Is traditional grip a useful technique that drum students should learn?
We asked the members of the MD Education Team if they think traditional grip is relevant in today’s teachings. Here’s what they had to say.
As far as I understand it, traditional grip, or underhand grip with the left hand, started because drummers who were leading men to go forward into battle carried snare drums slung over their shoulders. The sling only had one attachment point, so the drum was slanted. The underhand grip made sense in this situation because matched grip would be too awkward, since the left hand and arm would have been held very high on the left side. When the drumset was invented and drummers sat down to play, they kept the same left-hand grip even though the snare drum didn’t have to be slanted any more.
When students ask if they should learn traditional grip, I tell them to take a look at classical percussion players. Do tympanists use traditional grip? No. Do vibraphonists and marimba soloists use traditional grip? No. These people are serious students of percussion. If they don’t see a use for traditional grip, then you shouldn’t worry about it either. Plus you get more raw power with match grip anyway.
That said, my first teacher taught me traditional grip. Then I later learned the rudiments with Sonny Igoe using traditional grip before going back and learning them all over again with matched grip. I did the same thing with Henry Adler when I studied with him. We went through the Buddy Rich book first with traditional grip and then with matched. Since that was my background, I’m very familiar with traditional grip and I do use it sometimes, usually on a jazz or lighter-volume gig. Sometimes I start a gig with traditional grip and switch to matched if the volume increases.
There is something special about traditional grip. It utilizes the natural turning motion of the forearm, wrist, and hand as one piece, whereas matched grip utilizes the hinged, up-and-down motion of the wrist and hand. The turning motion of the forearm, wrist, and hand with traditional grip is very comfortable and makes for nice bounces and subtler snare work.
If someone asks me to teach him or her traditional grip, I will. If they’re not sure and have been using matched grip, I tell them to stick with it.
Over the past five years, I can’t recall one student who came to me with traditional grip being his/her primary playing style. Those that became interested or asked questions about traditional grip are usually those who play jazz. I’ve sometimes offered the point that the reason why so many jazz drummers use traditional grip is because they were often taught by other jazz drummers who played with that technique.
If a drummer plans on doing any playing that involves subtlety, I do feel it is worth at least investigating traditional grip. In using traditional grip, the hand is underneath the stick, which can aid in playing ghosted “comping” notes. With matched grip, the hand is on top of the stick, which requires the player to have much more control as the weight of the hand coming down can add considerable volume.
I’d also like to note that I use traditional grip sometimes when the backbeat needs a certain swagger. For example, the song “Let’s Groove” by Earth, Wind & Fire is around 124 beats per minute. The backbeat plays an integral role in the driving feel of the song, yet the snare has a slightly relaxed swing to it. When playing this song live, the tendency is to push the tempo. Playing songs like this with traditional grip can help a drummer relax when necessary.
Let me first make a general statement and say that good drumming is less about the specific technique you use and more about how you use it, and there are examples of great drummers and strong opinions on both sides of this grip issue. I want to address this topic from my perspective as a teacher. As a teacher, especially with young and developing students, I believe there is really only one choice.
Efficient and effective drumming technique (grip and stroke) is about getting your body to move comfortably, naturally, injury- and pain-free, and in a way that will not limit your self-expression. It’s also about holding the sticks in a way that will produce an efficient stroke that takes maximum advantage of the physics of the drum, heads, sticks, angles, and so on. This may all sound very technical…because it is.
Sometimes we think of the grip as being a binary choice—either traditional or matched. In actuality, there are dozens of variations of each grip, including not just how you hold the stick in the hand but also how the wrist turns, how the fingers are used, the angle of the hand relative to the drum and forearm, the angle of the stick relative to the alignment of the forearm, the use of the forearm in the stroke, etc. I’ve seen drummers using a matched grip but they turn their wrist to the inside to use a more traditional-grip stroke. With students, I examine both grip and stroke as two highly related issues. Of course, the grip discussion also leads to another discussion about whether drumming is—or should be—a right-handed/left-handed issue (I firmly believe it is not; Drumming is a compound task requiring two-handed input). Then we have to talk about whether one’s dominant hand should be considered in a discussion of technique for drummers (It’s not for pianists, saxophonists, trumpeters, and other instrumentalists). Of course, this then points towards a debate over open-handed playing: Is it the next great step forward?
The human body has evolved to move a certain way, and we drummers should understand that and not try to reverse or ignore millennia of growth, change, and adaptation. It’s not up to me to tell my hands, wrists, arms, and body how they should learn to move or to try to force them to move in a way that’s unnatural. But it is up to me to learn and study how the body moves normally and comfortably so I can use my muscles and tendons in the most effective, efficient, and safe way possible in order to play the drumset. In addition to studying kinesiology, I’ve read and undertaken considerable research into the neuroscience of right-handed/left-handedness, defined motor skills in the fingers and hands, and brain function to know that the grip issue goes well beyond personal preference. Regardless of what we tell ourselves, our technique and how we use our bodies are either helping or hampering our drumming development and capability.
Matched and traditional grip each employs different muscles and tendons, and the fingers have a different role, and move in different ways, in each hand. A drummer’s goal through technique is to develop muscular and neural control of the limbs and sticks. Although these are extremely complicated tasks for the body and the brain, they can be accomplished much quicker by practicing the correct movements in the most correct and natural way. Consequently I don’t see the benefit of teaching/learning two different techniques with one hand and one technique with the other. It even makes less sense to learn two techniques with your weaker hand, thereby effectively splitting your practice time with that hand so that it will likely never catch up to your genetically dominant side.
I try to teach my students to develop equally facility in their hands and not handicap themselves from the outset by trying to learn two different techniques. I won’t try to change the grip of someone studying with me, but it is my responsibility to point out issues relative to technique, including kinesiology, physics, and sound, in order that they become knowledgeable students. Then they’re able to make an informed, educated decision and stick with it. Sometimes I’ll ask a student why they’re using a specific stroke or a particular technique and they’ll say that it’s because that’s how they learned or because that’s how their favorite drummer does it. Those aren’t acceptable reasons. I want my students to know about technique so they can give reasoned, solid, evidenced, researched, and correct explanations—not just state things to fit a choice that they made, or one that was made for them, months or years ago.
I first started playing drums using traditional grip, but have long since changed to matched grip and have never looked back. When teaching beginning students and music educators about playing the drumset, I will only teach matched grip, and I will speak about—and demonstrate—evidence that points clearly towards matched being a more natural way to play, with less risk of injury, greater ease of moving around the drumkit, and quicker, more accurate results (physically and musically) from dedicated practice.
Drumming is an extremely complicated and difficult skill to develop to a professional level. It also has a dynamic and forever-evolving set of physical, neurological, and musical challenges that will only increase over time. The technique, coordination, and musical mastery required to perform in most settings today far exceed those that were required fifty years ago, and it’s not going to stop here. The circumstances and equipment limitations that gave rise to traditional grip no longer exist; we have to accept that and move on.
The answer is yes if the student wants to play jazz. The creators of jazz from the ’40s to ’70s used traditional grip as their main technique. Plus, the feel and approach to playing in a jazz rhythm section is most easily understood, and successfully executed, using traditional grip. This is because the natural tilt of the left stick in relation to the snare drum creates a sound and dynamic level that blends with the ride cymbal. The angle of the left hand is similar to the “ward-off” position in tai chi and other martial arts, and it has a definite physical feeling quite different from that of matched grip. Jazz is about feeling and attitude, and this difference in physical sensation produces different music.
I’ve seen matched-grip students suddenly “get it” after switching to traditional grip when playing jazz. To clarify, by “jazz” I mean the kind as played by Kenny Clarke, Shelly Manne, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and others in the swing, bebop, hard bop, and post bop genres. I’m not talking about fusion; That’s another matter.
So, yes, traditional grip is more than useful. Since I believe every drumset player should at least get a taste of how to swing. Playing in the jazz style is a great way to experience this, and learning traditional grip is an essential component. Now, if a student doesn’t want to learn how to play jazz, then that’s their decision. But one would hope that the student would at some point want to explore this very important part of drumset history.
I’ve been teaching at two universities for more than thirty years, and they both have the study of jazz drumming as a requirement for students in their jazz programs. So far, I’ve had no complaints about the use of traditional grip in that context. In cases where a student doesn’t want to explore traditional grip, I don’t push it. But it’s important to realize that traditional grip is not a weaker grip—just different.
When possible, I teach both grips. I started as a jazz drummer, and all other styles that I learned are offshoots from that foundation. I later learned matched grip for symphonic playing. Both became integrated in my style. Matched grip brings out different music than traditional, but both are beautiful.
When I started playing the drums, I was taught matched grip. The more I got into playing with brushes and took lessons with different teachers, everybody told me to use traditional grip. That was hard because learning brushes and a totally new grip at the same time was very difficult. That’s why I started playing brushes in matched grip; It was easier to understand all the different sweeping motions.
For brushes, I say use the grip you’re most familiar with. Of course, when you get your skills up to a certain point, it does make sense to check out traditional grip, too. It might work better for you in a certain situation. In jazz, traditional grip seems to give you a lighter feel, and you can strike the instrument at a different angle, which will have an effect on how you sound. Just don’t use traditional grip only because it looks cool. If you want to use it as a different sound and feel option, then go for it!
Traditional grip is useful to learn because it produces a certain sound that works great when playing drumming patterns in the rudimental/traditional style. Countless jazz drummers have used it as a means of expression when performing acoustic, improvisational music.
The unique sonic characteristics of traditional grip is due in part because of the wrist motion used to produce the stroke (rotation) and because of the combination and coordination of muscle groups that work in tandem to produce a sound: fingers, wrist, forearm, and upper arm. Plus, traditional grip requires less of the hand to be on the stick for control.
Traditional grip is also a very natural way to control the stick with your fingers for softer dynamics and speed. For finger control, the index finger is over the top of the stick, and it pushes downward with gravity to manipulate the rebound.
Traditional grip also works great when blending legato and staccato brush strokes.
From my first private lesson at nine-years-old until I departed for college, I had been taught matched grip exclusively. It was consistently presented as the modern “superior” grip for dexterity and power. My mentors were so persuasive and positive about matched grip that I never felt the need to investigate traditional grip. But when I got to Berklee, I was immediately exposed to many new styles of music: jazz/bebop, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and fusion. Not only were these styles challenging me coordination-wise but also sonically. Each style had a very unique vocabulary and associated touch/balance of sound on the kit.
My teachers John Ramsay and Casey Scheuerell introduced me to all kinds of new sounds, like center-head articulations, different sock cymbal approaches, stick-shots, and dead strokes, within these styles. They also explained that these sounds were possible with matched grip but were much easier to attain with traditional. I began to practice jazz comping and ethnic styles using traditional grip. What I lacked in technique, I felt I made up with style, sound, and musical aesthetic. Over time, I began to enjoy switching grips based on sound. Turning the stick around to traditional grip also helped me to shift my approach to dynamics and feel.
Even today, I actively switch between both grips depending on the sonic needs of a song or gig. When I need to play with extreme sensitivity or center-of-the-head snare sounds, I use traditional. When I need my chops at 100%, or when I need more power, I utilize matched. I’m still a better matched-grip player, but I prefer the loose and effortless feel when cradling the left-hand stick in traditional. I’ve also found that studying and practicing traditional grip has loosened my matched grip.
I do pass these findings along to my students without any technical voodoo or personal bias. I encourage students to investigate both grips, and we’ll discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and sounds associated with each. My hope is that this study helps them to make technical choices based on sound rather than picking a technique and forcing it to match a certain approach they need to achieve in the music.
I always support the use of a variety of techniques. I find it interesting that so many drummers achieve high levels of greatness but use different roads to reach their goals. Seeing that traditional grip has allowed many players to succeed throughout drumming history, there’s no doubt that at least the exposure of traditional grip to up-and-coming drummers is useful—even if simply for historical education. However, I think it’s important to keep in mind the reasons we delve into various techniques, and traditional grip served a very important purpose when drums had to be held at an angle for marching.
Today, drummers have a tendency to want to switch into traditional grip when performing older styles of music (especially jazz). However not many drummers continue to angle their snare away from them to support the technique. Though these drummers may find a way to modify the left-hand traditional grip to work without an angled drum, the technique no longer serves the original purpose.
With that in mind, I would suggest the use of an angled snare if a drummer is primarily using traditional grip.
I’ve yet to find anything traditional grip can do—from a technical perspective—that matched grip can’t do better. So unless drum students want to play in a marching snare line where it’s a requirement, they shouldn’t have to learn it. Now let me explain why.
If you’ve checked out my book Stick Technique, you know that I’m a big fan of analyzing physics and ergonomics to understand the advantages and disadvantages behind every grip and technique. So here’s my list of mechanical disadvantages of traditional grip, in no particular order:
- It’s hard to play with a balanced sound with one hand held overhand and the other underhand. (The opposite grips have opposite ergonomics.)
- There are different amounts of flesh on each stick, which affects stick resonance and sound.
- The left hand has a much more limited range of motion when rotating the stick up.
- There are fewer fingers available to play the stick, and the first two fingers can’t press directly down on the stick.
- The angle at which the left stick is held is less conducive to applying downward force into the drum for press rolls and such.
- There is only the ring finger and pinky to use as “brakes” to stop the stick for down strokes, versus the whole palm of the hand in matched.
- The stick is held against more bones, whereas the shock absorption points are the pads of the fingers and palm in matched.
- The left hand has almost no ability for lateral motion, forcing the player to move the entire arm to get the hand in position to play other drums and cymbals.
- There are fewer muscles used in the left hand to help spread the workload.
- The left hand usually ends up playing at a higher angle, which results in less sound and rebound.
After reading that list, you may assume that I hate traditional grip and want it banished from the face of the earth, but that’s not the case. Obviously, it’s possible to overcome these disadvantages and play extremely well with traditional grip, as evidenced by many of the best drummers in the world who use it.
If a student is inspired to study traditional grip, I don’t discourage them. It’s fun to learn, and it can put you into a different musical frame of mind. However, I strongly believe that a student who wants to learn traditional grip should first learn matched grip, since it’s much easier to develop techniques and understand the physics of drumming with matched. But if you or your students are inspired to play traditional grip, then by all means roll with it!
Many students have asked me about traditional grip and its application to the drumset. Some have honestly told me that they want to learn it simply because it looks cool. When I started playing the drums in ninth grade, my music teacher stated that traditional grip was the “right way” to hold the sticks. Every week he tested us on the rudiments, and if I played them perfectly with traditional grip I would get a perfect score. If I used matched grip during the test, but still played the piece perfectly, he would deduct one point. I asked him why, and his answer was again that traditional grip is the correct way. My reply was, “Isn’t the correct grip the one that’s most comfortable to the individual?” As time went on, he noticed that my playing was much smoother and that I was more relaxed and confident using matched grip. (At this point, I wasn’t losing a point on each test either.)
With the question of traditional grip being useful, I feel it’s up to each individual to decide how comfortable he or she feels when playing with different techniques. By giving students options, they can determine if traditional grip is more beneficial to them than matched, or vice versa.
I have students that enjoy using traditional grip for certain styles, such as jazz and rudimental snare drumming, but they may prefer matched grip for rock and funk, as they feel they have more power and control. For myself, I find traditional grip very useful when playing with brushes. It’s easier for my left hand to get a nice, consistent circular sweep on the snare using that grip, and the wires can fall freely on the head. I also can control the motion comfortably with my fulcrum and fingers. With matched grip, I find I have to add more pressure to the surface of the head with my entire wrist to achieve the motion and sound I want.
I also think it’s important and valuable for the students to know the history of traditional grip and how drummers have applied it to modern drumset playing.
This is one of those questions that still polarizes the drumming community, and I’ve had my share of debates on the issue. When asked about the usefulness of traditional grip for drumset students, I have to answer with the classic John Wayne quote: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
The individual answer might be different depending each player’s background, but to me this question is a little bit like asking, “Do you need to study driving your car on the left side of the road?” Well, if you want to move to the U.K., you better get familiar with that. But if not, then my answer is no.
Even the great snare drummer and teacher George Lawrence Stone wasn’t too devout about traditional grip. Once he stated: “We hold our left drumstick differently only because our forefathers did so. They did this because they were marching drummers and their drum, suspended by a shoulder strap, naturally hung at an angle as they marched.”
Speaking from a very personal point of view, I don’t see the future of my own drumming using traditional grip. Of course, there are numerous outstanding players who use traditional grip, and some of them I admire a lot for their musicality and their mastery of the instrument (Vinnie Colaiuta, Jojo Mayer, Steve Smith, and Dave Weckl are some of my favorites). However, I believe that their musicality and artistry would also come through if they were matched grip players.
Also, the bigger the set of drums being used, the less it makes sense to go with traditional grip. Imagine Terry Bozzio playing his giant kit using traditional grip. A lot of what he does would be much harder to perform—if not impossible.
My main reason to not use traditional grip is because it would give me serious challenges with regards to my open-handed playing style.
Having grown up watching drummers who masterfully used traditional grip with sticks and brushes, including Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams, there’s no question in my mind that it’s a useful technique. Whether it’s one that drum students should learn is an interesting question though.
Consider Buddy Rich, who was a serious traditional grip proponent. Dating back to the 1930s, he used both grips. Then there’s Max Roach who, with the exception of his brushwork, switched exclusively to matched as his career progressed, citing the preference for consistency in grip with the mallet instruments that he also played. There’s no question about the quality of music each of these artists produced throughout their careers. So I see no debate as to the superiority of one grip over another. Ideally, your grip is just an extension of your musical mind.
The question poised here is more about whether the traditional grip is relevant anymore. If a student comes to me playing matched grip, I usually don’t spend time working with them on traditional grip unless they ask. Conversely, if a student already plays traditional and is comfortable that way, I don’t peruse matched grip unless requested to do so. I’m there to help my students find their voice—not to change them to accommodate my opinion.
If a student asks me what I prefer…. That’s a different story. I use both grips, and while I try not to get too hung up about why and when I’d use one or the other, there are some particular preferences I have for each. Some of it’s based on proficiency—I was initially taught traditional grip in my youth, whereas I got more into matched grip in college when I was studying classical percussion, taking lessons with Max Roach, and watching Clyde Stubblefield’s legendary left hand. So there are some ideas that I can execute better with my left hand in traditional grip, while others come out better using matched.
I don’t feel it’s the best use of time to practice being equally proficient with either grip. If I can get a desired musical result with one or the other, I’m cool. Tony Williams pointed out the value of being able to play both asymmetrically with traditional grip and symmetrically using matched. They each provide different feelings, ideas, and sounds. This is a philosophy I embrace.
I have an 8-to-1 warmup that I developed that uses both grips. If I play it using matched, I keep both hands on the snare and both feet (using a double pedal) on the bass drum. The symmetry in feel and sound suggests a more rock-like approach. When I do the exercise using traditional grip, the left hand stays on the snare, but I move my right to the ride cymbal. I also divide my feet between the bass drum and hi-hat pedal, embracing the jazzier vibe of the asymmetric grip and wider variety of sounds that this orchestration produces. These variations provide balance to my foundation.
When making music, it’d be simple to say, “Oh, I play matched grip for backbeats.” There’s a general truth to that because when I need power it’s nice to have the weight of my arm over the stick. Traditional grip allows me to easily angle the tip of the drumstick into a position where there’s the least amount of mass coming into contact with the drumhead, which helps me produce a lighter sound for jazz comping. But it’s also true that I can get great-sounding backbeats—with a brighter tone—using traditional grip. I ultimately make decisions on which grip I use based on the sound and the feeling produced.
I think the bottom line when discussing technique is to aim to have no limitations in musical expression. How grip plays into that is subjective; use whichever grip best connects you to the drums. Explore your options, and make it work for you—traditional, matched, or both.
I began playing on a practice pad when I was in seventh grade. This was in 1964, so of course I learned and played using traditional grip. As I progressed, certain physical limitations (left shoulder surgery) and certain musical inspirations (Billy Cobham) emerged in my life, and I began playing matched grip. I’ve played matched since about 1978 or so.
But playing brushes is another story. I can’t seem to get the same swing with matched grip, so I use traditional. To me, studying traditional grip—especially when using brushes—is paying respect to those who set the groundwork before us.
I always thought that learning more is better than learning less, so I say study as much as you can about the instrument. But for some students, traditional grip can be intimidating. I’ve often found that it’s more of a question of the teacher understanding how the grip works and understanding the musical settings in which it will be applied.
The drumset and drum corps versions of traditional grip are significantly different, even though the drumset application is derived from the rudimental version. If the teacher has a good knowledge of these differences, and is able to teach the technique well, then the next question is about the diligence of the student. Traditional grip takes a long time to master. Does the student have the time, discipline, and desire to learn this grip? Does it make sense musically, in terms of what music and drumming style the student likes and wants to play? Or will the study of this seemingly awkward grip take time away from what really excites the student?
If it makes sense for the student, then I think learning traditional grip is a great way to study a different approach to the instrument. Traditional feels totally different than matched, so it will stimulate different ideas. Plus, it will increase the number of sounds you can pull out of a drum due to the different angles and stick movements that are possible. Traditional grip has an undeniable coolness factor, too.