Part 2: The Free Stroke
The free stroke, which is also commonly referred to as the full stroke, rebound stroke, or legato stroke, is the most important technique you should learn, as it’s the foundation for almost every other stroke type. The free stroke is basically a dribble of the stick where you throw it down toward the drum and then let it rebound freely off the drumhead so that it returns to the height where it started. Free strokes should be used for everything played at one stick height where there’s no logical reason to hold the stick down near the drumhead. Free strokes require very relaxed hands. Some drummers even feel as if they’re cheating when they first learn to execute this stroke.
A properly played free stroke reveals two things about your technique. First, it shows that the hand is relaxed enough that the stick could rebound without being disrupted by tension. Second, it shows that the stroke was played with enough velocity into the drum that it could rebound back up to the starting point. Practicing free strokes is a great way to loosen up your hands and improve your consistency and sound quality.
The more you hold on to the stick and manipulate its motion, the greater the chance for human error and inconsistency, and the more stress you put on your hands. Conversely, if you relax and let physics carry the workload, your playing will have increased flow and consistency, and you’ll put less stress on the hands.
Volume is determined more by how fast you move the stick to hit the drum than it is by how hard you strike. To get the most sound out of your instrument, focus on playing big and loose free strokes with high velocity, instead of simply hitting hard with a lot of tension and inertia through the drumhead. Not only will you produce more volume with less effort, but you’ll also be able to play more musically and consistently, with a better feel, and with more endurance and speed. Plus you’ll do less damage to your hands and to your equipment.
Free-Stroke Technique for Matched Grip
To play a free stroke, start with the sticks held in the “up” position, with the wrists turned up and the fingers held partially open.
Throw the stick down toward the drum, using the wrist and fingers to accelerate it. With the hand held loose, let the stick hit the drum with all of its velocity and freely rebound back up to where it started. You might think that the stick is pushing the hand back up, but technically the hand lifts just ahead of the stick while maintaining contact as the stick rebounds up on its own. The key is to quickly accelerate the stick and then immediately relax the hand. It’s helpful to think about playing big strokes where you throw the stick down fast—but not hard. Don’t hit the drum. Instead, let the stick crash into the head on its own.
When playing free strokes, the butt end of the stick should never hit the palm of your hand, or else some of the stick’s energy will be absorbed into the hand and won’t make it to the drum. If the fingers hold the stick against the palm, there will be extra tension in the hand, resulting in less acceleration and a stiffer sound. When everything is working properly, the stick should feel heavy and should resonate fully with a high-pitched sound.
It’s very important to locate the fulcrum on the stick at the point where it rebounds most freely. If you choke up too far, the stick doesn’t rebound very well. Likewise, if you hold the stick too far back, the stick doesn’t rebound well, and you also get an uncomfortable vibration from the stick into the back fingers. The fulcrum should be located where the stick does the most work for you, and the stick should be held just tightly enough that you don’t drop it. In matched grip, be sure to allow the end of the first finger to operate separately from the fulcrum point so that you can use the tip of the finger to play the stick.
Free strokes can be played with various ratios of wrist to finger. Favoring the wrist over the fingers will result in bigger and louder strokes, since the stick moves in a larger arch.
Favoring finger use, which focuses on the fulcrum between the thumb and first or second finger, results in smaller strokes that can be desirable for greater finesse and speed, especially at lower stick heights and softer volumes.
It’s ideal to have the technical ability to play at either end of the spectrum (finger or wrist strokes) and to have the ability to gradually morph from one to the other.
Free-Stroke Technique for Traditional Grip
Once the free stroke is mastered with matched grip, it’s time to look at how to play this technique with traditional grip (if desired). Keep in mind that the same physics apply. To play the free stroke with the left hand, start with the stick in the up position and then rotate the wrist, accelerating the stick down toward the drum using the thumb and index. With the hand held loosely, the stick will strike the drum with all of its velocity and then rebound back to the height where it started as your wrist turns back up just ahead of the stick’s rebound. The free stroke’s rebound can actually push the stick farther back than the wrist can naturally rotate. This will help to gradually increase the range of motion within your traditional grip.
When playing free strokes, it’s important not to hold the stick against the ring finger in the left hand. The ring finger and pinkie function the same as the palm does in matched grip (the “brakes”). If the stick continually touches the ring finger, then the stick is being accelerated only by the rotation of the wrist and not by the thumb and index finger on top of the stick. Along with the thumb, it’s generally the index finger that does most of the work accelerating the stick, while the middle finger hangs off the stick. This is okay. Just make sure that the middle finger is near its proper position, since you’ll need it for other techniques, especially downstrokes.
Developing the Free Stroke in Matched Grip
When first learning the free stroke, most drummers feel they’re cheating, or they feel somewhat out of control since they’re used to doing so much more work. “More work” simply means more tension, and more tension generally slows down your strokes and robs you of sound quality and flow. What initially feels out of control and lazy will become comfortable once you’ve practiced it long enough to achieve the proper muscle memory.
Begin by practicing individual free strokes that start and stop about 15 degrees past vertical so that the stick leans against the thumb and index finger up top while the back fingers are curled underneath. In this position, your hand should be very loose. To get past vertical, you must open your fingers a bit. You want your fingers to be in a position to play the stick instead of holding it. Don’t rob yourself of the potential speed and flow generated by using the fingers in addition to the wrist to accelerate the stroke. (When playing free strokes with French grip, limit the stick height to as high as the thumb will allow without the fulcrum changing, which is generally just below vertical.) Focus more on the stick’s return to the up position than the hand action used to play the free stroke, since the stick’s resting position after striking the drum tends to be a telltale sign of whether or not the free stroke was played correctly.
Once your individual free strokes are comfortable and consistent, start stringing them together as consecutive dribbles of the stick as 8th notes at 80–100 bpm. After these consecutive free strokes are feeling comfortable and are consistently returning past vertical, practice them at lower stick heights and at faster tempos. As the tempo goes up, the stick heights consequently come down. At vertical stick heights and below, pause in the up position by holding the back of the stick against the palm; don’t squeeze the stick in the fulcrum. Focus on the contact with the back finger since it’s always the fingers that transfer the energy to the stick, regardless of whether you’re playing something more from the wrist or fingers. If you find yourself holding the stick with the fulcrum, you’re probably squeezing too much there when you’re playing as well.
Be careful not to neglect the wrist once you’re comfortable opening the fingers and using them to accelerate the stroke. If you find that your pinkie can’t reach the stick, or it barely touches the side of the stick, then you need to raise the wrist higher so that the pinkie can reach the front of the stick and the middle and ring fingers can curl around and point back towards your opposite elbow. This will result in a healthy balance of wrist and finger use for playing free strokes.
I often have students begin by playing free strokes using just the fulcrum and the end of the first finger, while the three back fingers hang completely off the stick. From there we add the fingers one at a time. This hand position isolates the foundation of the free stroke, which is the fulcrum and the end of the first finger. Once the first finger is playing the stick well, I have students add one finger at a time, making sure that the sound and flow don’t change throughout.
Developing the Free Stroke in Traditional Grip
To develop the free stroke in traditional grip, start by rotating the wrist, with the stick held only in the fulcrum. (The thumb and fingers should point away from your body.) Even though this isn’t proper traditional grip, it’s worth practicing by holding the stick in this manner in order to identify the feeling of the wrist rotating and a good rebound from the ideal fulcrum point. You’ll feel the impact on your bones doing this exercise, so move on to the next step as soon as you get a feel for the motion.
Next, add the thumb on top of the stick so that the stick is held at the proper angle relative to the forearm (about 135 degrees or 45 degrees from the thumb, which is held in line with the forearm). The stick will now be held against the fleshy webbing between the thumb and fingers and the pad of the thumb, and there will be no impact on your bones. Practice dribbling free strokes in this position, using the pad of the thumb on top of the stick to drive the stick. The fingers should continue to point outward.
Work this thumb-only position until you can comfortably play free strokes as singles, doubles, and triples with the stick rebounding smoothly on its own. You shouldn’t feel any pain in the hand, since the impact of the stick should be absorbed by the fleshy webbing between the thumb and fingers and not the bones. What often sets apart an advanced traditional-grip player from someone who can simply turn the wrist is the ability to finesse the stick using the thumb in conjunction with the fingers on top of the stick.
Do the same thing with your index finger. Stabilize the stick by holding it in the crotch of the thumb and hand, point the thumb up, and play free strokes as singles, doubles, and triples. The other fingers should point straight out. Note that as the index finger pulls in to play each stroke, it should slide across the stick. These finger isolation exercises are very important and should be practiced for life. The thumb and index finger work in tandem for finger control in traditional grip.
Once your free strokes are working well using just the thumb, it’s time to finish assembling the grip. Start with the two fingers on top of the stick, making sure that the stick still rebounds freely and loosely. Check that the thumb and first finger are held together in a T. That position will help the thumb and index finger work together and will add stability to the grip. This T should stay together most of the time.
Finally, curl your two bottom fingers under the stick. The bottom two fingers actually do nothing while playing free strokes, though it’s okay for the stick to lightly tap the ring finger’s nail. It’s very important that the stick not be squeezed between the second and third fingers. This would result in a tight grip where the top two fingers and thumb can’t help accelerating the stick.
Another method that’s helpful for developing traditional-grip free strokes is the overhand dribble. With the palm facing the floor, let the stick sit in the fleshy spot between the thumb and first finger, and then dribble the stick using the first two fingers on top of the stick. While a bit tricky at first, this exercise is quite helpful in developing finger control in traditional grip.
There are four common mistakes that many drummers make when playing free strokes.
- Picking up the stick. Many drummers are so used to holding onto the stick tightly that they’re working twice as hard as necessary. Imagine dribbling a basketball. Even though it may feel out of control at first, let the stick be free to rebound on its own.
- The butt end of the stick hits the palm. The palms (and the ring finger and pinkie in traditional grip) are the brakes and can only slow down the stroke. If the stick is held against the brakes, the flow and sound choke off, and you can accelerate the stick only with the wrist. The fingers should be used to help play the stick rather than grip it.
- Playing with mostly fingers and very little wrist. Remember that the more you incorporate the wrist, the bigger the sound. The greater the wrist-to-finger ratio, the bigger the arch in the stroke, which results in greater velocity and more power.
- Not wrapping the back fingers around the stick. When playing free strokes, the wrist should come up enough so that the back fingers can reach around and cradle the stick. Otherwise you end up squeezing in the fulcrum and choking off the stick in order to provide stability.
By Bill Bachman
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.