Bass Drum Techniques

Posted in Learn | Last Updated on October 4, 2018

picture of DW bass drum

Some bass drum techniques are going to be easier than others for you. Everyone is different, and you might find that you're more of a heel-up than a heel-down person, or vice versa.

As with all other techniques, foot technique is only a means to an end. If you can play with control (and without pain), and your technique is not "technically perfect", I see no problem. You should, however, be tweaking your technique if you're hurting yourself or playing with tension, or if you can't seem to achieve the control you need to express yourself musically.
There are two main ways of playing the bass drum: heel up and heel down. Both of them can provide the speed, power and control you might want, but both have their natural advantages.

Heel Up

This is the more powerful of the two primary bass drum techniques. It lends itself naturally to heavier, louder playing, and is widely used by the majority of drummers. It takes larger muscles in your leg to play heel up, which means you lose out on some speed that you would get while playing only with your ankle (heel down).

You're going to want to make sure you're sitting correctly. When playing heel up, you've got to lift your whole leg using your hip muscles, so your posture should allow you to do so.

Your leg and your upper body should form a right angle, or a little greater. If the angle is too big (i.e. sitting too high), you could be putting some of your weight on your legs, making it hard or impossible to lift them freely. If the angle is too small (i.e. sitting too low), your leg will already be "lifted", and you won't have much more room to lift it.

Another thing I tell my students to do is to try sitting near the back of the stool, rather than leaning off of the front of it. When you're sitting towards the back, your weight is completely resting on the stool, and your legs are free to move up and down. This gretly facilitates heel up playing.

Heel Down

Heel down is the other, more subtle of the 2 main bass drum techniques. It uses fewer muscles than heel up, seeing as you're simply using your ankle to lift and drop your foot. Because you use fewer, smaller muscle groups, heel down allows you to play faster, but limits the power you can create.

Proper posture is an importantly component of heel down playing as well. You should be sitting in such a way that your knee is not in front of your ankle. In other words, the angle of your knee should be 90 degrees or greater. Think about it: if the angle your knee is less than 90 degrees, that means that your knee is hovering above your toes, and the angle of your ankle is also greater than 90 degrees (in a slight "lifted" position). Your ankle has a maximum height that it can lift your foot, and if you start off with your foot already "lifted", you'll be at a huge disadvantage.

Try this: sit down, move your heel towards you so that your knee is in front of your ankle joint (hovering over your toes), and try to lift your foot up. You probably can't get very far off of the ground at all. Now, move your foot forwards, extending your knee past 90 degrees, so that it does not hover over your foot at all. Try lifting your foot now, and you'll see that you have an unrestricted range of motion.

What this translates to is bass drum distance. Too close, and your knee will hover over your toes and limit your movement, too far, and you'll lose alot of the power you can still generate with heel-down playing. Set your bass drum distance by looking at the angles of your knee and ankle.

A good exercise for developing heel-down bass drum technique is to practice without a spring. You'll have to learn to move your foot out of the way to let the beater rebound naturally.

Heel-Toe

The heel-toe technique is a combination of the first two bass drum techniques, and is the equivalent of the push-pull technique with the feet.

It's a two part movement. First, you drop your heel onto the bottom of the pedal board to execute the first stroke. Do this with your ankle flexed, and your foot angled upwards, ready to execute the second stroke.

Then, as you lift your leg, extend your ankle to execute the "toe" stroke. This part uses the muscles in front of your shins that you developped while practicing heel down.

The whole movement will take practice to get the timing right, as well as to get the speed up. Fluidity and even sound is key. Make sure the strokes are evenly spaced, and try to match the heel down sound to the heel up sound!

This technique is great for short bursts of notes that you might not be able to execute with heel up or heel down alone. I also work on my endurance sometimes by playing some 16th notes in a a backbeat groove as fast as I can play it, for as long as I can. Use a metronome to gauge your progress.

Use Both Techniques

The question of heel up vs heel down is common when you talk about bass drum techniques. My personal stance on the subject is that you should always be in a positions to use either one. You should combine both techniques in your playing, and be able to switch between the two.

Both bass drum techniques have their advantages, and sticking to one will only limit your possibilities.

Sit in such a way (as mentioned before) that you're not too high up or too far forward on the stool, and that you're not too close to the bass drum. This way, you'll be able to effectively play both heel up and heel down techniques.