How To Play Fast: A Quest For Speed

Cars don’t drive fast enough. Supermarket express lines crawl at a snail’s pace. We wither while waiting for modems to download and fax machines to transmit. We seethe when a doctor is late or fast food is slow.

In a hurry? Join the club. Humans love it when things go fast. But whatever “it” may be – a telephone, clothes drier, or overnight package – we actually want it to go faster than it can. And then once it does, we want it to go even faster still. We’re just never satisfied with our present speed.

Drummers are worst of all. Which is curious, because an ability to play fast is hardly a prerequisite for a sustained career in the drumming biz. It’s just the opposite, in many cases. Ask any singer/songwriter worth his or her weight in gold records and you’ll learn that the only thing they expect from a drummer is a good, steady groove.

But guess what? We just don’t care what they think! To us, a drummer is so much more than a metronome that turns on or off on command. We know that an exceptional drummer will literally transcend the laws of physics to reveal that the impossible is conceivable.

You can smell the anticipation of it at any drum clinic. Watch audience members file their nails while the drummer holds down a deep backbeat. Ho hum. But be ready to take a step back as soon as the sticks start flying around the skins, pumping up and down, crisscrossing, blurring, splintering, ripping rudiments like a tiger claw through a zebra artery. We know what we like.

“No drummer has ever picked up a stick and said, ’I want to see how slow I can go.’” Words of wisdom from Boo McAfee, who, as cofounder of Nashville Percussion Institute has tutored his share of young, speed-starved drumming hotshots. Years of experience as both an educator and a drummer for Willie Nelson, Eddie Money, and the Bellamy Brothers led McAfee to a blinding epiphany: There’s money to be made in the drummer’s quest for speed.

We’re not talking about $30 for a half-hour lesson, either. We’re talking about the Drumometer, a fairly humble black box that measures the number of strokes a drummer can play within a 60-second time span. Sure, it’s little more than a dyslexic metronome, but if McAfee has his way, it will stand drumming culture on its head.

In 1975, a 19-year-old McAfee attended the summer NAMM music trade convention in Chicago. He recalls feeling transfixed during a clinic by local drumming legend Barrett Deems: “Barrett comes out and says, ’Hello folks. I’m the world’s fastest drummer.’ Off to my left I heard, ’Oh yeah? What machine did you use?’ I turned around to look and there was Buddy Rich with his medallion and turtleneck and cigarette. He was the coolest guy alive, and I couldn’t forget that question.”

In fact, McAfee pondered it for the better part of 25 years before teaming up with Craig Alan, an electrical engineer and weekend drumming warrior who helped bring Rich’s dream machine to life. Now McAfee plans to use the Drumometer to launch an extreme sports drumming movement called the WFD, an acronym for “World’s Fastest Drummer,” which he envisions will rival the X Games. And unlike other industry attempts to amplify the public’s interest in drumming, this one may actually have more than a snowball’s chance in hell.

As you read this, the Southern California retailer West L.A. Music is staging the very first WFD Extreme Sports Drumming event. Akin to pulling the proverbial sword from the stone, the month-long competition invites all comers to try his or her hand (or foot, or both) at breaking the current Guinness record holders – Johnny Rabb for hand speed and Tim Waterson for feet – both certified by McAfee’s magic box.

And for those who fail to break records? “Oh, I would definitely not enter it,” laughs Rod Morgenstein. Yes, you read it correctly. Rod Morgenstein – who redefined fusion drumming with the Dixie Dregs, and is known for dazzling crowds with his venomous velocity – even he is shy about testing the Drumometer in public.

“Everybody there would judge the person’s standing in the drumming community by the contest that’s going on,” he continues. “So if you can only play sixteenths at 200 beats per minute, everyone would say, ’He really sucks. I thought he was a good drummer.’”

In a way, that’s at least part of McAfee’s idea. If a mirror can shame you into losing weight, the Drumometer is a stark reminder to practice more. But not every fast drummer buys the idea that a life of solitary speed drilling is the key to forging fast limbs. As far as Dave Lombardo is concerned, drummers who start early enjoy a distinct advantage in that department. He should know. Throughout the ’80s Lombardo raised the stakes with the prototypical speed metal band Slayer.

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Mike Mangini

“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.”

Virgul Donati

“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.”

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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.”