BY STEWART JEAN
One easily overlooked aspect of drumming is the versatility the hi-hat provides to the drum set. While we maintain a healthy regimen of hand exercises and bass drum technique development, the hi-hat foot gets the least amount of attention. This neglect can lead to bad posture, imbalanced weight distribution from the throne, and limited ability to produce subtle sonic changes necessary for being a well-rounded drummer.
Starting with the basic concept of pressure with your hi-hat foot on the pedal, one simple exercise is to slowly raise and lower your foot on the pedal (heel down) at an even pace. Allow yourself to feel where the tension appears. Notice if any other part of your body tenses up, even when idle, when doing this. Perhaps your toes are curling up in your shoe, or maybe there is tension in your mouth. You want to recognize this and do your best to undo the tension while performing this exercise.
Opening the Hi-Hat Within a Groove
In rock, pop, R&B, funk, metal, the bass drum is normally played at least close to full volume. Unless you are primarily a double bass drum player, the drum set is fairly asymmetrical and requires independence exercises to allow for proper muscle manipulation and weight distribution.
A great method to assess your balance on the throne is to play a disco beat with open hats on the upbeats, making sure to play the bass drum strong. When you begin to open the hi-hat on the upbeats take notice of your hi-hat foot—is it exerting as much energy and power as the bass drum foot? It should not be. When playing any open hi-hat patterns you only need to take off enough pressure to allow some air to get in between the top and bottom cymbals. If you open it too much there will be too much air in the hat and the sound will suffer.
When playing up on the ride cymbal you want the ability to, in a relaxed manner, pump eighth-notes with your foot on the hi-hat. For me this acts as a physical metronome as I can feel my more complex bass drum patterns falling into my grid.
Splashing the hi-hat cymbals with the foot is another way to add sheen and character to grooves. This is also developed by working on slow motions on the pedal, allowing you to build the ankle, calf, and shin muscles.
For a more aggressive sound you can also play the open hi-hat along with the bass drum, also known as a bark. This requires the immediate opening and closing of the hi-hat in time, usually based on a sixteenth-note subdivision. Barking is another great way to assess your balance on the throne.
Chicking the hi-hat with the foot is essential when it comes to syncopated funk grooves and jazz. As for chicking 2 and 4 on the hi-hat when playing jazz, I tend to rock on the ball of my foot at the pace of a quarter-note but only allowing 2 and 4 to be audible. For slower and more relaxed tempos I will play heel down and rock from toe to heel with the heel producing the chick on beats 2 and 4.
Adjusting for Styles
Finally, I highly recommend that you pick a simple groove and play eighth-notes on your hi-hat with your left foot. While not changing the integrity of the bass drum and snare sounds and patterns, gradually change the pressure on the hi-hat pedal from extremely tight to very loose. Try to explore all possibilities and think about what sound fits different genres of music. You will discover how much a role the hi-hat foot plays in the creation of grooves and feels.
I hope these exercises and tips help you discover and correct any control problems you may be experiencing. Happy drumming everyone!
Stewart Jean is Program Chair for Drums at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA.