How To Get Started On The Drums
Posted on January 23, 2022
Without a doubt, this is the number one question asked in internet drumming circles. Anyone who asks how to get started on the drums is guaranteed to get at least a few responses, so I’ve never bothered chiming in. I always figured that full–time teachers would be best at responding since they have to routinely get beginners up to speed. But I do have some thoughts to share, and despite my desire to see different topics brought up online, the burden is ultimately on me to come up with stuff to talk about. So let’s go through some pointers.
Make sure you have a practice space.
Before you consider whether or not you have the “aptitude” to pick up the drums, there’s another barrier you need to tackle. Acoustic drums are very, very loud, and the only real way to have a sustainable practice routine is to live in a house. To be more technical, the core issue is sharing a wall with your neighbors. And even if you live in a house, you still have to be mindful of the noise you might be unleashing to those who live on your street, as well as your housemates.
If you have both a house and some deposable income, you could look into a room within a room project. They are expensive but very effective — some customers claim that their own housemates can barely hear the drumming, let alone neighbors. This also might work if you own a condo, but I don’t know how this would help the issue of vibrations resonating through the structures.
Music practice rooms for rent are becoming increasingly common (coincidently as it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone in this country to buy a house). These work like timeshares, where you and other musicians split the rent and get a scheduled time to use the space. There are even music schools that provide this service nowadays. One cool thing I want to bring up is Colorado’s DrumBox. Somebody in the front range is buying up old ATM buildings and turning them into practice spaces. Hopefully, there are some like–minded entrepreneurs in your area who are ready to revolutionize drum practice.
Some drummers have taken matters into their own hands by renting storage spaces and using them for practice sites. Unfortunately, this well has dried up, and many storage companies now expressly prohibit people from using their garages as rehearsal rooms.
If an acoustic set is not viable in any way, your refuge will be an electric set. This still isn’t a panacea; some people have reported that neighbors have complained about the racket from the pads of their electric kit. So, unfortunately, you won’t really know for sure until you try.
Buy a drum set.
After making a decision regarding acoustic drums or electric drums, start checking out what’s available used in your area. Craigslist, FB Marketplace, whatever. You don’t need something premium, just something that you can hit. You want a kick drum, snare, two toms, hi–hats, ride cymbal, and at least two crashes.
If you have the money, you can buy something new. Generally, a starter electric kit (like the Alesis Nitro or Alesis Turbo) will be cheaper than an acoustic set of the same quality. For acoustic drums, the most popular starter kits are probably Pearl’s Export Series and Tama’s Imperialstar line.
Frustratingly, most beginner sets have three toms, but I don’t think a beginner needs to bother with more than two. For some reason, you need to buy a nicer kit to get fewer drums. I say just keep the 12–inch rack tom and sell the other one; surely someone will buy it.
You might be able to get both drums and cymbals together. Often, however, you’ll need to get them separately. Regarding cymbals, the tried and true beginner series would be Sabian’s B8 line. Do be aware that the difference between high–end and low–end cymbals is much more apparent than is for drums. Tuning can work miracles on cheap drums, but with cymbals, you’re kind of stuck with the cheap metal. I will also bring up Meinl’s HCS cymbals, which are a bit pricier than B8s but sound noticeably better.
Hardware is another component that may or may not be included in a kit. PDP has always been my go–to for cheap but reliable hardware.
Find a teacher.
I took private lessons for about 10 years, and I really valued the time I spent with my teacher. A teacher can help introduce and reinforce proper technique, as well as expose students to good drummers, inspiring music, and diverse and reasonable practice materials, not to mention a general perspective on playing with people and finding gigs/studio work.
Try to find a well–regarded teacher in your area. If you can’t find one and/or don’t have the money anyway, online lessons can be of some help. Unfortunately, videos won’t be able to give you feedback on your playing, but they’re better than nothing. In this day and age, remote instruction is also an option.
I wouldn’t recommend Googling around trying to find random stuff to practice; you can easily get overwhelmed and stumble into a lot of material that’s really not useful in actual playing. Another good thing a teacher will do is help curate the kind of stuff you should be practicing.
Learn to read sheet music.
Hopefully, a teacher will take care of this, but in any case, I highly recommend learning how to read music. I realize that most musicians don’t really need to know how to read very well (if at all), but knowing how to read will make you a better, more versatile player with no real downsides. Knowing how to read has made me more cognizant of rhythms and subdivisions, and being familiar with sheet music and our modern rhythmic terminology makes it very easy to communicate ideas. You also get to use drums books, which I regard as a great way to learn. Speaking of that…
Get some books.
Again, hopefully, you can work with a teacher, but otherwise, there are a ton of drum books out there to learn from. For beginners, Syncopation by Ted Reed is a highly regarded book for teaching basic rhythm and coordination on the drum set. Stick Control by GL Stone is another, but I’ll talk more about that one in a bit. For grooves, I think Joel Rothman’s Mini–Monster Book of Rock Drumming is a good intro to playing grooves and backbeats. There’s a related Rothman Book, Son of the Mini–Monster, but I haven’t gotten a copy of that one yet.
There are a lot of beginner–specific books out there, but I haven’t evaluated very many of them to provide recommendations. The one I went through is called Play Drums Today!, which isn’t bad. I was going to review it on the site, but after researching the author, I’m not going to give the book any more publicity. Do some Googling yourself if you want to know what I’m talking about.
Be cautious of Stick Control.
A while ago, I found a new drummer on the internet (I can’t recall exactly where) asking for help in practicing Stick Control. I remember them asking something to the effect of “what do I do with this book? Do I hit my practice pad for every click of the metronome?”.
Dozens of people frantically chimed in to provide a crash course in how music works, and I got to thinking: maybe tersely ordering beginners to go through Stick Control without much comment isn’t actually a great idea.
Obviously, you need a good understanding of what rhythms and beats are before you go through any book, but I think there’s more to discuss. I said a while back that I wouldn’t review Stick Control because I didn’t think there was much to say about it. While it’s an important book, it is problematic.
For one, the notation is kind of archaic, with that dumb system of using “F” to notate flams, as well as confusing roll notation with ties (the emphasis on buzz rolls is also out of date). Moreover, the book can get pretty intense, with challenging inverted flam tap exercises, as well as some beefy tuplet rolls. Worse yet... it can be kind of a boring book.
If you want to pick up Stick Control as a beginner, maybe just hang with the first six pages. It’s become a bit of a punchline for drummers to only go through the first section of the book and ignore the rest, but I think it’s the best approach for a new drummer. If you wind up reading ahead, don’t be intimidated, be patient; I had been playing for quite some time before I finally went through Stick Control, and it took over a year for me to get through the book cover to cover, playing all exercises at least 20 times in a row at a variety of tempos.
Hold off on the Rudiments. For now.
I’m really not a fan of telling beginners “rudiments!”. It’s always “rudiments this, rudiments that”. Ok, fine — rudiments… what are you supposed to do with them? Go through the list of 40 and just drill them over and over??? Life’s too short for that.
I think this line of reasoning comes from the erroneous comparison of rudiments to scales. Someone starting out on piano will learn scales not only because it’s a simple way to learn how the instrument works, but it’s also helpful in learning about how songwriting works, i.e. learning about keys, modes, progressions, etc.
Rudiments don’t work like that. They’re ultimately a hodgepodge of licks that a handful of drummers from 100 years ago subjectively decided were important.
I’ve ranted and raved in the past about how drummers these days are much too concerned with the rudiments. By coincidence, Todd Bishop shared a blog post earlier this week talking about a drum instructor named Stanley Spector. After reading the post it seems like Spector was a bit of a crank, but he nonetheless had this very insightful tidbit to share with Modern Drummer back in the 80s:
When you sit down at the practice pad every day and go through the 26 rudiments of drumming to build up your “technique” so that you may better express your “ideas” what you are actually practicing is the Strube Drum and Fife Instructor approved by John A. Rawlings, Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C. 111 years ago. That was years before the invention of the bass drum pedal, hi–hat cymbals, wire brushes, and the discovery of the rim shot.
He makes a good point. Do you really want to be so obsessed with random patterns that were developed before mankind had working bass drum pedal technology?
Rudiments have their place, and they also have their time. So, focus more on technique, timekeeping, and how drumming works as you’re getting started out. If you finally decide to torture yourself with the rudiments, pick up a book like Matt Savage’s Rudimental Workshop, which I’ll review one of these days…
Play along to songs.
Playing along to a metronome is important, but also kind of boring. Meanwhile, playing along to records can be very valuable in helping with timekeeping, hitting backbeats, fills, and understanding how drumming in general works within a song. The music doesn’t have to be particularly fancy; I think there’s a lot to learn from my “Power Five” English rock bands (The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and The Rolling Stones). Listening to other drummers and good music has always been a reliable way to keep me inspired and motivated.
You can also just shuffle your library and play along to whatever shows up. The songs don’t necessarily have to have live drums, you can use pretty much anything to help your general understanding of how to create a drum part that drives and reinforces elements of a song like transitions, basslines, and melodies.
Consider starting on a practice pad.
I’ve been seeing this piece of advice more and more across the web. I suppose the thinking is that, if someone doesn’t want to invest in a drum set, they can start on the practice pad to see if they have the aptitude.
As someone who’s been playing for almost 20 years, it’s easy for me to understand the importance of practice pad time. While it’s necessary, it’s also quite dull, and I wouldn’t want a beginner to think that’s playing eighth notes on a practice pad to a metronome is all drumming has to offer. I could see this approach working well for someone who has the patience to stick with it. For the handful of times that I have done teaching, I tend to introduce technique on the practice pad for a sec before moving on to the drum set.
If you buy a drum set and the instrument doesn’t work out, you could always sell it to some other poor bastard.
Protect your ears.
I recently went to a hearing doctor just to see how bad my situation was. I learned that, while I have tinnitus in both ears, I have yet to suffer from any noticeable noise–induced hearing loss.
I was pretty shocked because it wasn’t until college that I began to routinely protect my ears. I was under the assumption that irreparable damage had already been done, but I have been spared to some extent.
I always play with some sort of hearing protection these days. In the practice room, I just use my ear monitors (made by KZ Audio). Most of the time they’re not even plugged into anything — just wearing them is enough to keep the noise exposure down to a safe level.
“Musicians earplugs” are pretty popular in this day and age. I used these ones playing in my basketball band back in college, but in a practice room, I don’t think they provide enough protection to be safe. Nowadays I save them for when I’m on stage and we’re not using any sort of sound reinforcement/foldback system.
Traditional hearing protection can be very effective… maybe too much so! Foam earplugs typically offer the best protection (if you use them correctly), but shooting earmuffs are certainly more reusable. You could combine them both for maximum protection, but be warned: if a natural disaster strikes your area you might have no idea!
If you want to use conventional headphones, you should really only bother with earphones that have silicone tips. A common DIY gimmick is to use earphones in combination with shooting earmuffs, which I tried out briefly once upon a time.
Next Steps: Playing With Other People.
If you decide to hang with the drums and want to set some short–term goals, aspire to play with other musicians. You’re not trying to go on tour here; lots of people are just looking for other players to jam with. You might be intimidated by the idea, and that’s fair. But there’s a lot to learn from playing with other people, and as the saying goes, you don’t want to be the best musician in the room.
If you’re still in high school or middle school, consider joining the school band. Odds are it’ll be easier to get involved than you think. My high school band was nothing special, and the music situation in my middle school was even worse. But all these years later, it was time well spent. Being in my high school band really made me take music seriously, and being around other drummers exposed me to a lot of new ideas and took my drumming to the next level. I didn’t even know what quarter note triplets were before I joined my high school band!
After thinking about it, I clearly had a lot to say. So if this is something you want to get into, just go for it. As a wise band once said, “whatever you’ve given a try never deserves regret”.