I dedicate this page to Billy Cobham a great innovator, musician, open handed drumming master, teacher, and all around gentleman whose dedication to, and mastery of this drumming art form has been an inspiration to me for decades!
Thank you Mr Cobham for all that you have given to drummers and musicians in the past forty five years and continue to share to this day !
On the Zildjian Day in New York video of 2004 while addressing the audience Billy Cobham stated “Cross sticking is one of the biggest bugaboos of playing drums”. As the grandfather of modern contemporary drumming and an innovator on the instrument, Billy Cobham was one of the first drummers to make the brave journey of reworking his technique in order to play open handed.
His reasons for doing so must have been compelling because it’s not an easy shift to make after years of playing with the conventional cross sticking technique. Being right handed to begin with, and with all the strength that has been developed in the right hand as one’s leading hand, to suddenly decide to make the left hand which plays the hi-hat the leading hand, is almost like starting from scratch.
There have been other well known drummers close to Billy’s generation that made the same switch, Lenny White, Simon Phillips and more recently Mike Mangini and Dennis Chambers, who credits seeing Billy Cobham performing live as the inspiration for developing an open handed facility, though he plays both ways.
So why make such a switch? The simple and obvious answer is playing open handed as a right handed drummer leaves your whole right side open, therefore free to move with the right hand, while playing grooves for example, to play any voice of the drum set without the impediment of having an arm crossed over the top totally restricting your movements. It’s a wonderful feeling and it enables one to do things and come up with ideas, embellishments, and ways of playing that would be quite challenging for any drummer utilising the cross sticking methodology.
Please understand that I am not advocating in a righteous manner that open handed playing is superior to playing traditionally using cross sticking technique; and, that therefore everyone should make the switch.
At the same clinic, Billy Cobham also said:
“You know as long as it comes out doing what you want it to do, it does not really matter how it looks”.
But as an evolutionary development within the tradition of contemporary Western drumming, it’s a worthy topic of consideration, not just open handed playing but circular motion playing, which Billy Cobham also advocates and we will touch on shortly below.
In my own case, though an attractive proposition, it didn’t seem feasible to me as a priority to take up open handed playing because I had so much that needed to be worked on relative to my technique otherwise, that it would have been too demanding to do at that time, this was in the late 80’s.
However, in the 90’s a wonderful technological innovation took place with the development of the cable hi-hat. Prior to cable hi-hats coming onto the market, when drummers made the switch to playing open handed as a right handed player, the hi-hat stayed where it was and one moved the ride cymbal over to the left hand side of the drum set in order to play from one to the other with the left hand. So I thought rather then moving the ride cymbal to the left, why not move the hi-hat to the right?
Cable hi-hats now made this possible, my feet position stayed the same, I moved the hi-hat over to the right hand side underneath the ride cymbal and ended up with my whole left side open, but what is more, I did not have to rework all my technique in order to make the shift, it was brilliant!
However, using the cable hi-hat, I discovered another remarkable effect, which would propel me on the trajectory which has revolutionized my overall approach to playing the drums. Let me elaborate, when making the shift to open handed playing traditionally, one would tend to lower the height of the hi-hat putting it close to the snare drum, but nevertheless the hi-hat stand was still there, with its rod sticking up. This meant that if one wanted to put toms on the left hand side to play in a circular motion like one could on the right, there was on the left this impediment due to the hi-hat and its stand.
However, when making use of a cable hi-hat which by its very nature needs to be clamped to a stand or rack to be made part of the drum set, using a cymbal stand for that purpose seemed the obvious choice for me because of my kit configuration. Cymbal stands are usually placed on the other side of the toms or floor toms, therefore it seemed logical to put the hi-hat at a further distance from the snare drum just above the toms, underneath the ride cymbal.
Doing so I discovered that both my right and left side were completely open, and in effect the snare drum was surrounded by a circle of toms. My right hand could move in circles around the right hand toms, and my left around the left hand toms. In effect it was like having two drum kits, one on each side!
So the whole logic of playing toms from left to right in a descending order was brought into question. Which meant considering a completely different way of setting up the toms, to enable descending motions by playing in circles on the right and left sides, and I came up with a couple of solutions.
It took me a while to get used to and develop the ability and strength in the left hand to play moving towards the left in full circles, since the left hand had traditionally tended to move towards the right, following the right hand with the descending motion of the toms. It took a bit of getting used to, but to always face straight ahead never having to twist one’s torso to go up and down the toms translated in a great economy of movement, which in turn facilitated an increase of both physical power and technical precision, yielding an overall increase in musicality and musical aesthetic sensitivity in my playing.
In the 80’s, a movement had developed with many drummers starting to put a tom on the left hand side of the hi-hat, while keeping a traditional kit set and approach. Dave Weckl set up his kit that way, I saw this in his first tutorial video release and had followed suit, but doing that much did not really acculturate my left hand to moving towards the left in a circular motion.
So you may ask, are there any drawbacks to using a cable hi-hat on the right hand side to play open handed?
Well there is one, when one makes the shift to open handed playing traditionally with a standard hi-hat stand right next to the snare, one can still play 16th notes alternating hands on the hi-hat with ease. However, with the cable hi-hat on the other side of the toms on the right, that’s not the case, it would be clumsy and difficult, and would require one to lead with the left hand instead of the right to make it possible.
One solution would be to put a smaller dedicated closed hi-hat with a clamp next to the snare on the left which would not hinder left sided movements, or to put either another cable or dedicated hi-hat on the other side of the toms on the left side mirroring the one on the right, and play 16th alternating between both hi-hats. As long as the make, size and model of both hi-hats is the same one should not notice any discrepancies in the evenness of the sound.
In my situation however with my set up I just compromised, and found ways to play 16th grooves that didn’t involve alternating hands on the hi-hat.
Another solution which I have started experimenting with in more recent years, is to place the cable hi-hat just above the central toms and therefore have access to it from both left and right hands. Bill Bruford had done this, in fact he got rid of the toms all together and placed the hi-hat directly in front of the snare drum and put toms and then floor toms on either side of the hi-hat, in recent years’ other drummers have created similar set ups.
A quick jump here to the present 2021 and you can see my electronic kit set up does just that with the cable hi-hat set up in between the front toms which I can access with both hands and play alternating hands 16th note grooves and access the snare with either hand while doing so.
In 1999, I came across an article in a drum magazine about Mike Mangini with his kit set up on the front cover, and I remember the surprise when realising he had already established the set up that I had clearly conceived of in my mind, since at that time I did not have the funds to make it a reality.
(Below: Mike Mangini’s current kit with Dream Theater.)
But not only that, he had developed the technique of being fully ambidextrous, not only relative to his hands but also his feet. He precisely was making use of cable hi-hats in the same way. His set up made use of double bass drums with a cable hi-hat next to the outer side of both bass drum pedals, which meant he could play any configuration of feet and hands. Technically it was a quantum leap. I felt both inspired and disheartened by how far I had yet to travel on this road of wanting to achieve technical drumming excellence.
However, getting back to the tuning consideration relative to what order of size to position the toms, as you can see in the photos below, I came up with two set ups, one which I will call ‘standard’ the other ‘alternative’. The drum sizes of this kit are as follows toms: 8,10,12, with floor toms 13,14 and 16. In both set ups we have three toms across the bass drum with the 13 floor tom on the left and the 14 and 16 floor toms on the right. In the standard set up the tom order follows a traditional descending order of 8,10,12, in the alternative set up 10,8,12.
(Below: Standard Set Up)
As an aside you will notice that the snare drum sits right in the middle of the bass drum, this is because I use Sleishman Twin Pedals and have done so for thirty years. These pedals in part have contributed to my set up and the playing in circles consideration because even before racks were invented, these pedals created a right and left symmetry with a twin toms set up on the bass drum by putting the snare drum in the middle of the bass drum not off to the left, as would be the case using any other bass drum pedal. For my blog entry on these pedals click here “Sleishman Twin Pedals”.
(Below: Alternative Set Up)
So relative to both these set up we have one tom directly in the middle of the bass drum, in front of the snare drum, to the left of which we have another tom and floor tom, and to the right of which we have one tom and two floor toms. In the standard set up starting from the centre moving to the left we have 10, 8,13, and starting from the centre moving to the right we have 10, 12, 14, 16.
The logic behind this is that if one wants a descending tom run from left to right in a more traditional manner we get 8,10,12,14,16 from left to right, with a 13 floor tom on the left, we get a nice descending tom run on the right for circular playing 10, 12, 14, 16, but on the left we don’t get a smooth tom run descent 10,8,13. We can still play in circles on both right and left but if we want to play more traditionally we have a great descending tom run 8,10,12, 14, 16.
(Below: Standard Set Up)
In the alternative set up we get great descending tom runs for circular playing on both sides. On the right 8, 12, 14, 16 and on the left 8,10,13. Really nice splits. However, though we don’t get a great descending run from left to right. If we alternate playing in circular motion starting from the centre 8 drum with the right hand, we get this 8, 10, 12, 13, 14 a really nice descending run. And if we had four toms across the bass drum and one floor tom on either side applying the same concept strictly alternating we would get 8,10,12,13,14,16 as a descending run, perfect!
(Below:Alternative Set Up)
This bring me to my final point, I have achieved this with my Roland TD-30 V-Drums set up (picture below). Four toms across the front, floor tom on either side, snare in the middle with small identical hi-hats on either side of the snare drum for great open handed playing. This set up gives the ability to play full alternating 16th on the hi-hats and do away with the need for cable pedals due to the electronic nature of the instrument.
(Below: My Roland TD-30 V-Drums Custom Kit with full set up description)
I now have stopped playing alternating hands in any left to right manner all together. I only play in circles on the left and right, starting from the snare, it’s as though I have one kit with descending toms on either side, but depending on how I approach both the circles, I can interrelate them and have just one kit descending or ascending with a six tom run, while just playing in circles on the right and left.
This way of playing has completely changed the way I approach melody, phrasing and sticking. All sorts of patterns and relationships between patterns, tonalities and polyrhythm’s have become obvious to me, and particularly I have increased my use of rudimental sticking in order to accommodate the set up.
Doing a one bar fill moving left to right descending on a traditional set up lends itself to single and rudiments, one can easily play alternating singles as 16th’s across four toms. Not so with my set up, yes it is possible to play alternating 16th’s starting on the snare and then descending on three toms. But if one is looking at playing the whole spectrum of six toms in a descending manner, especially as single alternating 16th notes, it’s actually not possible. Some people may feel that that represents a real limitation. But in my case losing out on a few possibilities is negligible when I consider the gains I have made in so many different areas. I have discovered so much!
Really there is no musical dictum that states that tom runs or fills have to be executed in a strict descending or ascending tonal pattern. When one analyses the evolution of the drum kit, one can see why as toms started to be added to a snare, bass, tom and floor tom set up, a kind of logic followed based on the placement of where the hi-hat was required to be, therefore playing from left to right on the toms as a right handed player it made sense to set up the toms in descending tonal pattern. That changed somewhat when a second bass drum was added and one could easily have 4 or 5 toms across those two bass drums, but the force of habit of thinking in terms of setting up the toms in a descending tonal pattern followed, but that too changed with double bass drum players, just look at Billy Cobham tom set up currently, it does not follow a descending tonal pattern order. Therefore, as the technology has evolved allowing the drum set to be expanded and set up differently, so have drummers ideas and concepts about how they wish to adapt their drums set up based on a variety of conceptual ideas, personal preferences and technical visions.
Compensating for certain limitations has enriched my technique, musicality and phrasing. It has forced me to think outside the box while opening up so many other possibilities.
This journey of discovery has been deeply fulfilling, rewarding and inspiring, such that I could not be happier! I still have a long way to go to incarnate the vision of what I want to achieve technically as a drummer, but at this point in my life I have a clear vision and willingness to manifest it and share it with my fellow musicians. Check out some of my videos at:
I hope you have found this a useful article and that it may clarify, help or inform your drum set up consideration.
Wishing you all the best in your drumming endeavors, The Quorn.