The Art Of Playing Drum Brushes
The art of playing drum brushes is indeed an art unto itself, yet many take this aspect of their training for granted. To them it is old fashioned, best reserved for traditional jazz, thus a rudimentary ability to play swing on the snare is all they care to develop. But I suggest that this technique is very much a modern technique when done well, and with all the many hybrid forms of pop and jazz music occurring theses days, the ability to make original music with brushes is in one’s own economic as well as artistic interests. So, to help the novice drummer start building a solid set of brush skills, I have put together a few (road-tested) tips.
To start, make sure to keep the brush’s wires not too spread out, and the angle of the brush low. Also, own a couple of pairs of brushes that have differing wire gauges and take advantage of their extension capacity, as sometimes you will need a little more dynamic power e.g. on an outdoor or unamplified gig. Personally, I use 5” (heavy gauge) Vic Firth jazz brushes fully spread outdoors, and the light gauge VF Heritage brushes at a 3” spread indoors, and find this to be the ideal set-up. Brushes are most useful at an acute angle of about 7º to 10º degrees, though personally I like to keep my right hand at around 12º to 15º degrees since I use traditional grip. Also, keep your wrists completely devoid of pressure, putting zero weight on the brush. Then once you get used to letting the brush make all the sound, even tiny amounts of added pressure can make the brushes sound totally different. Let the brushes do the work, and you will be amazed at how easy it is to play evenly and musically at any dynamic marking.
Second, you should be able to swish the brushes around the full circumference of the snare’s batter head or in the smallest circles with no difference in consistency, creating a lush kind of drum ‘white noise.’ No changes in dynamics or slightest hints of a pulse: your foundational technique should be as smooth as silk no matter what you are playing. Also, be able to use all parts of the snare in as many ways as you can. The sound of the head near the rim is different from the middle, and dampening the head while tapping with one brush can also create many types of sounds depending on how much pressure you use in the dampening hand. The rim can also act as a closed hi-hat for high-pitched taps mixed with rim shots and batter head dampening, which is especially useful in a small jazz combo when creating multiple percussion parts on a Latin tune. Also, make sure that the batter head on your snare is a decent quality one-ply, coated head that is not too old, as the type and age of the head you are using makes a huge difference in your sound. Also make sure your snares are not too loose, and both the batter and resonant heads are properly tightened and tuned.
Furthermore, you should study the various brush patterns that different drummers find most comfortable using. Everyone is unique, and there is no one ‘official’ way to move the brushes around the snare. Taking your wrist flexibility, hand positions, and coordination into account, find the ways that you most easily create a good sound and develop them. You should also be able to create not only a traditional swing sound, but be able to creatively mimic anything from a South Indian mrdangam drum to a beat from a Slayer song. Your drum brush control should be to a degree that you can vary any aspect of it any time you want without it affecting any other part of your music making.
Brushes are such an expressive set of tools it would be a shame to waste their potential for highly developed phraseology during your solos. Thus, learning well-known standard jazz melodies and a number of sticking/swishing variations to help accent the key points of these melodies becomes an extremely useful and wise activity. Charlie Parker compositions not only have fantastic melodies, but are also a wonderful source of rhythmic material for you to memorize, and improvise with. Also, working through the first couple of pages of Stone’s book Accents And Rebounds For The Snare Drummer in conjunction with Charlie Parker tunes can also help build extra strength, control and independence in your hands.
It is also important to develop the ability to play with combinations of sticks and brushes. There are many places where this can enrich your playing as well the music you are performing, especially if there is improvisation involved. For this technique I use combinations of a Vic Firth SPE2 Erskine ride stick (or a Vic Firth 8A), one of my Vic Firth Heritage brushes, a Pro Mark Lightening Rod, and a Solutions ST-1 mallet because the extra heaviness of these particular mallets helps create luscious, round tones in my toms. This ability can also help you create your own unique beats and patterns for composition or improvisation.
Having said that, start working on your brush technique today, and don’t forget to have fun in the process. Practicing and playing music is a joyous affair, so go for it with gusto.