How to play the drums

OK, this isn’t a real primer in how to play the drums. It’s just that I can play and I have a kit at home. When friends come and visit they often pick up the sticks and try out the kit, before giving up after a minute or two of random bashing.

I often try to give some guidance, but it’s not easy. You do need coordination and practice to play drums, but just by having a basic understanding of a rock rhythm it is possible to play something – even on a first attempt.

First you need to think about which drums you will play to manage a basic rhythm… and I’m assuming you are right-handed. For lefties, just reverse everything to the opposite hand and foot as the kit will be switched around.

Right foot: Kick (or bass) drum, the deep bass drum, the basic rhythm.

Left hand: The snare, the high rat-a-tat sound that counterpoints the kick.

Right hand: The hi-hat cymbal, the high sound that’s really keeping time, you can usually hear the sh sh sh shhhh sh sh sh shhhh sound if you listen to a pop song.

Most rock and pop is played in 4/4 time. You don’t need to understand music theory to just mess about, but try listening to a rock song right now. Count along with the kick drum and you will probably notice that all the changes… the jump from a chorus to a verse or a solo take place on the count of 4 or a multiple of 4 (8 for example).

What this means in simple terms is that there are 4 time markers in each bar of music, so a basic rock or pop rhythm would just be the hi-hat keeping time and then alternating between kick and snare… boom, tat, boom, tat… sounds simple?

If you have a drum kit available then try this – if you don’t have a drum kit then just try it at a desk to see if you can work out the coordination.

First: tap your right hand on the hi-hat – or desk. Just keep a slow regular rhythm… sh sh sh sh sh sh sh sh sh

Second: start the process again and the first time you hit the hi-hat, hit the kick drum – do it together – and then do that on every 4th tap of the right hand. It is simple once you get used to hitting the cymbal and playing the kick (using your right foot) at the same time.

Third: start the process again and alternate between the kick and the snare, also hitting the snare at the same time as the hi-hat.

So now you should have your right hand playing a constant timing marker on the hi-hat sh sh sh sh sh sh sh sh sh… then every fourth one you also hit the kick drum and alternately you hit the snare. That means every other hi-hat hit will be just the hi-hat alone, and the other times will be the hi-hat with either the kick or the snare.

What does my left foot do? Well, on a real drum kit that controls the hi-hat… you can have the hi-hat open or closed and it makes an entirely different sound, but this is getting a bit complex if you just want to see if you can manage a basic rock rhythm. Don’t worry about your left foot for now, just see if you can get that kick-snare-kick going all the time keeping time with the hi-hat…

It can get a lot more complex. A lot of rock – particularly metal – drummers use two kick drums so both feet are playing bass and drummers like Keith Moon from The Who never bothered with a hi-hat – he would just keep time on the regular cymbals. So once you know that you actually can keep time and play a basic rock rhythm then there are other styles of music that use different times (try listening to blues or jazz, it’s not 4 beats in each bar) and even within rock it can all be a lot more complex!

Easy enough? I’m going to try this blog on the next guest to my house who gets on my drum kit to see if they can manage a basic rhythm in the first lesson…

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