Need For Speed

Tips From Four Fast Drummers

Speed

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.

Jason Bittner

What are the most important aspects to playing fast?

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.

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Johnny Rabb

What are the best ways to develop speed in your feet?

Rabb: This is something I am still working on myself. My left foot is great as a decent double-pedal groove or fill player, but horrible for blast beats, etc. So, I have just turned my kit around and started with basic grooves using my left foot as the lead. This has also helped my left hand on the hi-hat and right hand on the snare. I have spent the last 27 years playing with my right foot as the dominant bass drum foot. So, if I can spend half that time developing my left, I should be able to do doubles, singles, or whatever I desire. I don’t have any secrets.

Bittner: For my development, the best way to develop foot speed was to practice long patterns of sixteenth-notes, triplets, and thirty-second-notes along with a metronome … for endless hours. I still do it today to some extent.

Mangini: The best of way to develop foot speed is to understand which techniques exist and the way the muscles are used at different tempos and velocities. I'd have to say that sitting without pedals, on a chair with your heels up, working out by moving the upper legs a little bit and the ankles as much as possible, gets right to the point the quickest. It isn't the pattern that matters, it is the amount of focus and repetition that counts more.

Mike Mangini

What, if any, exercises do you currently use to maintain your speed/chops?

Rabb: Here is a killer exercise taught to me by Jimmy Robinson (a great jazz drummer from Sacto, CA): Play with either right or left foot. Originally it is all quarter-notes, right foot, with 2/4 hi-hat chick. Start slow and gradually increase in volume, then work back down. Play a jazz ride pattern with the right hand and work on your time. This totally developed my dynamics on my bass drum. The other is just to play 1e, 2e, 3e, 4e starting with your right foot for a measure, then left foot for a measure. The practicing is endless!

Bittner: Playing rudiments to a metronome is still my preferred exercise. Although currently my practicing has been focused more on hand technique, rather than speed.

Mangini: Currently, I am reading The All-American Drummer by Charles Wilcoxon that we use at Berklee, as well as combining a five-time signature exercise. I have chosen these two things because choosing more would not allow me to progress at anything. I practice 15 minutes one day, 30 minutes another in one week at best. I simply have not practiced for two days in a row in any week since 2002 except in clinic-day warm-up sessions. Therefore, I pick patterns to play that require my attention for what I think will be a year before I really see the results I want. I know all too well that we all must earn it. I do not escape this aspect of nature. Given the little time I actually can give to it, I know my muscle memory will need constant exposure to the same patterns for a long time.

What advice do you have for beginners wanting to play faster?

Rabb: Make sure you have a grip on solid time, groove, dynamics, and feel, and have a teacher that can guide you. If you are self-taught, that’s cool, but try to open your mind to all styles of music. Speed is not the answer unless you first have all of your other parts of drumming together. Basic fundamentals are much more important than playing blazing fast hands or feet. It all has its time and place, so just use it wisely. Start slowly and work your way up. And use a metronome!

Bittner: My advice to beginners would be to make sure you can play the exercises you want to play slowly and properly, before trying to play fast. Speed comes with time and practice. I always tell my students, “Better to play something slow and perfect, than fast and sloppy.”

Mangini: Understand it for what it is. Better yet, choosing to be faster because of a musical expression gives purpose to the speed practicing. This type of goal-setting promotes lots of good things, especially a respect for those who have worked harder than ourselves at something, and acting well towards others by sharing the information, not being wrathful, angry or vein.

Jason Bittner photo by Robert Downs