Drums are loud!
While it is super fun to slam down on the drums in a rock club or a treated studio there are some occasions where you need to learn how to play softly.
We need to learn how to finesse the drum. Moreover, learning to play in this way will not only let you play low-volume gigs, but it will also give you more control when you play the drums.
There are some ways that you can automatically play quieter on the drums. Some of these methods include:
However, this article will deal with actually playing quietly on the drums with normal sticks.
In order to really start to play the drums quietly, you need to understand the fundamentals of dynamics.
In my opinion, the best way to develop dynamics is by learning to play fast and quietly.
Normally our mind and body get excited by fast tempos and we really want to dig in and hit the drums hard because the music just energizes us in that way.
Another reason we want to play loud when we play fast is that you need to exert a lot of energy to play fast, and you need to exert a lot of energy to play loud. So our brain puts those two things together.
Below, we have an example of sixteenth notes being played over a metronome. Notice how the metronome is quite a bit louder than the snare drum notes.
Now try it yourself by clicking just the metronome below and playing sixteenth notes between the clicks.
Practicing to a metronome is essential for these types of exercises in order to make sure your strokes are even in time while playing soft.
Likewise, practice playing softer with a metronome since you might tend to slow down as you decrease your volume.
One of the biggest mistakes drummers make when trying to play quietly is that they don't play quiet enough!
The big secret is that playing quiet cannot be achieved if you wield your stick 12 inches off the snare drum.
Playing quiet means having a stick height of about 1-2 inches off the drum.
Furthermore, this technique will literally force you to play quiet (it is REALLY hard to play a loud note 1-2 inches off the drum).
One of the things we should be concerned with when playing softly is how to transition from loud notes to soft notes.
If we normally play quiet notes with our sticks 1-2 inches off the drum, our accents are normally going to be 6-12 inches off the drum. It is important to understand how the stick height affects our sound.
Therefore, let's practice putting a couple accented notes into the sixteenth note pattern we were just practicing.
Once you hear the pattern, go back and play it to a metronome!
These two accented notes will help us understand how to control the stick.
Now that you've practiced dynamics and are starting to get your volume down, another trick to sounding quieter on the drums is choosing which drums to play.
We've already discovered that the snare drum has a range of volume, and that it sounds pretty cool when it is played quietly.
The toms are another case. Generally, the bigger the drum, the more volume it can produce. Replacing the big toms is one of the very best ways to create less volume. You can use a 10-12" rack tom and use the 12"-14" drum as a floor tom.
This is why you can see so many jazz drummers playing with smaller kits (as well as the fact that jazz drummers are especially good at controlling the volume of their sticks).
Apart from just putting a blanket inside your bass drum hole, there are technical ways you can learn to play the foot quieter.
Again with metronome exercises. Let's try to play eighth notes on our bass drum very quietly in order to develop our dynamic range with the foot.
Remember this is just all muscle memory, so repetition is important. It is also important to rest and start again.
Therefore, let's develop an exercise that can let us play quietly and quickly for a period of time and then rest for another period of time.
The cymbals are often the trickiest of cases because many cymbals just don't allow for quiet playing. There are special types of cymbals (usually light-weight ones) that don't pick up too much volume when you play them.
Moongel or comparable products work very well for cymbals and do not leave a gummy residue behind like duct tape.
Duct tape works effectively on your drum heads to moisten the head's ring and volume. Utilizing an extra felt or 2 on your cymbals and clamping your wing screws down can limit your cymbal's motion, volume and sustain.
Another trick for low volume gigging would be to use a shaker instead of a cymbal. It's lighter noise will result in less volume and fresh textures. However, it is a motion you probably aren't used to doing and will take some practice to do a shaker while playing kick and snare patterns.
In order to be a competent drummer we need to practice dynamics. They are one of the most overlooked aspects of drumming, and perhaps one of the most important for controlling our sticks.
Take a look at all of the patterns that you play and see if you can play them quietly.
In addition, to make sure that you are truly in control, see if you can pick out a certain note within the exercises you are practicing and make it louder. Really experiment with the combination of soft and loud notes in order to make your body and ear tell the difference.
When doing this type of exercise, make sure that most of the notes you are playing are quiet, while only some of the notes are accented.
Make the difference between those accented notes and quiet notes HUGE. See if you can make those quiet notes even quieter.
Then record yourself, and judge how you are coming along!
Ben Heckler is a multi-instrumentalist and musician from Portland, Oregon. Currently Ben lives in Barcelona where he teaches drum lessons, writes and records original music for his band Sea Fuzz as well as playing drums for one of the biggest Beatles tribute bands in Europe, The Flaming Shakers.
Ben is constantly creating and composing various types of music, video, and artwork for a multitude of projects that come his way. He hopes to use his platforms to share, help and inspire others to create in their own ways.