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Maximizing a Drumset Exercise

Most serious musicians are always looking for ways to maximize their practice time. One useful approach is to find, or develop, exercises which work on several different aspects of our playing at one time. It's also important that the exercises can be applied to real playing situations. This allows us to practice making music instead of just developing technique. By following this approach we can get more bang for our practicing buck. With that in mind, let's take a look at an exercise I picked up from Sheldon White at the message forum. First we'll examine why it's a good exercise. Then we'll take a look at some ways to vary and extend it in order to increase it's usefulness.

Here's the basic pattern:

Ex. 1

The following MP3 demonstrates the basic exercise at both a slow and medium fast tempo.

MP3 of Ex.1.

This is an excellent exercise because it develops hand technique, jazz coordination, musical touch, and polyrhythms, all at the same time. It's also a practical musical 'lick' which can be applied in real playing situations. Additionally, it's 'open-ended'. By that I mean that there are numerous ways the exercise can be varied and extended to meet different technical and musical requirements. Being 'open-ended' is an important characteristic of a good exercise.

Let's break this exercise down and take a look at some of these areas individually.

Hand technique:

This exercise is great for developing speed and accent control in the left-hand. When playing the exercise it's important to bring out the accents and play the unaccented notes softly. The technique which allows you to most easily accomplish this is the Moeller stroke. The Moeller technique uses a 'whipping' motion to play the accented notes and the natural rebound of the stick to play the unaccented notes. In essence you are getting several notes 'for the price of one'. A detailed explanation of the Moeller technique is beyond the scope of this article, but if you would like more information there are several good resources: Jim Chapin's video, Speed, Power, and Endurance; Dom Famularo's book, It's Your Move; and a recent Modern Drummer article by John Riley, The Moeller Stroke Revealed (Modern Drummer-March 2002).

An excellent way to practice the hand portion of this exercise, is by playing both hands on a single surface, such as a snare drum or practice pad. (See example 2.)

Ex. 2

Although it appears simple, I strongly encourage you to try this. It will make very obvious any coordination problems between your hands. All notes which are played by both hands together should produce one sound. No flam sounds are allowed. Pay particular attention to notes in which one hand accents and the other doesn't, such as count one. There may be a strong tendency to play such notes as flams. This must be avoided. Exercise 2 will really 'lock-down' the cordination of your hands.

Touch and Balance of Sound:

When practicing the basic exercise (example 1) on the entire drumset, focus on the balance of sound between the various instruments. The ride cymbal should predominate. The accents in the left-hand should be played medium to medium loud. The unaccented left-hand notes should be played softy. Play the bass drum very softly on straight quarter notes. Play the hi hat with a strong 'chick' sound on counts 2 and 4. In actual playing situations you may not always play the bass drum on straight quarters, but in those situations it will be easy to omit it. On the other hand, if you never practice 'four on the floor,' it will be much more difficult to add the bass drum when necessary. Therefore, you should spend a reasonable amount of time practicing straight quarter notes on the bass drum so that you will have the necessary technique and control when it's required.


If you examine the snare drum part in exercise 1 you will notice that it consists of eighth-note triplets that are accented in groups of four notes. In other words, the snare drum accents on the first note, the fifth note and the ninth note of the eighth-note triplets. By accenting eighth-note triplets in groupings of four notes we are actually playing three evenly spaced accents in the space of time normally reserved for four quarter notes. Therefore, while the right hand plays a quarter note based jazz ride cymbal rhythm, the accents in the left hand are implying a polyrhythm (or polymeter) of 3, against the right hand's 4. (Note: If you aren't familiar with polyrhythms, or you would like more information on the subject, please see my article, Understanding Polyrhythms. )

Example 3 shows three different ways the polyrhythm could be notated. Each of these measures will sound identical when played on ride cymbal and snare. As you can see from the third measure of the example, we are playing three evenly spaced notes in the period of time normally reserved for four quarter notes. In other words, we are playing a 3:4 polyrhythm (or polymeter). The 3 against 4 polyrhythm is the same rhythm outlined by the accents of our basic exercise.

Ex. 3

To further reinforce the feeling of the polyrhythm Exercise 4 alternates between 2 measures of the basic exercise, and then 2 measures of the polyrhythm.

Ex. 4

MP3 of Ex. 4


Without looking very deeply into the subtleties of our basic exercise, it should be apparent that it helps your jazz coordination. You are playing a jazz cymbal rhythm in the right-hand, eighth-note triplets in the left hand, while the bass drum plays straight quarters and the hi-hat plays counts 2 and 4. What may be less obvious is that by incorporating the left hand accents we are taking this exercise to another level of coordination. It's almost as though we have added a fifth limb. The snare drum becomes 'two voices.' One being the unaccented notes, and the other being the accented notes (which are implying a polyrhythm).

So far we've seen how the exercise develops polyrhythms, technique, musical touch, and coordination. Now let's see how we can expand it. One of the trademarks of a good exercise is it's 'open-endedness.' How much room does it allow for creativity and musical variation? How many different ways can you find to use it? By exploring different musical and technical applications of an exercise you will greatly enhance it's usefulness, while at the same time developing your own creativity.

Exercise 5 develops the ability of the left-hand to move smoothly between the small tom and the snare drum. The accented notes are played on the small tom while the unaccented notes are played on the snare drum.

Ex. 5

A large part of developing technique on the drumset involves being able to move smoothly from drum to drum. By expanding the basic exercise to include horizontal motions around the drumset, we are developing this ability. This is just one of many variations we could come up with. We could also play the accented notes on the snare drum and the unaccented notes on the small tom. We could incorporate the floor tom. We could also add other sound sources. Use your imagination and come up with variations which move the left-hand around the drumset in different ways.

The next two examples show how we might incorporate the bass drum into our basic exercise to further develop coordination between the bass and snare.

Exercise 6 moves the accented notes to the bass drum. The unaccented notes are played on the snare drum.

Ex. 6

Exercise 7 moves the accented notes to the snare drum. The unaccented notes are played on the bass drum.

Ex. 7

This MP3 demonstrates the basic exercise and then runs through exercises 5, 6, and 7.

MP3 of Ex 1, 5, 6 and 7.

The following two examples demonstrate how we can incorporate the hi-hat. The pattern is now broken up between the hi-hat and snare drum. The right hand plays the jazz cymbal rhythm and the bass drum plays straight quarter notes.

Ex. 8

Ex. 9

Lastly, here is an exercise which alternates a straight quarter-note accent pattern in the first measure with the 3 against 4 polyrhythm pattern in the second measure. For additional practice go back through all of the examples above utilizing this new two measure accent pattern.

Ex. 10


These suggestions just scratch the surface. I hope that some of these ideas may help enhance your practice time and maximize the drumset exercises you are working on. The most important thing to remember is to practice music, not just technique.

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Copyright © 2002 Kevin Barrett. All Rights Reserved.