What do Billy Cobham, Simon Phillips, Kenny Aronoff, Daniel Humair, and Lenny White have in common? They all play ride patterns with their left hand. Left-hand ride refers to the technique drummers use who play drumset in a normal, right-hand configuration. However, these drummers play ride patterns on the hi-hat and ride cymbal (on the left side) using the left hand (matched grip). With the list of notable and innovative drummers previously mentioned who employ this technique, clearly it can be used successfully.
Learning to incorporate left-hand ride techniques can add new dimensions to your playing. First of all, most right-hand drummers have disproportionate strength and coordination in their hands. No matter how much time a person spends practicing evenness between hands, the right hand dominates the two. Riding with the left hand increases the strength of the left hand. Both hands become more equal in power and technique. Not only are power and strength gained, but an overall finesse and touch come about.
Generally, when playing a ride pattern on a cymbal, right-hand drummers hold the stick in the right hand with a thumbs-up type grip. The left hand is either in a traditional grip or a matched grip, palm-down hand position. Drummers who ride with the left hand develop the thumbs-up grip in the left hand. Thus, right and left hands are capable of playing a truly matched, thumbs-up type grip around the entire kit. It is not necessary to switch from one hand position to another when going from the ride cymbal to a fill. Billy Cobham is a good example of a drummer who has developed his hands so that he plays with his thumbs up, either when riding or when playing on the drums. His grip is a timpani-like (French) grip, which allows him to use the smaller muscles of the hands for greater speed and control. Left-hand ride also helps to increase your coordination. Most drummers play fills from the left side of the kit to the right (see figure 1), beginning with the right hand. Left-hand ride gives you the coordination to begin fills with the left hand and move from the right side to the left (see figure 2).
Another advantage of left-hand ride is that there is no crossing of sticks or hands in playing the hi-hat. Most right-handed drummers playing rock or funk have to deal with the problem of moving their right hand out of the way so a backbeat can be played by the left hand. Riding with the left avoids crossing over (and getting in the way) to play the hi-hat. Also, since there is no crossing, the right hand can strike the snare drum without being impeded, allowing you to play the loudest backbeat humanly possible! Many times, drummers who also sing have problems crossing over to the hi-hat and singing. Left-hand ride allows you to be more open to the audience while singing and playing, and helps your posture for singing.
As drummers move to larger setups, they tend to place the ride cymbal and hi-hat further away and higher up. Drummers who ride with their right have to reach over racks of toms (and lately over extra rows of electronic drums too) to get to the ride cymbal. Having an arm lifted up and playing ride cymbal for a period of time can become fatiguing. Also, drummers who use two bass drums have the problem of the hi-hat being too far left, due to the addition of the second bass drum. Even with the various devices which attach the hi-hat to the second bass drum, the hi-hat still is further out, causing right-hand ride drummers to cross, reach and turn their bodies just to play the hi-hat. Left-hand ride solves all of these problems. The ride cymbal can be as close as necessary, because there aren’t as many things on the left side to get in the way. The hi-hat being placed further left poses no problems to the left-hand ride technique.
Probably the best reason for utilizing left-hand ride techniques is the interesting patterns this technique brings about. While play- ing ride patterns with the left hand, the right hand is free to incorporate toms and other percussive instruments located on the right side of the kit in creative and musical ways. Also, with the hi-hat and the ride cymbal on the left side, interesting patterns can be played between the two. (See the end of this article for examples.)
Developing the left-hand ride technique can be difficult, especially for drummers who have been playing for a few years, but with a little work, it can be achieved. In a way, it is like starting over. When beginning to work on left-hand ride, a lot can be done even before sitting behind the kit. On a pad, practice 8th notes with the left hand and play backbeats with the right. Start by just concentrating on your hands; don’t worry about your feet yet. At first, it feels very awkward because the left hand is not used to working so hard continuously. A good way to take your mind off the awkwardness is to play along with records. Put on a recording that has a simple rock or swing feel, and play very standard beats.
Once the motion of the left hand becomes a bit more natural, then move to the drums. One tip: Adjust the hi-hat height so that it is approximately the same as the snare drum (see photograph).
This helps in two ways: (1) It forces you to use your left hand, because the right hand can’t cross and play the hi-hat that low. (2) That height allows you to play the hi-hat comfortably with the left hand using either the tip or shank of the stick. Begin working on just the hi- hat. Once that feels comfortable, place the ride cymbal next to the hi-hat and work on that. The hi-hat is easier to start with because touch sensitivity is not as precise on the hi-hat as it is on the ride cymbal. Once again, the main thing to remember is that it will feel awkward at first, so give it time. Use study materials that are simple and for beginners. Your progression will increase rapidly as soon as you get the basics down.
The patterns which follow are very basic. These exercises allow you to concentrate on the left-hand pattern, keeping the other limbs simplified. Practice these with a metronome, starting slowly and working up to a faster speed. As simple as these patterns are, be sure to concentrate on producing an even sound with the left hand, and also make sure the patterns groove.
Now play these patterns moving the left hand to the ride cymbal. Play the hi-hat with foot on 2 and 4, on all four, and on 8th notes where applicable.
The following patterns are more advanced. They demonstrate some of the advantages of left-hand ride with a free right hand to play passages on the toms.
Left-hand ride can help broaden your technique and your overall playing. More and more drummers are combining left- and right- hand techniques to make themselves more versatile. You have two hands, so why not use them?