The Beginner’s Guide to Learning How to Play Drums

Beginner learning how to play drums
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Drums have been around since prehistoric times. In fact, many historians believe they were the first musical instrument ever developed. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, bands and musicians started to experiment with the combination of multiple percussion instruments into a larger, single-user contraption that allowed an individual to cover several parts at once. This paved the way for the modern-day drum set that we all know and love.

Since they were first marketed to the public in the 1900s, drum sets have continued to evolve as modifications in design and improvements in drum techniques have allowed for more diverse applications. From classical to jazz to rock and roll, these versatile instruments are fixtures in countless musical genres — so it’s no wonder that drums are among the most popular instruments for people to learn

Like any instrument, learning to play the drums can be daunting. This guide will provide you with the basic resources you need to get started. 

Parts of the Drum Set

Drum sets — also known as drum kits, trap sets, or “drums” — include a variety of percussion instruments, a class of musical devices that produce sound by being struck, scraped, shaken, or rubbed. They are classified based on the number of individual drums present. The most common kit sizes are five- and six-pieces. 

A basic, five-piece drum set will contain:

  • Snare drum — a shallow drum that produces a sharp, distinct sound; it is the center of the kit set-up and sits between the drummer’s legs
  • Bass drum (or kick drum) — a large, low-pitched drum played using a foot pedal; should be positioned on the floor in front of your dominant foot
  • Tom-toms (or toms) — a mid-sized drum that generates a sound lower than the snare, but higher than the bass; a single kit usually includes high and low toms mounted on a frame above the base, and floor toms that are mounted on a cymbal stand or supported by legs
  • Cymbals — alloyed-metal discs used to create loud, bright metallic sounds; placement depends on the type of cymbal, like ride cymbal, crash cymbal, splash cymbal, etc. 
  • Hi-hat — two cymbals sandwiched together and played using sticks or a foot pedal; positioned beside the snare drum near your non-dominant foot

These instruments can be purchased individually or as complete kits. If you’re a beginner drummer, consult your drum teacher or local music store for advice on what you’ll need to get started. 

Holding Drumsticks

You might not realize it as a first-time drummer, but the way you hold your drumsticks can have a significant impact on the sound of your drum beats. 

a man holding drumsticks while learning how to play drums

A matched grip, where both hands are in a similar position, is one of the most popular ways for drummers to hold their sticks. To set yourself up in a matched grip:

  • Relax your hands, curling fingers slightly
  • Place a stick in one hand, approximately three-quarters of the way down
  • Align the stick so that the butt touches the end of your palm near your pinky finger
  • Lightly curl your ring finger and pinky finger around the stick
  • Repeat with the opposite hand, then turn palms down

There are three variations of matched grips that provide advantages based on factors like the style of music and technical abilities required for a piece. 

  • German — palms down
  • American — palms at a 45-degree angle
  • French — palms face each other (thumbs on top)

Another common grip style is the traditional grip, often used in jazz or marching band settings. For this grip, a drummer’s palms face alternating directions with the non-dominant hand gripping the stick between the middle and third fingers to create a fulcrum between the thumb and index finger. To use the traditional grip:

  • Place the stick between the webbing of your thumb and index finger
  • Rest the opposite end of the stick on your ring finger
  • Curl your thumb so that it rests on top of the knuckle of your index finger
  • Pick up your dominant hand stick in a matched grip

It’s essential to avoid bad habits like holding your sticks too tightly or letting your index finger point along the stick as these can affect your ability to adequately control your playing, or even lead to injury. 

Drum Beats and Drum Rudiments

As a percussionist, your rhythm will drive the entire musical group that you’re playing with — so you must spend time in your practice sessions mastering drum beats and rudiments.

Drum rudiments are very basic rhythmic beats or patterns that help to establish the meter of a musical piece. There are 40 drum rudiments, with typical variations including:

  • Single stroke — alternates between one each, right-hand and left-hand strokes (RLRL or LRLR)
  • Double stroke — alternates between two each, right-hand and left-hand strokes (RRLL or LLRR)
  • Paradiddles — alternates between two single strokes and one double stroke (RLRR or LRLL)
  • Flams — two single strokes where the first stroke acts as a grace note to the primary stroke (rL or lR)

Practice pads can be a great tool as you get started practicing these drum techniques. They’re softer than drumheads, which helps to dampen noise and reduce arm fatigue, and they’re highly portable. Some versions even have headphone jacks and built-in metronomes that allow you to practice virtually anywhere without disturbing others.

Reading Drum Tabs

Whether you’re a first-time musician or just new to learning drums, figuring out how to decode drum tabs can be intimidating. Drum tabs are simplified drum sheet music that guide a drummer using a combination of abbreviations that designate the drum set part to be played and symbols that dictate when and how to strike that instrument. 

Beginner learning how to play the drums

Abbreviations for kit pieces are usually listed in order of instrument height, and include:

  • HH — Hi-hat
  • Hf — Hi-hat with Foot
  • B — Bass drum
  • Rd — Ride cymbal
  • CC — Crash cymbal
  • SN — Snare drum
  • T1 — High tom
  • T2 — Low tom
  • FT — Floor tom

Symbols to inform the drummer of how to strike drums include:

  • o — strike or normal hit
  • O — accent or hit harder than normal
  • g — ghost or hit softer than normal
  • f — flam
  • d — double stroke or a roll

Additional symbols are used for accessories like cymbals. These are:

  • x — strike
  • X – hit hard cymbal or loose hi-hat
  • o – hit open hi-hat
  • # – choke or hit the cymbal, then grab it so the sound stops abruptly

A ” – ” in either case is a rest, indicating that the instrument it corresponds to should not be hit on that beat.

Just as in sheet music, drum tabs represent time horizontally, and beats are indicated vertically by the instrument. 

Take a Drum Lesson

Although drum books and online resources like this blog post can provide lots of valuable information, a great first step for a beginner musician to learn how to play drums is to start taking drum lessons. Drum teachers or private lesson instructors are often professional drummers with the skills needed to guide you step-by-step through everything you’ll need to play music.No matter your experience level, the talented instructors at Sloan School of Music are ready to help you on your drumming journey. Contact us today to schedule your first lesson!

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