Brush Methods Of The Masters

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The New Stick

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.    

Cameron’s Sweeping Mantra

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.

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Fig. b) Arrows above a note = sweeping in straight line.

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Fig. c) Notes with arrows and ties = sweeping each note in straight line without lifting the brush.

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Remember that each note will equal a direction change.

Holding The Brush: Relaxed Movement

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.

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Fig. 1

Matched Grip Vs. Traditional Grip

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.

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Fig. 2 Matched Grip

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Fig. 3 Traditonal Grip

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Grip Position

In the following exercises, matched grip players will hold the brush in their left hand with the palm facing down toward the drum. This grip is often called the German grip.

The right hand will use the German grip for all sweeping movements but will use the French grip (thumb facing up) for all tapping rhythms.

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Fig. 4 German Grip (l), French Grip (r)

Left Hand Legato Strokes: Ballad To Medium Tempos

Whether you are playing with Norah Jones or Tony Bennett, the key to playing a ballad with brushes is to subdivide the beat. The following exercise will help you play the slowest of tempos with the greatest of ease.

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Fig. 5

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Ex. 1

Ex. 1 involves only your left hand. On this pattern, place the brush on the bottom left side of the drum (position A) and sweep to the opposite side (position B) with a half oval (or half football) shape. Miles Davis’ drummer, Philly Joe Jones, referred to the oval as “the eye.” Now, without lifting the brush, sweep back to point (A) using the half oval shape. Going from point A to point B is one direction. Then, point B back to A is another direction. You have now played two beats using a legato sweep. Place your metronome on 60 bpm. Using the legato oval pattern play Ex. 1. Each note equals one side of the oval or a direction change. Change direction with each beat of the metronome.

Staccato Strokes: Brush Rudiment

I developed some rudiments to help with various motions needed to play brushes. The “parasliddle,” based on the RLRR LRLL of the standard paradiddle rudiment, will help you with the straight back-and-forth motion of the staccato sweeps. What I named the sliddle (RR or LL) is the same as a diddle except you sweep instead of tap. For this particular rudiment, place the brush on the head of the drum then sweep across the head by turning your wrist and forearm as if you were turning a door knob. I call this the “Turn Key” technique. (Fig. 6 and 7) There are other techniques for this but let’s start with this one. (Ex. 2) See all 17 of my brush rudiments in my book Brushworks and watch them demonstrated on the included DVD.

*Note: Because of the unique challenges of notating brushes, from here on out, notes above the bar line (in the typical ride-cymbal position) indicate notes played with the right hand. Left-handed notes occupy the snare position.

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Ex. 2 Sliddle

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Fig. 6

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Ex. 3 Parasliddle

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Adding The Right Hand

Now you have a strong legato and staccato foundation in your left hand. In this next section there are three different types of right-hand patterns: The staccato sweep, a three note legato pattern, and a tapping rhythm used for traditional swing.

Sliddles

As you did with the left hand, sweep back and forth with the right hand.

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Ex. 4

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Fig. 7

The Funny 2

This next right-hand pattern has three direction changes. Using the German grip, start on the top left side of the drum. Sweep this three-note pattern, which I call the Funny 2, from top to bottom. It has three direction changes: Top, middle, and bottom. Each note equals a direction change. Lift the brush on the & of beat 2 and return to the starting position and start the pattern on beat 3. (Ex. 5) For a more driving sound, change the Funny 2 into a Z pattern.

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Ex. 5 Right Hand Legato Pattern

1 & 2 Lift

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Fig. 8

Right-Hand Taps: Traditional Swing Pattern

The third right-hand pattern, Ex. 6, is a non-sweeping pattern. Use the French grip, which is best for tapping, for this pattern. This grip, also called a timpani grip, has the thumb nail facing upward. Tap each of the notes with the tip of the brush. Start this pattern on the right side then over to the middle area. Once you are comfortable set your metronome to 60 bpm. This pattern will be used for medium to fast tempos.

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Ex. 6

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Fig. 9

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Brush Choreography: Bringing The Right And Left Patterns Together

Oval And The Sliddle

The left-hand oval begins at the bottom right side of the drum while the right-hand sliddle starts at the top of the drum near the middle. Each hand moves in sync with the other. On the first eighth-note the left hand sweeps the left side of the oval as the right hand moves in a straight line from the left. On the & of beat 1 the left sweeps the right side of the oval as the right hand sweeps a straight line from right to left. This all starts again on beat 2.

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Ex. 7

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Fig. 10

Oval And The Funny 2

(For starting position, see Ex. 9.) The left-hand oval begins at the bottom left side of the oval. The right-hand Funny 2 starts on the upper left and side of the drum. With each note, each of the hands moves in sync with the other. On the & of beat 1 and the & of beat 3, the right brush will pass under.

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Ex.8

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Fig. 11

Lift the right hand on the & of 2 then return to the top of the pattern.

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Oval And Traditional Swing

Start with the left hand on the left side of the drum. If you are using matched grip use the German grip with the palm facing down. With traditional grip turn the palm facing right and as you sweep to the left the palm will turn down, and visa versa.

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Ex. 9

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The left-hand oval sweeps from the top left side. The right hand, using the French grip, taps ah 1 on the right side.

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The right hand crosses over to the middle and taps beat 2. The left hand sweeps from right to left.

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The left hand oval sweeps from the top left side. The right hand taps ah 3.

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The right hand crosses over to the middle and taps beat 2. The left hand sweeps from right to left.

Papa Jo Jones: Traditional Swing, Medium To Up Tempo

Papa Jo Jones, drummer with the Count Basie Band in the 1930s, was a great big band drummer who pioneered the modern drummer’s role in the rhythm section. This was true not only for the big bands but for trio playing as well. He once boasted, “The reason my trio works so much is because I know how to play with brushes.” Stick playing could be overbearing in small rooms and Papa Jo Jones was so innovative in his approach that we still copy his style to this day. He often used the following left-hand quarter pattern to create a driving beat with brushes.

Left Hand Sliddles: Windshield Wiper

Pick up your brushes and cradle them with your chosen grip. With your left hand, place the brush on the left side of the drum then slide it straight across to the right side, then back to the left again. Keep your hand very still while moving your forearm back and forth like a windshield wiper. This will give you a real smooth sound. Count 1, 2, 3, 4 and change direction with each count. For faster tempos use shorter sweeps with turn key technique (Figs. 6 and 7) and change direction with each quarter-note.

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Choreography

The following exercise brings together sliddles, straight sweeps back and forth in the left hand, and the taps in the right hand to play the traditional swing pattern à la Papa Jo Jones. He used this pattern for medium to very fast tempos. His style was very fluid and we will try to emulate what we can observe of his playing on film.

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Ex. 10

In this pattern the left hand sweeps quarter-notes back and forth without lifting the brush.

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Right hand taps ah 1 as the left hand sweeps beat 1.

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Right hand taps beat 2 near the middle of the drum. Left hand sweeps back to the left on beat 2.

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Right hand taps ah 3 on the right side as the left hand sweeps back to the right on beat 3.

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Right hand taps beat 4 near the middle of the drum. Left hand sweeps back to the left on beat 4.

FYI, there is no reason that the choreography on this or any other pattern can’t start with an opposite position – i.e., starting right-hand tap on the left side instead of the right. This means the left would start on the right side. The main point is to avoid entangling the wires and produce nice sweeps.

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Philly Joe Jones

Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Kenny Clarke, and Art Blakey were all very influential and innovative drummers in the bebop era of the 1940s. Philly Joe Jones, drummer with the fabulous Miles Davis Quintet from 1955 to 1958, was one of the most influential drummers of the post-bop era. Having penned his own brush book called Brush Artistry, he led the pack with his approach. The following pattern takes a linear approach with the brushes where the right and left hand never play in unison, à la Philly Joe. Each hand will stay close to the middle of the drum. (Ex. 11)

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Ex. 11

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The right hand taps & 1

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The left hand sweeps beat 2

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The right hand taps beats & 3

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The left hand sweeps beat 4

Recommended tempo is half note = 145 on up.

Take a listen to a tune called “Art Full” on my new CD, Here’s To The Messengers. I use Philly Joe’s gallop pattern throughout the song.

Now you have plenty of techniques and patterns that will work in various musical situations. Keep groovin’ and definitely keep the sweeps alive.