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My Left Foot – Hi-Hat Foot Technique

Before he won an Academy Award for playing U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, English actor Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Christy Brown in the 1989 drama film, My Left Foot.  The movie tells the true story of an Irishman born with cerebral palsy, a devastating physical condition that left Brown with the ability to control only his left foot.  Making the best of his disability, Brown used his left foot to become a successful painter, novelist, poet and playwright.

After seeing the movie, I had a typical drummer thought: “What if my left foot could do even 10% of what Christy’s could do?”  I could use my left foot to lock in the time while my other limbs were free to play drum beats and fills.  Or I could use my left foot to play hi-hat notes as part of the beats and fills.

I could use my left foot along with my right foot to play awesomely powerful double bass drum beats.  Or I could use my left foot to play a cowbell, tambourine or wood block hooked up to a gajate mount.  The possibilities were endless!

I had already noticed 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).  Christy’s story inspired me to explore all the left foot possibilities and more.  So I started with focusing on good hi-hat technique.

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 four 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).
  4. Bass Drum Foot Technique – How My Feet Have Evolved (Work on bass drum foot technique).

This is the fifth post.  The tips for this post are: “Work on your hi-hat foot technique. Do foot and leg exercises regularly.”

Hi-Hat: Left Foot Heel/Toe
My left foot evolved much in the same way as my right foot did.  My first drum teacher, Chic Colburn, taught me to rock my left foot back and forth on the hi-hat pedal while counting a 4 beat measure.  I tap my heel on the count of 1 and press the ball of my foot into the pedal on the count of 2, heel on 3 and ball of my foot on 4.  The hi-hat cymbals make a nice, clean “chick” sound as they come together.

This works great for playing jazz (or rock) when I’m playing the ride cymbal with my right hand.  My beats really “lock in” because my left foot is keeping quarter note time while my other limbs have the freedom to play complex patterns.

However, the heel/toe method doesn’t work when I’m playing a rock beat on a closed hi-hat because putting weight on my heel opens the hi-hat.  Therefore, I modified the technique to tap my left heel (without lifting the ball of my foot or my leg) whenever I want to hit the closed hi-hat cymbals with a stick.  That way my left heel continues to keep a steady quarter note or eighth note beat without opening the hi-hat cymbals.

Heel Up Hi-Hat Technique
When I started playing heel up on the bass drum to get louder, I naturally started playing heel up on the hi-hat. This method amounts to pressing down on the hi-hat with the ball of my left foot while lightly tapping my left heel or just bouncing my left leg in time with the music.

The first time I saw Chicago (the band) drummer Danny Seraphine I was amazed at how relaxed he was when he played.  He’d play these monster fills and make it look so easy!

One of the things I noticed is that he played eighth notes on his hi-hat with his foot, almost constantly.  If he did a fill, his left foot was playing his hi-hat throughout.  If he was playing his ride cymbal, his left foot was playing eighth notes.

After seeing Danny, I understood why, when I listened to Tower of Power drummer David Garibaldi, I could hear a hi-hat being played during his fills and when he played the ride cymbal.

It was a true “ah-ha” moment for a young drummer!  It took some work but I finally trained my left leg and foot to play eighth notes in time with the music.  And, boy, did it help my timekeeping! It was easier to play a constant tempo and it sounded so funky to have the hi-hat playing during my fills.

There are times when I’m playing heel up when I need to open the hi-hat.  In order to do that I use one of the following techniques:

  • Quickly lift and lower my leg for a loud, percussive “chick” sound,
  • Quickly lift my leg, hit the hi-hat cymbals with my right or left stick, and quickly lower my leg to get a really cool splash sound,
  • Rest my heel on the hi-hat foot board, slight raising the ball of my foot so the hi-hat cymbals are still together and can be played for that Ringo “bag of coins” type sound, or
  • Rest my heel and raise the ball of my foot all the way up so the hi-hat cymbals are apart and play the top cymbal as I would a regular ride or crash cymbal.

How to Improve Your Drum Foot Technique
Now that you know the different techniques for playing with your feet, it’s time to take some action.  Here are some tips to help improve your foot technique.

1. Do Foot and Leg Exercises Regularly
The great drummer and teacher, Mel Brown, showed me this. Sit in a chair and lift the ball of each foot in the air at the same time, leaving your heels on the ground. Drop the balls of your feet and repeat.  I do about 50 of these each day. Try alternating feet: First the right foot then the left, then the right and so on.

Next, while still sitting in a chair, lift your heels while leaving the balls of your feet on the ground. Let your heels drop and repeat.  I do about 50 of these each day, too. I also alternate my feet: Right, Left, Right, etc.

The last exercise is for your legs and starts by raising your heels off the ground.  Then quickly lift your legs so the balls of your feet are off the ground and drop them back down without having your heels touch the ground.  Repeat about 50 times.  Then try alternating between your right and left legs.

2. Warm Up Your Feet and Legs Before A Gig
Before you play a gig, find a place (maybe it’s on stage sitting at your drums) to do the exercises described above.  It will help you warm up and help prepare you mentally to “keep steady time.”

3. Work on Your Foot Technique
There have been many good books and DVDs created about drum set foot technique.  However, I have not seen a DVD that covers foot technique in the way that Speed, Power, Control, Endurance by Jim Chapin covers hand technique.

The closest thing I’ve seen is this YouTube video that does a really nice job of breaking down the technique for the right, bass drum foot.  Take a look and let me know what you think.

Make sure that you are always working on having the best foot technique possible.  It’s easy to get into bad habits that lead to being tense, playing unevenly and decreasing your speed.

4. Practice!
The more you practice good foot technique, the less likely you are to adopt bad habits. Here are some exercise books that I’ve found helpful to improve my foot technique:

I hope that your feet get the respect they deserve and that they evolve to the point where they are on par with your hands. It really makes a difference in your playing. And it will help you relax and have fun playing the drums!

I always think these blog posts are going to be a few paragraphs with several sentences in each paragraph.  But I’m so interested in teaching you all that I know about a subject that the articles end up being much longer!  And there is so much more to tell you about playing with your feet but this is a good stopping spot for now.  I hope you find this information helpful.  Come back and review it many times.