Gaining speed and control with double bass drums or a double bass pedal seems to be one of the most elusive and frustrating facets of drumming for many players. Well, after sifting through mountains of ineffective advice and finding what actually worked for me, I thought that it would be a crime to not share what I've discovered works via my own personal experience and research.
First of all, I have to get a few things clear:
1. Playing through pain is BAD
2. Playing with tension is BAD
3. Playing with poor technique is BAD
4. And practicing with any of the above attributes is unhealthy and counter-productive.
That being said, when I refer to a "burn", I'm talking about the release of lactic acid into your bloodstream. It literally feels like your muscles are burning, if you're familiar with weight training. It involves NONE of the bad things I've mentioned above, and it is a HEALTHY and NATURAL way for your muscles to gain speed and control. If you experience pain at any point, your body is telling you that you are doing something wrong. Remember, relaxation is KEY!
Why this method works:
Generally speaking, slow twitch (type I) muscle fibers have properties related more to endurance work, while fast twitch (type II) fibers are for speed and burst power. From a drumming (and also somewhat simplified) perspective, type II fibers are what will allow you to play those blazing fast 32nd note runs between all your limbs, type I fibers are what will allow you to hold those speeds for a more significant amount of time, and lactic acid (or lactate) produces the burning sensation when your system is being heavily worked. There is limited evidence to promote the idea that you can convert a substantial number of fibers from one type to another, although some athletes have shown uniquely appropriate shifts in either direction (endurance runners having a larger proportion of type I, sprinters having more type II.)
Lactate is a by-product of strenuous type II muscle contraction and an abscence of sufficient oxygen to provide to those type II muscles as fuel. This is the chemical reaction that causes the BURN. It's a naturally occuring, neccessary, and unavoidable chemical element of high intensity physical action. Produced within the body AND absorbed by the body, lactate is not a waste or a by-product, but an element of fuel. Without it, we would not be able to do any of the rapid, burst activities we all enjoy so much.
For more information on this subject, READ THIS- it's great!
Learning good foot technique is all about putting in the practice, as I've found that your technique develops as you do the practicing. If your foot technique feels unnatural, then you should definately consult a drum teacher before you start regularly playing to a burn.
However, contrary to popular belief, there is more to speed and power than good technique alone. Once you have good technique, then when you play to a burn, you WILL NOT be playing with tension, and you WILL NOT experience pain. This is the point of having good technique- to prevent problems and to perform as efficiently as possible. But when you play to a burn, your fast twitch fibers WILL develop, enabling you with the ability to play FASTER with MORE CONTROL.
So it's not muscle burn that you need to avoid, as is commonly advised, but things like serious aching, sharp pains and other symptoms that are abnormal to development. There's a reason that the line "no pain, no gain" exists, but when your body is sending you clear signals of a problem, you definitely want to back off.
I've come to realize that it's not about the pedals, it's the player. You should be able to play decently on any pedal, and because we are all built differently, my body and yours will feel comfortable with different settings. Generally, the closer your pedals are set to the factory defaults, the better, because that way you'll be able to play well on more than just your pedals with a bit more comfort. I've played on a multitude of pedals, and I personally believe that all of the top of the line brand name pedals are good. Axis
seems to be the best for sustained high speeds, but other than that, it's anyone's call.
The mechanics of high speed double bass:
When you play very very fast, you have to change your technique. It is a gradual progression from lifting your whole leg to using mainly your hip flexor muscles or your ankles, or a combination of the two. The hip flexors for those of you not familiar with the term is located about where your pelvis connects with your upper leg. For me, I start transitioning at about 160 bpm into hip-flexors from using whole-leg, and at about 190 I'm using all ankles.
Regarding difficult patterns, I've found that the lower I get on the footboard, the more control I have. I tend to use the "flat-foot" technique during these times, because the technique lends itself to greater leverage and ease of balance. A great way to get comfortable with this technique is to practice patterns that alternate leading limbs every so many beats. For example, double paradiddles. And then put a backbeat on top, and experiment.
In terms of playing as fast as I can (currently 225 bpm 16ths), it seems that your feet are dribbling the pedals as fast as they can, about midway on the footboard, and I think with speeds that high, you have to start controlling your tension to make gains. What I mean is, there is a certain tension going on, but you are controlling it. It is specific, and localized. You can't be TOTALLY relaxed at those kinds of speeds, and it requires a great deal of effort.
When I play at 200+ bpm 16ths, my feet feel like they're "floating" above the pedal. Go out and buy Thomas Lang's dvd, and watch how he does it. Pay EXTRA attention to the exercise where he increases and then decreases note groupings for every two quarter notes. That one was invaluable to me to actually SEE the mechanics of the motion change as you play faster or slower. Watch how he does it, you'll find that after you are finally able to play 200+ bpm, when you start putting it all together, your feet start to move in the same way his do.
Ways to practice:
When you practice, focus on two things: the quality of the sound (both feet should sound equal, and rolls should sound smooth) and your muscles (isolate them and play about 30 seconds into a burn, with every technique you can). It is important to practice all techniques because they all have a bearing on your control. Playing heel-down will make you better at heel-up, playing heel-toe will improve your heel-down, etc. Improvement of the techniques is a collective effort, because all of your muscles work together to control the pedal.
Playing single strokes to a burn increases your control alone, but I strongly suggest practicing more than just the single stroke roll. I have made a lot of progress by working on broken patterns like alternating open-3's, 5's and 7's, single-stroke four's (aka herr-ta's), and patterns like flam-taps all with a backbeat over them. Practicing this type of thing will do wonders for your overall control.
When I first started practicing this method of "playing to a burn", the way I did it was to put on some 200+ bpm death metal and try to keep my feet in time with the music as much as I can. The reason I tended to speed-train with death metal is because the intensity really helped me to keep going hard. I always avoid flamming if I can, and if I don't start cleanly I try to start over until I can. This goes for all techniques. I'm usually playing the snare on beat 3 or 2 and 4 and quarters or eighths on the (right-side) hi-hats.
I don't play till my legs give out, but I play maybe 30 seconds or up to a minute into the burn. Work every muscle you can. I'll do this with heel up and heel down, and try to emphasize different techniques, like Bostic's (from the Virgil Donati / Derek Roddy board) flat-foot technique. http://www.bosticman.com/bostic/videos/lesson1.mov
For best results, do several repetitions of this per day. After I do a set with my feet, I'll rest my feet and play to a burn with my hands, and I tend to play rudiments with my hands as well in addition to the single stroke roll (doubles, flam taps, flammed 5-stroke roll, flam accents, etc.) I would say I do maybe 3 or 4 repetitions with both the hands and the feet. The whole "speed training" process shouldn't take more than 10 - 15 minutes.
When I first started doing this, I saw noticible improvements EVERY SINGLE DAY. I was shocked to see it was possible to improve that fast. When I started my max controlled speed was 130, 135 bpm. Within several weeks, I could control 200. As of this writing, I'm at 225. I'm all about results, and this is what did it for me.
For more information:
Get Thomas Lang's DVD Creative Control immediately.
Hudson Music Thomas Lang - Creative Control (DVD)
You can contact the author of this article at firstname.lastname@example.org
More double bass drum resources:
Hal Leonard The Encyclopedia of Double Bass Drumming (Book)
Shop for double bass drum pedals