How To Play Fast: A Quest For Speed

Rod Morgenstein

“I’ve accomplished speed by doing a lot of interplay between hands and the feet with the double bass.” –Rod Morgenstein

The feet are a slightly different story, though. “Learning to play bass drums with the heel down is the worst possible thing a drummer can do if you want to gain speed,” Mangini claims, without mincing words. “It’s not that you can’t play with the heel down, but it takes the hip flexor out of the mix. Without the hip flexor you can forget about playing with power, moving around the pedals, and having your timing be within three milliseconds of a hit.

“You need the machine-like mechanism of the ankle that I described with the hand. Drummers who play at tempos of over 240 beats per minute use a floating kind of motion, an ankle motion. With the heel up, you use the hip flexor in conjunction with the calf and the shin muscle. And for the record, heel-down is wonderful after you have the hip flexor trained instinctively.”

All right already, but what are Mangini’s secrets to rapid pedaling? “First of all, keep the heels about 1/8" off the pedal,” he says. “It’s almost like the heels are almost down, but they’re not. Now let’s say you want to do four strokes with each foot – first the right, then the left – on similar pedals. For the first stroke, pick the leg up without removing the ball of your foot from the pedal plate, and so the knee comes up about 3". Do an initial throw followed by three toe hits. For these three hits, it’s like an ankle motion, almost like the quadricep and the hip flexor are suspending the leg in the air while just the calf and shin do the work for the toe hits. Your knee should come up only about a millionth of an inch. And do it very slowly. Only about two beats per second.

“Now mind you, this is not what happens at even moderate tempos. This is only a practice method. It’s only a way to train a muscle system to work. In terms of the leg system, it’s not individual muscles that move, it’s muscle groups. When we make a motion, it’s because muscle groups move. On the pedals, the lower leg is doing most of the work along with the spring tension and the bounce of the pedal. But the hip flexor is the most crucial part of all, because once it tenses up, you’re up the creek. You seize like an engine. If I get on a kit right now and start to use my hip flexor too much, I break as well as anyone else will.”

How does the bass pedal spring tension impact your ability to play fast on the bass drums? “It’s part of a chemistry equation,” Mangini says. “Some people are naturally stronger and some weaker. Some legs are longer and some legs are shorter. Look at it like this: The tighter the spring tension, the more tension you’re going to need in the hip flexor, and the more strength you’re going to need in the shin and the calf.

“It makes a lot of sense, because it takes more effort to press the pedal. A bigger, stronger person can get away with a tighter tension because they have more muscle mass to move it. And they might get more bounce off the pedal because of the tighter tension. So each person has to literally make this decision: How tight is my hip flexor? How much do I have to force my leg down to play?”

There was probably a time when Morgenstein agreed with Mangini about spring tension. We guess that it was some time before he began to teach at Berklee School Of Music, and certainly before he met students who were into death metal. He honestly couldn’t believe his eyes or ears.

“They play something called ’blast beats,’” he says. “I heard one thing where the kick drums do thirty second-notes, and both hands play sixteenths together. Or the hands alternate between thirty second-notes. And contrary to everything that, say, Joe Morello would espouse, this guy told me he’s heard these drummers describe how you get the bass drum going so fast, and there’s no foot or ankle movement involved. It’s all leg. You have to tighten the springs on the bass drum as tight as they’ll go, tense up as tight as you can, and just go for it.”

Morgenstein admires them for their sheer, brutal technique, which is not dissimilar from his visceral reaction to hearing Billy Cobham for the first time with Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early ’70s. “It was astounding how fast Billy Cobham could get a single stroke going,” he says. “In all honesty, I would have to say that I don’t think I could come close to doing that kind of super-high level of just pure single strokes.”

So why is Morgenstein considered to be such a fast drummer if he doesn’t have particularly fast hands? It’s the very same reason why he’s shy about testing the Drumometer. “I’ve accomplished speed by doing a lot of interplay between hands and the feet with the double bass,” he explains. “If you can smoothly work out playing, say, right/left with your hands followed by right/left with your feet, so that every note is evenly spaced, eventually you can work it up so it sounds like a locomotive at high speed.

“And then you work up other patterns where you’re doing two hands/four feet, four hands/two feet, four hands/four feet, that kind of thing. Then when you start orchestrating it on the drum set, where you hit the drums and cymbals that you have around you, it can sound really fast.”

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. According to our panel of experts, you can be born with fast chops or you can develop them over time. Speed can be about being loose or feeling tight. It’s defined by blinding single strokes or divided equally between your limbs. It’s about science. It’s about attitude. It’s about technique.

But if you plan to enjoy a sustained career as a drummer, there’s so much more to learn than speed alone. “Developing musical skills is a long process, and you develop all the skills involved, including speed, as you work at it,” Donati says. “It’s accumulative. There’s no particular period when you say to yourself, ’Okay, I’m going to learn to play fast this week.’ It’s like growing from a child into an adult – you don’t really notice it happening, but nevertheless, you are always in a state of metamorphosis.

“As drummers, when we practice, many skills should be addressed simultaneously if we are seriously interested in the art form. Apart from speed, we need to consider developing independence, the use of dynamics, touch and finesse, and a sharp sense of rhythm and meter. But speed definitely has a seductive nature, and has ways of drawing us into its spell. We have to turn it around so that eventually we develop the taste and maturity to use it wisely.”

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