So you want to start playing the drums. Excellent! That’s probably because you have incredible rhythm, or you can’t stop snapping your fingers and tapping your toes every time you hear a beat. Or it might just be that you recognize that drummers are the coolest members of any band.
The big question, though, is usually where to begin. What equipment do you need to get started? Do you need a whole drum kit right away? Should you take lessons or learn on your own? What style is the easiest or best for learning?
We hope to answer all of these questions and more as we give you an overview of how to play drums.
Getting Started on the Drums
A drum kit can be an overwhelming investment. Especially when you’re not sure you’re going to stick to drumming anyway. But you don’t need a drum kit to get started. You don’t even need drums or sticks at all.
How to starting drumming, Mr. Miyagi style…
In case you’ve never seen the classic coming of age story that began with the 1984 film The Karate Kid and spawned a movie and TV franchise, here’s the run-down.
Mr. Miyagi, a wizened old gentleman, saves Daniel Caruso from bullies using his own brand of karate. Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi to teach him, and he agrees. Only the first lessons are to wax Mr. Miyagi’s cars, sand his wooden patio, and paint his fence.
But after a week, guess what? Daniel can use wax-on, wax-off, and other movements to defend himself against Miyagi’s test punches.
Much like karate, drumming requires patience…
Turn on some music (start easy with some pop or rock in standard 4/4 time) and sit down on a stool or in a chair. Listen to the beat and tune out the rest for now. You should hear some deep thumping bass drum hits. Try to tap your foot in time with them.
Next, you’ll most likely hear the crack of the snare drum. Try to tap one hand along to it. You can use a table in front of you, a pillow, or just your knee.
The most common time-keeping sound is the tinny hi-hat. Listen for it being struck on every count. Try to tap along.
Listen along to different tracks…
And you’ll get a good sense of the three drum elements that form the beat. After a while, you’ll either find this boring (maybe you’re not a drummer after all?) or exciting (as you start to get it).
If you keep going, the next stage is to try to play two of these parts at once. The easiest combination is to tap the bass part with your foot and the snare part with your hand. These usually alternate (as in bass – snare – bass bass – snare). The harder combinations are playing the time-keeping hi-hat while hitting the snare with your other hand, or the bass with your foot.
Practice, practice, practice. You’ll find that this gets easier as your muscle memory gets involved. You’ll be able to essentially set one limb on auto-pilot while you focus on the other one. And finally, try to combine these all together into a beat.
You did it – you just played the drums!
We often heard that 90% of drumming is in your head, and only 10% is actual physical conditioning. Still, it’s that 10% that makes the noise. So, if you want to know how to play the drums, your next step is to pick up some equipment to get used to. This way, you can get used to the feel of drumming even without a drum set.
Sticks are essential
Nany drummers and percussionists use their hands for a multitude of instruments. However, sticks add volume and extra skills that hands can’t match up to. The standard drumstick length is usually 15 – 17 ½ inches.
They come in a lot of different diameters, but for beginners, we’d recommend a medium-sized 5A stick such as the Vic Firth American Classic 5A Drum Sticks. You should be able to pick these up online for $10 or less. Stick them in your back pocket and walk around a bit. Feel how cool that is!
Practice pads are perfect
A practice pad is simply a durable rubber pad designed to be bashed away at. They’re not just for beginners either. Pros use them to warm up or even practice complicated beats while sitting on the tour bus. A good drum practice pad, such as this Practice Pad & Drum Sticks Bundle, is super portable and has the right amount of bounce to feel like hitting a real drum.
Once you have your pad and your sticks, you can get into some real, serious practice with rudiments and more. Of course you, first have to know how to hold drum sticks properly.
How to Hold Drum Sticks
In general, there are two main drumming grips. One is called the matched grip, where both sticks are held the same way. The other is called the traditional or military grip, where the sticks are held differently.
Got your sticks? Grab and hold each one near the butt end like holding a hammer. But unlike a hammer, don’t wrap your thumb around onto your pointer finger.
Instead, move your thumb into a relaxed thumb’s-up position so that you are squeezing the stick between your thumb tip and your pointer finger. If you hold on tight with all fingers, you get a solid strike. If you relax the other fingers and just squeeze the thumb and pointer, you can let the stick bounce.
This is the kind of grip you see most drummers using. Especially in rock and harder music, as it gives more power to your thumping thuds.
Back in the day, drums were an important part of battlefield organization. Seems weird, because drum sticks are no match for muskets. So, why are drums used in the military?
Different rhythms signaled soldiers to advance or move in different ways or just added rhythm to marching. A field drum was traditionally slung over the left shoulder (sorry, left-handers!) so that it hung over the right hip and stayed out of the way of the marching drummer’s knees.
From this, the traditional grip developed…
While the right hand is the same as in the matched grip described above, the left hand holds the stick differently. Try picking up your left stick between your thumb and first two fingers, just like holding a pencil. Now move your hand almost all the way back to the butt of the stick.
Grab your right stick as before, and you have the traditional grip down. This grip is used a lot in jazz and traditional style marching bands as well.
Getting to Know your Way around a Drum Kit
You’ve got sticks and a pad, and you’ve been practicing with your sticks held correctly. The next step is learning about the parts of a drum set, what they’re called, what they’re used for, and where they normally sit in the kit.
You’ll hear a drum set called a set or a kit, even a trap kit. It’s all the same thing. This is a set of drums and cymbals that became popular in the 1930s in America as bands got smaller and drummers suddenly had to play all the percussion parts together.
The snare is the loudest and most played part of a drum kit. It’s a drum that sits on a stand between the seated player’s legs. It has two heads – the top ‘batter’ head and the bottom ‘snare side head. Obviously, you batter the top head while the bottom vibrates against the snares. These are a set of coiled wires that give a loud snapping sound to this drum.
A snare drum in a typical drum set is normally 14” in diameter and between 5.5-7” deep. Although other sizes can be found as well. The heads are usually tuned up tight so that you get a loud, bright sound and lots of bounce with your sticks.
The bass drum is the biggest, boomiest drum in a drum kit. It’s the big drum that sits on its side, with one head facing the audience and the other facing the drummer.
Bass drums are usually made of plywood and measure about 22 inches in diameter. Drummers sometimes stuff their bass drums with padding like foam or pillows to reduce the booming reverberations they produce and get more of a thud.
How do you play the bass drum?
This drum is also called the kick drum because it’s played with a kick pedal. This is a pedal clamped onto the drum that you can step on with your foot. When you do, it rotates and smacks the bass drum with its beater (like a big soft mallet).
Some drummers use a double bass pedal which has a pedal for each foot, and two beaters. This allows them to play faster beats on the bass drum, as you can hear in most heavy metal.
Hi-Hat and Ride
Most pop and rock songs are in 4/4 time. This means there are 4 counts to each bar, and a bar is the part of the rhythm that repeats. Let’s just say that while the bass and the snare give us the strong, heavy beats, other parts of the drum kit are used for keeping time and are usually played on every count. That’s 4 times every bar in 4/4 time.
The hi-hat cymbals are the most common way to keep time in a standard drum kit. This is a set of two matching cymbals set on a stand, usually to the drummer’s left side. The cymbals face each other, and you play the top one with your sticks. They are opened to ring out or closed for more of a tapping sound using a foot pedal.
At the same time, a heavy single cymbal on a stand can also be used to keep time. Ride cymbals are thick and heavy and ping more than they sing out, so they provide another clear time-keeping tone.
Other Pieces – Toms and Cymbals
A standard 5-piece drum kit counts only the drums, and not the cymbals, as pieces. So, in addition to the snare and bass drums, you get three more drums in different sizes. These are toms or tom-toms, and they’re primarily used in fills and more complicated rhythms.
Normally the high and middle-tuned toms are mounted on the bass drum, while the third tom has legs and stands on the floor to the opposite side of the drummer from the hi-hat. Some larger kits have a whole rack of different sized toms and more than one floor tom as well.
Crash cymbals round out the drum kit…
They are thinner and lighter than ride cymbals and are meant to explode with sound when you strike them. Splash cymbals are really small and light and make quick, bright little accents in drummers’ beats.
You can add anything from a cowbell to wind chimes to a drum kit. That said, these are the pieces almost everyone uses and form the most commonly used drum set pieces.
How to Play the Drum Kit
If you’ve come so far as to find yourself behind a drum kit, excellent! Whether you’ve bought, borrowed, rented, or even made it, getting the hang of playing everything in a coordinated way is all that stands between you and being an awesome drummer. With that in mind, let’s go over a basic guide to drumming.
STEP 1 – Sit down
Mot right-handed drummers play the kick drum with their right foot and the hi-hat with their left. The floor tom should be on your right with the ride cymbal if you have one, above it and nearby. Crash cymbals can go anywhere.
Lefties, don’t worry! You can set up and play everything in a mirror image if it feels comfortable.
STEP 2 – Decide on your method
The most common way to play the drum kit, and even the internationally recognized air-drumming method, involves crossing your hands. The right hand comes over to play the hi-hat while the left hand plays the snare. A few rebels play open-handed, with the left hand on the hi-hat and the right on the snare.
Neither is right or wrong, but open-handers will find they need to lower the hi-hat down considerably to play comfortably. Cross-handers need the hi-hat up high to stay out of the way of their left hands.
STEP 3 – Remember Your Training
If Mr. Miyagi taught you well, the next step should come naturally. When you tapped along to music on your knees, you kept time with one hand and hit the “snare” with the other. Your dominant foot pounded the bass.
Now it’s time to do it for real.
- Tap out the count on your hi-hat (1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4).
- Add in the bass (B B B B B B).
- Now add the snare (S S S S S S).
You’ve just played a beat on the drum set, and that’s no BS!
If you want to know how to play drums, you have to master a few basic skills. These are called “rudiments,” and there are a bunch to know. Most people isolate 40 basic drum rudiments that cover nearly everything you can play on a single drum. Once you master them, you can play the strokes on different parts of your kit to make them sound more interesting.
Rudiments are basic drumming patterns on a single drum. They include quick bouncing rolls, quick 2-note flams, and different patterns of stick alternation.
We’ll give you an example of one of the rudiments, the single paradiddle. If you can wrap your head around this one, it will help to improve your drumming by leaps and bounds.
Here’s how a paradiddle works
Left Right Left Left Right Left Right Right, or L R L L R L R R… and repeat.
As you practice, either on a practice pad or a snare drum, start slowly and get faster as you begin to master the pattern.
Where to Learn How to Play Drums
This is a matter of personal preference. Some drummers prefer to learn on their own using the resources they can find and through experimentation. Others find they do best with a teacher who can help them to improve quickly by teaching the tricks and stopping any bad habits.
You can find drum rudiments all over the internet and more lessons on YouTube than you can shake a stick at. Look for basic drumming lessons or patterns at first. When you begin to feel more confident, look for videos that break down how to play some of your favorite songs.
Remember to start slow and easy. Use a metronome to help you keep track of the speed you need. Don’t try to play in weird time signatures or at ultra-high speed right away. As your confidence and technical ability grow, your chops will improve, and you can continue to move on to more and more interesting rhythms.
Need a Great Drum, Drum Set, or Drum Accessories?
We can help you find what you need. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Snare Drums, the Best Hang Drums, the Best Cajon Drums, the Best Drum Practice Pads, the Best Drumsticks, the Best Portable Drum Kits, and the Best Beginner Drum Set you can buy in 2023.
And don’t miss our detailed Yamaha DTX562K Electronic Drum Set Review, our Ludwig LC178X0 Drum Set Review, our Roland TD-25KV Electronic Drum Set, our Ludwig Junior 5 Piece Drum Set Review, and our Best Drum Set For Kids review for more amazing items on the market today.
How to Play Drums – Final Thoughts
If you’ve read this full article, you should have everything you need to get started drumming. Miyagi-style practice will train your brain. Rudiments will help to round out the skills you need to pound out the beats.
All you need to do is to get yourself some sticks and a practice pad, and maybe a metronome, too. Practice and enjoy yourself. Build up the purchase of a drum set, or build your own practice kit out of pots, pans, and buckets. If you keep up your practice and keep enjoying yourself, you’ll be an amazing drummer in no time.
Until next time, may the beat go on.