As one of the world’s fastest drummers, Johnny Rabb is well known for his lightning fast single-stroke rolls. But many drummers may not be aware of his development of the Freehand Technique (the one handed rim/snare roll), his C. R. E. concept, or his amazing funk, jungle, and drum ’n’ bass playing. If that weren’t enough, he also toured with Tanya Tucker and Hank Williams III, has his own band The Super Action Heroes, and is a top clinician and educator, having authored several books and videos. Rabb stopped into the Chicago area drum shop where I teach, the Drum Pad, before a clinic he performed later that night for Roland. I dragged him into a teaching studio where he graciously agreed to give me a lesson.
We covered a wide range of concepts in the lesson, and throughout Rabb was a pleasure to hang with. Though quite accomplished, he still views himself as a student of the instrument and couldn’t help but express his admiration for drummers like Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown), Steve Smith (Vital Information), Todd Sucherman (Styx), Jeff Hamilton (Diana Krall), John Blackwell (Prince), and many others. His humble approach made him a little less intimidating as he played ridiculously fast singles, one-handed rolls, and lots of great grooves.
This relatively easy, but very useful technique should be in every drummer’s bag-of-tricks. By using the shoulder of the stick to play accents on the hi-hat (abbreviated as “S” in the transcription), and the tip to play taps (abbreviated “T”), you can make your beats immediately sound more musical and interesting. First, Rabb played a few grooves with no accents, and all hi-hat notes played strongly. The result sounded like a typical high-school-age drummer. Then he played accents on the downbeats with the stick shoulder, and upbeats with the stick tip, to emphasize all the quarter-notes and make the grooves heavier. Next, he reversed the pattern by accenting the upbeats, adding lift to all the patterns and making them funkier.
Rabb has single-handedly (pun intended) elevated the Freehand Technique from a drum solo gimmick to a legitimate playing technique. Many famous drummers have performed this technique before, but Rabb does it with greater ease and fluidity than any of them. Incredibly, I couldn’t hear the rim when he did this. His secret is to strike the drumhead and rim at exactly the same time. There are three photos you’ll need to study to learn the basics of this technique. The first shows what I’ll call the up-stroke position (and abbreviate with the letter “U” in the transcription). Notice that the stick is held parallel to the drumhead. The second shows the point of contact of the drum and rim being struck simultaneously. The third shows what I’ll call the down-stroke position (and abbreviate with the letter “D” in the transcription), which is the end of the stroke. Notice that the stick points upwards while the edge remains in contact with the rim. By alternating the down- and up-strokes, Rabb can easily play some incredibly fast and clean one-handed rolls. I transcribed a few of the exercises he demonstrated to get you started with this innovative technique.
Disclaimer: The example photos reveal that the Drum Pad’s teaching studios are not equipped with much of the fine gear Rabb endorses - DW drums, Meinl cymbals, Roland electronics, Pro-Mark sticks, Remo heads, Audix microphones, Prologix practice pads, Grip Peddler and QwikStix accessories.