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Drum Hum

Article from Making Music, January 1987

Geoff Nicholls puts his two hands together, his head in between and thinks co-ordination.

If you thought co-ordination was two people using the same map, think again. Geoff Nicholls brings together the drummer's head, hands and feet.

If you were the Queen Mum being introduced to Zodiac Mindwarp's drummer after the Royal Command performance, you might try, "I could never play the drums, I'd never be able to get my hands and feet doing different things at the same time." A standard semi-flattering observation drummers get when people can't think what to say.

The same person who says this can usually ride a bike or drive a car, skills which require four-limb co-ordination as does drumming. However, they're quite right in pinpointing the major obstacle to kit drumming. You could say there are two areas of co-ordination we have to face: the natural bias towards leading with the right (or for some the left); and the use and integration of the hands with the feet.

Drummers, perhaps more than any other instrumentalists, strive for ambidexterity for the simple reason that when they play a single stroke roll the aim is for each hand (or foot) to be the exact mirror of the other. But of course it's natural for one side to be stronger than the other and this imbalance is compounded by the fact that most kit rhythms are led and dominated by the right.

To overcome this disability all the rudiments are practised in alternating left-lead, right-lead fashion. And in recent years the application of left-lead to kit rhythms has become more and more common. This is largely due to the example of Billy Cobham in the early 1970s who would lead with his right or left with seeming ease. Many of the great drummers seem in fact to be naturally left-handed (or ambidextrous?). If you are left-handed, think of it as an advantage. Your right's going to be pretty good anyway, whereas most of us who are right-handed have useless left hands!

Not so long ago Simon Phillips (The Tube, with Pete Townshend) played a fast shuffle, effortlessly swapping the lead from the right hand on ride cymbal to left hand on the hi-hat. This is a great exercise to get the left hand working.

The good thing about playing hi-hat with the left hand is not having to cross the hands over. The next step of course is to have a ride cymbal on the left (Cobham again). And recently the next logical step has appeared: a second hi-hat on the right of the kit. You'll have noticed Mark Brzezicki has this on his kit set-up detailed last month. The guy who pioneered this system, Gary Chester, has written a great book ('The New Breed', Modern Drummer Publications) which will turn you into an ambidextrous wonder if you're willing to slog through it — my New Year's resolution! In the meantime, try setting up left-handed/footed and play along to all your records for a week or two.

Ambidexterity has of course to be combined with co-ordination. I quoted Dave Mattacks last year who suggested it's a lot harder than you think to play fours on the bass drum and to get the two and four on the snare to coincide exactly with the bass drum two and four. Try taping yourself and listening very closely. Combine this with ambidexterity and you'll see what we're up against. I'm indebted to Croydon (is this a group? Ed.) drummer Hans Ferrau for the following neat illustration. Play single strokes with the feet coinciding exactly with the hands:

hands: R L R R L R L L
feet: R L R L R L R L etc

Not bad? Now reverse it.

hands: R L R L R L R L
feet: R L R R L R L L

Not so easy, eh? Part of the problem I suppose is that the feet are simply not so used to coping with different notation as are the hands. So while you're changing your kit around to play left-handed, go the whole way and try playing everything you do with your hands with your feet. Well, we might as well start the New Year with a bit of a challenge!

What was

hands: R R R R R R R R
feet: R R R R


hands: R R R R
feet: R R R R R R R R

Now reverse it. Lead with the left. No so daft as it seems. It shows just how habitual our drumming co-ordinations become; and you'll undoubtedly get ideas for different rhythms. If you know any rudiments, try them with your feet, or feet and hands combined. Drummers with good feet often tell me they use books like G L Stone's 'Stick Control' (publ. G B Stone) for developing the hands and the feet.

Returning to the Dave Mattacks problem for one last angle: we spend so much time trying to get our hands and feet to play apart (fast rolls, etc), we hardly spend any time trying to play them together. I don't know about you but I find it much harder to play with both hands together in sixteenths than thirty seconds alternating, at the same tempo, ie:

1/16ths R R R R R R R R
L L L L L L L L etc
1/32nds R R R R R R R R
L L L L L L L L etc

Again the left hand is the culprit. And thinking back to last month's 'handrail' idea of leading with the right and 'carrying' the left, there's the problem. In this situation I find if I concentrate on the left, the right will take care of itself. Isn't there always an equal and opposite situation?

But before we get too philosophical we'll leave it there.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jan 1987

Feature by Geoff Nicholls

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