What is drum technique, by Allen Herman

What is drum technique? Simply enough… it’s how we do things. How we make a sound, how we hit the head, how we hold the sticks, the way we play things out on the different drums, cymbals, woodblocks, cowbells, triangles, bells, whistles, shells, rims; what have you. The way we use the flesh of our hands to muffle, or not, and let ring.

It’s how we do what we do, and everyone does it differently.

Everyone sounds unique to themselves, they sound like ‘them’. Some are more distinct than others, but all different and unique. To some extent it is the instrument choice and tuning, but mostly, it’s how we do it. It’s our Technique.

Therefore, all techniques are good, as long as they create a musical sound. How closely that sound resembles what the creator meant it to be is another discussion.

And some of the things that a lot of good drummers do as part of their technique are the same.

We should all be learning from each other about how to do things. It allows the teachers to learn from their students, and the performer to learn from their audience.

We are all natural at some things and not at others, and we try stuff out that we see other drummers doing. Sometimes its works for us, sometimes it doesn’t. It sort of develops into a belief system over time. “I can’t tell you why, but this is what works for me”.

But some of the things that a lot of good drummers do as part of their technique are the same.

I am a science kind of guy and I like to break things down logically. So, what is it that a lot of good drummers do as part of their technique that is the same?

Well for one, it sounds good when they hit the drum. They all sound good. No matter what it is they are playing, their technique is producing a musical sound. I may not like what they are playing, but the sound they are producing is a good one.

What is it that they are doing to get a good sound when they strike something?

Scientifically, sound is created by vibrations passing through the air. So the fullest potential of a sound is to travel through the air with all of its frequencies intact, left to freely vibrate at their fullest ranges/frequencies/amplitudes.

Simple enough, but think about it…

The perfect sound is created by complete non-intervention by human beings.

As soon as you touch the stick, you are emasculating a series of vibrations. As soon as the stick hits the head, it is suppressing a myriad of batter undulations. My equivalent for this in science is the fact that the way you test something has a lot to do with the results that you get. Human intervention alters the testing process and the end result as well.  This principal applies to drumming too as humans interfere with the motion of sticks as they hit the drum.

So the optimal sound you could make on a snare drum would be to throw a small wooden ball the size of the tip of drumstick at the drum from some distance and have it strike the head and immediately bounce off? The energy of the strike would excite and cause to vibrate both the wooden ball and the drum head with minimum interference to each other.

The energy of the strike would be equal to the mass behind the object striking the head times the speed of that object squared. E = MC2 , literally, if you substitute the speed of light variable with the speed of the object you are hurling. I love science.

And of course, the speed and distance the object rebounds is equal to the energy of the impact, minus the force of gravity and loss of any energy that was converted to vibrations, which we perceive as sound waves. After all, we are not in a vacuum.


From Einstein to Newton…


Throwing tiny wooden balls at the drum may be good science for producing an excellent sound, but it is not very good drum technique however. I may produce a perfect sound that way, but I have very little control over how I can use it while playing the drums. And I am going to have to obtain a really large amount of little wooden balls.

The probability of losing control, or missing a catch, or dropping a ball, especially at any kind of a tempo, is as close to perfect as the sound it would produce if it succeeded.

A drummers’ solution to this problem is to put a leash on that ball. A stiff one. And many hold on for dear life. (If they could only put a training collar on it so they could teach it do what they want it to do.)

Of course, this is done at the sufferance of good sound. The obvious solution then would be to let loose the “grip”. But then there is the problem of the stick and the hand departing ways in mid-flight between its rest position and strike position.

Maybe that is because we are still thinking in terms of throwing the ball and catching it.


Maybe it’s more like basket ball: Dribbling.

When a basketball player dribbles the ball, his hand is trying to stay with the ball. His hand is following the ball. Legally he cannot put the ball down, but as long as the ball is in the air he can touch it; so he keeps his hand as close a possible, in case he misjudged something and has to make a correction or defend against someone trying to steal the ball.

He needs to maintain control over the ball, but let it go from time to time as it strikes the floor.

There are 2 different applications of the dribble technique.

One for traveling, where the ball is thrown fast, the tempo of the bounce is slow and high, and the ball is off the floor for long periods of time. The arm is used to raise and lower the hand to keep it within the balls height so it can flick the wrist and press the arm down hard at the top of the arc sending the ball down again to continue to the next dribble. Power is being generated here.

The other is defensive, keeping the ball low, bouncing fast, with not much time for the ball to be out of hand or on the floor, for maximum control. No arms. Just flicking. Speed is being generated here.

Same energy, different jobs.

All this is very good, but the ball still does get stolen at times, and every once in a while a player loses control of the ball all by himself.

The drummer’s stiff leash closes the control gap here. The neck of the stick is attached to the ball and never lets go. However, we are holding on for dear life, remember?

So there is a compromise here. We don’t grip the sticks.

That’s right, I said we don’t grip the sticks. We hold them, gently. And by the way, when we are holding the sticks, we are not making any sounds! We are waiting for the right moment when we want to make a sound, then we throw the stick.

So if I am not gripping, or even holding the stick, how do I not lose it?

I follow it. I have to anticipate where it wants to go and follow it, while gently staying in touch with it, just in case I want to make a course correction.

You see, unlike a basketball player, we can touch the ball when it hits the floor. We have no such silly rule. But then we have to get out of the way so as not to create any resistance for the bounce, for 3 reasons:

1. We don’t want to stop the stick from vibrating

2. We don’t want to press the stick into the head and stop it from vibrating.

3. We want to use the energy released into the rebound to re-elevate the stick which prepares us for the next stroke immediately.

Think about that number 3 one for a moment.

The first time I initiate a sound, I use my own energy to start the stick on its downward path. I use no energy to get it back up, it returns as fast as I threw it down, (minus the force of gravity and the transference of energy into sound), as to be immediately ready for the next stroke, and I am twice as rested as I would normally be for the next stroke.

Ergonomically, I should be able to play faster and longer with no added speed requirements from my nervous system, or muscular development in my hands. And with a better sound!

If I want to stop making sounds, we “catch” the stick at the top of the rebound arc. When I say catch, I don’t mean like a ball. I mean latch your wrist and prevent gravity from starting another stroke.

My hands stay in contact with the stick and the stick stays in contact with the ball, so then I have to learn how to hold onto the stick without choking it or letting it go while giving it no resistance on the rebound, allowing it to follow its own natural path and vibrate freely.

I call this touch.

I don’t grip the sticks, I don’t hold the sticks, (while playing). I touch the sticks.

And then at some point I should feel the stick as part of my hand and I can feel the tip of the stick like the tip of my fingers, and then I can “touch” the drums directly.

So now we have 2 things that a lot of good drummers do the same. They have a good sound and they have control. I’d say that would be a really good start.