How to Practice Drums If You Want to Be Great


author kevin zahner sitting behind practice pad gesturing to the camera as he makes a point about practicing drums

One of my high school drum teachers was a big Vince Lombardi fan, and he used to quote the great coach on practice. “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. “This left me with the question: How should I practice drums to be great?

The great drummers consistently develop their technique, read everyday, build repertoire, learn new things, and listen to a lot of music with critical ears. It’s about more than playing boring stuff for fifteen minutes a day because the teacher said so. Practicing is personal, and it works best when it’s driven by a musician’s need to speak on an instrument with ease and comfort.

I’m not a believer that some people are just born with talent to play drums really well. Everyone needs to practice drums to be great. It’s reasonable to believe, however, that some people are born with abilities that allow them to take advantage of their opportunities when it comes to learning and practicing an instrument like drum set.

Regardless of the opportunities you have what you don’t have, everyone has a path they must take to maximize their potential. Does it take 10,000 hours? More importantly then how many hours it takes, this article gets into the kind of deliberate practice that’s necessary to improve upon your present level of achievement.

Practicing was never a fun thing for me when I first started playing drums. Playing was awesome. It was why I would white knuckle my way through the practice time. Since then, my approach to practice has matured, mostly because I continue to wonder what’s the best way to practice drums for great results.

Music is something we harness within ourselves and share with audiences other all shapes and sizes, including other musicians. If you’re into that sort of level of connection with your drums, keep reading.    

Technique 15 Minutes Per Day

Technique development is an opportunity for players to experience a close connection between their creative mind and their body. In this sense, technique is about movement on demand, ready to realize a musical idea as it comes to mind.

Drumming is such a physical instrument. One stroke could include the movement of fingers, wrist, arm, and shoulder. And the way you move all of these body parts will determine how your drumming sounds. 

What is technique?

Technique can be broken down into (1) the way you hold the instrument, (2) how you position your body to play, and (3) how you move your body when you drum. 

Holding the Sticks

Before the drumming starts, you’ll need to know how to hold the stick. Once your grip and playing positions is proper, you’re ready to drum.  

For detailed explanations about grips (with pics), check out this article with free drum lessons for beginners.

showing where to establish a fulcrum for gripping the drumstick
The image above is from the previously linked article. It’s one of several images provided to explain how to grip a drum stick.

Positioning Your Body to Play

The position of your arms and hands is called the ready position or the playing position (see image below).

drummer demonstrating ready position with arms, hands, and sticks ready to practice drums

How to Move Your Body

Start with the most fundamental strokes: rebound and controlled. Rebound stroke exercises like Eight on a Hand or Eighths and Sixteenths are two great ways to work on technique. For controlled strokes, many great drummers use Accent to Tap, which is also called Bucks by some rudimentary drumming experts. 

Check out this article for more on rebound strokes, controlled strokes, and other rudimentary lessons

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Helpful Tips For Practicing Technique

Your technique will directly determine the sounds you make on the instrument as well as the fluency of your creativity. The following tips will help you stay focused on the right things.

1. Practice drums in front of a mirror. 

Being able to see your stick heights is important for training your brain. When you eyes see the problem, your body will remember what it’s supposed to look like when you are not in a position to see for yourself.

2. Start slow and try different tempos. 

Practicing slowly is where the most stick control is developed. One of my teachers used to remind us that if you can’t play something slowly, you can’t play it. Practicing slowly is important, but it needs to be in time, too. This means you’ll need a metronome, of course. 

3. Be a stickler for defining the type of stroke (rebound or controlled).

All rudiments are a combination of rebound and controlled strokes. By defining the controlled strokes to change stick heights from accents to rebounds, the contrast among the strokes leads to clarity in the performance. For example, controlling the rebound allows you to play a grace note at a height that will contrast with the primary stroke, which is a greater stick height.

4. Always maintain a relaxed ready position.

Relaxation takes a lot of concentration and practice. For drumming, it’s important to have good posture, relaxed shoulders, and a grip that isn’t clamping on 

5. Less is more. More often is mastery. 

How much technique practice time is enough? For most drummers, about 15 minutes is enough if you practice drums everyday. Practicing more often will lead to mastering the technique and maintaining your ability. 

6. Practice does not make perfect.

Practice makes myelin. Perfect practice makes myelin on the nerve fibers responsible for playing your instrument well. Myelin is the protection around the nerve fibers that nerve impulses travel on. When you use these pathways, the myelin increases and allows the impulses to travel faster. 

7. Great players have great teachers. Listen to them.

It’s not always fun to be told to fix your grip or to change a practice routine from fun stuff to tedious exercises. The long-term benefits far outweigh the initial lack of interest. You’ll know you have a great teacher if the person has produced other great drummers, so trust them and put in the time on their recommendations.

Related: Drumming Basics – 15 Skills Every Drummer Should Master

Maintain a Practice Log

My first experience with a practice log was simply to satisfy an elementary school music teacher. The goal was based on how much practice time, not how close I was to achieving a specific goal. For someone like me, that didn’t work. I played drums because I love music and I was not inspired by the practice log that tracked time on the instrument.

It’s important to make your practice log about achieving goals on your instrument. Goals are big outcomes, milestones that you meet through improving your playing. This process of achieving your goal is a strategy. Progress toward these goals can be measured through objectives, which are specific tasks that can be accomplished and measured. 

If you simply document what you have practiced, it becomes harder to decide what needs to be done next to achieve a goal. When your goals aren’t clear, it becomes practice without a purpose. 

For example, if you want to be able to play paradiddles at a certain tempo, you are working toward an objective. This objective could help you achieve the goal of moving around the drum set with the ability to place an accent on any drum or cymbal while playing the unaccented strokes on a single instrument, like the snare drum. 

Here’s a breakdown of the paradiddle example.

  • Goal: Move around the drum set fluently placing accents on any rhythm, any instrument (drum, cymbal, percussion, etc.).
  • Strategy: Use a combination of rudimentary exercises and reading pages to develop fluency of my own ideas, as well as those that come from other musicians. 
  • Objective: Read an exercise in Syncopation using paradiddles, interpreting the accents according to the written rhythm.
  • Tactic: Practice moving accents on each stroke of single paradiddles. 

Recording the time and date could be interesting down the road, but defining these elements that help you achieve goals is the most important part. Many players do this without writing it down, and that’s okay if you get results that you’re happy with. 

My best teachers didn’t make me log the time, they asked me questions about my goals and write down what I needed to practice. Sometimes this pointed me to one book or another, but it was always goal-oriented and descriptive of what I wanted to get out of my time on the instrument.

Additive Practice

Let’s say you have a complicated rhythm or groove to play on drum set. Break apart each individual limb and add one hand or foot at a time.

This approach to practicing by adding individual parts also works when you’re trying to learn the whole song. Maybe the groove is not the hard part, and you may need to practice different phrases and transitions within the song to bring it all together.

Check out the example below. This example includes the African bell pattern and a drum conversation with the toms. Just the African bell pattern itself is tough for them to play and make it feel good. I suggest that you incorporate the dotted quarter note pulse to feel that pattern well before moving to the third addition.

five examples of additive practice for bembe drum set groove
Each line adds another element of this bembe groove for drum set.

Repetition 

Practicing the same things over and over do a couple of things for your playing. Firstly, repetition maintains your muscle development — speed, strength, and endurance. Secondly, being able to repeat the same phrase produces consistency. 

When you repeat the same phrase correctly over and over, it builds myelin around the neural transmitters. These act as sheaths to insulate the nerve pathways, allowing more frequency of firing and speed of executing.


In other words, practice does not make perfect. Practice makes myelin.


How much repetition is enough?

Children can build new skills faster than adults, so aim for about 10 times of doing something correctly for ages 5 to 15. For adults, it’s more like 20 times through a phrase or rudiment without mistakes before your build consistency.

After you master a pattern or technique and let it get cold for several months or years, it could still take some repetition without mistakes to regain your fluency. Even the best drummers in the world need to practice songs and grooves if they haven’t played them in a while. 

Sight Reading

Mark Ford, the percussion department director at UNT, says to be a good reader, you need to read everyday. This was something that we did at school everyday in different contexts. After a couple of years of doing this, I became a reader. 

Reading can be anything from snare drum solos to rhythm section charts for drum set. The snare solos are a good place to start because they offer specific notation of what to play. The rhythm charts allow drummers to interpret style and follow section and ensemble figures, setting up the band with fills and balancing dynamics. 

Books like Syncopation are a great place to start because of the leveling throughout the book as well as the opportunity to play the exercises in a variety of contexts. 

Related: How to Read Drum Music – From Notes to Charts

Listening 

Listening for learning is not necessarily the same as listening for entertainment. The kind of listening that it takes for practicing music includes a sort of singing to yourself while listening to the song.

When you listen and sing to yourself, you process the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic aspects of the song differently because you insert yourself into the performance. This allows you to learn a part by constantly measuring your accuracy up against the original recording.

It’s important to note that this kind of active listening can be done with varying degrees of singing along, and it’s obvious that many people sing along to songs for entertainment. The difference in this music practice context is the reason why you are listening — you’re goal is to improve your knowledge of music and performance ability. 

I like to listen to a lot of different music. On any given day, I may listen to heavy metal, jazz, or reggae. I like poo music and hip hop, but I also like Motown and classic rock. This variety of music helps build concepts for pertain each and often guides my practice routines. 

Repertoire

Great players often know a lot of songs. If you want to be great, you’ll need to listen to music and know the songs.

Building repertoire often happens because you are in an ensemble with performance scheduled and you need to learn songs. Your practice should focus on the abilities necessary to play your parts well. This may sound obvious to some, but others may need to be reminded that rehearsal is a performance and practice is when you learn and develop your individual parts. 

Make playlists on whatever streaming service you use. The playlists will add up over the years and serve as a reminder upon which you can reflect on your repertoire.

Work beyond the given list of songs by learning songs for your own developmental reasons. Perhaps you want to record a series of songs, so you determine the best arrangement, learn the songs, and schedule a recording session. 

You don’t have to take over the world and sell a million albums to warrant a recording session. Do it because you love to play and want to meet a new challenge.

Transcription

Transcription is so powerful because it combines repetition, sight reading, listening, and repertoire. If includes things, too, but these are huge as you go through the transcription process, so work on them if you struggle with transcription. 

Start with something that’s on your level. If you have to transcribe an AC / DC tune, that’s great! You will learn something listening for the nuance difference and drum fills. The phrasing on simple songs is a huge lesson for drummers performing at any level. 

Once you’ve mastered the transcription process, go after songs with drummers that you really want to understand. Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, Tony Williams, Carter Beauford, and Vinnie Colaiuta are just a handful of the drummers I’m constantly thinking about because of the transcription and analysis I’ve done of their work.

Transcribing gets inside you in a different way than other practicing strategies. After hours of listening to the music, studying how every note could be played, your understanding of music takes on a new level of fluency.  

Know Your Instrument

Knowing your instrument is more than just the keys, heads, mouth piece, or whatever your parts could be. It’s about knowing how it developed and the different contexts in which it has thrived on the stage.

Your instrument did its job to get to you, so you should do your job to honor it by learning the history, experimenting with variations on the instrument, and studying different music that uses your instrument.

Most importantly, know the great players of your instrument. Need I say more?

Learn New Styles

We all hit walls in our development. Learning new styles on your instrument is a great way to work through the roadblock. 

Perhaps you are a jazz musician and could benefit from learning more concert styles. Maybe you play bebop jazz and learning some Afro-Cuban Latin jazz styles. Even if you don’t play this music exclusively, or ever, it can expand your creative process by giving yourself something different to focus on.

Final Thoughts

Being a great drummer takes a certain kind of practice. It’s all about developing a literacy on your instrument that’s comparable to your ability to communicate with the spoken word, and how you practice drums makes all the difference.  

When you practice drums like a pro, you work on technique, endurance, learning songs and styles, and you develop your listening to be ready for anything. 

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