Ever hear a groove and think...that is impossible to play? For drum set players this often arises when the groove requires at least four 16th notes in a row (or more!) while the other hand is performing something else entirely. While there are players out there can pull off such a feat because they have fine control over their hands, most of us will never achieve that level of control without practicing 12 hours a day for years.
So how do you it then? Well my drumming friends this done via the freehand technique (sometimes called a gravity roll). If you play metal, drum n bass, or just want to have an easier time playing at fast tempos then this trick is for you! Ready? Then let your hands be free!
Before we can dive into how to actually apply the freehand technique we need to first understand what it is and how it works. In this section we will analyze what changes when using this technique and how it operates. I will also include some basic exercises so you can get this technique down.
Understanding Freehand: The Fulcrum
Essentially the freehand stroke is a way to get a down stroke and a up stroke in one fluid motion. Another way to think of it is by getting two notes for the price of one fluid movement. In order to effectively apply this concept however you will need to understand why it works.
The way the freehand technique operates is by displacing your fulcrum point from your fingers to the rim of the drum so that your hands are no longer controlling the balance of the stick but the drum itself is. This does not necessarily mean you need to pull back on the drum stick (some people do, matter of preference). Simply pull the entire stick back to create the new fulcrum point. Here are some examples so you can see how the fulcrum point shifts...
Understanding this fulcrum shift is paramount! If you can't shift your balance point so you have easily controllable rebound then the stroke will never work for you.
Understanding Freehand: Hand Position
While it is common for drum set players to utilize many different grip positions depending on where they are playing on the drum set; only one type works well for the freehand stroke.
For the freehand stroke I would highly recommend using a matched grip with your palm facing completely down. You can still use the French grip and traditional grip for the freehand stroke but you will have a much harder time initially at getting the concept of the stroke down. Also make sure you do not twist your wrist for a half matched and half French grip.
Understanding Freehand: The Stroke
Now that we have covered where and how to place our drum sticks, in addition to how to hold them, we can move onto the freehand stroke itself. Normally when we strike a drum there is an angular aspect to each stroke. We rotate our wrists backwards and forwards to get our strokes moving. Even when we use just our fingers there is still a little bit of angular motion present in our strokes. For freehand however this will not work.
The freehand technique pivots about the fulcrum point on the drum and cannot leave that spot. In order for us to maintain that spot we need to adjust how we move the drum stick. For freehand we need to move our arms straight up and down with no angular movement at all; this is why I advocate the matched grip for this particular stroke. Have a look at these examples to see the difference...
In the freehand stroke picture I accentuated how far you need to move your hand to get the stroke. In reality the up and down movement is much more subtle but it could still be done with such an exaggerated stroke.
In order to give you a better idea of how this stroke works I have included a short video from the drummers perspective so you can see how the freehand stroke operates during the stroke. Keep careful attention on where the stick is hitting the rim as well as my stick grip.
Make more sense? I hope so as it can be a little weird at first if you have never tried this technique before. Even if you are not near a drum set however you can still try this technique right now! Grab a pencil or a pen and simply try it on the edge of your desk. Now granted this will be a lot harder than using a drum stick on a drum but the concept is the same. If you can do it with a pencil or pen on your desk then you can definitely do it on a drum!
Now that we have an understanding of how this technique works we need to start practicing it! The following are a collection of exercises designed to help you hone your skills at the freehand technique.
Before you plow on ahead however keep in mind the notational differences between normal strokes and freehand strokes. The freehand will include up and down arrows to indicate that you should use the freehand stroke, where as the other notes will not include any additional notation and be played normally.
When practicing these exercises make sure you are not using freehand on the entire exercise. It may require a little more mental processing at first, but you need to be able to transition between the two strokes without any problems.
Another big note here is to try and not move your hands in small subdivisions. Remember, we are trying to get two notes out of one fluid stroke; not a down stroke and up stroke for each pair of hits. If you think and move your arms in the macro pulse you will have a much easier time executing this technique.
So if you want to do 16th note freehand strokes, you should move your arm in a 8th note feel. Finally make sure you practice these exercises twice each with only using one hand at a time.
Practicing Freehand: Beginning Exercises
Here some beginning exercises for you to work at. Remember to keep your tempo solid (use a metronome!) and start slow. It might feel a little awkward slow but it will help your technique with this stroke so much. Start off with a comfortable stick height and then try using smaller and larger stick heights at the same tempo as well.
Practicing Freehand: Intermediate Exercises (Beginning Variations)
Here I am only going to show you the first variation for each of the patterns. Take each of these patterns and follow the same formula as in the beginning exercises. The concepts are the same but the exercises are a little harder. Be careful with the second and third exercises at faster tempos as they can get very tricky.
Practicing Freehand: Advanced Exercises
Finally we come to some more advanced exercises to practice and test your skills at the freehand technique. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these should pose enough trouble for you to help increase your overall comfort with the freehand technique. I can almost guarantee the last example will be a pain if you are using a metronome.
Now for the fun part! With our applicable knowledge and skill in freehand we can finally use this technique in a musical context. There are in fact snare drum solos written with freehand in mind but this is not a common occurrence. Instead you will most commonly find freehand used in drum set playing and that my friends is exactly what we are going to use to apply our new found technique.
The possibilities are nigh infinite (I will leave you to the math!) for how many combinations you can have on the drum set with freehand. So instead of trying to write out every possible combination, I will include some more practical patterns for your study which show off the freehand very well (they will all have at least three 16th notes or more in a row.) As always use these patterns as a basis of inspiration for you to create your own patterns.
Also keep in mind my snare drum is rather cheap and has a nasty ring to it so even with my wallet on top as a dampener it still does not sound that great. But you should still be able to get the idea from the audio examples regardless.
Applying Freehand: Pattern One
Pattern one is a very common drum n bass groove. Normally when a drummer plays this groove they end up leaving out the inner 16th notes as it would be too many in a row. Not for us however! Take a look and listen at this pattern and see what you think.
Applying Freehand: Pattern Two
Pattern two is a funky groove that when played slow doesn't need the freehand technique. But if you are one of those people who likes to speed things up then you will definitely need to use some freehand technique for this pattern. Take a look!
Applying Freehand: Pattern Three
Pattern three is a great choice if you want to keep your 4/4 time signature but completely throw off the pulse. It will probably feel very awkward at first but once you learn to feel it I guarantee you will love it. Check it out and see what your think.
As we have learned the freehand is a valuable technique for drummers to use when they need to play fast. It can be rather awkward at first as the stroke is not something most of us do naturally. However, the payoff is well worth the effort.
This technique is useful for any style whether it is metal, latin, jazz or otherwise. Experiment with the technique and see what kind of grooves you can create. Try using it on other drums to get different sounds. One trick that I like is to use it on both the snare and the floor tom at the same time for intense build ups.
For those of you who are very adventurous you can attempt to learn the stroke in the French or traditional grips but be warned it will be very tricky! Now I may have lied earlier when I said that your fingers are no longer controlling the balance of the stick in this stroke. In reality there is still a fulcrum point on your fingers that the stick rotates around. However, for explanation purposes it is much easier to say you displace your fulcrum point.
I hope you all have learned something valuable from this tutorial and will use this skill for the rest of your musical careers. If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below. Until next time, take care!