Teaching Lefty Drummers
by Don Skoog
I remember the very first time I ever hit a drum. It was in
my first lesson,
I went tap on the snare drum and my teacher’s eyebrows popped up, “Are
you left-handed?” he asked. When I said yes, he stopped the lesson and
turned the drumset around. “Let’s try it this way.”
Thirty years of playing and teaching later, not a practice goes by when
silently thank him for starting me out with a setup that allows me to make the
best use of my natural hardwiring. Countless times, as both instructor and spectator,
I have seen the unfortunate results when teachers, and I include myself here,
weren’t so foresighted. Many young lefties have been through the frustration
of trying to play as a right-hander, adapting to an approach that negates
their strengths and intensifies their weaknesses. Others develop lefty solutions
for playing a right-handed kit, bushwhacking through the undergrowth and
decisions while their righty competition cruise along a well-worn path.
It’s not surprising that well-meaning, caring teachers unknowingly
subject their southpaw students to this living hell because almost no serious
has been done on the question of lefty drummers.
Handedness is part of a larger subject called laterality, which includes
strong and weak hands and feet as well as the eyes, ears, and the various
styles related to the different weak/strong combinations. It is little-studied
by most music teachers, and this is unfortunate as it’s one of the
most important factors in whether a student succeeds or not. Students' laterality
is a major influence on how they perceive information and how they think
the information they perceive. Laterality defines their learning style, and
not taking it into account can create big problems for them.
According to neuropsychologist Jane Healey,
When left- or mixed-handed children have
problems, they are often noticed more readily, but the great majority of
the problems they
not the result of their handedness at all. As with right- handed children,
the causes can be environmental, neurological, and even societal. And many of
that arise with lefties are simply the result of a lack of training and
education on the subject.
Between ten and fifteen percent of the population in America
and the U.K. is left-handed. While the percentage is
slightly lower for Asians, Latinos,
women, it’s higher in general among kids. So if you have fifty students
at least five of them, maybe more, could be lefties. If you really care about
their future as drummers, you’ll need to account for their reversed neurology
when you teach them. So you’ll need to do some homework, separating
good information from bad, because uninformed instruction can have unfortunate
Earlier in my teaching career I listened to bad advice and taught a number
lefties to play right-handed. It was years later when several returned,
their playing and looking for help, that I realized my role in their predicament.
That’s when I really started to do some research, developing concepts and
exercises that enable them to use their strengths without turning the kit around.
So even though I’m a lefty, my errors have been a major factor
in expanding my understanding of lefty needs and problems. I mention
them so that you
can learn from my experience, starting students correctly the first time
the need to make changes later.
The strategies outlined below have evolved slowly
over twenty years of teaching, reading, and talking with other instructors and
left- and right-handed.
They are meant to be a starting point and are in no way comprehensive.
The first question is whether to reverse the drumset or not. Some teachers
simply start all their students on a right-handed kit, regardless of laterality.
heard teachers justify this but I think many are unaware of the problems it can
create, and others are simply uncomfortable turning the drumset (and their heads)
around before the lesson. They say the student will get used playing right-handed,
or he can play a righty kit left-handed, or if he plays a reversed drumset he'll
never be able to sit in on other drummer’s kits, or the equipment
is designed this way. While it is true that reversing the tom mounts
a certain ingenuity, any temporary problems are far outweighed by the
advantage of being able to lead with your strong hand. Here's why.
The basic dynamic for playing drums, in its simplest form, is to put the
downbeats on the strong side and the back (or off) beats on the weak side.
hand plays the pulse while the left plays the backbeat. The bass drum plays
while the high-hat plays the offbeat. This confers great strength to the
player. Reversing this dynamic negates these advantages, creating conceptual,
perceptual, problems as well. Also, the way the toms are arranged allows
the right-handed drummer to lead with his strong hand while lefties are
forced to lead either with their weak hand or, more awkwardly, with their
This nullifies the advantages of the setup. Lefties, less adapted to utilizing
the inherent strengths of a right-handed kit, must continually compensate,
creating alternate playing techniques. This is a real disadvantage, and
while I'm all
for individuality in playing style, I think it’s better to base
your technique on your strengths than to develop your approach as an
problems in your setup. You'll get farther.
Teaching a lefty to play right-handed is like making him throw a ball right-handed.
He may learn to do it but he probably won’t end up pitching for
the Yankees. Not only are we born with a dominant hand but we have an
for using the weak/strong combination. The strong hand is adapted to
the repetitive motions that achieve a goal, like hammering a nail or
while the weak
hand plays a supporting role, holding the nail or adjusting the paper.
When a drummer is playing time, the strong hand is naturally adapted
to play the
pattern while the other either supplies the backbeat or patters depending
on the style. To reverse this innate hand-use strategy negates the advantages
that are built into us. If you don't think this is important try throwing
hammering a nail, or playing the ride cymbal with your weak hand, then
you'll know what you are asking your students to do.
Another approach is to have the lefty student play a right-handed drumset
but lead with the left hand. This generally involves putting the ride cymbal
the left side of the kit and using the left hand to play high-hat. For
this concept can work (see below) but for others it’s no better
than leading right-handed. For both it involves developing an eccentric
requires the student to create most patterns from scratch, often switching
from left- to right-hand lead as well, but it is an option for certain
The thing to remember is that our hands and feet
are controlled by the opposite side of the brain. For instance, your left hand
by the right-brain
hemisphere while your right foot is controlled by the left-brain hemisphere.
When a righty to plays his right hand and foot on the downbeat both are
controlled from the same side. For a lefty to play his left hand and
right foot on the downbeat
he needs to use both sides of the brain. He can certainly do it but the
process is more complex. And probably slower.
Although drummers like Billy Cobham, Enrique Pla, and Carter Beauford have
developed powerful playing styles based on this approach, I wouldn’t try to teach
every left-handed student to play like them. They have created unique playing
styles which take advantage of their particular strengths, and every laterally
complex student will need to do the same for himself. Playing a righty kit left-handed
isn’t the right solution for every lefty. Those with a dominant
left foot will have two problems to cope with: which hand to lead with
and a weak
drum foot. Left-handed right-footers may learn to cope but for every
Cobham there are ten frustrated left-footers struggling along in confusion.
I don't know any true lefties, who play left-handed, who regret it (it
hurt Phil Collins), so don't listen to people who tell you it's better
to play backwards, especially if you have a dominant left foot. If playing
is so great, how come they're not doing it?
I’m not saying, however, that reversing your
playing dynamic, playing the high-hat with your weak hand for instance, is always
a bad idea. Developing
techniques can be a mind expanding experience for the advanced player.
But it shouldn't be taught before, or instead of, the more traditional dynamic.
a reason most players play this way.
Handedness is only the tip of the perceptual iceberg. Every person has
a dominant hand, foot, eye, and ear that may not all line up along one
of their body.
These different lateral predispositions, and their relationship to the
two hemispheres on the brain, influence a person's learning style and creativity,
visual learners, others aural or tactile learners, good or bad dancers,
at math or slow at reading. A working knowledge of how they affect your
students will help you learn and teach better. This gets a little deep
for some people
but if you’re interested in learning more see Carla Hannaford’s book
listed in Further Reading. For most teachers, a working knowledge of the student’s
dominant hand and foot will suffice.
Remember that both hand and foot should be considered
when choosing a setup, so the first step is to determine which are dominant.
Ball throwing and
writing are the two best indicators of the dominant hand. The dominant
foot is the one
the student kicks a ball with. If the student writes, throws, and kicks
from the same side then the choice is easy, but some people write with
one hand and
throw with the other so sometimes the dominant foot can be the deciding
factor in choosing a setup.
If you’re sure the student is right-handed
and right-footed (and most are since righties generally kick with their right
foot) this issue is solved,
if the student is a mixed laterality then there are more neurological
variations and a range of options to consider.
The goal is to match the student’s strong
hand with the ride cymbal and strong foot with the bass drum so there are four
kit/right-hand lead, righty kit/left-hand lead, lefty kit/left-hand lead,
and lefty kit/right-hand lead. Two are clear-cut and two are more complicated.
1) Dominant right hand and foot. The majority of your students will be
true righties, so teach them on a righty kit/right-hand lead.
2) Dominant left hand and foot. A true lefty, so reverse the drumset and
the stickings to get lefty kit/left-hand lead.
3) Dominant right hand but dominant left foot. Luckily,
this combination is rare. Logic would dictate that these students could
play a lefty kit
right-handed. I’ve only seen one drummer who actually played this way but, while I was
as fascinated as a witness to a hanging, it was disconcerting to watch him play.
I’m sure it worked for him but I just can’t get myself to teach this
setup. It looks too weird. It would also require that I take all the teaching
materials I’ve created for left-handers on a righty kit and transpose
them for right-handers on a lefty kit. I think this is too far from the
norm, so I
start them on a righty kit and work extra hard on their bass drum technique.
4) Dominant left hand but dominant right foot. These
are students who might do well playing a righty kit left-handed, but
they are fairly rare so double
before starting them this way. Remember that they are going to have to
develop their around-the-toms patterns for themselves and it’s extra work. They
also do fine playing a lefty kit, with some extra bass drum exercises, so I often
start them as lefties. However, I have several of these students who came to
me already playing right-handed kit, so I’m still creating teaching materials
for that setup. They can do well either way, depending on their individual abilities,
but if there’s ever any doubt be sure to ask the student which
way he would prefer before charging ahead.
As you can see, there are a variety of laterality combinations that can
make it difficult to decide how to start a student. Some students’ laterality
is more complicated and you will need to put extra thought into it. It's
important to get the setup right from the beginning as it's possible
for the student
to develop perception and cognition problems from playing the wrong way,
lefties can develop dyslexia from being forced to write with their right
hand. Also, once a student has established his kit setup it should not
as this can also create problems.
The decision to start lefties on a reversed kit brings up the question
of stickings in your teaching materials. Since most of my students are
right-handed, I write
most of my teaching materials for them. With lefty beginners, I reverse
the Rs and Ls by hand, but once the student learns the basics of left-hand-lead
this usually becomes unnecessary. Lefties are used to getting along in
a right-handed world and generally learn to translate right to left without
problems. This is
not as big a concern with most drumset patterns as the stickings are not
normally indicated, but even if you have to reverse the stickings by hand
worth the effort.
Some right-handed drum teachers feel uncomfortable
reversing the kit and stickings, so if it makes you nervous, consider sending
the student to
a teacher who is
experienced with left-handers. But if you feel up to it, I would encourage
you to turn the kit around for the next southpawed beginner who walks
door. It will challenge you to think and teach differently. Remember,
you won't grow as a teacher unless you try new ideas.
As a lefty myself, I was so used to transposing to teach righties that
I found myself reversing the stickings left-to-right-back-to-left-again
explain them to my left-handed students. This has improved with experience
but I thought I’d mention it so that other left-handed teachers don’t
think they’re going insane by themselves. I’ve been there
For lefties who play a righty kit, I’m developing a set of around-the-drums
patterns to help them make the best use of their setup. Again, if they have a
dominant right foot this approach can work well for them. This gray area of lefty
drummer/righty kit has led me to work on concepts and materials for other instruments
as well. Laterality is a factor in Latin percussion, mallets, and ethnic drums
like the bodhrán, but a detailed discussion of all these instruments
would be outside the scope of this article. Just let me leave you with
a small example.
Conga drummers seem less resistant to turning the drums around because,
while you need to slap with either hand, it’s important to put
the tumbao slaps on the strong hand, at least for beginners. When teaching
sit across from me and mirror my movements (When I first started taking
conga lessons this mirroring approach surprised my teachers but was actually
effective, once they got used to it). I have the leftily-gifted sit next
to me so they can
follow my motions without reversing them. In ensemble, I generally refer
to strong or weak hand when addressing the whole group, and save the
for dealing with the problems of individual students. Since all my conga
teaching materials are written for right-handers, I reverse the handings
but perhaps there will come a time when the general sensitivity to left-handers
needs enable enough of them to progress to the point that they will be
able demand specialized materials and concepts designed to help them
Having grown up lefty in a somewhat more enlightened time, I wasn’t subjected
to the overt prejudices we’ve had to face for centuries. One result was
that I wasn’t very knowledgeable about the neurological realities of training
lefty musicians. In hindsight it’s not surprising since there was
virtually no printed information and most of my teachers were insensitive
to the issue.
Many drummers I talk to today have never even thought about it and there
are still no resources for lefty drummers either in print or on the internet.
I was lucky to have started with a teacher who did understand. I would
never have survived playing a righty kit and if it wasn’t for him I’d be
working on a loading dock or standing in a toll booth instead of sitting in a
comfy studio collecting money from other people’s children. Teaching
is the greatest gig in the world -- you can talk all you want, no one
can argue with you, and you get to listen to your favorite tunes. But
toward the people who come to them with dreams of being a musician. You
can help them achieve their goals, or damage them for life. Think about
hand them the sticks.
When this article was first posted on ContemporaryMusicProject.com.
it received as fair amount of feedback. Not surprisingly, most of the reader
comments came from lefties recounting their problems with right-handed
understand their needs. Here are some reponses that were posted up on
the web site:
As a lefty, I understand the phenomenon of a student being shown a
drumset without ever being asked about his "handedness." I've
made it work just fine on a right-handed kit, and developed a few techniques
want to try on a right-handed setup. So, like most lefties, I've found
a way to turn lemons into lemonade.
For most musicians, however, I think it's
completely worth the trouble to turn the drums around to play more comfortably
and musically. Even a
player sitting down at someone's kit wouldn't feel entirely comfortable
with a setup different from his own. I always INSIST that my students adjust
and angle of their instruments before playing.
By the way, the whole notion of the "standard" setup
is, itself, a slippery concept. In my initial lessons with drumset students,
I purposely avoid defining a "hi-hat" hand and a "backbeat" hand,
just to see what the student chooses. I only make "corrections" of
techniques that will inevitably lead to dead ends. So, the ride cymbal
belongs on the comfortable side, whichever side that may be. (Maybe you're
type, and both sides are the ride side!)
As a budding conguero, I decided to start the learning
process from scratch, so I'm playing congas and bongos southpaw and loving it.
key to instruction of congas or drums, I believe, is getting to students
beginning, so they don't waste any time using a system that they may eventually
Dr. Kurt Gartner
Kansas State University
I loved your article on left-handed drumming! I was in band and always
lagged behind the other drummers in learning things, which caused me great
Add to that the fact that I was awful behind a
trap set, and I gave up drumming
altogether after high school.
Years later, when I was in my thirties, I noticed that
when I tapped my feet, I always tapped my left foot. The light went
on over my head, and I realized that not only was I left-handed, I was
After seeing pictures of Mickey Dolenz playing the drums
left-footed and right-handed, I discovered that there were other possibilities
than the old "right
foot/right hand only" setup.
I'll never get back the years I lost, but it's great
to have the drums back in my life now. . . and I hope other percussion teachers
that left-handed drummers may need a little extra help!
believe that it is absolutely critical that the strong hand
supplies the groove. Teaching young players the importance of
strengthening the weak hand is necessary. However, for advanced
players, using the strong hand to its fullest advantage gives the player
an extra edge to be his/her best. I
teach all of my college and graduate level students to use their
strong hand to lead and supply the groove in whatever lick they're
The same problem exists in the orchestral
literature. All of the standard stickings are right-handed. I
relearned everything with a strong left-hand lead because the lead
hand supplies the phrasing in addition to the rhythmic
groove. I believe that the success that I've had in winning
professional auditions has been possible in part because I was extremely
of left-hand lead in a right-hand world!
Principal Timpanist, Lyric Opera of Chicago
Director of Percussion Studies, Chicago College of Performing
The Dominance Factor, by Carla Hannaford, Ph.D. Great Ocean
Publishers. Detailed explanations of dominant hand, foot,
eye, and ear, as well as
profiles of the
various learning processes associated with the different combinations.
Loving Lefties, by Jane M. Healey, Ph.D. Pocket Books. This general
guide to understanding lefties also has some information on the
Right Hand, Left Hand, by Chris McManus. Harvard
University Press. An entertaining, big-picture work on the history,
neurology of laterality.
Also, check out his web site, www.righthandlefthand.com
The Hand, by Frank R. Wilson. Vintage Books. A great resource for
anyone who wants to know more about how the hand connects to the