Building Monster Chops

Part One

Have you ever witnessed a true artist drummer in action? Someone like Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, or Joe Morello? Have you ever wondered how they achieve such tremendous speed, even sound, and perfect dynamics in their playing?

When great drummers play, their accents seem to fly in from out of nowhere. The faster they play, the more relaxed they become. There's no strain, no stress, no muscle tension at all.

Have you ever tried to play at top speed for as long as you can? What happened? Did you stay loose and relaxed? Or did you find your muscles eventually tightened up and slowed you down?

Whether you're interested in going for the World's Fastest Drummer record (see sidebar) or just wish you could have some cool monster chops, I've got good news for you. You can! Anybody can. Great drummers are not born naturally fast. They have a secret. Actually, true artist drummers have a few secrets (see Eight Essentials of the Artist Drummer in the sidebar). Over the next few weeks, I'm going to introduce you to one of the most important essentials of the artist drummer: Monster chops. And I'll teach you the technique that can give them to you.

Simply the Best
When I was 17 years old (a "few" years back) I thought I had fast chops - until my first drum lesson with Joe Morello. When I saw Joe playing as fast and as clean with one hand as I could play with two, I was disappointed in my chops but thrilled at the thought of studying with Joe. I learned that the basis of his incredible technique came from his studies with one of the greatest snare drummers who ever lived: Billy Gladstone, a percussionist who worked in the pit orchestra of Radio City Music Hall in New York for many years.

Although many players of the 1940's and 50's studied both formally and informally with Gladstone (guys like Shelly Manne and Buddy Rich), only a few of them really understood Billy's technique. Joe was one of the few and I was fortunate enough to have been able to study with him.

Over the years, I've worked out with many drummers but I've yet to see a technique that is faster, easier, or more natural than the Gladstone method. The reason you haven't heard more about it is that there are not many professionals who know it. And of those who do, most prefer not to teach it. Why? One reason is that they don't have the patience to teach it. Another reason is that students often don't have the patience to learn it.

Although it's relatively easy to teach the Gladstone technique to those who have never played before, teaching it to experienced drummers is another story. As you'll soon see, an experienced drummer who has a habit of playing the "wrong" way (that is, not using the natural Gladstone method) has to completely relearn how to make a basic drum stroke: The Gladstone way.

If you are happy with your current technique, than by all means stick with it. But if you'd like to play free from muscular tension, and play faster and with more power and precision than ever before, give the Gladstone system a try.

Optimum Balance Point
The first step in learning the Gladstone technique is to find the best balance point on your drumstick. Every stick has an optimum fulcrum, or balance point, that allows it to bounce freely and easily.

To find this point, hold the stick in your normal playing position but very loosely. Rest the tip of the stick on the drumhead and, with your free hand, tap on the stick near the tip until it begins to bounce up. If the stick bounces back quickly, you have found the optimum balance point. If the stick barely bounces at all, you are holding the stick too close to the butt end. Slide your grip away from the butt slightly and try the bounce test again. If you find you must use a lot of pressure to get the stick to bounce, you're holding the stick too close to the center. Move your hand back toward the butt end a bit. Keep testing until you've found the optimum balance point for your sticks. And be aware that different sticks will have different balance points.

Once you've found the optimum balance point on your sticks, you're ready for the rubber ball test.

Stay Loose
If you have a rubber ball handy, take it out. Hold the ball a few feet from the ground and drop it. What happens? The ball bounces back slightly but not all the way back to your hand. Now take the same ball and throw it down as fast as you can. What happens now? The ball quickly bounces back up into your hand. This is the single most important principle of the Gladstone technique.

When making a drum stroke, think of the tip of your stick as that rubber ball, and throw it down as fast as you can (notice I said fast, not hard). The stick will hit hard and rebound quickly, providing you've kept a loose, relaxed grip on the stick. If your stick didn't rebound quickly into your hand, it's because you are gripping the stick too tightly.

With the Gladstone system, you should hold your drumsticks tight enough to prevent them from flying out of your hands and no tighter. This is contrary to the way most drummers play. Usually the louder they get, the tighter they grip their sticks. This is self-defeating.

Any good athlete will tell you that tensing up your muscles is like putting on the brakes: It slows you down. The key to speed is to stay loose, at all times. (Those of you who've read this column before now know what I mean when I say: Stay Loose!) And where other drummers grip their sticks tighter to increase volume, Gladstone system volume comes from height.

To play louder, simply increase the distance between the stick and the drum. That is, throw the stick down to the drum from higher up. To play softer, decrease the distance. You'll learn the various playing levels involved later but first let's evaluate your current technique.

Down: Good - Up/Down: BAD!
How do you make your drum stroke? Grab a stick and try it. Play a single stroke. Now play another one but this time watch the tip of your stick both before and after the stroke. Can you coordinate your stroke with the words "up" and "down?" In other words, do you find yourself pulling the stick "up" slightly before making the "down" stroke? Or, do you find yourself making the "down" stroke and then pulling the stick back "up" to prepare for the next stroke? If so, you are NOT playing the Gladstone way, and you are working twice as hard as you should be.

Think about it. Every time you play you are making two distinct motions: up and down. With the Gladstone technique, there is only one motion: Down. The natural motion of the stick wanting to bounce back up is what pulls your hand back up with it. The key is to train your hands to follow your sticks. Once you learn that, you'll be well on your way to developing real monster chops.

Muscle Development
Because drumming is such a physical art, you need to be in good condition to maximize your performance.

Your training regimen should consist of some type of aerobic activity for at least 20 nonstop minutes each day (a healthy idea even if you don't play the drums). Weight training can also be beneficial but be careful. Monster chops require lightening fast racehorse-type muscles, not bodybuilder muscles. While it's great to concentrate on exercises that develop your speed, strength, and flexibility, improper weight training can tighten you up and slow you down.

The best way to develop your drumming muscles (once you've learned to play with the proper technique) is simply to play. I usually work on chops while watching television. I'll turn on a 2-hour movie and play nonstop until the movie ends. I'll play anything that comes to mind, although I'm partial to exercises from Morello's book Master Studies (see sidebar). What matters most is that you intersperse slow, medium, and fast tempo exercises throughout your workout.

The Next Step
In part two of this article (see the link below), you'll learn how to apply the principles you just learned to the actual technique that makes up the Gladstone system. You'll learn how to play more efficiently using "down" strokes, and you'll learn how to apply the three basic levels to achieve tremendous control over dynamics, just like the top pros. You're halfway there.

Until next time: Stay loose.

Tiger Bill Meligari

Click the following link for Building Monster Chops: Part Two!


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