New Orleans bandleader Kid Ory approached his drummer back in the early 1920s and suggested to him that he ought to try out this new type of brush stick. The drummer incredulously told Ory that playing with those things would be cheating and that he would rather have full dynamic control with his wood sticks.
Though the new wire sticks called brushes did not catch on that day with Warren Baby Dodds, drumming’s first superstar, they would be tried and perfected by such percussion pioneers as Papa Jo Jones, Big Sid Catlet, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, Philly Joe Jones, Denzil Best, Vernel Fournier, Shelly Mann, Ed Thigpen, and continued to this day by artist such as Lewis Nash, Jeff Hamilton, Kenny Washington, Adam Nussbaum, yours truly, and even reaching into Europe with Florian Alexandru-Zorn. I am writing this article to help the beginner as well as pro with some fundamentally sound brush techniques that I have observed and even created over time.
One of the unique aspects of playing drums with brushes is creating the sweeping sound and applying it to various patterns and grooves. To help you grasp the sweeping concept I have a mantra you should remember: The way to create rhythm when sweeping is to change direction, and therefore each written note will equal a direction change.
Here’s the legend for notation for this article, taken from my book Brushworks:
Fig. a) Tied notes = sweeping with a half oval motion for each note.
Fig. b) Arrows above a note = sweeping in straight line.
Fig. c) Notes with arrows and ties = sweeping each note in straight line without lifting the brush.
Remember that each note will equal a direction change.
Before picking up the brushes place your left hand, palm down, on the snare drum (Fig. 1). Circle your hand over the surface of the drumhead as if your were waxing a car. For now, all the movement should be generated from your elbow. Start at the bottom of the drum, extend up, around the left side, across the top, then down the right side and across the bottom. When you play with the brush it should feel like an extension of your hand.
I am often asked if you can use matched grip to hold the brushes. My reply is a resounding yes! Traditional grip was born out of necessity when military drummers from as early as the 1600s in Switzerland were developing rudiments as signals for military formations. The marching drum used by the military drummers was tilted to one side, making matched grip uncomfortable to use. So the ergonomic choice was to place one stick horizontally across the palm between the thumb and pointer finger, then pronate the wrist and forearm over the rim to strike the head of the drum. That was the tradition. The grip is still viable with brushes, presenting many technical possibilities that you might not do with matched grip.
Fig. 2 Matched Grip
Fig. 3 Traditonal Grip