Drumming Blisters

Posted on October 29, 2023

Sorry for the gruesome photo, but it’s certainly on topic. That’s a picture of my right hand, taken a long time ago. It’s the only time I’ve gotten a blister drumming, and it happened during a drumline clinic.

Blisters and calluses seem to be a polarizing topic in the drumming world. Some people think it’s just a normal part of drumming, while others say it should be avoided with proper technique. 

First and foremost, let’s not conflate the two. Calluses aren’t really a big problem all in all — they’re the body’s natural response to friction, and protect the skin. My hands are pretty calloused, some of it from work and going to the gym, some of it from drumming. I’ve never developed a serious callus from drumming, but since they’re part of my hands anyway, I’ve never been worried about them. 

I’m not too caught up in the idea that proper drum technique is vital to preventing calluses, but FWIW, the bottom of my palms seem to be the most worn out from playing. I suppose it’s from the stick hitting my palm hundreds of thousands of times over the years. My thumb and index finger (a.k.a. the fulcrum) are not too beat up.

Blisters on the other hand (ba dum tiss) are bad. A Blister is an injury that comes from damaged skin. See:

Blisters mean you’re doing it wrong, and usually come from two problems: gripping the drumstick way too hard or pushing yourself for too long before your skin has been acclimated to the strenuous job of whacking the drums. 

It seems like every couple of weeks I see a post on Reddit where a beginner shares a photo of their blistered hands asking, “Is this a problem?” Most replies will say yes, it is a problem, but there’s often someone commenting with, “Well, I’m a gigging and recording drummer who gets blisters all the time. They’re no big deal, I just live with them.”

I mean, if you can live like that, more power to you I guess, but I don’t see how that could be sustainable. Blisters might be a fact of life for athletes, but we’re talking about the drums here. Drums are physical, but they’re not that physical. 

Things reached a fever pitch a few weeks ago when someone shared a photo of Travis Barker’s mangled hands with a sarcastic title to the effect of “I guess he has bad technique, right?” The thread was a complete train wreck, with plenty of people chiming in with, “Well he’s famous and we’re not so we should shut up.” I guess famous people can’t do things wrong. 

No particular shade to Travis here. Much like Phil Rudd, he doesn’t need to care about what I think. Unlike Phil however, I tend to like Travis’ drumming (at least on records), although despite growing up in the 2000s, I haven’t paid much attention to what he’s done over the last 15 years. 

Some people added that a big part of Travis’ playing is him beating the shit out of his drums, I guess as part of some showmanship. I could write a whole article about that, but for now, I’ll just say… for god’s sake, let the microphones and the PA do their jobs.

Another point that was brought up had to do with the amount that Travis plays. I still don’t follow. Outside of rehearsals and gigs, I try to practice at least two hours a day every day, at full energy. Does my lack of blisters mean I’m not practicing enough? Well, I already know that I don’t practice enough, thank you very much. 

Other famous drummers got named dropped in the thread like Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Dave Weckl — drummers who are typically known for not shredding their hands. Someone shot back with “Those guys also don't play pop-punk tunes. LOL.” As if these players don’t go hard in the paint

On a more productive note, someone dug up this interview with Vinnie:

But like you saw in Toulouse, switching back to traditional grip playing a strong back-beat all evening long can cause you blisters that will keep on bleeding until after the show! But there's callus now, so everything is good.

While I appreciate the commenter doing some research, they seem to have missed what Vinnie was getting at. Vinnie was asked about switching to traditional grip after finishing a tour where he played matched, hence the blister. So that is to say, it was a one–time thing since his hands were not acclimated to his usual grip, not a regular part of his life. 

Stewart Copeland was name–dropped in defense of blisters, but I honestly don’t know what to make of Stewart after reading this article last year. I get that we stand on the shoulders of giants, but you can only take so many cues from another drummer. Dennis Chambers is a wicked player, and he can’t read music. That’s not an endorsement of being musically illiterate. He’s not a great drummer because he can’t read, he’s a great drummer in spite of it.

We could keep bringing up famous drummers all day, and there‘s only so much I can say here since I’ve seen many talented drummers do all sorts of harebrained nonsense. Again, if you need to put a pound of tape on your hands to keep from playing in agony, that’s your prerogative.

Going back to my photo from above, the one time I got a blister came from me drumming 6–8 hours continuously for a few days straight, something I was not acclimated to. After the fact, it’s never been a problem. 

This is another one of those moments where I’m surprised there’s even a discussion here. You’re skin should not fall apart when playing the drums. I don’t even think this is a technique issue, but rather a problem with attitude. So then, warm up properly, don’t push yourself too hard, and don’t play like you’re trying to break your cymbals.

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