How To Play Fast: A Quest For Speed
“Learning to play bass drums with the heel down is the worst possible thing a drummer can do if you want to gain speed.” –Mike Mangini
“I think I developed my speed from pure teenage adrenaline,” he says. “I’d get all excited whenever Slayer played and would kind of speed things up. Boom! It would start taking off. So I guess I took that and put that more into the music. ’Hey, that sounds really good. Let’s speed it up a little more.’ Then the guitar players would accommodate with the riffs, and they would do the same. It was something very innocent. After we released the first record, people got into it, so we definitely had to start developing ourselves. And later it turned into something that everyone wanted to do.”
Unlike Lombardo, though, Donati depended more on tried-and-true chops-building regimens and less on youthful enthusiasm. As a lad he burned through exercises from classic method books such as Stick Control, Master Studies, and Accents And Rebounds, taking the patterns at various dynamic levels, while making sure each hit was evenly spaced and that the stick height was the same from hand to hand.
“I would try to play sticking patterns that challenged me, and gradually learned to push myself to my threshold of speed and control,” he continues. “I worked on isolating the wrist, and then isolating the fingers. By doing this – by strengthening the individual components – when I put it all together, I had a more powerful technique.”
One of the most startlingly quick drummers alive, Virgil Donati understands why drummers were turned on by Lombardo’s speed. “It’s the nature of mankind to want to be faster, stronger,” he says. “What are the Olympics all about? What do we want to do when we get behind the wheel of a car, or on a bike? Why should drummers be any different? Here’s an instrument that we have the potential to drive fast, although with a lot of effort. I think it’s unhealthy to deny that instinct.”
“I believe that it’s important to become acquainted with a little pain and discomfort. It’s only then that we can move beyond what is familiar and comfortable to us. ” –Virgil Donati
Donati almost sounds masochistic as he says, “I believe that it’s important to become acquainted with a little pain and discomfort. It’s only then that we can move beyond what is familiar and comfortable to us. Besides exercising the mind, drumming exercises the body. It is a mechanical and intellectual as well as an emotional art. We need to take care of the mechanics first and the rest will come a little easier.”
Donati always uses a click track while strengthening his feet and strives to develop pedaling techniques that are as consistent and evenly matched as his hands. “I always play time with the hands as I work the feet, or I just improvise, because ultimately we need to be able to use the hands along with the feet,” he explains. “So there’s less to gain by just working the feet exclusively.
“I initially worked a lot on singles and permutations of singles with my feet. Later, I discovered the possibilities of perhaps using doubles and flams with the kicks, so I pursued that intensely. When I first started practicing doubles, I set the click to a slow tempo, and would increase it at five-minute intervals for 30 to 40 minutes. Gradually I built my speed and control, and over the course of ten years have pushed my threshold to 200 bpm’s while playing thirty-seconds effectively, and up to 220 to 230 in short bursts.”
Another avowed speed demon – whose credits include Dream Theater, Steve Vai, Extreme, and Mike Keneally – Mike Mangini has taken his speed studies far beyond drumming method books, into analytic academia. “I’ve read a lot of cognitive science books about how the mind and the brain work,” he says. “I also examined the concrete anatomy end of it a long time ago.”
The net result of his research has been reduced to an easily understood, no-nonsense approach that Mangini teaches at the Berklee School Of Music. “In order to achieve the feeling to play with your hands or feet at speeds above 200, you have to combine three techniques: an initial throw, which means that your hands or feet do the first initial hit or two hits. So if you do a right and left-hand single stroke grouping, you actually throw the right and left hand, almost making a flam. And the second technique is the stick bounce, or the pedal’s bounce – not as much as the hands, but they both bounce. Then the third thing you do is you control the hands with a fulcrum pinch, or you control the feet with the calf and shin.”
His advice for practicing speed drumming? Put down your sticks. “Put the palm of your hand on a surface like your knee, and tap your hand,” he explains. “It’s almost like a heel-down thing, in a way. Tap like that for a while, then lift up your palm so that now it’s just the fingers tapping on the leg, and you’re making almost a machine-like mechanism out of the wrist. It will feel like a seesaw.”
Mangini laughs quietly. “Now the next thing you do – I swear to God, this is the best description I can come up with – but you pretend you’re Austin Powers. You put a stick in your hand and go, ’Oh, look. A stick!’ My bare hands can hold single strokes at 20 beats per second. And when you put a stick in there it shouldn’t change the way the wrist moves.”