by Charley Perry
The origins of brushes are unclear; no one knows with certainty how and when they came to be. Most jazz authorities favor the early accounts of whisk brooms played on suitcases as being the forerunner of present-day brushes.
With the advent of extremely loud music (rock), there was no longer a place for the delicate nuances of brush playing, and it soon became a lost art. Today, however, brushes are regaining popularity. Used skillfully, they can produce exciting and varied tone colors and effects that are simply not possible with drumsticks. More than one rock drummer, interested in other musical forms, has come to me brushes in hand, with the request, ‘Teach me how to use these things.’ Let’s begin with the grip.
ABOUT THE GRIP
There is, of course, more than one way to grip brushes, or for that matter, drumsticks. I, for instance, use more than one grip in my own drumming, depending on the style of the music and the group. Therefore, the grips described in this article may be considered approximations and can be altered to suit the individual drummer.
THE RIGHT-HAND GRIP
The right brush is held in the overhand manner. The handle of the brush is gripped between the inside of the thumb and the first joint of the index finger. The remaining fingers are held around the handle (drawing #1).
The right-hand tap is made by holding the brush several inches above the drumhead and making a snapping (whip-like) motion with the wrist, or wrist and forearm together, causing the wires to strike (tap) the drumhead and return instantly to the original position.
The right-hand slap is made by a quick slapping motion (pressing the wires into the head). In this case, the wires do not return instantly to an up position, as they do when making a tap. Rather, they remain on the drumhead until it is necessary to pick up the brush for the next stroke.
Either the right brush tap or the slap may be used in conjunction with the left-hand slide in playing brush beat one.
THE LEFT-HAND GRIP
There are two ways of holding the brush with the left hand. They are known as the traditional grip (drawing #2), and the overhand grip (drawing #1).
The left-hand overhand grip is the same as that of the right hand. When both hands are held in this manner, it is referred to as the matched grip.
One advantage of the overhand grip is its naturalness. One would naturally pick up and hold a brush or stick in this manner. And it is comparatively easy to manipulate the brush or stick with this grip. This is particularly true for the student drummer. Therefore, I recommend that both grips be tried, the choice to rest with the individual. Many drummers, myself included, use both these left-hand grips, and sometimes switch from one to the other during the course of a single piece.
With the traditional left-hand grip, the brush handle is held in the crotch between the base of the thumb and the index finger. The first (index) finger is placed over the handle. The second finger is placed either alongside of or over the handle. The third and fourth fingers are placed under the handle for support. They act as a base on which the handle rests. In making the stroke, the hand, wrist, and forearm rotate as one unit making an up-and-down motion, (drawing #2).
In making the left-hand slide, lay the brush wires (not the handle) almost flat against the surface of the drumhead; then slide it to the right side (follow arrow, drawing #3); then slide it to the left side (follow arrow, drawing #4). In other words, in producing the left brush slide, the brush slides from right to left and left to right (side-to-side motion).
In performing brush beat one, the right brush taps or slaps as the left brush slides from side to side. In the starting position, the right brush is held (an inch or more) over the right side of the drumhead. The left brush is placed against (on) the left side of the drum. The right brush plays the first stroke (tap or slap) on the right side of the drumhead. Upon completion of this stroke, both hands are still in the same position as shown in drawing #5.
The right brush plays the second stroke on the left side of the drumhead. In so doing, the right brush crosses over the left brush as the left brush slides from left to right (drawing 6).
The third stroke is made with the right brush on the right side of the drumhead. (Remember, as the right brush moves to the right side of the drum it crosses over the left brush, which at the same time slides from right to left; see drawing 5).
The right brush makes the fourth stroke on the left side, crossing over the left brush as the left brush slides to its right (drawing 6).
Reminder: In this rhythm, the right brush plays the first and third strokes (the I & 3) on the right side of the drumhead, the second and fourth (2 & 4) on the left side.
BRUSH BEAT TWO
This beat produces a full sound and feel, and is ideal for light drumming, as in acoustic trios and quartets. Moreover, it is equally effective in all tempos. In performing brush beat two, the right brush also slides from side to side, but in a slightly different way from the slide of the left brush. Also, with this grip, the back of the hand need not face up as it does in the preceding drawings. Instead, the hand may be held with the thumb facing up, a position familiar to timpanists (see drawing #7). Take your pick.
The wires lie flat against (on) the drumhead. The slide is made by a quick, sideward flicking motion of the wires as they lie on the surface of the drumhead. (This is done by the sideward flicking motion of the wrist; the wrist does not make an up-and-down motion.) The wires remain on the drumhead throughout this rhythm (the same as with the left brush slide); they are not picked up off the drumhead surface. The pulse of the rhythm — 1,2,3,4 — is accentuated by the flicking motion of the wrist. The “1” is made on the right side of the drumhead (drawing #8). The “2” is made on the left side. The right brush slides to the left, past the left brush as the left brush slides to the right (drawing #9). The “3” is made with the right brush on the right side of the drumhead. The “4” again with the right brush, on the left side of the drumhead.
Both brush beats, “1” and “2,” consist of the straight-four rhythm (1,2,3,4). This may, however, be converted easily to the basic jazz and dance band ride rhythm, or its variations. Then again, it may be turned into a shuffle rhythm. There are, of course, other rhythms that may be used with brushes. It is for the individual drummer to decide when and how a particular rhythm should be played.
To accent with brushes, it’s necessary to slap the wires directly into the drumhead with a whip-like motion, allowing all of the wires, especially the more densely packed portion protruding from the handle, to come into full contact with the drumhead. The strongest accent comes from both the wires and the end of the handle (from which the wires protrude) striking together.
Besides being used to playing the straight-ahead (mainstream, swing style) jazz forms, the brushes should be employed in performing the complex styles of avant-garde jazz. This opens a whole new area for brushes. Also, such usage is especially valuable in progressive jazz trios performing in small clubs. The drummer can open up without being too loud, attaining multi-sounds and effects that are refreshingly different from those made with sticks.
Furthermore, brushes can be used to develop one’s hands. That is, in addition to practicing with drumsticks, one should also practice the rudiments and other rhythmic patterns with brushes on the snare drum and toms. The drummer will find that the non-bounce characteristic of brushes will considerably strengthen his hands, cause him to play cleanly, and develop a sensitive touch. This method of practice is used and recommended by the outstanding musician Alan Dawson.
For recorded examples, listen to Steve Gadd on the tune “Restoration” from Hubert Laws album, Then There Was Light, CTI 6065. Also listen to Joe Morello on the Dave Brubeck albums, Time Out, and Time Further Out, Columbia Records; and of course, Morello on his own album, It’s About Time, RCA Victor, LSP-2486. Unfortunately, this album is out of print, but it might be possible to pick it up at a record shop that sells used albums. Or try one of the public libraries. Listen to Alan Dawson’s brush work with the Dave Brubeck Trio on All The Things We Are, Atlantic Records, SD 1684. Then there is Buddy Rich, a master with brushes, playing a short, beautiful brush solo on the tune “Late Date,” Blues Caravan album, Verve Records V68425.
Some of the material in this article wax excerpted from the Fun With Brushes album, MMO 175. Although this instruction album was made by Charley Perry some years ago, the brush work remains relevant to this day.