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Learning drums is an amazingly fun challenge, and if you have a good ear and learn the basics you can start a snowball effect and learn many songs!

If you learn the ability to pick out drum parts from the actual recording not only can you learn way more songs, your drumming will be way more accurate because you aren’t relying on having someone else teach you the part.

This methodology of learning by ear is called ear training. Ear training is probably one of the most essential tools that a musician can learn, regardless of their instrument.

It is the tool that allows you to learn beats and fills just by listening to them.

Let’s go through some essential steps to learn how to play by ear.

Learn the song structure

Try and comprehend what part of the tune you’re listening to. Each song can be divided into sections in order to make it easier to comprehend when playing it back.

Are you listening to an intro? A verse? Chorus? Bridge? Pre-chorus? Outro? Breakdown? Solo?

You may have heard of these terms or maybe a few of them escape you. Let’s break a couple of the terms down.

A chorus is probably the most memorable part of the song. There is usually a build-up to the chorus.

The verse is the part of the song where the lyrics are more influential. It is usually the storytelling part of the song since usually in each verse the lyrics are different.

Let’s take a simple song like In My Life by the Beatles.

If I wanted to learn this structure by ear I would listen to the song and take notes. Here are my notes so you can compare to yours.

In My Life – song structure

  • Guitar intro – No drums
  • Verse – Drums enter. The drum pattern repeats until the chorus.
  • Chorus – 4 bar drum pattern. 2 bars of a bell pattern and then 2 bars of a beat.
  • Verse – same drums as before
  • Chorus – same as before
  • Harpsichord solo – the chords and drums are the same as the verse.
  • Chorus – same as before
  • Outro – same drum pattern as the verse, there is a pause and re-entrance before the ending

It is also common to simply put A, B, C, D as different song structures. That method is fine, however it is important to describe the sections so that you are very clear on them.

So once you’ve made your map of how the song is structured you want to start learning the individual parts.

Learning individual parts

Let’s continue with this song. The first section, the verse, is a linear drum pattern that is maybe not the most standard way of playing drums. But it is a very creative and iconic beat!

Verse

Which drums do we hear in this verse section? I hear a bass drum, hi-hat, and snare drum.

Notice how when the beat repeats, how long does it take for it to repeat?

I can hear it repeat in the following way—

…          1    2    3    4       1    2    3    4 

There are pla -ces I    re  –   member, 

So every time we come back to one we hear the beat start over again.

That beat starts with the bass drum, is followed by a snare and then another quick bass drum. Then there is space and then we have three consecutive notes by the hi-hat, snare and bass drum.

Even if you can’t read music, you can click the play button to follow along with the written drum beat below.

The bottom note is a bass drum, the upper note is a snare drum and the hi-note with an ‘x’ is a hi-hat.

If reading this is still too difficult for you check out our lesson on reading drum music.

Chorus

Now what drums do we hear in the chorus section? For the first part, I hear a cymbal playing 7 steady notes.

Then right after the seventh note, we have a quick drum fill on the snare. If you listen you should be able to pick it out. Here it is written down.

The cymbal note is with an ‘x’ and the snare are the notes in the middle of the music staff. 

After these cymbal notes and drum fill we go into a simple beat between the cymbal, bass drum and snare drum.

The cymbal note is with an ‘x’, the snare notes are the notes in the middle of the music staff, and the bass drum are on the bottom of the music staff.

Practice your ear training

The beauty of the internet is that with almost any song you can type it in on YouTube and there probably is a drum cover.

However, in order to learn by ear we really need to not cheat in this way. We need to make time to try and learn by ear, even if it is a challenge and even if you don’t always succeed.

The next time you have a song that you want to learn by ear, try and pick out some of the parts by yourself before looking for transcriptions or covers.

Slowing down the tempo

Some songs are just too fast to hear in the beginning. For this I recommend downloading a program to slow down the songs and pick out the notes that way.

If you have a digital audio workstation (DAW) you can do this easily. If not, you can download a program called ‘audacity’ for free and it will let you slow down the song without changing the pitch.

Contrary to popular opinion, you actually do NOT need a drum set to start learning drums! There are plenty of ways you can start to learn coordination, technique and how to play drums to music, without a physical drum set.

In this lesson, we are going to go over some of the exercises and methods of playing drums without a drum set.

Sidenote: if you can get a pair of drum sticks, the exercises you can do will increase dramatically. However, for the first part of this lesson, we will assume you don’t have anything.

You can follow along with this video lesson:

Learn where are the drums without drums

We have a lesson on the drum set anatomy, which lists all the different parts of the drum set. So check that out if you are interested.

However, we are going to assume you know more or less where the drums go on a normal drum set.

Also, we are going to speak as if you are right-handed for the majority of this lesson, so if you are a lefty, just invert these directions.

Air drumming

Sit in a chair or somewhere where you can be upright, and sit up straight. Extend both of your arms straight forward and close your hand as if you are holding a stick. Now move your left arm slightly inward (it should be aligned with the middle of your chest), and raise your right hand and cross it over your left.

This is the typical position of a person playing the hi-hat with the right hand, a snare drum with the left and the bass drum with the foot.

Let’s start here and get a rhythm going.

Maintain this position and with your right hand, you are going to ‘air drum’ four beats.

On the third beat, you will play the left hand at the same time as the right hand. Now, repeat this.

Right hand: 1  2  3  4

Left hand:    .   .   3   .

Now we are going to ad the bass drum on the 1 beat, with the right hand.

Right hand: 1  2  3  4

Left hand:    .   .   3   .

Right foot:   1   .   .   .

This is your first beat! You can now play along to 90% of pop/rock songs out there. Practice these motions at different speeds until it feels natural and you can do it without thinking.

Once you feel comfortable with this exercise, try to play it to some music. Here is Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, which utilizes this exact beat.

For the next exercises, we are going to drum on the body, because although air drumming is much more realistic in terms of your body position, it is helpful to hear some sort of sound and make contact with something in order to do get comfortable with more complicated rhythms.

Body drumming 101

Drumming on your body is the staple of drummers and non-drummers. I’m a very experienced drummer and I love practicing different rhythms on the bus or train by tapping my body.

My go-to location is on the knees. Right hand on the right knee. Left hand on the left knee. It also keeps me close to my feet and I can look down at them easily when I’m practicing beats or coordination exercises.

The only difference from air drumming that you may notice right away is that your hands are not crossed. So for beats where you are imagining that you are playing the hi-hat, snare and bass drum, you just need to understand that your right hand would be crossed if playing the hi-hat.

Try playing the same Billie Jean beat to the music, but this time with the hands on the knees.

Body drumming exercises

As we’ve said, learning to play drums is a combination of factors. But the best way to learn to play to music is through learning beats.

We have just learned our first beat. Now let’s expand on this. We will add another bass drum note ( the right foot) on the 2 of the beat.

Right hand: 1  2  3  4

Left hand:    .   .   3   .

Right foot:   1   2   .   .

Now practice this beat along to this song below. The drummer on this song (Brad Wilk) plays this beat very strongly and prominently throughout the duration of the song.

Body drumming technique exercises

Singles

Singles are the most fundamental of all rudiments (rudiments are exercises that drummers play to improve their technique).

They are just alternating strokes, and they are played in the following way:

RLRL

R=right hand L =left hand 

See how fast you can take these! Remember to keep them evenly spaced and clean as possible.

Doubles

Doubles are a great exercise for getting your hands in shape. The hits are played at the same speed, in the following way.

RRLL

R=right hand L =left hand 

Repeat this, practicing it slow and then speed it up as fast as you can while making sure the notes are always evenly spaced.

Paradiddles

Paradiddles are played in the following way:

RLRR LRLL

R=right hand L =left hand 

Again, all the hits are evenly spaced and played at the same speed. For many this will seem very strange at first and it will take some getting used to, especially when you try to play it fast!

Start slow and slowly raise the speed.

Paradiddle-diddles

The paradiddle-diddle is a six-note phrase that is excellent for increasing coordination and speed. I also feel that even in the beginning, playing phrases that are uncomfortable at first will train us to be more comfortable with variations of doubles and singles.

It is played in the following way:

RLRRLL 

R=right hand L =left hand 

Notice that since it is a group of six it may be strange to feel the rhythm as it cycles around. However, keep trying to raise the speed on this one (play it a few minutes each day while you’re taking the bus or at a doctor’s appointment) and you’ll be very surprised by how quickly it comes naturally.

This is also a very special rudiment and there are a lot of things you can do with it (like all of these rudiments). We will have more lessons on the utility and possibilities of how to take these rudiments further.

But for now let’s look at one more.

Double paradiddles

RLRLRR LRLRLL 

R=right hand L =left hand 

Finally, we have the double paradiddle. This is two groups of 6 and may be tricky to get up to speed at first.

Practice these until they feel natural and clean. It is totally possible to get a good grip of these rudiments just by using your hands and knees (I do it all the time!).

There is so much to be learned with just a practice pad! Even if you are already experienced with the drums it is so helpful to go back to the basics and refine our technique. This lesson is designed for beginners but will also incorporate some intermediate and advanced exercises and concepts.

We will also incorporate some tips about how to learn drumset with a practice pad. Because mostly with a practice pad we practice hand technique, but there are some ways to practice as if we were actually playing a drum set.

So grab a practice pad and let’s get started!

First things first, we need to get our grip figured out. Check out our how to grip the stick correctly. You can see our article on this.

Most likely you will want to learn the match grip. This involves pointing the sticks inwards and twisting your wrists slightly. We want to make sure that our thumb and index finger are the main pivot points of the hand.

Exercise 1 – single notes with one hand

While you are trying to settle into a correct grip on the stick I would play single notes with one hand. Then switch to single notes with the other hand. As an example, let’s play 8 notes with the right hand, then 8 notes with the left hand (see below).

R=right hand, L=left hand

Now let’s try to make this fun. Put on a piece of music with a slow/medium tempo and play this exercise to it. I like to choose a song that most people know, for example:

Playing along to this song, you should notice that your hands are going at the speed of the ‘hi-hat’. Visually speaking that looks like that this…


               We  don’t             need              no….                       …education…          

Try to make the notes as clear as possible, and all at the same volume.

You should notice that switching back and forth between the right and left is where the tricky part is, so work on making the transition smooth.

Introducing the metronome

For the following exercises, we will use a metronome. However, it is important to understand that these exercises should be played while recognizing their musicality. So sometimes it is helpful to play these exercises to music after one has played them sufficiently to a metronome.

Another Brick in the Wall for example, is around quarter note = 100bpm. And we were playing eight notes, therefore, two notes fit inside of one click.

Exercise 2 – eighth notes and sixteenth notes

Let’s continue with the metronome at 100bpm. We will start with eighth notes on one hand and then transition to sixteenth notes alternating hands.


 

Notice that the right-hand stays the same the whole time. When we introduce the left hand it is simply dividing the beat further.

At 100 bpm, the metronome should sound on every 2nd right-handed note.

Now let’s try it with the left hand.

With all these exercises we must remember to practicing beginning with our non-dominant hand. For most people that is the left hand. My teacher used to always tell me that we need to practice twice as much with this hand.

Exercise 3 –  doubles and paradiddles

We are still at quarter note = 100bpm. Now let’s try the following exercises.

Doubles are two strokes per hand. They are played like this:

and their inversion:

If you find this not so challenging, bump the tempo up a bit. Try it at 120 bpm, 140 bpm, 160 bpm… and see how your hands react.

After a good 5 or 10 minutes of this, let’s introduce the paradiddles.

A paradiddle is comprised of two alternating strokes and two double strokes: RLRR LRLL

and their inversion,

Again, start slow and slowly increase the tempo. Find your limit and write it down. Then tomorrow you will try to surpass that limit.

When trying to find your limit, increase the metronome by 10 bpm at a time. Once you find you can’t do the paradiddle cleanly, back it up 10 bpm and practice it there.

Exercise 3 –  Accents and some advanced concepts

Accents are the life of drumming. So much music is to be made just from switching from soft to loud. For these next exercises, really focus on your dynamics (i.e. how soft or loud you are playing).

Let’s continue with doubles and paradiddles.

For most people starting out, the accented and unaccented right next to each other with one hand will be difficult. But for many drummers, this is a staple of playing the hi-hat.

Side note on playing the hi-hat

When a drummer plays a beat, for example, this basic beat:

or this one.

It is very common, and in fact more energy-efficient, for the drum to play the right-hand (which is playing the hi-hats on the ‘x’ in the example above) in this motion:

So these type of exercises are great for developing this technique.

Back to accents

We can put accents on the paradiddles we’ve studied too.

Try to get this one up to speed. And then move on to putting the accent on every 4 notes instead of every 8 notes.

Exercise 4 – Advanced concept regarding accents

Like I’ve said before, accents are the lifeblood to a great groove. Practicing your speed and your dynamics are some of the most important things you can do on a practice pad.

Now let’s get a little more adventurous and build up our technique.

Remember to really make a contrast between the unaccented notes and the accented notes, I cannot stress this enough, and the most common mistake I see in beginner and intermediate drummers is that they do not differentiate the difference volumes sufficiently. These exercises should be pretty difficult.

Pushing the accents over

Let’s go back to our paradiddle example.

Now what happens if we push the accent over one eighth-note?

Apart from being uncomfortable, it can be hard to locate where the first beat should land. Do this with a metronome to test yourself and make sure you are playing the accents on the offbeat.

We can also test ourselves by putting our foot at the beginning of each paradiddle. Even if we don’t have a foot pedal we can hit the floor as if we did, this will introduce coordination of all of our limbs.

Try this at 100 bpm, and then increase the tempo as you can until you find your limit.

Moving accents

Let’s keep going in this fashion, moving the accents one eighth-note over on the paradiddle and keeping the foot on the start of each

and again

As we can see, we can see how a simple exercise can get difficult quick, especially when we raise the tempo.

I should note that all of these exercises can be applied to the drum set very easily . Simply take your right hand, place it on the hi-hat, left hand on the snare drum, and your bass drum where the foot is.

Cycle through these exercises, with the accent on the first note, then the second, third and fourth.

Exercise 5 – Triplets

Triplets are an indispensable exercise, and for beginning drummers perhaps the most overlooked and elusive.

Let’s look at a basic triplet exercise with the hands.

If we continue with the quarter note = 100 bpm, that means that in each click sound, we can fit 3 notes.

We can do the same thing we did with the accents above. Keeping either the metronome and/or the kick drum on every first note of the triplet.

Here’s a little demonstration of me doing paradiddles and triplets and shifting the accents as explained above.

 

Good luck with this! There is a lot of work we can do on a practice pad and it can be directly translatable to the drumset.

Working on accents and speed will help your stick control and technique, do not overlook the practice pad!