Part 3: Downstrokes, Taps, and Upstrokes

If we used only free strokes, our playing would become pretty dull, since every note would be played at the same stick height and dynamic level. In order to add accents and dynamic contour to the music, you’ll need to modify the free stroke into downstrokes and upstrokes.

The downstroke starts high and stops down close to the head. This stroke is used to transition from an accent to a tap. The upstroke starts low and ends high and is used to transition from a tap to an accent. Taps are just quiet low strokes played from the wrist and/or fingers. It’s important to understand that the free stroke is the foundation for both downstrokes and upstrokes. The more control of downstrokes and upstrokes that you have, the more dynamic your music will become.

Downstrokes in Matched Grip

First let’s look at the downstroke in matched grip. The downstroke is also commonly referred to as a staccato stroke. Staccato is the musical term meaning short and separated, which in this case refers to the accent’s hand motion being short and separated from the following taps.

The downstroke is just like the free stroke until a split second after you hit the drum. At that point the stick should be squeezed with the entire hand against the palm (the brakes) in the back and held down with the thumb on the topside of the stick in American grip up front in order to absorb the stick’s energy and stop it low to the drum for a following tap. It’s good to first learn the downstroke in its base form when the stick stops completely. From there, various degrees of downstroke strictness can be employed. Squelching the stick’s rebound against the brakes will have a little bit of physical impact, and it will cut off some of the stick’s resonance. This is okay. Just be sure to avoid staying on the brakes the entire time you play the downstroke. At the top of the stroke, the butt end of the stick should be off the palm so that the stick is loose in the hand and the wrist and fingers have the opportunity to accelerate the stick toward the drum. Keeping the stick against the palm the entire time is like driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake, and will result in a tight, stiff, and ultimately slower stroke.

It’s helpful to think about the following statement when playing downstrokes: Downstrokes point down. This posture gives you some leverage, which is helpful in quickly squelching the stick’s rebound. In order for the downstroke to point down, you must play on top of the stick so that the fulcrum is held higher than the bead of the stick. This puts the hand in a position where immediately after gripping the stick against the palm, the wrist can drop down so the fingers can open up and freely play the stick. (Playing on top of the stick will also help avoid accidental rimshots when playing downstrokes.)

It’s helpful to play downstrokes in American grip so that the thumb is located a bit on the topside of the stick; that way it’s in a good position to push down against the stick’s natural rebound. The challenge is to develop the ability to hit the brakes quickly and then quickly release the brakes so that your fingers are ready to loosely play the next stroke. When the tempo gets faster and there’s less time to stop the stick, stop it less so that you can transition quickly to the following tap. In these situations, the stick heights will not be as defined, so let your ears be the guide.

Downstrokes in Traditional Grip

Once downstrokes are mastered with matched grip, it’s time to look at using the same technique with traditional grip (if desired). To play the downstroke, start with a free stroke, where the wrist rotates and the thumb and topside fingers accelerate the stick toward the drum. Remember to avoid holding the stick against the ring finger, since the ring finger and pinkie underneath function as the brakes in traditional grip. With the hand held loosely, accelerate the stick toward the drum with high velocity. Immediately after striking the head, quickly hit the brakes by squeezing the stick with the thumb and first two fingers against the cuticle of the ring finger. The faster you can stop the stick and then release it, the sooner the hand is prepared to get a fresh start playing the following relaxed and flowing tap strokes.

Taps and Upstrokes

Taps are low and quiet strokes. At most tempos, they’ll be played by the wrist with a closed hand, where the butt end of the stick lightly bumps the palm. Do not squeeze against the brakes when playing taps. The stick should be able to easily slide out of your hand if someone were to grab it. When playing faster taps, where the fingers come into play, the butt end will be released from the palm so that the fingers can play the stick.

The upstroke is also very simple. It starts as a tap stroke, but immediately after you hit the drum you lift up the stick in preparation for an accent. Avoid squeezing the stick against the brakes while playing the stroke and while lifting the stick. You want the fingers to be in an open position at the top of the upstroke, so they’re prepared to help accelerate the stick for the following stroke. Other than the split second when the fingers squeeze the stick during a downstroke, you always want the fingers to help play the stick and not grip the stick.

Putting It All Together

To play patterns with accents and taps, you’ll need to use all four basic strokes (full, down, up, and tap). The full stroke is a high stroke that starts and ends high. (Full strokes are the same as free strokes and should be played so that the stick is allowed to rebound back up on its own.) The downstroke is a high stroke that ends low. The upstroke is a low stroke that ends high. The tap stroke is a low stroke that stays low. (Tap strokes should be played as low free strokes with relaxed hands and without squeezing the stick against the palm.) You will use varying degrees of downstroke and upstroke heights so that every height and dynamic level is covered.

The stroke type you use within a given rhythm or rudiment is determined by the stroke height of the following note played by the same hand. Downstrokes and upstrokes should be used when the following stroke is played at a new stick height. When there is no change in stick height for the following note, the free stroke should be used (at the full- or tap-stroke height). The goal is to play free strokes as often as possible in order to play as loosely as possible. Play downstrokes only when necessary.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Every stroke within an accent/tap pattern will be played smoothly and relaxed, and the butt end of the stick will never get squeezed against the brakes, with the exception of the downstrokes. Aside from the times when you need to use downstrokes, every other stroke should remain relaxed and flowing so that the stick feels heavy and resonates freely in a loosely held hand.

Developing Downstrokes, Taps, and Upstrokes

I don’t recommend playing downstrokes before mastering the free stroke, since the free stroke is your foundation. If you start playing advanced vocabulary containing various accents and taps before you’ve mastered the free stroke, you could end up with a tight grip that will take a long time to remedy.

he best way to develop accent/tap control is with the Accents/Taps exercises in my book Stick Technique. When practicing those exercises, maximize the contrast between the stick heights of the accents and the taps, and remember that the downstrokes should point down. The taps should be played at 4″ heights. At the top of the tap stroke, the stick is about parallel to the drum. (It may help to make a cardboard 4″ height guide and tape it to your drum or practice pad to check yourself.)

The most important thing is to keep your eyes on the beads of the sticks to perfect your stick heights. With well-trained and relaxed hands, what you see will match what you hear. Listen to every tap for even, consistent sound quality. No tap should be louder or softer than any other tap, and no accent should be louder or softer than any other accent. The goal is to develop complete control over very high accents and very low taps so that ultimately you can decide what stick heights you want to use in a given musical situation.

Rhythmic accuracy is also extremely important while you’re training yourself to perform these key hand motions. Set your metronome to play the smallest subdivisions you’re practicing, and try to bury the metronome, which means you’re so locked in that you don’t hear the clicks.

With straight 8th-note exercises, I recommend starting at 90 bpm and going up in ten-beat increments.

Troubleshooting Accents and Taps

There are three common errors to avoid when playing accent/tap patterns.

  1. Downstrokes are played too tightly. Avoid squeezing the stick against the brakes while playing the stroke—you want to squelch the rebound only after the stick has struck the drum—and avoid trying to “dig in” or hit the drum extra hard. This common mistake robs you of smooth sound quality, flow, speed, and endurance, and it can lead to injury, since the extra tension causes all the shock of hitting the drum to go directly into your hands.
  2. When playing taps after a downstroke, the stick is held with the butt end squeezed against the brakes. This also creates extra tension and robs you of smooth sound quality, flow, speed, and endurance, and it can lead to injury.
  3. The downstroke lacks control, so the stick flops somewhat out of control into the following taps. While error number three is certainly favorable to errors one and two, this error leads to high, bouncy taps that lack dynamic contrast relative to the accents. Check that the thumb is on the topside of the stick, where it can push down. There shouldn’t be a gap between the thumb and first finger, and you should be playing on top of the stick for leverage. Rhythmic accuracy is often sacrificed as well. (At fast speeds where there isn’t enough time to stop the stick after the stroke, some flop can be useful. But you have to learn the rules before you can break them!)
  4. Free strokes aren’t played completely free and relaxed. If there’s confusion about what stroke type comes next, the hands will tend to tighten. Make sure you know what comes next in order to play each stroke in its pure form.

By Bill Bachman

Bill Bachman is the founder of the educational website, an international drum clinician, and the author of Stick Technique and Rhythm & Chops Builders (Modern Drummer Publications). For more information, including how to sign up for online
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