BY ANDY ZIKER
Beginners are by far the largest population of drummers, and they come in lots of shapes and sizes. While some teachers do a great job of taking into account age, background, and learning modalities (visual, auditory, and tactile), others use a cookie-cutter approach (probably because they were taught this way) to help their newbies. Work out of only one book, hold the sticks a certain way, play within only one genre of music, learn certain rudiments, and so on. Though many of these instructors have had past success with these methods, modern-day clientele often find this narrow approach to be old-fashioned and stale; they’re not engaged and having fun. It’s not surprising when students ask, “Why not teach myself?”
In the not-so-distant past, self-learning was very limited: pick up a book (or a magazine, of course), listen to recordings, or watch your favorite drummers play live. You might have even popped a few instructional videos into a VCR. With the wealth of high-tech educational resources available to beginners these days, including YouTube, DVDs, e-books, online lessons, websites, and apps, we’re swimming in a sea of innovation. However, it’s become increasingly difficult for students to stay afloat. They easily become overwhelmed with the sheer number of choices, lose their focus, and require guidance. The following ten categories give beginners a way to organize their learning. Teachers may also find helpful ideas to add to their toolboxes. Categories are not ranked by order of importance. In other words, you could start with any one (or more) of these. It’s important to proceed judiciously.
Take the time to repeat new exercises and play them at different tempos. Go for mastery over scratching the surface. Eliminate all distractions, follow through with your goals, and you’ll soon see tangible results and how each strand is interconnected. Whether or not you decide to have a mentor to guide you through this process, ultimately you will need to inspire and motivate yourself. Who knows? If you stick with it, we may soon be writing about you in this magazine.
1. HAND AND FOOT TECHNIQUE
Grip Holding the sticks in an efficient manner is key to getting off to a good start. An easy way to find your grip is to stand up with your hands at your side. Using your left hand, place the stick into your right hand. The flat part of your thumb should make contact with the stick and your remaining fingers then wrap around naturally. Repeat the procedure, placing the other stick into your left hand. Grip the sticks back slightly from the actual balance point (the middle) of the stick. When using matched grip, it’s common that the butt (back) of the stick makes contact near the bottom of the inside of your hand.
Fulcrum Pinch the sticks between the thumb and first joint of the index finger and/or the thumb and the second joint. Some drummers feel more comfortable using the middle finger or a combination of index and middle finger.
Tight vs. Loose Gripping the sticks too tightly keeps the tip from bouncing freely off the playing surface. Secure the stick only hard enough to ensure that it doesn’t fly out of your hand. As the late Jim Chapin advised, hold the sticks as you would a baby bird.
Angle Of Attack The American grip (where the sticks become an extension of the lower part of your arm and the thumb is in a 3/4 position) produces a playing angle of about 60–80 degrees. This makes it easy to target the inner concentric circle of the drumhead, and allows you to more easily access both wrists and fingers. The French grip (thumb on top) and German grip (thumb on the side) are also useful (the French grip, for example, works well for playing time on a ride cymbal or a floor tom), but the American grip is the preferred way to start.
Free vs. Controlled In a free stroke, the rebound carries the stick from a high position (near shoulder height) back to a high position. In a controlled stroke, the stick starts high, strikes the drum, but is then controlled by the fingers in a low position (a few inches off the head). Ex. 1 Play controlled strokes in the first measure (a simple eighth-note rock beat) and free strokes in the second measure (the sixteenth-note fill). You may find it easier to produce free strokes using the second joint and thumb as the fulcrum while utilizing the American grip.
Matched vs. Traditional Beginners often find traditional grip more challenging to pick up than matched. The traditional fulcrum (non-dominant hand only) is located in the fleshy webbing between your thumb and pointer finger (instead of between two or three of the fingers in matched). Also, instead of the more familiar up and down motion of matched, traditional uses a completely different motion — an underhand rotation of the forearm — to produce the stroke. To avoid unnecessary cognitive dissonance, you might want to wait to learn traditional grip until you’ve become comfortable with matched.
Arm, Wrist, And Fingers At first, some beginners have a tendency to inefficiently use their arms to propel the sticks, instead of their wrists. To learn to avoid this, grab your right forearm with your left hand, thereby immobilizing your right arm. Now play using your wrist only.
Incorporating your fingers in the playing motion — along with the wrists — is another important technique. To get a feel for this, hold your right stick using the French grip. Next, grab ahold of your right wrist with your left hand. Because you can’t move your right wrist, you’ll propel the stick using only your fingers.
Crossed Over vs. Openhanded When playing rock or funk beats, most drummers cross their dominant stick over to the hi-hat while crossing their non-dominant hand to the snare (normally right over left). The logic here is that the strong hand can better handle the speed and endurance required in hi-hat playing. In open-handed playing (non-crossed-over), the wrists/ arms operate within a full range of motion. Ex. 2 As a beginner, you’ll benefit greatly by learning to both cross over and play open-handed. The two-measure phrases in this exercise (one measure crossed-over, one measure open-handed) should entice you to make both techniques a permanent fixture in your practice routine.
2. LEARNING METHODS
Heel-down vs. Heel-up In heel-down technique, the entire bottom portion of the foot remains on the pedalboard as the lower leg and ankle push down. This technique allows for the beater to bounce easily off the head, producing a more resonant bass drum tone. In heel-up technique, your heel rises slightly off the pedalboard, while the ball of the foot remains. With heel-up, it’s easier to bury the beater (allow it to remain on the head), giving off more attack and less resonance. This technique uses the bigger muscles in your upper leg and hip and can yield extremely powerful strokes.
Using heel-down, beginners often have trouble keeping their toes from coming off the pedal; and using heel-up, they often lift their entire foot off the pedal and stomp on it. Lifting off the bass drum pedal provides no mechanical advantage and can produce long-term control issues.
Ex. 3 This exercise gives you a chance to try out both bass drum techniques: heel-up and heel-down. Which one feels more comfortable to you?
Vocabulary Learning the names of the parts of the drum kit and the history of each, whether teaching it to yourself or communicating with your students, is not a waste of time. In fact, it will save you hours of frustration in the long run.
One Note At A Time When faced with a daunting groove or lick, you can approach it one note or one group of notes at a time. Your brain can more easily absorb small bits of information that way. Ex. 4 Check out this sixteenth-note-based linear groove. Try learning it one note at a time. It’s a pretty intricate pattern, so don’t cheat!
Copy Cat This fun method requires two or more drummers (though it is possible to do this activity by yourself). The leader (often a teacher) plays a lick and the follower (the student) copies it. This can be done with or without the aid of sheet music.
Deconstruction When multilayered beats and fills are broken down into their component parts, the brain can more easily accept the vertical relationships of the notes. Ex. 5a–5g A one-measure funk pattern (5a) is broken down into its component parts: hi-hat only (5b), bass drum only (5c), and snare only (5d). Next, combinations of two components are paired together: hi-hat and bass drum (5e), hi-hat and snare (5f), and bass drum and snare (5g). When you’ve mastered each individual exercise, go back to the top and try the original pattern. Did this method help you?
Slow It Down Slowing down a pattern allows your body to relax and gives your brain time to process the information. If you go slowly enough, a potential mistake instead becomes a graceful recovery. A metronome is a great tool. It ensures that you start as slowly as you think you should, and can help tug you along to an ideal tempo.
Play Softer There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as pounding away on the drums. However, it can be counterproductive when you’re trying to learn something new. Loud noises can cause lapses in concentration. Once you have the pattern down pat, turn it back up to ten.
3. TIME AND GROOVE
Songs Let’s face it; drumming is mostly used for accompaniment. Our job is to help convey the message and support the song. Though there are many great play-alongs available, drumming to music that includes both vocal melody and lyrics is invaluable. Ex. 6a–6d Listed here are four basic rock grooves with a song recommendation for each. Obviously, many more beats (and songs) could be added to this list. Some of the tempos are a little too fast for some beginners. Slow-downer programs, available as apps or software for your PC, are highly recommended to help with this issue.
Metronome Developing a steady pulse is of vital importance for every drummer. Metronomes are now available as apps and are a great tool to strengthen your timing. Ex. 7a–7h The persistent click sound found in metronomes can become grating and counterproductive to learning. In this exercise, a snare passage is repeated a number of times, but you’ll notice that the click appears in different rhythmic positions: sixteenths, eighths, quarters, every &, beats 2 and 4 (half-notes), every e and ah, beats 1 and 3 (half-notes), and beat 1 (whole notes). Continue to use this concept, and it will not only enliven your practice sessions, but will have a remarkable effect on your development.
Patterns From time to time, a beginning student shows up to her first lesson, and immediately wants to learn an advanced beat or fill. As a teacher, sometimes you have to dismiss the request. Other times, you can use that enthusiasm to teach a whole slew of interrelated skills and concepts. Ex. 8 Here’s a typical funk pattern. You’ll observe a beat with both rhythmic complexity and dynamic articulations. Of course, this is a pattern not normally associated with beginning students, but breaking it down into the following elements provides a number of teachable moments: rhythm (combinations of eighth- and sixteenth-notes), sticking (notice the paradiddles on beat 3 in the first measure), and various articulations (buzz strokes, ghosted notes, and accents).
Ostinatos Drum set coordination can be a frightening prospect to beginners. One way to develop coordination is to use ostinatos (continuous patterns). The idea is to get one or more of your limbs going repeatedly so you won’t have to think about that limb as much. In turn, your other limbs can begin to perform functions independently. Ex. 9 Instead of the typical ostinato workouts in which the feet maintain a steady pattern and the hands play over the top, here, the hands remain constant while the feet change things up.
5. PATTERNS AND RUDIMENTS
List For Beginners The following rudiments are relatively easy for beginners to grasp: single-stroke rolls, double-stroke rolls, single paradiddles, multiple bounce rolls, five-, six-, seven-, and nine-stroke rolls, flams (including power flams), flam accents, flams taps, and Swiss army triplets.
Application Once you are accustomed to these rudiments, apply them to the drum kit. Ex. 10 In this one-measure groove, a nine-stroke roll, seven-stroke roll, flam tap, and flam are applied to the hi-hat and snare.
Traveling Around The Drums When most people sit down to the kit for the first time, they want to move their sticks all around. Without an organized way to do this, the result may sound an awful lot like drums falling down stairs. Ex. 11 Let’s look at an exercise adapted from my beginner’s book, Drumcraft. It uses single strokes and the single paradiddle (as a pivot) to help you travel around the drums, from the left side to the right side and back.
3.5 + 0.5 Short fills have become a recent staple in pop music: In fact, most are limited to one or two beats. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable, but it’s a reality nevertheless.
Ex. 12a–12b Four-bar phrases are constructed in three and a half measures of a rock groove and a half measure (two beats) of a fill. Notice the circular nature of these phrases: The end of each fill becomes the beginning (the downbeat) of the next measure (the rock groove). You can land back on the hi-hat/bass drum — as notated here — or replace the hi-hat with a crash, using the shoulder of the stick to make contact with the cymbal in a glancing blow.
7. READING & WRITING
Subdividing Breaking down quarter-, eighth-, and sixteenth-notes into their least common denominator (sixteenth-notes) helps the beginner keep these rhythms in time. Developing a good foundation helps newbies then branch out to more complex rhythms. Ex. 13 In this exercise, quarters, eighths, and sixteenths are in a sequence. Make sure to count a steady stream of sixteenth-notes all the way through as you play.
Looking Ahead Reading and playing rhythmic notation can be a challenge when your eye remains on the rhythm at hand. Once you get more familiar with the rhythms you’re reading, begin to look a beat or more ahead, as you do when you read text in a book.
Writing Your Own Music Learning to read and play music notation is very much like the process of learning a foreign language. Without learning to write at the same time, you may be missing out on fully comprehending the new language. Find some blank staff paper and write your own music. You’ll be surprised by the benefits.
Transcribing/Listening/Analysis It’s never too early for drum students (especially with guidance from a teacher) to begin to listen intently to music, pick out the drums from the mix, and write down what they hear. This helps many students better conceptualize notation, get a sense of why drum parts are played within a song structure (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and so on), and allows them to communicate better with other musicians.
Alternating Most people pick up on the concept of alternating (one stick after another) very easily. Ex. 14a Hand-to-hand playing works very well here, especially when the right foot is not involved. However, when you take the kick drum into consideration, you see that both the right and left hands land on the beat (with the kick), and the involved coordination is more challenging.
Logical Approach The concept here is that the dominant hand lands on every beat. Because of this, sticking becomes much more predictable, and coordination with the kick is easier. Ex. 14b: Compare this sticking to the feeling of the alternating example (14a).
Balance Depending on the musical genre, dynamic balance can be of utmost importance. For example, in rock the kick and snare are most predominant, while in jazz — except for playing accents — the ride cymbal is heard above the kick and snare.
Accents The excitement generated by surrounding louder notes with softer notes (or vice versa) is one of the hidden keys to masterful drum part creation. Some drummers struggle with the concept of raising or lowering the stick height to produce louder or softer notes.
In 1942, George E. Glasgens published a book to help students with this called Strokes And Taps. Since that time many others have perfected the system, including Charles Wilcoxon, Roy Burns, Lewis Malin, and most recently, Jeff W. Johnson with his excellent book, The Level System. Ex. 15a–15b Play a two-measure accent pattern on the snare (15a). Make sure the accented notes don’t affect the volume (or stick height) of the unaccented notes. In 15b, the accents are now applied to the crash cymbal (and bass drum).
Crescendos A crescendo is a gradual increase in volume from soft to loud, which often provides tension in the music. Ex. 15c: This exercise involves sixteenth-notes played as flat flams (simultaneous hits) using the snare (left hand), floor tom (right hand), and bass drum (right foot). Since the crescendo is executed over two bars, make sure to affect very small dynamic changes (and stick height increases) as you go.
10. TAKE CARE
Stretching Warming Up Playing drums is physically demanding, and just like many other strenuous activities, stretching is recommended to prevent injury. Warming up is also good for your body as it increases blood flow to your limbs before you start to exert yourself.
Hearing Protection There are plenty of options available to help you prevent hearing loss: mute pads, earplugs, earmuffs, mesh heads (Remo), low-volume cymbals (Zildjian), and low-volume drum surfaces (Aquarian). You are simply out of excuses. Protect your precious ears!
Ergonomics The way you set up your drums, cymbals, pedals, stands, and throne is paramount to maintaining a healthy drumming future. Fight the urge to slouch as you play. Because we all have slightly different physiologies, it’s worth putting in the time to determine the setup that is best for your body.
Drum Care The longer you play drums, the closer the relationship becomes between you and your gear. Buy cases (or bags) for your gear, change drumheads periodically, lubricate tension rods and hinges, don’t over-tighten wing screws to avoid stripping the threads, and keep everything clean and dust-free.
Tuning To a certain extent, you are only as good as your sound. With all the books, DVDs, YouTube videos, and gadgets out there to help you tune, you should be able to achieve a pretty darn good drum sound. Again, if you have any trouble with this, seek out an expert.