STICK TECHNIQUE - the technique Bible!

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The Natural Rebound Principle AND The Piston Stroke

We have already discussed at the very beginning of this book, how in general, we aim to impede the sticks as little as possible. as much as possible - letting the sticks do what they already want to do. The most fundamental example of this is using the natural rebound principle.

The Natural Rebound Principle: basically tells us the following: If we have a freely moving pivot point with no, or little restriction on the rotation, then the tip of the stick should bounce up and down in much the same fashion as a bouncing basketball. Obviously a rebounding stick will not have enough energy to push the whole arm back to a vertical position, so to a certain extent we have to use our muscles to move our arms and hands in synchronization with the rebounding stick. The idea though, is to use the rebounding of the stick as much as possible - we let in come up at it’s own speed, and simply follow it’s movement with our hand. This very similar to bouncing a ball really - the bounce does most of the work for us, and we just add a small amount of energy with each bounce to keep it bouncing. Just as the basketball moves much more than the bouncer's hand, so we try to make the stick do all the work when playing the drum.

When we use the natural rebound principle to it’s full amount, we end up with the stick bouncing right back up to whatever height it started from. This type of action, we call a “Piston Stroke”. A piston stroke can be from any height, as long as the rebound is used, so the height of the successive stroke is the same. We use piston strokes whenever all the notes are at the same volume.

The "Piston Stroke"

The ideal "piston style" stroke can be played at any dynamic level, and is as follows. Firstly it begins with the stick at its maximum height. (whatever that may be) A common error is to begin closer to the drum, then lift the stick as part of the stroke. Not only is this extra effort which is unnecessary and uses extra time, but it also allows more distance and time for both the physical placement, and time placement of the note to become inaccurate. If we begin the stroke from the maximum height, all we have to do is drop it, or maybe give it a little push downwards, then relax the joint and let gravity do the rest. If there is no tension in the hand, the stick will accelerate towards the drum, and most of the kinetic energy it has on contact will be reflected back into the stick, pushing it back to the original position.

A common error is to stop the stick at the bottom of the stroke, then use muscle power to lift it back up at the same time as the other stick moves down. It's easy to see how we can acquire this habit right at the beginner level, playing single strokes. After all, the brain only has one thing to concentrate on. One stick is high, one low, then you just keep swapping over. As we learn however, our brain becomes capable of much greater speeds than our body can execute, and we need to use the more efficient piston stroke which is easiest for our hands. As we learn to let the stick rebound without interfering with it’s motion, it requires no extra brain power anyway. We initiate the start of the stroke, and the rest happens automatically. In fact it requires less - only one thought for each stroke. Stopping then lifting the stick is two seperate extra actions which require two seperate signals from the brain. So the key to learning correct piston strokes, is to begin our learning of them in a way such that each stick goes down and bounces all the way back up, before the other moves at all. They need to bounce straight back up, with no hesitation.

If you're not sure if you have a tendency to stop the stick momentarily at the bottom of the stroke, try the "strobing" test. As you play single strokes at a comfortable speed, watch yourself in the mirror. If the stick is being allowed to bounce off the drum with little or no impedance, it's fastest movement should be when it is close to the drum - just like the bouncing basketball, or a person on a trampoline. You should be able to see the tip of the stick as a smooth streaky line, from the top of the stroke to the bottom. The only places where the stick tip should appear solid and stationery is at the stroke extremities. If there's tension in the stroke, or if you are quickly lifting the stick rather than letting it bounce, you will notice the stick looking "solid" for a split instant just above the drum, like its under a strobe light.

As mentioned on the previous page, piston strokes can be played at any level of volume - the higher they are, the louder. Because they bounce back to the same height, the volume of notes will remain the same. The two extreme versions of the piston stroke are the softest possible - played from the wrist, and the loudest possible, played from the elbow. These are the ones that we must know well, to practise rudiments etc to their maximum potential. We will call a soft piston stroke a “TAP” stroke,and a loud piston stroke a “FULL” stroke.

The Full Stroke

The Full stroke is a full-height piston stroke, played from the elbow. It is very important to practise this movement without any movement of the wrist or fingers at all. The starting position is with the tip of the stick pointing straight up, and because we don’t want any movement from the fingers or wrist, the little finger should be wrapped around the stick. There should be no bend at the wrist so the angle of the stick is the same as the angle of the arm. The elbow should swing backward slightly through the downward motion, and forward through the upward motion. It’s very important that the grip is mostly with the rear fingers, and that it is not tight. An overly tense grip tends to jar the wrist and may create a slight buzz of the stick at the point of contact.

The Tap Stroke

The “tap” stroke is the softest possible version of the piston stroke. It is mostly played from the wrist as it is impossible to use our fingers at the lowest dynamic level because of the lack of sufficient rebound. We do use our fingers for “taps” though when working on increasing speed for various rudiments and note combinations. In situations where multiple taps are required at speed, it is common to compromise the height of the taps a little to allow fingers to be used. Obviously we still aim to keep the taps as low as possible. A common example of this might be with paradiddle rudiments. The double strokes will be played with the fingers at higher speeds. The correct execution of the tap stroke starts and finishes with a straight wrist, and with the tip of the stick just above the drum - say a couple of millimetres. The grip will be different than for the full stroke, because we need the sensitivity, and maybe even the use, of the fingers. The fingers should be stretched down towards the butt of the stick, and the stick sitting on the thumb side of the groove of the hand. The actual gripping of the stick is purely in the fulcrum, but the but of the stick should not really move significantly from the palm. The actual motion, is just a tiny downwards bending from the wrist.

This lesson is selected text and pictures from the book "Stick Technique". To find out much more about technique and this unique opportnity to improve your playing, visit

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