At Jost Nickel’s website, the drummer/clinician/composer posts about his latest instructional publication, Snare Book (Alfred). “I am happy to tell you that my brand new Snare Book is now available,” Nickel states. “It’s in English so you don’t have to learn German (smiley face emoticon). This book is exclusively about snare exercises that will improve your hand technique and your general understanding of rhythm at the same time. Additionally, playing these exercises using different subdivisions and time signatures will further strengthen your rhythmic overview and will make the exercises more interesting and less repetitive.”
As he did with his previous Fill Book and Groove Book, Nickel’s Snare Book goes deep into technique terrain. But unlike most academic drum tutorials focusing on snare drum exercises, Nickel challenges the typical practice of adhering to the standard twenty-six drum rudiments, instead using the rudiments as an imagination fire starter and a jumping off point to greater creative freedom. Snare Book follows a similarly methodical and intelligent approach as Fill Book, largely informed by Nickel’s outside-the-box thinking and good-humored style.
“This book is exclusively about snare/pad exercises that will improve your hand technique and your general understanding of rhythm at the same time,” Nickel notes. “Additionally, playing these exercises using different subdivisions and time signatures will further strengthen your rhythmic overview and will make the exercises more interesting and less repetitive.”
The Energizer Bunny of international drummers, Nickel recently recorded his debut as a leader. Also available from his website, The Check In features renowned German players as well as U.S. fusion monsters Jeff Lorber (keyboards) and Jimmy Haslip (bass). “I’ve been writing songs and recording,” Nickel tells MD. “The title means looking deeper into things. I’ve been writing songs all my career, but mostly with the artists I was playing with. And I always wanted to write my own music. I had some friends come, we recorded ideas, and I wrote songs based on those ideas.”
MD: In the preface of Snare Book, you write this is “not your typical” rudiment-oriented instructional manual. But Snare Book approaches rudiments in a similar fashion as other books: you have the reader play them in groupings, then move the accents around, play them in odd-note groupings, and then mix them up. So how is this not a typical rudiments book?
Jost: In Europe, except for parts of Switzerland, we don’t really have the U.S. rudiments, the tradition of playing rudiments, and nobody questions them. I was exposed to rudiments early in my lessons, but I had to discipline myself too much to really practice them because I didn’t see the musical application apart from my hands getting better. I was missing the connection between what I had to play in a band and what the rudiments enabled me to do.
Beyond singles, doubles, or flams, I found it hard to use rudiments within music. I’ve seen guys play a paradiddle-diddle as an Afro-Cuban 6/8 and it sounds quite good, but it’s very limited. So I found it hard to translate rudiments into music, and I found it hard to practice them because I got bored. When I enjoy something that I’m practicing, I don’t have to be disciplined. I just enjoy it. So in Snare Book I’ve tried to come up with exercises that keep me engaged when I practice the rudiments. It’s a lot different from typical rudimental books. There are a few rudiments in there, of course—I’m not against rudiments.
MD: You do break down the rudiments in Snare Book, and you apply them in different ways. But aren’t all orchestral and marching corps snare drum studies based on the rudiments?
Jost: Yes, of course. You can definitely work on your snare drum technique using rudiments, but they are basically just stickings. Why should you keep these stickings as they are written? Why can’t you change them? Why is it so important that these are the correct stickings? I questioned that.
MD: When you listen to Tony Williams, for example, you’re definitely hearing flams. He’s absorbed the rudiments and created his own language.
Jost: Because he liked the sound of the flam. He used the flam sound in a musical way. He’s free to phrase the flams in the way he hears them while he plays them. Snare Book is about enabling the drummer to use various rudiments in any musical situation because you learn phrases and then play rudiments off these phrases. This makes rudiments a lot more enjoyable. Also, for example, say you play four strokes with each hand. Then play 16th notes accenting every first stroke [of the quarter note]. Now play a rhythmic phrase that is very common, like groups of three, but using the same sticking. That’s hard to do, because while your hands play four, your mind says three. That improves your hands because you play accented and unaccented notes, and vice versa, and all sorts of combinations just by changing the implied rhythmic phrase of the sticking.
MD: The European approach traditionally includes a stronger focus on written orchestral material, with drumset fundamentals.
Jost: Yes, and I think sometimes it’s a plus if you don’t own the [U.S.] tradition. Because then you are free to apply the [rudimental] tradition musically. When I was a student at Drummers Collective in New York City, I had the opportunity to study with great Afro-Cuban players. I remember when it was time to do the exam, I played a songo while adding the hi-hat on 2 and 4. I was told, “No, you can’t do that. It’s not correct.” And I said, “Fine, but I still like the sound of 2 and 4 on the hi-hat while playing the songo.” Because then you’re free to break it up and you’re not hurting the tradition, and sometimes it gives you more freedom.
“I want people to enjoy what they practice, and also think while they practice.”
MD: What was the overall goal of Snare Book?
Jost: The goal was the same as with my Fill Book. I want people to enjoy what they practice, and also think while they practice. And it’s not only that you want your hands to be fast, so you just train muscle memory. That was always boring to me. When I practice, I’m thinking, and I’m analyzing what I’m playing, but the book is also designed to be enjoyable. That’s really my goal with all my books.
MD: Are your books interconnected; is it a systematic approach?
Jost: No, each book stands alone. Rhythm doesn’t change. And there’s always going to be sixteen 16th notes in one bar of 4/4. So the rhythmic side of things doesn’t really change. The system behind it might be similar in all three books; it can’t be totally different because the rhythmic side is always the same. You can even practice the exercises at the same time because they’re all different topics.
MD: So, in general, how should students approach your new book?
Jost: There are practice procedures. It’s less about movement and more about phrasing. And if you’re able to figure out how the rhythms on the [enclosed] insert sound, which most people can—the notation is very easy to understand; I made it as easy as possible—then you can just go with the exercises, read the explanations, and play them. They’re not easy to play, but they’re easy to understand.
MD: What is the most challenging section of the book?
Jost: The later chapters are more challenging because in addition to the earlier material, you use triplets as well. And triplets are tricky because we have two hands, but we have three notes on the quarter note, and that makes things more complicated for most people. Also, later in the book, everything is based on 8th-note triplets. And they’re probably harder to hear, and then ultimately harder to play because it’s harder to hear those rhythms correctly. For example, one simple thing you can do if you ask people to play flams is to always accent the flam. If you change to accenting the quarter note, then playing the flams becomes very interesting. So little things like these make the exercises worthwhile because, again, you have to be engaged and you have to figure out, for example, “I’m able to play the flam-based on groups of three, but can I accent quarter notes while I do this?” These are things that I always found very enjoyable to do.
MD: When you were coning up, did certain drummers play rudimentally based ideas that you found interesting?
Jost: Steve Gadd was one drummer who made sense out of rudiments. I definitely liked the flam things that Vinnie Colaiuta played. And then later I found out that Vinnie was heavily inspired by Tony Williams.
MD: A flam is a rudiment.
Jost: Of course a flam is a rudiment, but I look at a flam as more of a sound. That’s more my thing. I like sound. And then I tried to come up with various rhythmic ways of using that sound. That’s why I believe, sometimes, as stickings, rudiments are not giving you enough freedom. So, always I would only think of a flam as part of a phrase, and then I’d figure out which stickings I could use to create that phrase.
MD: As you mentioned, one practice routine using rudiments involves the paradiddle-diddle. I’ve seen instructors play the right hand on the bell and left hand on the snare drum.
Jost: And that sounds a little like an Afro Cuban 6/8, right? Okay, this is good because the snare drum accent is surrounded by right-hand notes, yes? So, you don’t have to play the ghost note before the accent or after the accent. That’s why it’s easy to play. And then I think, okay, there are two doubles in the right hand, so that’s why it’s easy to play, but then I can put these two doubles anywhere within that bar and get different bell patterns just by doing it that way. And then the rudiment isn’t there anymore. The good idea is not using the paradiddle-diddle—it’s having two doubles in the right hand and the accent on three.
MD: You’ve told me your private students are advanced. To what do you attribute their advanced level?
Jost: In Europe or in Germany we have a different education system than in the U.S. The public schools are what everyone wants to attend, because they are being funded and don’t cost any money for the families. That leads to the students being very good because when they apply and if they can get a spot, then they apply at different schools. So as a private teacher I can’t say, “Yeah, let’s work on a double drag.” I have to create exercises that challenge them.
MD: But generally, it seems you’re not a fan of students using rudiments.
Jost: I’m not against rudiments. If somebody really enjoys playing rudiments, go ahead. Playing and making music is not a logical decision. It doesn’t make sense in any way. If you put in half the time that you spend becoming a decent musician into studying law, then you’ll become a great lawyer. So, being a musician—it’s not logical. It’s just passion. So whatever makes you enjoy your time on the instrument, that’s good for you. It’s about leading a good life. And if you enjoy practicing everything in Snare Book, then everything is good. That’s all I can ask for.
by Ken Micallef
Jost Nickel plays Sonor drums and Meinl cymbals and uses Remo, Vic Firth, Ahead, and Beyerdynamic products.