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Introduction To Heel Toe!


Should you consider the application of study in technique on the drum set, and analyses in your playing where the bulk of the work is concentrated, you’ll generally find that the bass drum is largely neglected in comparison with the other voices of the kit. There are probably many reasons for this. Firstly, we are normally taught snare rudiments quite comprehensively as a grounding, but this can be enough to concentrate on for a lifetime, given the multiples of options employing different stickings etc. We can easily get “stuck” on rudiments. Secondly, in mastering the first basic rhythms, we tend to play fairly simple patterns between snare, hi hat & bass. We then increase the level of complexity by adding fills on snare, toms & cymbals.

All too often, the sum total of many players’ “achievements” on the bass drum are limited to the odd 16th note lick here & there, or fast 8th note pulses. Anything more elaborate is commonly, and sometimes, quite correctly viewed as “overplaying”. But the bass drum CAN be played tastefully, with some imagination & skill, and can be utilized in many genres of music.


Bass drumming & double bass drumming tutorials tend to concentrate on what is termed as the “single stroke system”. This system simply consists of playing “foot to foot”, i.e., RLRLRLRLRLRLRL etc. There is nothing fundamentally “wrong” with this method of teaching. Equally, there is nothing inherently “wrong” with teaching single stroke rolls on the rest of the drumset. However, just imagine if you could only ever play single strokes on snare, toms, cymbals etc! Just think of the number of applications that would be impossible:-

Double stroke rolls (pretty obvious ‘eh!), paradiddles (single, double, triple, triplet, inverted etc), drags, press rolls, the list goes on……. Now, think again about your bass drum technique. How many of the above rudiments do you play (or have you tried to play) on bass drum?



I myself held a common view for quite a long period of time, that double bass drumming, even if mastered to a high level of proficiency, was a bit “flash”, a bit “rock”, a bit “Tommy Lee” y’know? It wasn’t really until I heard some of my idols playing double bass tastefully, that I started to drop these misconceptions. I can vividly recall Steve White (drummer with Paul Weller) doing a clinic in Cornwall some years back, playing some ridiculous Vinnie Paul 16th note triplets, & 32nd note licks with his pedals, whilst cheekily playing latin & jazz feels with his top half! Crazy dude! So, I’ve now been cleansed of my skepticism!


Like many drummers, upon buying a DB pedal, I commenced with playing single strokes only. Although I got quite a few interesting patterns down, I found the system ungainly and severely limiting. I then began to ponder the possibility of foot double strokes. I had already developed a very efficient and reasonably fast “heelup” technique with my main right foot, but my left was flagging a little, a bit out of sync. I tried almost everything. Heelup, heeldown, stool height adjustments, pedal adjustments, hairstyles, you name it! Still no real progress. I then stumbled upon an article in a publication, describing how Steve Gadd (world renowned session player) often played successions of fast double strokes using both the ball of his foot, and his heel. This method is commonly termed (and maybe incorrectly!) “heel/toe”. It forms a major part of my drumming technique.


To initially practice heel/toe, you can sit away from the drumset, with nothing but your stool. Adjust your stool height so that your thighs are either parallel to the floor, or angled just above parallel. Anything lower could potentially cause back pain (believe me, I know!). When you are sat comfortably, balanced, with your feet flat on the floor, spaced appropriately (at least shoulder width apart, feet in straight continuous line with legs), raise your left heel. Now “flick” your toes up, simultaneously thumping your heel on the floor. This is the first stroke of a heel/toe double. Your ball should now be raised slightly off the deck. Now try “tapping” your toes and ball of foot back to the floor again, this time raising your heel to the starting position simultaneously. You are now primed for the next double. Apply the above to the other foot. Before too long, after playing a few sets of doubles on one or either foot continuously, you will probably find yourself playing a broken triplet or swing blues ostinato. For a quick example of this bass drum pattern, check out Billy Cobham on “Quadrant 4″ off the Spectrum album (Atlantic). Try this pattern at various speeds, using both feet (but not at the same time). After some practice, you should also be able to play straight 16ths (as opposed to swinging 8ths) using heel/toe doubles. This is the first part of “dragging” a move of course.


Return to your kit, preferably with your stool at the same height as in the previous exercises (reshuffle the drum positions to accommodate if necessary). Your pedals should be positioned in a straight running line with your feet & legs. Think of this as a kind of “channel” or “groove”. Start off with your pedals at medium tension, with your beaters just under full height (this will be variable, play with it a little). Remove your footwear. Now slide your feet as far up the plate as possible, taking care to avoid contact with the chain or cam link. Starting again with the left foot, attempt the exercises as laid out previously. Should the first stroke (heel) not connect, firstly make sure you are raising your toes and ball of foot, and secondly, make any tension adjustments to your pedal that may be hindering the free motion of the pedal. When you are happy with the volume of both heel & toe strokes, try out the “swing ostinato” pattern, then the “straight 16ths” pattern, continuously. You may feel your lower leg muscles burn a little, this is perfectly natural. If it gets painful, take a break and return to the set later. Try the above exercises using both feet. Initially your right foot may actually be less “receptive” to this new movement than your left. This is because your right foot is psychologically “programmed in” to your conventional techniques. In fact, personally, I only usually use heel/toe with my left foot, as I am perfectly happy using heelup with my right.


Once you’re reasonably happy with the above, the possibilities of what you can play on the bass drum(s) will slowly start to become self-evident. I could list a whole load of exercises for you to try, but to be honest, it’s just as well for you to pick up a decent snare drum rudiments book, and apply the stickings in it to your feet. Just let me know when you master a press roll! I still use both single stroke system & doubles combined. Switching your left foot from heel/toe position to back down the plate isn’t as hard to master as you might initially think. Try not to get bogged down with the same sad, old cliched “dugga-dugga” barrage of 16th notes, and indulge in some swing feels, triplets, flams, drags etc. Apply your double bass in short, concise bursts. After a while you may well understand and relate to what I mentioned about being able to apply bass drum rudiments in different styles of music. It’s basically a question of application of imagination. Enjoy it!

About zildjianmatt

An avid drummer, educator and author on all things drums!

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