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On Drumming Open Handed

Open handed drumming is a method that is debated frequently. I’ve considered it and have applied it to my drumming here and there. In this article, I will weigh in on the pros and cons, my experience with playing this way, and my net-net opinion.

For those not familiar with it, let’s define open-handed drumming. Let’s assume a right-handed drum set-up. Most of the time, the right-handed drummer will cross his right hand over the left to play the hi-hat. Certainly, in rock and pop music, a lot of time is spent in this position, because the primary function of the drummer is to play grooves to support the band.

A good view of Simon Phillips playing "open-handed" at a drum clinic.

A good view of Simon Phillips playing “open-handed” at a drum clinic.

Drumming “open-handed” simply means that the drummer plays the hi-hat with the left hand while the right hand plays the snare drum. This avoids the crossing over of the right arm above the left. Proponents of the open-handed style claim that the un-crossing of the arms frees up the right hand to play anywhere on the kit that is desired.

The open-handed method also allows the right hand unrestricted power on the snare drum. With no arm above it, the snare drum arm can rise as high as the drummer wishes and hit the drum as hard as is desired.

Open handed players will often mount their ride cymbal on the left side above the hi hat and play the ride cymbal with the left hand as well. Some open-handed players have their ride in the “regular” right side position, effectively becoming ambidextrous.

Some well-known drummers who play “open” include: Billy Cobham, Kenny Aronoff (sometimes plays this way), Simon Phillips, Claus Hessler, Dom Famularo, Will Kennedy, Carter Beauford and Lenny White.

My first exposure to open-handed playing was when I saw Billy Cobham (as Jack Bruce’s drummer) play at the Bottom Line in NYC (circa 1980). Besides Cobham’s obvious mastery and technique, the idea that he played “uncrossed” was impressive to me because it just seemed so difficult to do. As a teen, I recall Billy’s open-handed playing had a real “wow” factor.

Despite the allure of the “open-handed” method, I continued to play the “normal” way and still do.

I don’t disagree with the logic of uncrossing one’s hands as described above. Yes, you can play anything you wish with your right hand while maintaining the hi hat pulse. And yes, you have no power restrictions. Yes, it looks pretty cool and it is different from the majority of players.

However (and this is a very big “however”) there really is no logic to re-learning to play “open-handed” once you’ve gotten very far down the road with your right hand leading on the cymbal. Imagine how much work that would take! Hours and hours and hours. Perhaps more than a thousand hours of practice. I find that daunting and actually just stupid.

Instead, I’ve used the idea on occasion, when it served a musical purpose. Recently, when playing with MANCIE, I wanted to play a groove that included the hi hat on every eighth note with the tom toms mixing in with the snare drum and bass drum. I simply decided upon the beat I wanted to play, learned some additional variations on it, and played open-handed in order to execute. I could have added a remote hi hat on the right side to meet the same goal, but I would rather not carry the additional hardware and cymbals around with me, so learning the open-handed beat was an easier choice. It required a few hours of practice, not a thousand.

I also once learned an entire set of music open-handed but I only did that because I was bored with my playing in that particular band. We were touring a bit and I knew the music so well that I needed to think of a new way to play the music without getting bored and without over playing. It worked. But it was an exercise rather than a necessity.

Let’s look at the main advantages put forth by the proponents of open-handed playing.

1) The entire kit is open to the drummers’ right hand when the left hand is playing the hi hat.

Yes, this is true. But do you really want to incorporate tom toms and cymbal bells into all of your beats? Do you need or want to do any of that with any real kind of frequency? I would argue that the answer is “no.” No, you don’t need to play that many sounds on your kit with much frequency at all. In fact, if you did play that way all of the time or with great frequency, you’d be one of those annoying, over-playing drummers who no one wants to play with.

Remember, our function is to lay down the groove. With only the three basic rock/pop voices (hi hat, snare and bass drum) you’ll have plenty to work with if you have technique and control over your dynamics. In addition, linear ideas can allow you to move around the kit more if you wish to play more “stuff” with out playing open-handed.

So, yes, the assertion is true, but I don’t particularly care that much about having the entire kit available to my non-cymbal hand at all times.

2) The snare drum hand can hit harder.

Yes, but really, who cares? You can hit plenty hard crossing over, particularly if you know how to hit a good rim shot.

Here is an important final issue. What about someone who is just starting to play? Does it make sense to play open? I personally think it’s fine to present it to drum students and give them the facts. Some students have a natural affinity for this style.

I rejected open handed playing because I would have had to practice a huge amount to get as good that way as I am crossing. But the beginning student is not re-learning anything. A newbie, who learns open from the get go is not wasting any practice time and will reap all of the benefits of the style. I see no reason to discourage it. I have one student in particular who has been pursuing open handed playing and I am happy to help her with that endeavor.

I do not mean to be negative about open handed playing at all. I like the notion. I think it does make for interesting possibilities. I have dabbled in it. But to make a switch after years of playing? No way. As a way of playing from day one? Absolutely.