Drumming Up a Feast: How To Get More Flavors From Your Kit

By Chris Mattoon

Being a drummer is much like being a chef. The flavor of the meat is already in the steak, so any backyard barbecue cook can throw it on the grill and in ten minutes have a delicious steak dinner. But a chef, a true culinary artist, can take a sub-par slab of beef and transform it into gastronomic bliss. Similarly, any drummer can learn to play a given drumbeat, but an artist understands the subtleties of a great groove and has the chops to make it sizzle.

Consider the standard 4-piece set with three cymbals. Like a chef, we have seven primary ingredients to work with. This isn’t exactly a well-stocked pantry, but conga players and orchestral percussionists have even less flavor at their disposal—perhaps four conga drums or even just one snare drum to express all the phrasing and color, texture and emotion of a complicated symphony or a vibrant Latin number. And yet, somehow it works for them. Let’s explore some of the ways we can get more from the same drum by expanding our palate. 


Take a look at Ex. 1. There’s no way around it—this is boring! Sure, you could work on sixteenth-notes until they have machine-like precision, perfectly even dynamics, and are blazing fast. Guess what? For most applications, they would be unmusical, unmoving, unemotional, and uninteresting. For the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to add four sounds to the snare drum that can enhance and expand the musical palate with which we work.


First, let’s practice alternating a cross-stick sound with our left hand and a standard snare stroke with our right, as shown in Ex. 2. By keeping your left wrist on the head while you play the drum with your right stick in Ex. 3, we add yet another muffled sound. Combining these three sounds in musical ways yields patterns that take on characteristics of multiple drums or even multiple drummers playing.


Once these are firmly under your belt, let’s add another sound. This time, tap the snare lightly just near the hoop. You’ll hear a higher pitched, slightly ringy sound that will be quieter than a normal stroke. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll call this an “edge stroke.” Ex. 4 provides some ideas about how to use this color in conjunction with the sounds we have already established. We now have four distinct sounds from one drum that we can combine into more complex flavors, such as the ideas in Exs. 5–8.


Starting to incorporate the set, we can add a bass drum, like the excerpts in Exs. 9–12, for this linear phrase. Like all examples, play this slowly and smooth until the mechanics become second nature, then gradually increase the speed to a comfortable playing tempo. Keep in mind that faster is not always better. As with any phrase, let the music govern the speed and find a tempo that sounds good to you.


We can continue expanding this concept of playing different zones on a single drum by incorporating it into the whole kit. Exs. 13–16 feature the same notation as previous examples, only on a small tom or floor tom. Make sure to use finesse when extracting different sounds from the same drum. Sometimes beating a drum harder will hide the character of each area of a drumhead. Try a variety of dynamic levels until you find the ones that work with your set and your style. Remember, we’re looking for different flavors, not simply different strokes.


There are unlimited ways to play with these ideas. Grab your copy of Syncopation or Stick Control and shake things up. Play a simple phrase or fill and add one new voice at a time. Try a Latin or blues groove with a new flair. Keep in mind that the sounds you play define your style. By adding new ideas like these to our toolbox, we grow as drummers and musicians.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Drum! magazine. This is the first time it has been published online.