How To Learn To Play Drums Without A Drum Set

How To Learn To Play Drums Without A Drum Set

Is it possible to learn to play drums without a drum set? Absolutely!

If you’ve always wanted to learn the drums, but don’t want to drive your neighbours crazy with a noisy drum kit, you’re in the right place.

I still use these tools for the vast majority of my practice as a professional drummer, without the noise, cost and hassle of acoustic drums.

Are you ready to jump in? Let’s begin!

How to learn to play drums without a drum set

  1. Get yourself a practice pad and a pair of sticks
  2. Find a mentor online or in person
  3. Practice your rudiments daily
  4. Further develop timing and independence
  5. Move onto an electronic drum kit

If there’s any section you’re particularly interested in, just click the links above!

Step 1: Get yourself a practice pad and a pair of sticks

If I’m not going to buy a drum set, then what will I be drumming on?

Every professional drummer I know has a high-quality practice pad. This is the foundation of good drumming and a perfect way to start to learn to play.

A practice pad is a thin, circular board that allows you to develop great technique, timing and muscle memory. You can take them anywhere, making them a favourite tool for many drummers. I always use one to warm up before a gig as well as in my daily practice.

One of my favourite drummer stories involving a practice pad is about legendary drummer Vinnie Colauita. Vinnie was always practising and would go through his whole day with sticks in hand.

Vinnie Colauita Playing Drums Without A Drum Set
Even if Vinnie had a great novel to read, it wouldn’t stop him practising

The story goes that Vinnie could chat with his friends, practise on a pad, and eat noodles, all while keeping perfect time!

If you want to get good enough for noodle-level drumming, a practice pad is a perfect way to begin.

The advantages of a practice pad

  • Much less expensive than a drum set.
  • Light and portable.
  • Develops a high level of muscular strength.
  • Used by master drummers the world over.
  • The fastest way to begin learning the drums.
  • Quiet and neighbour-friendly (especially when using conditioning inserts).

Which practice pad should I get?

The best practice pad that I’ve ever used and therefore recommend is this 4-in-1 practice pad (currently not available for UK customers, so I’ve linked UK visitors to a similar one instead).

It has 4 different surfaces to represent the different types of drum that you may end up playing.

Drum Set Alternative - Practice Pad Top Surface
Drum Set Alternative - Practice Pad Conditioning Surface
Drum Set Alternative - Practice Pad Laminated Surface
Drum Set Alternative - Practice Pad Bottom Surface

The laminated surface represents the feel of a marching snare, whereas the conditioning surface (the quietest pad surface that I’ve found yet) is brilliant for building strength for playing tom-toms and other less responsive drums.

I mostly use the conditioning surface myself and find that practice on this pad translates well onto a range of drums.

I personally believe it’s better to invest in a high-quality pad than buy a cheap one as this will help you develop better muscular strength, technique and control, allowing you to make the most of your practice.

For some inspiration, check out this crazy video of Isiah Rowser showing off his skills!

These are exactly the kind of patterns (known as rudiments) that drummers learn on their practice pads, which they can then transfer to real drums, as Isiah Rowser is doing.

Which sticks should I get?

Once you’ve got yourself a great practice pad, you’re going need a pair of sticks. There are a wide variety of options available, but typically, you’re going to want to go for a 5A drumstick.

The 5A drumstick is the classic stick used by drummers from almost every genre of music.

It’s a medium weight stick suitable for most musical situations. Many of the great drummers of the past have relied on 5A sticks and you should too!

Drumsticks to play drums without a drumset
The best sticks in the business

While there are a number of great drum stick brands, none is more iconic than Vic Firth. I always use Vic Firth 5A drum sticks thanks to their reliability and superior quality.

Like practice pads, sticks are not all equal. For example, Vic Firth sticks are pitch-paired to ensure that each drum stick produces the same sound when striking a drum or pad.

Step 2: Find a mentor online or in-person

So you’ve got your practice pad and sticks. But what should you be learning? What are the essential skills you need to be a great drummer?

Finding a mentor is the easiest way to learn everything that you need to know.

A great way to get started with your sticks and pad is our ‘How To Play Drums For Beginners’ article, where I take you through all the key pillars of beginner drumming.

You don’t even strictly need sticks or a practice pad for the first section, but unfortunately, you won’t be able to go any further than that without them.

In the lesson, we’ll get you playing songs as quick as possible, including hits from Queen, the Arctic Monkeys and Michael Jackson.

After all, drumming’s no fun if you don’t get to play great music!

Once you’ve had a go at that lesson, my advice would be to check out an amazing YouTube channel I found called Drumming Without Drums.

On this YouTube channel, drum teacher Dan does a whole series of drum lessons for students that have virtually no equipment.

He helps you to set up objects to play on that resemble the height and shape of an actual drum kit, so it feels as real as possible.

The one thing that I think would make his lessons even more enjoyable for you guys is using the practice pad as a snare drum as part of his improvised drum kit.

He plays on a folder and it can be quite harsh on the ears, especially if you’re practising for a long time.

The conditioning insert of the practice pad (especially after removing the laminated surface) is likely to be a better bet for your both your ears and your technique (and will keep your family a bit happier)!

Step 3: Practice your rudiments daily

There are essential sets of patterns that all drummers must learn to become well-rounded players. These patterns, called rudiments, make up much of a drummer’s daily practice.

Whether drummers know it or not, it’s rudiments that allow them to express themselves and flow effortlessly around the drum set.

The Percussive Arts Society has a list of 40 drum rudiments that they believe to be the most important to every student of drumming.

You’ll start with the simplest rudiment, single strokes, until you can play advanced and complex rhythms like ratamacues and flamadiddles.

Rudiments to learn without a drum set
Mastery of these rudiments will give you many of the tools you need to become a great drummer

Aside from the fact that a lot of the rudiments have very silly names, they create the foundation you need to become an amazing drummer.

Drum lesson #9 from Drumming Without Drums covers the basic rudiments you need to know.

If you want to see some rudiments in action on the drum set, check out this iconic drum track featuring John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. He’s using a wide range of rudiments here to create an incredible drum solo!

If you want to reach the level of a legendary drummer like John Bonham, it all starts on the pad. Get the basics right first by learning simple rudiments and then move on to our next step!

Step 4: Further develop timing and independence

Two skills that are critical for drummers are timing and independence. If you’ve been practising on the pad, you’ve already started work on these key skills.

Timing

Timing is the most important skill a drummer can possibly possess. The drummer is the rock at the centre of the band that keeps all the musicians playing together and in time.

Many people say that only talented musicians have great timing, but did you know that this is a skill that you can develop?

In my article ‘Is It Hard To Learn Drums’, I break apart some of the common myths and misconceptions around learning to play the drums.

Working on your timing is essential to developing as a drummer. Whilst playing rudiments or common drum beats, drummers often use metronomes to avoid speeding up or slowing down.

Metronome for playing drums without a drum set
Before the days of online metronome apps, this is how the metronome looked

A metronome produces a series of clicks in perfect time to help musicians play evenly.

Next time you are practising on your pad, try playing along with an online metronome! It’s tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, this will do wonders for your playing.

Independence

Are you wondering how Vinnie from our story earlier could eat his noodles whilst practicing on his pad?

It’s often said that drumming is like rubbing your belly while patting your head. In fact, there’s twice as much going on like that!

Drummers use all four limbs to play rhythms on the drum kit. This means they have to multitask, playing different rhythms with different limbs at the same time.

If this sounds impossible, don’t panic.

As you become a better and better drummer, your brain will develop so that you can multitask without even having to think about it.

The best way to start developing your independence is to play basic rhythms with your feet as you practice on your pad.

Start by playing a rudiment of your choice on your pad along to a metronome.

When you feel comfortable, see if you can tap your right foot on every beat whilst still playing the rudiment.

If you’re playing a rudiment with two hands, adding your right foot means you’ve already developed three-way co-ordination!

Then see if you can do the same with the left foot.

Finally, see if you can switch feet for every beat (playing your right foot on beats 1 and 3, and your left foot on beats 2 and 4).

This is the start of your journey to true drumming independence and being able to rock out on a full drum kit!

Step 5: Move onto an electronic drum kit

Once you’re starting to feel comfortable on the pad, you should definitely consider investing in an electronic drum set.

They are an incredible breakthrough for drummers who can’t practice with a full volume drum kit.

Put simply, electronic drum kits are a quiet way to experience the enjoyment of drumming.

Instead of striking drum skins, you play your musical ideas into electronic pads. Each pad represents a real drum or cymbal on a drum kit.

A computer in the electronic kit (known as a brain) records how hard you hit the pads and adjusts the sound you hear through your headphones accordingly.

The advantages of an electronic drum kit

  • Allows you to develop four-way coordination.
  • Resembles the shape of a real drum kit.
  • Doesn’t upset the neighbours (may not be suitable for apartments/flats due to foot pedal vibration).
  • A variety of sounds and different drum kits, depending on what style you want to play.
  • Takes up less space than an acoustic drum kit.

I mentioned at the top of this article that I believed that practice pads and electronic drum kits can actually be a better way to begin to learn to play the drums than buying an acoustic kit.

There’s always a debate about whether electronic or acoustic kits are best, but in my opinion, both are perfectly valid ways to learn to play the drums. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. Many drummers I know use both!

One of the issues with acoustic drum kits is that it can be very difficult to listen to music and play them at the same time.

The music in your headphones needs to be very loud and without the right set up, you often don’t hear the subtleties of each song you are playing along to.

Now imagine that you’ve just got yourself a brand-new drum kit.

Wouldn’t it be much more enjoyable to be able to hear a metronome or the songs you are playing along to clearly?

Getting a perfect set up with an acoustic drum kit can sometimes be complicated. It often requires moulded in-ear plugs or high-quality, noise-cancelling headphones.

With an electronic drum kit, you can play at whatever volume you want.

I personally feel as a teacher that my students do a lot better when they are able to really listen deeply to the music they are playing. It seems a lot easier for them to work on crucial elements of drumming like timing and dynamics.

If you’re looking for a great beginner’s electronic drum kit, I’d personally recommend the Yamaha DTX432K, which is the latest version of the electronic kit I started out on.

Yamaha DTX432K Alternative to Drumset
The modern drummer’s choice

It’s affordable, easy to learn on and has a wide range of high-quality drum sounds. Plus, it has some great practice modes like ‘rhythm gate’, where the drums only sound if you are playing in time.

Are you ready to start your drumming journey?

Thank you for reading this beginner’s guide for learning play the drums without a drum set.

I’d like to leave you with one of my favourite ever drumming videos that will hopefully inspire you to take up this amazing instrument.

The video linked below is a recording of Buddy Rich, widely considered to be the greatest drummer of all time.

Once you’ve checked out his astonishing drum solo (below), grab yourself a practice pad and a pair of sticks and I hope one day to attach a video of your incredible playing to my future blogs!

ARTICLE BY

James Kitchin
My mission is to make playing the drums as exciting, effortless and enjoyable as possible. From jamming in my friend's basement to turning professional in London's theatres, I'm here to share all my experience and enthusiasm with every reader, whatever your ability level.

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