1. The distinctive Moeller “whip” motion begins by raising the elbow, leaving the wrist and fingers as slack as possible.
2. Dropping the elbow forms an “A” shape between forearm and stick that primes the whipping motion.
3. The initial downstroke serves as the accented note of what is typically a triplet pattern.
4. The second stroke relies on either the rebound energy of the first stroke or on deliberate finger control, depending on your school of thought and/or the speed of the stroke.
5. The third and final stroke is executed on the upstroke as the elbow is raised to initiate the next Moeller sequence.
Regardless of your preferred grip, it is important to be aware of the two formal schools of thought regarding hand technique. The first and most renowned of these methods, pioneered by Sanford A. Moeller in the early part of the 20th century and championed at great length by the late Jim Chapin, is the celebrated Moeller method. Most often associated with German grip, the Moeller method emphasizes the development of hand speed, power, and stick control, as well as the complete relaxation of the hand and arm muscles.
The technique is achieved by mastering a particular stroke that many describe as having a strong downward “whipping” motion. This whip stroke, usually accented, is then followed by either one or two unaccented “upstrokes” in which the hand returns to its original position while striking the drum on its way. While some Moeller adherents are adamant about the upstrokes being generated by rebound alone, Chapin was very specific about the individual articulation of each note. He insisted that the influence of the rebound was minimal and each stroke require as much effort as the last.
As dazzling a musician as Mr. Chapin was, though, he was slightly less gifted in the department of verbal articulation, and so Moeller’s greatest torchbearer was not always able to give a clear explanation of what was required to master the technique. Instead, his greatest gift to us (aside from a collection of superb method books, one of which, Advanced Techniques For The Modern Drummer, is considered to this day to be the bible of jazz independence) lay in his ability to demonstrate it with stunning brilliance in various filmed situations (a number of these can be found on with a YouTube search of his name). You’d do well to view as much footage of this loveable-if-slightly-incoherent man as possible to develop an understanding of the mechanics at work behind the Moeller method.
Another known disciple of Moeller, Dave Weckl, demonstrates the whip and upstroke motions and explains the mechanics with a little more clarity in his 2000 instructional film, Dave Weckl, A Natural Evolution – How To Develop Technique. Although visually similar to Chapin’s technique in his demonstration, Weckl’s description differs in his assertion that the stroke relies on the rebound for proper execution.
The second school of hand technique, inspired by the unique drumming style of 1930s and ’40s—era Radio City Music Hall band member Billy Gladstone, is considerably less popular than the aforementioned – downright obscure in fact – perhaps due to its comparatively young age as an actual method. In any case, the Gladstone technique enjoys a devoted following of effortless speedsters, starting with some of Mr. Gladstone’s most notable students: Joe Morello, Buddy Rich, and Shelly Manne, to name a few.
Somewhat at odds with the Moeller method (depending on your interpretation), Gladstone relies on complete and total commitment to the rebound and the maximization of the energy already present in a moving drum stick. Although it should be noted that both systems fully agree on the abandonment of any sort of muscular tension, The Gladstone technique takes this principle a bit further, emphasizing that no effort should ever be made to lift the stick after a stroke. That remains the responsibility of the rebound, leaving the player only with the job of snapping the stick down into the drum as fast as possible with enough force that it returns itself to its initial position (think of dribbling a basketball). This is called a “free stroke.”
Controlling the stick’s return by stopping it at a particular height from the head – low, medium, or high – the drummer decides the dynamic intensity of the next stroke, called a “controlled stroke” or “control stroke.” All of this is, of course, executed with a grip so loose it’s said that if the stick doesn’t fly out of your hand every once in a while you’re probably not doing it correctly.
Jojo Mayer, famous practitioner of Gladstone, in his lengthy, highly informative instructional DVD, Secret Weapons For The Modern Drummer, offers a great demonstration as well as descriptions of the combination of wrist and finger action that comprise the Gladstone technique.
Either way, no two human bodies are the same, and so different versions of different techniques will constantly evolve to accommodate the always-growing variety of drummers. So before you stress out over whether you should be a loyal Moeller fan or die-hard Gladstone disciple, remember that drumming is a form of artistic expression and there is no best way to do it, only a way that fits you best.
With the thumb and index finger serving as the fulcrum and the wrist, arm, and shoulder remaining rigidly fixed in position, the other three fingers are used to propel each down stroke by utilizing the stick’s rebound momentum, “dribbling” the stick like a basketball off the head. When executed properly, this stroke is capable of producing tremendous speed.