By Johnny Rabb
Developing hand speed requires C. R. E. (control, relaxation, endurance). Don’t confuse the word “speed” with “tension.” When tension becomes involved, muscles begin to tighten up and the body slows down. Whether you are striving for blinding singles or mind-blowing windmills around the drum set, the first thing to do is relax! When I started working on my technique years ago, I learned quickly that relaxed muscles give you the control that ultimately leads to faster hands or feet.
I try to think of drumming as an extreme sport. When you are at home practicing technique, see how far you can take it. Each of us has the responsibility to see how far we can take our drumming. We are our own obstacle. Once we overcome ourselves, we can improve daily!
When practicing and performing, I use a combination of a French timpani-style grip and a standard matched grip. I recommend the French grip to develop finger control. It is important to realize that you are using smaller muscle groups when exercising the fingers. The goal is to use the rebound of the practice pad or drumhead to your advantage. It is a light touch, not a hard squeeze.
Again, relax. When I play with fingers, my wrists remain stationary (Fig. 1). Your fingers, sticks and rebound should do all the work. When practicing the exercise in this article, try to work the fingers at all dynamic levels. The hard but fun thing to do is to try to play as low to the pad or head as possible. This can be frustrating, but is a sure way to gain control of your hands.
The wrists utilize larger muscle groups. Forearm muscles should never get tight or be in any pain. If pain occurs while doing any sort of drumming, you should stop! Pain means no gain! Notice the difference of the angle of the sticks when using matched (Fig. 2) as opposed to the French grip (Fig. 1). The wrist stroke just moves the wrist joint. Keep your elbows close to your side.
When going for maximum volume and power, you should also exercise full arm strokes (Fig. 3). This will be a motion in which wrists, elbows and even shoulders should be in motion. A good exercise to combine both wrist strokes and fingers is to play four bars with fingers and then four bars using the wrists.
It’s very important to choose the right sized drumstick. It should be comfortable for you to stay focused and relaxed when practicing. To achieve maximum speed and endurance I have developed a simple formula: warm-up with a larger sized stick and work your way down the ladder from larger/heavier sticks to smaller/lighter ones. Just like lifting weights, your muscles grow tired and burnt out. When the weight lessens, muscles are able to manipulate and still work out.
The Comfort Zone
The comfort zone is simply a tempo that you are able to control while remaining relaxed. The idea is to start at a low tempo such as 60 bpm and play sixteenth-notes alternating RLRL. Your job is to play precise and even sixteenths while maintaining control without tensing up. When you’re able to do this almost without thinking about it, you are in the comfort zone.
Once you are able to play smooth, fluid sixteenth-notes utilizing both finger control and wrist strokes, you can raise the tempo up slightly. You should only move the tempo up five beats per minute each time you raise the comfort zone. Remember, getting fast means starting slow! Try to focus on these tempos for at least ten minutes a day. When you are in the comfort zone, move the tempo up and continue the exercise. Starting slow will allow your muscles to learn the motions they should perform. Then when you get to a higher tempo your muscles will remember. Most runners will jog lightly and slowly before trying to do the 100-yard dash at full speed. The same applies to our arms and legs.
Ten Ways to Achieve Speed
- Videotape yourself and watch your progress
- Get a binder and make a daily progress chart (for example: Date/Tempo/Last Comfort Zone Achieved)
- Practice in front of a mirror to make sure your sticks are even and your posture is good
- Use a metronome or drum machine to assure good time and groove
- Utilize all types of stick grips from traditional to French
- Start slowly and increase your speed in increments of five beats per minute at a time
- Work on your exercises each day and you will see improvement
- Try to commit to a long-term practice regimen—just like anything else, practice makes perfect
- Vary your stick sizes just like you would if you were lifting weights
- Always have C.R.E. on your mind when going for the extreme
Something to Work On
Finally, I have included a hand exercise (below) that has really made my single strokes come to life. Follow the stickings as indicated. Use C.R.E. and start slowly to find your comfort zone. Use finger control, which utilizes the French/timpani grip, and also wrists, which is more of the standard matched grip.
This article originally appeared in the Feb/Mar 2001 issue of Drum! magazine