Over the years of teaching students how to learn to play drums, I’ve observed some students doing well and others not so much. The reasons are not always what you might think. So, I compiled this list of what it takes.
But before we look at the “11 Pillars,” Let’s just quickly talk about talent. Some people give up before they even begin because they believe they “don’t have any talent.” I think that’s a mistake. I don’t really believe in talent. I’ve read a lot on that subject and talked to a lot of knowledgeable people about it. You can read some of my thoughts on that if you check out the two articles linked to below. Read them, and you’ll see, it’s more about doing the work, and how emotion and passion is needed to fuel that work. Don’t be fooled into thinking you don’t have talent. Just do the work and you can discover how to learn to play drums.
One more thing before we discuss the specific 11 Pillars. It’s important to zoom out and look at the big picture. When you do, you’ll notice that all of the foundational elements of music education–and the 11 pillars–can be linked back to these three key larger functions:
1) Mind, 2) Body and 3) Emotion
Let’s look at these three roots. I think of these like the “Big Picture” elements of your drumming life.
This is where it all begins. You have a notion that drumming is exciting and appeals to you. So, you decide to pursue it. You decide what kind of drumming you like (metal, jazz, or any particular style of music). You have to make some choices about what music excites you so you can focus your drumming studies appropriately. There is a mental game in playing the drums as well: you’ll have to calm yourself so you don’t rush the time or tense up your body. Another example might be getting in the correct frame of mind to be able to play a good drum solo. You have to plan what you should practice and how much you should practice. You’ll need to decide who to emulate and how to develop your own style. All of these are examples of the stuff that happens “upstairs.”
Your body has to learn certain motions, and get coordinated and learn to play beats. Technique, coordination, relaxed muscles and all of the physical aspects are integral to playing drums. This is the body, the second big picture element of your drumming.
Are you excited by drumming? Are you passionate about music? If you are and you can open yourself up to your feelings, then your emotion will come through. If you don’t have any emotion in your drumming or as part of your learning, you will be lost or what you do will be “flat.” Like mind and body, emotion is essential and sometimes that is the missing link between someone technically good whose grooves are just OK and someone whose grooves feel amazing.
If you think of Mind, Body and Emotion as the roots and the trunk of the tree, then the 11 elements below are the branches; they all encompass parts of the first 3 Big Picture factors.
The 11 Pillars of Drumming
This is a deep and seemingly never-ending topic. Possibly the most difficult and time-consuming pursuit in drumming. It takes a long time and a lot of work (practice) to develop your hands and feet. This is the physical palate that we need to get sounds out of our instrument, so it’s well worth the effort. The more technique you have, the more possibilities you have to express yourself. Technique also allows you to get a great sound out of your drums. Without technique, you’ll just never sound that good. Crucial.
This is the language. Imagine if you could speak a language but not read or write it? Doesn’t that seem unthinkable to you? Well, it’s the same here. This is the language of drumming. You want to be able to read and write and speak in “drum language.” This will allow you to listen to something and write it down so you can work on it later, make charts for yourself so you can learn a bunch of music quickly or just jot down a fill idea while riding the subway. It also allows for great efficiency in your learning. Just open any drum book and you’re off to the races. Essential.
Independence allows you to play a repeating pattern with one or two limbs and vary what you play with the other two. It sounds insanely difficult, but there is a very logical method for working on this. In fact, anything is possible here, as long as you spend the time practicing. It’s key to develop Independence because it is what allows you to have some freedom playing beats and grooves. When you’ve developed a lot of it, you’ll be able to improvise your grooves on the fly.
- Multi-Limbed Coordination
As distinct from Independence, Multi-Limbed Coordination means playing various ideas between your hands and feet. For example, if you wanted to play 16th notes with your hands as alternating single strokes and then switch to 16th notes as single strokes between your hands and feet (right hand, bass drum, left hand, bass drum), that would be one simple example of Multi-Limbed Coordination. There are endless possibilities for things you can play using these types of hand/foot ideas. Another type of Multi-Limbed Coordination could be groove based; for example, playing grooves that are linear or based on paradiddles.
This works just like it does in the language you are fluent in speaking, reading and writing. It is the store house of things that you are comfortable playing. It could be a bunch of fill ideas that you have worked out and can play at will. For one simple example, check out “11 Trusty Rock Drum Fills.” For more advanced vocabulary, check our long running series of “Nasty Drum Licks.” Here’s one example: “Nasty Lick #100.” For obvious reasons, the more vocabulary you have at the ready, the better. You can also consider the types of grooves you are comfortable playing well as vocabulary. The more fluent you are with different types of independence, and the more grooves and styles of grooves you learn, the wider your vocabulary of groove possibilities.
To be a good drummer, you need to have good taste. This means playing what is appropriate for the music at hand. If you are playing with a folky singer/songwriter, you should refrain from using your double-bass grooves (yes, a little sarcasm…). Sounds obvious, right? You’d be surprised at the number of musicians out there who don’t have the good taste or common sense to play appropriately for the song. You hear this so often that the advice seems trite. But the reason you keep hearing about this is that people don’t always heed the advice. Musicality means knowing when to play quiet, when to play loud, understanding what kind of groove to play, what style of fills to use, and whether to play busily or simply. It’s developed over time by playing music with a lot of people. Having a teacher who understands this will go a long way too.
Much of learning how to play an instrument, including drums, is related to the genre of music being played. Rock, Pop, Blues, Jazz, Latin, Country, and Reggae are just a few examples of musical styles that have their own language and ways of playing appropriately. Spending time working on styles is very important to being successful as a drummer. You have to know what to play based on the genre at hand. Knowing what’s right for the style comes from studying and listening.
Even if you were to work on all the elements listed here in the “11 Pillars,” you could not possibly succeed as a drummer if your groove was suspect. What does this mean? Groove is that combination of steady time and “feel” that makes the beats you play feel good. This is one of the trickiest skills to teach. It has two components: Time and Feel. Time is the easier of the two to teach: just work with a metronome. That’s really all there is to it. It’s not easy, but the method to develop it is simple. Feel is more elusive. The only way I’ve found to work on it is simply to listen to music and emulate the playing of the drummer(s) whose “feel” you like. So, again, it’s trickier, but the method is fairly clear. Listen, absorb and emulate. Then repeat.
This is the emotion in your playing. It’s the fire. The urgency. It comes from what excites you. This is crucial because it drives everything else. The passion is like the drumming engine’s gasoline. It pushes you to practice more, learn more, come up with more ideas and keep you moving along the path to develop your craft. I always ask my students what kind of music they like and who their favorite drummers are. If they have answers and speak with excitement, I can see they have passion. If they don’t, I worry. This passion is also something you can see and hear when someone plays. Confidence and passion are part of your performance.
Your concepts are your philosophies of playing. Your ideas. Your practice plans. Your technical goals and desired styles to master. What you imagine you can do with your playing. These concepts can take many forms. In the early stages, your concepts will be more about trying to develop some fundamental facility to allow you to function behind the drums at a basic level. But later, the ideas should progress; “how do I sound like [insert favorite drummer here],” “How do I sound unique?” Specific ways for you to sound unique will be key to develop your own voice and stand out from the rest. That is an advanced concept. But, you get the picture? Concept is important. Having no concepts for your drumming would be like sailing a boat that has no rudder; you’d drift around a lot and probably not get anywhere. For more on this check out: “Why Thinking About Your Drumming Is Just As Important As Practicing.”
This is the work. The other 10 pillars mean nothing without this. Really. No practice means you won’t get good. Game over. Lots of practice means you could be great. It is very hard work and it takes thousands of hours. But overlook this and all is lost. For further reading on practicing, check out: “Great Drummers Practice A Lot,” “An Introduction To Practicing” and “On Practice and Patience.”