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Bass Drum Foot Technique – How My Feet Have Evolved

Feet. They get a bad rap from the general public. Nobody blames shoes for smelling; it’s always the feet’s fault. You never swear at your fingers when you stub them in the dark. When was the last time you washed your feet to get rid of germs? And what about that little toe? Do you even need it?

Within the general population, feet are mostly ignored until they hurt or smell.

But to us drummers, feet are sacred.  We talk about our foot technique as if we were talking about religion. Heel down, heel up, to mash or not to mash (the bass drum beater, that is).

In fact, we work hard to train our feet to act like hands. Our feet are an important part of how we express ourselves on the drum set.  They provide a foundation for the music we play.  That’s why we should spend as much time and effort on foot technique as we spend on developing our hands.

Learning good foot technique is also a key to relaxing while playing the drum set.  In order to play the bass drum and hi-hat fluidly, you must have good posture and good balance which makes it easier to loosen up.

Recently I posted an article about how to relax while playing the drum set (Relax…It’s Just a Drum Set!).  In that blog post, there are 5 tips to help with relaxation.  The tips are so important that I decided to write a detailed post for each one.  Here are the first three posts:

  1. I’ll Practice Drums on the Weekend! (Get on a Regular Practice Schedule).
  2. How Whale Blubber Improved My Drumming Posture (Sit up straight and put weight on your butt).
  3. Speed, Power, Control, Endurance by Jim Chapin (Work on your hand technique).

This is the fourth post in the series.  The tip for this post is: “Work on bass drum foot technique.”

How My Feet Evolved
In the beginning, (that is, when I first learned to play drums) my feet were like clubs. I couldn’t get them to do anything right. They seemed to have a mind of their own. And they for sure didn’t want to work together with my hands.

I would try to play the bass drum with my right foot and it would either freeze up at the ankle or come down so hard on the pedal it felt like the beater was going right through the bass drum head.

My left foot was so uncoordinated it would not even move.  I’d almost fall off my drum throne trying to get it to work.  And when it did, the hi-hat cymbals would crash together out of time, sounding like a train wreck.

As a beginning drummer, I focused mostly on my hands and ignored my feet.  I had enough trouble getting my hands to work together so I ended up playing simple patterns with my feet.

But then I starting hearing these cool bass drum licks by 2 of my favorite drummers: John Bonham of Led Zeppelin (Good Times, Bad Times – single pedal triplets!) and Don Brewer from Grand Funk Railroad (T.N.U.C. – triplets between hands and bass drum at 4:48 – 6:40).  And then I started noticing how jazz drumming great Tony Williams with Miles Davis played the hi-hat with his foot (Seven Steps To Heaven – triplets between left hand and hi-hat at 2:36 and 5:40).  That’s when I started focusing on improving my foot technique, playing more complex drum beats and incorporating my feet into drum fills.

Right Foot – Heel Down
My first drum teacher, Portland great Chic Colburn, taught me to play with my right heel down and my foot flat on the bass drum pedal foot board, pivoting at the ankle. The focus was on playing each stroke in time with my hands and with a consistent volume.

I learned some basic rock, jazz and Latin beats. I got pretty good at playing the bass drum in time with my hands, especially my right hand as it kept a steady beat on the hi-hat or ride cymbal. This bass drum technique served me well when I played in the high school jazz band and with a soft country music trio at a local bar.

Bass Drum – Heel Up
But then I started playing in a rock band and my right foot technique had to change.  Keeping my right foot flat on the foot board did not produce a loud enough sound to keep up with the volume of the band.  I learned to play the bass drum with my right heel up, the ball of my foot on the foot board, and lifting and lowering my leg to get more power.

The heel up technique worked great for loud rock music.  The heel down technique worked great for soft bands.  But as I got more experienced and played in different musical situations, I had a need for a medium volume bass drum technique that had the power of the heel up method but did not mash the beater into the bass drum head.  That’s when I discovered the heel/toe method.

Heel/Toe Bass Drum Technique
The heel/toe technique starts by slightly lifting the right leg.  When the leg is lowered, the heel touches the foot board first and the rest of the foot follows immediately afterward, rotating at the ankle.  The pressure on the ball of the foot is released immediately so the bass drum beater does not “mash” into the head (also known as “burying the beater”).

It’s similar to the motion your wrist and hand make when hitting a drum with a stick.  It’s almost like a whipping motion with the foot.

The heel/toe technique has not been easy for me to learn but I continue to work on it. I still revert back to heel down for soft music and heel up for loud.  I may even use all 3 techniques in the same song!

In the next post we’ll explore the techniques for the left foot and provide some suggestions for foot and leg exercises.  There will also be some suggestions for drum books and DVDs that specialize on improving your foot technique. In the meantime, keep evolving your feet!