Part 4: Alley-Oop
The alley-oop technique is what I call a wrist/finger combination used for playing double strokes (diddles) and triple strokes. While it can be likened to the push/pull technique, which is a wrist stroke followed by a finger stroke, the alley-oop isn’t purely one motion followed by the other, and it’s not intended for playing ongoing, evenly metered strokes. It’s a technique for playing short bursts of two or three notes.
Many drummers struggle with double and triple strokes. The problems often fall into one of two categories: relying too heavily on bounce or stroking each beat entirely from the wrist. If you simply bounce the second and/or third strokes, they will sound weaker than the first stroke because they have less velocity going into the drum. If you stroke everything from the wrist, your speed will be limited. Plus you’ll lose sound quality, your hands will get tight, and you’ll risk wrist injury since you’ll be asking the wrists to do too much.
With the alley-oop technique, the initial stroke (alley) is played mainly from the wrist and uses a higher stick height with slower acceleration. The second stroke (oop) is played mainly from the fingers and uses a lower stick height and faster acceleration in order to match the volume of the initial stroke. The alley-oop requires quick finger technique in order to accelerate the second stroke. The fingers also have to relax after their strokes so that the stick can bounce up to the starting position. As complicated as this may sound, the alley-oop technique is the best way to play double strokes and triple strokes, and it will start happening automatically as you increase the tempo of your free-stroke doubles and triples.
Once you’ve developed strong finger control, you’ll not only be able to play well-balanced doubles and triples, but you’ll also be able to crescendo within them to add dynamic contour within roll patterns. It takes time and practice to develop the ability to play the finger strokes with good velocity, but it’s worth it.
Alley-Oop Technique in Matched Grip
To play alley-oop doubles, play a free stroke at a high stick height, using mainly the wrist, and let the stick rebound back up as much as possible before playing the second stroke.
When playing very slow doubles, both notes are played as identical free strokes, since there’s time for the hand and stick to come all the way back up. As you play faster doubles, however, there’s not enough time for the hand to come all the way up to play the second stroke. This is where the alley-oop technique becomes necessary.
At faster tempos, such as 16th-note doubles up to 130 bpm, the second stroke (which is also a free stroke) will need to be played with more fingers than wrist, from a lower stick height. You’ll need to move the stick with greater velocity in order to match the volume of the first stroke, since the first stroke was played at a higher stick height. Remember that volume is determined primarily by the speed of stroke, not the stick height.
To summarize the alley-oop technique, the first note should be played mainly with the wrist and the second stroke should be played mainly with the fingers (though the wrist can move a bit for the second stroke, too). As you increase the speed of the double or triple stroke, the stick height will naturally drop with each subsequent stroke. But if you play the rebound strokes with higher velocity than the first (using the fingers), it’s possible to get a well-balanced and even sound. Once the alley-oop technique is working, you should be able to watch the top of your hand throw down the first stroke and then the fingers “slam dunk” the second stroke. Remember that unless you’re playing at medium-fast tempos and above, all of the notes are played as free strokes. The stick should resonate freely with a high pitch as it rebounds back up on its own. Keep the hand relaxed.
Alley-Oop Technique in Traditional Grip
Once the alley-oop technique is mastered with matched grip, it’s time to look at how to employ the same technique using traditional grip (if desired). The first free stroke should be played with a rotation of the wrist, and the second free stroke should be played using mainly the thumb and first finger or first two fingers on top of the stick. Remember that with free strokes in traditional grip, it’s important not to hold the stick against the ring finger. That tighter position would take away the opportunity to “oop” the second stroke, since the stick would be locked on the brakes the entire time.
Play the second stroke with higher velocity than the first by incorporating the thumb and top fingers. Once the traditional-grip alley-oop technique is working, you should be able to watch your hand rotate on the first stroke and then the top-side fingers and thumb “slam dunk” the second stroke. Unless you’re playing so fast that the second stroke needs to be played as a downstroke, both beats of the alley-oop should be played as relaxed free strokes.
Alley-Oop Stroke Types: Free/Free Versus Free/Down
Alley-oop doubles can be played as two free strokes or as a free stroke and a downstroke where the stick stops close to the drum. Both methods are viable, but there are times when one or the other is preferable due to physical demands or musical application. At slow and medium-slow tempos (double-stroke 16ths up to 130 bpm), the second stroke should be a free stroke that’s played more by the fingers than the wrists. Playing both strokes as free strokes works in this tempo range because there’s time for the stick to float back up after the diddle, and it will sound a bit smoother since you’re not choking off the resonance of the stick with a downstroke.
At medium-fast tempos and above (double-stroke 16ths at 130 bpm and over), the second stroke will need to become a downstroke. In this tempo range, there isn’t enough time for the fingers to open and allow the stick to float up after either stroke. Instead, the rebound of the first stroke pushes the fingers open, and then the fingers grab the stick into the palm, which accelerates the stick and adds the necessary velocity so that the volume of the second stroke matches that of the first stroke. This technique also makes the second stroke a downstroke.
You’ll get a bigger, smoother, and rounder sound with less effort if you work up the finesse required to play doubles as free/free strokes at applicable tempos. Unless they’re desired for musical effect or they’re required because you’re playing on a mushy playing surface (like a floor tom), try to avoid playing doubles as a free stroke/downstroke combination, because the second notes are more likely to sound forced, stiff, and choked.
Fast Alley-Oop Doubles
When playing faster double-stroke rolls (roughly 32nd notes at 90 bpm and up), the alley-oop technique must be modified in order to prevent wrist strain. At this point, the forearms will be added to provide relief. When the rolls get very fast (roughly 32nd notes at 130 bpm and up), the wrists aren’t really used much at all, and the alley-oop becomes forearm and fingers rather than wrist and fingers.
It’s helpful to play fast rolls with an “on top of the stick” posture, where the wrists point downward slightly, relative to the forearm, and the sticks point down toward the drum at a steeper angle. This posture gives you more leverage to push into the drum as your forearms pump to play the first note and the front two fingers accelerate the second. (At very high speeds, it’s unrealistic for the back two fingers to move far and quickly enough to maintain contact with the stick.)
Triple Strokes: Alley-Oop-Oop
When applying the alley-oop technique to triple strokes, simply add a third stroke played mainly from the fingers. The first note should be made mostly with the wrist, and the second and third strokes should be made mainly with the fingers. The stick will naturally drop down with each stroke, but if you play the second and third strokes with greater and greater velocity (from the fingers), it’s possible to get a well-balanced, even sound.
At slow to medium tempos, your hands should be completely relaxed after throwing down the third stroke so that the stick can rebound on its own. At fast tempos, the free/free/downstroke combination will need to be used. No arm motion is necessary because there’s plenty of time for the hand to reset without any strain.
Developing the Alley-Oop Technique
Don’t overanalyze and exaggerate the wrist/finger motion in the alley-oop and alley-oop-oop techniques. Practice the motion slowly with all free strokes played from the wrist. As you gradually increase the speed, the fingers will automatically start to kick in on the second and third strokes.
To develop the all-important finger control required in the alley-oop and alley-oop-oop techniques, practice as many repetitions as possible, making sure that the last stroke in the double or triple is played with equal power as a true free stroke and rebounds all the way back up on its own. If you practice faster than a tempo at which you can accomplish this correctly, then you’re not developing the correct technique.
Try not to squeeze the stick in the fulcrum and push into the drum for the bounce, but instead focus on building finger control so that even at very fast tempos you can still use the fingers to punch the rebound strokes with extra velocity.
After focusing on the free/free method for alley-oop doubles (and free/free/free for triples), I recommend also building up the free stroke/downstroke approach. It is good practice to even overdo the velocity of the downstroke during the second note of the double or third note of the triple to develop a super-fast snap with the fingers. I find it preferable to invert the roll (RLLR or LRRL) so that the accented second notes land on the downbeats rather than on the upbeats. Regardless of which type of alley-oop combo you’re using, be sure not to play the first free stroke any higher or harder than you can match with the last stroke. The goal is to have all of the strokes played at equal volume.
When playing low doubles, it might be helpful to think of the alley-oop as a drop-catch technique where the hand and stick drop on the first note and then the fingers catch the stick into the palm on the second note, adding a bit of velocity to the second stroke.
Troubleshooting Your Diddles and Triple Strokes
There are four common mistakes that many drummers make when playing alley-oops.
- Weak, bouncing diddles. If your fingers are underdeveloped, the secondary beats will sound weak compared with the first stroke. Go slowly, and focus on the second stroke being a powerful stroke that matches the volume of the first.
- Tight diddles played with all wrist and no fingers. While it’s possible to play diddles at slow tempos using just the wrist, you’ll run into trouble at medium and fast tempos. The fingers need to play the stick instead of gripping it against the brakes. Go slowly, and focus on both notes of the diddles being played as free strokes that rebound back up.
- Picking up the second stroke when playing slower doubles or triples. If you have to pick up the second stroke, you’re playing it as a downstroke rather than as a loose free stroke. The extra tension needed to stop the stick and then pick it up robs you of flow and sound quality. Make sure the second stroke is a true free stroke that rebounds back up on its own.
- Tight hands at fast tempos. When playing doubles at fast tempos, the forearms need to be added into the motion in order to relieve the wrists. It’s also helpful to back off the stick height and velocity of the first stroke a bit so that you have a better chance to get the volume of the second stroke to match that of the first.
Bill Bachman is the founder of the educational website drumworkout.com, 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 lessons, visit billbachman.net.