Ostinatos: Building a Better Drummer

Limb Freedom and Polyrhythms for Beginner and Advanced Drummers

This treatise (or collection of posts) is my approach to learning kit drumming.  This method is musical and approachable for drummers of all levels.

n. pl. os·ti·na·tos

A short melody or pattern that is constantly repeated, usually in the same part at the same pitch.


In terms of drumming we can simplify this definition further and say “an ostinato is a repeated pattern.”


Pattern has a much more ambiguous definition but, for the sake of this treatise, pattern can be thought of as a collection of sounds.  It is important to note, that a pattern does not have to be repetitive or symmetrical.

Limb Freedom

As a kit drummer, we are able to use 4 limbs to play a single pattern, 4 distinct patterns,  or much more.  This brings us to the concept of limb freedom.  Most commonly, drummers call the technique of using several limbs simultaneously, independence.  Like many others, I believe that independence is a bad descriptor of what you are trying to accomplish.  Generally, if your limbs are doing completely independent actions from each other it will just sound like noise to most people.  When the limbs are playing actions that are related to each other the result is a more musical sound.  Often the relationship can be a counterpoint (opposing) to a particular limb but there is still a relation to the other limb and not an independence.  I prefer the term limb freedom.  The goal is to be relaxed and free enough with any limb to be able to play whatever idea you are trying to express.  Your limbs can play independently or with a complex dependence based on what you are trying to express.  Through the practice of ostinatos, you will be able to play more freely and musically between your limbs.


Polyrhythm refers to playing more than one rhythm simultaneously.  This concept is often intimidating to drummers but it is actually something every drummer uses everyday whether they know it or not.  The most common polyrhythm is 2 over 4.  An example would be playing 4 beats on a bass drum and closing the hihat on the 2nd and 4th beats.  Your bass drum is playing in 4 and your hihat is playing in 2.  Polyrhythms can be much more complex but they don’t have to be which is why I think this concept is just as important to the beginning drummer as it is to the advanced drummer.  Through the practice of different ostinatos, you will be able play many different rhythms or time signatures simultaneously.

There are two basic components to playing as a kit drummer: technical and conceptual.  Technical refers to all the components necessary in order to correctly execute a pattern.  Conceptual is often used to cover every other aspect of drumming but I will refer to conceptual as ways to use different patterns musically or to achieve a goal.

This monograph will not cover any topics on technical drumming unless it is used to explain a particular concept. I believe this topic has been well covered in other places.  “Jojo Mayer: Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer” is an encyclopedic coverage of hand technique, that I recommend to drummers of all levels.  Also, the drum rudiments and “Stick Control” by George Stone are great starting and finishing points for drum technique.  In a way, the ostinatos presented within can be thought of as the rudiments for conceptual drumming.

As a partial student of Billy Martin and a full-time student of Billy Martin’s book, “Riddim,” (http://www.billymartin.net/products/riddim/) many of the ideas are similar to his teaching style or reformulations of his concepts. I highly recommend the book to anyone who finds the topic of ostinatos and african drumming interesting.


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