Playing in Comfort

One of the most frustrating things for a drummer is to have to decline an invitation to “sit in” and play on somebody else’s drum set. But once he has noticed a total lack of his physical adequacy to the way the instruments are assembled and/or positioned on the set, that can be the sole risk-safe option from being forced to play only the most pedestrian grooves.

I’ve been quite lucky to have sucessfully gone through the choice a few times (even better, since I’ve always chosen to play), but I’ve seen at least one drummer complain like mad for having made a fool of himself after having complied to play on a fellow’s “weird instrument”.

This man, whose name I won’t decline, pro drummer of the highest level, was with one of the American acts on the Free Jazz Festival, here in Rio. After shows, along with many festival musicians and a few locals, he was invited to go to Jazzmania, a local bar, hot spot for an already traditional after hours jam. I was there, for the third consecutive year, working for the bar’s RP as English speaking driver and just hung around until called to perform my duties (too bad I could not play, since I could be called anytime).

Combos started to mingle, and a drummer named Troy Davis went up and simply smoked – his playing was superb, and a lenghty solo he took was one of the most astounding displays of taste and technique I’ve seen to this day. He did it with no alteration of the set on stage. It belonged to our own Robertinho Silva and had the ride cymbal mounted on a ludicrous position, even to the eyes of a non-musician.

Our “complainer” was next, but no matter having made it safely through the pieces, there was a distinctive lack of conviction about the way he swang (or tried to). Needless to say, he had also faced the cymbal challenge. After him, it was time for Lenny White, a left-hand-rider who plays a right handed set with open arms. The first thing White did after climbing on stage was to have the position of the ride cymbal changed.

Later, I took the “frustrated swinger” home. He was so angry that it made his bandmates and me chuckle. He sounded like the dog Mootley – from the TV cartoon -, mumbling endless complaints about “that friggin’ cymbal”. He even implied that Robertinho had done that on purpose, in order to keep others from “outdrumming” him. His funniest remark was that Davis had played “mostly doubles” on his solo – it made us laugh so hard we were all gasping for breath.

Even without that drastic example in mind, it is quite clear to us all that drums, unlike most instruments, can be forever customized to fit player’s needs for modifications with minimum effort, since dramatic changes in instruments positioning, height and angling can take place indefinetly with two turns of keys and the stretching and unstretching of tubes.

I’ve seen players change their set configuration drastically in a single week’s span. Many others, myself included, have tried different solutions, usually after seeing someone else look so at ease while using any other positioning (which, it’s funny to think, was perhaps different from the one from a week before).

So what are we all looking for, after all? Well, comfort seems to be the answer. But perhaps if the concept of ergonomics had guided us from the very beginning the road to the perfect setup would not be so filled with twists and turnarounds and we’d get there sooner.

Maybe it seems complicated to deal strictly with “the aspect of technology concerned with the application of biological and engineering data to problems relating to man and the machine”*. Er… what, again? Biological? Engineering? Data?

OK, fair enough. But what if we looked at that more pragmatically, forgetting those fancy terms and going for what they’re meaning? What if we just dealt with man and machine – ourselves and the instruments – from our own point of view as users?

In doing that, we would only come to consider the whole set as definetly adjusted after thorough examination of all its many different parts in strict regard to what suits our bodies better. That’s precisely what I have decided to do when, after years and years of changes and changes on end, I quit trying to search for the best setup for me… and found it, instead.

It has taken me a few days to do that, but the results compensate for such extended use of time. I broke the set down in parts, starting with what is considered its center (hardware included). With these parts only, a true drummer can play just about anything; without them, there is no “drums”: Throne; snare and its stand; bass drum and its pedal(s), hi-hat cymbals and stand. There is obviously no doubt that those are the most used items on every drumset, they provide the base for all else.

Oddly enough, though, the single most used part is… the throne, so extra care must be put into adjusting its height and positioning it. I am not exagerating – just remember that 99,9% of our playing time is done while seated. One thing is mandatory: If the seat sways, try to locate the source and eliminate it; if it doesn’t go away, get a new throne. The seat shall be wide enough to sustain the whole “behind” leaving some extra space, and its surface must be dense enough not to give under the weight but not too dense as to not have any give.

Though throne height adjustment is not rocket science, the contemporary tendency to make it only high enough to have the thighs parallel to the floor is recommended by nine out of ten physicians and certainly gives you more balance, control and relaxation of the lower back and legs. A good tip is to bring it down to the point where the upper extremity of the seat ligns up with the upper part of the knees, which, obvious enough, is… you got it, right where the legs bend.

Both the angle and height of the snare beater surface, as well as the exact positioning of the “snare drum and stand ensemble” between the legs depends highly on the hand technique employed. Take your time looking for it, and go for that “natural feeling” when you land whichever shots you choose – cross-stick to power rimshots – with extreme comfort and ease without the need to move anything else but hand, wrist and lower arm.

Nevertheless, the arms, when striking the middle of the head, should be neither so close that they have to move back nor so far away that they have to move forward. In other words, the best arm positioning shall be reached when the tip of the sticks rest exactly on the middle of the head while the arms are relaxed, in alignement with the body. You know, like the old book says, precisely.

The bass drum can basically be positioned either with the leg/foot making a 90º angle with the head surface or a bit twisted sideways (outward), set at a distance that does not make the leg have to extend very much (angles of the lower/upper leg of more than 100% will not give much power to the stroke, unless toe pushing pedal technique is chosen).

Since the foot used to play the hi-hat pedal is usually turned outwards, the first option usually makes the body turn in the direction of the side where the hi-hat is positioned, while the other will give a more balanced approach because the feet will be equally positioned. (I use the second.)

This means that the choice ultimately will determine the way the body will be facing the instrument. I think my chosen option gives more stretch to reach the side opposing the hi-hat without need to turn the body around so much to hit a second floor tom, for example.

Like the snare, the hi-hat height and positioning shall respect the chosen hand and grip technique. I chose to have my left foot in exactly the same direction as the right, and also have both pedals in the same height/angle, since I discovered it does wonders for my balance. One thing: Try to avoid positioning it so low the crossed stick gets in the way of the snare stick or so high playing with the tips gets uncomfortable.

Because the stand must be placed to the side, it is inevitable that both hands will not reach it from the same perspective – usually one arm gets to “extend” a bit while the other “retracts”. I looked for that spot where this dislocation would be minimal, since that kind of movement would be constantly necessary for (my) right arm while riding with the hi-hat. In fact I have it quite close to the snare, so that this movement is minimized. After all, my ideal setup motto went: “Don’t reach for anything!”

And with that in mind, aboard my very comfy base, I have set all the rest of the instruments, one by one, so now I do not have to reach for anything. This is what I recommend. Take your time and use it well.

Time well spent has saved me loads of time while setting up, since I have all positions marked with silver tape on a rubber rug and all heights and angles memorized with locks or with metal pen markings on stands.