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Touch, Tone and Feel

Article by Jayson Brinkworth // July 02 2008
Touch, Tone and Feel

I would venture to say that almost any drummer could become the hottest player on the planet if he got into his tone enough. Because when you get there it leads to being more musical, and being more musical leads to more people enjoying playing with you, and that leads to more and more gigs.” ~Billy Ward

This quote from my friend Billy Ward totally floored me when I first read it years ago. It makes so much sense and made me feel better about my obsessive-compulsive behavior of tuning and kit setup. For years I have been asked over and over about tuning drums. I have had students bring their full kit into a lesson to get them tuned up. I will try and put together an upcoming article on this very personal subject. But for now, I want to share with you my thoughts on being the most musical drummer we can be.

TONE

Have you ever really thought about how the sound of a drum is produced? Why can one person play a drum and have it sound a certain way, and another play the exact same drum and it sound totally different? There are many factors involved in this: where the drum was hit, if we played into or off of the drum, how loose or tight we are holding the stick, or the type of stick and tip. This goes on and on, but I have found that a lot of drummers aren’t even aware of, or couldn’t be bothered to understand, what happens when they play a drum. Once we strike a drum, we move air and cause sound waves to vibrate. These sound waves travel back and forth between the shell and the batter, which resonates heads on the drum. Depending how these heads are tuned, the pitch or note that is produced can differentiate. This is our tone. But how does one get the most musical tone from their drums? Is it technique? Is it the type of drum we are playing? Is it luck?

A certain amount of technique definitely helps us pull a musical tone out of the drum. The type of drum (shell material, etc.) affects this as well. My thoughts are that we should sound like ourselves on any drum. It should all be in our hands. I have heard drummers that don’t have great tone all of the time; there might be a little luck involved here. Maybe they were more relaxed on a certain gig. Maybe their setup is more comfortable one way than another. However, there should be no luck involved in this, and consistency is the key. I feel that we need to take this subject very seriously, for the reasons that Billy Ward mentioned above. I am going to discuss my approach to developing a good tone on the drums, but this is a very personal subject. You can find many ways to make your drums sing, and it is up to you to put the time and effort into it.

GET A GRIP

The way we hold the sticks and how tightly we squeeze them is a big factor in the tone of our drums. Whether we play matched or traditional grip, we need to be as loose as possible to have everything resonate together. Here is an easy way to find out if we squeeze our stick too tightly: hold both sticks as you normally would, now play your right stick onto your left, clicking them together. Does it sound choked? Can you hear a pitch from the wood? You should be able to hear both sticks resonate and almost produce a note. As far as grip goes, this is a whole other article in itself. We need to have the fulcrum relaxed (the grip between the thumb and the index finger for matched grip). Think of what would happen if the middle joint on a teetertotter was too tight. Not a very fun ride. Also, our back fingers need to be in contact with the stick. Don’t let that pinky slide out! Having this contact allows us to switch gears and pull the tone out of the larger drums. I use Power Grip sticks made by Trueline. These sticks are fantastic! They have a hump on the back side of the stick, right where your fingers are. What this does is allow us to be very relaxed and not have the stick fly out of our hands. I can honestly say that my own personal tone improved after I started using these sticks five years ago. Do some research on grip and watch videos of players like Billy who are very relaxed in their technique and grip, thus having great tone on the drums.

HAVE A BALL

Okay, here I go with another one of my whacky ideas, but this one works! Take a tennis ball and hold it in your right or left hand. Sit at your drums as you would to play and bounce the ball off of your snare drum. There are a few things we need to observe here: did the ball bounce back to us? How tightly were we holding the ball before we threw it down to the drum? What sound did the drum make when the ball hit? Of course the ball will bounce back, but was our drum at such an extreme angle that it didn’t bounce back into our hand? If so, the stick will react in that same way, and we need to change this as it is not a comfortable or relaxed way to play. When we throw the ball down, just like we throw the stick down, we should be holding it loosely. Hold the ball again, just like you are going to throw it down. How is your hand shaped? Are you gripping right around the ball or is your hand loose and your fingers fanned back? Your fingers should be fanned back, and you should be holding the ball very loose. Keep your hand in said position, then take the ball out and replace it with your stick. This is your grip! When we throw that stick down, let it come back just like the ball and keep your fingers and wrist relaxed. From here we can go into the Moeller method, finger exercises, the free stroke, and other technical stuff. The bottom line is that we throw the stick into the drum, let it react just like a ball, and let the drumhead, sticks and our hand resonate all together. We can bounce the tennis ball off of our toms as well. Really listen to the sound of the drums, and pay attention to the detail of how our hand feels in this process.

TOUCH

Our ability to develop touch takes years of practice and playing. Listen to players like Steve Gadd, Steve Jordan, Roy Haynes, Joe Morello, Levon Helm and many other experienced players. They have spent countless hours on the kit, and their touch keeps getting better and better. The idea of touch is how we go about drawing the tone out of the drum. One thing that I always mention to students is that we want to play off of the drum and not into the drum, again letting everything resonate. One of my first memories of this goes back to seeing Jeff Porcaro play and wondering how he pulled a huge sound out of his drums when he barely moved. He would set his stick down on the snare, and it would rip your head off. This is what got me started thinking about tone and how I touched the kit to make it sound good. As I said, this is a technique that takes years of experience to develop. The first step is becoming aware and working towards what sound you want to produce on the drums. Here are a few examples of drum tracks with incredible touch and tone:

  • Steve Gadd: "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" by Paul Simon
  • Manu Katché: "Somewhere Down The Crazy River" by Robbie Robertson
  • Steve Jordan: "Belief" by John Mayer (the whole album is touch and tone)
  • Billy Ward: "Out The Door" by the Billy Ward Trio
  • Bernard Purdie: "Babylon Sisters"  by Steely Dan
  • Joe Morello: "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck
  • Jeff Porcaro: "I’ll Be Over You" by Toto

FEEL

This is another very personal subject, and it can be hard to write about. Our feel is developed through the music we listen to, the music we practice along with, and many other factors. I believe in exposing my students to many different styles of music, as this opens their minds to different styles and feels. Our feel goes hand-in-hand with the tone we produce and our touch on the drums. When we play music, the bottom line is we need it to feel relaxed, comfortable, and very groovy. Even if it is not technically perfect, it can feel fantastic. Listen to Ringo Starr, Levon Helm, Charlie Watts, and others for an example of feel outweighing technical prowess. Music will always be this way, and playing with great feel should be our mission.

Don’t get me wrong, we need a certain amount of technique to be expressive on the drums. What we don’t want is to have technique rule our playing (there is no scoreboard on a gig or session). Our feel is also affected by our setup. If we don’t feel comfortable playing our drums, how can we make the music feel comfortable for others to listen or move to? We need to be aware of the angle of our toms and snare, the height and angle of our cymbals, and our seat height. Again these are subjects that can be written about all on their own, but we need to discover what feels comfortable when we play. Don’t be afraid to experiment with setup options other than the ones offered by your favorite players or in magazine ads.

Billy Ward’s DVD Big Time is a wonderful resource on this exact subject. His explanation is so logical and practical that our minds will be open to new options.

BEING MUSICAL

As I have stated in past articles, my personal objective in playing is to be the most musical drummer I can be. When I am asked by students or fellow musicians what I have been practicing, sometimes I find it hard to answer. I do practice technical exercises, but I am mostly practicing being as aware and musical as possible in any music setting. In my pursuit for this goal, these are areas that I work on:

  • Consistency in everything (groove, tone, ideas)
  • Being aware of song form and arrangement
  • Understanding what the other instruments are playing
  • Saying more with less notes
  • Being very aware of dynamics

Tone, touch, and feel will always be at the top of this list as these are the elements of music that make great songs, whether we know it or not. Next time you sit down to practice, think about playing music. Play through a song that you know, without even having the actual song on. Do you know the form? Are you playing dynamically? Does it sound like you are playing a song on the drums? This might seem odd at first, but you will be a better musician for this type of practice, I promise.




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About the Author
Jayson  Brinkworth

Jayson Brinkworth is an accomplished drummer, percussionist, vocalist, educator and writer based out of Canada. He is co-owner of the Saskatchewan music school Music In The House, as well as the founder of both the Regina Drum Festival and The Stickman Drum Experience.

Jayson proudly endorses Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Evans heads, Impact cases, Kickport, Flix, Future Sonics and Mountain Rhythm. Visit Jayson online at www.jaysonbrinkworth.com.



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