The Correct Drumstick Grip: What’s with the Thumb-First Finger “Fulcrum”?

How to Grip Drumsticks

Confusing Pivot Point, Lever, Grip, Stroke…and Lots Else

I’ve never quite understood it—the thumb-first finger fulcrum. When I was a kid I suspected that there had to be so much more to the grip and to striking a drum or cymbal. Yet the thumb-first finger fulcrum was gospel. Maybe I was missing something. As I got older and progressed through stages of drumming and drum-related injuries the issue puzzled me increasingly, yet each time I’d question the Doctrine of Thumb & First Finger, someone would chastise me, proclaiming its merits in words such as these:

The drummer should hold the stick between thumb and first finger. This is the fulcrum. The rest of the fingers follow suit, loosely surrounding/embracing the stick towards the butt end.

End of story, except for the occasional nod to a hinge-like wrist motion and the rare allusion to a whipping motion of the arm. Oh yes, there’d be inevitable clarification of that fulcrum to the effect that the drumstick ought to rest in the crook, or joint, of the first, or index, finger.

What bothered me was that aside from thumb and first finger, the other fingers were left to their own devices. When I began to play in power rock trios, in order to execute the required fast singles and articulate doubles at mega volumes…at double-forté…I’d squeeze increasingly on, you guessed it, thumb and first finger, while attempting to “grasp the stick loosely” with the remaining fingers.

It sure left a lot to chance. At the same time, however, there was no disputing the notion that the thumb and first finger could very well constitute a fulcrum, which is a term often used interchangeably with pivot point. That made sense, alright. But it needled me that if the stick rested on a pivot, constructed by the thumb and first finger with benign second, third, and fourth fingers, how could there be leverage? Could leverage be obtained from that thumb and first finger? How could they supply leverage or load? After all, they were a pivot point on which the lever (drumstick) rotated.

How to Grip Drumsticks and Avoid Pain...the thumb/1st finger fulcrum danger

Press here and cause pain

I needed to rationalize this seeming contraction. Okay, I get it: leverage comes from the wrist and maybe the arms! The problem with this solution was that teachers and books universally insisted that good drummers do not flap their arms up and down like a heron (or eagle or otherwise big bird) taking flight. I began research, looking first outside the realm of drumming. I looked to tennis, since as a kid I’d had an amazing serve, and to ping pong, since I’d taken it up in college and the motions seemed relevant to drum technique. The answer was across the road in the playground.

Child’s Play

The fallacy of the thumb-first finger fulcrum is best illustrated by a typical teeter totter, sometimes referred to as a see-saw. The fulcrum, or inert point on which the lever (usually a long wood plank) pivots, is placed in the center: this allows equal play for two kids sitting at opposite ends of the plank. Each child attempts to exert greater force, thereby causing the other child (the load) to rapidly hurl skyward. The speed at which the loser travels, and the distance he/she travels, is proportionate to the force exerted on the lever. The whole thing rests, pardon the pun, on the existence of an inert fulcrum. If the fulcrum/pivot point is not stable, the lever or stick cannot respond properly and the whole effort collapses. The problem is that many drummers exert pressure on the fulcrum (the thumb and first finger). The moment this happens, the fulcrum ceases to exist. You can’t have it both ways!

Similarly, you can’t pull over to the roadside and change a tire without jacking up the car and cranking a lever. Without a firm pivot point or fulcrum—the vertical tube on which the car sits—if you apply pressure on the lever, the whole thing topples. It’s not an exact analog, I agree, but the principle is identical; and besides, without getting into it, there are different sorts of levers.

Now it’s not as if there haven’t been drum instructors or books explaining the complete stroke in various ways, ranging from the Moeller technique to a dual-book package I reviewed for Modern Drummer in the early eighties by Tom LaFlamme: TIPS in Percussion Execution. For some reason, many drum instructors reject such attempts to trace the energy flow from center of spine, through torso, shoulders, forearms, wrists, hands, and fingers.

And yet we’re left with a century’s worth of drum instructional manuals that remain unchallenged in their advocating of the sacred tenet of the thumb-first finger fulcrum, as if this constituted the grip, and is if the grip constituted the stroke. I guess the full picture is difficult to comprehend—I’m still working on it—and even more troublesome to explain. Thus, books and teachers perpetuate this spurious notion out of expediency and maybe laziness: It’s easier to describe a thumb-first finger fulcrum and advocate curling the remaining fingers around the stick than to assign discrete functions to each digit, then advance up the chain into the arms and torso to fully explain leverage, throw, and grace, forget about explaining the interrelationship of rebound.

I now teach four students from the Carleton University music performance program. It’s a hip program stewarded by acclaimed composer Dr James Wright, who, blessedly, knows the difference between Billy Gladstone and Bill Bruford and has given me license to observe the fruits of my labors on university drum students—four as we speak, all doing really well. True, I have one student who suffers from a shoulder injury, but it’s not from playing drums but from slinging bags of frozen french fries all summer in a fast food restaurant!

Outside of the university environment, all I get is static from drum teachers—well, the older ones,(ahem, those who are my age). After the heat I took on account of the “Get a Grip” article published in Modern Drummer, you’d think I’d give up. But I managed another look at the issue, published in the Canadian magazine Drums Etc. All I did was attempt to get people thinking. I suggested that the traditional, narrow interpretation of “fulcrum” was not only incorrect but was the direct cause of injury. Jeez, the hate mail! It was as if I’d broken wind at Sunday dinner.

To that article I added something I’d missed in the MD piece, namely that teachers were curiously silent on an important facet of this business of grasping the stick between thumb and first joint of the first finger. I suggested, teachers should ensure that students grasp the stick at the same “first crease” juncture in addition to keeping the stick pressing against the side of the first finger.

I’d noticed that all my favorite drummers from Mattacks to Gadd to Bonham, when comfortable, seemed to rest the their palms in a more-or-less facing-down position with the stick nestled against the side of the first finger, which thus often appears to be pointing downwards.

The novice drum student, under duress and in the absence of clarification, tends to slip the first finger under the stick in order to get a firmer grasp of the situation. Right there we have a recipe for trouble: again we are choking up on the stick and infringing on the pivot point, the fulcrum.

Granted, the first finger can slip underneath the stick—provided the student is learning the conventional timpani grip, known as French Grip, which is sometimes employed by drumset players (eg. Manu Katché, Bill Bruford, Carter Beauford, Bill Stewart…sort of).

With French grip the thumb is up, atop the stick, and the fingers underneath the stick, thus facilitating true, natural finger movement. This is the most natural grip (I can hear you grumbling) for finger control (don’t hit on me, check Weckl’s video). The bigger problem is that drummers new to French Grip tend to strike with a glancing, side-to-side blow, instead of the necessary vertical angle. This comes from previous palm down experience, which involves learning to motivate the stick downwards with a finger motion that gravitates more towards the body than to the floor. We strike a nail with a hammer in this manner. Once this finger action is learned in “memory”, it’s hard to shake when attempting French Grip.

Fortunately, as I discovered after years of research, I’m not alone. There are others, including Steve Smith and Jo Jo Mater, who’ve studied the matter and who have released excellent DVDs that attempt to blow fresh air at this stink. And there are others, like Spivak and Wilson (discussed below), who never released books or videos but whose merits are manifested in some of today’s greatest drummers.

Relieving the Iron Grip of Thumb & First Finger

Back to the teeter totter analogy—if you buy it—you realize that you must obtain leverage by removing load from (inert) fulcrum. Presto: this is the essence of the problem inherent in the dogma of the thumb-first finger fulcrum. A remedy, therefore, is displacing the pressure at the pivot point, beginning with the second finger, which ought to be the object of meticulous development by teachers, followed by the rear fingers, which, especially in high volume situations take over and move the action even further from the front end of the fulcrum. I remember citing a rare clip of Tony Williams speaking at a clinic, demonstrating something “willy-nilly” about motivating sticks with the thumb and first finger and, thus, relying on bounce, as Tony put it. Instead, Tony held up his hand and showed the converse: he grasped the stick with the last two fingers and left the first two loose, then snapped the stick for the camera in the manner of the great drummers he’d grown to admire in his youth.

Studio shot, T Bruce Wittet with loose thumb-first finger left hand grip

That's me in the studio with, perhaps, overly loose thumb-1st finger fulcrum

History is clear, of course, that eventually Tony Williams moved to a hybrid French Grip. But he never relinquished the role of the last two fingers and developed a stinging, whip like motion with them.

I’m suggesting that drum teachers ought to be begin instructing on the role of that second finger, not just the thumb and first finger; if we agree that the latter constitute the fulcrum, let’s not sacrifice it; instead, let’s call on the other fingers (and eventually hand/wrist, forearm, and so on) to motivate stick to drum.

When I began fretting this issue, I relied on the first Steve Gadd Video, Up Close, particularly his description of the “Bobby Thompson Grip”, which Steve later told me he continues to use when practicing or performing remedial grip exercises. According to the Thompson configuration, the first finger points ahead, straight almost due north, again resting aside the stick, as a part-fulcrum part-guide, while the second finger shares fulcrum duties and begins to exert leverage—followed by the last two fingers.

Steve Gadd shows his go-to drumstick grip

Steve Gadd demonstrates the Bobby Thompson Grip

Teachers (including the many who felt I’d offended them) lashed out at me when I printed this blasphemy in print magazines. So I gave the naysayers a forum in the subsequent issue of the Canadian magazine (which I edited, and from which I resigned a couple of weeks ago, speaking March, 2011, following accusations of conflict of interest viz this website!).

Again, I stressed to readers and I stress to you, that my reasons were part-selfish. I’d gripped too tight with the thumb and forefinger. And, incidentally, so had my old phone pal, Jeff Porcaro, with whom I’d discussed this many times. Sometimes he’d become paralyzed—his hand frozen for the same reason. Lever action is near impossible unless you distance force and load from the inert fulcrum.

Honestly, I’m still winging it—again playing devil’s advocate. I was inspired by Gadd and Weckl and by Freddie Gruber, from whom I’d gotten the green light following a couple of early on discussions. That was a dubious achievement, though, because Freddie would say, “Yeah, that’s right, that’s right….noooo, jeez, I’ve got to get you down here and show you the way things really work”.

Richard Wilson and Murray Spivak, in that order, really had it down. They taught Vinnie Colaiuta and Carlos Vega, whose grip and stroke, to me, are/were textbook. I’m going to hook up video for this website to assist in explaining and I’m going to lean on Kevin Crabb, prize student of Spivak and, especially, Wilson. Kevin’s also a great drummer/teacher/composer. He has it down. I’ve on vested interest; I simply enjoy that he knows an entire system, not simply some aspect of how to hold sticks. You can consult him for Skype sessions (I have).

Kevin knows that some students manage to luck out and get it right. Possibly the greatest example is seen in the extraordinary technique of Buddy Rich, who studied the great Billy Gladstone (the method I learned from a NY disciple of Billy’s when I began drumming) and incorporated aspects into his inimitable, tremendously graceful and efficient grip/stroke. And Buddy Rich, as even the most casual observer will note, did not loosely curl the rear fingers benignly around the drum stick. Buddy’s technique involved the the torso, arms, wrists, and as he was want to say, “the hands, not the fingers!”

As Kevin Crabb will tell you, there’s so much more to it than the narrow focus I’m providing today. Kevin will reiterate that fulcrums can and will vary, depending on dynamics and other factors. Kevin makes it clear that although he can play quietly and loudly, simply and intricately, with a thumb/forefinger grip and make it work, the grip, and the stroke, gain efficiency and grace when more of the body’s natural resources are brought into play.


“It’s like EMC2 ….without the E”, says Kevin, commenting on those who describe grip and stroke with vague presumptions as to the role of fulcrum and wrists. “ We need to look at the thing in its entirely or there’s no possibility of true understanding, and, furthermore, proper execution, by looking at one component in exclusion. I can play out of that thumb/first finger fulcrum, but it’s tremendously inefficient and it’s only scratching the surface of a valid system fo technique.”

Visit www.kevincrabb.com

For my part, I’m glad to play devil’s advocate again and hope I’ve got you challenging this, and other, sacred tenets of technique. It’s well worth the time (very literally) to do so, given your drumming career is at stake.