In a recent article, I made the comment that there is really no such thing as a “one-handed roll.” Much to my surprise, I received a couple of letters demanding a retraction. One drum teacher in particular even offered to give me a demonstration of this mysterious technique.
I believe what has happened is that semantics have helped to create a communication problem. What these drummers/ teachers refer to as a “roll with one hand” is what I refer to as a “controlled finger bounce.” In fact, in one letter, a teacher described the finger-bounce technique as his method for achieving a one-handed roll. This was somewhat ironic, because the technique he described was actually thoroughly explained (with photographs) in a book that Lew Malin and I wrote in 1958. The book is entitled Practical Method Of Developing Finger Control and was edited by Henry Adler.
Drummers cannot make a truly sustained sound, such as can be made by a trumpet or the human voice. However, we can create the “illusion” of a sustained sound, which is my definition for a roll. On the snare drum, this can be achieved by rebounding double strokes rapidly—such as in the rudimental style. The closed or orchestra roll is a series of overlapping “buzzes”; one buzz is played in such a way as to overlap the next one. This “illusion” of sound is much like a movie film: individual pictures played fast enough to create the “illusion” of sustained, smooth movement.
On timpani, the roll is executed by playing rapid single strokes. The speed of the single strokes depends somewhat on the hardness of the mallets and the size of the drum being played.
Although I have used the finger-bounce technique for over 30 years and I teach it, I never refer to it as a roll. The reason is that many young drummers become confused by the term. If I say,’ ‘Today we start work on the one-handed roll,” their eyes usually glaze over as they imagine some supertrick that will make them super-fast. They begin to imagine weird techniques and beats just playing themselves. Generally, they wind up blowing the whole thing out of proportion.
Everyone uses fingers to control the bounce and the rebound of the sticks. The “finger-bounce technique” uses the fingers (primarily) to motivate the stick with a minimum of wrist motion.
My understanding is that this technique originated with French symphonic drummers. To my knowledge, it was Louie Bellson who popularized this technique in America. Joe Morello developed it even further. I studied an approach to finger control with a teacher by the name of Jack Miller. I later studied another approach with Jim Chapin, who combined it with the Moeller system of playing accents. I learned from all of these people. Eventually, Lew Malin and I developed our own method, incorporating what we had learned combined with our own ideas.
Let’s get back to the definition of the roll. I’ve heard drummers say, “He can play a roll on the bass drum with just one foot.” Well, actually even Buddy Rich can only play very fast individual beats on the bass drum. Buddy’s bass drum technique is truly amazing, but I, personally, would not refer to it as a “roll”—even when played as fast and as beautifully as only he can do it.
If the conductor of a TV show asked for a snare drum roll and the drummer launched into loud, open, double strokes, that drummer would not have the job very long. Conductors expect to hear the buzz or closed roll in this situation. The open double-stroke roll sounds great when six drummers perform it together on six parade drums. However, one person playing open double strokes on a 6″ snare drum creates an entirely different effect. It sounds like fast individual beats. If a sym phony part called for a “roll” and the drummer launched into fast 32nd notes with the left hand, the conductor would not be amused.
I guess what bothers me a bit is that there is a tendency among drummers to label anything that is played rapidly as a “roll.” This is especially true of drummers who have not studied, because they do not recognize sticking patterns. For example, I am often asked by young students to “teach them a roll around the tom-toms.” As any experienced player knows, there are limitless variations in sticking patterns for getting around the drumset. If you are interested in this, see Rhythmic Patterns For The Modern Drummer by Joe Cusatis. It’s the best book I know of on the subject. Joe also uses and teaches a finger-bounce technique.
The “controlled finger-bounce” is a wonderful technique for speed, delicacy, touch, control, and beauty of sound. It is incorporated into a total technique using wrists, arms, and fingers. It is not for speed alone, but to complete a player’s all-around approach to the instrument. Every student that I have taught this technique to has improved his or her sound, relaxation, endurance, and touch.
In reference to the letters I received, I want to thank the gentlemen who wrote them for taking the time to help me clarify a point that apparently could have been misunderstood. Their sincerity and dedication to the art of drumming is without question. Perhaps now we have cleared up any problems with semantics.
Last but not least, this is what Modern Drummer Magazine is all about. It is a forum where drummers of all styles and experience can exchange ideas. It is one of the few places where your ideas will get fair consideration, even if you are not a star or a big-name drummer. So participate! Write in, ask questions, or disagree. But if you do disagree, do so with the understanding that all drummers are in this thing together. No one knows it all.