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Grace Note Theory - Part 1

This series is intended to clarify flam “grace notes”, reviewing touch, timing, and variations. In part one we will review touch, specific to technical approach and grip. You may have heard the age old saying “keep your grace notes down.” But it’s time to challenge and clarify this phrase.

I remember being in 7th grade being taught flams. I was taught the grace note hand drops the bead directly from the set position with no wrist rotation right before the accented hand. This took awhile to master because the more common strokes used incorporated wrist rotation with some finger and arm. I eventually mastered this and my isolated flams were fantastic. But as I grew older and began learning flam rudiments, I felt my grip tighten because the grace notes were lower and less fluidic from my taps. This is when I learned grace note technique depended on the rudiment and tempo. I’ll do my best to categorize the variations of grace note techniques:

  1. Isolated Grace Notes

  2. Tap Balanced Grace Notes

  3. Beefy Grace Notes

The "Isolated Grace Notes" were described in the first paragraph. I named it this category because this approach is specific to playing flams without any immediate subsequent partials. For example, most John Philip Sousa march tunes encompass a lot of 5 stroke rolls and flammed 8th notes at tempo 120. These hand-to-hand flam 8th notes are slow enough that the grace notes can be low without restricting motion or producing poor sound. Another example is a snare drummer playing “taps” onto a field. The flams on counts 1 and 3 have a lot of space between them, therefore the grace notes can drop from the set position with no impact to the music.

But what about the rudiment “flam accents”? At a tempo of 60 beats per minute (bpm) with 8th note value, the original approach dropping down grace notes works because there is a large space in time between the accented flam and the subsequent tap. This approach won’t work though when playing triplet flam accents at a tempo of 140. This is because the space between the accented flam and the subsequent taps is so quick, that there is not enough time to have grace notes played lower than the taps. Therefore, the grace note becomes the same balance and height as the taps and could be named “Tap Balanced Grace Notes”.

Challenge: Test out this theory by playing the right hand only for the rudiment flam accents as a triplet rhythm at tempo 140. Study if the “grace note” partial (middle partial of the low triple stroke) is lower or higher than the partial before and after. If you were capable of naturally controlling a lower grace note than the taps, I’d love to see it, but most likely you witnessed the grace note mimicking the taps.

This takes us to “Beefy Grace Notes”. A good example of this is the rudiment “flam taps” at a quick tempo. In order to be successful, the grace notes will be higher than the normal tap height. This is because this is a legato rudiment that will lose its fluidity when the taps are squeezed too much after the accented flams. Other examples of beefy grace notes would be the left hand rhythms when playing pataflaflas when leading off the right hand. If the player over squeezes after the left hand accented flams, the subsequent taps will be forced and the stick will lose its natural rebound.

We will dive more into grace note variations in the 3rd part of this series. Next time we will look at flam space and what consistent flam space says about you as a player.

Major Takeaway: Rudimental grace note approach is dependent on the tempo the rudiment is played at. If you feel your forearms burning, then you’re squeezing the stick too much and you need to re-evaluate your hand mechanics. It is okay for the grace notes to be beefy in the appropriate setting.

Author: Matthew Regua

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