Music Learning Systems - Guitar, Piano, and Drums

DVD Review – “Unburying the Beater”

by Omar on January 26, 2010

in DVD Review

Disclosure: received this product free of charge for review purposes. However, is not compensated in any way for sales of said product. We recommend that you do your own independent research before purchasing anything. Of course, since my business rests completely on my reputation, I can't afford to recommend anything that isn't fantastic quality. - Omar Alvarado, The Paradiddler

UtB DVD cover

Resonance.  Through it we hear what the tone of our drums sound like.  Sure, at times we tend to mute certain drums in our kits to limit excessive ringing or overtones, but for the most part resonance is how we hear the tone, or note, of our drums.

To ensure we get the desired sounds, or tone, from each of our drums, we learn about dynamics, rebound, tuning, and the like.  We don’t force the stick to stay on the head of the drum, but instead we learn how to work with the bounce of the stick off the drum head.  We tune our drums a certain way, the snare and the toms, to get a particular sounding note, or a particular resonance.  Then natural rebounding takes over, and the drums resonate and sound how we want.

But for some reason, these principles are not always applied to the bass drum.  Many drummers, particularly in Rock, tend to ‘bury the beater’, as it were, and leave the beater pushed against the bass drum head between notes.  As many of these drummers play the ‘heel up’ method (more on that method later), the bass drum is not allowed to resonate, but instead is limited to a quick ‘thud’, and then it gets ‘out of the way’.  Quite the opposite of how we play the rest of the drums in the kit!  In addition to the beater being pushed against the head, in many instances a pillow or other muffling device is placed inside the drum against the batter head to further impede resonance.

In previous articles, I’ve spoken about how I feel about the sound that I like from the bass drum.  In “Great Snares of Rock” (ironically!), I talk about the sound of Simon Kirke’s bass drum sound on the song “All Right Now” by Free.  Among other things, I mentioned the following:  “You can hear the smack of the beater create the full, rich bass drum sound with fast decay.  I like bass drums that are thick and fast, and get out of the way.  But even though the bass drum here had a tinge of boominess, it fit the overall sound just right.”  I tend not to like a bass drum that sounds too boomy.  I do like a full, rich sound, a fast thud, and as I mention, then quickly gets out of the way.

However, my feeling on this is starting to change just a bit.  A while back, I attended a drum clinic by Will Calhoun, where he stated that he doesn’t use muffling very much.  There was not muffling on the bass drum except what little came standard with the Remo Powerstroke bass drum head.  He mentioned that he likes the drums to resonate, without being impeded by muffling.  This went against what I believed, to a certain extent, but his bass drum sound was excellent, so I didn’t question it.  I stored that little tidbit of information in the back of my mind (we’ll get back to this ‘tidbit’ later).

Fast forward to the present.  As drummers we’re always looking for ways to improve our technique.  It’s a lifetime endeavor.  Sometimes we stick with our habits, for good or ill.  Other times we’re wowed by a great drummer, and try to imitate their chops.  And yet other times, we come across a teacher or instructional video that later we identify as a turning point in our playing, or at minimum makes us question our technique enough to make significant adjustments.  In this case, the latter has occurred.  I came across an excellent DVD that describes a fresh approach to bass drum technique that, if applied, can positively affect our bass drum playing, and help us to really get that rich, deep bass drum sound that many drummers look for.  The DVD is “Unburying the Beater”, by Matt Ritter.

Matt has an extensive bio, where you can read all about him.  Here are some highlights:

  • Graduated from the University of Hartford, where he studied music in the university’s Hartt School of Music
  • Worked as a production assistant at DCI Music Video, where he was involved in the production of videos featuring Steve Gadd, Max Roach, Omar Hakim, Neil Peart, and others
  • Studied with the legendary author/teacher Jim Chapin
  • Extensive professional drumming experience in genres such as jazz, rock, and musical theatre
  • Honored in 2003 with an invitation to the Vic Firth educational team
  • Is one of the leading drumset instructors in New York City, where he has been teaching lessons since 1996

“Unburying the Beater” is more than just a limited amount of techniques that one particular drummer uses for bass drum play.  It is more like a system, a philosophy, an approach, per se.  It centers around the notion that the bass drum, just like the rest of the drums in the kit, should be allowed to resonate and achieve it’s full, rich-sounding resonant potential without being hindered by the beater being ‘buried’ into the head, hence the name “Unburying the Beater”.  The methods taught here, when applied, allow the beater to naturally rebound off the head, like it wants to do anyway due to the laws of physics(!).  It involves using the whole leg, not just the foot, to achieve a method of bass drum play that will exploit the natural resonance of the bass drum.

In the video, Matt explains that, as a young drummer, there was much material around regarding bass drum rhythms, but not so much as far as the physical movements required to execute those rhythms.  After many years of investigation and trial and error, he has now developed the instructional DVD for bass drum playing that he wished he had when he started out.  New drummers will have a strong foundation for learning to play the bass drum more effectively.  Experienced drummers can enhance their current bass drum skills, and add new tools to their repertoire.

Questions Drummers Ask

It was a little entertaining when Matt went into what questions drummers would ask each other if they struck up a conversation.  One question would be, “Do you play traditional or matched grip?”  Well, I’ve gone into detail on that subject (you can read about it here).  The second question, which is more germane to our topic at hand, is, “Do you play heel up or heel down?”  This question relates to the position of the foot on the bass drum pedal.  It is a critical question because it is directly related to the methods expounded on in “Unburying the Beater”.  Matt then goes on to explain the advantages and disadvantages of each method.

heel down

As you can see from the picture above, with this method, the heel is down, and the foot is resting on the drum pedal.  The beater is about one or two inches away from the batter head of the bass drum.  This is what the foot and pedal look like between notes.  Here are some details about this method as presented by Matt:

Heel Down Method… Advantages

  • Easy to play softly and with control
  • Allows beater to rebound cleanly, allowing bass drum to resonate naturally

This method is used a lot in jazz when the drummer wants to ‘feather’ the bass drum, in that they just barely strike the drum.  This type of control can be achieved by using the heel down method.

The second advantage listed above is what Matt really considers the main advantage of this method.  The whole point of “Unburying the Beater” is to allow the bass drum to resonate.  Since the weight of the foot on the pedal is minimal when the heel is down, the beater will more easily rebound, and stay off.

Heel Down Method… Disadvantages

  • Challenging to play really fast
  • Foot is not free to move around; in a fixed position, so adjustments are more difficult to make based on tempo
  • Can’t use different parts of foot to play the pedal:  toes, ball of foot, or full surface
  • Too strenuous to make powerful sound; can’t use thigh muscles

Matt goes into extensive detail on these points, the bottom line being that if your foot is fixed, there’s very limited flexibility as far as adapting to the different styles and speeds of the songs you want to play.  If you only play heel down, there isn’t going to be much room for improvement.  In addition, if you want to play combinations, like double strokes and triplets, and faster tempos, it can’t be done for a sustained length of time – the limited muscles used with this method will give out.

heel up

As we can see from the above picture, the heel up method involves raising the heel, so that the ball of the foot and toes are set on the pedal.  Because the weight of the whole leg is now in play, instead of just the foot as in the heel down method, the beater is pushed into the batter head.  There it remains between notes.  The following are some details regarding this method, as Matt describes them:

Heel Up Method… Advantages

  • Because the heel is not anchored, a more forceful stroke is possible
  • Freedom to alter the angle of the foot or pedal to use whatever part of the foot is suitable for what’s being played

The above is why this method is used mostly by rock drummers, where force is required (or expected!).  Faster playing is possible as well, since the foot is free to move and accommodate the different speeds and patterns.  However, there are also disadvantages.

Heel Up Method… Disadvantages

  • Bass drum sound is muted, less resonance, since beater is held against the batter head
  • The beater, due to physics, wants to rebound, so a flamish-type note is produced
  • Calf muscle is constantly engaged

Again, Matt goes into great detail regarding these issues, but the second point deserves a further mention.  Many, many drum teachers instruct their students to let their sticks rebound off the drum head, because that’s what it naturally wants to do – why resist nature?  Well, that’s what many drummers do with the bass drum!  The poor guy also wants to resonate, like the rest of the shells, but we don’t let it!  It may be acceptable to get a muted sound from the bass drum, if that’s specifically what we want.  But the bass drum will probably sound best if we let the rebound occur.

So after many years of studying the different methods, mining information from many drummers, and tweaking his own approach to bass drum play, Matt came up with this formula:

UtB equation

As mentioned earlier, the “Unburying the Beater” method is a combination of the advantages of both the heel up and heel down method.  It’s an entire methodology that, when applied, not only helps you play the bass drum better, but also improves your drumming in general.

The DVD goes into detail regarding how to implement the “Unburying the Beater” method.  I would classify it as a three-step process:

  1. Your posture and position behind the kit
  2. The placement of all the components of the kit
  3. The actual exercises of the “Unburying the Beater” method

The following are pictures that illustrate the above:

foot placement relative to knee

Matt explains how to position your foot relative to your knee.  Allowing the knee to be slightly behind the foot allows for greater flexibility.

hip 1 to 2 inches higher than knee

Seat height is also very important.  Matt goes on to show why having your hip one to two inches above the knee is the optimal height for bass drum play.

solid tripod stance

Fundamental to good drumming is balance, and being completely centered.  Sitting in somewhat of an equilateral tripod stance will allow you to have the utmost balance, as well as being centered.  This is why most drum thrones and cymbal stands are made with three legs.

sweet spot

In addition, Matt explains how to determine what the sweet spot is for your particular pedal.  This is a very important component of the “Unburying the Beater” method.

front of drum set

This is one of the topics that struck a chord with me.  Drummers who use only one bass drum tend to face that drum straight to the audience, making that the center of the kit.  What Matt teaches instead is, the drummer is what should be facing the center of the kit, with the bass drum to the side.  If the bass drum is the center, then the drummer is automatically off center.  This tends to lead to a little more contorting than necessary to reach the lower toms.  Instead, as shown in the picture above, put the bass drum to the side, and the hi-hit to the other side.  Then your snare and toms should be placed right in front of you, the toms being mounted on a stand (as you’ll see in his kit).  This will allow you to still be completely centered and have the utmost flexibility.

Matt then goes on to fill in the rest of his kit; here’s his:

Matt at his kit

You’ll notice that Matt is facing towards the center of his kit, where his snare and toms are, and the bass drum is to the side.  Matt goes into all the details as to why this is the optimum positioning of one’s self and your kit.

And of course, there are the actual “Unburying the Beater” exercises.  For as much detail as we’ve discussed so far, the nuts and bolts start here.  Matt goes on to explain the actual exercises that will with practice and time allow you to have more control over your bass drum play than ever.  He demonstrates the actual motion involved, and then how that motion translates into single strokes, multiple strokes, double strokes, and more.

90bpm single stroke demo

The different speeds at which the examples are explained are illustrated, as above, so you can see the method in motion, as it were.  This way you can more easily reproduce the exercises.  Various tempos are displayed, and you are encouraged to try faster speeds to develop control over the motions presented.

Some of the techniques that Matt goes into in great detail are:

  • Fast multiple strokes
  • Double strokes
  • “Bonham Triplets”
  • Toe/Ball double strokes
  • The Slide
  • and much more
UtB in action

After showing these specific exercises, Matt dedicates a good chunk of the instruction displaying these techniques in action.  With multiple camera angles and a popular counting method, Matt shows the practical application of the “Unburying the Beater” principles that he teaches.  So you not only get the exercises, you get to see how you can use them in the songs you like to play, and even incorporate them in your practice routine.

In addition to all the above, Matt also has a troubleshooting section where concerns are addressed regarding the application of this technique, and a frequently asked questions section where he answers some very common questions that have come up regarding the “Unburying the Beater” method.

This instructional DVD is very well done, a professional job.  You can tell by everything Matt says that he was very studious in putting together all the material and presenting it in a way that is very understandable to the audience, without sounding dogmatic.  His friendly manner is very inviting, and it seems that he is genuinely interested in your betterment as a drummer.  You can tell that he absolutely practices what he preaches, and of every nuance of the method he’s teaching, he misses not one.  I like his sincerity in admitting that he hasn’t necessarily invented this method, but has culled all the information from various teachers, and from his own experience, and now finally can present this method in a formal manner that hasn’t been done before.  He gives credit to those before him that have helped him with his drumming, and this method of playing the bass drum (coincidentally, he also credits Will Calhoun, mentioned earlier).

As much as has been included here about the DVD, we’ve only scratched the surface.  There’s so much content and instruction in the DVD that many viewings will be necessary to get the full benefit, and you will refer to it over and over for sure.  It’s jam-packed with over two hours of instruction.

If there’s anything I would have liked to see that wasn’t included, is more coverage regarding how to implement this technique with double bass.  In saying that, however, he does mention double bass players and briefly mentions (in the FAQ as well) how they can use the “Unburying the Beater” method for double bass play, but doesn’t delve into it as much as I would have liked.  I have double bass pedals, always have had, so I would have liked to see more.

Even though he presented many practical examples of this method, I would have liked to have seen him play a song like Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times”, which Matt references and is a classic example of this method in action.  Multiple camera angles, on the whole kit (maybe from behind), and on the bass pedal, would have been a good example in action.

As much as resonance is important, I actually didn’t like Matt’s bass drum sound too much!  It was a little boomy for me, more like a big floor tom.  But as I mentioned earlier, I’m starting to re-think my own bass drum sound, all because of this DVD.

Beforehand, and still to this point really, I like a thick, fast bass drum sound.  I don’t like it to ‘boom’ too long after it is struck.  But after seeing Matt’s “Unburying the Beater” method, I think the problem may not be the bass drum, but me!  I think I may have been exposed as being a little lazy.  This DVD has not only made me rethink the sound of my bass drum, but of every drum in my kit.  Particularly for the bass drum, now I have to analyze if the sound I’m not liking from it is a result of poor tuning, and not enough experimentation.  Am I putting the pillow inside the drum because I can’t tune it optimally, or rather, don’t want to spend the time tuning it correctly?

That may be the case, but then again, it can also be that I’ve tried tuning the bass drum and never got the sound I wanted (still too boomy), so in the pillow went.  Even with the pillow inside, with the “Unburying the Beater” method, I might be able to have the best of both worlds:  a thick, fast thud with a rich, resonating tone that only the bass drum can produce.  Well, I have some work to do!

To me, this DVD is somewhat of a revelation, an approach to the bass drum that I never thought of before.  It’s absolutely a fresh take that is worth the price:  only $24.95.  For less than the cost of one drum lesson, you can fundamentally change your bass drum play, for the better.  A very strong nine out of ten paradiddles for “Unburying the Beater”.  A must for every drummer’s catalog.

For more information regarding Matt Ritter, and ordering the “Unburying the Beater” DVD, click here.

To hear The Paradiddler's interview with Matt Ritter, click here.

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