Drummer Shortcomings Lead to Innovations

SKF NOTE: Sometimes innovations in drumming – stylistic and/or equipment changes that become standard – begin as one drummer’s, or a few drummers’, workaround to a shortcoming. Discovering the root of such innovations is a favorite part of studying drumming/music history.

Shortcoming may not be the most accurate description. Let me start with one example of a current standard for drummers that was once a workaround for one drummer’s physical challenge.

History credits Kenny Clarke as first to use a ride cymbal as the main timekeeping part of his drumset. Before the ride cymbal, drummers’ used the snare drum, the bass drum, and then the hi-hat as their primary timekeeping elements.

Clarke, however, ran into the same physical challenge every drummer faces keeping time on his hi-hat. He was a right-handed drummer playing a standard four-piece drumset configuration: bass drum, snare drum, small and floor toms. His snare, small tom, and bass drum were set up in front of him. His floor tom was on Clarke’s right side and his hi-hat was on his left side.

Kenny Clarke played with his right arm crossed over to his hi-hat, situated above his left hand, which he used to play accents on his snare. This is a physically awkward way to play. In an old Down Beat story, Clarke said he found this physical limitation made it tough for him, especially playing in a big band, to use left hand accents of any volume.

Clarke wondered, What if I leave my right arm where it is naturally – on my right side – and keep time on a cymbal on a cymbal stand instead of crossing over to the hi-hat?

It worked. Keeping time on his (ride) cymbal freed up his left hand movement. Probably few drummers living today remember when using a ride cymbal was a curiosity. Ride cymbals are standard drumset equipment.

Long after Kenny Clarke’s solution to the limitations of playing the hi-hat with the right arm crossing over the left arm, there was another workaround: use two hi-hats; one placed on both sides of a drummer’s set-up.

I first saw Jack DeJohnette with two hi-hats when he was with Charles Lloyd in 1966. If not Jack, I don’t know who was first with the two hi-hat idea. But I think using two hi-hats was popularized by drummer/teacher Gary Chester, his New Breed method book, and his students — like Dave Weckl.

More drumming shortcomings turned to innovations to come.

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