Monday, April 24, 2023

Whither the hihat foot

What does it do?
Right up front: in playing the drums, the left foot is basically subservient. A lot of people vaguely suspect they're not doing enough with it. Some go on to become fixated on made up ideological goals like the four limbs are supposed to contribute equally— seeing the drums as a four co-equal limb operated apparatus.  

Which it is not. The drum set was first a snare drum and bass drum instrument, which became a cymbal and snare drum and bass drum instrument (plus some other junk). And it still basically is. In some periods and styles of music, the hihat was the main cymbal sound in that equation. It doesn't matter. Hihat = cymbal. 

But the fact that it takes a dedicated limb to control it makes people think that it has some role beyond just cymbal. It's not about appendages, however, it's about the musical instrument they control.  

The hihat device itself controls two vertically clapping cymbals, and is not conducive to finessed technique. To get a dry sound we have to do essentially a dead stroke, which is hard to do fast. It's easier to play open sounds quickly, but then you lose definition— the ringing cymbals negate whatever intricate thing you were trying to accomplish. 

And to what end? What are the musical functions of its available sounds? If this is going to be a musical instrument, we have to be thinking about that. We don't just play whatever because it's a drumset and the stuff is there, and we practiced it. 

Tone control
When playing the hihats with your hands— holding the cymbals varying degrees of closed and open. There's a lot of very nuanced expression possible here, not limited to the obvious choking effects.  

Simple rhythm
Playing the 2 and 4, or quarter notes, or 8th notes. Supporting the cymbal rhythm, or providing a grounding rhythm while doing looser stuff with the rest of the set.  

Accents and color - splash sounds

Splashing the cymbals with your foot is a particular kind of sound, used to best effect on ballads, or where you want a raucous vibe.

Alternative comping/texture voice

This is where people get really active with it— playing independent comping statements, or playing as part of a rhythm texture with the snare drum and/or bass drum. Occasionally, or as part of the main groove. The sound of the instrument itself is just a little strange in that role. It's not real expressive played with the foot— the sound itself, and the difficulty of doing much with it.    

In that role it's really acting as an occasional contrasting sound to the snare drum. Some drummers will develop one big gratuitous show stopping lick with it— that seems to be a thing. 

Part of a composed groove

For example that shuffle groove we've seen on a couple of versions of Midnight Special. Or in a semi-repeating way as Elvin Jones did on a waltz or Latin feel, or as in Steve Gadd's well known 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover groove.

Complex ostinato

Clave rhythms, most notably, or repeating rhythms with open and closed sounds. The clave rhythm may be a necessity if you're playing Latin gigs where there's a shortage of percussionists, and you're having to cover multiple people's jobs. That's the reason for that. The ostinato with splash sounds is more a showy solo item. 


Multi-pedals, other percussion instruments, feats of independence, etc etc. We're entering the world of people whose entire job description is to be amazing. We're not talking music any more— maybe quasi-music. Some people don't see the distinction.

But Jack Dejohnette is often amazing, isn't Joe Blow the amazing clinic/YouTube drummer just an extension of that?
No, he isn't. This is something to think about and figure out. 

Still: there are real possibilities for people to develop a real personal musical thing with that, for music where the percussion is centered. If you're the person to do that, you already know who you are— everyone else, don't sweat it, you're not obligated. 

It's good to have clarity on stuff like this. It's just inherently a second order, supportive item, and it's fine. It's not just another thing we have to worry we're slacking on being amazing with.    

No comments: