Sticking methods are directions for the efficient sequencing and coordination of hand-to-hand motions in drumming. They guide drummers in deciding which hand should “lead” a rhythmic phrasing considering the genre, tempo, and dynamics. There are three methods widely practiced for their successful sticking principles: rudimental, natural, and alternating.
19th-century military drummers, fifers, and buglers were responsible for all communications within camps, separate units, and battlefields. There could be no improvising. Beats, signals, and calls had to be accurate and consistently performed. Traditional American field drumming is a rudimental style because drum beats are composed and arranged based on a collection of lessons known as “rudiments.” Rudiments are short, memorable rhythmic patterns of accented and unaccented strokes arranged to a specified sticking sequence.
Rudimental lessons originated hundreds of years ago within European and American militaries. They are frequently named using onomatopoeias, which imitate the sounds they make when played. (e.g., paradiddle, ratamaque, pataflafla.) Rudiments served to narratively teach drummers the language and codes of communication and the musical rules and techniques required to play them. Narrative teaching uses no written notation. It is a one-to-one verbally shared experience requiring rote memorization.
We do not know the exact origin of every rudimental lesson. There is no complete and unbroken chain of written records before the late 18th century. However, during the 19th century, drum and fife tutorial books and several U.S. Military Camp Duty editions became widely available. By the early 20th century in the United States, the most well-known snare drum texts were The Drummer’s and Fifer’s Guide (1862), by George Bruce & Daniel Emmett; and Strube’s Drum and Fife Instructor (1869) by Gardiner A. Strube.
In 1933, the National Association of Rudimental Drummers (NARD) adopted the 25 rudiments of Strube’s book and added the single stroke roll to compile what they called the “26 Standard Rudiments.” NARD created this list to ensure that snare drum competition would be adjudicated fairly because the same “standards” would apply to all performers.
The Strube exercises adopted by NARD are not a complete collection of all American rudimental lessons, nor are they described the same way by sources other than Strube. For example, the paradiddle, as written by Strube, contains just one accented note. There are two accents in a paradiddle in many earlier publications, including Charles Ashworth’s 1812 Camp Duty, A New, Useful and Complete System of Drum Beating.1
We will never know how many rudimental lessons were lost. However, in The Marching Drummer’s Companion by George Kusel, he collected descriptions of “The 49 Rudiments of Drumming” from primary source manuals published between 1810–1820.2
There are many “drum rudiments” circulating the world. In an interview in Percussive Notes (April 1996), percussion historian George Carroll estimates more than 200 rudiments. In addition to British and American rudiments, there are more unique contributions from French, Scottish, Swiss, and other European styles. That said, there are still only three basic stroke techniques: 1. single strokes, 2. double strokes, 3. coactive strokes (flams and drags.) Some believe that the unique nature of modern multiple-bounce press/buzz strokes may qualify as a 4th stroke technique. In 1984, The Percussive Arts Society logically divided an updated collection of “40 International Drum Rudiments” into groups as Rolls, Diddles, Flams, and Drags.
DOUBLE STROKE ROLLS, DIDDLES, AND DRAGS
Each of these rudiments includes double strokes. Why not group all three under the single umbrella of doubles? Here is how they are different:
DOUBLE STROKE ROLLS are played in a hand-to-hand sequence with a specified musical time value to create the illusion of a long-held tone. The distinction between diddle strokes and double roll strokes is conceptual and based on the context of their use. All rudimental rolls are double strokes. They may commence or end on a downbeat, and they can lead with either hand.
DIDDLES are like roll stroke doubles, and they have designated time values such as 8ths, 16ths, and 32nds. Diddles facilitate lead hand changes. However, diddle rudiments (except for the paradiddle-diddle) do not pair with another diddle played by the alternate hand.
DRAGS The drag is a double-stroke grace note. Grace notes are ornamental embellishments closely connected to a stronger primary beat. In contrast to flam grace notes, drags are not played as close to the primary beat. They are played a little stronger than a flam grace note and from a slightly higher position.
FLAMS The flam rudiment is unique; it is a coordinated action of a strong primary stroke closely paired with a low grace note stroke. Flams may lead from the left hand or right hand.
1. Ashworth, Charles S., and George P. Carroll. A New, Useful and Complete System of Drum Beating (Williamsburg, VA: Geo. P. Carroll, 1966), 4.
2. Kusel, George. The Marching Drummer’s Companion (Willow Grove, PA: George Kusel, 1970).
Edward B. Straight was a prominent Chicago drummer who wrote several books on “modern drumming.” In 1923 he published his most important and enduring work: The Straight System, The Natural Way to Play Drums. Straight’s strong influence in popularizing natural sticking is why it is often called “Straight Sticking.” In the opening pages of his book, he listed the following principles of natural sticking.1
• Always commence every measure with your RIGHT hand.
• Always have your right hand come on the count ONE, TWO in every bar.
• Always play sixteenth notes SINGLE tap. RLRLRLRL.
• Always play the same beat the same way.
• Always flam (grace note) with your LEFT hand. (Except the hand-to-hand flams.)
• Always play the NATURAL WAY. (Never change hands.)
Straight further elaborated on the virtues of his Natural Way, writing: “Your rolls will be EXACTLY the right length, because most all of the rolls start and end on an eighth note, and with your right hand coming down on every eighth in the measure ... With this system, you will find that it is a very easy matter to play in rhythm as you control every count with your RIGHT hand ... This SYSTEM omits all the unnecessary hand-to-hand beats and hand-to-hand flams, which are so hard to execute at any reasonable TEMPO.”2
A potential downside of natural sticking is that strong hand dominance and practice mean the weak hand could remain weak. The antidote to that side effect is to invest time practicing natural sticking exercises with a left-hand lead. Continue to work on traditional rudiments and dedicate an extra portion of practice time to weak hand exercise.
In 1956, Earl Sturtze included a section about natural sticking in his book, The Sturtze Drum Instructor. Under the heading of “Which Stick To Strike,” he says, “To drum scientifically, a system of sticking must be employed. One must know when to strike with the right and when to strike with the left.”3
Sturtze describes sticking derived from “natural factors” as “orchestra drumming,” which he explained by writing: “In orchestra drumming the right-hand takes the lead and strikes on the first beat of the measure, and also on the first beat of each even group of notes... The numerical counts are the downbeats; the ‘ands’ are the upbeats.”4
SUMMARY OF THE NATURAL STICKING METHOD
Was Straight advocating for the end of rudimental sticking? The answer is no. Straight was intimately familiar with American rudimental drumming. He served an active role in preserving and standardizing that system, as evidenced through his contributions as a founding member of NARD. However, he considered rudimental drumming as military-style field drumming and that theatre, concert, and double-drumming required an alternative system.
“Double-drumming” was a term used during the early 20th century to describe a new class of drummers using bass drum foot pedals so that one drummer could simultaneously play the parts of two.
In addition to promoting his Natural Way system, Straight endorsed a controversial roll technique called the “press roll.” Nowadays, drummers accept the press roll as an essential drumming skill, but buzz rolls were criticized and resisted as a non-legitimate technique during Straight’s time. Straight wrote, “Your rolls must be closed up, then they are effective. No OPEN ROLLS in theatre work.”5
Does natural sticking dismiss modern drummers from the need to study and practice rudimental drumming? That answer depends on the individual. It is not essential to be a rudimental expert to play most music. According to Benjamin Podeminski, author of Podemski’s Standard Snare Drum Method, “The conductor and listener do not care how the instrumentalist executes various technical strokes as long as the proper result is achieved.”6
However, each traditional rudiment pattern learned requires the mastery of specific stroke techniques to be performed effectively. One of the great benefits of studying rudiments is the acquisition of new technical skills. Expanded technical skills through rudimental practice will improve a drummer’s ability to express musical ideas.
1. Straight, Edward B. The Straight System of Modern Drumming – The Natural Way to Play Drums (Chicago: Straight, 1923), 5.
2. Ibid: 6.
3. Sturtze, Earl. The Sturtze Drum Instructor (Ivoryton: reissued by The Company of Fifers and Drummers, Orig. 1956), 29.
4. Ibid: 29.
5. Straight, Edward B. The Straight System of Modern Drumming – The Natural Way to Play Drums (Chicago: Straight, 1923), 6.
6. Podemski, Benjamin. Podemski’s Standard Snare Drum Method (New York: Mills, 1968), 18.
7. Goldenberg, Morris. Modern School For Snare Drum (New York: Chappell & Co. Inc., 1955), 72.
Alternating sticking is just exactly as the name implies: every stroke alternates hand-to-hand regardless of the rhythm. When playing the alternating sticking method, sometimes a rhythm will be played using a right-hand lead stroke, and later the same rhythm may repeat under a left-hand lead.
By contrast, when a particular rhythm repeats, it is always played the same way using natural sticking. Natural sticking is a reliable method and is nearly always the right choice for either binary or ternary meters, if not already specified as rudimental sticking.
However, any measure between two points in time is divisible by any number. Alternating sticking is the go-to option for playing odd meters, mixed combinations of meters, and artificial note groupings. Alternating sticking is often the best way to play fast rhythms when there may not be enough time between beats to follow natural sticking or rudimental sticking conventions.
RUFFS • SHORT SINGLE STROKE ROLLS
Historically, the rudimental names “drag” and “ruff” have frequently been interchanged. George Bruce included a three-stroke rudiment in The Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide (1862) and called it the “tap ruff,” which he notated as three single alternating strokes with the third one accented.1
Charles Ashworth’s 1812 book on drumming includes the identical three-beat pattern that Bruce named the “tap ruff.” However, Ashworth gave it no name; he labeled it “Quick Like A Drag.”2
In 1853, George Klinehanse replicated Ashworth’s rudiments in his Manual of Instruction for Drummers. Klinehanse labeled Ashworth’s three-stroke rudiment “Ruff.”3 Elias Howe’s Drum and Fife Instructor (1862) describes a four-stroke single rudiment that he called a “Rough.”4
The National Association of Rudimental Drummers list of “26 Standard Rudiments” (1933) identifies rudiment number 8 as the “Ruff,” written with a double-stroke grace note on the left hand, followed by a primary stroke on the right hand.
In 1942, Buddy Rich and Henry Adler wrote, “All short, single-stroke rolls are known as ruffs.”5 According to them, a three-stroke ruff is three single alternating strokes, but if played using a double-stroke grace note slightly ahead of a single accent stroke, it is called a “half drag.” Whether we agree with Rich and Adler’s terminology or not, mastering the skill of short single-stroke groupings is fundamental to good drumming. They are an excellent platform for hand speed and control.
All single-stroke rolls are alternating. However, some short single-stroke rhythms benefit by using the rules of Straight’s natural sticking.
The three, four, and seven-stroke ruffs are among the most universally known and commonly played short single-stroke patterns. Alternating sticking allows the accents to migrate (grid style) naturally. Ruffs have found renewed popularity among hybrid rudiment enthusiasts. However, the word “single” or “singled” is used rather than ruff (e.g., single-3, single-5, and single-9.)
1. Bruce, Geo B., and Dan D. Emmett. The drummer’s and Fifer’s Guide (New York: Wm. A. Pond & Co., 1862).
2. Ashworth, Charles S., and George P. Carroll. A New, Useful and Complete System of Drum Beating (Williamsburg, VA: Geo. P. Carroll, 1966).
3. Klinehanse, George D. The Manual of Instruction for Drummers (Washington D.C.: G.D. Klinehanse, 1853)
4. Howe, Elias. Howe’s United States Regulation Drum and Fife Instructor, for the Use of the Army and Navy (Boston: Howe, 1861).
5. Rich, Buddy and Adler, Henry. Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments (New York: Amsco Publications, 1942).