Getting Started at the Drum Set
by Stockton Helbing

Over the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of young people who are new to the drum set. As I have talked with different people from all around the world I have noticed certain reoccurring questions and problems. It is my goal here to provide some helpful advice that will help unlock the “mystery” of learning to play the drum set.

Holding the Sticks

You must be able to properly hold the drum sticks in your hands. There are two basic ways, or grips, that may be used to hold the sticks: traditional grip or match grip. Traditional grip is a grip in which the left hand has a different grip than the right hand. In the left hand the stick passes through the thumb and index finger (this is the main fulcrum or pivot point) then continues through the second and third fingers down to the drum. The right hand has the stick between the thumb and index finger (this is the main fulcrum) with the others fingers wrapped around the stick for added control. In match grip both hands look the same. Both hold the stick in the same way that I described for the right hand above for traditional grip. If done correctly, the left and right hands should be mirror images of each other in match grip.

Pick one. They are both great. There are many great drummers who use traditional grip and there are many great drummers that use match grip, so you’re pretty safe no matter which style of grip you decide on. Besides, just because you select one particular grip now does not mean you cannot switch to another grip later, or use both as you see fit. I started out using match grip when I began snare drum lessons in the 6th grade. I continued using match grip until high school when I had to learn and switch to traditional grip so I could play snare drum in the drum line. These days I am a predominately traditional grip player, though I do use match grip for convenience sake in certain instances (such as going to strike a drum immediately after playing a rim click with the left hand).

This is a very basic explanation of stick techniques. There are a lot of resources out on this topic (I especially like Essential Techniques for Drum Set: Book 1 by Ed Soph). I encourage you learn as much as you can about physically manipulating the drum sticks. There are many drummers who run into physical problems years down the road because they did not spend enough time on properly holding the drum sticks in a way that maximizes their facility at the drums while minimizing their potential for hand injury.

Start with the Snare Drum

Ed Soph explained to me once that the drum set is a multi-surfaced instrument; therefore, we must first be able to play on a single-surfaced instrument before we can approach a multi-surfaced instrument. That means that you should have a basic understanding of the snare drum before tackling the drum set.

I think that the best thing for people starting out at the drum set to do is to learn their rudiments. What are rudiments? Rudiments are the drummer’s equivalent to scales and arpeggios. You can find a list of them at the Percussive Arts Society’s web page at http://www.pas.org/Publications/rudiments.html. Learning rudiments will help you develop some drumming vocabulary for your hands. After learning rudiments on the snare drum, apply them to the full drum set. Experiment with playing them around the drums. To this day, I still work on rudiments and will continue to work on them for the rest of my life. I find they are great for keeping my hands in shape and for inspiring new creative musical ideas at the drum set. I also love working out of a book called Stick Control by George Lawrence Stone. It is a collection of various “stickings,” or hand patterns, that should be first learned on the snare drum and then applied to the drum set.

The study of the snare drum can be a life’s pursuit in itself. There are thousands of books and compositions for snare drum. See what you come across in your own research of snare drum materials. More importantly, see how you can relate them to the drum set.

I would like to add that, contrary to popular beliefs, you do not have to play rudiments and exercises with just your hands. Why not play them with your feet? If you wish to have the ability to control your feet as well as you control your hands then practice your feet like you practice your hands. This is a concept that has brought me a great deal of enjoyment in my own practicing and has opened a lot of new doors for playing music at the drum set.

On to the Music

Now that you know how to hold the sticks and how to play some basic patterns on a snare drum what do you do now? Simple, put on one of your favorite CDs and try to play along. That’s right, just jump in. You won’t get hurt! Have fun with it. Music should be fun. Also, feel free to always do this, even if you are still working on your stick technique and/or snare drum rudiments. Just dive right in.

Notice that I did not advise you to just sit down at the drums and bang away. I recommend playing with music. That’s not to say that you cannot make beautiful music by yourself at the drums. It’s just that I personally feel that it is better for a beginning drummer to get started on the right foot by attempting to make music with others, even if it is with a recording. That is the reality of what almost every drummer’s career will consist of; making music with others.

As you are playing along with a recording, try to be in the recording. Imagine that you are playing live with all of the musicians on the recording. I recommend trying several things while playing along. First, try to play exactly like the drummer on the recording. Second, try to play like the drummer on the recording, but add your own inflections. Third, try to play in a way that fits in with the music but is not what anyone else is playing.

After you’ve played with a particular album or song for a while, take some time to listen to it without playing. You will notice new and exciting things in the music now that you’ve spent some time with it. Try to pick up on the form of the songs (verses, choruses, bridges, etc.). Listen to each individual instrument besides the drums. What’s the bass player playing? How about the keyboard player? Who’s playing the melody? Can you sing the melody? Can you sing the bass line?

After listening actively for a while, try to play the drum part to the song by yourself with a metronome, either silently singing the song in your head or out loud. As you are doing that, think about how your drum part will fit into the music with the other elements you were listening to. Then go back and try to play with the recording again. You should find that you are getting more and more comfortable with playing as a part of the music. That’s the point. Get inside the music. That is where the real rewards lay.

Playing along with recordings is critical for a new drummer. Music is an aural tradition. The only way to completely understand music is to listen to it. You cannot read any book that will teach you the information you will gain by listening to a song a hundred times. You must listen. And you must listen actively. As you listen, mentally dissect the music. Try to hear every individual part. If you hear a drum fill or groove that you like, learn it. Play it. Make it yours. That will help you develop into the kind of drummer that other musicians will want to make music with. That should be the goal of every drummer.


There is a tremendous amount of materials available to help someone become a better drummer. I hope that the above information will help point you in the right direction. Just remember that your own effort and determination is your greatest asset to becoming a great drummer. If you are feeling overwhelmed don’t worry! I feel overwhelmed all the time, and I’ve been at this for quite some time. Just jump right in. Listen to drummers, watch drummers, talk with drummers. Most importantly, have fun!

© 2005, © 2011 Stockton Helbing Music

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