Beyond Traditional Grip

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SKF NOTE: I grew up believing traditional grip was the gold standard of drumset players. There was a best way, if not the right way, for drummers to hold drumsticks: traditional grip.

Traditional grip functioned like a fine-tuned machine. Not every drumset player had the skill or discipline to master traditional grip. The right combination of finger, hand, wrist, and arm movement; of drumstick weight, and the best distance between drumstick and drumhead, are all part of the mastery. Having control of the drumstick bounce at all volume levels, from very loud to a whisper — this too needs mastering.

In my life the living drumset masters of traditional grip were Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, and Joe Morello [RBM]. Yes, there were traditional grip drumset players with almost, but not quite, the mastery of RBM. But these three drummers had taken traditional grip where no man had gone before.

There was always an aura of mystery around traditional grip, as if mastering the grip involved secrets passed on to a select few pupils from a few elder drum masters. Billy Gladstone’s technique was spoken of and revered by RBM. But ask any one of those drummers to describe Gladstone’s technique, to tell you what they learned from Gladstone? Their answers were always vague.

It’s odd now to realize all my life I have been judging drumset players’ technique against RBM.

For example, the first time I heard Art Blakey drumming was on record. It was many years before I had a chance to see Blakey play live. He was with his Jazz Messengers at The Five Spot in NYC playing a white four-piece Pearl drumset. Art played great. I studied his drumming the whole night: his press roll, how he sat at the drumset, his volume in relation to the rest of the band, his hi-hat playing, how his drums were tuned — everything. And somewhere in there I was thinking, “Art plays so great. Imagine if his mastery of traditional grip was at the BRM level?”

I don’t think that way anymore. Most important is what drummers are communicating, what they are saying on their instruments. If their sound reaches us on some level, if we can identify with a drummer’s sound — who cares how close their mastery of traditional grip is to Rich, Morello, or Bellson? If a drummer’s saying something, who cares if he’s using traditional grip at all?

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