Part 1: Matched Grip
Matched grip simply means that the hands hold the sticks in a mirror image of one another. There are important variations within matched grip, however, both in terms of the hand angles and fulcrums (pivot points) that are used. The main grip variations are German, French, and American.
German grip involves holding the hands flat and favors wrist use over finger use. French grip involves holding the hands more vertically, with the thumb on top, and favors finger use over wrist use. American grip falls in the middle of German and French.
The common fulcrums for matched grip are between the thumb and the first finger or between the thumb and second finger. The first-finger fulcrum is generally better for speed and finesse at lower stick heights (finger micromanagement), while the second-finger fulcrum is generally better for bigger strokes and more power (wrist/forearm-driven). Quite often the fulcrum will be located somewhere between the two and will adjust automatically according to the demand put on the hands. Each hand position and fulcrum point within the matched grip variations have advantages and disadvantages, so it’s good to master each of them in order to be prepared to use the most appropriate technique for a particular situation.
German grip is the position where the hands are held flat. Grasp a drumstick between your thumb and first finger. Lightly wrap your other fingers around the stick, and set your hand down on a table. That’s it! You’ll notice that if you keep the wrist relaxed in a natural position, the angle of the stick will be somewhat turned in, and the butt end of the stick will jut out a bit to the side of the hand. The sticks will generally form a V at about a 90-degree angle.
German grip came about because snare drums were originally held on slings and resting against the player’s body. To get the bead of the stick to strike the center of the drum, the hand had to be held flat and with an inward angle relative to the forearm. (This angle is also why there’s some inward rotation in German grip strokes.) Now that snares are placed on stands or held in carriers that position the drum farther away from the body, there’s no need for German grip. In fact, German grip has several disadvantages, when compared to American grip (which we’ll cover in a subsequent section). These include:
- The thumb and fingers have to squeeze the stick laterally—from either side—even though vertical force is needed to play down to the drum.
- The fingers have a smaller range of motion, since they compress into the hand.
- There’s a loss of leverage for downward pressure due to the angle between the arm and the stick.
- When the downward pressure comes from the index finger placed on top of the stick, the end of the index finger (which is ideal for low/light/fast/finesse) is unavailable.
- Less distance is covered from the elbow to the bead, due to the angle between the forearm and the stick, limiting reach when you’re moving between multiple drums.
- You can only add lateral motion to strokes when moving away from the body, since the wrist already has an inward turn.
German grip is still commonly taught because it’s been handed down from the founding fathers of drumming, who mainly played snare drums on slings. However, because of all of the disadvantages of German grip, which are dictated by anatomy and physics, I strongly recommend focusing on the other two forms of matched grip: American and French.
French grip is the position where the hands are held vertically, with the thumb on top and in line with the sticks. To get into French grip, hold out your hand as though you’re going to shake hands with someone, and then add the stick between your thumb and first finger, making sure that the end of the first finger curls upward somewhat so the stick can’t roll out. Lightly curl the rest of the fingers underneath. That’s it!
With the wrist relaxed in its natural position, the angle of the stick will be somewhat turned out relative to the forearm, and the butt end of the stick will be located at the inside of the wrist. The sticks will generally form a very narrow V at about a 20-degree angle or close to parallel. This angle will usually be a bit narrower when playing with mostly wrists and a bit wider when playing with mostly fingers.
French grip favors finger use over wrist use, since the fingers have a wider range of motion. In French grip, the wrist has a narrower range of motion and relies partially on an outward rotation. French grip is good for free strokes because the “brakes” (palms of the hands) are now unavailable to stop the stick on the rebound. The stick breathes and resonates well when held in this position, which is why French grip is so commonly used when playing timpani or the ride cymbal. It’s a great grip to use when you want a loose, wide-open sound from a freely rebounding stick or mallet.
One thing to watch out for when using French grip is an open, claw-looking hand, where the stick turns out excessively relative to the thumb. In this improper position, there’s very little control moving around the kit since the stick isn’t stabilized within the fulcrum.
American grip is where the hand angle is in between German (flat) and French (vertical). The hands and thumbs are at about a 45-degree angle. With American grip, the first knuckle of the first finger is the highest point of the hand, and the stick is in line with the forearm. The sticks will generally form a V at about a 50-degree angle.
American grip is great for almost everything, since the wrists can turn up and down with a wide range of motion, the “brakes” (i.e., the palm of the hand over the butt end of the stick) are readily available for downstrokes, and the fingers have a relatively wide range of motion.
Choosing a Grip
If you had to choose only one grip to use exclusively, the American grip would be the choice, since you can use the brakes like in German grip and the thumb is available to operate on the topside of the stick for applying downward pressure and facilitating finger control. However, if you limit yourself to American grip, you will miss out on the advantages of French grip for maximum finger control, especially when playing the ride cymbal. The ability to play each of the grips—and the areas between them—will allow you to use different parts of your body for different drumming tasks.
Stick Angles Relative to the Drum
Both sticks should point down toward the drum at about a 10-degree angle. Matching this stick angle in both hands is important so that both sticks get the same sound and rebound out of the drum. The flatter the angle of the sticks are relative to the drum, the more rebound. The steeper the angle, the less rebound. While it might seem that the more rebound the better, it’s good to have some leverage over the stick for when you want to play down into the drum or to set yourself up for downstrokes that stop lower to the drum. The 10-degree angle gives you this leverage while still maintaining great rebound.
The most important part of any grip is the fulcrum, or pivot point. We use three fulcrums when drumming: the elbow, the wrist, and the axis between the thumb and first or second finger. Here’s a good algorithm for fulcrums: If the wrist can execute a musical idea easily, let it do so. If the wrist struggles, then the fingers should come into play to relieve some of the stress. (The back fingers take priority—don’t micromanage the motion with the index if the ring and middle fingers can get the job done.) If the whole hand struggles, then the arm comes in to relieve it, either through a big general motion, by pumping along with the wrist, or through a Moeller-style whip, where the wrist motion is replaced by a forearm motion.
For our purposes, the fulcrum will always refer to the rotational axis in the front of the hand. The type or location of the fulcrum used is dictated by the amount of finger control needed. Without a good fulcrum, the finesse that comes from finger control will never be possible.
While it’s commonly taught that the fulcrum is a horizontal axis created by the thumb and index finger squeezing on either side of the stick, I believe that the fulcrum should be thought of as a ceiling over the stick, under which it pivots. The ceiling can be the first finger when little finger control is needed, half thumb and half finger if more finger control is needed, or just the thumb when you need maximum finger access. As more fingers are needed, the thumb becomes the dominant ceiling over the stick. Regardless of which fingers are acting as the ceiling, it’s key for the thumb to be located directly across from the first or second finger so they can act as guideposts as the stick pivots.
The fulcrum should be located a little less than a third of the way up from the back of the stick. This puts the pivot point at a sweet spot where the stick rebounds as much as possible on its own.
There are two main fulcrum locations. First-finger fulcrum refers to the index finger and thumb. Second-finger fulcrum refers to the thumb and middle finger. I also teach a third fulcrum position that’s somewhere in between the two. (Sometimes there’s no fulcrum at all, just a light overall grip when no finger control is needed.) A first-finger fulcrum should be employed when playing any combination of low/light/fast patterns where a lot of finger control is needed, since it allows the trigger joint of the first finger to be used for finesse. When using a first-finger fulcrum in American grip, the thumb will be the ceiling so that the end of the index finger can wrap under to play the stick.
The second-finger fulcrum should be used when playing bigger, slower strokes where the wrist or arm is the primary driver and there’s little need for finger control. (In this situation, keeping the first-finger fulcrum engaged would add tension, thus inhibiting flow.) If you’re using a second-finger fulcrum, then the index finger can hang towards the floor and act as a guidepost along the side of the stick for stability. (Just be careful to not release the whole finger off to the side, where you lose stability, or point it in line with the stick, which reduces flow.) In a proper position, the end of the index finger hangs down next to the stick in a position where it can engage as soon as it’s needed.
I always start by teaching the first-finger fulcrum because it’s easier to shift to the second-finger fulcrum when finger finesse isn’t required. If, however, you start by learning the second-finger fulcrum, you’ll have a more difficult time getting the first finger to function when needed.
There is a lot of discussion about whether or not to maintain a gap between the thumb and hand. But it’s not about a gap or no gap—it’s about the placement and function of the thumb. When there’s a gap, the thumb is functioning from the side of the stick. When there’s no gap, the thumb is functioning from the top of the stick. Both positions are vital for developing completely capable and relaxed hands.
It’s been said that if there’s no gap between the thumb and index finger, then that means your technique is too tight. While tight players usually have no gaps anywhere in their hands, I’ve also had students come to me with tendinitis because they were squeezing hard in the fulcrum in order to maintain an open gap while playing things requiring downward force or finger control. Having no gap while the thumb is engaged on the topside of the stick definitely allows you to play many things more relaxed. In short, there’s a time to have no gap when using both first- and second-finger fulcrums.
In American grip, the thumb can relax and hang down a bit on the side of the stick when it’s not needed for downward pressure or for facilitating finger control. When the thumb is needed, it can move up to the topside of the stick.
When the thumb is acting as a partial fulcrum, it should be positioned a bit on the topside of the stick so that it’s in a position to hold the stick farther down in the hand and give the fingers greater access. When the thumb is fully engaged in this manner, it should be centered in line with the stick—never crooked.
A good exercise for getting your fulcrum together is what I call the “first-finger fulcrum isolator.” Hold the stick near the front end and play the back of the stick on the bottom of your forearm, using just the first-finger fulcrum. The top of your hand should remain still. (Don’t cheat by using the wrist!) If your first-finger fulcrum is out of position or not working correctly, this exercise is nearly impossible to execute, so it forces you to develop good technique. The exercise will make your forearm burn pretty quickly. Later you’ll add the other fingers to help move the stick, which makes the first finger’s job much easier.
It’s good to have every grip and fulcrum option at your disposal, since each has its advantages. I tend to use the first- and second-finger fulcrums about equally, and I employ every hand position between the extremes of American and French grips. It always comes back to manipulating the stick no more than is necessary to achieve the most natural flow and musical sound.
also break my own rules from time to time. For instance, when I play rimshots on the snare, I tend to hold the stick lightly between my second and third fingers. And when I crash a cymbal with no need to play anything immediately afterward, I sometimes hold the stick loosely, like a bicycle handlebar. If I’m not going to use my fingers to play the stick, then I have no need for a proper fulcrum. Of course, it’s important to learn the rules before you can break them. So get on it!
By Bill Bachman
Bill Bachman is the founder of the educational website drumworkout.com, an international drum clinician, and the author of Stick Technique and Rhythm & Chops Builders (Modern Drummer Publications).