After attending the annual Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC), I always feel exhilarated. There are some magnificent drummers who, in the past or at present, bring something notable (pun intended) into our rhythmic universe.
Without fail, I’m surprised not only by the ubiquity of unique techniques employed by these great drumset musicians, but also by the multitude of hand positions and grips they incorporate to get around their personal setups. Beyond just referencing conventional grip, matched grip, German grip, and French grip, there are many different approaches to each.
While there are a couple of principles fundamental to every known grip and hand technique, holding the stick loosely when playing remains a necessary constant in my opinion. The fulcrum is the physical mechanism that provides a pivot-point for the stick, and being “loose” increases the mechanism’s efficiency. Fingers, wrists, elbow, and shoulders all provide a complex system that enables us to strike the instrument with an articulated amount of force, speed, and duration to create rhythmic diversity.
There is a plethora of ways to hit a drum, especially the snare drum, in most popular music styles. Elvin Jones called the snare "The Frying Pan," referencing the snare’s central role in cooking up, in his case, some very progressive jazz. Sometimes I see rockers and country stickmen hit full on in the middle; the cross-stick method used by a local friend, Mike Bernal, is sort of like a horse hoof hitting cobblestones. A cross-stick shot, or a butt-end rim shot, build even more textures that drummers bring forth. Personally, my favorite way to cut through is a "ping pop" rim shot, although recently referenced by a great country drum artist who said, this rim-shot, was thin and it sounded like a timbale.” I suppose that's why work, for me has been a little short and, well, thin...
Adding to the "chess game" of possibilities for an acoustic drum kit, these techniques, along with a host of other striking techniques, make my head spin. Playing into the drum, getting a great rebound off the drum, ghosting, accenting, and pulling the sound out of the drum are all elements that dictate atmosphere. These choices are way past raising hell on a Saturdaynight at your favorite honky-tonk; they are too numerous to catalog.
In 2000, PASIC was in Dallas and ten aspiring drum students represented my drum studio. While watching Bill Stewart in a performance at that convention, I was mortified by the thought that one of my students might begin using Stewart's morphed version (or per-version?) of the matched grip. Stewart was playing with his hands mostly upside down, palms facing toward the ceiling. This was the direct opposite of the position my first teacher “suggested” I use as he would pop the top of my hand with his stick just hard enough to make it sting authoritatively, deciding that my hand positions weren't speaking "The King's English.” Now, that was “teaching method” and “learning” when I was coming up. Almost without exception, when I re-tell the story to new students, they have a different take on it: they call it physical abuse. These young one's today, they just don't understand those “old school” teaching techniques. I am happy to say, however, that I DO NOT beat my students. Perhaps drum instruction has evolved?
Some years ago I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with "The Great" Jim Chapin. Jim was describing his concept of a matched grip. His theory was to never bring the wrists higher than the point at which you could see your palms: this approach handed down directly from Jim, a master of masters. Given the preceding information, dear reader, it is understandable that I watched Bill Stewart with fear and hesitation at PASIC in 2000. I came to realize that I was, however, witnessing the extension of a creative process: a revolution resulting in the exact opposite “gripping” idea proffered by my teacher, and my teacher’s teacher!
At PASIC in 2000, I gave a copy of the first book I’d written and published, Exotic Coordination, to Jim Chapin. He was very kind and took the time to read my work. A few weeks later I got a call around midnight: it was about 11:00pm his time in New York City. I believe Jim was 80 something years old at the time of that telephone call. While talking on the phone, he also had a practice pad in his lap. Jim would stop the conversation periodically, letting me listen while he tapped something out on the pad; then, we would discuss the technique or concept. Towards the end of our talk in the early morning hours, Jim said, “I won’t sue you!” He went on to say that he loved what I had written and enjoyed how I referenced some ideas from his bookAdvanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer.
Jim went on to discuss Virgil Donati, who was doing a lot of drum clinics at that time. Although Donati plays in the prog-rock idiom, he uses traditional grip. At the time, it was hard for me to find anything wrong with Donati. Jim told me Donati’s weakest link in the chain was that he used a traditional grip, and that at some point this grip would have an adverse effect on playing that style of music. I remember listening in awe; the idea that anyone could reach such a level, as to be comfortable in objectively critiquing Virgil Donati, left me transfixed on his comments. Jim was absolutely correct: it makes little to no sense at all to play traditional grip in a world of "slamm'n.”
A student of mine went on vacation to New York City and saw Ari Hoenig, another of my favorite young drummers. My student reported immediately on how much I was going to be appalled by Ari’s grip and technique. When I watched Ari play for the first time it brought tears to my eyes; not so much because it was so fantastic (though it was), but because Hoenig was playing songs on the drums and I thought there wasn’t enough time left for me to be able to learn his approach. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Ari play drums, and his signature drum song “Moanin”, please proceed directly to YouTube. I guess I was so overwhelmed with what Ari played, that I didn't pay any attention to his technique; hell, it just sounded freakin’ awesome.
Some drummers play into the drum like drum-line drummers, using just the wrist and very slight rebounds. Then there are drumset musicians, who pull sounds out of each instrument as though they were surgeons extracting body parts from a human being. Some drummers sit in an old school position like Buddy Rich, yet sound totally modern and play as hard as John Bonham. Many sit like Saturday night’s seasoned but drunken barroom musician, and carve-out Mike Portnoy drum nuance with precision. Technique is what it takes to get the job done, and get the job done in perfect order. It's what it takes to make it happen with a particular group of musicians, at a particular gig, on a particular evening. Drumset musicians exercise their collection of musical responses as they have learned to execute them, selecting the ones that work specifically in varied musical situations. There just isn’t one technique that works all the time.
Terry Bozzio has said that, when practicing, he always tries to use the foundation technique as he was taught; but, when executing ideas on his massive drum set up, he may on occasion find his hand playing in an upside down position to get to the instrument he is reaching for in real time. Watching him closely, Bozzio is also executing the proper dynamic on whatever instrument he is hitting, and in some instances playing it downside up. So, an edict is struck that states: “When performing in real time, the music (or in Bozzio's case, the musical drum solo) supersedes the ‘responsibility of technique’.” In other words, get the job done as best you can with the information you've acquired. That is the gig.
Consequently, after teaching for more than 30 years, I’ve come to realize that there isn’t necessarily "good technique.” There are, in fact, many techniques we must utilize to get the job done in the most efficient way at any given moment in time.
I often have heard harsh criticism of Keith Moon's performances, especially on the "Tommy" Album. First of all, he was usually drunk at 8:00AM in the morning, and most importantly he played the drums very differently than any other drummer before or since. What I've heard often, and usually from “highly educated” drumming professionals is that he didn’t play it “in time.” Accordingly, does “in time” always mean "on the click track?” What about nuanced "Ebb and flow?" Or does it mean, "I'm a sophisticated stuffed shirt that's always criticizing my peers?” I presume this “knowledgeable” drummer is walking around with a stick- but instead of it being used on his drum kit, the stick is permanently lodged where the sun doesn't shine.
Austin's Chris “Whipper” Layton got his nickname from using his own version of the Moeller technique. When you watch Chris perform, it looks as though he’s using a bullwhip when he strikes the instrument. The result, and it goes without saying, is nothing less than magnificent.
Gordy Knudtson, who plays with The Steve Miller band, uses a technique he calls "The Open and Closed Technique". Gordy is squeezing his fingers and utilizing the up and down strokes in a very short distance off the drum; it works a lot like Johnny Rabb's freehand technique but in a shorter space. When using Knudtson’s technique, the drummer is rolling the stick, up and down the fingers to angle the strike and rebound in a very controlled space. This results in the stick seemingly playing itself. It does marvelous things for fast flams, singles, and doubles.
The Johnny Rabb freehand technique is a lot like Johnny in that it is hilarious for drummers who haven't looked at it up close and personal. Some drummers can play drum cadences with a single hand. Years ago I learned how to do this, and was screwing around with it, while tuning my snare at a soundcheck. I was not really trying to show boat; there weren't very many people in the place. Okay, full disclosure; maybe I was show boating a little… Anyway, there was an old drummer watching. He came up and said he would like to take a lesson, and that it would be worth the price of admission if I could just teach him Jonny’s freehand technique... Though this might be a cheesy way to recruit drum students, these days you've got to get the tip jar out in the audience as often as possible. Here’s to making the gig your own! Here’s to getting a grip!
(Contributing Editor: Tyler M Gill)