We take a look at the history of the different grip techniques and how to decide which is best for you.

When a drummer picks up the sticks for the first time there’s a barrage of information and stimulus for their brain (and the neighbours ears) to process, but in all the excitement and infernal noise, one thing that goes overlooked is often stick grip. It’s almost instinctual for even a complete novice to pick up the sticks in matched grip, perhaps as they would a tennis racquet or a TV remote, or most other items. Association to other everyday items aside, even tutors almost exclusively teach beginners matched grip today; so why is traditional grip still relevant in modern drumming, and how does it differ in musical results?

The seemingly unorthodox and asymmetrical appearance of traditional grip stems back to long before drum kits. Military marching snare players carried their drums on a sling over to one side; because of the angle created, their grip had to allow them to reach the snare without inadvertently sticking an elbow into the unfortunate drummer to their left.

Traditional Grip

When the drum kit as we know it began to evolve in the early 20th century, the snare moved to a stand all of its own, but remained in the same angle sloping away to the right, because that’s how it goes, right? Well, not forever; at some point in the mid 1900’s a wise (or bored!) drummer had the bright idea to hold both sticks the same way, thus “matching” the grips of both hands. This paired with a flatter snare angle was the beginning of the matched grip revolution; it seemed to spread like wildfire though the drumming world, almost as if a sigh of relief from all the students struggling with that ‘strange left hand thing’. It wasn’t long before even marching snare players had developed new snare harnesses to straighten the angle, accommodating for matched grip. Matched grip was soon to be the preferred choice by most players, dwarfing traditional grip to almost a rarity.

Matched grip afforded players a more balanced, and seemingly more intuitive, approach. Both hands now had the same striking motion, offering the same power and manoeuvrability with both sticks. This was just in time for the rise of rock, and eventually metal, with many players taking full advantage of the extra power afforded in matched grip with ear (and hoop) splitting backbeats. As matched grip grew, variations on the grip evolved; a ‘German’ palms down style using mostly wrist action for strokes, and a ‘French’ (also known as Timpani grip) style, using more finger control with the palms facing each other. These variations can be observed clearly today in the French approach of players like Simon Phillips and Sonny Emory, to the German grip of players such as Travis Orbin or Anika Nilles. As the grips evolved a middle ground, dubbed the ‘American’ grip, appeared where the hand is tilted roughly 45 degrees towards the other, offering the best of both worlds.

Matched Grip

With all benefits that matched grip had to offer, it would only be a matter of time before traditional grip was a thing of the past, surely? Not necessarily…

Although matched approach was widely adopted fairly quickly, there were (and still are) many players who preferred traditional. Many of the greats, in fact, still opt to play traditional over matched: Dave Weckl, Steve Smith, Vinnie Colaiuta, Jojo Mayer the list goes on. The legendary Buddy Rich always maintained a very closed minded view of matched grip throughout his lifetime, once saying that in matched grip “you can’t really do anything!” Many great players cite an improved access to subtleties and intridicate dynamic control as their reasoning to stick (geddit??) with the ‘old school’ grip, but on the other end of the spectrum, Stewart Copeland has often given his views on hitting hard with traditional:

“The whole point to using traditional grip is because it’s the most efficient way to use your hand to hit a drum. You can hit 50 times harder with traditional grip than you can with matched. Matched gives you no power; you use only the muscles on the top of your forearm with matched instead of the big muscles on the bottom of your forearm with traditional. You can get a much stronger stroke that way.” (Rolling Stone, 1997)

Stewart isn’t the only player to have found hard-hitting success in traditional: Thomas Lang often displays his frighteningly powerful traditional playing, while metal player Nick Pierce exclusively uses traditional grip in applications as extreme as death metal. With these trend-busting uses of traditional in mind, it soon becomes clear that it’s a very ‘horses for courses’ choice with different players finding what they need for their style in the grip that suits them.

That’s not to say a player has to pick a side exclusively, some diplomatic, or just plain curious players, have chosen to study both grips finding benefits in both; it’s not unusual to see players switch between traditional and matched, sometimes even mid-song! Players such as Steve Gadd and Mark Guiliana have been known to employ both styles depending on the situation. Gadd cites his reason for switching grips as “Comfort, really. If I’m playing a real heavy backbeat, I find I can sit straighter and hit harder when using matched grip. If I have to do more technical things, I’m more apt to use traditional grip. I don’t really think about it’ it’s just the way I play.” (MusicRadar, 2010)

We heard similar from Pete Riley (UK freelance and Rhythm/ACM tutor) when we got in touch to get his take on sharing the use of both:

“I tend to play 50/50 these days as I’m pretty much over trying to hammer in nails in traditional grip. So a general rule of thumb (pun intended) is if there are ghost notes I’ll probably be more comfortable using traditional, if it’s walloping out 2 and 4, I’ll switch to matched which some 800+ rock gigs in the last ten years has honed with minimal work. My finesse and touch is all in traditional grip though.”

Due to the aforementioned snare angle considerations of traditional grip, many of these ‘hybrid grip’ players have to set their kits up in a way that allows access for the left hand in both styles, but each have done so in their own unique way: while Mark Guiliana sets his snare to a milder angle away from him, Steve Gadd makes traditional work with his snare angled towards him as it would be on a ‘matched only’ set up. Taking this to extremes, Dave Weckl sets his whole kit up differently depending on what grip he’s using; flatter for matched, and the entire kit sloping to the right for traditional. Another more unusual stick grip universal set up can be found in Daru Jones’ small set; Daru makes great use of both grips with his snare and floor tom tilted almost 45 degrees away from him!

The real question that this debate should really conjure is “What is the real-world difference?”; Does the difference in grip affect the players performance, does it sound different? Interestingly enough, many players that play both grips have mentioned that playing one grip gives them a different mind-set to the other. It literally changes their ideas, or enables them to express different ideas. When we had chance to question Thomas Lang on grips at a clinic of his, he expressly gave the mind and idea altering benefits of traditional grip as his main reason for using it, while believed that technically matched grip was more capable for modern playing. Vinnie Colauita offers a similar view:

“…psychologically and physically, it [traditional grip] affects the way you approach things. I think traditional grip has a lot to offer, not just because of tradition, because of its physical and psychological uniqueness, and its musical contribution. Those three factors work together. You just do different things because it’s a completely different motion. It’s like your right hand and left hand suddenly becomes separate thing. It just feels good.” (Drums & Drumming, 1991)

While it may be impossible for a blindfolded listener to recognise which grip was being used, to the player the one grip could enable access to a whole raft of ideas otherwise inaccessible.

Once you’ve broken the skin on the topic of matched vs. traditional it quickly becomes clear that it’s impossible to say that either grip is either better or worse than the other; it boils down to the preferences and intricacies of each drummer, and their unique relationship with the sticks. While someone may say that matched is essential for heavy backbeats, others wouldn’t dream of straying from traditional for a sturdy two and four. While some rely on traditional to get their creative flow just right, others create exciting and original ideas using solely matched. If there were one piece of advice we can take away from that, it would be to spend at least a bit of time getting to know both grips. You never know what you’re missing out on until you try, so head on over to DRUM.DOG, grab some sticks and get playing!