Thursday, March 08, 2012

On “open-handed” drumming

Fine, now spend another hundred
years learning to do it almost
as well with your left hand.
This is a discussion I have to re-litigate on the internet every six months or so: the “open handed” thing. That is, playing the hihat with your left hand to avoid the crossover that happens when you play it normally, with the right. I have some reservations about the efficacy of that as a primary technique for most drummers.

It's a question that comes up with many students in the first five minutes of playing the drums: Why not play the hihat with your left hand? If all you have to do is tap-tap-tap the hihat and occasionally tap the snare drum thingy, wouldn't it make more sense? I generally put the subject to rest with a 1-minute explanation, and never hear about it again. The student understands that it's the normal way of playing, and adapts.

 But for some people it's just intolerably compromised and irrational-seeming, and they make egregious-sounding complaints about having to “cross your arms”, about the left hand being “trapped”, and the impossibility of hitting a lot of crap with your left while in that posture. There seems to be some kind of engineer's mentality at work; the people drawn to this way of playing seem to be the types more into tinkering around, devising and “perfecting” systems and theories than into actually playing. The instrument is conceived as a contraption to be fiddled with.

So, I have several big problems with “open handed” technique:
  • Lateral coordination = easy, cross-lateral coordination = hard Your body likes to play your right side together— your right hand and right foot— and the language of drumming is built around the coordination of the leading/"ride" hand and the bass drum. It's not as apparent in the early stages of development, when the roles of the limbs can seem arbitrary, but much of the more advanced improviser's language relies on right hand/right foot coordination.
  • Your lead is your voice
    Jazz drummers know this— we spend years or decades developing our touch on the cymbal with the right hand. But it applies to everyone. Your lead hand is your primary conduit for musical ideas— you develop a certain refinement and ease of expression with it, and largely orchestrate the rest of your playing around it.

  • The drumset is designed to favor a right hand lead.
    If you use a conventional set up, everything is weighted to the right. There is more stuff on the right, and your right hand can reach everything easily (even the hihat). There is less stuff on the left, and your left hand is more restricted, due mainly to having that tall hihat thing over there, topped with a long protruding metal stick. It's not a problem, because the most effective, efficient methods for learning to play creatively on the drumset favor a right hand lead. The instrument and the technique actually developed in tandem.

    I think part of the theory for “OH” people is that you can just park your left hand on the hihat while your right hand goes wild hitting all that crap on the right. This is a fundamentally different approach, based on off-hand independence. Maybe it's beyond the scope of this little little rant to fully explain why.

  • It's a pointless duplication of effort.
    Are we really going to learn an entirely different beat physically just to switch from the ride cymbal to the hihat?  

You could avoid this ridiculous duplication of effort by using a permanent left hand lead, with no ride cymbal on the right, and never riding on any available sound on the right. For me that would b a much greater creative limitation than just playing normally, and it also defeats part of the advertised purpose for using the technique in the first place. It's supposed to make you wondrously free to hit any crap in your set up at any time. 

More after the break:

Other things to consider:
  • Nearly every single good, great, and famous drummer plays the hihat the normal way, with the crossover. More than 99% of them. The idea that their playing is inhibited creatively because of it is ludicrous, and if they can deal with it, you should be able to, too. The handful of well-known drummers who do the open thing are generally maverick types (Lenny White and Billy Cobham, for example) who are also technical monsters. The one good drummer I've personally encountered who plays that way is a lefty who decided to switch to a regular right-handed set up.

    2019 update:
    I have been seeing more good players using this technique occasionally. I've even used it momentarily myself. I'm talking about very advanced players who practice a lot. Nearly all other drummers should still be working on getting just their primary right-handed approach together. 
  • The actual crossover is very small, and— since we use ~16" long drum sticks— does not involve crossing arms or hands. I accomplish it by a little ~15° pivot at the shoulder, which swings my hand a few inches to the left, and moves the bead of the stick a good deal farther. Thank you, geometry. At moderate volumes, I can still play my toms with my left from that position.
  • Yes, developing open-handing playing is a technical challenge, but are we really that lacking in hard things to work on? There are many other equally challenging things which will grow your playing technically and musically. Like seriously studying Afro-Cuban or Brazilian drumming, or jazz, or all the things you can do with Reed, or the Chaffee method, or dozens of other things I could name. Practice your paradiddles.
  •  If playing the hihat normally is a persistent problem, there are other solutions that do not require hundreds of hours of relearning everything backwards to a professional standard. Raising your hihats, or getting a remote hihat are both instant fixes. And there's the Don't Stop Believing exception: you can always work out special grooves open-handed as you feel you need them creatively:

So, my reservation about open-handed playing is not that it is pointless— I'm not against doing pointless things in principle. I am against doing them for uninformed reasons, which is usually the case with this technique. For an alternative view, see Open-Handed Playing by Dom Famularo and Claus Hessler.


    Unknown said...

    I am with you on this one Todd. I think open-handed playing falls under the "can does not mean should" category.

    Todd Bishop said...

    Damn, I thought it was going to be Ed Blackwell! A great drummer and great performance, but man, that looks weird. Thanks for that- there are definitely some people who can do it.

    Knowledge is Power said...

    "Lateral coordination = easy, cross-lateral coordination = hard."

    It's only hard if a person is well versed with lateral coordination. In other words, if a person grows up playing with lateral coordination, then decides to switch... sure, it will be very difficult.

    But there is no reason at all that a beginner should find cross-lateral coordination to be difficult at all.

    Todd Bishop said...

    I don't know, I get a lot of students who haven't been playing long enough to develop a lot of habits either way, and they keep automatically playing the right side together-- separating them is usually their first big coordination challenge. I don't see that happening with other sets of limbs-- RH/LF, LH/RF, or even RH/LH. That suggests to me that it's a wired thing; or at least a universal enough thing that it may as well be.

    Unknown said...

    I switched from cross handed to open handed many years ago, and these days I am comfortable playing either way. I disagree with you. I feel that my musical expression is vastly improved by the change. Also, it has allowed me to play interesting counter rhythms on the toms much easier. Add to that the fact that, when playing open handed, I am not hindered by my right fore arm over how hard I hit the snare, and I feel I've made the right choice. If for any reason I am playing cross handed, (usually if I'm teaching), it comes almost as a relief to switch. It also feels like a better groove. Oh, and it looks cool, in my opinion. But that's an add on.

    Unknown said...

    I'm naturally a lefty. playing left hand open handed lead on a right hand kit is how I learned to play. That being said, I would agree that there is pretty much no advantage. I don't understand why drummers make such a big deal out of it.

    Bails said...

    I'm a lefty, although slightly ambidextrous, playing a a left hand kit. I have always played open handed, right hand on hi hats, left hand on ride. I cannot imagine playing any other way, crossing arms seems impossible.
    I must also admit Billy Cobham has always been one of my go to drummers, however, I had been playing a couple of years before I switched on to him.
    I would also add that I was taught to play be my father, who was a very good, right handed, cross arm drummer. He told me early on that playing open handed was an advantage, I did it straight away and felt comfortable with it. However, I have never been a better drummer than him, technically or groove. I would have to say it is what you feel comfortable with.