Rudiments: For or Against?

by Roy Burns

Talking to drummers about the rudiments is much like talking to the average person about politics. You will most likely find yourself involved in a highly emotional conversation with little or no information being exchanged. People seem to be blindly for the rudiments or violently opposed to them. 

Some people believe that practicing the rudiments is the only way to develop good technique. Other people feel the rudiments are totally outdated. Some drummers feel they are the basis for all drumming. Others feel the rudiments are no more than obsolete marching patterns. Arguments of this sort rage on year after year and never resolve anything. Most young drummers are surprised to learn that there are several rudimental systems in the world. Two that come to mind are the Swiss and Scottish rudimental styles.

The Swiss drumming is similar to the American rudimental style although it is a much older tradition. Also, some of their sticking patterns are much more practical than ours.

The Scottish style is also older than the American system and it is very intricate and interesting. Their system of notation alone is something that would require a lot of study.

The American rudimental system is primarily based on sounds and memorization. The names of the rudiments sound like what is played. For example, paradiddle, flam, ratamacue and ruff are all rudiments that fit this description. Names that sound like what is to be played make memorizing easier. This means that originally, the rudimental system was one of learning by rote, or memorization.

We also have drummers in South America who can’t even spell the word rudiment and they will scare your socks off. Their approach to independence and polyrhythms is so highly developed that we could all learn a great deal from them. What do these various rudimental systems have to do with a guy in South America who most likely doesn’t even read music?

All rhythmic and technical systems are based on three fundamental skills or strokes: single strokes; double strokes; and the buzz. Some people would add the flam to this list, but my personal view is that flams are just one way to combine single strokes.

Let’s analyze one of the most practical rudiments, the single paradiddle. It consists of two single strokes (RL) followed by a double stroke (RR). All of the rudiments can be analyzed the same way.

From a practical standpoint it means that technique is based on single strokes and double strokes. What is amazing is that most drummers are technically weak on singles and doubles. If you have control over single strokes and double strokes, then any system, rudimental or otherwise, is just combinations of these strokes in various rhythmic sequences. This may sound simple until you stop to realize the endless combinations that are possible with singles and doubles once you add the element of rhythm.

Patterns are the result of combining singles and doubles with rhythms. Patterns are rudiments, depending upon your point of view. Which rudimental system is best for you? It will depend upon the music. Each rudimental style, or indeed any drumming style, is linked to a particular musical style.

I’ve studied a number of different systems and listened to self-inflating arguments by so-called authorities who say the rudiments are a waste of time. I don’t think so. I think it depends upon how you use them.

For example, there are young players who practice the rudiments but do not listen to music. An understanding of music is required in order to use any technical system to good advantage. When a young student asks the teacher, “How can I develop ideas and be more creative?” the correct answer is “listen to music.” The incorrect answer in this case is “practice the rudiments.”

Rudiments are fine and they are a good form of practice; not the only form, but one good one. However, you cannot sound musical just by playing rudiments on the drum set. You have to play ideas, phrases and sounds.

Think of rudiments as scales for our instrument. If you go to hear Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson or McCoy Tyner, you don’t expect them to play a bunch of piano scales and call them ideas. All of them can play and have most likely practiced piano scales at one time or another, but they leave them in the practice room. That is what should be done with rudiments as they relate to the drum set. Practice them and then leave them in the practice room. When performing—play music.

If you think of each rudimental system as just one way of organizing singles and doubles with rhythms, you are free to explore any system. You can even develop your own. For example, your style of playing, whether it be rock or jazz, is your personal way of organizing singles and doubles with rhythms. This is one aspect of developing your style. From a technical standpoint, this leaves you free to learn and borrow from all styles, rudimental or otherwise.

Some people may agree with me or they may prefer to engage in old arguments. I am not saying that my view is the only one or the best one; just that it works! By viewing all systems as ways of organizing singles and doubles you become more open-minded. There is no need to defend or put down any system because they are all based on the same strokes. Any system of practicing and playing is only as good as the person using it. It is the human creative factor that brings scales, patterns and rudiments to life.

I am neither for or against rudiments. I am for musical drumming. A balanced practice and learning approach should include rudiments. They should be combined with reading, independence, rhythmic study, theory and harmony, listening and playing different styles. Learn from all systems, all styles and all players.

A balanced approach includes a little of everything, just like a well balanced meal. To become a musical drummer, you need a little of a number of different things including rudiments, listening, playing, studying, experience, and above all—an open mind.