How To Play A One-Handed Roll

Tiger Bill’s Speed Lesson #3: Developing The One-Handed Roll

For our third speed lesson we will concentrate on developing a one-handed roll, which requires using finger technique on the stick to produce each down stroke. Before we begin and because I receive so many questions concerning the “secrets” of the one-handed roll, I’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight. There are a few different one-handed roll techniques floating around and some of them produce a great sound while others are not so great. For example, Johnny Rabb has a method of playing a one-handed roll that he calls the FreeHand Technique, based on using the rim of the drum for the fulcrum. While the basis of this technique is not new, Johnny has spent many years modifying it and developing it to the point where he has truly created an excellent and useful technique. A much less useful version of a one-handed roll is one that was reportedly first used by Jim Chapin. I believe it was initially employed by Jim as a joke until someone picked up on it and started selling the “secret” technique. Chapin’s technique is produced by simply holding the stick with its tip pointing straight toward the drumhead and moving the stick back and forth at a high rate of speed so that the tip scrapes across the drumhead as the stick moves from right to left. While this technique is very effective when played with a brush, it doesn’t sound nearly as good when done with a stick. In my opinion, it doesn’t sound much like a one-handed roll either.

Although a fast one-handed roll can be used simply as a show-off gimmick, which can be fun at times, it also has many legitimate applications as we’ll cover later in this lesson. The one-handed roll I’m showing you here is one that was originally taught to me by my former instructor, the late Joe Morello. While this one takes a lot more practice to perfect than other versions, I feel it’s one of the best sounding, most versatile techniques you can use. Learning it will be well worth your time and effort.

Tension-Free Finger Technique
I approach finger technique exactly like wrist technique, without tension. The only difference is that my fingers are used instead of my wrists to produce the down stroke. This allows me to play much faster (although with less volume) than using wrists. When using finger technique, the idea is to keep the stick as close to the drumhead as possible, no more than an inch away. This gives you maximum speed. If you are right-handed and use the traditional right-hand grip, the forefinger of your left hand will be doing most of the work. If you play left-handed using a reverse traditional grip, you’ll be using the forefinger of your right hand to make the down stroke. In either case, your opposite hand or both hands (if you play matched grip) will use a combination of middle, ring, and pinky fingers to produce the down strokes.

The basic technique is as follows: Throw the stick down with your finger or fingers, as explained in the previous paragraph, and let the natural rebound of the stick carry it back up so you can throw it down again for the next stroke. Think of dribbling a basketball and you’ll have the idea. When you first practice this technique at the minimum recommend tempo (quarter note equals 80 as shown on the written exercises below), it’s all right to use some wrist along with fingers. As you gradually increase speed, the motion of the wrist should become less and you should let your fingers produce the down strokes.

Exercises For Development Of The One-Handed Roll
Before attempting to play the eight two-bar exercises that follow, watch the accompanying video. When you first practice, start at a tempo of 80 bpm and repeat each two-bar exercise once or more before moving to the next. After you work through all eight exercises using your left hand alone, repeat them using your right hand. Once you are able to play each exercise precisely at a given tempo, increase the speed. Write down your metronome marking so you can keep track of your progress. Although you should start by practicing these exercises at a metronome tempo of quarter-note equals 80 or less, your goal should be to work up your one-handed roll to speeds in excess of quarter-note equal to 200. Check out the last example on the video. I demonstrate what a one-handed roll sounds like at a metronome speed of 200 bpm. At these tempos, the one-handed triplet really sound like a roll!

Developing the One-Handed Roll

Practical Applications

If you practice the previous exercises regularly, you will begin to develop both speed and endurance. Although it takes time to develop a clean sounding one-handed roll, it’s definitely worth the effort. One you’ve perfected each hand separately, I suggest you practice the above exercises using both hands at the same time (playing flat flams). This will improve your hand coordination and will eventually give you the ability to play fast single strokes.

Once you develop the one-handed roll, you’ll find lots of ways to apply it to the drumset. For example, you can use it to play “time” in triplets while playing the rest of the groove at fast tempos without becoming fatigued and dragging the tempo down. Or you can build an entire solo around a one-hand roll ostinato (a pattern that continuously repeats or loops) as you play changing patterns against it using your other three limbs on the drumset. Once you learn to apply accents to the one-handed roll, you’ll find many more practical applications on the drumset. Stay tuned, as we'll be getting into accenting techniques in future lessons!

For questions on this month’s Speed Lesson, I can be contacted at For more information on my Tension Free technique, visit Good luck working on your one-handed roll.

Until next time, practice regularly and remember to Stay Loose!

Tiger Bill