Brushes are the playing implement in the drummer’s array of equipment which can, if handled properly, produce a wide range of sounds, moods and textures.
Brushes are normally thought of for soft playing on ballads, and in trios playing small clubs where the music serves as background to cocktails and dinner conversation. It is, however, possible to create enough intensity to make a small group sound big. By “big,” I don’t mean just large or loud in sound, but big in depth and musical content.
Brushes can be used as well with big bands. Papa Jo Jones used brushes as well as sticks to drive, swing and inspire the Count Basie band on many of their hard-swinging arrangements. Buddy Rich uses brushes with his band. My father, Ben Thigpen, and Sid Catlett, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Kenny Clarke, Gene Krupa, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes and most of the drummers of the swing and bebop eras were very good to excellent brush players.
With the emergence of electronics, and extreme high volume, drummers have had to set the brushes aside and rely on not only the normal sizes of sticks, but even heavier sticks to compete with the volume. This era of high volume has lasted long enough for a whole generation of drummers to grow up, and even play professionally, without ever picking up a brush, and in many cases, never owning a pair.
Music, and the instruments we use to create music, have a way of continually challenging us. Sooner or later, we discover, or re-discover, that music, when performed at its best, is not on just one sound level. In order to express ourselves fully, we must include all the varying shades of color, textures and emotions that we experience in life. This also includes softness, gentleness and lightness, which requires a total use of dynamic ranges from pianissimo to fortissimo.
I would like to explain and illustrate a few possibilities for the study and use of brushes:
Types of Brushes
Most brushes are made with thin to medium gauge wires attached to a light metal rod encased in a handle, also made of metal, covered with rubber or plastic. This type of brush is usually retractable. Some brushes are non-retractable, being attached to a wooden handle for the purpose of having a sort of brush and stick combined.
There are also brushes made out of plastic. Each type has certain advantages in different musical situations. I have found brushes made with thin gauge wire offer the broadest range of possible sounds. This is due mainly to the flexibility of the wires. When playing rock, jazz-rock, or funky rhythms, I have found the plastic brushes to be very effective. Because of its lack of flexibility, it provides a feel similar to sticks, except the sound is softer.
Either the traditional or matched grip is acceptable. Each offers its own advantages for different strokes. For rock, jazz-rock, Latin and funk, I use the matched grip. When playing swing, bebop and ballads, I use the traditional grip because the position of the brush in my left hand makes it easier to make slight alterations necessary for executing some of the strokes I use.
Touch refers to the way one strikes, or sweeps, the drum head. To develop an acutely sensitive touch, learn to relate the sound of the brushes by listening. Try making audible sounds with your voice first. Then duplicate this sound with the brushes. It is of the utmost importance that you really listen to the sounds produced by your voice, as well as the sounds produced by the brush. Use your imagination. Try to duplicate other sounds, such as the sound of the tide washing ashore, the rustle of leaves, or the sound of a shoe as it slides across sand (sand dance).
Playing brushes is often like painting. Notice how different figures or shapes create their own unique sounds. Here are some brush stroke sounds that will be of use to you.
The Sweep/Brush is executed with either hand sweeping or brushing lightly across the drum head, beginning the stroke on the left-hand side of the drum head with the left hand, and on the right-hand side of the drum head with the right hand. Repeat in opposite directions. Do the same with each hand separately, then with both hands together. The sound produced by the sweep or brushing should be “s w i s h,” or “s h h h h” or “w h i s c h h.”
The “Tap” and “Tick” Sounds
These sounds are produced by making quick down-up strokes, playing off the drum head. Say “Tap.” As you say the word “tap,” try to duplicate the sound with your brush. Next, say “Tick.” Now duplicate this sound with your brush. You should hear a slightly heavier sound with the “Tap,” and a lighter sound with the “Tick.” If you have a pair of brushes, try these sound test exercises.
The Slap Sound
This sound is produced by playing the brush flat, striking down into the drum head. Say “Slap” or “Flat.” Listen and duplicate the sound.
For the “Tick,” “Tap” and “Slap” sounds, either the matched or traditional grip is okay. Exercises for these sounds should include all of those that you would normally do with sticks (rudiments, stickings, et al).
The above diagram represents a basic left-hand time stroke for playing in medium to fast tempos. This same stroke is illustrated in my brush book, The Sound of Brushes. For now, you might try tracing the shadowed area, following the direction of the arrows moving from left to right and back again, right to left.
I would recommend you do this first with only the tips of your fingers. Do this very lightly, just barely touching the paper. This will activate the sensitivity of your touch.
To create a pulse with this stroke, one should make this motion from side to side continuously, somewhat like the movement of a pendulum. Tap your foot in a slow, steady 4/4 pulse, and count “1 an 2 an 3 an 4 an,” while tracing the diagram. Your hand position on the diagram should correspond with your audible count. If you count softly or silently to yourself and listen, you will hear and feel the steady pulse. When you make this stroke with a brush on the drumhead, the “an” count is more pronounced in the sound. This is because you will be passing the center of the surface of the head, or more accurately, the center of the pulse.
Next, pick up the brush and transfer this feeling from your hand through the brush. Follow the same procedure with each of the sounds and strokes illustrated.
The “Tick and Tap” Sound
This can be applied to the basic swing and bebop ride-rhythm pattern. This pattern is to be played on the snare drum with the right-hand brush.
When playing time in the swing or bebop style, think in triplets. Each pulse beat should be counted and felt as though it were a triplet. The reason for this is that the melodies and the improvised solos in these styles are generally based on a triplet rhythmic feeling.
Basic Brush Ride Rhythm (Medium to Fast Tempo)
As I mentioned before, you might think of painting when playing brushes. Shapes also have their sound. The circle shape, when applied to the drum, is quite effective, particularly when playing ballads. By making a circular motion with your brush on the drum head, you can produce a long “s s h h h” sound.
Trace the circles with either hand, evenly and lightly, barely touch ing the paper. Start the circle at the points marked and continue rotating in a slow tempo.
Count either, “1 an 2 an 3 an 4 an,” or “1 Trip-let 2 Trip-let 3 Trip-let 4 Trip-let.”
Continue the circle. Remember that your hand or brush should be passing the counts or syllables on the illustration in correspondence to your audible count (” 1 an 2 an 3 an 4 an,” or ” 1 T-L 2 T-L 3T-L4T-L”).
To create an audible pulse/tempo, simply add pressure on the brush and slightly accelerate the hand movement as you come to the main pulse count points within the circle.
This next stroke with the left hand, combined with either a light basic ride rhythm pattern, or light “sweep and tap” or “sweep and hook” stroke with the right hand, is extremely effective on ballads. It can also be used for a smooth, legato-type pulse feel in medium to medium-fast tempos.
This stroke is executed by starting with a light tap on the right hand side of the drum on the count “1.” Lift the brush on the count of “an,” tap lightly the “2” count, and brush back from left to right ending the sweep with a light tap on the “3” count. Lift the brush on the “an” count of 3 over to the left, tap “4” and sweep/brush back to the right to the ” 1″ count of the next measure. On the “Sweep and Hook” stroke, the “1” of the first measure only is tapped. The “Hook” becomes the “1” count on alternate measures thereafter.
On the drum it will look like this:
The illustrations shown and explained are of two basic strokes which a drummer can use for just about any tune played with a jazz feel; be it in a medium to fast tempo, or a slow ballad tempo. What is important is that you use your imagination and relate to the music you are playing.