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I have been playing drum for years (not but close to 8 years), self-learning most of the time, with really not enough practicing. Yet I am able to play some intermediate songs without much pressure. At beginner's stage, I practice very slowly while saying out loud / counting inside the brain with the beat (1 e & a...) as a way to gain muscle memory. Now I admit I basically just make use of the "feel" and maybe my whole body movement to time when I play.

Recently I have talked with a great senior drummer and he said timing with left foot is very fundamental and natural which I should have mastered it. I can hardly agree as I think timing with left foot is so challenging that it requires very good independence and coordination with other 3 limbs. In some sense I think it is basically the same as double pedaling, and it is not fundamental nor natural isn't it?

So, my question is that: Is it true that timing with left foot is really fundamental and natural (without much practicing)? If not, is there any good drills on it? (If yes then I will accept my lack of talent and practice even more...)

A simple example is attached for reference (bpm ~ 160), I can play the following easily if not using the left foot, but instantly fail if I try to time with left foot which makes me really depressed now.

enter image description here

Edited [2022-08-18]: Thanks for all the great answers, they sure help a lot. But now I have a follow up question about the mindset, let's use the same pattern above as an example:

Currently, without timing with left foot / hi-hat (or precisely as in Michael's answer: not able to play another simple but different rhythm simultaneously), when I play some rhythm like this with obvious groupings (a say group of 8, or 16), I literally count the grouping itself i.e. 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2 or hands-foot-foot-hands-foot-foot-hands-foot instead of 1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&. I found it is easier and somehow more "musical" to me (as the groupings are meant to be recognized by players and audiences)

My follow up question is that: Is this mindset weird / wrong? How does other drummers count this in their head? or just practice enough to gain muscle memory?

I have this question because when I try to include another rhythm which is not in sync, say left foot for every 2 notes in this case, my head blows up and cannot count using my way. I must time it using the traditional 1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&. I know the effect is literally the same if I time and perform perfectly but some parts inside me cannot accept this as this counting method "breaks" the group, sounds stilted and seems violates the intention of such arrangement... So I really want to know how other drummers think, what's their mindset when doing this...

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  • Timing with all four limbs seems to be fundamental for drumming. If it was not, you wouldn't have this problem.
    – Tim
    Aug 17 at 10:27
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    One check: maybe it's because I'm not a drummer, but I'm not totally sure what you mean by the phrase "timing with left foot." Do you mean "When I use my left foot, it has trouble being accurate about the timing of the rhythms played?" Do you mean that you try to play without using your left foot at all? Or do you mean using the left foot to "keep time," playing a regular pulse, like the Xs that are on the beat in this pattern? Aug 17 at 11:59
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    @AndyBonner I’m 99% sure the asker is talking about their hi-hat pedal work. Both because the weak foot is normally on the hat pedal and the pictured music is mostly about the hat pedal marking time while the hands do other things. Aug 17 at 13:05
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    I double pedal when I sit behind a desk. It's the sitting for 8h in a row that's unnatural. Besides, doubles are easy. Doing something else that isn't 180 out of sync with the other foot is hard. Left foot has to be on muscle memory; only takes 3 things to hypnotize someone.
    – Mazura
    Aug 18 at 3:00
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    I think you'll benefit from counting using the Kodaly type system (1 e & a 2 e & a) while only saying the beat number out loud, or in this case as stepping on the hi-hat. Because it distinguishes beat from beat subdivision. When you do the subdivision rhythms against the verbalized beat counts, it seem to reinforce that "automatic" skill we aim for. Aug 18 at 13:01

5 Answers 5

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The body "learns" motor skills in ways that are specific to body parts. Think about handwriting: If you try to write with your non-dominant hand, you write terribly and it's challenging. That doesn't mean that you don't know how to write, or that these motions are somehow inherently more difficult for that hand. It doesn't mean that the non-dominant hand is "less suited" to writing. It just means that it doesn't have much practice at it. Meanwhile, there are other tasks that we impose on our non-dominant hand much more often—turning a doorknob, pressing buttons, using a fork while we cut our food with a knife (or all the time, if eating European style). Circumstances force us to do these with the non-dominant hand—maybe we're carrying something in our dominant hand and have to open a door with our non-dominant. The non-dominant hand gets much more practice at these motions and they don't challenge us.

I would quibble a bit about the words "fundamental and natural." It seems as if your takeaway from the senior drummer's advice was "this is something you should already know." The word natural implies "this is something that isn't very challenging; you should already know it because it ought to be something you're born with; it's not primarily a learned skill." I doubt that this is what they meant—and if they did, it's not helpful advice. It isn't easy for you right now, ergo for you it's a learned skill. It doesn't help anyone from a pedagogical standpoint to say "Well you ought to be able to do it."

In contrast, the word fundamental means that this skill is "foundational"; it's important because other things build on it. I think it's more likely that their point was "You've learned some other skills that are more advanced, that are a 'level 2' skill, but this is a 'level 1' skill and shouldn't have been skipped. You need to pause and gain this skill before going any farther."

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  • For most people, there actually is a difference between non-dominant and dominant hands, more than just lack of practice. Given the historical societal pressure against left-handedness, there would have been no left-handed people in the middle ages if it were always possible to just practice your way to being right-handed. (And yes, you generally can improve your non-dominant limbs with practice, but you can't jump to the moon by practicing jumping a little higher every day, and likewise an x-handed person isn't just a y-handed person who's not practicing hard enough.) Aug 18 at 19:39
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    Writing requires an unusual amount of precision and is an one-handed activity. For many musical instruments including drum kit the left and right hand parts are roughly equally difficult even if there are strong traditions about playing them in one orientation.
    – ojs
    Aug 18 at 19:49
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In some very narrow styles of kit drumming you can get away with not developing your hi-hat pedal foot. For everything else, it’s pretty important.

Kick pedal technique and timing are obvious, because the kick drum is very audible. The hi-hat pedal work for most drummers is a lot more subtle, but it is important.

One thing that is not easy to hear but is a great skill is keeping time with the hat pedal while playing other things with both hands. One drummer who makes this very audible is John Bonham. If you listen to his fills and drum patterns closely, you’ll hear his hats are always marking time. If you watch even a small number of drum lesson videos (Drumeo comes to mind), you’ll notice the teachers are almost always keeping time with the hat pedal while they play rudiments across the kit or other patterns.

The other aspect of hat pedal timing that is important is opening and closing it at exactly the right times when playing the hats with sticks. There’s a lot of nuance in those patterns and it only comes through with the right timing.

Finally, not about timing but in general terms about the hat pedal foot: the ability to precisely control the hat pedal is very important for getting the best hat sound. It’s second in importance to how you hit the hats.

I’m afraid the upshot is that yes, you’ll want all four of your limbs to have well-developed technique and timing for each of their duties on the kit, assuming you want to play at the best of your ability.

For learning hat pedal timing and technique, you have to start small and slow, just like everything else. This will be a challenge of patience since your other limbs are so far ahead. Isolate your hat foot and practice with it alone. When you work on patterns including it, you have to slow way down and basically hit each moment one at a time counting and thinking about which limbs are going to hit for each subdivision of the beat. And start with simpler patterns. Also try just getting a “metronome” going with the hats and then working on rudiments on the snare - again slowly. That’s a great basic practice that will strengthen your hands and hat foot.

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  • Led Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love Cymbal solo at 1:19. Mine certainly wasn't well-developed technique but all my pedal work was done on the balls of my feet or toes. "the ability to precisely control the hat pedal" +1. Chocking cymbals is hard; just use the HH.
    – Mazura
    Aug 18 at 3:01
  • very narrow styles - like everything in 4/4? No problem. But anything in 3/4 (or anything ever other than 4/4...) you'll need 8h a day for a month or two, doing nothing but left foot (that's what my senior said). In my 20y I never had muscle memory for the HH, but I also didn't count; music writes itself, you just gotta keep up. If you're counting time, you're making it rather than keeping it, which always sounds stilted.
    – Mazura
    Aug 18 at 3:19
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I do not think it needs to be specifically "left" nor "foot", but you should be able to count the beat in some way while doing some other rhythm(s). That's a general rhythm concept/skill.

I think of keeping the beat with the left foot as something you might do while strumming a guitar and singing. If you stomp your foot loud enough you get a bit of makeshift percussion. But that's just one specific application of keeping the beat.

On a drum set if you keep the beat with your left foot, that would normally be the foot on the hi-hat. Obviously that could interfere with playing some patterns like steady eighths on closed hi-hats. But it would fit with other patterns where you would do exactly that, something like playing the beat in quarter notes by just closing the hi-hat. Again, these would be specific applications of the basic concept.

Your example pattern is a kind of hemiola, a pattern of 3 against 2. It's fairly easy to shift between groupings of 3 and 2 while keeping a steady tempo, but actually playing both groupings of 3 and 2 simultaneously is tricky. But, if you want to have good rhythm skills, you need to practice that.

It isn't entirely clear what this senior drummer meant to tell you. And you may have misunderstood their point. But that is a matter of detail. Let's not split hairs and miss the fundamental point: you should be able to perform a rhythm to keep a steady beat while simultaneously playing other rhythms. If you can't, practice it and build up complexity from simple beat subdivisions to syncopations to hemiola/polyrhythms, etc.

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    As a person who sometimes plays drums, I kind of disagree. Getting a good pedal sound from hi-hat has more technique to it than just closing it between playing open and closed. It's quite different from bass drum pedal and doesn't come without practice.
    – ojs
    Aug 17 at 18:13
  • I didn't mean to say anything particular about hi-hat technique. But something seems unclear about what exactly that person meant by specifying the left foot. I might be wrong but I took "timing" to mean "being able to keep the beat." Perhaps they simply meant 'don't neglect your left foot skills.' But, for a drummer all of this should be obvious. You should be able to play multiple patterns in all of your limbs. Aug 17 at 21:28
  • @MichaelCurtis All answers are very helpful and encouraging but I accepted this answer because it hits the core of my concerns, which I was not able to describe by words: "Able to perform two different rhythm simultaneously" ... Also the 3-3-2 or similar groupings are so common that I used them a lot without knowing their name: "hemiola"
    – shole
    Aug 18 at 2:46
  • They meant you should be able to keep time with the HH w/o thinking about it, so that four things become three and therefore manageable.
    – Mazura
    Aug 18 at 3:02
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    @MichaelCurtis I understand your point, but based on my personal experience I disagree. The hemiola together with straight rhythm is a common pattern and for me playing the 4/4 beats with right hand wouldn't be any problem but everything is more difficult when foot hi-hat is involved. Even more so with bass drum and hi-hat go together since the techniques are different.
    – ojs
    Aug 18 at 5:51
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I would suggest reframing the issue from 'foundational skill' to 'usable tool'.

If you want to be able to use your left foot for drumming you must work on it.

I suggest practicing with your feet what you practice with your hands(obvious differences excepted of course) if you want the most from your drumming.

I would also suggest practicing between your hands AND feet...not just hands Then feet. e.g. l hand/r foot r hand/l foot l hand/l foot r hand/r foot - then work to integrate between any hand/foot combo to achieve a musical idea.

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Answering the followup edit on 2022-08-18:

The way I hear it is 3-3-2 and straight rhythm at the same time, and how I keep track of it is how these two rhythms interfere with each other.

The first hi-hat tap lands on the snare beat. The second one lands on second bass drum beat. The second snare lands between hi-hats. After the second triple the rhythms are again in sync, and they stay synchronized over the last 2. That's all.

The other way I hear it is a rudiment-like thing that is not on the list of official ones that goes R-L-L-R-L-L-R-L. Only you play the L on bass drum. You can already play paradiddles on all combinations of limbs except left foot, right?

Finally, you need to practice until you have the steady rhythm drilled into muscle memory. You probably can do it with your right hand. Now it's time to practice the left foot. It's a bit more difficult than hands for a number of reasons and there's nothing natural about it, but you can probably do it. Until you have drilled the movement to muscle memory, you will need to focus on your foot and everything else suffers because of that. You can't count any more, you will lose control of your hands and you lose control of your face which leads to the drummer face. Just practice until it's in muscle memory.

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  • Thanks, I like your last paragraph which basically my thought now, very good advise. I am already able to see (or load in my brain at least) the rhythm as 3-3-2 and straight rhythm now, but I really appreciate the fact that you inspire me to see it as a combination of two paradiddles (I often count it as 4-4) which seems another way I am already able to time it steadily (but not with left foot, needs practice)
    – shole
    Aug 19 at 2:09

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