Saturday, August 13, 2022

In Our Right (Hemisphere) Minds: A discussion with Lefties playing Right Handed Drums

 I am left handed. I share this distinction with roughly twelve percent of the world, like our friend Ned here.


Yet, like a lot of musicians, I play my instrument right handed. I share this situation with many drummers, and decided to host a virtual roundtable on the subject. I queried Seattle-based drummer/educator Todd Bishop, New York Jazz Veteran Ben Perowsky, Boom Tic Boom and Artemis' Allison Miller, and Cheap Trick/Tinted Window/Fuse's Bun E. Carlos. Their thoughtful and insightful responses were as varied as  their playing styles, and I hope you find them as fascinating as I did!  ( I have placed their individual bios at the end of this post.)



1.What led you to play a right-handed drum set up?

Todd Bishop:I had about a year or two of lessons before I got a drum set, and was basically playing right handed in my lessons. My older brother is a drummer, and there were always drums around the house, so I think I just copied his set up. There was never much conversation with my teacher or my brother about whether I should play right handed or left handed.

Bun E. Carlos: I got a drum set when I was 12 and I didn't really know how to set them up so I copied what I saw in the catalogue, which was with the image flipped. So I played them left handed for about 4 months, until I saw some bands that all had them set up the other way.

Allison Miller: I had a very surly, ornery, and demanding first teacher and he told me "Nobody is going to wait for you to set up the goddamn drums left-handed at a jam session"! So you're playing right handed." I will add that I was young, so I didn't know any better anyway, and I already had been doing a bit of right hand lead playing prior to any private lessons.

Ben Perowsky: They were set up that way! (Laughs)

2. Have you ever experimented with playing a completely left-handed drum set, e.g. playing hi-hat with your right foot?

TB: I might have done it once just as an experiment. I may have played on a lefty friend's (he was right handed, incidentally) drums in college once or twice. Found it highly weird.

BEC: I never got too lefty with my feet. I never saw a drummer set up completely left handed for years after I started. It just seemed perfectly natural to set up right handed.

AM: I have. In fact, in the last couple of years when I do get time to practice I always designate at least 30 minutes to playing left handed.

BP: I think I could count on one hand the number of times in my life I have sat down at a completely lefty kit, and every time I did it it was so weird! 

3.  Do you tend to play open handed (left hand on hi-hat and ride) or cross over to play hi-hat? Why?

TB:All of the normal hi-hat/ride cymbal stuff I do with my right hand. Maybe for a moment I'll do it with my left if I drop a stick. The way I play-- and I think many or most jazz musicians play-- is based on a right hand lead on the cymbal— cymbal beat or solo line. It's an entire system. I spend a lot of time developing that, and it would be stupid for me to have to relearn it backwards just to hit something on the left.

BEC: After I had been playing for about a year, I saw Dennis Wilson playing with the Beach Boys, and he played open handed, so I started doing that. But I had already learned to play right hand lead, so I started doing it both ways. When I was 13, 14 when I started it didn't seem very difficult to switch it up. When I'm playing something syncopated on the snare, I tend to play open handed, but if the snare is on 2 & 4, I play hi-hat or cymbal with my right hand. Conversely, Cheap Trick did a handful of gigs opening for Mahavishnu Orchestra and Billy Cobham let me sit at his kit and I added a crash over my hi-hat as well as a ride so I could play more open-handed stuff, although I also realized at that time that my future wasn't playing double bass drums! (Laughs.) 

AM:  Yes, when I started embracing my left hand side, I felt like I started playing more "open-hearted", and what I mean by that is literally opening up my chest, because my arms aren't crossed. People call that "open-handed' playing, but I like to call it open hearted, and it opened up this whole symmetry of the kit. Previously, I felt like I had been leaning to the right, and it felt really unbalanced, and when I started playing left-handed, it felt like it fixed that balance problem, both physically and spiritually. That said, I find playing left-footed quite difficult. So, it's kind of like Lenny White's approach, where you play left-handed, but right footed.

BM: I play open-handed almost exclusively. It's like I'm left-handed on the top but right-handed on the bottom of the kit.  I started taking lessons when I was about twelve, and we stuck with it because I was used to it.

4. Do you tend to lead ideas moving around the kit with your right or left hand? Did you have to train yourself to start things with the opposite hand?

TB: I lead with the left hand a quite a bit when playing on the drums-- toms and snare-- but that really evolved out of a musical idea, like it was an extension of left hand-role stuff. I think I'm loathe to move my right hand off the cymbal, so starting with the left gives me a little head start. It also puts the right hand, still kind of the main hand, in some unusual spots rhythmically. I'm not real clear on it. Nothing to do with being left handed. 

BEC: I always led with my left hand, up until about 1990, when I got a house and was able to practice every day, rather than only getting to play when I was on the road, and I worked on leading with my right. But because I usually lead with my left, playing along with Beatles records and playing Ringo licks was always very easy for me.

AM: I tend to lead with the left and play opened handed most when I'm soloing, and this happens more and more often. It feels liberating and open! This is over a long period of time, but I feel like I'm now embracing and learning to go with my natural inclinations as a lefty, rather than a conscious training.

BP: I always played very "left-centred" but I think some more conventional things slipped in there organically, probably just because of the logistics of the kit. Almost everything I could play on the instrument, I would try to play left hand lead first. I studied with Gary Chester at one point, and he was very about being able to play everything both ways. When I started studying formally, I spent about a year playing completely righty, but it didn't stick.

5. Do you think being a left handed player on a right handed drum set gives you any physical advantages over a right handed player?

TB: No, I had to work to get my left hand up to speed like everyone else.

BEC: Nah, not really that I know of, unless you're doing Beatle-type songs.

AM: I think there are many advantages. I think my left hand has always been strong. My technique has been strong. Being able to left hand lead has allowed me to utilize all the options on the kit and get around it freely. I feel very comfortable playing ideas with my left foot, leading with it, and I think it's as fast as my right. Same goes for my hands. So, lots of advantages.

BP: I don't know… I think left foot independence stuff might be a little easier for me.

6.  Any disadvantages?

TB: No.

BEC: Yes, I realized that if I wanted to play like Mitch Mitchell, I would have to get drum lessons and do rudiments, and be able to lead everything with my right hand.

AM: No

BP: I will say the other side of the coin is that I have to work extra hard on my right foot. I'm definitely left-footed! 

7. Has being left handed influenced whether you use traditional or matched grip?

TB: No. I played traditional grip for awhile in college because it looked cool, and will shed it a little bit every decade or so. I mostly play matched grip because my hands are pretty well trained for that, and it requires less thought.

BEC: I mainly play matched. I tried to hold my sticks traditional like they did  in band at school when I started, and it didn't feel right. In 1976 I broke my left arm and when I healed, I pretty much healed it up by playing live when the cast was off, and when I tried to hold the stick marching style after that, it didn't turn as easily as my right hand. I couldn't even play traditional now even if I wanted to.

AM: No, I play mainly traditional these days. I started with that grip and kind of veered away from it for awhile, but then came back to it. I will also switch back and forth and most of the times I don't even think about it.

BP: I play pretty exclusively matched these days. I would like to experiment with playing the "reverse" traditional grip, but have never found the time to do it. The one year I played exclusively righty, I played traditional grip, and really liked it. 

8. Have you ever been given negative feedback from anyone (teachers, relatives etc.) for being left handed in general?

TB: Nothing negative, I always got the feeling that it was special and a little bit odd. I never got put fully in the left handed box, I just kind of struggled along doing some ordinary things not very well.

BEC: Oh yeah. They tried to make all the lefties "write correctly" in 3rd grade. They made us all stay after school once a week, and learn how to hold a pen correctly while writing a line on a piece of paper. After about 3 weeks of this, we all decided it was stupid and didn't show up the next time! 

AM: No, if anything I've gotten compliments around my left hand chops etc. Sometimes I wonder if I would have had a different journey with my ride cymbal beat (in terms of developing my sound and my swing) if I had played completely left-handed, but I've never had anybody challenge me on this. I think these are all inward questions everyone has to seek out. No regrets!

BP: (Laughs) Not really. Maybe some confused looks or comments, but no real grief about it. Sometimes when I see footage of myself I think, "That is so weird looking!" I guess I give myself grief! 


                                                                         Todd Bishop


Todd Bishop has been performing and teaching professionally in Portland, OR, the west, and internationally since 1985. He has led jazz, avant-garde and indie rock groups and produced six CDs of original music for Origin Records.
                                                                                                                                                                     Bun E. Carlos


Brad M. Carlson (Stagename: Bun E. Carlos), is the original drummer for American rock band Cheap Trick. Carlos has two side bands with former Cheap Trick bassist Jon Brant: The Bun E. Carlos Experience, and the Monday Night Band.In 2009, Carlos formed a new band, Tinted Windows. This new project ran alongside each of the artists' main bands. Tinted Windows played its first publicized gig at SXSW in Austin, Texas on March 20, 2009, and appeared on late-night network TV shows. Their album was released on April 21, 2009. 

Alison Miller




NYC-based drummer/composer/teacher Allison Miller engages her deep roots in improvisation as a vehicle to explore all music. Described by critics as a Modern Jazz Icon in the Making, Miller won Downbeat’s 67th Annual Critics Poll for “Rising Star Drummer” and JazzTimes’s 2019 Critics Poll for “Best Jazz Drummer.” Boom Tic Boom, Allison’s longtime band, won Jazz Journalists Association’s 2019 award for “Best Mid-Sized Ensemble.” Her composition, “Otis Was a Polar Bear”, is included on NPR’s list of The 200 Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women. In January 2020 Miller along with her band, Boom Tic Boom, tap dancer-Claudia Rahardjanoto, and video designer- Todd Winkler premiered this new multimedia suite, In Our Veins, with a seven show tour sponsored by Jazz Touring Network and Mid Atlantic Arts. The project explores multimedia performance as a vital form of knowledge production through the poetic interpretation of historical events and their association with the geography, ecology and flow of specific rivers. As a side-musician, Miller has been the rhythmic force behind such artists as Sara Bareilles, Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant, Brandi Carlile, Toshi Reagon, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Patricia Barber, Marty Ehrlich, Ben Allison, and Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Ben Perowsky


 Ben Perowsky’s notable career has placed him among a small vanguard of players able to move between jazz, experimental music and cutting edge pop and rock. He cut his teeth as a youth playing drums for the likes of Rickie Lee Jones, John Cale, Roy Ayers, James Moody, Bob Berg, Mike Stern and Michael Brecker. Broke ground driving back beats for NY bands Elysian Fields and Joan as Policewoman as well as John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards. He Co-founded the electric jazz group Lost Tribe and has continued to record and perform with pop and jazz legends such as John Scofield, Belle and Sebastian, John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Lou Reed, Pat Martino, Tegan and Sara, Uri Caine, Steven Bernstein, Walter Becker, Vernon Reid, Loudon, Martha and Rufus Wainwright. Ben has produced 8 critically acclaimed records to date. He currently plays in a band called RedCred with John Medeski and Chris Speed.












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