The Traditional Grip Rant

Posted on February 26, 2023

 Traditional Grip

As a drummer with a penchant for rants & raves, it kind of seems necessary to opine on traditional grip. So… here goes.

Let’s start with something different — here’s a list of drummers who use(d) traditional grip:

  • Gene Krupa
  • Kenny Clarke
  • Buddy Rich
  • Shelly Manne
  • Philly Joe Jones
  • Louie Bellson
  • Sony Payne
  • Elvin Jones
  • Joe Morello
  • Frankie Dunlop
  • Hal Blaine
  • Mel Lewis
  • Ed Thigpen
  • Paul Motian
  • Tony Williams
  • Steve Gadd
  • Stewart Copeland
  • Peter Erskine
  • Vinnie Colaiuta
  • Dave Weckl
  • Tommy Igoe
  • Virgil Donati
  • Keith Carlock

Now here’s matched:

  • Bernard Prudie
  • Ringo Starr
  • Billy Cobham
  • Nick Mason
  • Keith Moon
  • Carmine Appice
  • John Bonham
  • Ian Paice
  • Bill Bruford
  • Roger Taylor
  • Terry Bozio
  • Tommy Aldridge
  • Phil Collins
  • Jeff Porcaro
  • Simon Phillips
  • Carter Beauford
  • Omar Hakim
  • Gavin Harrison
  • Dave Lombardo
  • Gene Hoglan
  • Mike Portnoy
  • Dave Grohl
  • Questlove
  • Travis Barker
  • Joey Jordison
  • Zach Hill
  • Benny Greb
  • Mark Guiliana
  • Ron Bruner
  • Mason Guidry
  • Larnell Lewis
  • Makaya McCraven
  • Matt Garstka
  • Chris Allison
  • Brian Evans
  • Alex Rüdinger

There’s a third category, what I call a “switch grip”; drummers who have used both grips for a significant period each. This is actually an annoying thing to look into — even Buddy Rich occasionally used matched grip, so I need to be mindful about where I draw the line. For this list, I focused on drummers who spent serious time with both, often by their own admission. Some of these players are best associated with one grip over the other, but in any case:

  • Papa Jo Jones
  • Art Blakey
  • Max Roach
  • Roy Haynes
  • Ginger Baker
  • Levon Helm
  • Charlie Watts
  • Jack DeJohnette
  • Jim Keltner
  • Clyde Stubblefield
  • David Garibaldi
  • Mitch Mitchell
  • Ziggy Modeliste
  • Micheal Shrive
  • Neil Peart
  • Steve Smith
  • Steve Jordan
  • Dennis Chambers
  • Gregg Bisonette
  • Jojo Mayer
  • Will Calhoun

So, what can we learn from these lists? Clearly, there’s a timeline here; the oldest players use traditional, while nearly all of the drumming heroes in the 21st–century use matched.

It sure seems like, in general, most drum set players are using matched, while the switch grip category was bigger than I had anticipated.

Now for my story: I’ve only seriously used matched grip on the drum set, and it’s been that way forever. It’s fun to play comping patterns with traditional, but moving around the kit feels incredibly clumsy to me, and trying to hit rimshots is a catastrophe. I could learn traditional, but I haven’t felt like that would be a good time investment — there are a lot of things to practice, so why do I need to relearn how to hold my sticks?

Here’s the obligatory history section: I’m sure many of you drummers already know this, but traditional grip comes from the marching snare drum. Well, from a time when marching snares looked like this:

The granddaddy of the modern snare is a 13th century marching drum called the tabor, which was worn almost vertically and played one–handed, with the other hand playing a small flute:

The tabor (which typically had one snare wire) evolved into the larger “side drum” around the 14th century, which turned into the field drum, and eventually by the 1800s, we have the snare drum as we know it today.

Snare drumming originated within military drumming, and it wasn’t until much later that the snare would be used in other contexts. Marin Marais’ 1706 opera Alcyone apparently has the first instance of what we now call a concert snare drum, which wouldn’t become commonplace in the orchestra until the 1800s.

It’s reasonable to assume that, when the snare drum came to the orchestra, traditional grip came with it, because that’s how everyone played the snare. And since the drum kit evolved out of the orchestra (with the snare being a kit’s centerpiece), traditional stuck around despite it being no longer ergonomically necessary.

I don’t know for sure when traditional grip was born — probably around the 1400s. What’s more fascinating to me is when the term “traditional grip” was born.

“Traditional grip” is a total misnomer, since there’s nothing traditional about it. Matched grip has been around far longer. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, the phrase “traditional grip” wasn’t used at all until the 20th century. Same with matched grip. They’re both retronyms that help distinguish two styles of playing snare drum. It’s a clarification that no other percussion instrument worries about.

Traditional grip is associated with jazz since early drum kit players were probably using traditional, and the history of the drum set is so closely intertwined with the heyday of jazz.

But by the time rock and roll hit the scene, a lot of drummers (especially those who didn’t spend time in school, a drum line, or with a teacher) probably said “to hell with this nonsense” and played with the much more intuitive matched grip.

The bottom line is that there’s really no reason to use traditional on the drum kit, in an orchestra, or even in a drumline that uses modern drum harnesses. And yet, traditional has stuck around.

Why? Well, in the case of a snareline, the look of traditional is a big part of it. I actually think it looks quite strange when a snareline uses matched grip since traditional gives the snare drums a unique visual presence in the ensemble.

Again, however, there’s no specific musical reason to make the snares in a drumline use traditional. In my senior year of high school, I got very familiar with traditional since I had to double up on snare and quads (that was the job). While my high school used traditional for the snares, I can imagine that many don’t — getting kids up to speed on playing in time with other percussionists is challenging enough, let alone making them learn a new grip.

On the drum set, arguments in favor of traditional are spurious at best. You’ll often see discussions of “look” and “feel”, but the truth is that there’s nothing you can play with traditional grip that you cannot play with a matched grip. This isn’t like comparing heel up and heel down for kick drum playing. For that discussion, there is a difference in how your kit sounds (i.e. burying the beater or using the slide pedal for fast doubles).

Now here’s the thing: if you really want to pursue traditional grip for whatever reason, I wouldn’t stop you the way I would if you wanted to learn stick tricks. You can obviously be a capable drummer at the end of your traditional grip journey.

That being said, you could also go your whole career never messing with traditional, instead sticking with matched grip (ba–dum–tss), and you would be A–OK. You’re not going to miss out on anything the way you would if you didn’t know how to read music. Traditional isn’t a total waste of time… but it might feel that way.