How to play drums is a great search engine query! Now, I’m going to assume that if you typed that into Google, you’re probably reading this (thank you) looking for an answer. So, here’s my attempt at it.
When trying to answer how to play drums I don’t think there are rights or wrongs, but only commonly accepted beliefs. These include:
- Solid time keeping is probably the most important aspect of playing the drums
- Certain specific technical best practices help you achieve power and speed
- Some styles, phrasings and grooves are more popular / trendy than others
- The chops (speed and technicality) versus pocket (groove and feel) debate will rage on
But beyond that, in terms of how you choose to play drums, the world is your oyster. That’s the beauty of it; freedom to express yourself however you like.
Jojo Mayer, the modern master drummer.
Any of the key skills that are required to play drums can be developed with practice. Put enough time, patience and perseverance, and you too can become a great drummer. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Tipping Point (2000), suggests that you can master anything if you spend around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. And whilst this sounds daunting, it’s also reassuring that there’s somewhat of a measurable metric! But think about it, realistically, you don’t need 10,000 hours to become a decent drummer… But the quest is irresistible!
Now, for those who have a natural predisposition for the instrument, all it simply means is that things will come to them more easily. If you’re thinking “I have zero rhythm” before you’ve even sat down behind the kit, you’re setting yourself up for failure; don’t do this.
Below are what I consider to be the key technical / practical skills, and the transferable skills essential to address the how to play drums query.
Technical / practical
These are the skills directly linked with how to play drums.
Having good control of time and keeping a steady beat is paramount. It establishes trust with your audience as well as your bandmates. How? Well, audiences will feel taken care of because they know what to expect; there will be no sudden increases or decreases in tempo, and they’ll be able to focus only on shakin’ their booty.
On the other hand, having good time means you’re letting your bandmates play the best they can because you’re holding the beat down (in a good way). Similarly, having a good concept of time and being aware of tempos will make a song feel good. Think that if you play your favourite song too slow or too fast, it can break its feel and vibe.
To me being able to sight read doesn’t just help with being able to do gigs where charts are required, but practicing this skill, to me, reinforces your reaction times. In other words it strengthens the connection between your mind and body… Decreasing the time from the moment the thought is generated (or what you’ve just read) into you playing it.
Yes, you’re correct in thinking that how to play drums involves moving your hands and feet both at the same time and interdependently. But this isn’t something you’re born being able to do, it’s a skill you develop, and not just randomly either. One such technique used in developing this octopus-like ability is referred to as using ostinatos (short, repeating patterns). Here’s a great example of a melodic ostinato with the feet over hands soloing; follow this link and be wow’d.
Richard Kass – Drum Interpretations #1 – György Ligeti “Hungarian Rock”
When you see drummers playing at blazing tempos, they’re playing as tension free as they can. They achieve this by letting the stick (and pedals) do most of the work. Playing drums isn’t about “hitting” things, but more about throwing the sticks and controlling their bounce (known as the rebound). Having good technique means being able to do more, at faster tempos, more easily.
To play musically, a drummer needs to understand the music he or she is playing and be sympathetic to it. This is a big aspect of the how to play drums question. Obvious as it may seem, generally-speaking you wouldn’t play metal grooves with a jazz ensemble, unless that’s what’s required.
This which has several implications, from the gear you’d use (e.g. drum sizes and woods, drum skins, type of sticks, cymbals, etc), to the tuning of the drums, the techniques you’d use and the touch you’d need. This, to me, all falls under the “taste” umbrella; knowing what to play and when to do so.
Key transferable skills
These aren’t necessarily directly linked to the drums but are just as important as the technical ones.
Being able to actively listen to the music you’re playing, as well as paying attention to what each instrument is doing helps you be more musical. Likewise, being able to pay attention what your band members say is just as crucial. Listening is an important aspect of communication.
Physical and mental awareness
In order to develop good technique, being aware of your body and, likewise, knowing your mind in order to get the most out of your learning are crucial!
You need to be able to develop a consistent practice routine; carving out time into your daily schedule to sit behind the kit. Similarly, dedicated practice time versus playing along to songs for fun are different things altogether. The difference is that developing your skills involves the former, whilst having fun and decompressing involves the latter. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate play-alongs / fun to your practice.
Like I previously mentioned, getting good takes time. Patience is key in terms of achieving long-term results, but also being patient when learning something new; sometimes you have to practice something sloooowly at first to get it right. Only perfect practice makes perfect!
This is self-explanatory.
Hand in hand with open-mindedness, keeping a humble attitude will make you more receptive to learning new things from others. Particularly those who are farther along the road in their playing journey.
But again, all of these are completely useless unless you have the desire to learn, and put in the time.
I hope this has answered your question! If it didn’t, well, at least you didn’t get an answer like “one note at a time” or something of the sort. In any case, hopefully this has been insightful in other ways you weren’t expecting. Ultimately, there are no easy answers, or a magic trick, to the how to play drums conundrum (pun)!
If you’re keen on lessons get in touch and we’ll arrange a time! You can reach me by email, phone / SMS, or social media (links below):
An ancient Chinese proverb says “to know the road ahead, ask those coming back”. In your journey to becoming a better drummer, there’s no doubt that you’ll want to learn from
the best drummers around; those who are most experienced. So, how to pick a great teacher is an important part of the process. With this mind, I wanted to bring some food for thought to the table when searching for tuition.
It starts with establishing a difference between a great drummer who teaches and a great drum teacher. Is there really a difference? I believe there is, so we’ll explore these below.
Let’s start with the things both groups have in common.
To my eyes there are basic elements that can make a great drummer and a great drum teacher very similar. At the end of the day, both groups are knowledgeable drummers!
When it comes to the differences, I believe the devil is in the detail. Great drummers come in many shapes and sizes. Some focus on technical proficiency and speed, some on pocket and feel, and some are great at both. And whilst some may specialise in different styles, they all have in common a great sense of time, musical sensibility, and are active listeners. Yet, when it comes to teaching, their approach might be more geared towards a lecture on a particular topic.
In contrast, a great drum teacher is the drummer who is able to provide guidance, nurture and develop skill. The focus, therefore, turns away from his / her own abilities and towards the student’s. This translates to understanding where you stand as a player, identifying your goals and getting to know how your mind works to use to effectively communicate with you. This goes in tandem with spotting areas that need development and creating tailored solutions for these. In doing so, being patient and supportive, keeping fun in mind, yet always challenge to push you forward.
To sum up, I think it’s important to acknowledge that some drummers are better teachers than others. This doesn’t make anyone worse or better drummers or musicians than the other by any stretch of the imagination. Some like teaching, and are great at it, some don’t like teaching and therefore prefer not to. Conversely, it’s important to be aware that some may like teaching but may not have the aptitude, whilst some may not like teaching but be reluctantly be good at it!
The point of this article hasn’t been to box any one into two distinct categories. On the contrary, I hope that the paragraphs above have served as a guide for you, the student (and let’s face it, we’re all students), to help you in choosing your drum teacher.
Ultimately, you should explore different teachers, and find what works for you. Go to sites like www.drumteachers.co.uk, or its sister sites www.drumteachers.ca (Canada) or www.drumteachers.info (USA) to help you find the right teacher for you.
Since I started teaching drums as a full-time thing a few years ago, I started noticing that when learning or, more specifically, becoming a pupil in our adult life, students above 25y/o seem to behave a bit like children. Now, I don’t mean this in a negative way at all! In fact, I behave exactly the same way when I’ve gone to see a drum teacher. So, how can we use this to learn drums better?
What interests me about this observation is this perceived change in attitude; the shift in which we proceed to accept information from an ‘expert’ (i.e. someone who’s considerably ahead of us). We surrender our trust and our will to this person, placing ourselves in a vulnerable position, and perhaps making feel a bit like kids again.
Have you noticed this yourself perhaps as a teacher or as a student? My partner, who teaches English in an ESL school, reports this exact same behaviour of her students. Senior as they may be in age or job in their native countries, she says they behave like middle schoolers. Now, her stories revolve around immature behaviour, which isn’t the case in my experience; my focus here is a general approach to learning.
So with that in mind, how can we make the most of this (i.e. learn drums better), our rejuvenating child-like sense of learning and adventure? To me, it’s about approaching learning something new with an open mind and a disposition to change something about ourselves (i.e. learning a new skill or developing it further).
The great Dom Famularo, said it best. To him, the fountain of eternal youth was to constantly be on the cusp of learning something new. Therefore, following on from those very wise words, consciously and actively try to
Keep an open mind, but not just when going for a lesson; do so in picking up new information and perspectives. Even if you might not agree with it, it might enrich your knowledge
Take advantage, and try to impress your teacher. On one hand, learning is done for ourselves, yet it’s also motivating to hear encouraging words from your teacher
Work with a mate on things you’re struggling with
Base your learning around projects like songs you’d like to cover, for instance
Thank you for reading my blog, as usual. I hope you’ve found this useful or interesting in one way or another. I would love to know what you think; whether you like it, or think it’s rubbish!
Recently, a student of mine asked me how I learn music, and how I learn drums, just by listening. This got me thinking…
Contrary to popular belief, learning to play music by ear isn’t as complicated as you may think. In the following paragraphs I’ll outline a framework that will help you accurately decipher what you’re hearing and transpose it onto your instrument.
First things first though, what am I basing this framework on? Let’s suppose that your regular job is to learn drums to songs by ear. In order to do your job successfully, as with any other job, you need to go through a mental process of asking yourself a set of specific questions that will help lead you to the correct answer.
So, we need to establish what these questions are. Alongside these questions you’ll also need good timing, and of course patience, as you train and develop your ear.
Question #1: How good is my timing?
A very important aspect of learning by ear is developing your timing – being able to play in time (i.e. not faster or slower, and to the correct time signature) to the song. This means that you will need to pair each stroke to its corresponding drum component on cue.
If you are a beginner, developing your timing doesn’t necessarily start with you playing single strokes on a pad against a metronome – this can be dull, but highly addictive. Rather, try listening to music and clap or tap along to the pulse created by the bass drum. Most popular music is counted in 4/4 (i.e. four quarter notes per measure).
Question #2: What sounds am I hearing?
This question is just as important as Question #1 as you need to cement the groundwork for both before you go any further.
Being able to recognise what each component of the drum kit sounds like and being able to isolate them is crucial. This is for several reasons, including helping you determine
When are those sounds taking place? We want to be able to place the sounds we recognise along a timeline or map – much like we would programme a drum beat in MIDI
Whether it’s the drummer producing those sounds*, or if it’s an extra percussionist / DJ / or samples. For instance, if we know the shakers you’re hearing are being produced whilst you know your drummer is using all his limbs on other drums / cymbals, by process of elimination we can discard that as part of what we want to be playing
* It also helps to know who the drummer is, as someone like Terry Bozzio can trick the ear. Simply check out his Samba Ousado and you’ll know what I mean.
Question #3: When are these sounds happening?
Once you are able to recognise the sounds you are hearing, you then need to begin mapping them in your brain. As previously mentioned, think of this as programming a drum beat using MIDI, whereby you allocate sounds along a timeline. This will also enable you to comprehensibly assign each sound to the limb you will play it with.
To begin this process you need to start with a reference point, which can be very abstract. For instance, with the guitar you’d first need to recognise a note within a song, and then determine whether the subsequent note is higher or lower in pitch, and so on.
When you learn drums by ear, the reference point I’d like to demonstrate, given it applies to most popular music, is a basic rock beat (i.e. snare on beats 2 & 4, bass on beats 1 & 3 with eighth notes on the hi-hats).
Being able to count will help you with this. Particularly being able to break 1 2 3 4 down into smaller subdivisions like 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + or 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a, and so on.
Once we determine our reference point we’re then able to match it, or in other words, place it directly on top of the beat we’re trying to figure out, making sure that we’re superimposing it at the correct time.
Question #4: What’s happening within the groove or fill that makes it sound like it does?
Once our reference point has been established correctly within our mental timeline, we can then start thinking about what makes the groove different from our reference groove.
Can we recognise extra snare or bass drums happening?
What’s happening with the hi-hats? Can we hear extra hi-hats being played as sixteenth or 32nd notes?
What cymbals are being played, and what drums are happening at the same time?
If so, where do all of these fall within the ‘timeline’ / count?
When talking about a fill (assuming we’re still counting 1 2 3 4) how many additional sounds/strokes are occurring in between each beat? Is there a Tom-Tom? If so, how many?
Following the above framework will hopefully provide you with a good basis for figuring drum parts out by ear. I’ve tried not to go into excruciating detail, or use too much musical language, in order to keep things at the common denominator – plain English.
What is interesting to me, however, is that not everyone is able to accurately figure music out by ear. This implies there is a certain element of hearing what you want to hear vs. what is actually happening. We need to be as objective as possible throughout the process.
Yet does playing what you hear as opposed to playing what is ‘actually’ being played matter? If not, then once we’ve built our interpretation, we could proceed to refine our results. There are tools online which can help us with this, i.e. tablature, YouTube and its covers, software to slow down a song without losing pitch, etc. The trick, once again, is to remain objective and keep an open mind to other interpretations, as this will further help you hone and tune your ears.
Here are a few tips to further help you in the process.
It’s a lot easier to recognise what’s happening when what you’re hearing is congruent to how you play it. If you’re hearing the hi-hats on your right speaker (or headphone), chances are you’re hearing what it sounds like to be looking at the drummer from an audiences perspective (i.e. Tom-toms will also start highest to Floor Toms from right to left). Ergo, why not try switching your headphones around so that you’re hearing and visualising the kit from the drummer’s seat?
Subdivision of beats
The more you are able to subdivide your 1 2 3 4 count in your head the more freedom you’ll have placing hits in relation to others, no matter what time signature. You want the subdivisions to be endless, giving you a certain fluidity to drop a stroke anywhere you want along your timeline.
Originally published by Drummer Magazine in Issue 131, August 2014
This article aims to show you how to use yoga principles to be a better drummer helping you
Gain awareness of your body and muscles in the context of developing technique
Improve technique by changing your approach to practice
Gain freedom and spiritual peace when practicing technique through focusing on your body
One of my drum students is a Yoga instructor and recently, during a drum lesson focusing on relaxing the wrists, hands and understanding rebound, she mentioned something that really caught my attention.
Whilst going through some hand exercises, she seemed almost hypnotised as she performed each stroke trying to generate rebound. I remarked on her focus, which she replied had to do with meditation. She pointed out that she’s able to stand barefoot on the floor and feel the ground beneath her feet for hours to be aware of herself; a technique borrowed from her training in Yoga.
This got me thinking that part of learning good technique, essential to becoming a better drummer, effectively coincides with being aware of our body. More specifically, our muscles, movements, and truly feeling these experiences. In other words, being able to understand, isolate, visualise and feel muscles and movements in order to ‘work’ them to their full potential.
The goal, therefore and as with Yoga, is to achieve physical and mental liberation; to remove our limitations. In the context of learning technique, this is to freely express what creatively comes to our mind and into the instrument in real time, without our bodies “saying no” to what our heart and mind sing.
What’s with all this hippie mumbo jumbo?
Let’s get started by going back to basics; re-examining what we take for granted. So, let’s look at defining percussion.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, percussion is a “musical instrument played by striking with the hand, a stick or beater, or by shaking”. It includes drums, cymbals, xylophones, gongs, etc.
So when it comes to the drum kit, it’s our body using external tools, i.e. drum sticks, drum pedals, in order to produce the desired sound. Shouldn’t we, therefore, become intimately acquainted with such tools to get best results?
Certainly! Here are a series of questions that may, or may have not, already crossed your mind.
How do the sticks feel in our hands (their weight, thickness, surface, material and vibration)?
How do the sticks rebound on different surfaces, and how that feels to our hands?
What’s happening with our fulcrum, and auxiliary fingers (or the cradle, as I like to call them)?
Explore your relationship relative to these tools. Consciously examine how they feel, how you use them. How they currently react and function, how they should, or perhaps how you want them react and function; what are the physics, and mechanics taking place?
Think of oneness with the instrument as the goal of this exercise. To work as one with it, in harmony.
Yoga and mediation
Yoga aspires to instil oneness / harmony, which leads to liberation; to be completely free. Adyashanti, an American-born spiritual teacher, describes this liberation as “emptiness dancing”, or perhaps in our case, “emptiness drumming”.
To achieve harmony, we’ll need to consider the following Yoga concepts, as identified by, London-based Yoga teacher, Charlotte Carnegie on her book The Incomplete Guide To Yoga:
The ground and how it feels beneath you (i.e. sitting on the stool, your feet on the pedals). Drop and relax into it.
Softness is strength, not a weakness. Let go and soften your body as much as you can, asking yourself how much can you let go.
Laughter, joy, curiosity, and wonder. The experience of learning new things should be joyful.
Listen intently, and do so with your whole body. Be aware of sounds, vibrations, and your surrounding.
Feel. Open and free your chest and ribcage to focus on the physical sensation of playing.
Connect your pieces together to achieve fluidity; your body parts working as one.
Flow. Relax through your hips, pelvis, chest and shoulder girdle.
Create space in your mind, body, and time. For instance, attend to the spaces between the notes when refining your timing. Or the space between the drum head and tool (stick, pedal beater) when refining dynamics.
As previously mentioned, removing limitations from our body opens doors to freedom. By utilising all of our senses in the development process, we will achieve a more rounded experience of our bodies and tools we’re working with to achieve our goals.
For instance, when explaining the principles of rebound and stick control, I refer to the basics. How our grip should, by definition, flow freely with our sticks’ movement, without intruding on it’s natural trajectory and force. This means a relaxed fulcrum, and fluid cradle.
For this to happen, our body needs to be soft, and aware that our movements are interconnected (i.e. arm, wrist, fingers). These fingers must become accustomed to feeling how the stick moves, adjust to the movement and provide the necessary space required. The trick is in visualising and isolating each finger to let the stick flow in order for rebound to occur as freely as possible.
An example of this would be that this feeling can help us evaluate when a double stroke or controlled rebounds are required.
The same principles applies to our feet, with both the bass drum and hi hat pedals. We want to drop into the ground and feel the surface underneath our feet, and how these surfaces react to our movements. The more intimate the relationship with the tool, the more limitations we can overcome.
Taking the heel-toe technique as an example, it’s important to understand that the initial stroke of the two doesn’t come directly from the heel, but from the sole of the foot. This happens as we drop, not push, our foot onto the pedal which suggests the motion is a relaxed one. This also applies to our toes, which should remain on the pedal board the whole time, providing a constant connection and conduit to feel.
OK, that’s cool, but where do we start with all this?
Yoga can be based around the basic surya namaskar (sun salutation) vinyasa (sequence). Different positions can then be added to this vinyasa once mastered – like building blocks. We should apply the same principle to technique, adding the points addressed above into our development process and awareness through practice.
Let’s revisit basics such as our grip, single strokes, etc. Yet, this time, focusing specifically on the muscles and muscle groups involved, and how our choice of tool interacts with our anatomy and application of it.
So! Everything we’ve talked about has several threads in common, yet repetition is the one I’d like to finish with. As boring as it may sometimes seem, repetition is necessary to be better drummer. However it needn’t be a drag if we can also achieve freedom and spiritual peace as we practice by focusing on our movements and truly feeling our instrument.
Learning should be a joyful experience – gaining and improving our skills can only benefit us, which should make us happy! Give yourself to your practice; be at one with the process to achieve better results. This will, in turn, bring you inner peace, which you can then be applied not only to your playing, but to every day life as well.
Originally published by Modern Drummer, October 2015.