How to Learn Drums Without a Kit

Posted by Ben Heckler

Can I learn drums without a drum kit? Yes!!

So you want to learn drums but you don't have a drumset? No problem!

The majority of my practice nowadays is without a drumset, and to be honest sometimes having a drumset can be distracting.

When trying to learn new songs it is not often productive to be endlessly bashing on the drums, ruining your hearing and driving your neighbors crazy. But how do we practice without a kit?

Using your hands and knees 👏

This is the most common way I practice these days. Whether on the bus, train or in a classroom, this is by far the most portable way to practice.

In this way of practicing, your right hand, left hand and foot simulate what you are trying to hit on the drums.

For example: let's say we are trying to practice a beat with the hi-hat, kick and snare. We would use our dominant hand to tap out the hi-hat or cymbal pattern, we would use our dominate foot for the kick pattern, and our non-dominant hand to simulate the snare.

For these patterns, I tend not to switch my hands around like on a real drumset. That is to say, I keep my right and left hand on their respective legs.

What to practice?

If you're new to drums, I recommend you learn some simple beats to get you started. You will then soon be able to start playing along to your favorite songs. In the previous link, you can see some popular songs with their drum patterns.

More complicated drum beat patterns can be found in books such as A Funky Primer For the Rock Drummer and Future Sounds. These are two books I've personally used and highly recommend.

In the first one, we have a list of funky patterns that are sure to challenge the beginner and give tons of ideas to an advanced player. In Future Sounds, David Garabaldi takes us on a journey of how to do rhythmic permutations—which entail shifting a rhythm further or back in time and thus completely changing its sound.

So there is no shortage of things to practice. And using your hands and feet to practice is the essence of developing coordination. Let's take a look at some specific technique practices that we can do right now, and hopefully will stimulate your creativity and curiosity.

Practicing rudiments

On one of the first classes with my students, I introduce them to the study of rudiments. Rudiments are essential for developing technique and vocabulary on the drumset.

You can look up online the different rudiments, and there are countless books written on the topic. But let's look at a couple here that just make sense to start practicing right away—without a drumset.

Paradiddle

The paradiddle consists of 8 strokes, and they are really easy to memorize.

For the following notation, R means right hand (hitting your right knee), L means left hand (and left knee).

So, the strokes are the following: RLRR LRLL

Easy right? Practice this at different tempos, slow to fast, and the faster you get the more you'll realize the deceptive difficulty in this rudiment. But here let's try something else to make it a little more complicated right off the bat.

Adding the bass drum

For the following notation F will mean right foot (this is to simulate the kick drum, if you play a left-handed kit this will be your left foot).

RLRR LRLL

F          F

Okay, so we've added a kick drum after each four notes, at the start of the phrase. Still pretty simple right? The great thing about this pattern is it already has so many applications.

For example, on a drum set the right hand can be the hi-hat and the left hand the snare drum—all the notes don't need to be limited to the snare drum.

Let's keep going. One thing I like to do is stick to a theme in my practice sessions. That means that all the things I'm practicing will be related somehow. So how could we derive more things to practice just from what I've given you above?

What about if we moved all the right and left-hand notes forward in time one eighth-note?

Visually, that process looks like this

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➡RLRR LRL   ⬇L

F          F

 

The result becomes this

LRLR RLRL

F          F

 

So here are all the 8 exercises that emerge out of this process, starting with the paradiddle:

  1. RLRR LRLL
  2. LRLR RLRL
  3. LLRL RRLR
  4. RLLR LRRL
  5. LRLL RLRR
  6. RLRL LRLR
  7. RRLR LLRL
  8. LRRL RLLR

This act of moving the notes around in time is called permutations, and it is a way to take something very simple and make it more complex.

Playing faster?

When starting, playing faster is always the most appealing. But we should recognize that the key to playing faster is to play clean.

First, we can practice them individually, making sure they make sense to us. But once we feel comfortable we want to practice transitioning from one exercise to another without stopping.

How do we do that?

Set a metronome to 70bpm or even slower if you have to. The metronome is in quarter notes and these exercises are in eighth notes, so one beat of the metronome fits two drum strokes.

Play the exercise 2 times and then switch to the next without stopping or missing a beat. Always keep your foot on the first beat of the measure (every 4 drum strokes).

Once you've done that successfully you can start gradually moving up the tempo, say 10 bpm. Remember that this is a marathon, not a race. Moving your speed of an exercise up 10 bpm a day is a perfectly reasonable goal.

Further practice with paradiddles and permutations

If you find the above exercise too simple, you may be deceiving yourself. Or at least you haven't properly opened your mind to the possibilities that can emerge from the concept of permutations. This concept can be applied to all rhythms.

For example. Let's push that bass drum pattern we had over one eighth-note as well. What do we have?

RLRR LRLL

F         F

Now we can go through all the hand combinations with the foot in the second eighth-note position. We can move it over again.

RLRR LRLL

F          F

 

This same idea can be applied to any rudiment. So let's take one more.

The paradiddle-diddle is a six-stroke rudiment that is very similar to the paradiddle. It goes like this:

RLRRLL

Just as the other exercises, practice this from slow to fast. Because it is six notes, you have to count it differently. The beat cycles every 3 clicks of the metronome instead of every 4 clicks.

The permutations of this exercise are as follows:

  1. RLRRLL
  2. LRLRRL
  3. LLRLRR
  4. RLLRLR
  5. RRLLRL
  6. LRRLLR

How else can I practice without a drum kit?

Café drumming

Check out another article we've made for more exercises to play without a drum kit. But lastly I'd like to close with some advice about how to practice anywhere.

One thing I like to do when I'm in a café or a waiting room, is to listen to whatever music is being broadcasted (over the intercom, on the radio, etc.) and tap out some of the exercises I'm working on to the beat of the music. 

This is a fun exercise that can present us with many surprising challenges. For example, playing the paradiddle exercises to a fast song can be challenging, but great for strengthing timekeeping and technique.

Playing the paradiddle-diddle exercise to a song that is not in swing or 3/4 time can be very complicated and not intuitive at all. It requires thinking over the barline.

But practicing any exercise to music is a habit that we should all form. Because especially in the beginning, it can be very difficult to feel comfortable playing in time for long periods. Plus, it makes playing these exercises more fun and we can hear the music within them.

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