Image of a drum set

Open handed playing techniques to consider

The art of drumming is often looked upon as still being in its infancy. However, in recent years, with the help of the internet and the ever-increasing access to information, we have become more exposed to innovators and can aspire to follow in their footsteps.

One fundamental playing style that is becoming increasingly popular is that of ‘open-handed drumming’, a rare method often seen as unorthodox and utilised by musicians that felt it ‘natural’ to them alone. But as technicality and the pursuit of an ergonomically beneficial set up and style become increasingly desirable, no one method is suitable for all and we become more and more open to new techniques. Anyone wanting to maximise comfort and productivity should naturally question their fundamental playing style and open-handed playing is a new solution to an old problem.

So what is it? Well… drumming requires the use of all four limbs to develop a fluid and musical vocabulary, but traditionally drummers are taught to lead with their stronger hand and foot. The down side to this is the limitations it can have on the drummer’s development of his or her weaker side.

open hand drumming 1

Anyone studying should understand the importance of improving our less developed abilities. Drumming is no different. A right handed drummer is often frustrated by the ability of their left hand compared to the right and vice-versa for left handed drummers. Most drummers were, and still are, initially taught to cross their hands to give the stronger hand the lead in the playing of strokes and in their movement on the drum set. Open-handed playing is the solution to the lack of ambidexterity that often hinders drummers.

It is achieved by uncrossing the hands and either having the left hand lead on the hi-hat/cymbal or by having both hands lead wherever most effective, never crossing the hands. Whether you are left-handed or right-handed, this style of playing is there to create a balance in your strength, coordination and independence.

The first drummer to be associated with this technique is the great Billy Cobham. It is said that his decision to play this way was due to an open handed style being more natural then that of the cross-handed technique. Billy plays with a predominantly right handed set-up barring the common ride cymbal being on the player’s right side; he positions his ride cymbal to his left, above the hi-hat, and both cymbals are played with his left hand.

This technique can be seen in any footage of Billy’s performances as far back as his first tours circa 1968 with the late Horace Silver. His right hand is free to move around the kit whilst time is kept with his left hand. The ease of movement is instantly apparent.

In 2005 I studied with Dom Famularo at his Long Island home and continued lessons for a further two years. He has become a huge advocator of this technique. Dom cited Albert Einstein as a contributing factor to his eventual change in technique some thirty-something years after first picking up drum sticks. Einstein wrote “problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them”, which lead Dom to change the way he approached and played the drums. His attitude towards drum-set as an educator and “ambassador” of the instrument includes the desire to innovate, and this was one of his many contributions to modern drum set.

Upon starting my tuition with Dom, I made the change to open handed playing and played this way for the following three years. As an exercise this gave me greater independence and strengthening, however as a musician it hindered my feel and I had to re-learn previously comfortable rhythms that were suddenly uncomfortable. I mention the above point because it is worth noting for more advanced drummers that are interested in changing from crossed to open-handed playing.

open hand drumming tutorial

There are many different facets to music and to that of a musician’s approach to their instrument. The pursuit of one’s craft can be with the sole notion to create, just as much as it can be to study the techniques of any given instrument. The latter can be inspired to make fundamental changes to their style of this kind at any point in their journey. This kind of attitude is common to say, that of an athlete or martial artist, whereas the former tends to be less concerned with such predicaments and uses their respective instrument as a tool for creation, or a type of communication.

For anyone beginning to study drums, and for any teacher potentially concerned about the results of the traditional method of playing it is, in my opinion, hugely important to find the most comfortable approach for any one student as we are all different. The notion that the more options we have at our disposal, and the more open we are to playing our own way if it will achieve positive results, is very important. This is hugely beneficial to player, student and teacher.

To impart more of my own experience with open-handed playing, I resorted back to playing crossed-handed after three years. I had achieved a greater understanding of my limbs and their strengths and had a greater level of ambidexterity. I cannot stress the importance of four-way limb independence and interdependence and changing the way I played gave me improved results. By swapping the leading hand and then extending this concept to the feet my musicality and my musical vocabulary improved. I choose to be a crossed handed player because that is when I am most comfortable and it is ultimately when I sound best. To completely change to open-handed playing outside of the practice room would have changed my sound, and my sound is what musicians that play and make music with me are attracted to.

As open handed playing becomes more popular, so it stands that educational material to accompany the technique is being published by some of the worlds best drummers and educators.

The world-renowned German drummer, Claus Hessler, is an open-handed player who I am fortunate enough to have had shared some of his experience with me. His book ‘Open Handed Playing Vol. 1’ co-authored by Dom Famularo is an essential tool for both open-handed and cross-handed players looking to expand their vocabulary.

Stephane Chamberland, another world-class drummer, co-authored another book with Dom Famularo entitled ‘The Weaker Side’. This book is also full of beneficial exercises on the subject and another worthy companion for all students of modern drum-set techniques.