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):
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.