Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Basic Brush Technique

by Ed Soph

Brushes, like sticks, are instruments of motion in time. It is motion in time which produces sounds and rhythms in time. Smooth, relaxed motions produce smooth, flowing rhythms. And brushes, besides being a necessary part of any good drummer’s concept, are an excellent means of developing the smooth, flowing coordination of fingers, wrists, and arms. So many elements of musicality (i.e., tempo, dynamics, rhythmic feel) depend upon this coordination.
Many young, aspiring players view the brushes with trepidation because of overexposure to the virtually brushless techniques of Rock. When a young player picks up the brushes, he usually plays a pattern in which the left hand swishes or sustains in a circular motion, while the right hand plays the ride pattern. This is an effective pattern if it is played correctly. It doesn’t work if the left hand is swished in a tempo unrelated to the tempo of the right, or vice versa. Also, shading is often disregarded within the left hand pattern. By pressing more of the brush fan onto the head you get a darker “color” or heavier swish, a subtle accent. Depending upon where you shade on the circle, you can accent on or off the beats without lifting the brush off the head. Brushes are instruments of subtlety and implication.The duties of sustaining and accentuation are shared by the hands, rather than delegating a separate role to each hand. There are no vertical strokes in these patterns, only horizontal. This does not mean that you cannot incorporate vertical strokes once you have mastered the patterns horizontally. For now, the brushes never leave the head when playing the basic patterns. As with sticks, the faster the tempo the shorter the stroke across the head with the brushes. As with sticks, the faster and more delicate the pattern, the more finger control. In these two patterns think of the brushes as sticks played on the horizontal.
Traditional or matched grip? It is easier for me to play these patterns with the traditional grip. The choice is yours. Whichever grip you decide to use remember that the wrists and forearms are in the same position as when you play sticks on the snare. There should be no elevation of the forearms from the elbow, thereby causing the wrists to bend downwards with the brushes. As with sticks, the wrists ought to be in alignment with the forearms.
Smooth actions do not come from twisted muscles.
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Example 1
This pattern is particularly good for medium and fast tempos.
Here are the guidelines:
1. The basic note values in which the brushes move are quarter notes.
2. All primary accents (1-2-3-4) are played on the left-hand side of the drum.
3. The right hand accents 1 and 3.
4. The left hand accents 2 and 4.
5. The right hand, when crossing the drum from the right to the left for the accents on 1 and 3, “skips” the sixteenth of the ride pattern.
6. When not accenting (shading) but simply swishing, play on the tips of the fans.
7. To accent (shade) press more of the fan down against the head.
8. The hands are always opposite one another. For example, when the left hand is shading 2 and 4 on the left-hand side of the drum, the right hand is one on the right-hand side of the drum where there are no shadings.
9. The right-hand grip is very important. Do not hold the right brush so that the back of the hand faces upward as when you play on the snare with sticks. Hold the brush as you would the stick when playing the ride cymbal—with the thumb on the top of the stick, like the French timpani grip. Then, extend the index finger along the barrel of the brush. This enables you to “skip” the sixteenths across the drum, like skipping a rock over a pond.
10. The brushes must move in a flowing manner to get a flowing, smooth sound. All shadings should be of equal intensity. The hi-hat will reinforce but not overwhelm, the 2 and 4 shadings of the left hand.
11. The brushes do not leave the head. All strokes are horizontal.
12. When this pattern is perfected, strokes are even and in time, and shadings are equal in intensity and duration—it will sound like one hand instead of two playing. It is the same sort of equality we work for in our stick technique.
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Example 2
The duties of sustaining and accenting are shared by the hands as in the previous pattern. Here are the guidelines:
1 . The basic note value of brush movement is 8th note triplets, or “swung” 8th notes.
2. All accents fall on the left-hand side of the drum.
3. The right hand accents 1-2-3-4.
4. The left hand accents the “and’s” of 2 and 4.
5. When not accenting (shading) play on the tips of the brushes.
6. To accent, press more of the full fan against the head.
7. The brushes do not leave the head. All strokes are horizontal.
8. The brushes must move in a flowing manner to achieve a flowing, swinging feel.
9. The basic rhythm of the pattern is—a triplet shuffle:
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10. This becomes—
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If you find that moving the brushes clockwise feels more natural move them that way. If accents fall more comfortably on the right side of the drum play them there. Try all the possibilities. I said before that brushes are instruments of implication and subtlety. An example of this is the playing of ballads. If you simply move the brushes in the ballad tempo you may find the time dragging, particularly if you are playing with a big band. When that happens the drummer often interjects double-time figures in hopes of buying the time. Instead, he merely succeeds in destroying the mood of the ballad.
A basic way of avoiding this unnerving situation is to move, or swish, the brushes in double-time while accenting the notes of the original ballad tempo. For example, if a triplet feel were wanted on a ballad we would think of playing in 12/8 rather than 4/4.
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As in previous patterns, the brushes do not leave the head. All motion is horizontal. The accents, made by pressing more of the brush fan against the head, are made within the swish rather than independently of it.
The best way to learn to play brushes is to watch and listen to them being played. Some masters are Jo Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Louis Haves, Jake Hanna, Jimmy Cobb, Louis Bellson, Roy Haynes, Joe Morello, Shelly Manne, Alan Dawson, Buddy Rich, Ed Thigpen, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Marty Morrel, and Paul Motian.