Why Practicing Drumming Without Drums Is So Important (and How To Do It Right)


Practicing Drumming Without Drums Is Important

As a drummer, I’ve spent a lot of time behind a drum set, practicing diligently and it wasn’t until about 5 years into my drumming endeavor that I learned about the benefits of not practicing on an actual drum. Which is why today, I want to share with you the secrets of…

How to practice drumming without drums, as well as why and how you should do it. Fundamentally, practicing drums on surfaces other than your drum set helps build strength, muscle agility and playing stamina. This is because you won’t usually find as much response from surfaces other than highly tensioned drum heads. There are several methods for how to practice drum set without a kit in front of you:

  • Practice pad(s)
  • Pillows
  • Padded chairs
  • Feet without pedals
  • Clap and sing your parts (indian classical)
  • Fingers on a table
  • Air drumming
  • Active listening
  • Play on paint buckets
  • Any surface! (creativity)

At the end of the day, practicing on surfaces other than a drum is a helpful tool in your arsenal to becoming a proficient drummer, while at the same time letting you practice anywhere at any time. In the following paragraphs, I’ll detail some of the techniques I use when practicing this way.

Why Practicing Without A Drum Set Is Effective

By no means do I recommend practicing 100% of the time without a drum in front of you, as it is important to practice on the actual instrument you intend to play. That said, a lot of beginners aren’t able to make equipment purchases right away or face other circumstances which prevent them from being able to practice on a full blown drum kit. There are plenty of examples of successful drummers getting started on nothing more than pillows, couch cushions or the ever popular (and maddening) pots and pans.

In all seriousness though, incorporating a fair amount of non-drum practice time can actually help you improve in a few key areas, even if you have the fanciest drum kit in the neighborhood.

Whether you’re using your hands or a pair of sticks, you’ll still be developing your skills as a drummer in the areas of muscle memory and general timing. There is great benefit in practicing on a lower volume surface as it allows you to better listen to yourself play along with a metronome or music and to critically observe tempo fluctuations.

Additionally, most surfaces other than drums aren’t as responsive, meaning that the rebound you experience won’t be as pronounced. What this will do for your playing is to teach you how to “play through” your drums and develop the muscle groups responsible for generating power behind a drum kit.

Dave Grohl describes how playing on pillows helped
him define his drumming style (at ~1:00)

Foo Fighters front man and ex-Nirvana drummer, Dave Grohl (arguably one of the best rock drummers around) has actually mentioned this on a few occasions. He developed his powerful, John Bonham-like playing style by starting out playing on pillows or whatever was around (check out the video at around 1 minute). When he then got behind a drum set, that power translated into the monstrous sound he is now known for.

So, now that you have a general ideal of the benefits behind practicing on surfaces other than a drum kit, let’s discuss the various methods I outlined at the beginning of the article you can use to maximize your playing…anywhere!

Practice Pad(s)

This is by far the most common method for practicing without drums as most practice pads do a fairly reasonable job of simulating the feel of an actual drum and have an accessible price point.

Practice pads come in all sorts of styles, textures and sizes. You can even purchase an entire practice pad drum set, which is a great way to practice moving rudiments around your drum kit (for example).

On the other extreme end of this category, you can go super portable with a set of neoprene sleeves for the tips of your drum sticks. This allows you to practice pretty much anywhere and on any surface without making a bunch of noise.

The practice pad market is pretty well flooded with various brands and styles. For my full recommendations on which practice pads to buy, check out my full article about pads on the Recommended Gear page, which will help you see through the fog.

Pillows

Playing on pillows is almost a right of passage for young drummers. It’s perhaps an overused cliche in the drumming community…but for good reason because so many of us started out with a pillow drum kit.

I remember being on vacation with my family when I was 12 or 13 years old and only having a pair of drum sticks with me. While most kids would have made a bee line to the swimming pool, I was pulling the pillows down to the end of the bed and pulling up a chair to make an impromptu drum set.

While this method seems extremely primitive (and it is), there are a lot of benefits to playing on pillows as they don’t offer a lot in the way of rebound. Because of this, you are actually training your muscles to initiate and anticipate the rebound (instead of having the drum itself do all of the work for you).

It may feel odd when you get back to a real drum after having practiced on pillows for a bit, but you’ll find that you have a bit more command over the drum stroke and you’ll likely play with more power as well when you do.

Padded Chairs

One of my first ‘real jobs’ required me to stay by my desk, answering phones when they rang. I had other co-workers in close proximity, so using a practice pad was out of the question as they still made a bit of noise. I did want to make sure that I could practice my single stroke rolls though during downtime. So…I stood up, spun my chair around 180 degrees and started playing on the plush back rest of the chair – making virtually no noise in the process of doing so!

This category is very similar to playing on pillows as padded chairs don’t offer a ton of rebound and are therefore a good training tool for developing more power and command over your stroke.

They are also easy to come by as you may not have a pillow with you everywhere you go.

Feet Without Pedals (“Ground Drumming”)

This is an interesting concept, and not too different in theory from playing on padded chairs or pillows because you will be developing the same power and command skills with lack of spring-loaded pedal.

Simply put, Ground Drumming is using your feet to play a phantom bass drum and relying on the sound made from your shoe hitting the ground for an auditory reference as to the quality of your playing.

There are various ways this can be accomplished and you can even practice both ‘heel up’ and ‘heel down’ methods of playing.

This video by Ryan Bloom does an excellent job of discussing the various methods for practicing bass drum without drums.

As you can see in the video, this is a great way of building up your foot technique and chops LITERALLY anywhere. You’ll find that after doing these exercises for a little while that they translate nicely over to the kit.

Clap and Sing Your Parts

To the annoyance of many girlfriends, boyfriends, parents and spouses, drummers tend to be pretty good at singing drum parts. While the majority of us couldn’t be classified as beatboxers, we can definitely bust out the drum parts to our favorite Zeppelin tune.

The practice of doing so is actually quite good for you as it helps to prepare your mind for what your body is about to do behind the kit. It can also help you to memorize some tunes quickly if your playing in a cover band for example. Simply crank the tune in your car and ‘sing’ your part along with it.

Quick Side Note: Indian Classical Music

If you’re not familiar with the genre of Indian Classical Music, go YouTube it right now. This music which originates in India features traditional instruments such as sitar and tabla. One of the most ancient forms of this music is called Konnakkol and features nothing but vocalized percussion sounds. It is essentially a language onto it’s own. Check out the video below:

Pretty nuts…right?

Fingers On A Table or Hard Suface

Wood has a natural resonant quality that tends to be quite pleasing to the ear. Metal also tends to have a unique, but someone more harsh resonant quality. Stone or marble doesn’t resonate that much – but still ‘sounds’ unique.

Why do I know all of this? Because I’ve played them all! Using your hands and fingers to mimic the sound of a drum set can be incredibly fun to do and also beneficial for a lot of the reasons I mentioned above. It can also be an incredibly creative and liberating activity as you can explore the sound that various surfaces make by being struck using various parts of your hand.

For example, I typically use the palm of my hand to produce bass tones as it is a larger surface area and can produce the most resonant qualities in any given surface.

For a snare drum type sound, I tend to hyper extend one of my fingers (either the pointer or middle) and use the joint between the tip and middle section of the chosen finger as the point of contact. It is a relatively hard portion of the finger and therefore provides a very percussive tone. But full disclosure: I have bruised this part of my finger several times playing too hard, so tread lightly – especially when starting out.

Quick Tip: Playing double stroke rolls

To easily play double stroke rolls with your hands, use the middle and index finger of each hand. Alternate one stroke per finger on each hand to achieve the effect of a double stroke roll:

EXAMPLE: Left Middle – Left Index – Right Middle – Right Index

Practice playing your favorite drum parts with your hands and in no time at all, you’ll be having your parents or spouse beg you to stop banging on everything!

Air Drumming

Air drumming usually conjures up a mental image of someone busting out the drum solo to ‘In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins…and rightfully so. That song is basically air drumming fodder.

In all seriousness though, air drumming – while admittedly somewhat ridiculous looking – can have the benefit of being able to practice various drum parts, further reinforcing memorization in your head while also improving your coordination and putting movement to your memorized parts.

There is actually a product on the market called AeroDrums, which connects a few sensors and a motion camera to your drum sticks, allowing you to play a virtual drum set. Pretty cool…but definitely the topic of another post.

Active Listening

There is a curious phenomenon I’ve witnessed many times with my students where they will want to learn a cool song they’ve heard on the radio…or maybe even need to learn a new song for a gig, but they forget about one very critical step…LISTENING!

It’s super easy to just want to head right for the drum set and start figuring a song out, but without listening to it first, I can pretty much guarantee you that you’ll learn it wrong 9 times out of 10.

By carefully listening to a song in its entirety a few times, you can really get granular with the drum parts and song arrangements in your head, prior to sitting down behind the kit. Doing so will actually decrease the amount of time it will take you overall to learn a song, not to mention the fact that you’ll be able to more easily nail the EXACT drum parts as they appear on the song.

Now, listening to a song for drum parts sounds easy enough, but listening actively and critically is the trick. My recommendations for actively listening to a song are as follows:

  • Wear headphones – you’ll be able to pick up on ALL the detail
  • Remove distractions – you may even want to turn off the lights
  • Sit comfortably – further removing distractions in the form of physical discomfort
  • Grab a notepad – after your first listen, you may want to start taking some notes about the parts or the arrangement of the song
  • Air Drum to it – but probably not until the 2nd or 3rd pass

Paint Buckets

Everyone has seen street performers, either in real life or on video, using those large paint buckets upside down as a drum. There are so many cool sounds you can get from turning these into instruments…and the rebound you get from them isn’t too bad.

There have even been professionally arranged pieces written for buckets. Here’s an example:

Inexpensive, fun, portable – what more could you want in a drum?

Any Surface!

The key word here is this: CREATIVITY!

Part of being a drummer/musician/artist is tapping into your creative spirit as an individual. This is definitely not limited to drummers. A lot of folks get stuck into thinking that to be a drummer, they must own and play on a drum set. Well, that is a notion that is completely FALSE!

With a pair of sticks…no…even just your hands…you can literally play percussion on ANY surface you find. There is a phenomenal example of this by the late, great Buddy Rich. His classic appearance on the Muppet Show in 1980 (where he famously said, “Who needs drums?”) is absolutely amazing and crazy creative:

There you have it. From the master Buddy Rich himself. Even though you have a fantastic drum kit sitting in your music room, sometimes it can be just as fun to experiment with playing on different surfaces.

With drum sticks in hand you can easily turn just about any surface into a practice pad, though you will need to exercise caution so that you don’t cause damage to whatever you may be hitting. This is especially true with nylon tipped drum sticks, as they will leave little streaks of nylon on just about anything you hit with them, including your drums.

Related Questions

What is a practice drum kit? Practice drum sets typically come in the form of a set of practice pads which are set up on various stands and arranged in such a way that it mimics the configuration of your drum set. The purpose of this type of kit is to be able to practice drum set while not making a bunch of noise.

How do you silence drums for practicing? The most common solution is to muffle drums using pads designed for the size of each drum which deaden the sound. That said, many other options also exist. I have dedicated an entire section of this site specifically towards this topic.

Alex Turkovic

Alex "Turk" Turkovic has been a drummer/percussionist and audio engineer for over 3 decades. He spent many years playing in bands and orchestras all over the globe and also attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. Teaching has been a lifelong obsession of Turk's, which is why he built PickMyDrumset.com: to share the knowledge he has gained over the years with the goal of helping new drummers realize their goals, no matter how big or small.

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