How to Play the Drums Quietly

I was going to call this post “How, When & Why to Play the Drums Quietly,” but that’s too long a title, and it’s grammatically incorrect. But the How, When and Why are all important, and all related.

As a teenager, I was forbidden by my father to play the drums whenever he was home. He hated the noise. And, in many ways, I agreed with him. Drums are loud. Really loud.

Ever try to play the drums quietly? It’s not easy. It’s like riding a bike or ice skating really slowly. You don’t get the natural bounce-back from the drum heads that you get when you hit hard. And if you use lightweight sticks, you don’t get the same momentum or rebound.

So why do it? I’m getting to that, but first let’s start with the When.

When is it a good time to play the drums quietly? Any time it’s appropriate, I’d say. It’s a judgment call, and it doesn’t hurt to err on the side of quietness. It could be an unplugged rehearsal, an acoustic performance, a practice session, etc. Contrary to some people’s belief, music is not necessarily better just because it’s louder. In general, my rule of thumb is to approach a musical situation gently. You can always get louder if necessary.

So again, why do it? Because people will like you more if you can play at different volumes, depending on the situation and environment. Drums are a cool instrument, but many don’t seem to realize that they are a dynamic instrument. I often hear drummers who have two volumes: Loud and None. C’mon, can’t you hear that you’re way louder than everyone else? Can’t you hear that playing loudly in this glass-walled café sounds like crap? Play more quietly.

But, like I said before, it’s not that easy. You have to practice it. Playing quietly is harder than playing loudly, and I’m sure that’s why so many can’t seem to do it. Nowadays, there are innumerable alternatives to traditional drumsticks, like dowel rods, brushes, blasticks, brooms, chopsticks, etc. and it’s good to practice with all of these. You never know what might sound best at a particular gig. Rebound and sound vary tremendously with all these different mechanisms.

And they all require practice. I’ve had drummers try using my 0.475″ diameter lightweight sticks and exclaim angrily “I can’t use these things. There’s no rebound.” That makes me laugh. Of course there’s rebound, it’s just not as MUCH as with the big logs. Practice with BOTH lightweight and heavy sticks. And everything in between. Like different instruments. You might need one in one case, and another in another.

I’m not saying “Play Drums Quietly,” I’m saying “Be Able to Play Drums Quietly, Should the Situation Dictate.” Your band mates, venue managers and audience will thank you.

You’re welcome.

2 Comment

  1. Brian Phillips says:

    Hi, Joel!
    As you may recall, I’m now learning to play the drums for the first time at age 40 something. One of the many things I find challenging about playing the drums is to play at a volume that sounds musical to my ear. It’s actually shocking to me (and my ears) how loud drums are in a small room. The noise bothered me so much at first that I wondered if I had chosen the wrong instrument. Being on a self instructed path, I rely on the internet for guidance. Many of the YouTube videos and chat room comments I found seemed to stress the need to play heavily — at least, what I regard as heavily. (This all a little ironic, of course, considering that I enjoy listening to rock and funk, etc., among other types of music). But I find that when it comes to playing drums, I prefer a relatively light touch. And I’m pretty sure my drums and my drumming sound better for that!Thanks,

    1. jlitwin says:

      Hey Brian! Great to hear your thoughts. I agree with you, drums can seem incredibly loud, depending on the room. I think it’s mainly because of your close proximity. And actually, they really ARE loud. According to the Internet (so it MUST be true), a rimshot on a snare can be as high as 140db, same as a gunshot. Your ear is only a few feet away. I almost always practice with headphones on, listening to either recorded music or click track. I use isolation headphones to block out much of the drum sound, and adjust the cans accordingly to hear more or less of the drums. This not only makes the drums sound more palatable, but decreases the chance of hearing damage. And with isolation phones, you don’t have to turn the music/click up as loud to compete with the drums. Again, protecting your ears. I highly recommend it.

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