Friday, February 23, 2018

Drumming technique

I want to talk about technique: the way it gets talked about it on the internet, vs. my own practices and attitude about it. We've had lots of adversarial posts lately— hopefully entertainingly so. A side effect of living in totally insane times is that people are going to have a lot of random antagonism to express, which I choose to direct at computer/tech people worming their way into the artistic world, and at people with slightly different ideas about drumming than mine. We'll be pretty low-key about it today.

There's an internet lore about drumming technique which is very oriented around the physics of things bouncing on drums... or more often practice pads. Words that you hear include free stroke, “8 to a hand”, Moeller, “throwing the stick”, push-pull, “bouncing a ball”... the same few buzzwords/catchphrases/practices come up again and again. It's derived from the group of techniques promoted Jim Chapin, Dom Famularo, and Jojo Mayer. It's implicitly oriented around the idea that technique is for extreme power and extreme high performance— implicitly because none of the bounce stuff works at normal volumes.

It sounds cool. I want extreme power! Unfortunately I'm rarely asked to play extreme power. I'm usually asked to play somewhat-to-extremely quietly. We can talk about the true need for extreme chops another time.

This video is a good summary of this general mode of thought:

I occasionally get students who have been self-teaching this approach, who were all completely missing the boat for playing actual normal snare drum stuff on a snare drum. The thing technique is supposed to be for.

Let's give an actual quasi-scholarly definition here: the first purpose of any technique is to get a sound on the instrument, and to perform the standard literature at standard performance volume. That's what technique means for any other instrument in the world— violin, piano, timpani, tamborim. For drumset musicians, “standard literature” just means the usual stuff that professional drummers play.

In aid of that, I think that whatever else you do technically, you need to be able to execute a clean basic wrist technique. Everything else follows from that. Here are the basic elements of that, the way I teach it:

  • A controlled but relaxed “German” grip. I tend to use the “American” grip more in normal playing, and the “French” grip when playing the ride cymbal, but German is the best, easiest-to-perfect foundation grip.
  • Strokes are made all with the wrist; no finger, no arm
  • No use of pad or drum bounce— you pick up the stick with your wrist after the stroke, to make a smooth, fast follow-through.
  • Stick heights between 2-7"— the height range for most normal playing. 
  • High velocity strokes. The individual stroke motion is fast regardless of the volume or tempo of what you're playing. 
  • Ability to do the basic strokes of the level system: full, down, tap, and up strokes. 
  • Most drummers habitually lift the stick before playing a note, and downstroke after playing a note— they stop the stick close to the head. I work to eliminate the automatic lift and downstroke.
  • With any controlled technique it's easy to turn the control into tension— obviously something to be avoided. We're going for a fast, light, clean motion.

You can practice this in front of a mirror, matching stick heights, playing in the center of the drum, playing left hand lead exercises about twice as long as right hand lead exercises. Try playing through Stick Control (not just the first three pages), Three Camps, whatever. I think Ron Fink's Chop Busters and Mitchell Peters's Odd Meter Calisthenics are excellent for practical advanced chops.

I started out teaching myself this approach because it was the only way to play as quietly as I was being asked to play— the extremely loose, open technique I was using before was failing at normal combo volumes. It eventually turned out that I needed very little else to do everything I needed to do, in all settings. It's true that much of the time I use a looser American grip because most of the time you don't actually need optimal fine control— it's an adequate technique, but not a better one.

Let's be clear that there is a place for that Chapin/Famularo/Mayer family of techniques: like in situations where actual power is called for, or a very showy, high-sticking technique. A few of them will improve your cymbal technique. Certainly anyone who wants to exist in the extreme drumming world. They're not generally necessary to be a plain old great, artistically successful, very impressive drummer.

If you want further explanation of my technique, contact me for a Skype lesson.

Epilogue: About the guy in the video above— Sacha K is the only name I can find. He can actually play the drums, but when he's playing he doesn't use the technique he's teaching in that video. If you take a look at what he's doing here, his technique is more like what I describe above. So why didn't he put that in the technique video? What was the bounce malarkey all about? It's like it's coming from some weird metaphysical world where ideal technique has nothing to do with actually playing music on the drums. I don't get it. 


  1. Great column and explanations Todd. Would love to hear your thoughts on how to develop one's rebound/bounce in a similar, practical manner.

  2. Thanks Jon-- that would be a shorter post for me, but let me see what I can do!