Drummer’s Hands

August 6, 2014

Drummer's Hands

Drummer’s Hands


Shake hands now and come

Out conjuring.

                 -Ishmael Reed

Hands are a very important part of the human body. It is with our hands that we experience the world. The sense of touch is most intimately associated with the hands and we like to use our hands to touch things – to feel their textures, their temperature, their weight, their density. There is a reason for that. Fingers are some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body and thus are the richest source of tactile feedback.

The hands also have the greatest positioning capability of the body which allows us to use the hand not only to perceive the world that is within our reach, but to also manipulate the world around us. This is due to the skeletal structure of the hand. The skeleton of the human hand consists of 27 bones, most of which (14 bones) are the phalanges or the bones of the fingers. There are 5 bones that connect the fingers to the wrist (metacarpals) and 8 that connect the wrist to the forearm (carpals). The fixed and mobile parts of the hand adapts to various everyday tasks through the arches formed by the relationship of these bones to one another. There are longitudinal arches (the rays formed by the finger bones and their associated metacarpal bones), transverse arches (formed by the carpal bones and distal ends of the metacarpal bones), and oblique arches (between the thumb and four fingers). 1

 Hands are particularly important to those who play traditional drums because it is the hands that bring out the sound of the drum, even when that hand is using a stick. Yet there is no one particular type of hand that is more suited to the drum than any other. A drummer’s fingers may be long and thin or short and thick; their palm can be enlarged by callouses or smooth like a baby’s skin; they may be hard or supple; they may be old or they may be young. And just like people, no two drummers will have the same hand. This is one of the things that makes a drummer’s hands special. As special as a drummer’s hands are, they are often an unnoticed aspect of drumming.

Like other paired organs, (eyes, feet, legs), each hand is dominantly controlled by the opposing brain hemisphere, so that handedness, or the preferred hand choice for single-handed activities such as writing with a pencil, reflects individual brain functioning. Handedness, ones preferred hand choice, is very significant in drumming. Also ones handedness affects which hand plays the dominant role, especially when you are first learning. But to be an effective drummer you have to develop a balance between the hands, so that your weak hand becomes as strong as your dominant hand, and so the sounds between the two hands match. This is one of the first steps towards developing the balance, or equilibration that drummers need to have. As Sule Greg Wilson wrote in The Drummer’s Path, “If both your hands work, then so do both sides of the brain.”2 The balance between the hands reflects the balance between lobes of the brain, which reflects ones deeper connection to/understanding of rhythm and time. It is also an important part of the journey towards balance between the physical, the mental and the spiritual.

In discussing drums, percussionist Rocky Maffit said ”under knowing hands they [drums] are capable of complexity, subtlety, and power.”3 The particular phrasing of this comment is significant. It is the hands that bring out the drum’s range of expression because the hands are “knowing.” The idea that the hands of the drummer possess a particular body of knowledge that allows them to bring out the voice of the drum is an insightful description. An important part of a drummer’s training involves developing the hand -its sense of touch, the shape of its arches, its movement through space – so that it can make the drum talk.

In his song Grandma’s Hands Bill Withers sings about the many skills that were expressed through his Grandma’s hands. In one line he says: “Grandma’s hands played the tambourine so well.”4 It was not the Grandmother, but her hands that held the knowledge of how to make the tambourine sing.

A drummer’s trained hands are a wonder to behold. “The drummer’s hands stroke, dart and weave, like a boxer’s hands.” A drummer’s hands can bring out the full expressiveness of the drum. A true drummer understands that drums are not just struck, but that they can also be tapped, snapped, brushed, rubbed, and stroked and they are able to use their hands to caress the full range of tones and slaps from the skin on the drum. It is the hands of the drummer that enables drums to communicate, to “rustle, ripple, march, dance, bend, and buzz.“ A drummer’s hands can make “drums laugh, but can also” make them “give voice to tears.” A drummer can use a rubbed finger to make a drum moan, use a slap to make the drum shout or use a caress to make the drum whisper or tell secrets. It is through the hands of the drummer that drums become the life of the party, whether providing the rhythm for a carnival strut, a slow burial pulse, or for a rebellion.5

It is not only playing rhythms, the combinations of tones and slaps. A drummer’s “knowing hands” are not only skilled in the production of sound. They also understand how to manipulate the energy of the sound. The drummer knows how to either send the sound energy through the body of the drum and into the earth, or pull the sound energy from the drum and send it out to the heavens.

In the hands of a trained drummer, the drum communicates. On the earthly plane the drum is part of a community and shares the values, emotions, and aspirations of its community and it is able to communicate aspects of that community’s history. So traditionally speaking, the drum is the voice of the community in which it is a member. To say a drum is a member of the community is to recognize the drum as a being. After all each drum has a body, and each body has a particular shape and size. And once the skin is attached a drum has a head. But it is the drummer’s hands that bring out the drum’s voice. It is when the human skin of the hand comes together with the skin of the drum head, whether that is cow, goat, lizard or other, that the drum is brought to life and is able to share its message with the community.

But the drum is also a spiritual entity and is a vehicle of communication between the world of humans and the world of spirits. But whether it is being played for earthly or spiritual purposes, traditional drumming is not about the drummer. The drummer is merely the vehicle that the message comes through. To play traditional drums, one’s hands become part of the drum and one’s being the extension of the drum. The drummer is a conduit for the passage of the rhythmic energy between the corporeal and spiritual planes.

In order to do this the drummer must take the time to develop that most tactilely sensitive part of the body – the hand. The full preparation of a drummer’s hands is not only a physical undertaking. It must also encompass the mental and the spiritual for a drummer’s hands must be an extension of the brain and of the heart. To be a traditional drummer means that one is engaged in developing “the head, the hand and the heart.” This is an essential, though often overlooked part of drumming.

Sabar hands

Hands of Sing Sing Faye


1. General information about the structure of the hand from Wikipedia entry on Hand (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand)

2. Sule Greg Wilson, The Drummer’ Path, 40. Additional information about the relationship between the hand and the brain from Hand Movements by J. Randall Flanagan and Roland S. Johansson (http://psyc.queensu.ca/~flanagan/papers/FlaJoh_EHB_02.pdf),

3. Rocky Maffit, Rhythm & Beauty, the Art of Percussion, 65

4. Bill Withers, “Grandma’s Hands” on Just As I Am, 1971

5. excerpts from Rocky Maffit, Rhythm & Beauty, the Art of Percussion, 45, 62 & 63