How to improve your dynamics at the drum kit

Dynamics is the volume at which you’re playing your beats and grooves. That’s not just the overall volume that the audience hears, but the individual volume of each drum, cymbal and each limb that you’re playing. 

When you’re playing a song, say a rock track, you want to make sure you’re playing that feel or style correctly. Rock is a very high-energy, aggressive, loud style so you want the overall dynamic level to fit.

But what about the dynamic level within your own grooves? When a drummer is too heavy on the hats, or too quiet on the snare, you get an inconsistent mix that will stick out and could throw the whole groove off. 

Played with good dynamics, your ghost notes will really improve your groove

If your bass drum is too quiet it’s not going to punch through, if your snare drum isn’t loud enough your backbeat won’t have the impact, if your hi-hats are too loud they will drown out everything else. You have to be in control of your own internal dynamics.

If you’re playing a beat with a lot of snare drum ghost notes, if your ghost notes are almost as loud as your backbeat, you won’t get the feel you’re after where the ghost notes are felt but the backbeat still cuts through. Played with good dynamics, your ghost notes will really improve your groove.

Developing dynamics

So how do you change your approach to dynamics? A good starting point is to take any drum or cymbal, isolate it and try and play different dynamic levels on it. You can get many different sounds from a snare, but to start with focus on three different dynamic levels: really low, medium volume and loud. Do a single-stroke roll at those three dynamic levels. You’ll get a feel for how much velocity you’re going to need and where on the drum you can get the best sound.

At different dynamic levels the stick heights also change. This really matters when playing different dynamics. Get a feel for your own dynamic range and work out what you need to do to get those volume levels happening. Do the same with your kick. Once you’ve explored the possibilities you can work on some personal mixing within your beats. Play a simple rock beat and individually change the dynamic level and volume of each kit voice in turn. It’s not easy but it makes for really good practice. This will help with your dynamic independence too.

Hi-hat groove

You can get a really good sounding groove if you throw some dynamics into your hi-hats. Try the shoulder/tip exercise. Play the first quarter note on the hats with the shoulder of your stick, then the second note with the tip using a push/pull motion. Now you’re not just getting static notes, you’re injecting some life into it. These dynamic changes on the hi-hat help create groove. 

The final challenge is to pick a beat that you already know how to play and bar-per-bar play it at different dynamic levels. This will help you see how it sounds and also allow you to feel the change when you play between high and low dynamic levels. Timing and speed shouldn’t change here, just the volume. 

Dynamics is a really broad topic, but these exercises will give you a foundation to help you control and manipulate your own dynamics. Your grooves will sound so much better as a result.

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