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Fundamentals of Stroke, Articulation and Tone
  • Fundamentals of Stroke, Articulation and Tone


    Download a PDF version of the Fundamentals of Stroke, Articulation And Tone. 


    The goal when striking a percussion instrument is to put the instrument into vibration by striking it with a stick, mallet or by hand.


    The sound which results is determined by the following criteria:

    • Instrument Played/Surface Tension/Composition
    • Grip/Hand Position
    • Level, Velocity and Intensity of Stroke
    • Articulation/Sticking/Implement Placement


    Relaxation is the key to a percussion instrument's full, uninhibited vibration following the stroke. The grip point on the drum stick, mallet or any other implement is called the fulcrum. The arm, wrist and fingers all play a part in a relaxed, natural approach to the development of the stroke. Specific grip techniques for the instruments will be discussed in later sections of this book, but a flowing, controlled stroke generally accompanies a relaxed grip, with the result being a full, legato sound. On the membranophone, this type of stroke is often followed by rebound. By slightly changing the intensity or angle of the grip, a different sound may result.


    The speed/velocity of the stroke will determine both the sound of the instrument and the intensity of the rebound. This principle applies when a ball is thrown to the ground: how hard you throw the ball to the ground will determine how high and fast it bounces back. Additionally, a ten-pound rock dropped from three feet will leave an impression larger and deeper than the same rock dropped from ten inches. The only way to approximate the three-foot impression from the ten-inch distance is to force the rock to the ground with great effort and intensity. These analogies represent the difference between a stroke technique based on gravity/natural motion and an approach based upon tension.


    Some instruments and implements will create more rebound than others. A xylophone bar struck with a rattan-handle mallet will not produce the same rebound as a properly-tuned snare drum, struck with a snare drum stick. This is due to the nature of the bar as well as the construction of the mallet. A goal is to emulate rebound, by striking the surface and removing the mallet quickly so as not to inhibit the vibration of the bar. This principle is consistent on most percussion instruments. The term "drawing the sound" from an instrument, such as the bass drum or the triangle, relates to this effect.


    Stroke Types

    There are four general stroke-types used in percussion playing: the full-stroke, the down-stroke, the up-stroke, and the dead-stroke.


    The full-stroke is the stroke which returns to the point of origin. A full-stroke can be played at any dynamic level on any instrument, and is often accompanies rebound, especially at louder dynamic levels and from a surface which will promote a rebound action, such as a snare drum.


    The down-stroke is the stroke which is restricted from rebound after striking the surface. Due to the nature of the stroke, the down-stroke will often produce a sharp attack. It is also utilized when moving quickly from loud (high) to soft (low) strokes.


    The up-stroke is a stroke which moves away from the surface quickly after striking it. Up-strokes are used for various articulations and to place an instrument into vibration quickly. It is also utilized when moving from soft to loud strokes.


    The dead-stroke is a specialty stroke, designed to inhibit all vibration of the surface. While capable of use on all percussion instruments, the dead-stroke is often heard on keyboard percussion instruments and especially on a drum set bass drum, played with a foot pedal.


    Altering the grip:

    A tight fulcrum or increased tension in the arm will result in a more "compact" tone with less resonance, due to the fact that the stick or mallet stays on the instrument longer.


    Utilizing rebound and/or a more relaxed grip will result in a "fuller" tone.


    Snare Drum: Sticks

    The snare drum stick comes in many different configurations, all designed for a different sound and/or application. The snare stick is most often made of wood, usually hickory, oak or maple, and is available in wood or nylon-tip models. The nylon-tip stick is designed for use on cymbals and for some marching band use. Sticks made from metal or fiberglass and have met with limited acceptance.

    The tip of the stick, as well as the size of the stick will affect the sound of the drum or cymbal. A stick with a small tip is articulate, while a stick with a large, round tip produces a broad, full sound. A triangle shaped, or tapered tip will be effective for use on a ride cymbal, due to the increased surface area. A stick which is too large or heavy for the drum will result in the drum sound being choked (a marching stick used on a 5" x 14" concert snare drum).


    Snare Drum: Playing Area

    There are three general playing areas for the snare drum:

    Edge: This area has predominant overtones, resulting in a ringing quality to the sound. Due to the acoustics of the drum, the edge of the drum produces weak projection, so the performer may use the edge for soft passages or when performing a soft roll. This is also effective to enhance crescendo or diminuendo by moving the sticks from the edge to the middle, or vice-versa.

    Off-Center: Considered to be the general playing spot for concert playing. This area is not as dry as the center of the head.

    Center: Effective for dry, articulate playing, due to the lack of natural resonance at the middle of the drum head. A style which requires a "compact" sound, such as the rudimental style, should be performed in this area.


    Snare Drum: Instrument Position

    The playing position for the snare drum is slightly below the waist. A tall player will want to acquire an extension tube for the snare drum stand, since many snare drum stands are designed for drum set use. Through the use of the marching snare drum carrier the player may now carry a drum in a stable position and the correct height.


    The proper position of the instrument allows for the relaxed execution of the stroke. A snare drum should never be positioned in such a way as to "cramp" the player. Set up the drum 6"-8" in front of the player. This should allow for the elbows to be even with the side of the body, criteria for relaxed motion from the arm.  


    Snare Drum: Posture

    Correct posture and the even distribution of weight upon the feet is a contributing factor to relaxed performance. Avoid hunched shoulders, leaning or any other unnatural body position while playing which would inhibit the flow of energy.


    Snare Drum: Stick Grips

    The ease of performing on any percussion instrument emanates from a relaxed stick/mallet grip. The stick's grip point, or fulcrum, can exist in various locations on different mallets and sticks.


    The "Matched" Grip

    The method which this text advocates for beginning students is the "matched" grip, where both sticks are held the same. This grip is considered to be a more practical grip, since the stroke uses the natural (waving/bouncing a ball) motion of both wrists. Matched grip is generally considered to be easier to present to younger students than "traditional" grip. With slight alterations, the matched grip is also directly applicable to other percussion instruments.


    Method: The "Matched" Grip 

    1. Place the stick between the first joint of the first finger and the flat, or fleshy part of the thumb, one-third the distance from the butt-end of the stick. This is the fulcrum point on the snare drum stick. Position the stick so the palm faces the floor.
    2. With the opposite hand, lift the stick straight up, allowing the wrist to follow along, as if bouncing a basketball. At this point do not have the other fingers in contact with the stick. Drop the stick and allow it to bounce, while retaining control with the fulcrum.
    3. Continue to play strokes, using the fulcrum to hold the stick and the wrist to initiate a "waving good-bye" stroke. Bring the stick back to a position 10"-12" from the surface of the drum, at about a 80/90 degree angle. This "full-stroke" technique develops the musculature in the arm. Practice with both hands.
    4. Bring the fingers around the stick. The fingers will not be controlling the stick to a great extent at this point, but should stay in contact with the stick during all parts of the stroke. Move the stick toward the drum with the natural motion of the wrist.
    5. Practice basic strokes with both hands, attempting to match the volume and timbre of the strokes between the strong and weak hand. Remember to bring the stick back to its beginning position in a straight line. The old adage "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line" will serve the percussionist well while developing this technique.
    6. Do not inhibit the natural rebound which will result from the full-stroke technique.
    7. Practice without favoring either hand so as to develop technique evenly between right and left hands.


    The "Traditional" Grip

    The term "traditional grip" defines a method of holding the drum sticks where the right hand is held in the "matched grip" fashion and the left hand features a grip where the stick rests between the thumb and the index finger. This grip was developed generations ago, when drums were held by shoulder straps (called drum "slings") and positioned over the shoulder to accommodate the angle of the drum, resulting from this placement.


    Method: The Traditional Grip 

    1. Hold the left hand in the "hand-shake" position and place the stick between the thumb and first finger, about one-third the distance from the butt-end of the stick. This is the fulcrum point of this grip.
    2. Bring the little finger and ring finger under the stick and rest the stick
    3. Place the first two fingers over the stick. The fingers do not apply pressure to the stick or inhibit the motion, but serve as a "guide," staying in contact with the stick during the stroke.
    4. In the traditional grip, the left hand turns in a rotary motion. Imagine turning a door knob or car key when practicing this basic motion.


    Snare Drum: Stickings

    The Level System: Rate-of-Strokes/Dynamics

    If we run in place slowly, we may pick our legs up, bringing our knees up as high as our waist if we wish. As our gait becomes faster, the legs and feet naturally move closer to the ground and the attack of the feet becomes lighter. These "rules" of gravity also apply to percussion performance.

    As the drummer plays faster and/or more agile (syncopated, rhythmic) the sticks must be positioned closer to the head to allow for relaxed execution. For more volume, the stick is lifted further from the head, allowing for a fuller stroke and/or greater velocity. The following are guidelines to follow when presenting these concepts, often referred to as the "level system."

    • Increase stroke height as the volume increases.
    • Decrease stroke height as the volume decreases.
    • Decrease stroke height as the rate of the increase.
    • Increase stroke height as the rate of the decrease.



    An accented stroke is most easily created by raising the height of stroke above those which are unaccented. An accent is a musical stress point, and the intensity of the accent should be relative to the dynamic level of the unaccented notes unless there is a dynamic marking which accompanies the accent (sfz, fp, etc.).


    Drum Set: Basic Musicianship

    Drummers should be encouraged to understand the theoretical elements of music as well as any other student. The stigma that a drummer is in some way "ignorant" to these elements is often due to not having been exposed to theory/basic musicianship principles in the same manner as other musicians. Phrases, song from (blues, AABA, etc.), endings, etc. are critical elements in a drummer's understanding of music. The educator may need to devise exercises and listening procedures which help to develop these skills.


    Instrument Set-Up, Body Position and Motion


    The components of the drum set must be positioned to facilitate smooth, relaxed motions. The student should be encouraged to find the most comfortable position for performing rather than the position which is visually impressive. The following guidelines should be considered in the basic set-up:

    • All instruments should be reached comfortably while sitting.
    • Avoid large gaps in height between the batter heads of the drums.
    • Large distances between all instruments should be avoided.
    • Position seat to allow natural ankle motion and non-constriction of legs.


    Body Position

    Determine the proper body position by the following procedure:

    1. Sit on the drum seat and place the bass drum, hi-hat and snare drum into their most comfortable position, with the legs and feet spread evenly.
    2. After finding the proper placement, add the remainder of the set, adjusting the position of the drum set to accommodate the player rather than having the player adjust to the set.
    3. While facing the set the drummer should sit "square," with the legs positioned evenly on the pedals. Setting the hi-hat or bass drum too close to the player will result in a lack of balance. The performer sitting at the traditional set-up should face forward, looking directly across the snare drum and tom-tom. An "imaginary arrow" through the player should point to the front, rather than to either side.



    Correct posture for drum set playing is derived from the most comfortable, relaxed position on the seat. Any exaggeration, such as leaning, crouching, etc. will have an adverse effect on the posture and the flow of energy to the limbs. One should attempt to maintain relaxed limbs and torso at all times, avoiding unnatural movements such as twisting the head, shoulders or introducing tension into the arms, chest or neck. Contortions of the face, mouth, etc. will often indicate tension in other parts of the body and should be noted.



    Comfortable positioning of the set and a relaxed approach will help to facilitate smooth motion. The type of motion employed in playing will be reflected in the quality of sound; relaxed motions produce smooth, controlled sounds while stiff motions produce tight, constrained sounds. While some articulations may require stiff motions or stroke types, the drum set player should strive for a relaxed approach.


    Bass Drum and Hi-Hat Pedals

    The drum set is the only percussion instrument which regularly incorporates the feet, as well as the hands, into the music-making process. Both the bass drum and hi-hat are operated by pedals that after being depressed are returned to the original playing position through the use of spring mechanisms.

    Bass Drum Pedal

    The bass drum pedal allows the foot and ankle to operate a pedal with an attached beater, much the same as the wrist will generate the basic snare drum stroke. After the beater strikes the head, the spring will return the beater to its original position. If the beater is pressed into the head, the pedal will not return on its own.

    Bass Drum Pedal Techniques

    The most natural pedal stroke is a heel-down technique, where the ankle produces the stroke and the beater rebounds from the bass drum head. The heel-up technique is often used for louder, more articulate strokes. The entire leg is involved in this technique as well as some movement from the toes. While both techniques are valuable, the heel-down technique is recommended for the beginning player.

    Hi-Hat Pedal

    The hi-hat cymbals remain apart on the stand until the pedal is depressed. The hi-hat is played with three techniques: the heel-down and heel-up techniques (similar to those employed on the bass drum pedal) and the rocking technique, where the heel rocks back and forth. Since the hi-hat is played with pressure from the foot, the heel-up technique applies the most pressure and produces the greatest intensity to the sound, while the heel-down technique produces the least intensity.