Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Reflections on Traditional Grip

Every now and then during some down time at a gig someone in the audience or a fellow musician might ask why I don't use traditional grip when I drum. For me it's one of two simple answers: I don't like it or it doesn't feel natural to me. They are usually taken aback when I say that because they have seen several drummers (and I'm guessing some well known drummers) use traditional grip so that's when I shake my head and say that it's not natural to me because I am not playing a titled marching drum but a drum set with a snare drum that is flat. Still, the conversation continues because most of them have seen drummers use traditional grip while they play the drum set so I do what I can to give what I think are credible reasons for my choice to use matched grip.

Of course there are many who disagree with me and that's okay. It's all about personal preference and in this blog I will do the best I can to state my reasons for using matched grip while also pointing out my thoughts on the opinions that others have offered on both grips.

In The Beginning...

I started taking drum lessons during the spring semester of my 3rd grade year. My first teacher's name was Swede Meredith and he was not only a great teacher but also a professional Jazz drummer who had performed all over the world. At the time he had settled in the area to work both in the Los Angeles music scene and to pass on his drumming knowledge to the next generation of drummers, which at that time included me. He was also determined to get me to be part of the next generation of Jazz drummers so right away he had me playing traditional grip.

I would guess that my teacher was like the teacher that the great Thomas Lang had in his earlier days. In an article written by Dave Constantin in Drum Magazine Lang said that: I learned to play traditional. My teacher said, "This is how you play the drums." No argument, no discussion, this is it, So I did. 

I know the feeling at let's be honest about one thing that is true in many cases regarding those who prefer traditional grip: it is a faction of drummers who simply believe that this grip is more sophisticated. No argument. No discussion.  

The truth is, I never liked it. During my lessons I would do whatever Swede told me to do but when I was at home I was rocking to my favorite KISS songs and reviewed my weekly lessons using matched grip. I was also playing drums in my elementary school Drill Team as I was one of the drummers performing cadences for the girls during their routines and we also used matched grip. 

In my teens I started studying with my greatest teacher named Greg Alban and he was not only into more modern styles of drumming but also had me using matched grip. Now we're talking! From that day forward that has pretty much been the way I rolled and I have never looked back. Greg was also a very disciplined technician so I was able to execute any type of stroke at any dynamic level in any type of music. Therefore, Greg taught me to play with power & precision along with dynamics and speed and I did all of this using matched grip!

Let the Debate Begin 

Again, it's all a matter of preference and I honestly don't care what kind of grip any drummer uses. Heck, there are drummers out there who are rather sloppy with their execution but somehow make magic with their drums so who am I to say that they are playing incorrectly? I only have a problem with drummers who look at the way another person plays and says that they should use traditional grip, whether its directly or indirectly.

As stated in the same Drum Magazine by Constantin the author offered a common belief among traditionalists: There is a belief that an asymmetrical grip forces a different kind of communication between the hands, resulting in more creative interplay with the limbs. 

In my opinion, such a statement is not only nonsense but a huge pile of pretentious manure. Such a statement is based only in musical snobbery and not reality. Of course we also know that most drummers who use traditional grip come from the Jazz world so to be blunt: need we say more! Then again, here's a kind reminder that I had a lot to say about such arrogance in my last musical blog:

What does grip have to do with creativity? If that is the case then why play only one form of an asymmetrical grip? Why don't you flip both sticks around so you can use another grip while also leading with the other hand? Wouldn't that also impact your creativity? Or, why not use a reverse grip in both hands and open up even more doors to your creativity? After all, if one's grip impacts one's creativity that much then mastering multiple grips would make someone a drumming god! Again, pretentious nonsense. And what about your feet? Yes, there are different ways to play the pedal but no one has suggested that one flip their foot around in order to increase one's creativity with their feet.


First off, creativity doesn't just happen when you're sitting in front of your instrument. You can be walking down the street when a great musical idea comes to mind. What does that have to do with your grip? If you play multiple instruments you can be playing your guitar and come up with a cool riff and then hear a great drum beat in your head. Again, no grip involved here. And, sometimes the great idea comes from a band mate who suggests a great beat or a fill and that too has nothing to do with one's grip.

Another claim by traditionalists is the grip's, ability to assist in the sensitive execution of quieter passages. Once again, I disagree and I will use my favorite Buddy Rich drum solo clip to make my point. In this clip: Rich does many of the amazing things that he is known for including playing with some amazing dynamics. Notice that when Rich does his famous deathly quiet single stroke roll (see 3:13) that his right hand is still in the overhand grip position so how is it not possible to do the same thing with the other hand? In other words, this traditionalist claim is easy to refute because their preferred grip is still a half matched grip and because the ability to play any instrument with sensitivity is also rooted in practice. 

The problem with grip as with so many other things in the arts is that we become emotionally attached to our methods, which at times leads to a closed mind. I too am guilty of this with my most recent updated opinion being on the choice of sticks that I use. For years I used wooden sticks because that's what drummers use. Then I was willing to try a pair of Ahead Drum Sticks and that was all she wrote. Sometimes such stubbornness can leads to opinions such as this one by the great Stewart Copeland:

"The whole point to using traditional grip is because it's the most efficient way to use your hand to hit a drum. You can hit 50 times harder with traditional grip than you can with matched. Matched gives you no power; you only use the muscles on the top of your forearm with matched instead of the big muscles on the bottom of your forearm with traditional. You can get a much stronger stroke that way." 

I love Copeland's drumming but I could not disagree with him more. First off, does reversing one's grip on the back beat hand increase one's power on their lead hand? No, one's power comes from the effort one puts into their playing as well as the efficiency of their motion. We can see in this clip that Copeland hits very  hard with both hands and that his left hand has no influence on the effort coming from his right hand: Second, in claiming that traditional grip is more efficient I would question the validity of that claim based on this famous photograph of him where he uses duct tape on his left hand.

In an interview posted on the interview archives of the Stingchronicity website Copeland said:

I used to wrap my hands in duct tape, but just last week I found some gloves and they're pretty neat, but they haven't got it quite right (for me) yet; at least someone is trying. This, unfortunately, is what happens after two or three gigs (holds up a pair with a worn-out thumb web in his left hand).   

Imagine what that would do to his hand had he not been using duct tape or wearing a glove. Of course this is also the hand where he uses a reverse grip, which makes me want to ask a simple question: if a grip is more efficient how could this be happening to your hand unless you are doing something physiologically wrong? And, why would such damage happen to his hand in the first place if reverse grip is that much better for gaining more power? It just makes no sense.   
Still, many traditionalists still claim that their grip is the correct grip and with that I credit Copeland for sticking to his beliefs even when he had to create his barrier to protect himself from any type of damage to his hand. Of course we can thank You Tube for exposing the hypocrisies of other drummers who aren't quite so consistent with their beliefs and in their blunt criticism of those who do something different than them.

Buddy Rich was never shy about saying that matched grip was (in his mind) incorrect: But if you go beyond this video we will see that he is in fact inconsistent with his claim. With that I would also like to know why he would change his grip instead of being like Copeland and sticking to what he claimed to be correct.

Here we see Rich go against his own method while battling the Muppet Animal of all creatures (start at 1:48 and go to 2:36): Notice that he seems to do this while playing a loud figure that would require a bit more power and seems to be getting to the floor tom without any problem (remember, he claimed that one gets around the drums better using traditional grip). He also does the same thing at 4:56 in this clip: during the fanfare where he is playing with again, more power so perhaps those who criticize traditional grip for its inferiority at producing the power capable of an overhand stroke are on to something. But Rich's inconsistency (don't forget, he referred to matched grip as being incorrect) went even further than wanting more power during this performance of Caravan (start at 0:52): So, will the correct grip please stand up and if it's so superior to other grips why do some of its apologists find themselves going against their own words?

Further, since we are talking about power here take a look at what some other legends do when they start pounding the drums and need that extra power. Let;s start with the late great Tony Williams and here we'll see how many times he switches to matched grip: and then we'll see Louie Bellson do the same at 4:42 when he tries to match Billy Cobham's power in their famous drumming duet: I wonder what Rich would have said about these two switching to the incorrect grip? Then again, it was for the same reason he switched, to get more power! 

Necessity is the Mother of All Invention 

As the debate continues it's safe to say that each grip and/or technique comes out of some type of necessity. For me it's nice to see it when these developments are used in ways that more or less justify their existence. While people make their arguments for their personal preference history tells us the the true source of what is called traditional grip:

With a snare slung awkwardly over one shoulder, the military drummer of pre-modern times needed to maintain complete maneuverability to perform his job with confidence. This was achieved by wearing his drum at a 45 degree angle with the head tilted towards his dominant hand. As a result, a unique grip evolved for the non-dominant hand to accommodate this angle. 

Therefore, if someone sets up their drums the way Rich does in this video: then yes, traditional grip makes perfect sense. Now while someone may prefer to use traditional grip with any set up one should not be criticized for using matched grip if they have their snare drum set up the way Vinnie Colaiuta does in this video: because we can see Dennis Chambers at the same event with his snare set up in a similar way: having the same type of stick control as Colaiuta. Therefore, I ask someone to show me why traditional is the superior grip over matched. If anything, these videos could suggest the superiority of matched grip because Chambers can match any stroke Colaiuta offers while also having more power in his playing.

To further make my point on necessity leading to specific techniques let's take a look at this video by Steve Smith, which is also my favorite drum solo that he has ever played: The part I admire the most is from 0:52-0:59 because here he not only does the flashy one handed roll but does it with a purpose. His other hand is busy adding to the orchestration of rhythms so for him to play the figure he plays on the snare drum he needs to use the one handed roll technique. I personally have never attempted this technique not because I dislike it but because I just never had a reason to. But here we see how knowing this technique allowed Smith the opportunity to contribute to this amazing drum solo. For that reason alone I applaud his learning of a technique that some might dismiss as useless.


However you look at it, does it really matter which grip someone prefers? No, the issue is how we look at others who might do something different from us. Why are we looking at their grip or even their body motion and not listening to their playing? I prefer matched grip but there are still intricacies within other schools of thought who also prescribe to this technique that differ from mine. For me, it doesn't matter. If your approach works for you then go for it. But if you start watching me and telling me that I am wrong in how I play the drums and you're not talking about something tangible like my timing then we have a problem. Every drummer has their own feel and our grip is part of what gives us our feel. But it's also something personal to us so while I think it's fair to suggest or recommend another way of approaching the drums don't sit there and judge someone in a negative way simply because of the way the stick in their back beat hand is positioned. Again, it's just pretentious nonsense. 

I would like to close this blog talking briefly about this amazing drum solo by Ginger Baker. This is the song "Toad" at it was performed during the Cream Reunion Concert where Baker played both World Rhythms and Jazz drumming in the same solo...while using matched grip! Go figure! And while anyone is welcome to assess his playing how they see fit many Jazz heavyweights have already given their nod to this amazing drummer (see 1:14:32-1:16:10): so if anyone wants to challenge their expertise on the issue then be my guest because it would be nice not to be the bad guy for once.

Carlos Solorzano


No comments:

Post a Comment