BY JOHN NATELLI
THE SECRETS OF STICK CONTROL ARE IN YOUR HANDS
As musicians, the best thing we can do for our bodies and how they relate to our craft is to be aware of our own physical capabilities and the limits our instruments impose on them. Various drumming methods and theories that have evolved over the years, specifically those relating to how we hold a drum stick, are the product of generations of trial and error and offer us endless ways to customize our technique and hone our skills, while pushing our physical limits as far as they can go. Hopefully this breakdown of the major mechanical variations in drum stick grip will come in handy (pardon the pun) for beginners and experienced players alike. Learn each of these techniques, reap the benefits each has to offer, and use them to cultivate and expand on your own unique technical style. Who knows? Maybe you’ll invent a brand-new grip that will revolutionize the craft and make you millions. But it couldn’t hurt to get reacquainted with the basics first.
To start, there are a couple of principles that are fundamental to virtually every known grip and hand technique. First and foremost, it is strongly advised that you learn to hold the stick loosely while you’re playing. Not so loose that your bandmates need to wear eye protection around you, but loose enough to allow the technique to work its magic. The proverbial “death grip” is really only useful for killing things: namely feel and groove, not to mention the tendons and nerves in your hands and arms. These are things that, as drummers, we really cannot afford to sacrifice.
In fact, it is widely believed that drummers’ tendonitis, while mainly the result of the sustained repetitive motion that drumming involves, can be significantly exacerbated by an overly tight grip. In his 1992 tell-all video, Speed, Power, Control, Endurance, venerable technique guru Jim Chapin described the proper grip intensity as what would be required to barely hold onto a “fledgling bird” – in other words, just tight enough to keep it from flying away. “The stick is not imprisoned in my hand,” he emphasized, adding, “If they tell you, ’No pain no gain,’ shoot them!”
The second “Law Of The Grip” is proper use of the finger fulcrum. This is the physical mechanism that provides the point of pivot for the stick within your hand. Under normal circumstances (that is, unless you control your drum sticks with only your fingers, while your wrists, arms, and upper body remain frozen like a statue – as in the speed-stroke outlined on the following page), the finger fulcrum is only one of a number of fulcrums that work in concert to create a typical stroke. Technically speaking, all these points of pivot comprise a complex lever system that involves the fingers, wrist, elbow, and shoulder – perhaps even the waist. The exact location of the finger fulcrum within the hand depends specifically on the grip employed, most of which involve either the index or middle finger, and fall comfortably under the categories of either “traditional” or “matched.”
Traditional grip, occasionally referred to as “orthodox grip” (an undeniably cooler name, with its subtle inference of drumming as a religion), is a living illustration of the drummer’s previous role in society, one as keeper of order on the battlefield and main link of communication between soldier and commander. With a snare slung awkwardly over one shoulder, the military drummer of pre-modern times needed to maintain complete maneuverability to perform his job with confidence. This was achieved by wearing his drum at a 45 degree angle with the head tilted toward his dominant hand. As a result, a unique underhanded grip evolved for the non-dominant hand to accommodate this angle, and remains with the drumming world today, long outliving its intended purpose.
To obtain this grip, open your non-dominant hand with the palm down and balance the stick on the skin between your thumb and index finger, with the bead of the stick pointing out and away from you. Where the stick rests is the finger fulcrum. Then turn your hand up to reveal your palm, slightly curl your ring and little fingers, and rest of the front end of the stick on your ring finger cuticle. Finally, lower your index finger onto the stick, forming a cross with the thumb and closing the grip. The principle striking motion of a traditional-grip stroke requires the inward rotation of the wrist, as if turning a doorknob (clockwise with your left hand, counter-clockwise with your right).
According to drum historian Sanford A. Moeller, the dominant hand of Civil War—era drummers employed what he referred to as an “ancient grip,” where the pinky anchored the butt of the stick into the hand, providing the fulcrum, while the other fingers maintained only loose contact with the stick, and the thumb sat underneath, as if holding a baseball bat. In modern times, any of the overhand grips discussed in the following section are employed with the dominant hand.
As far as usefulness is concerned, purveyors of traditional grip sing its praises for its ability to assist in the sensitive execution of quieter passages, while its critics maintain its inferiority at producing the power capable of an overhand stroke. One notable exception to these common points of view is the opinion of Stewart Copeland. In a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone, Copeland pledges his allegiance to traditional grip, proclaiming its unrivaled power with an anatomical explanation: “The whole point to using traditional grip is because it’s the most efficient way to use your hand to hit a drum. You can hit 50 times harder with traditional grip than you can with matched. Matched gives you no power; you use only the muscles on the top of your forearm with matched instead of the big muscles on the bottom of your forearm with traditional. You can get a much stronger stroke that way.” Copeland has reiterated this stance many times since. Other modern practitioners of traditional grip include Steve Gadd, Lenny White, and recent orthodox convert Neil Peart.
Still, with staunch detractors and defenders alike, traditional grip, while in its last throws in the rock realm, remains the preferred grip of jazz players around the world. It has also found a seemingly permanent home in competitive drum and bugle corps, the distant great-grandchild of the military drum units out of which it was born. It is because of this relationship with drum and bugle corps that traditional grip is strongly associated with the formal study of rudimental drumming.
In the end, drummers on both sides of the argument seem to agree that its true advantage over any form of matched grip is its aesthetic appeal (which is really completely understandable in light of colored cymbals and graphic-enhanced drumheads). Intended or not, any of the following may be implied by the use of this grip: 1) I have a certain reverence for the past greats of drumming and the beautiful, drummer-ly tradition they have helped to foster. 2) I like and/or play – or desire the appearance of one who likes and/or plays – jazz music. 3) I studied rudimental drumming in a formal capacity. Or some combination of the above.
AMERICAN MATCHED GRIP
A hybrid of German and French overhand grips, with the palms angled neither parallel nor perpendicular to the drumhead, this is the default grip position for most beginning drummers, or for those who simply choose a more ergonomic playing position over learned techniques.
A standard traditional or “orthodox” grip, shown here with the dominant hand in American grip position. Traditional grip is the de facto choice for jazzers and those coming from a more formal schooling background.
With the palms held completely parallel with the drumhead, the sticks lay in a broad “pie-slice” arrangement over the drum. The combined use of wrist, finger, and inner forearm muscles gives this grip a significant advantage in terms of power.
With the palms turned perpendicular to the drumhead and the thumbs placed on top of the stick, the French, or timpani grip, brings the elbows in closer to the body and brings more of the fingers in contact with the stick, allowing for a more controlled, finesse-driven stroke.
An obscure technique good for volume and little else, this grip hasn’t been seen much since the war — Civil War, that is. With the thumb wrapped under the stick, the pinkie acts as the “fulcrum” and the resulting stroke relies almost entirely on wrist action, with things like rebound and dynamics relegated to distant afterthoughts.
MATCHED (OVERHAND) GRIP
Opposite traditional grip you’ll find any of the overhand grips for the dominant hand which, when employed with both hands, are known as “matched.” These have less to say visually (other than the fact that you were probably not reared on Buddy Rich/Gene Krupa drum battles), and are perhaps more invested in the ergonomics of drumming. The advantages are obvious. For one, you don’t have to learn how to hold the stick twice; both hands perform the same exact operation. Because of this, you have a better shot at achieving a consistently uniform sound between the hands.
For an overhand grip, simply open your palm face up, place the stick in it with the bead pointing away from you, and close your hand as you naturally would, planting the pad of your thumb (the finger fulcrum in any style of overhand grip) firmly on the stick opposite your index or middle finger. The motion of the active stick now depends on the style of overhand grip you choose to employ. The vast majority of players use some variation of “German,” “French,” or the hybrid combination of the two known as “American.”
With German grip, the palms are held parallel to the drumhead so as to position the thumb on the side of the stick and keep the top of the hand flat. The principle motion of the stroke combines equal parts finger action with the flexing of the wrist up and down. Because of the strong presence of inner forearm muscles used to snap the wrist in this technique (and to respectfully contradict Stewart Copeland) it is often believed to provide a more powerful stroke.
In contrast, French grip sees the palms facing inward, with the thumb positioned directly on top of the stick. This removes some of the responsibility of the wrist, resulting in a stroke that relies more heavily on finger action for its principle motion. It becomes the role of the smaller muscles of the palm and fingers that is believed to provide more control, finesse, and speed within a greater dynamic range. Famous practitioners of French grip include John Bonham, Billy Cobham, and Bill Bruford. Likewise, if you’ve ever witnessed a “World’s Fastest Drummer” competition, you’ll note the winners invariably use a fixed-wrist version of this technique that relies entirely on finger action, which here we call the “speed stroke.”
In reality, a large percentage of drummers don’t adhere strictly to either of the aforementioned grips. Among these will always be the beginners and self-taught players who simply pick up a pair of sticks and begin to play, holding them in a manner that comes most natural to them. These folks employ what is generally referred to as “American” grip. With the palms neither facing exactly down or inward, American grip can be thought of either as a deliberate hybrid of German and French grips, seeking the distinct benefits of each, or as a rejection (or ignorance) of the others’ strict ergonomic requirements. Ultimately, American grip has one main feature going for it: It is instinctual, and therefore requires the least attention and muscle training of any grip.
1. The distinctive Moeller “whip” motion begins by raising the elbow, leaving the wrist and fingers as slack as possible.
2. Dropping the elbow forms an “A” shape between forearm and stick that primes the whipping motion.
3. The initial downstroke serves as the accented note of what is typically a triplet pattern.
4. The second stroke relies on either the rebound energy of the first stroke or on deliberate finger control, depending on your school of thought and/or the speed of the stroke.
5. The third and final stroke is executed on the upstroke as the elbow is raised to initiate the next Moeller sequence.
Regardless of your preferred grip, it is important to be aware of the two formal schools of thought regarding hand technique. The first and most renowned of these methods, pioneered by Sanford A. Moeller in the early part of the 20th century and championed at great length by the late Jim Chapin, is the celebrated Moeller method. Most often associated with German grip, the Moeller method emphasizes the development of hand speed, power, and stick control, as well as the complete relaxation of the hand and arm muscles.
The technique is achieved by mastering a particular stroke that many describe as having a strong downward “whipping” motion. This whip stroke, usually accented, is then followed by either one or two unaccented “upstrokes” in which the hand returns to its original position while striking the drum on its way. While some Moeller adherents are adamant about the upstrokes being generated by rebound alone, Chapin was very specific about the individual articulation of each note. He insisted that the influence of the rebound was minimal and each stroke require as much effort as the last.
As dazzling a musician as Mr. Chapin was, though, he was slightly less gifted in the department of verbal articulation, and so Moeller’s greatest torchbearer was not always able to give a clear explanation of what was required to master the technique. Instead, his greatest gift to us (aside from a collection of superb method books, one of which, Advanced Techniques For The Modern Drummer, is considered to this day to be the bible of jazz independence) lay in his ability to demonstrate it with stunning brilliance in various filmed situations (a number of these can be found on with a YouTube search of his name). You’d do well to view as much footage of this loveable-if-slightly-incoherent man as possible to develop an understanding of the mechanics at work behind the Moeller method.
Another known disciple of Moeller, Dave Weckl, demonstrates the whip and upstroke motions and explains the mechanics with a little more clarity in his 2000 instructional film, Dave Weckl, A Natural Evolution – How To Develop Technique. Although visually similar to Chapin’s technique in his demonstration, Weckl’s description differs in his assertion that the stroke relies on the rebound for proper execution.
The second school of hand technique, inspired by the unique drumming style of 1930s and ’40s—era Radio City Music Hall band member Billy Gladstone, is considerably less popular than the aforementioned – downright obscure in fact – perhaps due to its comparatively young age as an actual method. In any case, the Gladstone technique enjoys a devoted following of effortless speedsters, starting with some of Mr. Gladstone’s most notable students: Joe Morello, Buddy Rich, and Shelly Manne, to name a few.
Somewhat at odds with the Moeller method (depending on your interpretation), Gladstone relies on complete and total commitment to the rebound and the maximization of the energy already present in a moving drum stick. Although it should be noted that both systems fully agree on the abandonment of any sort of muscular tension, The Gladstone technique takes this principle a bit further, emphasizing that no effort should ever be made to lift the stick after a stroke. That remains the responsibility of the rebound, leaving the player only with the job of snapping the stick down into the drum as fast as possible with enough force that it returns itself to its initial position (think of dribbling a basketball). This is called a “free stroke.”
Controlling the stick’s return by stopping it at a particular height from the head – low, medium, or high – the drummer decides the dynamic intensity of the next stroke, called a “controlled stroke” or “control stroke.” All of this is, of course, executed with a grip so loose it’s said that if the stick doesn’t fly out of your hand every once in a while you’re probably not doing it correctly.
Jojo Mayer, famous practitioner of Gladstone, in his lengthy, highly informative instructional DVD, Secret Weapons For The Modern Drummer, offers a great demonstration as well as descriptions of the combination of wrist and finger action that comprise the Gladstone technique.
Either way, no two human bodies are the same, and so different versions of different techniques will constantly evolve to accommodate the always-growing variety of drummers. So before you stress out over whether you should be a loyal Moeller fan or die-hard Gladstone disciple, remember that drumming is a form of artistic expression and there is no best way to do it, only a way that fits you best.
With the thumb and index finger serving as the fulcrum and the wrist, arm, and shoulder remaining rigidly fixed in position, the other three fingers are used to propel each down stroke by utilizing the stick’s rebound momentum, “dribbling” the stick like a basketball off the head. When executed properly, this stroke is capable of producing tremendous speed.