ANCIENT AND MODERN DRUMMING CLASSIFICATIONS
Each generation of drummers rides the wave of their own time, contributing new methods while conceiving fresh definitions for their particular meaning of modern drumming. However, to define modern drumming as “whatever it is today” is a moving target which is not specific enough to be useful within the context of historical discussions or technical comparison.
In the United States during the early decades of the 20th century, specific definitions were needed to distinguish between two clearly separate classes of rudimental drumming which had emerged within the arena of competition.
The stage for this divergence of styles was set in 1875 when the U.S. Army moved to discontinue use of the fife and drum, and to adopt the bugle as the official instrument used to signal commands.1 The bugle had significant advantages over the snare drum. Its clear, sustained tone could be heard over a good distance and it could be easily carried and played from horseback. Unlike the calf skin heads of snare drums, the bugle was not effected by changes in temperature and humidity.
The way American snare drumming had matured by 1875 was due in large measure to the influence of fife music and how the drum was used to compliment fife melodies and rhythms. Think of the relationship of the fife to the snare drum and their influence upon each other in creating military music as exactly like the relationship between the electric guitar and the drum set for the development of rock and roll music.
Rhythmic 16th note melodies that were so naturally played on the fife were difficult to perform on the bugle. Since marches could not be slowed down to accommodate the sustained linear sound of the bugle, the solution was to speed up march tempos.2 The increase in tempo resulted in a major influence of the way American rudimental drumming was performed.
After World War I, civic and patriotic organizations proliferated in the United States. The most successful of these groups were the Veterans of Foreign Wars (established 1899) and the American Legion (est. 1919). Many American Legion and VFW local posts sponsored fife and drum corps, or drum and bugle corps, or units combining all three instruments. The drum corps that were supported by these organizations performed in parades, concerts and contests.3
It soon became obvious that in competition, the drumming styles practiced by fife and drum corps vs. that of drum and bugle corps were not evenly comparable. To establish a more equitable system of judging, two competition classes were created to separate the styles. The primary characteristic used to differentiate between them was march tempo. Groups that played their music at 110 beats per minute were assigned to the “Ancient” class (fife & drum), while groups marching at tempos of 120 b.p.m. competed in the “Modern” class (drum & bugle).4
Tempo, within the context of marching, may have been the most obvious characteristic to distinguish ancient from modern American drumming but it is not the only one. There are three components to snare drumming in which the evolution from the ancient style to modern is most observable: grip methods, playing position and stroke techniques. A factor that has had an auxiliary influence on snare drumming technique and style is developments in the technology of drum making.
ANCIENT STYLE AMERICAN DRUMMING CHARACTERISTICS
Under the umbrella of the ancient drumming class, there are many sub-divisions of style with noteworthy differences. Their variations can be attributed in part to a history of regional separation between groups. The differences include the sizes and tuning of the drums (specifically, rope-tension drums) the playing techniques used, how the rudiments are executed (with regard to accenting and the openness of the beats) and the way that the music itself is interpreted and expressed.
The American ancient style was born of British military drumming, which itself descended from the centuries-old tradition of European armies using the fife and drum to signal commands. In fact, during the Revolutionary War (1775-1883), drummers of the U.S. Continental Army played many beats and signals that were identical to those of the British Army. Over a 100 year period, from 1775 to 1875, American style drumming developed in its own right as it matured primarily within the U.S. military. In that sense, the American ancient style and the traditional U.S. military style may be considered one and the same.
The ancient style is a pure rudimental system in which all drum beats are written using only the historic drum rudiments as derived from 19th century U.S. military performance requirements. Those requirements, with instruction and the collected repertoire of martial music, were issued in manuals called, The Camp Duty.5
Upon its strong rudimental foundation, another distinctive attribute of military drumming is POWER. War drums had to be loud. Beats and signals needed to be played consistently and clearly because soldiers were trained to respond instantly to the sound of the drum.
Military drummers were expected to play for sustained intervals of time and simply pounding harder to achieve power and volume was an exhaustive and impractical option. The techniques devised for power and endurance involve a relaxed but full use of the arms from the shoulder down. An efficient stroke for generating power was an up-stroke tap combined with a whipping down-blow accent. The technique has become commonly known as the “Moeller Method” thanks to the efforts of Sanford “Gus” Moeller who wrote about it in his book, The Art of Snare Drumming (1925).6
PLAYING POSITION AND STICK GRIP METHODS
Because of the hanging angle of the field drum, the grip used to hold the sticks was an asymmetric mix of grasping the left stick under-hand and the right stick with an over-hand. The elbows were out from the body resulting in a playing position described as “around the tree” or “around a barrel.”7 A typical rope drum has a wood counter hoop that is much taller than the metal counter hoops of modern drums. Consequently, the playing position of the hands relative to the surface of the drum head needed to be high enough for the strokes to clear the hoop.
Charles Stewart Ashworth (1812) and George B. Bruce (1862) taught the right hand grip with directions that the grasp is applied primarily by the little finger and that the stick should flow freely through the rest of the fingers.8 This is a very strong grip which produces powerful strokes. It requires using forearm rotation (also referred to as wrist rolling) in a manner similar to the way in which the left forearm is rotated when using the underhand, grip. A higher playing position in conjunction with the little finger right hand grip ensured that the sticks would not inadvertently strike the tall counter hoop of rope drums.
THE MODERN AMERICAN DRUMMING STYLE
Modern drumming does not replace the ancient style, in fact the modern style would not exist without that foundation. In its beginning, the modern style was identical to the ancient style with the exception that it had to be applied at the faster march tempos of drum and bugle corps. Faster tempos required modern drumming to become somewhat simplified because many of the rudiments which had been so elegantly crafted within the fife and drum genre were too difficult to play at drum and bugle tempos.9,10
For example, the seven-stroke roll was systematically replaced (in marches and cadence beats) by the five-stroke roll. George L. Stone explained why in his 1931 book, Military Drum Beats for School and Drum Corps: “Today’s cadence is much faster, 128 to 132. The expert drummer may get in the 7; the average drum corps drummer cannot. It is much better for either expert or amateur to play the 5 stroke easily and in perfect time than to cram in a 7 stroke at the expense of rhythm.”11
The 1920s and 30s was a golden age for American rudimental drumming. The rapid expansion of civic and veteran sponsored drum corps and the competition spawned by that activity gave rise to a vigorous interest in rudimental drumming styles and techniques. When organizations separated by regions, came together to compete for “national” honors and titles, there was some discord with regard to how certain rudiments and practices should be interpreted and judged.
The National Association of Rudimental Drummers (N.A.R.D.) was established during the 1933 American Legion National Convention in Chicago for the purpose of resolving contest drumming controversies. Through deliberation and consensus, N.A.R.D. established “standards” for what constituted the legitimate American rudiments and how they should be performed.
Creating standards had the advantage of preserving the rudiments but there was also some sacrifice in diversity. Within the ancient style, depending upon region or historic source materials, some rudiments can be interpreted differently. For example, in Charles Stewart Ashworth’s book, A New, Useful, and Complete System of Drum Beating, paradiddles are written with the first two beats accented. The rudimental drumming standards established by N.A.R.D. specify no more than one accent per rudiment as well as stipulating which beat shall receive the accent.
The simplified modern style was based upon a less rudimental method that has become known as “natural sticking” which eliminates much of the doubling of strokes and alternated lead hand sticking of the ancient style. Natural sticking is also known as “orchestral sticking” or as “Straight sticking” after Edward B. Straight, author of The Straight System, The Natural Way to Play Drums (1923).12
Another way to think of this simplification is that within drum and bugle organizations, rudiments were selected on the criteria of which of them were best suited to fast tempo playing. The modern style became deeply influenced by non-military musical sources including classical music and jazz, by foreign drum styles, and by the pursuit of new techniques and scientific methods designed to increase drumming speed and to improve stick control.
MODERN PLAYING POSITIONS, GRIP AND STICK CONTROL TECHNIQUES
If the Ancient style could be broadly identified with the Moeller method of using the shoulder to forearm muscles to generate power, then the modern style could be characterized by wrist turning and finger control techniques for more speed. Wrist turn is applied from a playing position with the hands and wrists low and close to the playing surface.
The historic transition from using forearm rotation to wrist turning was accompanied by an abandonment of the little finger grip. The wrist turn method is most effective when the stick is secured at a fulcrum point established between the thumb and index finger or thumb and middle finger.
The concepts of the thumb to forefingers grip and wrist turning techniques existed since before the Civil War. Elias Howe advocated the thumb and forefingers grip in his 1861 book, Howe’s United States Regulation Drum and Fife Instructor.13 In 1862, Colonel H. C. Hart taught the thumb and first finger grip in his book, New and Improved Instructor For The Drum.14 However, it was the advent of screw tension drums and their low, metal counter hoops that made the forefingers grip and wrist turn techniques truly practical.
The cornerstone techniques of the wrist-turn playing style are the velocity/free stroke and the control/down stroke. The velocity stroke is sometimes called the “Stone Stroke” or the “Gladstone Stroke” because of its association with noted teacher, George Lawrence Stone, and legendary Radio City Music Hall percussionist, Billy Gladstone.
George “Larry” Stone is best known for his classic drum method books, Stick Control (1937), and Accents and Rebounds (1961). Stone’s books contain many valuable exercises but he does not include much in the form of descriptive commentary to explain techniques. According to a former Stone student, Ray Reilly, Stone said he played “Connecticut Style.” A method based on “lifts and levels.”15 Much of what we know about Stone’s method is due in no small part to the efforts of his most famous student, jazz drummer, Joe Morello. During his long career, Mr. Morello propagated Stone’s techniques by teaching and by writing instruction books. He conducted drum clinics and produced videos through which he explained Stone’s methods.
The forward fulcrum point created by an overhand thumb to forefingers grip leaves the back fingers free to leverage the stick which cleared the way to modern finger control techniques.
FINGER CONTROL TECHNIQUES
The final link (or perhaps the first) in the chain of muscles used to control drum strokes are the fingers. Fingers are home to the smallest but quickest muscles of our upper extremities and it is by using finger playing techniques that the highest levels of dexterity, playing finesse, speed and control can be exerted.
Snare drumming has existed for over 600 years and throughout its history drummers have always had arms, wrists, hands and fingers. There is no specific point in time or one person in particular that we can point to and declare with absolute certainty to be the origin of finger style playing but it likely began among symphonic percussionists as a tympani technique.
A 20th century American drummer who stands out for his innovative and virtuosic playing and who is often credited as a pioneer of finger control techniques is Billy Gladstone. Mr. Gladstone was a New York drummer who was famous through his 18-year association with the Radio City Music Hall (1932 to 1950). He called his method the “finger bounce” technique.16
George L. Stone endorsed the finger bounce in the preface of his book, Accents and Rebounds. Stone wrote, “... Finger Bounce Execution, a style so effective in modern soloing, in which at speedy tempos sticks are manipulated mainly by finger action.”17
Gladstone’s snare drumming skill was admired and his techniques were studied by many great drummers including Buddy Rich and Joe Morello. Another jazz drummer who studied with Gladstone was, Paul Motian. Motian performed and recorded with such jazz luminaries as Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Thelonious Monk. In a radio interview that broadcast in 2006, Motian talked about his experience of learning from Billy Gladstone.
Motian said, “He (Gladstone) had a system of playing where he used his fingers almost more or as much as he used his arms and his wrists and his hands ... If you watched him play, you would think that he was hardly moving ... Controlling the sticks with his fingers and playing incredible stuff, like really strong, powerful strokes ... He had that system, he had developed it.”18
NEW RUDIMENTS AND FOREIGN RUDIMENTS
In the early years of the 20th century a new kind of roll technique known as the “press” or “buzz” roll19 had become popular with jazz drummers, orchestral drummers, and drummers working in theaters. Initially the press roll was met with contempt by American rudimenters who called it the “scratch roll”20 and did not consider it a legitimate technique. The press technique gained universal acceptance as drummers learned how to better control it and apply it. However, it is never an acceptable technique to use when playing from the ancient style American repertoire. The press roll was not played in 19th century American military music and even if the technique had then been known, the relatively loose playing surface of the rope drum is not conducive to the press roll.
Thanks to the educational efforts of N.A.R.D and the Ludwig Music Publishing Co., during the 1930s, American drummers received their first exposure to the Swiss drum style21 as taught by Dr. Fritz Berger.22 However, Swiss (and French) rudiments didn’t catch on in American drumming until the late 1950s and early 60s when drum and bugle corps began to make them a standard part of their expanding rudimental repertoire.23
The Swiss triplet rudiment is an example of a foreign rudiment that was a perfect fit for the modern American drum and bugle style. Musically speaking, Swiss triplets are the same thing as the American “flam accent” in the sense that both rudiments consist of a flam played on the first beat of a triplet figure. The difference is that American flam accents alternate between right and left hand leading flams while the Swiss triplet adapts to the principles of natural sticking. In a connected series of Swiss triplets, the flam will always lead with the same hand which is actually easier to play at faster tempos and will also sound more consistently even than the American flam accents.
MULTIPLE-BEAT STROKES (PUSH/PULL STROKE)
Mulitple-beat stroke techniques are known by many names including, “Push/Pull” and “Drop/Squeeze”, or “Open/Close.” There are various interpretations regarding the best way to achieve the multiple-beat effect, but each involves combining the ancient principle of the Moeller stroke with the modern concepts of a low playing position, the velocity stroke, and finger bounce control.
Mastering the multiple-beat stroke is considered the holy grail of the modern drumming quest for speed. The desired effect of a multiple-beat stroke is to draw more than one beat out of the effort of a single down-and-up, or up-and-down cycle of one hand. The ultimate goal is to connect a series of multiple-beat cycles to produce a continuous blend of rapid beats over a sustained period of time. In other words, the “one-handed roll.”
THE TECHNOLOGY AND CONSTRUCTION OF DRUMS
The rope drums common during the American Revolutionary War were large, approximately 16 inches deep by 16 inches in diameter. During the Civil War, 1862-1865, the official U.S. Military “contract size” rope drum retained its 16 inch diameter but the depth was cut to 12 or 13 inches to be more easily managed by young drummers.24
The first patent for a screw-tensioned snare drum was awarded to London instrument maker, Cornelius Ward, in 1837. Ward’s drum also featured a brass shell that was much smaller than the rope tensioned field drums that had preceded it.25 Ward’s design helped to usher in a new era for the snare drum as an orchestral and concert band instrument and for the creative musical possibilities and innovations in playing techniques that followed.
Modern drum and bugle corps in the 20th century enthusiastically adopted screw-tensioned drums and the new average size of marching snare drums was further reduced to 12 inches deep by 15 inches wide for senior corps and 10 by 14 inches for younger drummers. Smaller head diameter and screw-tension tuning produced a tighter playing surface for better rebound and faster playing. The number of tension rods per drum head steadily increased. Low-height, metal counter-hoops made back-sticking techniques easier to execute and facilitated the use of new techniques such as side sticking and the rim shot.
Following the invention of screw tension drum tuning, the most significant technological break-through to impact the art of drumming in every style came in the 1950s with the introduction of the Mylar® plastic drum head. No longer would drum tuning and head tension be at the mercy of changes in humidity and temperature.
The engineering behind drum making continues to advance. The latest innovation is extreme tension tuning made possible by drum heads made using bullet-proof arimid fibers such as Kevlar®. Because of the strength of that material, drum shells are commonly made as free-floating cylinders using aircraft aluminum enforced bearing edges. The stress of the head tension is distributed between very strong top an bottom hoops instead of into the shell by lugs anchored to the side. These materials may be new but they are applied using the oldest design concept – rope drums are in fact free-floating shells with the head tension drawn by ropes between the top and bottom hoops!
Playing on the hard surface of a Kevlar fitted high-tension snare drum is significantly different from the plastic head drums of the previous generation. The difference in technique used between the two kinds of surfaces is largely a matter of touch and feel. In general, a snare drum fitted with a mylar plastic head allows the drummer to play “through the head” using the wrist and hands where as on Kevlar it is more important to play “off the head.” Kevlar heads are more conducive to multiple bounce strokes, press strokes and finger bounce techniques. The use of Kevlar and high tension tuning is the logical extension of the modern drummer’s relentless quest for more playing speed by using technology to enhance techniques.
The Standard 26 American Drum Rudiments and the Moeller method, remain indispensable knowledge for the well rounded Modern drummer. In 1984, the Percussive Arts Society (P.A.S.) revised and expanded the standard rudiments list to 40 by including modern rudiments of non-military origin and foreign rudiments, primarily from the French and Swiss traditions.26
The newest trend in Modern rudimental drumming has been the growing popularity of contemporary “hybrid rudiments.” A hybrid rudiment is a rudimental idea that is created by the combination of elements from two or more standard rudiments.27
When the function of field drumming for military signaling became obsolete, the rudimental foundation of that system could have been lost to become just another curious footnote among the dusty pages of history. But the heritage of rudimental drumming not only survived in the 20th century, it flourished! The fact that rudimental drumming could be separated from its original purpose to be appreciated for its unique musical value is testament to its aesthetic status as an art form.
On the timeline of drumming history there have been many innovations, but some things never change. A drum is still just a hollow shell with a membrane stretched over one or both ends. Another fact not changed over the hundreds of years of rudimental drumming is the drummer. Ultimately, the most important component is the drummer’s musicianship, creativity and skill, not the technology of the instrument or a classification of style.
A strong tradition of musical creativity and technical expertise, fueled by the relentless pursuit of perfection have been the trademark of the American rudimental drummer. Precision, excellence and art have been the result.
1. U.S. Marine Corps, Prologue, Manual For Drummers And Buglers (Washington D.C.: Department Of The Navy, December, 1971): viii.
2. Jeff Hartsough and Derrick Logozzio, “George Carroll: Marching and Field Percussion Historian,” Interview, Percussive Notes (April 1996): 30-35.
3. Jeff Hartsough and Derrick Logozzio, “Timeline of Marching and Field Percussion: Part III,” Percussive Notes 32/6 (December 1994): 30-32.
4. Ibid: 30-32.
5. John Beck. Encyclopedia of Percussion. (New York: Garland Pub., 1995): 290-291.
6. Sanford A. Moeller, The Art of Drumming (Chicago: Ludwig Music Publishing Co, Inc, 1929): 12, 15.
7. Gene Krupa, Gene Krupa Drum Method (New York: Warner Bros. Publications, Inc., 1938. Renewed, 1966): 9.
8. Charles Stewart Ashworth, A New, Useful and Complete System of Drum-beating (Boston: G. Graupner, 1812).
9. George Lawrence Stone, Foreword, Military Drum Beats for School and Drum Corps (Randolph, MA: George B. Stone & Son, Inc. 1931. Renewed, 1958): 4.
10. Jeff Hartsough and Derrick Logozzio, “George Carroll: Marching and Field Percussion Historian,” Interview, Percussive Notes (April 1996): 30-35.
11. George Lawrence Stone, Foreword, Military Drum Beats for School and Drum Corps (Randolph, MA: George B. Stone & Son, Inc. 1931. Renewed, 1958): 4.
12. Edward B. Straight, The Straight System of Modern Drumming – The Natural Way to Play Drums (Chicago: Straight, 1923): 20-25.
13. Eilas Howe, Howe’s United States Regulation Drum and Fife Instructor, for the Use of the Army and Navy (Boston: Howe, 1861).
14. Colonel H. C. Hart, New and Improved Instructor for the Drum (New York: 1861): 3.
15. Ray Reilly. “George L. Stone & Ray Reilly” Cadre. Canadian Associates Drumming Rudimental Excellence, 19 Oct. 2005. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.
17. George Lawrence Stone, Preface, Accents and Rebounds for the Snare Drummer (Randolph, MA: George B. Stone & Son, Inc. 1961): 3.
18. “Paul Motian: The ‘Fresh Air’ Interview.” Interview by Terry Gross. NPR. NPR, 13 Mar. 2006. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.
19. Edward B. Straight, The Straight System of Modern Drumming – The Natural Way to Play Drums (Chicago: Straight, 1923): 20-25.
20. George Lawrence Stone, Stick Control for the Snare Drummer (Boston: George B. Stone & Son, Inc. 1935): 4.
21. America’s N.A.R.D. Drum Solos (Chicago: Ludwig Music Publishing Co, Inc, 1937): 59.
22. Fritz R. Berger, Das Basler Trommeln: Aller Basler Trommel-Märsche (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser, 1929).
23. Fred Johnson. “Drum Corps & Swiss Rudiments.” Cadre. Canadian Associates Drumming Rudimental Excellence, 27 Oct. 2005. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.
24. John Beck. Encyclopedia of Percussion. (New York: Garland Pub., 1995): 295.
25. Ibid: 281.
26. Rob Carson and Jay Wanamaker, Foreword, Percussive Arts Society’s Official International Drum Rudiments (Van Nuys: Alfred, 1984).
27. Vic Firth Inc., “What Is A Hybrid Rudiment?,” Vic Firth Presents Hybrid Rudiments. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.