even realising you’re doing it!
There are many iconic drum anthems out there, and we’d certainly encourage you to push yourself to try and learn things that are currently just beyond your ability level. But if you’ve recently picked up the sticks and are looking for some relief from having a metronome as your sole musical partner, you might want to start somewhere a bit simpler.
Below, we’ve picked out a number of well known songs featuring drum parts that are within reach of those who are just getting started. By learning these, you’ll get a good grounding in playing across multiple styles, and best of all you’ll do it within a musical context.
We’ve explained how to play the songs, included accurate lesson videos for each track, plus the drumless backing track so you can play along. Happy jamming!
4 key skills you’ll need to play these songs
We can’t stress this enough - if you aren’t already, you should be practicing with a metronome whenever you sit at the kit; whether that’s a standalone metronome, an app, or click built-in to your e-kit module. Many of the songs we’ve selected below were recorded in the pre-click era, but if you’ve already spent time playing with a metronome, it will have helped develop your inner clock. This translates to a more confident approach when playing along with recordings or other musicians without a metronome.
“I’d love to learn the drums, but I don’t have the coordination. I can’t even rub my belly and pat my head!”. Those words have been the roadblock to countless would-be drummers taking up the best instrument of all, and they’re simply not true. Some people may possess a better level of coordination between their limbs than others, but coordination is also learned, rather than gifted.
With a bit of focus on the individual components of a drum beat, some practice and building the part up - one limb at a time if necessary - you’ll be playing along to your favourite songs in no time. Yes, it can be tricky at times, but the reward is in the jam!
Understanding note sub-divisions
In order to play the songs below (or any drum pattern, for that matter), you’ll need to understand the difference between different note values. These songs are all in 4/4, which means each bar contains four quarter note pulses. An eighth note is half as long as a quarter note, which means you’ll play two even eighth notes to every quarter note pulse. Some of the songs feature partial or groups of sixteenth notes, meaning you’ll play four even sixteenth notes to every beat.
For the most part, the songs we’ve chosen are made up of simple eighth-note grooves, and the fills contained within them are based around eighth or sixteenth-note rolls played as single strokes [RLRL]. However, getting to grips with single-stroke rolls, double-stroke rolls and paradiddles is an essential part of the first steps in drumming. They’ll help you to develop your understanding of sub-divisions, build your hand and finger technique, and give you a more versatile vocabulary when playing parts around the kit.
Best beginner drumming songs
1. AC/DC - Highway to Hell
“Play eighth notes on the hi-hat, kick on one and three, snare on two and four and you’re playing AC/DC”. That’s the story of many, many drummers’ first drum lesson. While Phil Rudd might well have applied the same beat to lots of AC/DC songs, he’s hit on a winning, mid-tempo formula that makes his parts a lot of fun to play. Highway to Hell is essentially this (with some additional bass drum notes here and there), but the magic is in the groove and feel.
Simple as it might be, there are still some dynamics to look out for - keep the hi-hats closed, but with a hint of slosh for the verses. There’s a stop and fill coming into the second verse, some simple stabs before the guitar solo and a delicious pause in the final verse. Don’t forget the crashes that outline the chord changes in the choruses!
2. Michael Jackson - Billie Jean
Billie Jean once again shows us that simple doesn’t need to mean boring. Yes, it’s kick on beats one and three, snare on beats two and four with the hi-hat playing eighth notes, but here it’s played with a much tighter, funkier feel, almost like a drum machine. Talking of drum machines, there are some additional electronic/percussion sounds played over Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler’s drum beat, most notably in the chorus. To play the overdubbed toms will require whipping your hi-hat hand over to the floor tom, or playing the extra hit on the rack tom with your snare hand while your other hand plays the backbeat on the snare. Work up to this, though, and get the main groove down first.
3. Nirvana - Come As You Are
Dave Grohl has spoken multiple times about how Kurt Cobain’s ethos was to make Nirvana’s music as simple as possible, comparing the strong sense of melody and rhythmic simplicity to nursery rhymes.
Come As You Are typifies this approach - the bass drum pattern largely follows the guitar riff while you keep time on the ride, making this an intuitive song to learn when you’re just starting out.
Grohl rides on the crashes during the choruses, which also include some straightforward 16th-note single-stroke rolls on the snare drum, ending with 16th notes split between the rack tom and bass drum.
4. Queen - We Will Rock You
The iconic ‘Dum-Dum-Bat, Dum-Dum-Bat’ from Queen’s We Will Rock You is a drum hook in its most primal form. So primal, in fact that on the recording, the intro wasn’t even played on a drum kit (instead, the band recorded themselves stomping and clapping in the studio).
When it comes to the stadium, though, Roger Taylor plays it on the kit. Play the bass drum, lowest rack tom and floor tom for the first two eighth notes, then hit the snare on beat two with a flam and repeat to complete the bar. The brilliant thing about We Will Rock You is that anyone can do it, so if your cohabiters complain about the noise, just ask them to join in and pretend you’re at Wembley!
5. Metallica - Enter Sandman
Metal and ‘easy drumming’ don’t tend to go hand in hand. But on Metallica’s biggest hit there are no double-time thrash freak outs, no double-pedal flurries and no odd time signatures to contend with. In fact, Lars took the AC/DC, less-is-more approach, proving that great songs can still sound heavy with a well-executed but relatively easy drum part, and barely moves beyond eighth notes throughout. Instead, the interest lies in the arrangement with the pounding toms, pushed crashes at the turnaround of each riff cycle and breakdown in the middle.
6. Lynyrd Skynyrd - Sweet Home Alabama
There are a few inevitabilities in drumming - you will drop your sticks, you’ll probably break a drumhead at some point, and if you’re intending on jamming with other musicians one day, you’ll end up playing Sweet Home Alabama.
Bob Burns’ groove on the Lynyrd Skynard country-rock anthem is addictive, and while it’s a bit beyond Lesson One, it’s still very much achievable early on. The most difficult part is the addition of a sixteenth note bass drum pattern, but don’t let that intimidate you. Sweet Home Alabama also gives you the opportunity to practice playing a cross-stick on the backbeat, and integrating open hi-hats into your playing - master it and you’ll also have the makings of Aerosmith’s Walk This Way.
7. Mark Ronson - Uptown Funk (feat. Bruno Mars)
As with many of the songs on this list, Uptown Funk has become a modern classic that’s likely to feature on most weekend setlists, but even if you’re not gigging, this groove will give you a grounding in playing simple disco/funk beats. The bass drum plays four-on-the-floor (every quarter note) and once again the snare sticks largely to beats 2 and 4. The eighth-note hi-hat part is simple too, with plenty of lifts to keep it interesting. What’s most important, though, is keeping watch for the various pauses and variations to the beat, as well as the 16th-note stabs which align with the brass section.
8. Stereophonics - Dakota
Every now and then a song comes along that dominates the airwaves so unanimously that it becomes an evergreen covers band classic. Dakota is one such song, and the good news is that you should be able to start playing this early on. The easy bass drum pattern mirrors We Will Rock You, but at a much higher tempo. It’s loop-like in its discipline, breaking only for the snare fill on beats ‘3-and’ and four every eight bars. When it gets to the chorus, the bass drum pattern remains largely the same, but the snare now plays on every quarter note while you keep time on the crash cymbal. Get these parts down and you’ll have the whole song nailed in no time.
9. Rolling Stones - I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)
The story goes that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards wrote the riff to (Satisfaction) in his sleep, and Charlie Watts’ classic soul/RnB beat is almost easy enough for you to learn it in the same state. You’ll be able to tap your way through the entire song by simply playing quarter notes on the kick and snare, and filling in the gaps with eighth notes on the hi-hats. Keef might be The Human Riff, but here, Charlie’s rivalling Ringo’s reputation as The Human Metronome, and it’s one that requires discipline and a bit of stamina. Once you’ve mastered it, you could consider adding the quarter-note ‘3-&-4’ tambourine parts if you want to make it more interesting.
10. The Beatles - Twist and Shout
“Ringo? But he’s not even the best drummer in The Be…” Silence! On your first listen, Twist and Shout might appear to be a classic, easy “dum-cha-cha, dum-cha” ’60s beat. But ironically, Ringo’s part is one of the busiest on this list, with plenty of sixteenth-note fills in there to get your teeth into, as well as the full-band accented parts. Watch out for the build-ups too, which switch between four bars in the intro, and a slightly less natural-feeling six bars during the middle section. Of course, there’s also Ringo’s distinctive ending, played as eighth-note triplets.
11. The White Stripes - Seven Nation Army
Nothing starts an argument faster than questioning Meg White’s drumming abilities. But the debate is moot when you consider Seven Nation Army’s perfectly-orchestrated drum part. Pounding-out quarter notes on the floor tom and bass drum is all that’s required during the verse. The chorus moves to keeping time on the crash cymbal, while every third bar features an additional bass drum note and displaced backbeat, following the syllabic rhythm of the guitar riff. Haters may well hate, but Meg White’s part fits perfectly, and adding the left foot (right foot if you’re left-handed) hi-hat throughout adds an extra layer to this play-it-anywhere belter.
12. Amy Winehouse - Valerie
Producer Mark Ronson enlisted New York soul revivalists, The Dap Kings as the backing band for Amy Winehouse’s version of The Zutons’ Valerie. The groove is an up-tempo take on the original’s plodding half-time feel, with drummer Homer Steinweiss employing a swinging, soulful skip against the Bo Diddly/3-2 clave of the bass. The main priority here is to keep the tempo constant, even during the rests and drop-outs. Get the groove down and you’ll have unlocked the feel for many-a pop song.
13. Earth, Wind & Fire - September
Earth Wind & Fire’s September is a disco classic, and as such features the classic four-to-the-floor beat. Before that though, we’re back in Billie Jean/AC/DC territory as the band kicks in. Once the verse starts, you can add the bass drum on beats 2 and 4. The key here is to keep the groove going, and that’s reflected in the fills. Most notable is the flammed snare that occurs halfway through the verses, plus the stabs on ‘3-&-4’ leading into the choruses. Fred White plays variations on the latter throughout, but the first time, it’s played in unison with the rest of the band.