How To Play the Drums

Learning to play drums is very different from learning to play other instruments, in that you never have to learn a single note name to play drums.  Mastering the drums is based entirely on rhythm and technique.  If you have a natural sense of rhythm, you're already halfway there!

  1. Take piano lessons, if possible.  If your parents made you suffer through weekly piano lessons when you were young, you are a huge step ahead in learning to play drums.  You should have a working knowledge of notes, time signatures and how to make your hands and feet work together from playing piano.  In fact, many junior high and high school band directors now require all budding percussionists to have a few years of piano lessons before being accepted into the band.
  2. Learn about note values.  If you've never touched a piano, don't despair.  You can learn quite a lot about rhythm all by yourself.  Look at the second hand of a clock - it marks off a steady tick, tick, tick with every movement of the second hand.  We'll give each beat of the hand a value of one quarter note.  A quarter note is a small, solid black circle with a thin black line extending upward from the right side of the circle.  This is the most basic note value in music.  Now, pretend that each tick of the second hand is a quarter note and count to four:  tick, tick, tick, tick now becomes one, two, three, four.  This will be our starting point for learning to play drums.
  3. Hold your drumsticks properly.  Most drum instructors prefer to teach new students the "matched grip."  It's easy to learn and promotes a natural, relaxed hold on the sticks.  To hold your drumsticks using the matched grip, put your thumb on top of the drumstick, about halfway down the length of the stick, so that your thumb and the stick are in a straight line.  Next, wrap your index finger under the stick and let the stick rest in the curve of your first knuckle.  Wrap your three remaining fingers under the stick in a similar manner, but don't let them actually grip the stick.  It should be held using only your thumb and index finger.  Hold the remaining stick in your opposite hand in exactly the same way.  Your hands will naturally curve toward each other slightly, which is fine.
  4. Maintain proper posture.  It's very important to play drums with proper posture so that you may play as quickly as possible without undue fatigue.  You should sit upright with your spine straight.  Your shoulders, elbows and wrists should be relaxed.  The drumsticks should rest lightly in your hands.  You should not have a death grip on them.  If you become tired while playing, take a moment to re-adjust your posture and see if it helps.
  5. Learn a basic beat on a drum pad.  Bounce is a vital part of drum-playing technique.  Using a drum pad allows you to experience proper bounce without investing in a costly drum set - and without annoying the neighbors.  A drum pad is a circular piece of rubber which reacts in a manner similar to a snare drum when you hit it with your sticks.  Place the drum pad on a tabletop and pick up your drumsticks using the matched grip.  Starting with the stick in your left hand, hold the stick parallel to the tabletop and let the stick drop to strike the drum pad surface by relaxing your wrist.  If you are holding your stick properly, it should bounce back up without any action on your part.  If it doesn't, you are holding it too tightly.  Experiment with holding the drumstick in different places along its length to find the spot where you can obtain the most bounce without effort.  For most drumsticks, this is somewhere just in front of the halfway point.  Now, using the tick, tick, tick of the clock as your guide, tap out the following rhythm on your drum pad:  one (left), two (right), three (left), four (right).  Continue tapping out this basic beat until you feel very comfortable with your sticks.
  6. Learn some more complex beats.  Now that you've mastered a basic quarter note beat, let's learn some eighth note beats.  An eighth note looks just like a quarter note, except that it has a single-line flag extending from the top of the stem.  Its value is exactly half of a quarter note.  By the way, a quarter note is so named because the most basic time signature is called 4/4.  This means that there are four beats in a measure (which is the distance from one vertical bar in a piece of music to the next vertical bar), and a quarter note gets one beat, therefore a quarter note is one-quarter of a measure.  Okay, back to eighth notes - if the quarter notes were counted one, two, three, four, the eighth notes will be counted one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and.  Each number comes with the tick of the second hand and each "and" falls halfway between each tick.  Try tapping this out with your drumsticks on the drum pad, again starting with the left hand.  Always use this pattern when playing drums: left-right-left-right, etc., even if the beats you are playing aren't even.  For example, if you're playing quarter note, eighth note, eighth note, quarter note, quarter note, it would be counted one, two-and, three, four, but you would still alternate sticks for each note.
  7. Learn about dynamics.  In the above exercises, you always started each stroke with your wrist parallel to the playing surface.  If you need to play louder, increase the angle of the sticks to the playing surface by raising your wrist, not your arm.  When your sticks are vertical, you will notice that they strike the drum pad more forcefully, therefore producing a louder sound.  For even more volume, raise your elbows or shoulders.  However, always remember to play from a relaxed position, even when playing loudly.
  8. Learn a drum roll.  One of the techniques used most frequently in snare drum playing is the drum roll.  Although this is a more advanced technique, you can learn the basics of it even as a beginner.  First, you'll need to get a metronome to replace the ticking clock you've been using so far.  A metronome is a machine which can be set to mark off a steady beat at various tempos, or speeds.  Each tempo is referred to by a number.  That number means how many beats are in a minute at that tempo.  If you wanted to set a metronome to the same tempo as the second hand on a clock, you would set it to 60, because there are 60 beats, or seconds, in a minute.  To begin practicing a drum roll, start with the metronome at 90 and play eighth notes - one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and, etc.  Make sure that your eighth notes are exactly even and that you are holding the sticks loosely.  When this is easy, move the metronome up to 96 and repeat the exercise.  Continue edging the tempo on the metronome up gradually until you are playing eighth notes very rapidly.  When you can no longer hear individual eighth notes, but just a steady roll of sound, you've mastered the drum roll!  If you can't seem to get beyond individual notes, remember that you should use a slight amount of force to push the drumstick down, but let it bounce up - don't pull it back up.

There you have it - the basics of learning to play drums.  Of course, there are many other things to learn before you're truly an expert.   If you want to play in a rock band, you'll need to learn how to play a trap set, which is a set of drums that includes a high hat (basically one half of a set of cymbals that you strike with your sticks), bass drum (which is played with a pedal that's controlled by your right foot), and a snare drum.  More expensive trap sets include more pieces of equipment, but for practicing, a trap set with a high hat, snare and bass drum will be more than adequate (and plenty loud enough for those neighbors, too!).


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