Welcome back! The final two articles in this series will focus on the placement of primary and secondary suspended instruments, with an emphasis on preserving shoulder health. Primary suspended instruments are the ones we play most often (hi-hat, ride, and rack toms). They are usually positioned close to your neutral line of sight when you’re seated at the drumset.
Discovering optimal positions for the primary suspended instruments requires exploring some basic physics and human mechanics. The goal is to make reaching them as effortless as possible for the muscular system and to reduce risk of injury. Because most of our playing is on these instruments, they need to be placed in an orientation that allows your body position to have as little negative effect on your system as possible. In my opinion, poor body position is one of the main reasons drummers end up with tendinitis, golfer’s/tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other wrist, elbow, and shoulder injuries.
With a quick assessment of your own body, a little scientific data, and an idea of how you want your kit to look, you will be able to create a unique and customized configuration that will keep you playing for many years to come.
Modeling Your Idols
To some degree, most of us determine the look of our setups based on those of our favorite players. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, you have to acknowledge that they have their instruments arranged in a particular way for a variety of personal reasons that might not be helpful for you. While borrowing some ideas from your heroes, you have to keep in mind your own active range of motion and customize your setup accordingly. I’m heavily influenced by JP Bouvet, Mark Guiliana, and Virgil Donati, so my setup incorporates some of their choices. However, the placement of each instrument on my kit has been modified based on the following guidelines.
Each of the primary suspended instruments (hi-hat, ride, and rack toms) will react differently when the stick hits it, impacting your body differently. The more energy required to strike an instrument, the greater the demands on the body.
The hi-hat typically has a flat surface with different reactions based on how tightly the cymbals are held together. A firmly closed set of hi-hats will have more reaction and bounce, so it will generally require less effort to play, while open hi-hats will require more energy from you to hit and then pull the stick back.
Ride cymbals can vary from light and thin to very heavy and thick. The lighter the cymbal, the more effort required to play it. A medium ride will tend to allow for more stick bounce, therefore reducing impact on the body. Heavy rides are often so thick that there are less stick reaction and rebound than you get from a medium-weight cymbal.
The effort required to play the rack toms will vary. As with the snare, the angle of the toms plays a significant role in rebound, as does the tuning. Generally, a bouncier (i.e., tighter) drumhead will help to transfer stick energy more, while a looser surface will absorb more energy and make you work harder.
The Internal Variables
The shoulder complex consists of the sternoclavicular joint (the collarbone to the rib cage), the acromioclavicular joint (the collarbone to the shoulder blade), the glenohumeral joint (the socket between the arm and the shoulder blade), and the scapulothoracic joint (the shoulder blade on the rib cage). We’ll review these joints in greater detail next month, when we talk about how to avoid shoulder problems.
Our objective here is to become more aware of skeletal muscle in order to help prevent muscular-related injury. Skeletal muscle performs contractions that generate force. The closer to the body the arm is operating, the lighter the workload, resulting in less strain on the muscles. The primary muscles we will be considering here are the anterior deltoid, the biceps, the trapezius, and the supraspinatus of the rotator cuff.
As you move your arms away from a resting position, the workload on the muscular system increases. When a higher workload is sustained for long periods of time, fatigue can set in and eventually lead to injury. To prevent injury, you can reduce the load on your muscular system, especially when it comes to the instruments you play for long periods of time.
The goal is to make your body function as effortlessly as possible. You want to be conscious of active range of motion, while also taking note of how far the limbs are forced to move away from the body. Each of the following assessments is simple. The biggest variable is determining whether or not you need an instrument placed in a specific position to help you elicit a specific sound. This will be influenced by the style of music you play and your technique.
I like to make sure I can play on the top of the hi-hats and crash on the edge while still having room to hit the snare with the opposite hand. The goal is to have your arms as relaxed as possible. For this assessment, you want to prevent any spinal motion. (Of course, when you’re actually playing, you will rotate your torso a bit.)
Begin by positioning the hi-hats at a medium height. Start with your arms at the sides and your elbows bent over the top of the snare, and then turn your arms—without turning your torso—until your sticks are about 2″ over the top of the hi-hats. Hold that position. If you begin to feel strain or discomfort after thirty to sixty seconds, try raising or lowering your hi-hat height until you repeat the assessment and feel strain-free. Keep your arms as close to the body as possible throughout.
Now repeat the assessment while playing singles and doubles on the hi-hat. If you feel like you’re overworking your body, move the cymbals until you feel more comfortable.
As before, start with your arms at your side and your elbows bent so the sticks are placed just over the snare. Rotate your lead arm towards the ride cymbal while keeping your arm as relaxed as possible at your side. The further you have to reach for your ride, the more strain there will be on the deltoid and bicep muscles. Hold your stick 2″ above the bow of the ride for thirty to sixty seconds. If you feel strain in your arms, adjust the cymbal height higher or lower, and repeat the assessment until you no longer feel discomfort. This could mean moving the cymbal closer to you as well.
Now play some notes on the ride. Do you feel any strain? Could you move the cymbal closer or angle it differently so there’s less strain? The angle of the ride is important. You want an angle that doesn’t put the wrist in a strained or hyperextended position. And the reactive force of the stick after you strike the ride should feel natural.
Begin by placing your rack toms as you typically do. From the neutral position above the snare, move your arms forward, and hold the sticks 2″ above the drumhead. Do you feel any strain? Try adjusting the height and angle of the rack toms to reduce discomfort. The optimal tom angle allows for natural rebound.
Play some notes on the tom to ensure that everything feels comfortable and strain-free. If not, adjust and reassess. Remember to keep your arms as relaxed and close to the body as possible.
The point of going through all these assessments is to optimize your comfort while playing your drumset. If something feels uncomfortable, there’s probably a reason. Just remember that you never want to sacrifice your active range of motion and control solely for the purpose of looking cool.
Muscle and exercise specialist Brandon Green is the founder of Strata Internal Performance Center, and is the owner of the drummer-centric biomechanics and fitness website drum-mechanics.com.