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Introduction to Open-Handed Playing

If you close your eyes and envision your favorite drummer, what do they look like???

081010-Steve-GaddRight hand on the hats crossed over left hand (traditional grip) on the snare. This is pretty much what comes to mind for me (although Gadd opened up on some of our favorite grooves).





Can’t beat it, can you? One of the most groovin’ dudes on the planet. Even if you have a different drummer in mind, most of the time his or her arms will be crossed. Did you know there’s another way???

Open-handed playing is a term used to describe a method of playing drumset. Traditionally (see above), right-handed drummers (obviously the majority) would cross their right (cymbal-leading) hand over their left (snare) hand so that the dominant hand could play parts on the hi-hat. Wait??? Why the heck was the hi-hat over there?

The very simple answer is that the right foot was in use on the bass drum and so the left foot became the hi-hat foot. The real expert on this topic is Daniel Glass! Check out “The Century Project” for a detailed account of the development of the modern drumset. Anyway, more on that later….

Open-handed playing is when we avoid crossing our arms, choosing to lead with the closest hand to the sound source (left for hats, right for ride). We can also choose to put both sound sources on the same side. As a lefty, I choose to put both my hi-hat and ride on the left side. Recently, I saw Chris Dave in concert and he had both his hats(remotely) and ride on the right side. Both are technically examples of “open-handed playing” as the goal is to “open” up the rest of the drums!

Just think of all the possibilities of open-handed playing. Like Mel Gibson in Braveheart…..FREEDOM!!!!! Now this is actually not a new concept. “The New Breed” was technically an open-handed playing book. Claus Hessler and Dom Famularo have written, “Open-Handed Playing“. Billy Cobham, Jim Chapin, Lenny White, Will Kennedy, Carter Beauford and many others play open-handed.

One thing that I love about technology is how quickly I can access information about music. Whether it be a song I need to hear for a gig, a video of my favorite drummer, or how to best position a mic over my ride cymbal. It is all there and it is at our fingertips in an instant. One thing that all this technology has made me realize is that there are a lot more open-handed drummers out there. This is good because it means more of us lefties are playing with our dominant hands, and more educators are aware that it is a possibility. As an educator teaching in both the traditional cross-hand and open-handed style, it makes me extremely happy to be able to say to a student interested in open-handed playing, “This is not weird, just look it up on youtube!”

Pre-Youtube…when I began drumming (not that it was that long ago…ok 20 years to be exact) this wasn’t the case. My process, especially early on was trial and error. Even into my college and early professional years (still pre-youtube), I found myself struggling with some elements of open-handed playing….”How do you get a good rimshot when every sound engineer is used to putting the mic in your way?”, or “How do you get a really hip cascara sound on your floor tom when you are leading with your left hand?” (stay tuned for the answers in future blogs!) In college I was able to get a small taste of this technology at the Berklee College of Music media center where I could find just about any video I wanted. I remember the first time seeing Will Kennedy and Billy Cobham and thinking, “Ok, so that is how you do it.” Now we have access to every Cobham clip if we are connected to the internet.

Speaking of Cobham clips..Just watch the first minute of this video (it gets good at :24)to see what is possible with open-handed playing.

Amazing huh! The truth is, playing open-handed really opens you up to some amazing possibilities. As more open-handed players emerge, we need to increase the dialogue on the topic! Stay tuned for more blogs on the pros and cons, challenges and most importantly, possibilities of open-handing playing! As well as some spotlights on my favorite open-handed players. In the meantime, join the conversation!

Who is your favorite open-handed player??



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