Playing the drums is a very physical activity which requires time and patience. It can take many years to reach an intermediate level on the instrument and this is with regular practice.
There are many aspects to drumming, from timing to technique, and they all help produce a rounded playing style.
In this article we will discuss some of the most important exercises which will help you as a drummer reach your goals. We will break down the instrument and talk in terms of how you can improve both physically and musically to be a better drummer. Read on.
Your Drum Setup
Before we get into the exercises it worth establishing that you have the right setup on which to perform.
How your drum kit is set up will affect how you can play the instrument. Are you using an acoustic set or prefer an electronic drum set?
Your drumsticks are a big factor. It may sound obvious but a lighter stick can in most cases allow for faster playing. Naturally lighter sticks are more suited to lower volume music. They may be prone to breakage if you prefer to play loud and hard on the drums.
Playing with a stick that is too light or too heavy can lead to injury. For this reason you should always pick a stick that matches you physically. The stick should act as an extension of your arm so choose one which feels comfortable to play with.
Playing hard and heavy with light sticks can not only lead to stick breakage but it can mean that your tendons are absorbing the vibration of each stroke. Throughout the stick exercises below always play relaxed and never pinch or grip the stick too tightly.
Your drum setup is important, especially when it comes to throne height and head tension. It can be easier to produce double strokes on highly tensioned drum heads. Higher tensioned drum heads mean a higher pitch from the drum itself, which may not be to your musical taste.
Drum throne height is important as it can facilitate foot technique. Higher drum throne height naturally takes the weight off the upper leg. Sitting on a low throne means you can use the full weight of the leg to push through the pedals with.
This can be a personal preference but make sure to find a setup which allows you to keep a nice straight and relaxed posture. We will discuss foot technique later in the article.
Most drum lessons start with basic stick control exercises. One of the most basic stick control exercises is the single stroke roll, which forms the basis of a large chunk of drumming.
This is one of the most popular drum exercises for beginners.
The important thing to focus on with all exercises is consistency. This refers to the consistency of dynamics, stick height, stick movement and sound.
With a simple single stroke roll, your right hand should match your left – there are no accents required here. Stick height is the key to controlling dynamics on the drums. Simply put – the lower the stick tip height, the lower the volume. Similarly, the higher the stick tip height, the higher the volume.
Pay attention to stick height and aim to hit the center of the drum in the exact place each time. To begin with, take a look at the official 40 drum rudiments as posted on Vic Firth’s website.
Don’t worry about learning all 40 rudiments right away. There are plenty of important snare patterns such as the paradiddle and the double stroke roll which will take precedence. Start at the beginning with #1 and observe how they are notated. We’ll get onto more advanced rudiments later.
One of the most useful rudiments for building hand speed and power is the flam.
The concept behind the flam is similar to a grace note as on pitched instruments such as the piano. A regular flam consists of two strokes – one regular stroke and one grace note. Importantly, the grace note precedes the regular stroke, so it is to be played just before the regular stroke.
Flams sound thicker than a regular single stroke as they actually are made up of two strokes played very close together. A popular drum drill is to play consecutive flams with the hands but alternate the sticking of every second flam.
Take a look at the Flam Tap. This is a popular snare drum exercise and is demonstrated here:
This is a great rudiment for improving control and power and also sounds cool to play.
When it comes to playing flams, use stick height as a guide. Keep the stick low for the grace notes and higher for the regular strokes.
Once you have gotten to grips with the Flam Tap, you can move onto the Flam Accent.
When it comes to foot technique, and specifically for playing the bass drum, there is no end of information out there. The only problem is that there are so many different techniques for this area of drumming and that can be confusing. One thing is for certain, whatever technique you decide to play, you will need to get those leg muscles working in tandem.
We can break down bass drum technique into two main areas – heel up and heel down.
Heel up is usually played by keeping the toes on the bass pedal while raising the heel of the foot upwards, then producing a slight bounce to create a stroke with the pedal.
Heel down is much simpler. You simply place your foot on the pedal board and use a tapping motion by raising and lowering the front of the foot.
Of the two approaches, heel down is easier to get to grips with but loses out when it comes to power. Heel down is good for loud playing but takes more physical strength.
In reality, it pays to learn both techniques. You can get away with heel down but when it comes to steady pulse playing, most drummers prefer the consistency that comes with heel up. The heel up motion is much bigger, and uses more muscle groups, and so it’s easier to time quarter note pulses. This can often be harder to control with the heel down technique as you’re working with just the one muscle group.
Here’s a great video where legendary drummer Vinnie Colaiuta discusses his approach to playing the bass drum:
For drummers that want to explore some alternative bass drum techniques and are seeking some tips for developing speed, the slide method is a good place to start.
This method uses a cross between heel up and the pedal board to create two separate notes. This video shows the technique in action:
While it’s good to know your way around the drum rudiments you often find that some of them are largely applicable to drum corp and marching bands. Drummers are always coming up with new and exciting rudiments which are sometimes referred to as “hybrid rudiments”.
If you want a challenge, check out one such rudiment which goes by the name of the “Blushda”. It’s called that because of the way it sounds. This is a nice little rudiment which works really well on the drum set and is great for hand speed and control.
Here’s Porcupine Tree’s Gavin Harrison explaining how this little rudiment can be used on the drum set for very musical results:
If hybrid rudiments appeal to you there are many more examples out there. As mentioned, drummers are always coming up with their own variations and names for these exercises.
Irish Drummer Kev O’Shea has even written an entire book on drum warm-ups which features many such hybrid rudiments along with the notated sticking. You can view some of these snare warm-ups on Kev’s own website or sample the book here.
It’s important always to do even a little light stretching before you play. While you can warm-up while you play, if you’re going straight into a full gig or band rehearsal, it’s wise to be prepared. Here’s internet drum tutor Stephen Taylor with five of the best hand stretches for drumming:
Practice pads are extremely popular among drummers for several reasons. Not only do they offer a portable playing surface but they are also relatively noiseless. You can get practice pads in all shapes and sizes and they are made from different materials too.
The majority of practice pads are made from a rubber-type material which closely resembles the head response of a tightened snare drum. Others are made from a gel-like substance which is closer in response to a loose tom head.
You can also get full drum kit practice pad setups. One such kit is the DW “Go Anywhere” practice kit.
This is a very popular kit with drummers of all ages. It’s really well built and can accommodate either single or double bass pedals. It is so easy to setup and it feels solid to play on. You can adjust the height and angle of each pad to an extent, with the larger snare pad offering more movement with an extra adjustable mount. Each pad screws onto the mounting arm which means that they can also be removed and used as separate practice pads.
Practicing on Pillows
You may have heard about the benefits of practicing on pillows. This technique has been endorsed by famous drummers such as Dennis Chambers.
Pillow practice is actually a relatively unknown strengthening exercise for drumming. The idea behind the concept is that your average pillow offers pretty much zero rebound when struck with a drumstick. This forces the player to manually raise the stick for the following stroke. This motion forces the muscles in the arm to function in a way that they might not have to when playing on drum heads with high tensioning.
Try this out for yourself and see how it feels. Be careful not to play too hard here as there is a possibility that you could strain your muscles with over exertion. Playing regular rudiments in this way is way more challenging than on either a drum head or practice pad. You’ll notice that this technique puts more strain on your forearms than normal kit playing.
This is a cheap and convenient way to practice and is fairly low in volume too.
Monitoring Your Improvement
It’s always a good idea to keep tabs on your development as you practice towards your ultimate goals.
Metronomes are very useful guides and can give you a better indication of how you are doing in your progress. When working on a rudiment such as the single stroke roll, set your metronome to a quarter note which is a comfortable tempo for you.
This may be anything from 100bpm to 160bpm depending on your ability and experience. Practice playing the roll starting on your right hand.
Play for one minute and then switch hands and start on your left. Play for another minute.
Once complete you can increase the beats per minute by 5 and repeat the process.
This is a great way to highlight the weakness in your hands. Sometimes it can be a physical issue where your muscles have not developed yet to handle the tempo. Other times you will feel it to be a coordination issue. If this is the case, then the solution is to lower the tempo and start again. It’s only through repetition that you will build the muscle memory required.
If you like the idea of monitoring your speed and want to take it to competitive levels you may be interested in the Drumometer.
This machine was developed decades ago and has gone on to become something of a mini-phenomenon among certain drummers. It measures your ability to play singles and doubles at all tempos. There is even a world record section which is verified by professional judges.
You can read all about the drumometer on the official website.
Developing speed, control and power on the drum is a long process which requires patience and dedication.
You can split your practice sessions up into sections where you can focus on the different aspects of drumming. Dedicate some time to hand technique, then some time to foot technique. Finally incorporate both techniques by playing along to your favorite songs. This is a great way to see and hear your improvement.
Be aware though that most improvements will not be obvious right away. It may take weeks, and in some cases months to see a lasting improvement in your playing.
Have patience and make each practice session a lot of fun and something worth looking forward to.
P.S. Electronic drum sets make practice super convenient, click here to read our Alesis Nitro review and see all the benefits.
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