Stickings on the Drum Set, and Why Most Drummers Don’t Think About Them

Posted on January 29, 2023

 Drum Sticking Summary

I was flying Southwest over the holidays, and by some miracle, I made it back to Colorado without too much strife. But I did have to deal with some downtime at the airport, and whenever I get bored like this, I usually comb through some older articles on Todd Bishop’s Cruise Ship Drummer site.

I found a post that Todd wrote back in 2012, and I heard the term “natural sticking” for the first time in probably 15 years. Stickings are one of those things drummers get taught about in the early days of their playing, before promptly forgetting about them.

The reason why is that, in my opinion, the common stickings aren’t really taught properly, and since they all have problems, they don’t seem like good approaches to playing a passage of music. Most drummers just wing it and don’t take any sort of systematic approach. 

The two common types that get talked about are “natural sticking” and “alternating sticking”. With the natural sticking approach, each hand plays a specific subdivision, depending on the prevailing rhythmic pulse. In the following ditty, the right hand plays all the 8th notes, while the left hand plays the offbeat 16ths:

It would probably be more helpful to call alternating sticking “beat sticking” or “lead sticking” — see what happens if I halve the rhythms above:

Or perhaps when I double them:

Natural sticking seems to work fine, but have a look at the following drum set fill:

Even at a slow tempo, most drummers would play the 8ths alternating RL — it seems needlessly difficult the move around the kit with just one hand. Natural sticking seems to come from a snare drum background, where you don’t have to worry about exhausting and awkward arm movements that come from playing repeated strings of notes on the same hand. 

Alternating sticking seems to fix this problem, and it does… at least for the drum fill. Have look at the ditty now:

Sometimes it’s more efficient, but since the hands always alternate, you get these wacky moments where you swap between right and left hand leads. It feels best to just pick one lead or the other. 

The last mainstream approach is “rudimental sticking”, which unsurprisingly uses rudimental stickings.

Obviously, some rudiments come in handy on the kit; the following fill is a well–known one that can only practically be played with paradiddle:

If you’re moving around the toms with triplets, the double paradiddle can be used when you want to hit the snare on beat 4:

But what about my ditty? When do you use the rudiments? There is that triplet that closes the piece, and you could play it using the helpful puh–duh–duh (which is nowhere to be found on the not–so–helpful list of 40 rudiments). 

Sometimes a rudimental sticking will be clear — this line screams flam taps, then paradiddle–diddle:

But throwing in random rudiments will only bring a contrived edge to your playing.

So then, what’s the point of all these stickings if they all have problems?  

Well, the reality is that drummers use all of these stickings, instead of trying to use one approach to play an entire passage, the stickings change on the fly.

Here’s how I would play my little composition, with the stickings labeled:

To conclude, use the stickings on a more micro scale — analyze a particular rhythm and consider the different options available to find the most comfortable way to play it.

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