A Short Guide On the Basics of Drumming and Sounding Good
You probably know all of the basics of drumming already. But why does the song never sound as good when you play it? All the pro’s always sound way better, right? Even though you’re playing the song the same way as them.
Imagine if you could become a better drummer overnight? Go to bed, wake up the next day, go to the drums and suddenly hear everyone say things like, “wow, check you out, you sound amazing!”
If you’re a pro, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re a beginner, read on, you’re going to get a lot of value from this. Pro’s should read on too for a nice little reminder and some inspiration. Because you know how crucial the topic of sounding good is, and maybe you’ve let your sound suffer lately.
We’re going to learn how to make a good sound on the drums. Making a better sound is arguably even more important than actually getting better at playing the drums. It is certainly way more achievable at least.
I always love things that take little effort but give big results. So let’s get to it.
This post will cover
• The science of the sound
• How to control the character of the sound
• An awesome game to increase your accuracy
• A step-by-step method to massively improve your sound
• The most common ‘special’ sound effects
• and more…
As you know, the air pocket inside of the drum moves once the drum is hit.
Creating “goooooood, gooooooood, good… good vibrations!” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Many factors can influence these vibrations and change the character of the sound. In this post, we’ll learn the major factors that influence the sound and what you can change about them. Keep in mind the type of music you play when changing your sound.
But first, the theory.
” Keep in mind the type of music you play when changing Your Sound.
The Science of a Ripple Vibration
Sound is caused by vibrations in the air.
Look closely at this image and focus on just one dot. The vibrating air particles hit against each other creating soundwaves. That’s why no one can hear you scream in space where there are no particles to vibrate, hence it being a vacuum (but I never did understand why a vacuum cleaner is so loud! Anyway).
If those vibrations are slow, the sound will be low, if they’re fast, the sound will be high. This is the basics of ‘pitch’.
Interesting fact: Pitch is measured in hertz (Hz). Humans can hear 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. The beluga whale can hear as low as 1 Hz. The animal that hears the highest is not the bat at 150,000 Hz, it’s a moth. The greater wax moth can hear 300,000 Hz.
But what’s this got to do with drums?
Picture a small, round pond, with a clear surface. The water is perfectly still. Ok, now imagine dropping a small stone into the centre. What happens…
The stone goes ‘plop’ and creates ripples. Right? [See Fig 1 below]
Now, what happens to those ripples when they reach the edge of the pond? They bounce back right? Well, that’s exactly what happens to the vibrations of a drum skin when you hit it.
Each hit creates energy that vibrates and ripples outwards until it bounces off the edge of the drum and back again. These vibrations continue until the energy dissipates.
Naturally, the ripples that bounce back from the edge of the drum interfere with the original ones creating tiny distortions. [See Fig 2]
Because drums are circular, you can avoid this phenomenon by hitting the drums exactly in the centre.
Should I Hit the Centre?
In short, yes!
If you hit the drum perfectly in the centre, the vibrations will ripple outward, reaching every point of the edge of the drum at the same time, then bounce back while maintaining a perfectly circular form. [See Fig 3]
This will create what’s known as a ‘standing wave’. Which means the sound will get louder because the wave (ripple) amplifies itself by continuously adding energy to itself. [See Fig 4]
It is commonly agreed that hitting the drums in the middle is best because, not only does it create a more resonant sound, it also creates a purer sound with fewer distortions or ‘overtones’.
The ability to hit the drums perfectly in the centre might be one of the first distinctions between a beginner and an advanced drummer. See the coin game later in this post for an awesome way to develop this ability.
So, the 1st step in sounding good is hitting the drums in the centre. Master your accuracy.
What Else Affects the Sound?
These days you can find all kinds of different sticks, each with a unique sound. Even 2 pair of sticks from the same brand and model can sound different – just like 2 bottles of the same wine can taste different. But we’re just learning about the basics of drumming here, so I’ll show you the main differences.
” 2 pair of sticks from the exact same brand and model can sound different.
Wooden sticks sound different from acrylic and metal. Generally, the denser the material, the thicker the sound. You can check the density of a stick by lightly clenching your teeth and gently tapping the top of your skull with the edge of the stick. You’ll ‘hear’ a sound, the thicker and lower the sound you hear, the denser the material. When choosing a pair, aim for an identical sound from both sticks when tapping your skull.
Tip: Denser sticks tend to break less often. Look for a pair matching in density for a better overall sound.
- Thin sticks make a brighter, lighter and quieter sound
- Thick sticks are louder and thicker sounding
- Nylon tips only make noticeable differences to the sound of cymbals
One final note on sticks and sound. The tension of your grip will affect the quality of the sound. If you squeeze your sticks while playing, you will choke the vibrations in the stick making your drums sound dead and less ‘musical’. If you hold the sticks lightly, your drums will sing a much richer tone.
So, the 2nd step in sounding good is choosing your dream stick and holding them lightly. Master your grip.
Another major factor is the drum shell’s material and size, which will change the character of the sound. Known as it’s timbre. Larger deeper shells create thick, deep sounds. Small and shallow ones create bright, high sounds.
What you may not know is that every drum shell has a series of inherent vibrational speeds. Remember from earlier, the slower the vibrational speed, the lower the pitch. Think of each drum having its own ‘natural pitch’.
At this ‘natural pitch’, the shell will ring true and clear. So, if you tune the drum skin to match one of these pitches, you’ll get a huge sound.
To find the natural pitch of your drum, lightly tap the shell with a soft mallet while the drum is suspended in the air (not resting on the floor). You’ll hear the pitch more easily if you remove both of the skins first.
” Every drum shell has a series of inherent vibrational speeds. Think of them as the drums ‘natural pitch’.
Perhaps the most manipulatable element of the sound is the drum skin; AKA drum heads.
Historically made from animal hide, these days drum skins are made from mylar (plastic) with different technological enhancements. For example:
- Control rings
- Power dots
- Hydraulic coating
- Single-ply or double-ply
- Synthetic animal hide
- and more…
These are designed to control certain factors such as durability, tuning, resonance and more. Read this article for further details. It focuses on snare drums, but the principles are the same for every drum.
The basics of any instrument will include tuning, and so should the basics of drumming. But sadly, a lot of teachers overlook this.
Once you’ve chosen your drum, stick and skin, next it’s time to tune the drums. The best resource on this topic is probably ‘The Drum Tuning Bible‘ – a must-read, especially for die-hard geeks. However, I’ll note the basics below.
You must aim for an overall even tone.
That means that the sound at each lug should be identical. That is easier said than done. But, that’s how you remove any troublesome distortions and unsavoury overtones. That’s how you get a clear sound.
” You must aim for an overall even tone.
Once that’s achieved, you should decide whether or not to have equal tension on the top and bottom skins. “Should I tune my top skin to match the bottom?”
- Yes = longer, more sustained ring with quieter volume
- No = louder volume and
- a longer tone – when the top is tighter than the bottom
- a flatter tone – when the top is looser than the bottom
Next, you should consider the relationship between the shell’s natural pitch (as discussed earlier) and the tension of the skin. Opting for a harmonious relationship between the natural pitch of the shell and the pitch of the skin will allow for more expression while playing, giving you more control over the sound of the entire drum kit (when mastered).
Note: you’ll hear a lot about tuning drums to a specific pitch or musical note. This is beyond the scope of this post, but all agree that the relationship between the perceived pitch of each drum should be considered. It means to say that you should tune your drums to sound nice with each other.
When tuning, we must make sure each drum sounds nice with the others. How do you know if they sound nice with each other? Easy. Ask your ears!
Seriously, just hit the drums, listen to the sound and decide. Who’s to say if you’re right or wrong? Some people think Vivaldi sounds nice, others… meh!
So, the 3rd step in sounding good is tuning your drums. Master tuning.
Remember, this is just the basics of drumming. You can dive deeper later if you like.
Please don’t get put off by the whole idea of tuning, it’s super cool when you get your drum kit tuned well. They play and feel different, you’ll play differently too – for the better. It’s really hard to explain but the experience of a well-tuned kit is a million times more fulfilling.
Just as with anything, you’ll get better at tuning your drums over time. Don’t worry, you can’t break anything, and you can always change things tomorrow if you don’t like the way you made them sound yesterday. Don’t skip this. It’s well worth the effort.
” It’s really hard to explain but the experience of a well-tuned kit is a million times more fulfilling.
Evenness. Sound is vibrations, so if you remember just one thing, remember the word evenness. Aim for even vibrations. OK, but several elements can alter the character of those vibrations. You should consider each element and decide if it is helping you to create the sound you want or not. If not, change it. If you don’t know, experiment.
You have probably never considered the basics of drumming to include sounding good, but what could be more basic, more fundamental, than how a drum sounds? And it is your competitive edge. It’s not the best artists who become immortal, it’s the best sounding.
Step 1: Hit the centre
Step 2: Hold your sticks lightly
Step 3: Tune your drums
So, how do we do it? How do we sound good? Read on…
The Basics of Drumming: How to Sound Good
We’ve covered a lot of theory, and we’ve only touched on the basics of drumming and the principles of sound. But this should be enough to get you started, and I’ve also provided you with some valuable resources to take your research further when the time is right.
Now lets switch gears a little and learn more about how to sound good.
Set Up the Kit Correctly
Do you sometimes miss a drum when playing? Or hit the metal rims too often? The secret to setting your drums up correctly is to adjust the drums to suit you instead of adjusting yourself to suit the drums.
‘Correctly’ is a personal thing, though. There is no right or wrong when it comes to set up. Your ultimate goal is for comfort and efficiency. However, a good guideline is to follow what most modern drummers do. They set their drums up flat, so they are parallel to the floor. [See Fig 5]
Ultimately you’ll need to experiment with a few combinations until you get things just right for you.
Here is a simple exercise to help you judge for yourself if your drums are set up ‘correctly’. Set your drums up then play this exercise for a while, gradually getting faster.
So, the 4th step in sounding good is setting your kit up comfortably. Master your set up.
Additionally, you can consider adding and removing pieces of your drum kit. All of which will affect the sound, especially the possibilities. More on this in the ‘special effects’ section.
If you have a go at the above exercise and gradually increase the speed, eventually you’ll start missing the target. So, here’s an awesome game (with a not-so-awesome name) to help you increase your accuracy.
Awesome Drum Game: The Coin Game
Students love this game and it works well in group lessons.
Everyone sits in a wide circle on the floor, each with a pair of sticks. Next, place a large coin on the floor in the middle of the circle. And (you guessed it) take turns hitting the coin.
First to 20 hits wins!
If you hit the coin, you get another turn. If you miss, you lose a life. When all your lives are gone, it’s the next person’s turn. You can choose how many lives you get based on how advanced you are. This makes for a fairer game because advanced people get 1 life, beginners get 3 (for example).
You must use alternate sticking. If you hit the coin with the right stick, you get one point and take your next turn with the left stick. If you miss with the left stick, you lose a life and you take your next turn with the same stick. In this case, the left.
You must hit the coin where ever it lands. If the coins lands outside of the circle, you can move it back to the centre.
This is probably the best drum game I know. Mess around with the rules and create your own. Let me know how it goes.
” Students love this and it works really well in group lessons.
The Basic Drum Strokes
You’re probably familiar with Vic Firths 40 essential rudiments webpage (if not, check it out). This video explains the basics of drumming in 4 strokes.
There are many different strokes and techniques. Each stroke will change the sound you make and this is where the secret to sounding good lies. It’s with the drum stroke. It’s how you hit them that makes the biggest difference. Master these 4 strokes, especially the full stroke, AKA the rebound stroke.
So, the 5th step in sounding good is playing the perfect stroke. Master your technique.
” This is where the secret to sounding good lies. It’s with the drum stroke.
This section would not be complete without addressing coordination.
If you want your groove to move you got to get the drums pulsing on the same beat. That means hitting them at the same time.
Just like walking with someone. If both of you walk to the same rhythm, you’d only hear 2 footsteps. Look at the 2 people walking [see Fig 6]. The man puts his foot down just after the lady, so you’ll hear 4 footsteps.
You must pay attention to the sound made when simultaneously hitting multiple-sound sources. Said differently, whenever 2 or more drums are to be played on the same beat of the bar, they must be played at the same time.
If you’ve never been taught to hit your drums at the same time, go take it a shot at it now.
Alright, coordination goes deeper than this. If you’re fine with hitting multiple drums simultaneously, you’re ready for the next level.
So, the 6th step in sounding good is making two or more things sound at once. Master your coordination.
Next, you must master playing different dynamics and/or strokes on different limbs at the same time. In the former, you can change the volume of one limb without changing the others; in the latter, you can use a specific stroke in one limb while using a different one in the other.
Once you’ve chosen all your gear and set it up in the right way, how do you make a good sound?
Well, you must hit the drums in the centre. The coin game will help with this. While focusing on your technique and coordination. Playing rebound strokes and coordinating all your limbs simultaneously will get you beyond the basics of drumming while greatly improving the quality of your sound.
These steps may take you a little longer to master but simply paying attention to them will have noticeable changes in the beginning. Never give up!
Step 4: Master your set up
Step 5: Master your technique
Step 6: Master your coordination
A Short Venture Beyond the Basics of Drumming
For the majority of beginner drummers, the above topics will be enough to greatly enhance their sound. For those of you interested in creating even more unique sounds, consider the following factors.
Not Hitting the Centre
There are some situations when you may not want to hit the centre of the drum. This is music, after all, a creative art form.
Without going into too much detail, let’s just point out that all strokes must be intentional. Which means no accidental sounds allowed.
The most common example of not hitting the centre is while playing a multiple bounce roll on the snare drum. AKA a buzz roll.
Playing With Hands
This is a pretty uncommon technique on the drums these days, but using your hand’s instead of your sticks will create a different sound. And a combination of both can result in some very unique music.
One of the best ways to use this technique is with the hi-hat. This is a dying skill nowadays and you’ve possibly never seen it.
Special Sound Effects
It is possible to create many unconventional sounds on the drums.
Since the event of the drum machine, sampling, and the growth of electronic styles of music. Live drummers have been attempting to emulate electronic sounds on their acoustic drums. Jojo Mayer has been on that same mission for a while now with his band Nerve. He’s even designed some cool new sticks.
Perhaps the first drummer to do this in the mainstream was KJ Sawka. Check these 2 drummers out if you haven’t already.
At this point in the guide, we are starting to stray away from the basics of drumming and for that reason, I won’t go into this too deeply. Instead, watch this video below for a few ideas. Then take your search further if you’re inspired to do so.
I’ll list the most common special sound effects below. Perhaps so common you wouldn’t even call them ‘unconventional’.
- Rim click
- Rim shot
- Buzz or Drag
- Foot splash
So, the 7th step in sounding good is mastering special sound effects.
The Basics of Drumming with Special Sticks
Last but not least, one more factor that can alter your sound is the stick you use. Again this is straying away from the basics of drumming but brings us to the final step. Discovering your unique voice.
Customise Your Sound
Your voice is your unique sound identity. Much like you’d consider your image, which is how you look and act, your voice is how you sound and play. And that’s what this entire guide has been about.
To customise your sound you can address everything mentioned here as well as looking beyond the traditional wooden stick. There are many options such as:
- Hot rods
- Cool rods
- Marching sticks
- Sticks with bells
- And even different bass drum beaters
Some sticks will require learning a new technique to play them, for example, brushes.
The list above is just the beginning, there are also speciality drum sticks and world sticks, you can look into the major drum stick manufacturer’s websites for further details. Vicfirth, ProMark, Zildjian, Vater, and take it from there.
So, the 8th step in sounding good is to customise your sound. Master your voice.
Wow, that was a heavy read. Bookmark this page for future reference.
Advanced players, I hope you found value. As you can see, this guide is designed for beginners. Feel free to share it with anyone you know who is just learning the basics of drumming or use it with your students.
Working drummers. If you want to get paid more, take a look at your sound. Never be afraid to return to the basics, especially with regards to sounding good.
The goal of this guide is to get you thinking about your sound and give you the tools, resources, and information needed to get you started along the path of artistry.
All of the guidelines here are starting points with the most commonly accepted good practices. But, but, but, once you understand the rules you can break them in artistic ways. I always say, once you understand the rules, you can break them for special effect. For example, pros, have you considered changing how tight you hold your sticks when playing various style of music, or changing to a thinner pair for certain sections of a song?
” Once you understand the rules, you can break them for special effect.
So, let’s have a recap. I numbered these steps, but you can do them any order.
- Master your accuracy: hit the centre of the drums
- Master your grip: and choose your stick
- Master tuning: and choose your skins
- Master your set up so you can play the way you want
- Master your technique: especially the full stroke
- Master your coordination: hit 2 or more drums at the same time
- Master special sound effects: advanced techniques
- Master your voice: customise your sound
A few important things were not covered in this guide. Don’t forget that the room you are in will make a huge difference to the sound. And we didn’t learn about using mics, or electronic drums, and there wasn’t much talk about cymbals, to name a few.
I always love the quick wins in life, and this topic will take you from zero to hero overnight. But it’s no substitute for the actual skill of drumming, which takes many more nights. To become world-class, you must put in the hours. But if your just a hobbyist, you’ll see huge results after applying these steps.
Best of luck, just go for it. Choose one step and dive in. Let me know how it goes. I’d love to get your thoughts on this guide and if you found it valuable, please share it with your friends and leave a comment below.