Ambidextrous Drumming: Getting Past the Confusion to Become a “Drummer of the Future”

by Matt Ritter

About 4 and a half years ago, I made a decision that has ended up revolutionizing my entire approach to drumming; I decided to play drums open-handed. The term “open-handed” simply means drumming without crossing the arms. On a standard kit, like the one that I play, this means playing the hi-hat with the left hand.

Before deciding to go open-handed, I had played the hi-hat with crossed arms for about a decade and a half…and I must admit- I still was never fully comfortable with it! Using the right side of my body to play the left side of my kit felt inherently unbalanced. I hated the sense that I was somewhat tangled up like a pretzel! Plus, I never figured out how to avoid occasionally hitting my hands and/or sticks together. The whole thing just didn’t make sense to me. So…one day…I simply stopped. That was it; I stopped dead in my tracks and uncrossed my arms. I started playing the hi-hat with my left hand instead of my right, and I haven’t looked back since.

Many drummers who go down this road actually move their ride cymbal over to the left side of their kit. That way, they can lead all of their grooves with the same hand (in this case, the left hand). I personally have opted not to do that because most drumsets in the world are arranged with the ride cymbal on the right. I like maintaining the ability to sit behind any standard set of drums and play comfortably without rearranging things too much. Besides…playing the ride cymbal on the right has never been a problem for me, so I haven’t seen any reason to change that aspect of my playing. It was simply the hi-hat issue that I wanted to address! Because I’ve now been playing the hi-hat with my left hand while continuing to play the ride cymbal with my right hand, an interesting thing has happened. I have ended up not only playing without crossed arms (open-handed), but I have actually ended up playing ambidextrously!

In the July 2005 issue of Modern Drummer magazine, Billy Hart (jazz drumming legend) said “So yeah, the drummer of the future will be totally ambidextrous.” Since there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding ambidextrous drumming, I’m going to address a number of common misconceptions. My focus will be ambidextrous drumming as it specifically applies to the most common drumset configuration (hi-hat on the left, bass drum and ride cymbal on the right). Hopefully, this discussion will help each of us to move confidently toward becoming a “drummer of the future.”

MISCONCEPTION: Drummers typically cross the right hand over the left to play the hi-hat because it is necessary to play the hi-hat with one’s “strong hand.”

REALITY: The crossed arms approach seems to have evolved largely because our drumming forefathers used “traditional grip.” This means that they cradled their left stick at an angle to accommodate the tilt of a marching drum. This made it awkward to use the left hand for playing the hi-hat (which was high and flat). So drummers would simply cross their arms and play the hi-hat with the right hand instead. This practice was further encouraged by the fact that most people are right-handed. However…it is extremely important to note that the practice of crossing the right hand over the left went for all drummers- including the left-handed ones! Yes, even the left-handed drummers would typically cross the right hand over the left for playing the hi-hat, just like everyone else! So, in effect, left-handed drummers were routinely proving that one can absolutely play the hi-hat with one’s “weak hand.” Amazing, isn’t it?! Well, this is still true today! In fact, many of the world’s greatest drummers (including Ringo Starr and David Garibaldi) are left-handed people who learned to drum in the traditional style of right hand crossed over left. If left-handed drummers have been able to play the hi-hat with their “weak hand,” then right-handed drummers should be able to do it too!

MISCONCEPTION: If we play the hi-hat with our left hand, then we will need to start all of our fills with our left hand.

REALITY: When we start a fill at the drumset, we typically move both hands to the drums. Therefore, in that instant of starting the fill, neither hand is on the hi-hat anyway! So we really are free to start our fill with either hand that we choose. At the end of the fill, we will normally crash a cymbal, and after the crash, we are now free to continue on the hi-hat with either hand that we choose. There is no reason that this needs to be more complicated because we play the hi-hat with our left hand. If anything, playing the hi-hat with our left hand makes it easier to start a fill with either hand because it eliminates the necessity of uncrossing our arms as the fill begins.

MISCONCEPTION: Since most of history’s greatest drummers have played the hi-hat with crossed arms, that approach must be somehow superior.

REALITY: A great drummer will typically use techniques that reflect his or her place in drumming’s evolutionary timeline. At about 100 years old, the drumset is a relatively new instrument (the violin is about 500 years old!). So the techniques for drumset are still changing and developing quite significantly. When we look at a great drummer from the 1940’s, we see drumset techniques as they existed in the 1940’s. When we look at a great drummer from the 1980’s, we see drumset techniques as they existed in the 1980’s. And so on. The great drummers of 10 or 20 years from now may use techniques that are quite different than the ones used by today’s great drummers.

MISCONCEPTION: If we start playing the hi-hat with our left hand, then we will lose the strength and dexterity that we’ve developed in our right hand.

REALITY: A great way to develop and maintain our ability in both hands is to play the hi-hat with our left and the ride cymbal with our right. Remember- Billy Hart didn’t say that the drummer of the future will be left-handed. He said, “…the drummer of the future will be totally ambidextrous”! We can simply practice playing the drumset in its most typical configuration (hi-hat on left, ride cymbal on right)…but with a policy of not crossing arms. This way, we will develop and maintain the ability to lead grooves with either hand. In fact, because our right hand will stay in shape, we will even retain the option of playing with crossed arms if we ever desire to do so (most likely, we won’t).

MISCONCEPTION: Ambidextrous drumming is a strange, new approach that will probably never catch on with serious drummers.

REALITY: The ambidextrous drumming approach has been known about, used, and touted for many years already by a number of legendary drummers. Jim Chapin suggested it in the intro of his famous book, Advanced Techniques For The Modern Drummer. That was in 1948! Gary Chester recommended the same thing in his famous book, The New Breed. That was in 1985! Drummers such as Kenny Aronoff, Steve Smith, and Steve Gadd have occasionally employed a bit of ambidexterity by leading on the hi-hat with the left hand for certain songs during concerts and recording sessions. Drummers such as Billy Cobham, Simon Phillips, and Mike Mangini are very famous for their ambidexterity at the drums. In 2008, Claus Hessler and Dom Famularo released their critically-acclaimed book, Open-Handed Playing/Volume 1. In the book, they discuss numerous practical benefits of ambidextrous drumming, and offer a wealth of material for developing it.

MISCONCEPTION: There really is nothing to gain by playing ambidextrously, so it isn’t worth the time and effort required to learn it.

REALITY: There are numerous benefits of the ambidextrous drumming approach- enough to dramatically improve our entire experience of playing music! First of all, because it allows us to play a standard set of drums without crossing our arms, it means we can sit facing forward in a natural and relaxed manner. No more twisting, contorting, or reaching to access the hi-hat! It also allows us to use motions as large as we choose without the risk of hitting our hands or sticks together. Certain rhythms may even be possible with this approach that simply could not be played with crossed arms. For example, with the ambidextrous approach, we can play a groove on the hi-hat while freely moving our other hand amongst all of the toms and cymbals. Quite difficult with crossed arms! Perhaps the most exciting benefit of playing ambidextrously is that both hands receive a somewhat equal amount of drumming exercise. This helps to keep both hands closely matched in terms of stamina and coordination. The result is an empowering sense of freedom and possibility at the drums!

The idea of playing the drumset ambidextrously is really nothing all that revolutionary. It simply makes a lot of sense, and it has been bubbling under the surface of the drumming community for a long time. Still, its integration into mainstream drumming has been quite slow. This is because evolution, in general, is a very slow process (especially when misconceptions halt forward motion). Lately, however, the internet is speeding up this process significantly. If a drummer anywhere in the world posts an idea online, it can be rapidly assimilated by drummers around the globe. Because of this, ambidextrous drumming is now gaining prominence at a much faster rate than ever before! Billy Hart’s “drummer of the future” may be closer to the present than we think. Hopefully, the points clarified in this article will inspire you to embrace ambidextrous drumming and to join us as we enter this next phase in the evolution of drumset technique.

Matt Ritter is a leading drum instructor in New York City. You can contact him for drum lessons through his site MattRitterDrumLessons.com. In addition to maintaining a full roster of private students, Matt has written numerous educational articles for Modern Drummer magazine. His DVD, Bass Drum Techniques For Today’s Drummer: Unburying The Beater, is widely recognized as the world’s most thorough bass drum technique tutorial.

This article was written for use by DrumSetFun.com. No portion of this article may be copied or redistributed.

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