Sitting behind a drum set for the first time, we soon learn that the coordination is quite challenging. In the early days, we get through the first few drum lessons by playing slowly, counting out loud, and understanding which limb plays which note. It's a lot of fun, and the start of a great journey! It soon becomes apparent that one hand (our dominant hand) is significantly more developed, and this presents some interesting challenges. In this blog, we examine the importance of developing your weaker hand, why left-handed drummers should consider using a right-handed set up, and why right-handed drummers should experiment with playing "open". Don't forget the Drum Ambition Glossary for any terms that you might not be familiar with.
In my time as a professional drum teacher, I have met a small number of people that I would call "truly ambidextrous", where they are able to use both hands equally well. For the rest of my students, and certainly for myself, there is a dominant hand. In the vast majority of cases, it is the right hand, but this depends on the individual.
In the image above, you can see an overhead picture of what we would term a "right-handed set up". The hi hats are to the left of the snare drum (played by crossing our right arm over our left arm), and when desired, our right hand also plays the ride cymbal, which is positioned to the right of the set (pictured). For most right-handed drummers, it also makes perfect sense that our right foot plays the bass drum pedal; which is by far the most commonly played foot pedal - the other foot pedal being the hi-hat, played with the left foot.
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If you are a fan of drummers including Dominic Howard (Muse), Phil Collins (Solo Artist / Genesis) and Ian Paice (Deep Purple), you may have noticed that they have a reversed set up, with the hi-hats on their right-hand side, the ride cymbal on their left, while playing the bass drum pedal with their left foot. In other words, they are reversing what a right-handed drummer would do. This is because these drummers are naturally left-handed, and have chosen to lead with their dominant left hand on a left-handed set up.
There is no doubt that it makes perfect sense for us to do what instinctively feels stronger and more comfortable. One of the things you will discover very quickly when learning to play the drums is that your dominant hand is not only stronger, but considerably more developed, and most people feel an imbalance between their two hands. This becomes more evident when practicing single strokes on a practice pad or snare drum (Right, left, right, left, right, left etc), as well as drum fills and grooves that utilize both hands. Therefore, one of our long-term goals should be to strengthen our weaker hand. This is very much a "work in progress" goal, achieved gradually over long periods of time, and of course, with lots of practice.
One of the first questions I ask a new student is whether they are right or left-handed. In most cases, they are right-handed, but if not, my first suggestion is that they consider playing a right-handed set up for the first ten lessons. There is some method in the madness here, even though it seems counterintuitive. Firstly, since a left-handed drummer will be crossing their arms and leading with their right hand on the hi hat, they are immediately working on developing their weaker limb from day one. Since the whole experience is new anyway, this shouldn't seem out of the ordinary. (It's not like asking a left-handed person to write with their right hand - that would be extremely challenging, and somewhat messy). The same would go for the feet, where they are immediately developing their right foot on the bass drum pedal. It is worth noting that out of all of my student drummers that are naturally left-handed, none have switched to a left-handed set up after starting lessons on a right-handed drum set. One practical thing to consider is that most popular music books on drum fills and grooves provide suggested sticking patterns from the standpoint of right-handed drummers. It can be frustrating to have to reverse everything if you are left-handed. Not a major deal, but an important consideration nonetheless.
Left-handed drummers also have the option of playing "open handed". This is when a right-handed drum set is played, and the left hand plays the hi hat, and the right hand plays the snare drum - the arms are not crossed, hence the term "open handed". This presents a very interesting and musical option on the drum set, as it opens up the possibility of grooves and fills that would be difficult, inefficient, or just plain impossible using the more traditional "crossed" approach. Some left-handed drummers that use this technique to great effect include Carter Beauford (Dave Matthews Band) and the legendary British drummer, Simon Phillips.
Open handed playing is not just the preserve of left-handed drummers. I regularly push my right-handed students to lead on the hi hats with their left hand once in a while. Again, this is a great way of developing your left hand, and also a way of learning certain beats and fills that can be played exclusively in an open handed situation.
There are other exercises that are designed to strengthen your weaker hand. For example, if you are right-handed, try playing single strokes (one of the drum set "rudiments") leading with your left hand. (Left, right, left, right, left, right). In fact, you can reverse most popular sticking patterns to lead with your left hand. As discussed earlier, it is desirable to try and get our hands as balanced as possible over time, because this will lead to better control. There are some wonderful byproducts of control that include speed, power, dynamics, efficiency, endurance, musicality - to name a few. None of these things are possible without control, and control is aided by having an overall equilibrium in our hands and feet.
As with all situations when learning the drums; the important factor is to find out what works for you, even if it might be out of the ordinary, or not necessarily in line with what other drummers may suggest to you. As we have discussed on many occasions, drumming is wonderfully subjective, and part of our own individual musicianship is determined by how we approach our instrument, conventionally or otherwise. If you would like to discuss anything related to this article, or anything relating to drumming in general, please email [email protected].