Open Handed Drumming

Posted on February 25, 2024

Open handed drumming has been on my mind since writing about Simon Phillips for the second time last week. Simon makes frequent use of open handed playing, which he details in this video:

If you didn’t know, open handed playing bucks the traditional way of playing the hi–hat, where instead of crossing your arms, you keep time with the left hand and hit the snare with the right (in a kit that’s otherwise set up for a righty). Discussions of openhanded drumming are usually in the context of playing grooves driven by the left hand, and not fills/paradiddle mischief. 

Simon explains that cramming more and more toms onto his kit led him down the open handed drumming rabbit hole. His hats got in the way of the 10" tom on the far left side of his kit, and after pushing his hi–hat down out of the way, he started playing it with his left hand, realizing this was a viable approach after seeing Billy Cobham in concert. 

While it’s long been stated that Cobham is left-handed (a common motivator of open handed drummers) Billy says in this interview (around the 50-minute mark) that, aside from wanting to develop ambidexterity, he thought it made the most sense for the hats, ride, and snare to next to one another since they are the centerpieces of the kit. He’s also apparently been quoted as saying, “Cross sticking is one of the biggest bugaboos of playing drums.”

The hi–hat has a pretty fascinating part in the drum set’s somewhat cobbled–together origins, and it was probably the last component of the drum kit to be introduced. Here’s a great video series detailing the history, starting with kick pedal clangers before moving onto the Charleston pedal, the low boy, and then finally, the modern hi–hat of the 1930s (who exactly invented the hi–hat remains a bit of a mystery).

So while playing a cymbal with the foot was commonplace since at least the late 1800s, it wasn’t until decades later that drummers would combine the foot cymbal with the hands. Crossing hands might seem odd, but the hi–hat started with the left foot before the right hand got involved, not the other way around. 

Now, aside from philosophical issues, problems with enormous drum kits, and the struggles of being a lefty in a righty’s world? 

The biggest advantage seems to come from the ability to whack the toms as you’re keeping time on the hi–hat. The other benefits seem a little nebulous. 

I often see the case that open handed playing will make you more creative, which is difficult to explain and even more challenging to quantify. I have know doubt it will introduce some different skills to your left hand, but you should work on technique to make your music better — you don’t play music to make your technique better.

There’s also the supposed advantage of hitting your snare harder, but if cross handed playing is inhibiting your volume in a way that rimshots and sound reinforcement can’t fix… you might need to reconsider your priorities. And then visit a hearing doctor. 

There’s also the argument that open handed is the natural way, which is a bit spurious. 

Now, I can’t quite explain why it’s the case that drummers typically use their dominant hand to keep time on the cymbal, and my research has been inconclusive. It could be just a case of “that’s always how it’s been done”, and it was probably never an issue until the modern hi–hat got involved.*

Still, I suspect it feels the most comfortable, although I really don’t remember what it was like when I was starting out. It’s true that the most basic grooves have a busier cymbal part compared to a snare just hitting backbeats, and it’s easier for most righties to play the right hand in unison with the kick. There does come a time in your development as a drummer where this is all subverted, but by that point you’re probably used to the standard setup. 

For those fleeting moments when you want to hit some toms during a hi–hat groove, one easy (albeit expensive) solution is to just get a remote pedal and set up a second pair of hi–hats on the right side of the kit.

It works for many, but it might make you wonder why remote hi–hats haven’t become standard, which would prevent the need for crossing arms or learning opened handing drumming. 

Well, like I said earlier, price is a problem (the cheapest remote pedals out there are usually $300–$400), and while a remote pedal opens your ability to play toms, it’s a lot harder to play disco/funk grooves involving singles on the hats. 

I’ve also realized that there is another sonic problem: all of your timekeeping will be built on one side of the kit. The same could be said of the typical opened handed getup, where the hats and ride are placed next to each other on the left side of the kit. 

I think this is mainly an issue when the drums are miked up, since the hats and ride are now on the same side of the stereo image instead of being panned apart, which is a sound I quite like (it can be amusing to exploit this when you play both hats and ride at the same time, which I’ve been known to do).

Now, mixing issues could be overcome by close miking both cymbals are hard panning them apart from one another, although this is kind of a contrived solution that doesn’t really capture the organic balance of the kit, not to mention potential conflict with overheads.

Nonetheless, many people have thought (at one time or another) that remote hats are the way of the future. Bill Bachman (who’s more of a drum corps guy) was part of a project called the “remote speedy hi–hat stand”, a remote stand meant to push the hats rightward while still keeping them near the snare:

The product has been out of production for a while now, but Bill still uses one at his home studio, although he does have an unusual setup with hi–hats in the center, which obviously introduces its own compromises:

All in all, I think the conversation is similar to the traditional grip debate. If opened handed drumming really works for you, then go for it, as many talented players have. But again, the vast majority of drummers don’t need to mess with playing open handed, and they’ll be fine not to. I certainly wouldn’t encourage someone to relearn the instrument for the tenuous benefits of open handed drumming. For every problem it solves, it seems to introduce just as many. 

* I also reckon the prior ubiquity of traditional grip had some influence — keeping time on a cymbal with traditional grip is quite a pain. 

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