4 steps to build a smooth buzz roll

by the end of last month's MET percussion audition, i had listened to over 120 long snare drum rolls. there was a ton of variation, and it highly affected how i voted in the audition.

needless to say, you NEED a great snare drum roll. it's your "long tone." and no matter where you are in your development, it's something you should be working on.

here's exactly what we're going to do: we are going to take the complex thing that is a roll, break it down into its simplest elements, and build it back up progressively into a roll.

step 1: work on the individual buzzes

whether it's the right hand or left hand, i want you to just start repeating the buzzes, specifically focusing on the quality of those buzzes.

two things here:

  • the first thing is density, and that means how many bounces there are in the amount of time that the buzz is happening. if it's a really dense roll, that means that it's crushed and that there are a lot of bounces. if it's a really open roll, that means that the bounces are wide and you can pretty much hear each individual bounce. i want you to get good at the whole spectrum of bounces, but then find a place in the middle that sounds right for any given dynamic.
  • the second thing is shape. naturally, buzzes just fade out. if you just let the stick bounce naturally, it's going to fade out to nothing, but we can't actually let that creep into our roll. i want it to sound "flat" so that the end of the buzz sounds exactly the same as the beginning of the buzz.

step 2: match hands

make sure your right hand buzzes and your left hand buzzes sound exactly the same. we can do the 4-on-a-hand exercise here, focusing and honing in on the quality of the buzzes to make sure they match as closely as possible. you still want to make sure that the both the density and the shape of the buzzes are exactly how you practiced it in step 1. keep in mind how the left had sounds when you're using your right hand at the moment and vice versa.

step 3: transitioning from R to L and L to R

when you start playing from one hand to the other, you're going to realize that there's this really important component of a buzz roll that i call the seam. you want your roll to be seamless so that you can't tell when one buzz stops and when the next begins. like i said earlier, the buzzes are naturally going to fade out, so we are going to have to work on these transitions using two subtle yet important elements. when putting together two buzzes:

  • increase the volume at the end of the first buzz
  • decrease the volume of the attack of the buzzes, especially the second buzz

it's almost like each buzz is a little crescendo. work on R to L and repeat, then work on L to R and repeat. 

step 4: building it back into the roll

once you have a seamless transition, start building the roll back together. now, instead of 2 buzzes in a row, do 3. the hard part is no longer between the 1st and 2nd buzz, but between the 2nd and 3rd. so work on RLR and repeat, work on LRL and repeat, then alternate back and forth between those patterns. then add a 4th buzz, a 5th buzz, and keep going until you get to 8 buzzes, and then keep going even further until you make your way up to 16 buzzes. eventually, you're going to have a long roll, and you will want to work on this at every dynamic level.

cool. let's stop there - that's a lot for you to work on for now, so get into the practice room and work on it!

rob knopper

lincoln center plaza, 10023

hailed by @nytimes and james levine as needing 'louder triangle notes'. recorded delécluse: douze études for snare drum, percussionist in @metorchestra.