by Ed Flack, ©2015
“If anybody tells you that there’s only one way to hold the drumstick you have to look at them in disbelief. Because there is no more wandering thing than the fulcrum of a hand-hold when you are really playing loud one time and soft another time.”
— Jim Chapin(1)
The most fundamental aspect of drumming is how to hold the sticks. It is also the most flexible because there are so many effective variations that can be used. Like everything else in drumming, different kinds of grip methods produce different kinds of playing advantages.
The predominant record of how grip techniques were taught in America during the 19th century is specific to field drumming as it was played by military fife & drum corps. Due to the hanging angle of a field drum, the grip used to hold the sticks was an asymmetric mix of grasping the left stick under-hand and the right with an over-hand. The elbows were held slightly away from the body resulting in a playing position described as “around the tree” or “around a barrel.”
During the early 20th century, for the purpose of drum corps competition, military drumming became known as the “ancient” style to set it apart from the drum & bugle style which became designated as “modern.” The principle characteristic used to differentiate between them was march tempo: ancient 110 BPM; modern 120 BPM.(2)
A review of 19th century drumming tutorials reveals that it was common for the right hand grip to be applied primarily by the little finger pressing the stick into the palm. This is a very strong grip which produces powerful strokes. A right-handed little finger grip is most effective when employing forearm rotation in a manner similar to the way in which the left forearm is rotated when using the underhand grip.
The traditional way of naming drum rolls is to identify them by the number of “strokes” that it takes to play a roll in a given count of time. This naming convention was established hundreds of years ago by military drummers using rope-tension drums. Double stroke rolls were played as two deliberate down-up motions by each hand in alternation (the double beat). The number of roll beats sounded was equal to the number of hand motions, or “strokes” required to play the roll.
Bouncing the stick was not a consistently reliable roll technique because the tension of a calfskin drum head is subject to the ever-changing conditions of temperature and humidity. In the available record of American and British drum method books published between 1780 to 1886 there is no evidence that stick bounce or “rebound” was used to explain roll technique. That said, rope drums do generate rebound and we have no reason to assume that drummers in the past never took advantage of stick bounce.
Drummers these days consistently play rolls using rebound double strokes (diddles). In other words, two beats produced from one down-and-up hand motion. The primary beat is played by a downward hand motion and the secondary beat is controlled using rebound energy.
Bounced rolls are still named by stroke numbers but the thing that is actually being counted is the number of beats sounded and not the number of hand motions it takes to play them.
“Now days, many traditional style drummers fit rope drums with plastic rather than calfskin heads. This has made it possible for rebound techniques to be routinely used on rope drums. Among the most hard-core of traditional style players, calfskin is still the preferred way to fit a rope drum and bouncing the sticks to play rolls is considered cheating.”
— James Clark.(3)
The following quotes regarding stick grip methods and how drum rolls were taught, are excerpts from drumming tutorials and official military music performance directives that were published between 1780–1886. These excerpts are presented without editorial commentary for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
James Longman and Francis Broderip (1780)
“The first thing to be learnt, is to hold the Sticks, which is a principal part in Drum-beating. The left hand Stick which is the most difficult, is to be held firm between the thumb and the upper joint of the fourth finger. The lower or right hand Stick, to be griped fast with the little finger, and to be held as a Man may use a Stick in Fencing.”
“The second is to learn to roll, which is to begin with the left hand beating two strong strokes, then two with the right, and so on quickening the time till the roll is closed.”
Charles Stewart Ashworth (1812)
“The first thing to be attended to by the Young Leaner is to hold the Sticks properly: the upper, or left hand stick is the most difficult to be managed at first: it must be firmly held between the thumb and two middle fingers, to rest on the third finger a little above the middle joint. The lower, or right hand stick must be held fast with the little finger, and be allowed to play with ease through the others, as a man may use a stick in fencing.”
“The next to be learnt is to close a roll: begin with two heavy strokes with the upper, or left hand, then two with the right, and so on, quickening the time till the roll is closed.”
David Hazeltine (1817)
“The drum sticks should be held in the following manner; viz. the three last fingers of the right hand should be clinched round the stick to the hand, the fore finger should be loosely clinched round the stick to the thumb. The stick in the left should be held in the hollow of the hand between the fore finger and thumb, passing down between the great finger and the finger below it; the fore finger and the great finger should pass over the stick, and the other two should pass under it, the fore finger should be clinched also to the thumb. Being thus fixed so that the scholar may have the ablest command of himself, and standing easy he may proceed.”
“Long roll, is beat as follows, strike two strokes with the left hand, then two with the right hand, and continue striking in a like manner till it commences a close roll, by striking quicker and quicker.”
Sam L. Potter (1817)
“The first thing previous to a Boy practising on the drum is to place him perfectly upright and place his left heel in the hollow of the right foot. Then put the drum sticks into his hands the right hand stick to be grasp’d with the whole hand about two inches and a half from the top (or more if requir’d) as drum sticks are not all of the same weight, similar to grasping a sword or stick when going to play hack-sword: The left to be held between the thumb and fore finger of the left hand close in the hollow the top towards the wrist leaving the top of the stick as much out of the hand as the other resting, it resembling a pen when going to write, only with this except on between the first Joints of the second and third fingers.”
“In learning the long roll which is the foundation of drum-beating; The boy must strike the drum twice with each stick beginning with the left hand first, throwing his arms up between each as in the first position and gradually lowering them according to the closing of the roll. Be sure he keeps the buttons of the sticks as far as possible from the drum head between each time he strikes and both sticks should strike as even (i.e.) as near the same weight on the drum as possible.”
Alvan Robinson (1818)
“The stick in the right hand should be held naturally; that is, it should pass between the thumb and fore finger; the little finger should be loosely closed round it, and it should be held firmly with the thumb and fore finger. The Stick in the left hand should pass between the thumb and two fore fingers and over the third and fourth, the first and second closed round it to the thumb. Thus prepared, the learner may with an unshaken resolution and a full determination to accomplish his design.”
“The long roll is performed by striking one, two, light strokes with the left hand; three, four, with the right; five, six, with the left; seven, eight with the right, and so on until a close roll is performed by striking quicker and quicker.”
Levi Lovering (1823)
Lovering offers no advice as to how to hold the sticks.
“Strike the drum with the Left hand twice, the first very light, the second a smart full stroke ... then strike with the right hand in the same manner as with the left; taking care to throw the arm out briskly to the side of the body, and as high as the head, which will enable the learner to keep time: Care should be taken when the stick touches the drum, to have the elbow close to the side. Practice this beat, contracting at each stroke the distance to which the arm is thrown out till the arms remain close to the side, and it becomes a close roll.”
George D. Klinehanse (1853)
“The left-hand stick is the most difficult to use; it should be held firmly between the thumb and the two middle fingers, resting on the third above the middle joint. The right-hand stick must be held with the thumb and forefinger closed around it, allowing he stick to play through the hand with ease.”
“To close a roll, begin with the left hand, then the right, quickening the time until it is finished. It is necessary that strict attention should be paid that the pupil be not permitted to beat any lesson, except what is laid down in the book; and never undertake the second until he has learned the first properly.”
Keach, Burditt, and Cassidy (1861)
To explain stick grip, two illustrations are used. The first, identified as “Plate No. 1” shows a drummer with the hands raised high in a preparatory position and is described as “Position at Commencing.” The second, “Plate No. 2” shows a drummer holding sticks with the beads resting in the center of the drum head, and is titled “General Position.” (See image below.)
“The Roll is the foundation of all drumming. The Roll being to the beginner on the drum, what the gamut is to a beginner on either a wind or stringed instrument. The pupil should commence beating the Roll very slow, holding the sticks as in Plate (No.1) dropping each time gradually as the time increases, and beating within the centre of the head, as in Plate (No. 2,) in a circle of about two inches, increasing the time until a close roll is beat; then decreasing the time until he beats as slow as at commencing. In commencing the roll, two beats are made first with the left hand, (the second beat louder than the first,) then two beats with the right hand, (the second louder than the first.) In expressing the beats on the drum, different words are used by teachers. We shall use as the best, the words Dada, and Mama; Dada for the left hand, and Mama for the right hand.”
Col. H. C. Hart (1861)
“The right hand stick should be held snug, with the whole hand closed, the ball of the thumb against the side of the first finger joint, the stick just balancing where the thumb and first finger grasp it. The left hand stick should rest in the hollow of the thumb and first finger, between the first and second joints of the second and third fingers, and held by the thumb and the two first fingers – the ball of the thumb against the side of the first finger joint, and this stick should balance where it rests between the second and third fingers.”
“The most particular thing to be observed is uniformity in beating, and I wish the pupil to bear this in mind, as it will not be separately explained with every beat or roll. First, commence slow and always with the left hand; let every blow be distinctly heard and continue to beat faster and faster until each separate roll or beat is closed smoothly and fine, and wherever a break or an irregularity in beating occurs while closing down the rolls or beats, commence back again where you can beat them plain and even, and so continue to practice, closing them down until perfected in a close roll, and until you have become practically acquainted with the several beats and their changes from hand to hand...”
George B. Bruce (1862)
“The next thing to be attended to by the pupil, is a proper management of his arms and the drum sticks. The left hand (which is the most difficult to manage at first,) should grasp the stick firmly but not too tight, between the thumb and first two fingers, passing over the third, and resting a little below the middle (or large) joint; the thumb in the mean time resting on the fore finger. The stick in the right hand should be held between the thumb and fingers lightly, with the little finger pressing it, so as to play through the hand, as a man would use a stick in fencing. The arms must be habituated to move with the greatest ease, while the shoulder joints and wrists are exercised in performing the principal part. It is absolutely necessary, that the learner should first practice the Long roll until he can close it smoothly, then commence the next lesson and perfect himself in that ... The learner should be careful and not raise the sticks too high having brought the roll to a close; he should also beat in the center of the head, within a circumference of about two inches.”
“The first lesson of the pupil ... will be the Long Roll, or as it is more familiarly called, Da-da, Ma-ma. The upper beats (or notes) are made with the left hand, and the lower ones with the right hand, commencing with the left very slow, and gradually increasing in velocity until closed down to a roll. The first stroke of each hand should be made somewhat lighter than the second.”
Elias Howe (1862)
Howe’s United States Regulation Drum And Fife Instructor, is a thorough and comprehensive collection of music and instruction for the fife, drum, and bugle. However, Howe’s instructions on holding the sticks and playing a long roll are word-for-word the same as written by Alvan Robinson in his book, Massachusetts Collection of Martial Musick. Note: Elias Howe the musician, is not the same Elias Howe who invented the sewing machine.
Gardiner A. Strube (1869)
“The position of the Pupil should be, as near as possible, that of the soldier as explained in Upton’s Tactics. The drum should hang naturally from a belt placed about the neck, and should rest against the left leg, a little above the knee. The left-hand stick, which is the most difficult to manage, should be held in the hollow of the hand between the thumb and first two fingers, passing over the third between the first and second joints. The right hand stick should be held with the thumb and all fingers closed around it; the little finger should press it harder than the rest, so as to allow it to play through the hand when beating.”
“The first lesson of the Pupil will be the Long Roll or Double-Stroke Roll. The Pupil will commence this lesson, as below indicated, by making two hard strokes with the left hand, then two hard strokes with the right hand, and so continue, alternately changing from hand to hand, and gradually beating faster and faster until perfected in a close, smooth roll. The Pupil will endeavor to beat in the centre of the head, within a circle of about two inches.”
John Phillip Sousa (1886)
“The right hand should grasp the stick at about two inches from the end, the thumb well under; and the left hand should hold the stick lightly, between the thumb and first two fingers, passing over the third, and resting on the first joint, the thumb on the fore-finger. Care should be exercised in keeping the first and second fingers bent slightly towards the palm of the hand. The stick should be held about three inches from the end. There should be a slight space between the elbows and the body, the fore-arm and hand somewhat elevated so that when the button of the stick rests on the drum-head, the arm will be in the form of a letter L reversed.”
“The action of the arms in rolling or beating must be limited as much as possible to the fore-arms and wrists. The buttons, or heads of the sticks should strike about the middle of the drum-head ... To acquire suppleness of the wrists, a good plan is to hold the sticks together about three inches from the buttons and turn them, at first slowly, and gradually increasing the movement until great rapidity is attained.”
1. Speed, Power, Control, Endurance, performed by Jim Chapin (1992; Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music Publishing Co., Inc.). Videocassette.
2. Jeff Hartsough and Derrick Logozzio, “Timeline of Marching and Field Percussion: Part III,” Percussive Notes 32/6 (December 1994): 30-32.
3. James Clark, Connecticut’s Fife & Drum Tradition (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 120.
Ashworth, Charles Stewart. (1812). A New, Useful and Complete System of Drum Beating. Boston: G. Graupner.
Bruce, George B. & Emmett, Daniel. (1862). Drummer’s and Fifer’s Guide. New York: Firth, Pond & Co.
Hart, Col. H. C. (1861). New and Improved Instructor For The Drum. New York: H. C. Hart.
Hazeltine, David. (1817). Instructor In Martial Music. Exeter: C. Norris and Co.
Howe, Elias. (1862). Howe’s United States Regulation Drum and Fife Instructor. Boston: Elias Howe.
Keach, Burditt, and Cassidy. (1861). The Army Drum And Fife Book. Boston: Oliver Ditson and Co.
Klinehanse, George D. (1853). The Manual of Instruction for Drummers. Washington D.C.: G.D. Klinehanse.
Longman, James & Broderip, Francis. (1780). The Young Drummers Assistant. London: Longman and Broderip.
Lovering, Levi. (1823). The Drummer’s Assistant for the Art of Drumming. Philadelphia: J.G. Klemm.
Potter, Sam L. (1815). The Art of Beating the Drum. Westminster: Henry Potter.
Robinson, Alvan. (1818). Massachusetts Collection of Martial Musick. Hallowell: E. Goodale.
Sousa, John P. (1886). The Trumpet and Drum. (Reprint Chicago: WFL Drum Co., 1954). Washington, D.C.: Sousa.
Strube, Gardiner A. (1869). Strube’s Drum and Fife Instructor. New York: D. Appleton & Co.
you are interested in learning more about the evolution of the American
snare drum style, and would like to see the original publications, an
excellent resource where reproductions of many historic drum method
books can be found is through Mr. Edmund W. Boyle, at his website: http://www.beafifer.com/