As musicians, the best thing we can do for our bodies and how they relate to our craft is to be aware of our own physical capabilities and the limits our instruments impose on them. Various drumming methods and theories that have evolved over the years, specifically those relating to how we hold a drum stick, are the product of generations of trial and error and offer us endless ways to customize our technique and hone our skills, while pushing our physical limits as far as they can go. Hopefully this breakdown of the major mechanical variations in drum stick grip will come in handy (pardon the pun) for beginners and experienced players alike. Learn each of these techniques, reap the benefits each has to offer, and use them to cultivate and expand on your own unique technical style. Who knows? Maybe you’ll invent a brand-new grip that will revolutionize the craft and make you millions. But it couldn’t hurt to get reacquainted with the basics first.
To start, there are a couple of principles that are fundamental to virtually every known grip and hand technique. First and foremost, it is strongly advised that you learn to hold the stick loosely while you’re playing. Not so loose that your bandmates need to wear eye protection around you, but loose enough to allow the technique to work its magic. The proverbial “death grip” is really only useful for killing things: namely feel and groove, not to mention the tendons and nerves in your hands and arms. These are things that, as drummers, we really cannot afford to sacrifice.
In fact, it is widely believed that drummers’ tendonitis, while mainly the result of the sustained repetitive motion that drumming involves, can be significantly exacerbated by an overly tight grip. In his 1992 tell-all video, Speed, Power, Control, Endurance, venerable technique guru Jim Chapin described the proper grip intensity as what would be required to barely hold onto a “fledgling bird” – in other words, just tight enough to keep it from flying away. “The stick is not imprisoned in my hand,” he emphasized, adding, “If they tell you, ’No pain no gain,’ shoot them!”
The second “Law Of The Grip” is proper use of the finger fulcrum. This is the physical mechanism that provides the point of pivot for the stick within your hand. Under normal circumstances (that is, unless you control your drum sticks with only your fingers, while your wrists, arms, and upper body remain frozen like a statue – as in the speed-stroke outlined on the following page), the finger fulcrum is only one of a number of fulcrums that work in concert to create a typical stroke. Technically speaking, all these points of pivot comprise a complex lever system that involves the fingers, wrist, elbow, and shoulder – perhaps even the waist. The exact location of the finger fulcrum within the hand depends specifically on the grip employed, most of which involve either the index or middle finger, and fall comfortably under the categories of either “traditional” or “matched.”
Traditional grip, occasionally referred to as “orthodox grip” (an undeniably cooler name, with its subtle inference of drumming as a religion), is a living illustration of the drummer’s previous role in society, one as keeper of order on the battlefield and main link of communication between soldier and commander. With a snare slung awkwardly over one shoulder, the military drummer of pre-modern times needed to maintain complete maneuverability to perform his job with confidence. This was achieved by wearing his drum at a 45 degree angle with the head tilted toward his dominant hand. As a result, a unique underhanded grip evolved for the non-dominant hand to accommodate this angle, and remains with the drumming world today, long outliving its intended purpose.
To obtain this grip, open your non-dominant hand with the palm down and balance the stick on the skin between your thumb and index finger, with the bead of the stick pointing out and away from you. Where the stick rests is the finger fulcrum. Then turn your hand up to reveal your palm, slightly curl your ring and little fingers, and rest of the front end of the stick on your ring finger cuticle. Finally, lower your index finger onto the stick, forming a cross with the thumb and closing the grip. The principle striking motion of a traditional-grip stroke requires the inward rotation of the wrist, as if turning a doorknob (clockwise with your left hand, counter-clockwise with your right).
According to drum historian Sanford A. Moeller, the dominant hand of Civil War—era drummers employed what he referred to as an “ancient grip,” where the pinky anchored the butt of the stick into the hand, providing the fulcrum, while the other fingers maintained only loose contact with the stick, and the thumb sat underneath, as if holding a baseball bat. In modern times, any of the overhand grips discussed in the following section are employed with the dominant hand.
As far as usefulness is concerned, purveyors of traditional grip sing its praises for its ability to assist in the sensitive execution of quieter passages, while its critics maintain its inferiority at producing the power capable of an overhand stroke. One notable exception to these common points of view is the opinion of Stewart Copeland. In a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone, Copeland pledges his allegiance to traditional grip, proclaiming its unrivaled power with an anatomical explanation: “The whole point to using traditional grip is because it’s the most efficient way to use your hand to hit a drum. You can hit 50 times harder with traditional grip than you can with matched. Matched gives you no power; you use only the muscles on the top of your forearm with matched instead of the big muscles on the bottom of your forearm with traditional. You can get a much stronger stroke that way.” Copeland has reiterated this stance many times since. Other modern practitioners of traditional grip include Steve Gadd, Lenny White, and recent orthodox convert Neil Peart.
Still, with staunch detractors and defenders alike, traditional grip, while in its last throws in the rock realm, remains the preferred grip of jazz players around the world. It has also found a seemingly permanent home in competitive drum and bugle corps, the distant great-grandchild of the military drum units out of which it was born. It is because of this relationship with drum and bugle corps that traditional grip is strongly associated with the formal study of rudimental drumming.
In the end, drummers on both sides of the argument seem to agree that its true advantage over any form of matched grip is its aesthetic appeal (which is really completely understandable in light of colored cymbals and graphic-enhanced drumheads). Intended or not, any of the following may be implied by the use of this grip: 1) I have a certain reverence for the past greats of drumming and the beautiful, drummer-ly tradition they have helped to foster. 2) I like and/or play – or desire the appearance of one who likes and/or plays – jazz music. 3) I studied rudimental drumming in a formal capacity. Or some combination of the above.
A hybrid of German and French overhand grips, with the palms angled neither parallel nor perpendicular to the drumhead, this is the default grip position for most beginning drummers, or for those who simply choose a more ergonomic playing position over learned techniques.
A standard traditional or “orthodox” grip, shown here with the dominant hand in American grip position. Traditional grip is the de facto choice for jazzers and those coming from a more formal schooling background.