3 Proven Hi-Hat Techniques From Steve Smith

By Steve Smith

Steve Smith parlayed multi-platinum success with ’80s arena rockers Journey into a drumming career that has defied easy definition. Equally versed in jazz-fusion, Smith went on to found Vital Information, and has recorded with an enormous roster of artists, including Jean Luc Ponty, Larry Coryell, and Frank Gambale. He has also become an elder statesman of drumming education, whose clinics are considered definitive lessons on the art and history of drumming. His most recent educational DVD package, Steve Smith – Drumset Technique And History Of The U. S. Beat, is an epic work available through Hudson Music.

1. Heel/Toe Rocking Motion

This is the original way the hi-hat was played with the foot, dating all the way back to the late 1920s when the hi-hat was first invented. In a typical bar of 4/4 time you gently put your heel down on beat 1 then rock up on your toe for beat 2, rock back to your heel for 3, and up on your toe for 4, back to your heel for 1, and continue on like this. With this technique you’ll get a nice relaxed rocking motion going with your foot and you’ll have the Hi Hats “chicking” on beats 2 and 4.

This can be used for jazz, rock, or any kind of playing. I recently watched an Ed Sullivan Show DVD that featured lots of different bands from the 1960s and I noticed every drummer on the show played with this hi-hat technique. This technique can help you find a very relaxed center to your beat. For a variation on this, you can play the heel motion harder and get the hi-hats to splash. This will give you a splash on 1, a “chick” on 2, a splash on 3, and a “chick” on 4.

2. Side-To-Side Motion

This is a motion that the great Tony Williams used and it can be applied in a variety of ways. The motion is an alternative to playing the hi-hat heel-up with an up-and-down motion. The side-to-side motion is smoother and has a better feel.

Being a right-handed drummer I’ll describe the motion as I play it with my left foot. Have your heel slightly raised and play beat 1 with the heel to the left of the footboard, then move to the right of the footboard and play beat 2, back to the left for beat 3, and back to the right for beat 4. With this technique you can “chick” all four quarter-note beats in a measure, if the tempo is fast. If it’s a slower tempo think of playing eighth-notes, 1 to the left, the and of 1 to the right, 2 to the left, the and of 2 the right, and so on.

Once you get comfortable with the side-to-side motion, you can develop the control to choose whether or not to “chick” all four beats or just beats 2 and 4. Also, by moving your foot up the footboard you get a tighter “chick,” and if you move down closer to the hinge on the heel plate you get a more open, splashy sound.

To get the hi-hat cymbals to really “dance” and rock back and forth, first make sure the hi-hat clutch is adjusted very loose so the top cymbal has a lot of play, then get the side-to-side motion going with your foot. After playing like that for a while at an up-tempo the cymbals will take on a life of their own and start “dancing.”

3. Short Notes/Long Notes

The term Short Notes/Long Notes basically refers to playing the hi-hat with the tip of your stick for short notes and playing the hi-hat with the shaft of the stick for long notes. There are infinite amounts of nuance one can get with the closed hi-hat sounds if you are aware of how you combine your hand technique and your foot pressure. To get a very staccato short sound, use the tip of the stick in the middle area of the top cymbal and a heavy pressure with the foot. For a legato long sound use the shaft of the stick near the edge of the cymbals and relax your foot so the cymbals are looser and the pitch of the hi-hat cymbals drops down.

By combining the Short Note/Long Note stick techniques you can get some great feels. For instance play a shuffle with all of the “pick-up” beats on the tip of the stick and the quarter note pulse that fall right on beats 1, 2, 3, 4 with the shaft of the stick. You can “straighten” this beat out and play the 1, 2, 3, 4 beats with the shaft of the stick and play the &s with the tip of the stick. This will give you a strong quarter note pulse.

If you reverse this and play the tip of the stick on beats 1, 2, 3, 4 and the shaft on all of the &s you get a groovy “upbeat” feel. If you combine that with opening the hi-hats on all of the ands (upbeats) and closing it on all of the downbeats, you’ll have the classic “pea soup” disco beat!

Experiment with these ideas, listen to your favorite drummers and notice what kind of techniques they are using and try them for yourself.

This article was originally published in the August-September 2004 issue of Drum! magazine.


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