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Virgil Donati's tips for building control, speed and finding your voice on the drums

(Image credit: Virgil Donati)

The word ‘downtime’ clearly doesn’t enter into Virgil Donati’s lexicon regularly. A drummer since the age of three years-old, Virgil’s wider emergence came in the early 90s after leaving his native Australia for the US, quickly becoming recognised as one of the driving forces in progressive drumming. Virgil has been prolific in his musical output ever since, as well as constantly striving to evolve and grow as a drummer. 

When he hasn’t been busy behind the kit for his own compositions and projects with some of the world’s most revered technical instrumentalists, the Australian powerhouse has delivered hundreds of clinics and masterclasses, as well as educational materials such as his book, Double Bass Drum Freedom and Power Drumming - the classic instructional video that cemented him in the minds of drummers for the past three decades.  

His most recent album, Ruination was released late in 2019, and is testament to his un-ending search for development of his craft, combining a career of learning across jazz, fusion, metal and prog to create a diverse, yet highly-listenable cocktail of modern progressive music.     

We spoke to Virgil, who was generous enough to offer us his top tips for developing speed, finding your own voice and the importance of improvisation, as well as unveiling a brand new play-through video of Pinprick from Ruination.

Choose your grip

“I guess we’ve got to go back to the beginning. When I started playing it was back in the 60s. I was barely three years old and the exposure I had to drummers at the time were all playing traditional grip. In those days it was very common. So as a young boy I didn’t even question it, I thought that was just the way you had to play drums, I just copied what I saw and what I thought was the way to do it. 

Over the years I became obsessed with developing my touch and technique that way, so then even when I realised you could play matched-grip, I just persevered. I’d made a choice, it was feeling good to me so I just stuck with it. I think over the years I developed it to a point where I was able to be quite flexible with it. 

So I could use traditional grip in any context, even some pretty hard playing. I played in a lot of hard rock and metal bands when I was much younger and I felt that I’d developed the ability to get what I needed from traditional grip. So it wasn’t necessarily that I thought it was the only way, I just became obsessed and decided I wanted to refine it as much as I could. 

I want to be honest - just because I do it doesn’t mean I think it’s the best way to do it. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that if I were to start all over again, I’d play matched grip. But I’ve put too much time and effort, too many years into developing a touch, feel and sensitivity with that left hand. 

The fact that I don’t have to rely on flipping the stick over in order to play powerful backbeats means that I don’t find the need to have to change. But having said that, it was a long road to get there, and it takes probably a lot more maintenance than my right hand. So in that regard it makes sense to follow the matched grip. 

But it was mainly getting out and playing the gigs. Growing up in Australia, it was a very fertile place when it came to the number of gigs, I was playing six or seven nights a week for many years, and that was really what knocked my hands into shape. That and the practice that I’d do during the day. So it was a combination of being put in those situations where you had to play to a high level and with power. I went through about 6-12 months of blisters when I was 15/16 years old, then all of a sudden that wasn’t an issue anymore, and I felt like I had the capacity and endurance to play through a gig.

Develop control

I think you have to consider all of the different possibilities when practicing. I think there’s a lot of attention paid - and a lot is said - about finger control. But playing with your fingers is important, sometimes I think it’s over-emphasised. But I think there needs to be more attention paid to wrist control. Because essentially on a drum kit, rather than just a snare drum or a pad, we’re dealing with different surfaces and tensions and different potential for rebound. The rates of speed that we require to move around the kit, I feel that we really need to rely more on wrists than fingers. That was really made apparent to me back in the 90s when I had the good fortune to meet Rob Carson, who at the time was the rudimental champion in the US. Those guys really drill their hands to an unbelievable level. I had some lessons with him and he confirmed my suspicions. A lot of that information I’m still passing on now at my masterclasses and workshops. It’s a great way to develop that horsepower that you need for today’s styles of music. 

The drum core stuff has an advantage because they’re just playing the one drum and it’s a very, very tight surface. They’re getting so much back from the drum, but at the same time they’re putting that energy to extreme use in terms of endurance and speed. But a lot of their endurance is coming because of the fact that they’ve got a wide control between each element: they can cross over between fingers and wrists far more effectively and deeply than say, the average drum set drummer could.

So, because I’ve worked on that, I can use my wrists from slow to very fast tempos before my fingers are going to need to kick in. Whereas perhaps, if someone hasn’t worked so much on their wrist control, they’re only going to get to a certain speed before they lose control. The control factor is the biggest issue when it comes to speed and playing from your wrists. It’s important to address that because otherwise at some point you’re going to sacrifice power for speed if you don’t have that control.

"I’d go as far as saying that if I were to start all over again, I’d play matched grip." Virgil Donati

"I’d go as far as saying that if I were to start all over again, I’d play matched grip." Virgil Donati (Image credit: Virgil Donati)

Different strokes

The first thing to do is to just isolate the two techniques [wrist strokes and finger rebounds]. Obviously, if you haven’t explored much in terms of playing from the wrist then the way to do that is to use what’s called a ‘locked grip’. In other words, to stop your fingers from influencing the stroke, you just lightly hold the stick against the palm of your hand with your fingers. Don’t allow your fingers to come away from the stick, and that way you’ll be using your wrist for every stroke.

A great way to practice that is to start one-handed. Start with your left or right hand and do accent patterns. The one I like to do is a triplet exercise with a strong accent on the downbeat, starting with the stick in a high position. Then the two un-accented notes are played from a very low position, still from the wrist even though they’re played a lot lower position. The other concept behind this is that you’re developing control from the wrists, you’re not just bashing with every note. You have this contrast, and that starts to also build that control.

It’s the only time I’ll really recommend doing an exercise from slow to fast. Start slowly, concentrating and scanning everything to make sure you’re doing everything with control. Then you gradually speed up to the point of challenging yourself, where you’re out of your comfort zone. The one thing that I always like to recommend is to not ignore the fundamentals. The basics of hand technique and rudiments. Rudiments are basic hand-to-hand patterns that each you basic independence, so don’t approach them too flippantly. They require some work. If you spend time working on sticking patterns, and do it intelligently - look at your hand and observe the movement and arc of the stick - are your hands relaxed? Is the fulcrum in the right place? You keep working on that and over the years you develop a sweet spot. You can talk about it, but it’s hard to put your finger on what the elements are apart from nuanced details.

For a while I did basic exercises where you go from one finger to the next and try and get control over that. But really, in your general playing, it’s all about a feel - it becomes a combination of these techniques, including arm strokes where you’re using a part of your arm pivoting as well for bigger accents. Ultimately it’s a combination of those two elements, but by isolating and strengthening both your fingers and your wrists, you improve your overall technique. For your fingers, I’d probably do combinations of exercises between your hands. Maybe three right, three left, six right. Then three left, three right, six left. Come up with variations of those types of patterns to draw them out longer, just to help get the endurance with your fingers.

Rudiments aren't just for your hands

"I guess the rudiments on the feet stemmed from my approach, my concept of playing double bass drums. It came from more of a rhythmic approach than a rigid metal single stroke approach. What I was interested in was to create rhythms and play ideas with double bass drums and grooves. 

So anything I practiced with double bass drums, I’d do it with my hands playing some sort of groove or time along with it. I never really isolated my feet. I wanted to play rhythms, not just see how far I could push a single stroke roll.

To that end I used to experiment with different combinations of singles: three-stroke singles, fives, sevens and combining them in different patterns. Then I did the same with inserting various 32nd-notes in-between 16th-note combinations, and that creates some really nice patterns. 

I experimented a little with flams as well, and then ultimately got into double strokes. I thought ‘That could be and interesting way to play long, continuous rolls’, in lieu of single strokes. Single strokes tend to have that really rigid sound about them I thought that with double strokes you’d probably get this really nice, rolling effect. Because you’re going to get variations between each stroke. There’s no way you’re going to get every note 100% even in terms of velocity. So that in itself creates a nice alternative feel to playing single strokes.

So I explored that, and I wasn’t entirely sure of the potential of where you could take it. This was back in about 1991 I think. I just experimented with it for about a year until I got it to a point where I thought, ‘Ok, this really works, you can really build some speed with this’. Around that time was when I did my second instructional video - Power Drumming - that was the first time I played those double strokes publicly. So now that’s remained part of my arsenal."

"I haven’t explored all options with bass drums, I basically stick to the fundamentals which is just pivoting at the ankles. I never really explored the heel/toe thing. Everything just comes from a combination of my leg and pivoting at the ankle. So you can compare that to the wrist and finger techniques, its kind of analogous to that. 

The only thing that does occur is when my doubles get to a certain speed, there’s a kind of sliding. I think it’s kind of a natural mechanism that kicks in, your feet just start to slide forward on that second beat. That may look a bit like the heel/toe thing, but it’s not. I think it may have something to do with the body’s mechanism to keep energy circulating, to stop tension from building. It’s not a practiced movement, it just unconsciously kicks in.

If I find some time one day, maybe I’ll give the heel/toe technique a try, but I’m not sure I have the patience at this point in my career to sit down and learn a totally different technique! I think I’ve been well-served this far, the way I’ve done it."

 

Develop your weaker foot

"I think perhaps just playing with the left foot. Play exercises - if anyone gets the chance - I wrote a book on bass drum technique called Double Bass Drum Freedom. It’s out there and it’s basically got everything I’ve ever worked on, but the first chapter addresses the issue of getting your weaker foot to move when it hasn’t done nearly as much as your other foot. 

The first thing is getting some feel and movement into that foot. But another thing to try is to do everything you do with your main foot with your other foot. If you’re working on grooves, swap feet while you’re practicing. This is what practice is for - to work on problem areas and weak points - so that’s what I would recommend."

Speed comes slowly

"There’s got to be a balance. You’ve got to deal with the fundamentals. It depends on where you are in the timeline of your development: if you’ve just taken up drums in the last six months, I’m not going to tell you to push yourself to any extreme. But in a nutshell, just work out the fundamentals. 

Work on the hands, do it with control and with patience, then at a certain point you do have to start pushing your limits. Now, that’s dangerous because in the hands of someone who doesn’t quite have a grasp on their technique, or the control and awareness to play things as they should in terms of sounding even, they perhaps need some guidance from a teacher. 

But at some point, you do need to start pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone because it’s the only way you get to see what’s on the other side. But do it with understanding. Go to a point where it’s really challenging, it may even hurt a little bit, and then just pull back. Now you’ve got your point for where you need to get to. You can practice for six months or a year and that will become part of your comfort zone, then you can go to the next level. 

I guess you can draw analogies to athletes, or a workout in a gym. How do you build muscle? You push yourself a little. You go to the point where it might challenge you, but you get stronger for it. It’s very similar."

Trust your instincts

"I spoke about not bypassing the fundamentals. That gives you a strong foundation, but from there you need to be prepared to work hard and develop a unique voice. In order to achieve that, you need to have an amount of trust in your own vision. Don’t allow yourself to be dragged around and become disillusioned by other people’s opinIons. We can all get sidetracked by that - and they are only opinions.

At some point, you’ve got to have faith in yourself, be true to your convictions and just forge that path for yourself. And always remember that nothing worthwhile comes without unrelenting effort. You’ve just got to work for it, and that’s my ultimate advice for younger drummers.

It takes years for the creative process to evolve, so you’ve got to have patience. You’re going to be confronted with your mechanical challenges, but also the musical and rhythmical challenges. And then you’ve got to learn how to interact with other musicians. So it’s a drawn-out process. For me right now, it’s about finding the balance between feelings and ideas. Ideas are great, they’re pre-conceived. But the ability to be able to sit down at a drum kit and be able to unite those qualities of ideas and feeling, to me it’s the apex. Where you can just sit and improvise and create something beautiful."https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9XdPjxReDc 

Feel can be learned

"That kind of freedom comes from the work that you put into your rhythmic expression on the drums: your ability to express yourself, exploring rhythmic possibilities in your practice, becoming comfortable with each unit of every beat, understanding where you are within the pulse, counting. 

Becoming deeply intimate with rhythm so that it becomes part of your feel. It’s your inventory of options. Your brain is storing all of these possibilities and this ability to hear things and understand them, and being able to call upon them in the moment - that’s what improvisation is.

So when we talk about feel, it sometimes seems like people might have this idea that feel is just this thing that exists in us that we draw upon - just a natural thing that you can’t tamper with. 

But no, feel is something you have to develop too. You can feel what comes naturally to you, only as far as your limitations are. So you need to enhance that, so that you can ‘feel’ more things. That sounds a bit deep, but it’s true! The important thing is to keep striving, that’s the beauty of art."

Virgil Donati's latest album, Ruination, is out now.