Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Flat-foot or Toe?

There has been a lot of discussion and even heated debate over the years on the topic of which is better, flat foot on the bass drum pedal or toe only. The argument is similar to the traditional grip versus matched grip situation, and neither side is offering to make a change. So what is the correct answer?

The majority of today's drummers would likely argue that toe is the only way to go, and they would have a pretty good case. You can do virtually anything with toe technique that you can do with flat foot. Can the reverse also be said? At first glance, flat foot appears to have some limitations, but the question I would ask is, are those differences relevant or even real?

First, let's eliminate any double-pedal action from the discussion so we can keep the focus on one foot, one pedal. What do we really need this pedal/foot team to do? Quarter notes on the beat? Neither technique has an advantage at most tempos. Extreme quiet? Flat-foot may have a slight advantage there, depending on whose foot we’re talking about. What about volume? Toe technique seems like a clear winner as it has the power of the whole leg behind it. How about endurance? Hard to say. Endurance is mostly about strength training, with technique serving more of a supporting role.

What about syncopation, intricate patterns and the like? Actually, both techniques seem about equal here. Raw speed? Again, more about conditioning. How about doubles? Here too, no clear advantage either way. Ok, how about triples? These are pretty hard to pull off no matter what and, oddly, they can be done flat foot with about the same facility as toe technique.

One area where flat foot seems to pull ahead is resonance. It seems to be somewhat easier to strike the drum and let the beater rebound using flat foot. This produces the most resonance from a bass drum, and it's a technique and sound that many jazz players prefer. And therein lies the problem. Most of today's players open up the front of the drum and add a lot of damping. Resonance simply isn't wanted in many music styles. But if your goal is rich, resonant bass drum sounds, you may want to explore flat foot playing.

So what is the conclusion? There is no clear winner and that means no loser either. The best approach is to try both. If you play a lot of quiet music, you may find that flat foot is more accommodating. If you're in a thrash metal band, you probably won't survive unless you go toe-to-toe (sorry for that one) with the speed and volume. The main thing is to determine which one feels right to you. I tend to play flat foot most of the time. I find it easier to play doubles and shuffle beats that way. I use toe when volume is an issue. An important factor for me is that I feel more stable and in control when I have one foot solidly planted. I'm sure a lot of drummers only feel solid when up on both toes. Whatever works! My advice is to learn to be comfortable with both.

A word about ‘heel-toe’
These days the heel-toe technique is something of a fossil that even old timers are losing interest in. Never applied to the bass drum, heel-toe was for decades the technique of choice for the hi-hat. Then someone decided to play quarters and eights on the hi-hat … virtually impossible with heel-toe. Heel-toe can also generate a fair amount of extraneous noise when the heel stomps down on the footboard. And so heel-toe hi-hat play has mostly gone the way of the lo-boy. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Completely self taught … plays by ear

How often have you heard these claims? Too often, I think. However, I contend that nobody is completely self taught. As for playing by ear, I should hope so!

Of course you might think that playing by ear is as silly a statement as 'painting by eye'. And perhaps it is. But at the same time it's true. The artist paints by seeing both what's on the canvas and what's in the mind's eye. In the case of music, all good musicians play by ear -- listening to the sounds on stage and in their heads, and trying to bring the two together.   

As for 'self taught', don't get me started ... oops, too late. People learn by attending to ‘data’ and then assimilating it. Once acquired, the data can be used in a variety of situations. And where does this data come from? Everywhere. One way to streamline the process is to hire someone who's already done a lot of assimilating and get them to show you the way, i.e. a teacher.

But whether you take formal lessons or not, you are still studying. Every time you listen to music, watch another drummer play, or talk shop with a drummer or musician friend, you are taking a lesson of sorts. The only difference is that the lessons come at unexpected times and in an un-planned order.

When I was an aspiring young drummer, I spent more time at jazz clubs than I ever did with my teacher. At clubs, I could hear what it sounded like, and I could see how it was done. I built most of my drumming 'chops' that way. I'm also something of a visual learner, so going to see an ace drummer in action was, for me, the equivalent of attending a scholarly lecture. It was also cheaper, a lot more fun, and I never once fell asleep (I can’t say the same about some of the lectures I’ve attended). Plus I sometimes got to hang out with the ‘prof’ after class.

So the next time someone says, "I'm completely self taught; I play by ear", I just might respond with, "Ya, me too! And I took lessons."

Friday, May 3, 2013


I heard a story about a promising young sax player who came to the attention of a patriarch in the local jazz scene. The patriarch ask the fellow if he'd like to come by the house and join in with a group of major players who got together to jam several times a month. The kid said flatly, "I only play for money."

Hmmm …

When I was starting out, money was in short supply, so getting paid to play was a high priority. But whether I had regular work or was completely destitute, I took advantage of every opportunity to play and to learn, especially if it meant a chance to play with ‘A team’ musicians. 

Playing with people who are markedly better than you is like playing on a very high quality instrument on your best day. Playing with good musicians makes you play better and it makes you a better player. And the better player you are, the more valuable you are. And it’s free!

There's also the incalculable value of making a connection with well-connected pros. If you impress them with your playing, you will be remembered, talked about, invited back, and likely recommended for gigs. That's exactly what happened to me: I showed up, word got around, and I was off and running.

Not every playing opportunity has something positive to offer, but when you're just starting out and someone you would normally pay to go see offers to spend time with you, the correct response is "When? Where?" not "What's it pay?"