Improving your 

ability to play drums


Drumming has been with us since man developed primitive societies. It served as a means of communication over distances as well as the foundation for more formalized expressions of sound which developed into musical forms that have sustained cultures up to the present time. Drumming originally started with just the hands creating rhythm with or without sticks.

This was true all the way up to the early part of the 20th century until “trap sets” began to appear. Drummers began adding bass drums with pedals and that got the feet involved.

Cymbals, wood blocks, chimes, triangles, cowbells, tambourines, small tom-toms from India, and anything else drummers could find to hit, were added to expand the sound beyond the snare drum.

The set-ups became know as “trap sets” (shortened from the word “contraption”). This referred to how people reacted when they first saw these sets (“What is that contraption?”).

The great Chick Webb was the first to usher in the sound and style of what a swinging modern drummer sounded like in the late 1920s! A long line of great drummers such as Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Papa Jo Jones, Dave Tough, et al later emulated Chick.

By the late 1930s, modern drum sets began to appear regularly. The standard set became: snare, bass drum, high-hat, toms and cymbals. Still, the hands did most of the work, while the feet kept the time going. The bass drum played single beats (1, 2, 3, 4) while the high-hat played the backbeat (on 2 and 4). This style of playing Chick Webb started did not vary for a long time.

In 1938 at the age of 15, Louis Bellson began using two bass drums with his drum set up mainly for soloing. This required developing the weaker left foot that played the high hat.

Many drummers didn’t want to take the time or see the need to develop the weaker limb as well as cart an extra bass drum around. They were short sighted.

As Bellson’s career began to flourish in the 40’s, only a handful of drummers followed him over the next twenty years in this experimentation (Sam Woodyard and Rufus Jones being excellent examples). Double bass playing would not begin to take off on a broad scale until the late 1960s with Ginger Baker.

By the late 1940s, when a style of Jazz called “Be-Bop” appeared, drummers began using the bass drum and left hand more for accents rather than time keeping and the ride cymbal carried more of the time while the high hat still remained on 2 and 4. Independence of the limbs became more demanding and tempos of songs increased dramatically. The playing of Kenny Clark, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones were examples of this.

In November of 1948, drummer/author Jim Chapin published “Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer”. This publication broke down the style of jazz/be-bop independence in a written format that was easy to understand. It was becoming increasingly clear that a new level of musicianship was being demanded of drummers in the area independence on the drum set.

By the 1960s, drummers such as Elvin Jones began to freely use the arms and legs equally in unusual poly-rhythmic combinations while playing time and soloing. This opened up a whole new area of possibilities for drummers to explore.

Drummers who could not understand and hear what drummers like Elvin (and those who followed him) were doing were stuck with the concept of the hands doing most of the expression on the set.

During this period of the 1960s other Jazz drummers, most notably Tony Williams, began exploring these poly-rhythmic independence patterns between the hands and feet.

Drummers began playing a style known as “Pulse”. This meant that the time was not as strictly played on the set as it had been. The drummer could color the music with rhythmic patterns using the whole set to its fullest potential. It also meant a whole new level of independence was required to play this style of music.

As mentioned above, Ginger Baker came on the scene in the late 1960s with a rock band called “Cream.” He used double bass not only when soloing, but also to create grooves that were recorded on hit songs. He had been listening to the innovations of the new jazz drummers of the 50’s and 60’s and played jazz prior to joining Cream.

Baker’s style of playing incorporated these jazz influences and inspired more advanced rock and jazz players to experiment with double bass and advanced limb patterns on the set.

Double bass drum sets began popping up all over the world. In the 1970s, double bass pedals started to be massed produced and that made it easier for more drummers to start experimenting with this style.

This style of drumming has sustained to the present in both rock and fusion music.

While African, Latin music from the Caribbean, and Brazilian music began influencing American Music as early as the late 1800s, no one could have predicted the impact these styles would have on drumming up to the present day.

It is clear that all the innovative drummers listed above were to a greater or lesser degree influenced by African, Afro/Cuban, and Brazilian music. One just needs to understand the style and listen for it in their playing. That is worth an article unto itself.

I mention this because the current level of drum set independence required to play these styles is extremely demanding. In some cases, it requires the drummer to play a different rhythm on each limb simultaneously in a repetitive pattern and make it groove.

Today a drummer needs to be able to control and use all four limbs beyond keeping time so as to color the music and enhance the sound of the drum kit.

The combinations involving independence on the drum set are endless.

One bit of advice I give my students is to start with only the snare, bass drum, high hat, and one ride cymbal and see how much sound can be gotten out of this drum set configuration before adding anything else.

And what ever you come up with independence wise, make it sound musical or else it is just an exercise.

© 2007 Tom Mendola – all rights reserved.

10 Responses to A Short History of The Drum Set and Drum Set Independence

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Stay updated!

Copyright © 2012 TOM MENDOLA