Get Faster Hands Now!

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.

Shoulder/Tip Accent Technique

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.

Freehand Technique

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.


Beat Displacement/Metric Modulation

Here’s another advanced technique Rabb demonstrated in our lesson. The idea is to shift a beat earlier or later by either a sixteenth- or an eighth-note, then shift it back. Rod Morgenstein performed a widely heard eighth-note beat displacement in the Winger song “Seventeen.” Here, Rabb played some sixteenth-note displacements, shifting the downbeat early, and then returning the beat to 1, by shifting it later. You can think of this as playing a measure of 15/16 to shift the pattern early, and then playing a measure of 17/16 to bring it back to where the rest of the band is nervously waiting for you.

This last short pattern is an excerpt from Rabb’s Roland clinic that I thought was cool. It’s a metric modulation in 5/4 that makes it sound like he’s in 4/4. He played an easy 5/4 beat in the first measure, and then played every fifth sixteenth-note in the second measure to divide that bar of 5/4 into four equal-sized parts. Another very cool idea among many — thanks Johnny!

Rhythmic Scale Modulation

This is a technique Rabb is still exploring, to expand upon patterns he already knows. The basic idea is to take a rudiment or a drum set lick, and modulate it rhythmically by shifting its rhythmic value from where it is usually played, to a new one. In this case, we’ll play with a common rudiment, the five-stroke roll (RRLLR-LLRRL). This rudiment is usually played as thirty-second-notes; either starting on the downbeat and ending on the and, or vice versa. Let’s first modulate the rudiment by playing it in a triplet rhythm, which is a common variation used in compound time signatures like 6/8 and 12/8. The next rhythmic permutation is less common, and harder to master. Play the notes as quintuplets (five sixteenths in the time of four), and space the notes evenly from one beat to the next. By keeping the last note of each five accented, it sounds very cool and will fit in most of the places a triplet lick will work.

Single Stroke Roll Development

We first asked him what every drummer wants to know: “How can I get faster singles?” He responded with several exercises. The first is made up of groups of three and four notes per hand played as sixteenth-notes in 4/4. You play a sticking of RRR LLL RRR LLL RRRR in the first measure and LLL RRR LLL RRR LLLL in the second. Once this is memorized, insert a note on the opposite hand between the first two notes of each grouping. This results in the thirty-second and sixteenth-note pattern in the second line: RLR R, LRL L, RLR R, LRL L, RLR R R, and then LRL L, RLR R, LRL L, RLR R, LRL L L. This is an excellent exercise for developing control and burst speed.

The third exercise shows a more musical way to work on singles over a foot ostinato. Here we wrote out how Rabb played the previous exercise over a baion pattern. He also showed how to work your singles over samba, songo, and other foot patterns. He stressed making everything groove together while being able to lead with either hand.