Working your way up the bpm ladder can be extremely challenging for any drummer. Speeding up your singles, doubles, your gimpy left hand–don’t forget those feet!–can cause much frustration, not to mention the formation of some nasty bad habits.
Never fear! We’re here to help with insightful tips from three speed virtuosos. Johnny Rabb, master clinician and active performer, set the Guinness World Record for World’s Fastest Drummer with 1,071 single strokes in 60 seconds. Jason Bittner attended Berklee College of Music and kills for the intelligent thrash-metal band Shadows Fall. There’s no polyrhythm safe from the superhuman skills of Mike Mangini, whether he’s behind the kit with Steve Vai, teaching at Berklee or giving clinics around the world.
So put down the practice pad–just for one second–and open up that brain to the valuable velocity advice of Rabb, Bittner, and Mangini.As you learned to play drums, which exercises/tools did you use to develop speed?
Rabb: I was very focused on the basic mechanics of drumming, working on singles, doubles, and the whole family of rudiments. I suggest starting very slowly to achieve the proper execution of each rudiment before increasing the tempo. Speed is a tool to use only when needed. The most important thing to me is to understand when and where to use it or not to use it.
Bittner: For the most part, developing my speed came from practicing rudiments: single strokes, double strokes, and constant repetitive patterns over and over again for long periods of time with a metronome. Later on, once I became engulfed in learning the metal styles of drumming, playing along to my favorite thrash albums helped improve my speed.
Mangini: During the important early years of my learning to play drums, I used paradiddles and single strokes (grouped as three to a drum) as the stickings that I would repeat for two to five hours straight, three to five days per week. To keep busy, I would use the entire kit making sure I paired one thing with every other thing on the kit. As far as tools go, a pillow came in very handy too. Another type of tool was using role models. I wanted to keep up with Buddy Rich in order to play along with the records. Therefore, his influence drove me to chip away at his riffs one day at a time.
Rabb: Understanding when and where to use speed or not use speed. If you want to learn to play fast, then put in the time to develop whatever you’re looking to improve. I totally think that starting slow will help you maintain the proper technique as you move up the bpm ladder. If you’re stiff, you will be placing a barrier on improving your speed. For me, speed has to be controlled. If you’re flying all over the place with sticks clicking and hitting rims you’re most likely sounding pretty sloppy. The best analogy is that we would not go outside and immediately burst into a sprint. We would walk, jog, run, then finally sprint. Start on one surface and gradually check yourself for tension. There should not be any tension or pain while playing quickly. Don't forget stretching. It really is endless. The key is learning different techniques correctly to add to the music. Only use speed if it is called for!
Bittner: The most important aspects to playing fast are staying relaxed, concentrating on your breathing, staying in time, and trying to make every note count.
Mangini: The most important aspect to playing fast is to understand what speed is and how the human body relates to it. Speed is a rate. Speed isn't a musical thing but can be used musically. Speed contests or devices cannot be stupid, but people who disregard those things can be very stupid. So, understanding that speed is also a derivative makes it easy to determine that the most important aspect of playing fast is adjusting which muscle groups move at increased tempos in time and over a period of time. The bottom line is focused practice. If we pay attention to what muscles are doing what as we increase tempo, then our bodies tell us what we need to achieve more speed and control. Sometimes we must flex one muscle group in order to strengthen it. Later, we can relax a bit more as we earn stamina and control.