Writing Grace Notes on the Drums (to Tie, or Not to Tie)

Posted on October 22, 2023

 grace note notation

I recently saw a comment online from someone claiming that proper flam notation involves ties; i.e. the grace note must be tied to the primary note. It stands to reason that this commenter would say the same about drags (and longer grace note figures).

Personally... I don’t agree, and I haven’t been using ties in my grace notes for a while. I used to though, so some of my older transcriptions may have them, mainly for drags.

I guess we’ll start with the experts. Both NARD and the PAS use ties in the grace notes for their respective rudiment lists. While on the topic of rudiment lists and manuals, here’s a good article from Historic Drumming discussing the history of flams, notation included. It seems like the French have been using grace notes for flams since at least the 1750s, with ties. When it comes to drags written as grace notes, the oldest example from Historic Drumming is Samuel L. Potter’s The Art of Beating the Drum, published around 1815–1817. And yes, Sam uses ties for both flams and drags.

Going a step further, I decided to also take a look at some famous 20th century snare drum books to see what’s common. Both Stick Control and Master Studies use ties for grace notes, as do the Mitchell Peters books and the Wilcoxon books. I’m well aware that somebody by the name of Richard Sakal has re–enegraved (and subsequently butchered) some newer editions of the Wilcoxon books, but it looks like both editions use ties. Unsurprisingly, America’s NARD Drum Solos (a.k.a “The Green Book”) uses ties. Same with Portraits In Rhythm.

On the other hand, the Jacques Delécluse books do not use ties. Ditto for Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments. Vic Firths’ The Solo Snare Drummer has no ties for grace notes, but another book of his, The Vic Firth Snare Drum Method, does. Most interestingly, while Stick Control uses ties, GL Stone’s other book Accents and Rebounds does not use ties for the one page that features grace notes.

Admittedly, these books are all quite old, so are there any modern classics to reference? The closest thing I can think of is Matt Savage’s Rudimental Workshop, which does not use ties. Thinking back to my drumline days, I remember seeing both conventions, and I feel like it largely came down to the publisher. I typically didn’t play snare drum in orchestra, but I do recall ties being commonplace on timpani.

Now here’s what everyone surely wants to know: what does little old me think? Well, before we go any further, it’s always confused me how these are regarded as ties. Ties combine note values, so wouldn’t a grace note tied to a primary mean that you shouldn’t play the primary? Of course, this is compounded by the fact that grace notes have no proper rhythmic values, so, strictly speaking, there’s nothing to combine. 

I’ve always conceptualized these bindings as slurs, although that still feels quite irrelevant since slurs have little effect on how the drums are played (if any).

Now, all in all, the ties/slurs/whatever don’t make things harder to read, but I really don’t think they’re needed for “proper” notation. Obviously, they aren’t there to tell you how to play the grace notes — it’s just to help you read so it’s clearer what note is the primary note.

But if things are properly engraved, there should be no doubt. Now, it doesn’t look like many notation programs can get it right by default — in MuseScore, one of the last things I do to a score is select all the flams and move them rightward as far as they’ll go before colliding with other noteheads and beams. 

It’s worth pointing out that the grace notes pallete in MuseScore does show everything with a tie:

However, MuseScore will not automatically add any ties or slurs to your grace notes. Adding a tie will actually cause playback to glitch out a bit since the program is trying to play what’s written (something most drummers don’t seem to consider).

There’s a somewhat stronger argument to be made for tying grace notes split between two drums, but again, it shouldn’t be necessary. 

I wonder if using ties is just a convention carried over from other instruments. Modern flams are written with a specific grace note called an acciaccatura, identified by an oblique slash running through the stem and flag of an 8th note. (I suppose the history of acciaccatura notation might be relevant here, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.) When looking to other instruments for usage of acciaccaturas (or, acciaccature, I guess), slurs do seem to be common. Remeber, you’ll know these are slurs when they’re connecting two different pitches — in fact, it’s a bit rare to see an acciaccatura sharing the same note as the primary.

Drum notation is kind of cobbled together, reusing elements that were created for other instruments. Since the acciaccatura is often written with a slur, it was probably carried over to the drums. But to be clear, the slur has a real effect on how the grace notes are played for pitched instruments, and it’s not for clarity of where the grace note is anchored. 

Grace notes are often open to some interpretation in the concert band/orchestral world. Here’s an interesting thread discussing grace notes in a measure of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata № 27. The thread shows that, over the years, the grace notes in question have been written as 16th notes, slurred 16ths, acciaccaturas, slurred acciaccaturas, and the appoggiatura (an 8th written without a slash). And of course, the passage is always played the same way. 

The snare drum books I shared are mostly from the concert snare drum tradition, where grace notes (specifcally drags and longer “ruffs”) are often played closed, like a short buzz roll. Check out this infamous passage from Portraits In Rhythm (etude № 9):

When playing these grace notes as closed, the addition of a slur seems like a natural move, even though I’m not sure there’s a way to play the above without any sense of a slur. Moreover, I suppose these long grace note figures might look odd not being connected to their primaries. But when it comes to rudimental and drum set playing, where grace notes are played open (and are a hell of a lot shorter), don’t worry about it. And once more, there’s no change in execution for flams — I’m not aware of any such thing as a closed flam.

There is one spin on the flam that might call for a slur, and that’s the malf. It’s a flam played backwards:

Malfs aren’t something you’re likely encounter in the wild, and I’ve never seen one in a real piece of music; they’re more of an exercise than anything else, although malfs are similar to an old French rudiment called the charge stroke.

Since malfs are quite unusual, the tie could help keep a drummer from thinking it’s a normal flam that’s been engraved poorly.  

So, aside from the esoteric malf and closed seven stroke ruff patterns, I don’t think ties/slurs/whatever are needed for proper notation.