An Honest Look at the Drum Rudiments

Posted on May 16, 2021

 Drum Rudiments

Earlier this week, someone posted on r/drumming asking about the rudiments. I chimed in on the thread but I feel like expanding on my thoughts more here since I have yet to talk at length about the 40 drum rudiments (and there’s a lot to talk about). The OP was specifically asking about what is and isn’t a rudiment (i.e. why is this lick a rudiment, but not that one).

I feel like this is a common question, but I don’t see it asked/discussed very often on the internet. Perhaps most drummers don’t want to question the almighty rudiment list. But when I was younger, I certainly remember looking at the list of 40 and thinking: ok, there’s a double stroke roll (RR LL) and a triple stroke roll (RRR LLL), but why is there no quadruple stroke roll (RRRR LLLL) or quintuple stroke roll (RRRRR LLLLL)?

The OP shared similar thoughts regarding the short rolls, of which there are nine:

You may look at the above and feel confused as to how you’re supposed to remember all that — again, back in the day I remember asking myself: hold on, is there a twelve stroke roll on the list? What about a nineteen stroke roll? To the extent that there’s any system behind it, it’s all of the odd numbers from five to seventeen, plus six and ten.

Obviously, the list can’t have every short roll or hand–to–hand roll; otherwise, the list would never end! These patterns are supposed to be rudimental after all, so a line has to be drawn somewhere.

But even with the list’s (ostensible) intention of presenting essential building blocks to the drummer, it’s still hard to make sense of why the list has weird stuff like two different drag paradiddles or three ratamacue variations. What’s the deal with that? Surely there are more important licks to include. Well, to answer that, we have to look into why drum rudiments exist.

If you research the history of the rudiments, you’ll often find unwieldy discussions about the history of military snare drumming in general, most of which isn’t terribly important. Things picked up in the 1800s when some of the world’s first drum books were published. These authors (who all came from a marching background) were trying to name and notate common snare drum patterns. Some of the more well–known books include A New, Useful and Complete System of Drum Beating (Charles Stewart Ashworth, 1812); The Drummer’s and Fifer’s Guide (George B. Bruce, 1865); and Strube’s Drum and Fife Instructor (Gardiner Strube, 1870).

If you look through these texts, you’ll find a lot of similar ideas, but with some variation about naming and notation. In the early 1900s, thirteen American drummers got together to form NARD (the National Association of Rudimental Drummers). These guys wanted to standardize the licks from the different books of the 1800s — to create a straightforward list of common patterns that working drummers should be familiar with, using the term “rudiments” which appears to come from the Ashworth book.

In 1933 the first list of rudiments was born, with 26 patterns. Confusingly, NARD highlighted 13 of the 26 rudiments as being “essential”, but that’s just part of NARD’s audition process, which still appears to be a thing.

Truth be told, NARD’s original rudiment list borrows heavily from Strube’s 1870 book, which presents 25 “lessons” for the snare drum. It’s these 25 lessons that directly created the NARD list of 26, which even uses all of the same names from the Strube book.* IYCWW, the 26th rudiment that was added to the NARD list was the single stroke roll. The Bruce book lists 32 rudiments (including six additional short rolls compared to NARD’s list), while Ashworth’s book has 29 licks, so NARD clearly felt some culling was in order, deferring to Strube.

Moving forward a bit to 1984, the Percussive Arts Society (PAS) decided to publish a new list with 14 added rudiments. The five–year effort was spearheaded by Jay Wanamaker, who was joined by a “highly select group of percussionists” to create the list of 40 rudiments we know today. Some rudiments left off the NARD list were resurrected, including the nine, ten, eleven, thirteen, and fifteen stroke rolls (all of which were featured in the Bruce book). Other licks weren’t so lucky, such as Bruce’s eight stroke roll, or perhaps Ashworth’s full drag and half drag. These patterns are now considered extinct rudiments.

So the tl;dr is that the list of rudiments is arbitrary — what belongs on the list is ultimately the opinion of 20 drummers at most. Critically, the list only expresses what licks these particular drummers thought were common and important. As I mentioned in the Reddit thread, patterns such as the “Single Stroke Five”, the “Nineteen Stroke Roll”, or the “Quadruple Stroke Roll” all abstractly exist as licks, but they’re not official rudiments simply because nobody has included them on any widely published list.

There’s an inherent problem with the 40 rudiments: they’re not objective or scientific. Far from it. Rather, they reflect the specific perspectives and mindsets of a handful of drummers. The reason why something like the “Single Stroke Five” isn’t on the list of 40 is that the PAS didn’t feel like such a pattern was popular or crucial enough to make the cut. It goes without saying, but to what extent that is correct is debatable.

As a drum set player, it’s actually a bit frustrating — the drum set barely existed when the first list was published (I’d say drumming as we know it today originated in the 40s). Even after the PAS updated the list in the 80s, the new list still doesn’t have the drum set in mind.

After spending time with several rudiment books, the ugly truth I’ve discovered is that most rudiments do not work very well on the kit. I’ll concede that they all have some use insofar as they are challenging and technically demanding… but that wasn’t the original objective of the list. To that end, one has to wonder why these are the licks that are regarded as being good for conditioning. There are so many things to practice out there, and what’s so important about the drag paradiddle № 2? Meanwhile, for actually making music, most of them are crap, and their spots on the list would be better severed by other chops.

The tradition of rudiments overall is pretty old–fashioned, or at the very least esoteric. The drum and fife practice of yesteryear doesn’t represent how most drummers approach the instrument nowadays. For instance, these days drummers often describe a drum roll as being “open”. That is to say, each note in the roll is in strict time with a well–defined subdivision (like a double stroke roll). This is contrasted with a “closed” roll or buzz roll, where it’s impossible to think of every note in the roll as being in time.

However, at the top of the PAS list, there’s this weird spiel: “All rudiments should be practiced: open (slow) to closed (fast) to open (slow) and/or at an even moderate march tempo.” I have never heard a drummer use “closed” to describe something as being fast. I’ll provide another gripe: there’s really no need nowadays to write short rolls with numbers and ties, as the list does. And why does the “Z” in the Multiple Bounce Roll look like it was written with Comic Sans?!

Even players from the modern drum corps tradition are confounded by the rudiments list. Eric Carr (a tenor drummer with The Commandant’s Own) made a humorous video tier–ranking all 40 rudiments, and he was quite blunt about how redundant and pointless many of them were.

I got inspired and whipped up my own ranking of the rudiments:

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it works for me. Some are very useful. Others I’m indifferent about. And then there’s a huge chunk I never touch outside of books.

At least, that’s how I would rank them as they are written. For instance, I never play the single stroke four or the single stroke seven as they are written; I always add an accent at the end. In this form, these two rudiments are closer to the ruff, another arguably extinct rudiment.

I really can’t help but think that drummers just worry too much about the rudiments. When new drummers get started, they are often told (almost dogmatically) to learn the rudiments without further comment, and I’m not a fan of that direction at all. Most new drummers are probably more interested in learning how to play a solid groove than they are in knowing what a triple ratamacue is and how to use it.

If you really want to learn the rudiments, I always say to get a rudiment book. I often sing the praises of The Savage Rudimental Workshop by Matt Savage. Once you get through it and learn all 40 rudiments, you’ll probably conclude that you can go the rest of your drum set career without playing most of them ever again.

Rudiments are often compared to musical scales. I guess the thinking is that they’re both important because they’re foundational to creating music. But the core definition of a scale is pretty broad: a scale is just an ordered collection of notes. In addition, there’s no list of “official” scales; even something rather obscure like “Ultraphrygian” is still a proper scale.

A different analogy I’d like to present would be musical keys. The circle of fifths is commonly cited to explain that there are 30 keys in music, which means the status of some other keys is uncertain. Keys that aren’t named on the circle of fifths like “A♯ major” are often described as being “theoretical”. You can think of a major key starting on A♯, but there’s no point in doing so — it would sound exactly the same as B♭ major while being significantly more annoying to read because of the need to use double sharps.

As such, nobody practices in A♯ major because there’s little–to–no chance you would ever have to bother with that key for a real piece of music. The circle of fifths is quite logical. The list of 40 logical? Not so much...

Many drummers are generally unsure of what to make of the rudiments, other than a vague conclusion that the rudiments are important and you have to learn them. Maybe there’s a case to be made there, but it’s not an especially strong one. To be clear, there are some very useful licks in the list of 40. And many more useless ones.

I do admire the rudiments for at least trying to give names to different patterns. However, drummers still tend to be pretty bad at naming stuff, and generally can’t agree on what to call anything that’s not plastered with the label “rudiment”. Maybe not everything needs a name. But I think the philosophy helps more than it hurts. If a guitarist wants to tell the rest of the band to riff on Cm7 and Gm7, do you think everyone would prefer to not use chord names?

Again, however, there’s no system for naming drum stuff the way we do with chords, often because there’s no need. Musicians must agree on what keys and chords mean when they play together. Meanwhile, a drummer can play some 8th note groove, call it a “flam–a–eggbeater–cheese–a–diddle”, and no one will care as long as it grooves with the song.

As Bonham once said, “It’s all very well doing a triple paradiddle — but who’s going to know you’ve done it?” Or perhaps Metronome magazine from May of 1958: “26 is an arbitrary number anyway … several books could be filled with beats that deserve to be called rudiments.”

* In case you were wondering, yes, the Strube book is the reason why we have a lick called the “Lesson 25”. That rudiment had different names throughout history, but Strube either didn’t know them, couldn’t decide on a name, or forgot to include one in his book. As such, the lick in question was simply listed as the 25th lesson. Clearly, neither NARD nor the PAS have felt a need to rename it, despite the fact that the latter renamed the “ruff” as the “drag” in 1984.

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