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drumming mechanics - a system of levers


The purpose of this article is to provide an in depth study of the fundamental mechanics of drumming. It is useful to understand these underlying mechanics because it gives us a framework in which to develop our technique. In the context of a snareline, having a comprehensive understanding of mechanics is a great start to building a consistent technique from player to player.

What is a lever?

From wikipedia, a lever is a rigid object that is used with an appropriate fulcrum or pivot point to multiply the mechanical force that can be applied to another object. In snare drumming, our fingers, hands, and arms make up a system of levers which we use to apply mechanical forces to our sticks.

In all of my years of being a snare drumming student, the concept of a 'fulcrum' has never quite been explained correctly. The fulcrum is usually defined as the location where the thumb and forefinger meet for both the right and left hands as shown below:

This definition of THE 'fulcrum' is only correct if the sticks pivot only about that exact point, which hopefully they do not. To more accurately describe the mechanics of snare drumming we must define multiple fulcrums within our 'system of levers'.

A. Fulcrum and lever definitions - Right Hand

Fingers: If we consciously lock our wrist, elbow, and shoulder so that they remain stationary, the only degree of freedom we have left to move the stick is the finger lever. The fulcrum, or point of rotation, will be located approximately where the pad of the thumb meets the stick. The thumb acts as the fulcrum while the other 4 fingers can apply mechanical forces to the stick.

Wrist: Let's now freeze the fingers in place by placing a 'death grip' on the stick. Now raise and lower the stick by rotating the wrist.

The point of rotation is now somewhere in the middle of the wrist. This motion makes use of the forearm muscles. Use your left hand to feel your right forearm muscles as you complete the motion. You should feel a lot of muscles at work!

Lower arm: Freeze the wrist lever and move your stick, hand, and forearm by rotating at the elbow.

This should feel quite awkward and ridiculous. This motion uses mainly the biceps and triceps. If you try to move this lever with large amplitude at high frequency you will find that fatigue will set in quickly!

Upper arm: Freeze your entire arm and rotate at the shoulder. Again this should feel quite ridiculous. The shoulder and back muscles are used here.

B. Fulcrum and lever definitions - Left Hand (Traditional Grip)

Thumb: The thumb is almost always defined as the fulcrum on the left hand - this is wrong! The thumb is used to apply the mechanical force to the stick. If the thumb was also the point of rotation it simply would not work. Imagine trying to open a door if the doorknob was mounted directly to the hinges. By pushing or pulling the doorknob we are applying a force directly through the point of rotation. This produces zero torque and the door does not swing open.

To isolate the thumb lever and fulcrum, again lock your entire arm and wrist so that only the thumb can move. Hold out your hand as follows and use your thumb to play some eighth notes. If you haven't done this exercise before, you may quickly feel fatique set in right in the meaty part of your palm where the thumb connects to the hand. This means you are doing it correctly!

The point of rotation (fulcrum) is located at the meaty part of your hand shown below.

Index finger (and possibly middle finger): Because of the orientation of the index finger, it is not able to do too much work on the stick if it is completely isolated from the other levers. Try playing some eighth notes using only your index finger (no thumb or wrist!) as you did with the thumb previously. It doesn't work quite as well, does it? Once we start adding wrist rotation, the index finger and sometimes the middle finger will help support the work that the thumb has to do.

Wrist: Place a 'death grip' on the stick by locking your fingers in place. Keep the wrist in a neutral position (i.e. inline with the forearm) as shown with the green line.

Rotate the wrist and play some eighth notes as shown below.

The axis of rotation should coincide with the axis of your forearm. The muscles used to create this motion are a combination of your forearm muscles and biceps. You should be able to feel your biceps flexing as you play eighth notes with a lot of rotation.

Forearm: Lock your wrist and fingers as much as you can. Play some notes by rotating at the elbow as follows:

Again this should feel awkward. As you can see in the picture above, I added a small amount of wrist rotation even when I was trying to isolate it. The muscles being used to rotate at the elbow are the biceps and triceps.

Upper arm: Lock your entire arm and rotate at the shoulder. Again it is awkward. The muscles being used are the shoulder muscles and back muscles.

C. My instructor told me to never use arm! This is incorrect technique!

What is 'correct' technique? Here is my definition:

For a particular technique to be correct, it must allow a snare drummer to play any number of different musical passages at a range of dynamic levels and tempos for a sustained period of time.

Basically, the technique allows you to control the sticks to do your bidding while not making you overly fatigued. Want to play a really fast, loud open stroke roll and then go into 1" singles at the same speed? No problem, if you have developed 'correct' technique.

If you watch a few of the top snarelines you will see that they are all using slightly different techniques. None of them are 'correct', and none of them are incorrect. They have all found an approach to playing the drum that allows them to perform their shows at very high levels.

D. Put these levers to practical use.

Each lever in your 'system' is suited to a particular purpose. In general they all work together to make up a 'correct' technique, allowing you to command your sticks to do whatever you want them to do.

Fingers / thumb: These levers are controlled with the smallest muscles and involve the least amount of mass in motion. Because there is less mass and less inertia, the fingers and thumb will be used to move the stick at high frequencies. When we play a really fast single stroke roll (RLRLRL etc), we will be using almost 100% fingers!

Wrist: The wrist is used to move the stick in larger motions, leading to higher volume notes. The wrist is almost always used in conjunction with the fingers. Try holding the sticks with a 'death grip' while playing some notes using only wrist rotation. This seems like a good way to develop Tendonitis or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome!

Forearm: I like to think of the forearm as a shock absorber for the wrist and fingers. In general, the forearms will move slightly as a reaction to the forces your wrist and fingers are putting on the sticks. Some people frown on this type of motion, but I think it is okay. Just don't use forearm motion to substitute for lack of wrist turn! The forearm is also useful when we need to put a little more beef behind the notes we are playing, especially in big open stroke rolls:

Upper arm: This lever is used for big hits and for show. It is fun to bang the drum like an ape every once and again. :)

Put them all together: I like to define approximately how much of each lever I use for each application. For example:

Eight on a Hand

Tempo Fingers Wrist Forearm Upper Arm
120 20% 75% 5% 0%
140 25% 70% 5% 0%
160 40% 55% 5% 0%
180 55% 40% 5% 0%
200 70% 30% 0% 0%
220 95% 5% 0% 0%
240 100% 0% 0% 0%

There is not an easy way to quantify exactly 'how much' of each lever you are using, but it is useful to make approximate guesses. If nothing else, it forces you to think about your technique and how you are approaching the drum. In the context of a snareline, this approach is useful for creating a uniform technique across the line.

This article is starting to get too long so I will stop for now. In the future I plan on posting more mechanics articles. The next article will breakdown the fingers lever and examine how they should be used for multiple bounce rudiments at various tempos. Also in the plans is an article on the Moeller stroke and fast accent-to-tap patterns. Stay tuned!