Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Feet First

by Ed Soph

We have all heard drummers with terrific hands but with a bass drum foot that could best be described as concrete. We look at the problem. The hands are playing off of the drums using rebound and the control of that rebound. But the foot depresses the pedal and keeps the beater against the head. What if we had been taught to use our hands like that all of the time? We would develop no control, no musicality.
Drumming is tension and release: the muscle tension required to get the stick to the head in a certain space of time and the release of that tension, in time, to let the stick rebound. Like dribbling a basketball. When you insist on squashing the beater into the head you are not releasing the tension, not developing rebound control. The drummer who plays like that cuts himself in half. He is not thinking of one consistent technique. Therefore, his playing sounds like unrelated halves. He is not evenly developed between hands and feet.Rules are made to be broken. There are times when because of the way a figure falls, or because of a sound you want, you will have to squash the beater. But think of all the musical possibilities you are denying yourself by having to squash the beater all of the time.

Check your throne height and distance from the drums. If you are sitting too high or too close you have no choice but to stay up on your toes and because of the weight of your leg, squash the beater all of the time. Find the position where you can play up on your toes or with your heel down with equal ease and control, squashed or unsquashed. The important thing is to get away from a throne position which prevents rebound.

The habit won’t disappear simply by finding a compatible throne position. Practice is a must. The best results are obtained by working on the same things used to develop hand technique: dynamic and accent exercises. These teach how to graduate strokes with the foot. They teach how to use small strokes to play softly and large strokes to play loudly.

Try this simple exercise. Practice at as many tempi as possible. Find your limitations. Preface the exercise with playing it on the snare, single-handed or hand-to-hand. Assume that you are trying to raise the foot to the proficiency of your hands. It is best to use your hands as a pace setter.

Jazz Drummers Workshop 3_79 1

Try this one, too.
Jazz Drummers Workshop 3_79 2

You might accompany these with the hi-hat on 2 and 4, and with an appropriate ride cymbal pattern. You may find new problems when you do this.

Books like Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques For The Modern Drummer, Ted Reed’s Syncopation, Stone’s Stick Control and Accents & Rebounds are excellent for developing the bass drum technique. Ted Reed’s Bass Drum Control is as good as Colin Bailey’s book.

If you have a pedal on which you can disengage the spring, try playing a series of notes by coordinating the downstroke of your foot with the rebound of the drum. You will discover muscles you have never used. The constant squashing of the bass is such a waste of precious energy. The spring of the pedal and the rebound of the beater off the drum are begging the foot to relax.

Another consideration is that when you leave the beater against the head until you play the drum again, you must use two strokes to play one note. You have to bring the beater back and then send it back to the head. Accuracy truly becomes hit or miss, particularly at a brisk tempo. Play the note and return immediately to the starting position.


You should not limit yourself to one hi-hat technique. The hi-hat is no longer restricted to playing repetitive figures. Like the bass drum, it may function like the hands playing fragmented, nonrepetitive figures.

Limited technique means limited expression. Many young drummers limit themselves to playing the hi-hat with the ball of the foot, the leg suspended with very little, if any, heel contact with the pedal. More often than not, they play the hi-hat on all the beats of the measure as though it were a soprano bass drum of the ’40’s. Again, we have a technique which has become a physical habit, a necessity rather than a musical expression.

I use three foundational techniques on the hi-hat. I said foundational so as not to give the impression that there are only three.

Briefly, they are:

1. The heel stays on the heel plate. Play from the ankle. This technique is good for playing softly as well as slowly. It gives the least amount of pressure on the downstroke hence soft “chick.” It blends with ballad brush work.

2. The rocking heel-toe technique for playing the repetitive 2 & 4 figures from medium to fast tempos is most common. By snapping the ankle on the downstroke you can obtain a sharper “chick.”

3. The ball of the foot technique mentioned before. This is useful for fast tempos whether playing repetitive or non-repetitive figures. I find it cumbersome at slow tempos where the lack of spatial momentum makes it virtually impossible to maintain the relaxed bounce of the leg and foot. This technique is particularly good for playing fast, articulate patterns between the hi-hat and the snare. The hi-hat is the snare drum of your cymbal set-up.

Reading between the lines, you see that each of these foundational techniques has a musical application. Upon mastering these three physically, and thinking about them musically, you will find yourself using combinations of all three. And you’ll probably develop your own. You will be using the correct technique for the appropriate musical situation. It is very difficult to play softly using a technique which relies upon a downstroke generated by the leg as in the ball of the foot technique. There is too much weight coming down to give you a natural, soft sound.

Returning to our center of balance, the throne, remember it should be situated to allow the use of the basic three and any other hi-hat techniques. For example, it should be placed so the bass drum can be played with heel down and the hi-hat with heel suspended without losing balance.

Use the books previously mentioned and play them with your foot on the hi-hat. Determine which techniques are appropriate for certain tempos, dynamics, and note combinations. Experiment with your throne placement. Think of your hi-hat as being another hand.