Doubling On Percussion (A Saxophonist’s Guide)

Soundcheck @ The Yardbird Suite



As difficult as it is to make a living these days, there is always room for the working woodwind musician who has prepared wisely and efficiently, especially if they have taken the time to study another instrument seriously. And if doubling on percussion seems like an attractive opinion, and you wish to pursue it seriously, then you must also prepare seriously in order to be competent and competitive.

At its best percussion accompaniment is an art of humility, thus finding ways to humbly use your skills to make songs sound great is a sure fire method of being both a great percussionist and continuously employed. So if you are not interested in playing slow quarter notes on a cowbell for a whole evening for the sake of the music, then don’t be a percussionist. You won’t, and shouldn’t, be a star if you are doing your job properly. But if that sounds great to you, and you want to be a team player, then read on. The art of doubling on percussion is indeed a serious art, and thus there are fundamental areas to begin working on.


First, you absolutely must stretch your entire body before and after all practicing and playing. Rhythm instruments especially are body instruments. Proper stretching of the hands, wrists, shoulders, back, hips and neck is essential, every time – no exceptions. A healthy, stretched body is a musical body, and pain of any sort is your enemy. Never play while in pain, ever. There is no gain in it. If you are injured from playing, stop, and if necessary, ice the spot with the proper technique, time, and amount of cooling material required (wrapped ice or cold pack) before returning to your practicing. It is wise to take at least a full day off to let strains and inflammation have a chance to be iced, rested, and corrected. Uninterrupted seven-hour stick control exercises will end your career before it starts, so don’t be impatient. Great percussion playing is about the feel of the music (great time and tone), not virtuosity – which itself should only serve to make the music feel amazing. And, as a doubling saxophonist, you will be using your percussion for dance music(s) 95% of the time, so your saxophone and percussion playing both better be able to make everyone run for the dance floor if you want to be taken seriously as a doubler.

Second, do NOT rely on tapping your foot for time. To be a great accompanist you must develop the ability to make music in strict time with each limb, hand, and/or finger. Each must be able to really groove independently if they are going to really work together. Habitually relying on your foot for time is a guaranteed way to limit your growth as a musician (and never leave the beginner stage). Once you develop all the relevant muscles/neurons independently, you will be able to express time rather than “keep” it, which is what the great drummers and percussionists do: express and share the groove. No one else in any group should ever have to “keep time” for you. If you can’t do it on your own you are overburdening the rest of the band, who are enslaved to your weakness, and forced to keep your time for you. If the drummer was suddenly abducted by aliens in the middle of a song, you/the band should be able to keep going as if nothing had changed; there should be ZERO change in tempo. Hint: if/when you time becomes that solid you will find yourself getting more gigs than you can imagine are out there for saxophone/percussionists… trust me!

Third, you must have complete and utter control over your hands: together, and independently. Thus, you must work from George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control for the Snare Drummer every day, for your entire career. The first page alone can be applied in so many ways and styles that it can keep you going for decades. Once you are able to play the first page evenly at a comfortable tempo then you are ready to begin developing other techniques and patterns you will need for your career. Always keep in mind that there are two basic percussion archetypes: the rhythmic accompanist who adds to the drummer’s groove, and the sound maker who adds exotic textures to the music. All good percussionists are a bit of both, so seek out as many different types of percussion or drum music and percussionists to find those who inspire you in each manner. Luckily there have been so many great sounds and players throughout history that you will never run out of things to be inspired by, or new ideas to work on.

Having started on “the Stone Book” as it’s called, another two great books to delve into are Stone’s Accents And Rebounds For Snare Drummer, and Ted Reed’s Progressive Steps To Syncopation For The Modern Drummer. Even one or two pages from any of the three books alone contain enough core material to last you years of practice and creative application on various percussion instruments, and to studiously study all three will both challenge you and 100% guarantee you will be an eminently qualified percussionist technically.

Practicing from the Stone book means you should/must buy a practice pad. There are many kinds, ideally one that is quiet, has a diameter of at least 8 inches, and mountable on a cheap cymbal stand. Dixon makes a good quality metal rimmed 8″ plastic pad, but they can still be a noise problem to your neighbors if you live in a thin walled apartment. Evans makes a nice foam rubber, wood based practice pad that is also a good deal. You can get 6″ practice pads, but they can feel a little small for a beginner who does not have full control of their sticks yet, as the actual pad surface of many 6″ pads are actually 5.75 inches. So I recommend at least an 8″ surface to begin with.

Tip #1: As you are beginning your percussion studies and have not developed any bad habits yet, it is completely essential to study the Moeller Technique to ensure your growth will always be completely relaxed and efficient. Thus, find a drum teacher who knows the technique and invest in lessons to learn it properly. It feels a little awkward at first, because it is easier to play rhythms improperly at first (with stiff wrists, inactive fingers, and excess arm motion). Do yourself a MAJOR favour and learn Moeller. You’ll be faster, better, healthier (elbows/joints/wrists), and more musical than a rather surprising amount of your competitors.

Fourth, you must have the right percussion instruments for the jobs that you want to be hired for. A decent percussion rig can be an assortment of anything from a couple of hand percussion instruments for dance accompaniment all the way to a multi-tiered rig for stadium shows. The tambourine, far from being merely a thing you randomly tap when you have nothing else to do, is a musical instrument that is very expressive. The ability to play syncopated accents in a variety of time signatures on the tambourine will set you apart from virtually everyone, and is guaranteed proof you take your job seriously. At least two different sized cowbells should also be present at all times, for the express purpose of creating Latin or African ostinati: repeating rhythms known as claves. A set of wood or plastic sound blocks should also be present to create textured rhythms. For these I use Vic Firth brand Alex Acuña signature series red Conquistador timbale sticks (16″/.440″) for both cowbells and woodblocks, as they are light and strong, or Acuña’s purple El Palo model timbale sticks (16.5″/.500″) if I need to really turn up the volume.


Tip #2: To further ensure wrist/arm/tendon health, I also create my own timbale-style sticks out of sanded 3/8×72 dowels (pictured above, with the grip end painted and the price tag still attached!), out of which you can make four 16″ sticks. The 3/8th dowels create a nice light tone on woodblocks/cowbells, while 16″ sticks made from 7/16×48 dowels will give you a little more volume while not increasing stick weight by any significant amount. 

These sticks are not only inexpensive (one 72″ dowel = $2.50!), ultralight and quiet, which is useful if you want to play percussion in a small room, i.e. a cocktail party, etc. They are also great to use when you are: (a) recovering from an injury, or want to practice while traveling sans practice pad, and (b) when you want to develop control and dexterity in your fingers (by shifting back and forth from the dowels to the other sticks you will be using).

There are also specialty percussion instruments like congas, bongos, and especially, the güiro, which must be studied seriously to sound them properly. There is no greater “sin” in music than imagining you just smack congas with your hands and that is “drumming”. In the case of the güiro, the proper and most beautiful way to play it requires concentrated study. So as a helpful tip, remember the following: the proper basic rhythm one plays on the güiro is NOT a single, scraping downstroke, followed by two taps, then a single scraping upstroke (down/tap-tap/up). That seems to work and create the right “sound” but it is the not real technique. The proper and most musical basic pattern is actually a rapid downstroke attack which instantly changes into a scraping up stroke, followed by the two taps (down/uppppp, tap-tap). The “scrape” is always up, and the scrape of the downstroke that begins the pattern is so quick you only hear an attack. This technique is not only correct but when done properly is actually easier in the long run as it reduces how far your hand/arm move across the surface of the instrument, reduces fatigue in the process. Though you may not speak Spanish, watch Virginia Guantanamera’s right hand as she demonstrates the proper technique. (Also, listen to her beautiful, flowing speech and singing: a great incentive to learn both percussion and Spanish!)

Tip #3: Like reeds, it is vital to find the right drumsticks for you. Hand size, wood (hickory/maple/oak), length, diameter, stick weight, tip shape (barrel, teardrop, mushroom, etc.) and material (nylon/wood) musical genres, and so on all factor into what is the right stick for you. There are many options, so do your homework and make your stick bag a collection of your perfect “instruments”. A “7A” stick made of maple, for example, is light and good for small hands: a good playing stick for beginners. A “5A” stick made of hickory is a good practice pad stick for everyone, as well as a good overall stick for harder kinds of rock music (volume/power of attack). A 5A made of a (heavy) wood like oak also gives your playing power but it is very heavy and not ideal for nuanced playing. Also, with large 2B sticks or oak drumsticks in general, you have to be especially careful not to injure your wrists, tendons, and joints. This is because such sticks hardly vibrate upon impact, and transfer the resistant energy of the drumhead right back into your hands (causing injury and/or chronic carpal tunnel syndrome like impact wrenches and jack hammers do). Also, using the Moeller Technique and lighter sticks instead of 2Bs will significantly decrease your chance of developing these problems while helping you develop the same dynamic power and tone. But if you end up really liking oak, 2Bs, or even a pair of oak 2Bs, remember to be careful and practice safely. 

Many sticks also come in either a nylon tipped or natural wood version. The nylon tip is durable and bright sounding, while the natural wood tip is softer but wears out faster. Also remember, all your practice pad work should be using a pair of 5A sticks, (preferably hickory), as your pad work is meant to also build stamina as it builds control and dexterity. This is why learning the Moeller technique is vital. You don’t want to burn out your wrists with oak 5As, or have underdeveloped stamina using only hickory 7As on both percussion and/or drums.

Also vital to your collection are a variety of specialty sticks and mallets for the purpose of creating different accents and volume levels. Regular sticks can be loud in small rooms, so always have at least a pair of high quality drum brushes, timbale sticks (including my aforementioned dowel-sticks), two different styles of Promark or Vic Firth “rods” (plastic and wood), and lightweight, softheaded mallets in your stick bag. It is also good to have dynamic options when using regular drumsticks, as I mentioned earlier: many styles and tip-types. For nuance and control I use Promark Rebound 7As (.535), as they are intentionally weighted slightly heavier at the back. I also use Regal Tip 8As due to their overall light weight and wooden ball tip, which provides a more trebled attack.Though I don’t like to play thundering drums parts, I still have a pair of Vic Firth (American Classic) Extreme 5As and a pair of Vic Firth (American Custom) SD9 “Drivers” in case I am playing rock and need to make my drum kit boom. Of course, if you want to make your drums really really boom, a pair of Promark Japanese white oak (shirakashi) 2Bs will deliver a huge sound. 

Clearly there is so much to be discussed and studied when it comes to doubling on percussion that I can’t possibly cover it all in one post. But having these basics covered from the beginning will ensure that you will begin the journey injury-free, prepared for the ongoing work ahead, and ready to expand your sonic palette.


Now that you have a general idea of how to prepare for doubling on percussion it is time to start organizing what you will play, and how. Having studied the first page of George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control For The Snare Drummer rigorously, you can now begin to expand your rhythmic palette, and start adding a variety of approaches to time and syncopation. This means you must be comfortable with performing both linear and non-linear rhythms.

Linear rhythms consist of each hand playing in sequence (right/left, or left/right), such as in the Stone Book. Linear patterns do not have your hands playing at the same time, which is the actually concept behind non-linear rhythms. Thankfully, as difficult as non-linear rhythms can be, you have at your disposal a way to create you own practice rudiments that will help you progress quite efficiently and quickly without having to spend a lot of money on DVDs and books.

If you go onto your laptop, open your (Microsoft) Word program, and click on the Tables icon, you can create your own non-linear, two tiered rudiment practice grids, as many and as varied as you desire. For example, you can create a non-linear practice pattern in 5. Creating various rhythmic grids also helps you compose interesting percussion parts, which will aid in your professional work if you need to both create and/or improvise appropriate parts. Learning to play non-linearly will also help you greatly when studying the various patterns (cascara, palito, 3/2 clave, etc.) you will need to play in specific dances/genres like salsa, rumba, mambo, son cubano, the tango, bossa nova, cha-cha-chá, and so on. For excellent examples of non-linear rhythm, I suggest listening to the various conga, timbale set, and bongo patterns in the music of Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Eliades Ochoa, and especially in the wonderful mambos of “Cachao” Lopez, as inspirational educational listening of the highest order.

Your percussion playing also should be as well organized as a written drum part, and thus you need to study quality composed rhythms and grooves for inspiration. RUSH drummer Neil Peart’s playing on Mystic Rhythms, Tai Shan, or High Water, for example, or Stewart Copeland’s sultry drumming on The Police’s Wrapped Around Your Finger, are superb examples of the drums being used extremely musically. Gary Wallis’ percussion on Pink Floyd’s Learning To Fly (the version from the live album The Delicate Sound of Thunder) also is a great example of simplicity and the art of beautifully meshing with a kit player to create an evocative rhythmic base for a song.

Percussion is meant to enhance the whole song, not just provide “rhythm,” so this is where you have a significant advantage over percussion-only trained players as a woodwind ergo melody player. You have spent years playing melodies, and playing a rhythm instrument tonally to create ‘melodic’ rhythms will win you a lot more gigs than you might expect, not being a full time drummer per se. It is then at this point that you will need to approach your percussion playing like a graphic designer does vs. how an “artist” might do so.

As a woodwind accompanist you already know that your job is to enhance and color what the lead musician (vocalist, piano, etc) or drummer does. Unlike the artist who creates from scratch, the “canvas” and structure is already in place so you must find the appropriate space in the sound and use it in the manner most appropriate to the needs of the song or wishes of your employer. Thus, approaching this space like a graphic designer means you will be using certain formal elements to help the song express its meaning. How does the rhythmic ‘line’ you are creating move through the song? What is its relation to the other rhythms occurring in the music? If you part could be considered a shape, does the shape fit with other rhythmic shapes in the song? If cymbal crashes and splashes could be considered dots, are these dots enhancing the sonic picture or distracting from it? If your playing is considered from the standpoint of color, what are the values of your sound: are you using a lot of ‘dark’ sounds such as low toms, or large gongs, or ‘light’ sounds such as small wood blocks, or small splash cymbals? These things do create certain emotional effects, so you must use them appropriately in the music. Wood percussion instruments have a tactile sound, they sound ‘real,’ whereas many electronic drums sounds sound purposely ‘artificial’ to create their intended emotional effect. Choosing between the two, you must consider the quality of sounding real vs. sounding artificial as part of the choice to accompany the song or ensemble. How does what you do relay the message of the song’s lyrics?

The ability to be melodic with rhythm is greatly enhanced by the ability to sing what you play. Not “beat-boxing” but rather the ability to organize time syllabically, which is the rhythmic foundation of much music from India. Thus, finding a tabla or mridangam teacher in your area to teach you the tabla bols or konnakol (solkattu) syllables will give you huge advantage musically and socially, as even the basics of each art will significantly strengthen your musicality in multiple areas. If there is no one in your area who teaches such traditions, master drummer Trichy Sankaran’s book The Art of Konnakol, for example, is the essential beginner’s guide to the art. Not only do you learn hand counting, but metrical modulation and displacement techniques as well – giving you the ability to sing, and thus compose and improvise, beautiful rhythmic creations.


In the first two parts I discussed the tools you would need to double on percussion, and the difference between linear and non-linear rhythms. And in each I have mentioned George Lawrence Stone’s book Stick Control for the Snare Drummer. This highly important book, written in 1935, is the single most important drum/rhythm book you will ever own.

Now I have mentioned the great importance of the first three pages of Stone’s book before, but in this third and final part I will now be discussing another way to approach the contents of those three pages: expanding them into even larger exercises to develop even more control and musical sophistication.

This system really works and will give you a huge advantage in the musical marketplace. In fact they worked so well for me when I first began studying them, I ended up playing both percussion and saxophone on almost every single juried and extracurricular performance at the college where I studied jazz, for two straight years – over 350 in total! Trust me, if I can have a fun, fulfilling career being a rhythmic musician, you can too.

The book starts off with basic rudiments: simple right hand/left hand patterns such as RLRL, LRLR, RRLL, and LLRR. These develop even strength in your hands, and help balance your playing. What I then did was start expanding on that idea, adding extra strokes to all 72 original rudiments. For example, I started creating “open” rudiments where I made one of the strokes a rest, so we can develop the ability to create expanded versions of the rudiments to help with sight reading, and improvising. Thus the first four original rudiments I listed above become: R+RL, LR+R, R+LL, and LL+R – the ‘plus’ sign being a space or rest. I then rewrote the rest of the remaining 68 rudiments in this form. So now I had a full page of the original 72, plus a new page of 72 open rudiments.

The next step was then creating a 5-stroke version of the original 72 rudiments, one that began in the same way as the original but with the extra stroke added at the end: RLRLR, LRLRL, RRLLR, and LLRRL. We can also now play and improvise in music written in 5/4, or 5/8, no problem. Now, if an artist has the choice between a saxophonist, and you – a saxophonist and percussionist who can play grooves in 5 on each – the logical, musical, and economically advantageous choice is obvious.

Next, to grow and develop even further, I expanded the original rudiments into a five stroke open pattern, making the original first four, for example, into: RL+LR, LR+RL, R+LLR, LL+RL, leaving a space in the rudiment to develop our ability to sight read or improvise in 5/4 or 5/8 even further, now giving us over 280 rudiments to work with. It just so happens I like 5 beat cycles in South Indian music, (such as Khanda Chapu Tala), and I love playing songs in 5/4, such as Sting’s Seven Days, or Dave Brubeck’s Far More Blue. Rudiments in 5 beats also make interesting cross-rhythms to play in jazz waltzes, and the possibilities of 5 beats over 4 beats was well are virtually endless.

This ‘fun with 5’ also inspired me to do the same with six stroke rudiments, and I redeveloped the original Stone rudiments yet again into both regular and open forms. Thus, RLRLLL, LRLRLL, RRLLLL, and LLRRLL became open rudiments: RLRLL+, L+LRLL, RRL+LL, and +LRRLL, now over 430 rudiments in total. And of course, this means I approached seven in the same way, turning LRLRLRR, RRLLRLR, LLRRLRL, RLRRLLR, and LRLLRRL into RL++RLL, LRL++RR, ++LLRLR, and LL++LRL.

Now you may be asking, “Aren’t 576 rudiments enough? Must there be more?” Sure, why not! But instead of doing the same with nine or eleven stroke rudiments, etc, I added one simple, fun step to the previous sets. I add what I call a “breaking pattern,” a further challenge to my ability to play and improvise with the 576 rudiments. For each set of rudiments, both regular and open, I write down a pattern that is not in the same numerical format as the other rudiments so I don’t get into the habit of just playing the patterns mindlessly (which can happen when a person plays a thing over and over for long periods of time). I don’t want the rudiments to be unconscious muscle memory, so when I am repeatedly playing one of the original rudiments for example, such as RRLL, I will throw in a 5 stroke breaking pattern (RLLRL) in the middle which momentarily makes what I am playing asymmetrical to the four stroke patterns on the page. This momentary asymmetry trains my hands and mind to be ready for anything when it comes to sight-reading; making sure I don’t lull myself into unconscious habits when I am reading or performing a piece that is mostly in one time signature.

Though this may seem like a huge workload, it is not if you go slowly and patiently. Not only will this be a major boost to your musicality, it will also be a huge advantage when it comes to auditions on either saxophone or percussion. And, as I always say, don’t injure yourself. Work hard, and especially, safe.

Good luck!!



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