Playing in a band scores any member bonus points in a social setting, but there’s something about being a drummer in particular that’s irrefutably cool. Rhythms created by drummers play a crucial part in setting the mood of a song or musical piece. It’s no surprise, then, that percussion is a category of instruments present in almost every music genre. Drums create rhythm, which counts time, thereby providing a frame of reference for the other musicians in the band or orchestra.
Before we dive in, it helps to be familiar with the following drumming terms:
Rhythm → The methodical arrangement of musical sounds.
Tone → Percussion or drum tone is determined by duration (how long it lasts), pitch (how high or low sounding it is), and intensity (how loud it is).
Beat → The beat is the functional unit of time in music, and the part of a song that listeners tap their feet to.
Pulse → Like a heartbeat, the pulse refers to a repeating sequence of distinct, identical beats.
Accents → Beats that are played louder than normal, to the regular beat more interesting or complement the other instruments in a band.
Fills → Extra notes (usually improvised) that round out sections of a song of musical piece where nothing else going on.
Anatomy of a Drum
The image above depicts the “anatomy” of a single drum. The top head, or batter head, is the point of contact for your drumsticks, and consists of circular material stretched across a shell. The tension (i.e. tightness) of the material stretched across the drum varies depending on the type of drum, as it affects the sound made when the drum is struck.
The hoop is composed of either wood or metal and includes a rim, or lip that holds the top head in place and preserves the drum’s tension. The tension rods, which also help to maintain tension, are metal rods (similar to a bolt or screw) that are inserted into the lugs.
The lugs vary widely in shape and size, and function in holding the tension rods in place. The shell, the largest part of the drum, is a casing made out of wood, fiberglass, or acrylic that has a significant influence on the drum’s tone. The vent is a small opening that releases air pressure when the top head is struck. The bottom head is typically thinner than the top head, and also has an effect on tone. The bottom hoop holds the bottom head in place.
Types of Drums
Now that we understand the basic anatomy of a drum, we can begin to distinguish different types of drums according to variations in this anatomy and the sounds they produce.
Ride Cymbal: In contrast with the deep thudding produced by drums, cymbals create metallic-sounding, “soprano” (higher) tones. The ride cymbal is a medium weight cymbal that functioning in defining the rhythmic parameters of a song (in addition to the kick and snare).
Floor Tom: Tom-toms, or tom drums, are snare-free, cylindrical drums that are traditionally struck with a drumstick. The floor tom is a double-headed drum that stands on the floor on three legs. Floor toms are the largest in diameter and therefore the lowest sounding of the tom drums.
Bass Drum: The bass drum is the largest, lowest sounding drum, or the “heartbeat” of your rhythm. Instead of using drumsticks to strike the top head, drummers use a foot pedal to operate the bass drum.
Snare Drum: The snare is considered among the most important drums in a kit. In addition to the components labeled in the drum anatomy diagram above, snare drums also have a set of wires stretched across the bottom head (“snare wires”). The addition of these wires produces a unique cracking sound when the drum is struck.
Hi Hat: The hi hat is a set of two cymbals stacked on top of each other, also operated using a foot pedal. This pedal allows the drummer to open and close the cymbals to create sound. Hi hats can also be locked in a closed position using a device known as a high hat clutch.
Crash Cymbal: The crash cymbal produces a sharp, distinct sound, and can be used either as an accent or to carry the beat.
Mid Tom: Similar to the low tom, mid toms are struck using drumsticks; however, they are slightly smaller in diameter, producing a higher sounding tone.
Hi Tom: Like their larger, lower counterparts, high toms are also struck with drumsticks. They are the smallest and highest positioned of the tom drums.
The type of music you’re playing should heavily influence your choice of drumstick. Drumsticks are usually named with a number and letter to reflect their thickness and use. The higher the number, the thinner the stick; thinner sticks are typically used in jazz, while thicker ones are better suited to rock and metal.
Stick labels usually also have the letters S, B, or A as suffixes. S stands for “street”, and means these sticks work best for drum corps or marching bands. B stands for “band”, which is a slightly misleading, since these sticks are recommended for symphonic orchestras. A stands for “orchestra” (this is also a bit confusing—this is simply the tradition), and it is in fact these sticks that are most commonly used by rock drummers, big bands, and dance orchestras.
The shape of the stick’s tip also affects the sound produced. The different kinds of tips and corresponding sounds produced are summarized in the diagram below:
There are two categories of drumstick grips: traditional and matched. Traditional grip is most commonly used in marching bands or drum corps. You’ll notice from the diagram below that with traditional grip, each hand is arranged in a different position, while in matched grip, both hands are positioned in an identical manner.
In traditional grip, one of the palms points downward, and the other points up. The non-dominant hand uses underhand grip, in which the stick rests in between the thumb and index finger, while the top of the stick is supported by the middle and ring fingers. The thumb is primary used to propel the stick. Unlike the non-dominant hand, the dominant hand is held at a 45-degree angle, and both the fingers and the wrist are used to move the stick. In this case, the stick rests between the thumb and index finger.
In matched grip, both hands are arranged similar to the dominant hand in traditional grip: the palm faces downward as the thumb rests on top of the stick, and the index and middle fingers grip underneath.
One of the most important aspects of playing the drums is establishing proper technique. The tips below will help to ensure your technique is on point:
1. Hold the sticks loosely; this creates bounce when stick comes into contact with the drum surface, and will allow you to drum more quickly and accurately.
2. The drum stool should be centered in drum set; invest in a proper drum stool that allows you to swivel slightly so that you’re able to reach comfortably.
3. Count out loud when learning new beats (e.g. 1-2-3-4); this way, you will know which drums are being hit on each beat. This will also ensure you play in time— a drummer’s primary responsibility.
Common Drum Rudiments
Rudiments are combinations of drum strokes that all drum beats and fills are based on.
We’ve listed some common rudiments for you below:
Single Stroke Roll
The single stroke roll is the most common drum rudiment used on the drum set. It is composed of simple, alternating left and right strokes (right-left-right-left, etc.). The single stroke roll is demonstrated in the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=50&v=kzp4O6WKcP4
Single Stroke Four
The single stroke four rudiment is based on the single stroke roll, with the same right-left stroke patter. The difference is that this time, the single strokes are played in groups of 4. The single stroke four rudiment and possible variations (i.e. snare, beat and fill) are demonstrated in the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRS5--zTn0c
Double Stroke Roll
The double stroke roll is very popular among drummers, and serves as the basis for other significant drum rudiments. This time, the stroke pattern is right-right-left-left. The following video provides several examples of possible variations on the double stroke roll: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=58&v=W_979HkE4EI.
Now that you are familiar with the drum kit, stick grips, and basic technique, you can build upon these basic rudiments to develop your own unique beats and fills.