Finger drums for everyone!

I’ve been finger drumming for about a year and a half now, and it’s so much fun and so useful that I can’t believe I’ve never seen anyone else doing it in public. By finger drumming, I don’t mean tapping your fingers on a desk. I mean hitting something with your fingers that produces the sound of drums. While it may not yet be a visible craze in the streets, you can see lots of kids on YouTube finger drumming on phone apps along with songs, and many performers finger drumming on samplers. I play mostly on apps on my iPad or iPhone, and have passed many hours playing and practicing drums while sitting on a park bench, in cars, trains and planes, in offices waiting for appointments…. There’s never a wasted or dull moment when you have drums in your pocket!

In the cause of spreading this joy, I’m writing this post and making the videos below to tell and show you what you need to know to start finger drumming. I’m including some basics about rhythm in music, so that even if you’ve never played any other instrument, you should be able to start finger drumming. Musicians should be able to get something out of this too. Even though I’ve been playing music since I was a teenager, I’ve learned a lot through finger drumming. In particular, my time has improved immensely, which has affected my guitar playing, my keyboard playing, and especially my drumming. I was away for the last year, and didn’t touch physical drums, but I noticed a huge improvement when I got behind a drum kit again, and so did my friends playing with me (I’ve still got a long way to go, as you can tell in my finger drum videos). Finding a place to practice can be a major impediment to learning real drums, and even electronic drums can make a fair bit of noise. While there are many things you can’t do on finger drums that you can do with all four limbs, I can say from personal experience that the sense of time, as well as understanding of rhythmic patterns that you can develop in finger drumming, does transfer. Developing these abilities requires a bit of attention, so the material below may well be useful even to other finger drummers.

Equipment

Finger drum appAs I mentioned, I do most of my finger drumming using iOS apps. A lot of the available apps have you hitting images of a drum kit, which forces you to play Twister with your fingers. Way better is an app that uses images of pads, as on a drum machine or sampler. My favorite is Rhythm Pad, pictured at right. There is a free version, and getting rid of the ads only costs $2.99. It uses most of the screen space for the pads, and has the pad assignments in what are the right places for me (you can perhaps read them in the screenshot – if not check out the second video below to see what I mean). I worry that Android users may be out of luck – I’ve tried a few apps on a couple different phones, and I found them unusable because of the lag between tapping and sound. There are lots of physical pads available for i-devices and computers, which can be used to trigger lots of drum synths and samplers – finger drumming can open a pretty vast universe of musical possibilities. And conversely, musicians using samplers can stand to gain a lot by learning some finger drumming.

Rhythmic basics – 1,2,3,4

Before you get started (finger) drumming, you need to know some basics about how songs are rhythmically structured. Everyone’s heard a song being counted in as 1-2-3-4. I’ll explain what those numbers mean, and how the spaces between can be further divided by 2, 3, and 4. I’m limiting myself to patterns that can be counted in 4, but that includes probably 98% of the songs in the rock-pop-r&b etc. tradition – it’s probably more like 85% in country, which uses more waltz time, which is counted in 3.  I won’t use any standard musical notation, but I do think the step notation of a drum machine, as well as the audio illustration it provides, is very helpful in understanding and internalizing these concepts, so I’d encourage you to check out the video, which illustrates these ideas on a software drum machine (the drum machine itself, DM-1, is also worth checking out, especially on the i-Pad, even though it’s got its pads in the wrong places for finger drumming, as well as some other limitations).

In the 4 count, which indicates one repeating bar or measure, you’ll usually find a bass drum on 1 and 3, and a snare on 2 and 4. The 1 often gets special emphasis, with a stronger bass drum hit, a crash cymbal, and a roll leading into it. A good place to start learning is to listen to music and identify these four beats and play along with them. You’ll sometimes hear music without the bass and snare on these beats – reggae music famously often drops the 1, and funk syncopation can move everything except the 1 – but most of the time they’ll be there, along with other cues for the 1.

The bass and snare drums, as well as the rest of the drum kit, other instruments and voices can also fall on the positions between the beats that are created by dividing that space in 2, 3, or 4. In the accompanying video, I illustrate the divisions between the beats with a hi-hat, and also show some of the patterns that result from permutations of bass and snare on the various positions. The simplest hi-hat pattern is just to play on all four of the beats. A more common pattern is to play the hi-hat in 8, hitting everything counted in 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and, so that there is a hi-hat between the bass and snare as well as played with them. A “straight” 8 pattern will divide the space between the beats evenly in 2. An inter-beat division into 4, such as playing 16 on a hi-hat, is often used in slower music, in disco music, and as I’ll explain momentarily, in syncopation.

The division into 3 (or triplets) is mostly used in jazz, blues or early rock and roll styles, in what are called swing or shuffle beats, though it’s not at all uncommon in even contemporary electronic music. Divisions into 3 are usually written in standard music notation as 6/8 or 12/8, though they can also be represented in 4/4 with triplets.

As the examples of swing and shuffle bring up, not all of the positions in a 4, 8, 12 or 16 step division necessarily get played. A blues shuffle would have the high hat playing only 8 of the 12 steps, with the hit between the beats later than in a straight 8 – on the “uh” of 1-and-uh-2-and-uh-3-and-uh-4-and-uh. In other words, a straight 8 and a shuffle 8 have the same number of hits, but the one between the beats comes later in the shuffle. As Alexander Stewart discusses in a very useful piece in Popular Music, the transition from early r&b and rock&roll to later funk and rap involved a transition from predominantly swing/shuffle beats to predominantly straight ones.

As Stewart also discusses, the shift to straight 8 allowed funk to use the 16th divisions between the 8ths. This is called syncopation – hitting unexpected points in a measure. Finally, Stewart’s discussion of funk brings up a point that is important to emphasize here: there is a lot in human rhythm that is not well captured either by drum machine step notation or by standard music notation. Funk drummers can play with a slight lag on a hit to introduce a degree of swing to the rhythm. Drum machines simulate this with a “swing” control, and music notation uses diacritics, but to really understand it and feel it, you need to listen to drummers and play. But if you’re just starting, don’t worry about syncopation, or playing behind the beat – just focus on staying in time on the beats, which is hard enough.

Playing and practicing

Drum teachers often emphasize the importance of starting simple and slow so that you can develop your sense of time. Even playing the simplest pattern in time at a moderate tempo is difficult at first, and apparently the key to playing complex and fast things well is to build up to them gradually. Playing with a metronome is an excellent way to work on time. Justin Aswell gives some good general advice about finger drumming (rule number 1: relax!), and shows what professional finger drumming looks like.

How fast you progress will depend on your previous experience, and perhaps also on innate ability, but I would guess that just learning to play a simple alternating bass snare pattern with a hi-hat in 4 perfectly in time should generally take at least a couple of weeks. Playing that pattern fast is an infinitely difficult challenge, insofar as there’s no limit to how fast we can play (which there probably is). I think it will help if you can take pleasure in getting each small new thing right, rather than hoping to jump quickly to some level of virtuosity. Note that you can play even the simplest patterns along with recordings, which might make it more fun. Personally, I prefer just playing with the metronome, and find that it’s plenty of fun just trying to do that well, and gradually adding in new challenges, and inventing and learning new patterns.

The clip below breaks down a rhythmic pattern into its parts, and will hopefully be useful in seeing the kinds of things you should be trying to get your fingers to do.

More

Once you’ve digested what’s on this page and in the videos, and have got the basics down, I think you’ll find that you can keep learning more by just listening to music, and by looking at various (finger) drum tutorials. There are lots of better drummers than me, finger and stick, out there willing to give you advice! Please let me know if this has been useful for you, and if you have any related thoughts or particularly useful materials you’ve come across.

References

I found this little book by Bill Powelson to be a nice accessible introduction to rhythm. There’s also some good accessible material on rhythm theory in this book (available on-line through the UMass library):

Hewitt, Michael. 2008. Music Theory for Computer Musicians. Boston, MA, USA: Course Technology.

Less accessible, but invaluable, was the Alexander Stewart article on the history of American rhythm I linked above. Here it is again.

Finally, if you happen to be a linguist, you’ll likely enjoy these Language Log posts by Mark Liberman on the basics of text-to-tune mapping, and on its interaction with rock syncopation.

5 thoughts on “Finger drums for everyone!

  1. Brian H. Bragg

    If you were old enough to remember the 1950s, you would not be taken aback by people drumming without drums. Maybe the explosion of R&B and rock ‘n roll released the innate urge to drum, but drumming on tabletops, automobile dashboards, steering wheels, one’s own lap — all were commonplace, especially among teens. So common was drumming that the behavior almost never elicited comment in informal settings, exceot occasionally, “Stop that, Charles, and eat your green beans!”
    I have a friend (77 years old now) who still drums on his car’s instrument panel (although today’s cars make the dashboard much harder to reach than that of his 1950 Dodge).

  2. Gene Callahan

    “You’ll sometimes hear music without the bass and snare on these beats – reggae music famously often drops the 1”

    And guitar or keyboard hit 2 and 4 rather than snare.

  3. Joe Pater Post author

    In linking to this post on the Language Log, Mark Liberman started a discussion about Android apps. It looks like the lag is in fact a problem with the Android OS – see the comments.

  4. Joe Pater Post author

    Just after I finished this post, Erik Cheries pointed me to Gary Marcus’ Guitar Zero. It’s a great read, and links up in interesting ways with what’s here. Marcus tells the story of learning how to play guitar as an adult, and discusses the factors that seem to make learning successful, both from his and others’ experience, and from his take on research on learning of music and language. I admire his enthusiasm for passing on what he’s learned to others, and hope this post does a tiny bit of what he’s managed to do with his book.

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