The Secrets of Chick Webb’s Drumming Technique 1938


John P. Noonan

SKF NOTE: John P. Noonan‘s terrific piece, The Secrets of Chick Webb’s Drumming Technique, (Down Beat 1938), which I’m excerpting here, is a valuable inheritance. John Noonan is a noted percussion player and teacher who studied with Ed Straight, Roy C. Knapp; he was percussion instructor at Illinois Wesleyan University, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and is a member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

That 1938 Down Beat was among a couple boxes of old Down Beat magazines I bought in the early 1970’s from McKay’s Music Store, Davenport, Iowa. Pre-internet, those magazines were a great find for an aspiring drummer and writer. Any magazine articles, such as John Noonan’s piece on Chick Webb, out-of-print, and not included as part of a book, were tough to find.

On top of that, to have such an insightful piece on Chick Webb’s drumming technique written by a respected drummer while Webb was still living, still performing, is rare. At least, in my experience. I’ve used Noonan’s article as a source in a couple of my published writings. Almost 80-years after its publication, and 40-years after I first acquired it, here I am again sourcing Mr. Noonan’s piece on Chick Webb.

Drum heads mentioned in Noonan’s piece are made of animal skin, most likely calfskin. The first plastic drumheads were about 20-years into the future.


“[Webb] spends a lot of time balancing the tone of his snare and bass drum, until they sound right to him,” John Noonan writes. “He uses the conventional separate-tension bass drum, equipped with tympani heads and the regular type of separate-tension snare drum.”

Webb’s bass drum is played “free… no mufflers or pads dampening the tone. This is a fine effect when the drum in tuned low, but calls for good pedal foot control to balance the volume of the drum.

“[Webb] watches all his drum heads closely and at the first sign of their drying out or losing their life, he changes them. The snare drum is also tuned low pitch (not too tight) using the regular type heads.

“His cymbals are the finest Turkish, both for stick work and on his High Hat. Webb like a light drum stick (7-A) for general use.

“The outstanding part of Webb’s drumming, I think, is dynamic control,” Noonan continues. “He is a past-master of the art of shading on drums. His playing drops to ‘nothing’ and up to a frenzied roar, as the arrangement demands. He does this effect with either sticks or brushes….

“[H]is drumming always remains solid (the test of the swing drummer). He makes good use of the high High Sock Pedal [sic] in the usual ways, holding four in a bar on the snare drum with the left hand — the right on the High Sock for solid ensembles, here again controlling the volume to suit. The band seems to depend entirely on Webb for these changes from piano [soft] to forte [loud].

“His use of brushes is a study in itself. Fast rhythmical figures or swishes of exactly the right length are used. This latter trick is a Webb art.

“Webb is a firm believer in the ‘play what you feel’ school. He advocates this system to all drummers. He advises young drummers to work on the rudiments for stick control and then apply their beats as they feel them, never losing sight of the type and style of the arrangement,” Noonan said.

“Every drummer is familiar with the famous Webb breaks. [T]he breaks are ad-lib…according to the arrangement of the tune. Webb looks over the arrangement containing breaks or solos for drums, and gets clear in his mind, the type and kind of break he believes will fit. Then he experiments a few times until he finds a solid idea for his solos and then phrases them in this category.

“The man is also a fine showman, combining the rare combination of virtuosity and showmanship.”


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