On Traditional Grip

Intro/Painfully Obvious Comments: 

The traditional grip is a way of holding drumsticks. Here's a pic of Mr. Max Roach holding the sticks with a traditional grip: 

Notice that his right hand (holding the stick farthest off the drum) and his left hand (holding the stick closest to the drum) are holding the sticks differently.

I've often wondered when this grip began being called "traditional". Not too long ago, it was the only way drummers held their sticks, excepting timpanists and mallet percussionists. Every drummer (quite literally, every single one) I've met who is over age 55 learned this grip at their first drum lesson. 

So a drumstick grip wouldn't be called 'traditional' if it's being used by everyone. Words like 'traditional' get attached to activities (like cooking, for example) only after another way of doing that activity has come along. 

The other way of doing this particular activity- holding drumsticks with the intent of striking the drum in a controlled manner- is called the matched grip. Here's a pic of Mr. Max Roach holding the sticks with a matched grip. 

Though this isn't the highest quality photo, and we don't have a perfect view of his right hand, we can still see clearly that his left hand and right hand are holding the sticks in the same way. Hence the term 'matched'. 

Speak, Memory! 

When I was a kid, the traditional grip seemed exotic and beautiful. I associated it with serious, grown-up jazz drummers. I didn't hold the sticks that way when I played- I played a matched grip. I was also 10, and "playing" meant "playing along with Beatles records". But anyway. 

Thinking about 1990, 1991, Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta were frequently pictured and written about in Modern Drummer magazine, and they played the traditional grip, and talked about it. Then there was the June 1992 Modern Drummer Tony Williams feature, with pictures of him from a 1989 Modern Drummer Festival appearance. He looked huge, intense, imposing, and like a capital-A Artist. I was a fan before I'd heard him play a note.  And he was playing that traditional grip, and making it look powerful. 

A few months later I took my first drum lesson with Mr. Rick Compton, with whom I studied until I finished high school. He insisted on the traditional grip in our lessons, and would accept nothing else. So I learned it. And I loved it. I suddenly felt an immediate, distant, yet real connection to a whole host of cool-looking drummers whose playing I loved. And I was different from most drummers I met. 

Rick, in a very systematic way, taught me the rudiments, and brought me through the classic snare drum and drumset texts. Excursions to jazz camps and other typical high-school music opportunities all resulted in powerful musical experiences, and I had them all while holding the sticks with a traditional grip. So when I began playing gigs, and ended up at music school, I was a "traditional grip player", with a few years of experience (or baggage) under my belt. 

As you might guess, once at music school, I was immediately dissatisfied with all I had done, and tried switching to a matched grip for a few years. I remember constantly going back and forth between matched and traditional in the course of one tune, very undecided. Eventually there was the move to NYC, and as I went about putting together a career and reputation as a musician, I realized that I was most truly myself when playing the traditional grip, and that I badly wanted to show it to anyone interested in learning it. 

Why I Play Traditional Grip

I play the traditional grip so that I feel a connection to the great drummers of the past; they inspired me as a young man and still inspire me today. After all, it was the grip used to develop the rudiments, the drumset, and jazz drumming. And I have the great honor of using the same grip my heros used, and making it my own, which they all did. Tony Williams, Jo Jones, Paul Motian, Max Roach, and all my heros remind me that there is no limit to what can be achieved with the traditional grip.

I use the traditional grip because it's the same grip I used as a young man, and I carry all my own history, for better or worse, with that grip.

I use the traditional grip because it's difficult, and forces me to examine the technique I'm using at all times. My right hand is different from my left hand, and the traditional grip accentuates this difference, which means I learn and improve as I try to make my hands equal. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the traditional grip is a marker. It announces the serious intention of the drummer to everyone. Traditional grip says "I'm VERY SERIOUS about drumming folks! So serious that I hold the sticks in a counter-intuitive way, because people used to!" When I was a teenager, that kind of marker/statement was exactly what I needed. It gave me something to practice, some very clear goals to be achieved, and set me apart from many other drummers my age, without isolating me. In fact, I've often guessed that the best reason I still play drums today is that I learned the traditional grip. 

I feel a great responsibility to pass on something that made such a difference in my life to anyone that's remotely interested. 

 

Conclusion: 

Musicians across the globe still study counterpoint, even though a computer could be easily programmed to churn out counterpoint homework. We have so many other, more pressing things to study, and there is no direct, practical application for the knowledge. No one is being commissioned to write four-part masses following the model of Palestrina and other masters. But still, we study it. Why? 

Because we feel cool studying it. It's arcane and pointless and beautiful. We feel as though we're getting access to ancient learning, it's hard to do, and if we have any success, it boosts our confidence. If it was good enough for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, we rationalize, it's probably good enough for us. We have the privilege to study what they studied! What fun! It will mess with our instincts from time to time- but the other option is never to study, and then, unless you are very lucky, you will, sooner or later, become bored out of your mind trying to make music with a fixed set of skills. So you're in trouble regardless, so we might as well study. For me, that's traditional grip. It looks cool, it's old, and it's exciting and enriching to learn. Mel used it. Tony used it. Paul Motian used it. Hell, Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille, Jim Gordon, and Levon Helm used it! And, like counterpoint, it's a fantastic teaching tool. It slows everything down in a good way, and forces discussions about technique, relaxation, and sound at drum lessons, even with beginners.