"...you will come across some unique words and ideas that don’t exist for other instruments."

Beginner Drummer's Guide to Flam Notation: Unlocking Drumming Techniques to Learn Quickly

As you work on your journey through drumming, you’re going to come across some unique words and ideas that don’t exist for other instruments. Diddles, ratamacues, and a bunch of other terms can sound really weird before you get to know them, and perhaps the weirdest of all is the flam.

Strange as it might sound at first, the flam is a technique that can open up different sounds and options for you as a drummer, and it’s a primary technique. It’s something you want to learn early in your career, and once you master it, you’ll find that you can fit flams into all kinds of drumming things that you do. It’s a technique that really will become a part of you, and it’ll be fun and feel good to play.

So, let’s go on this journey together and learn all about flams, including how to play them, why they matter flam notation, and some great ways to practice them.

Table of Contents

What Is a Flam?

The flam is an essential technique in drumming. It’s a means of playing one note with both hands (or feet). Put in common music terms, you’re playing a grace note next to a “regular” stroke.

If you’re not familiar with grace notes, here’s an explanation. The main stroke of the flam is preceded by a much softer stroke with the other hand. That softer stroke is the grace note. Even though a flam is treated as a single beat, it technically involves two distinct hits on the drum.

One of the easiest ways to understand a flam is to look at it in written music notation.

Notice how there’s a regular note with that really small note in front of it. The small note is a grace note, and these two notes together visually represent the flam. You play the regular note directly on the beat as written, and you fit the smaller note in before the main stroke. As we talk technique, you’ll really understand how this works and how it should sound.

How Do You Play It?

The technique for playing a single flam is pretty simple. Put a stick in each hand. Raise one hand to play a full, normal stroke, but don’t play it yet. Just hover. Your other hand is going to prime a stroke a bit lower than the “normal stroke” hand. Again, just hover.

At this point, you should have both sticks out and ready to play. The tip of one is raised high while the other is near the drum. Now, drop your hands.

Once you get this right, the result will be a sound that simply sounds like a single note–only wider or thicker. That’s a flam. It’s made from two notes, yes. But they’re so close that they sound like one. They’re NOT simultaneous notes. They do not hit the drum at the same time.

They are two separate notes that are so close to each other that they sound like a single, wider note. When you listen to the examples linked to later in this article, that sound will be clearer to you.

Now, reverse your hands and do the same thing. You can do flams with either hand. If your right hand is the main stroke, it’s called a right-handed flam, and the reverse goes for when your left stick is the one raised high.

I’ll take you through some exercises to get better at controlling your flams in a bit. Before that, there are a couple of practice notes that can help you master this technique.

First, there should only be two strikes (that sound like one) on the drum. When you’re learning the flam, it’s easy to drive either stick into the drum head too hard and create a buzz stroke (which sounds like the beginning of a drum roll). You don’t want that. Instead, we want a crisp sound, composed of two notes that are so close together that they actually sound like one, thicker note (I know, I’m repeating myself here but it’s important).

It can also be easy to hold the sticks close to the same height — but that’s not so good. When this happens, the sticks hit too close together and you don’t get a clean, crisp flam sound. In fact, when you do this, you will most likely play the notes almost exactly at the same time and that won’t give you the “thick” sound that you want from the flam. By the way, when the sticks hit a drum at exactly the same time, that’s called a “double stop.”

It’s also easy to overcompensate and hold back the main stroke. When this happens, your flam spreads out too much and it sounds like two different notes instead of a single flam. If you can clearly hear two distinct notes, you will know that you are not playing the flam correctly. Pay attention to the sample videos I’m linking a little further down. Your ears will be your ultimate guide that tell you when you’re getting your flams right.

One last thing. You don’t have to confine a flam to a single drum. When you’re starting, it’s best to practice on the practice pad or the snare drum so you can clearly hear your flams. Once you’re comfortable, you can flam with your hands on a drum and a cymbal, two different drums, the bass drum . . . any mix that sounds good to you. Once again, your ears will be your guide.

How Do You Make Use of Flams?

I’m still putting off exercises to cover something else that’s important. Before you spend hours mastering the flam, you might have a reasonable question. What’s the point? Why do drummers even use flams?

Some music Ph.D. has probably written a long book on the topic, but we can stick with a simple answer. The point of a flam is simply to create a desired sound. Generally speaking, it’s a “fatter” or “thicker” sound. It adds texture. You’re filling out the note with the grace note, and it’s most obvious if you listen to it on the snare drum.

Every stroke on a snare drum is staccato. The sound is over in a very short amount of time. This makes it really easy to hear complex rhythms, but it can make lyrical aspects of music a challenge. How do you increase your possibilities of expression on the snare drum? One way is to use dynamics—softer volumes will change the mood. But flams can help too because they create a distinctly different sound.

So, when would you use flams? When you are playing a slower kind of groove, maybe 80 bpm or less, you might use flams in your fills or on your back beat. At slower tempos, the extra space between the notes can allow you to really create a different vibe with the flam. The flam really stands out as a different sound as these tempos.

It’s also a great way to create sounds that you can not create any other way. A flam between two different toms is one example. Or a flam between the snare and your ride cymbal is another.

Once you get good with flams and start experimenting (or start learning what some of the crafty jazz drummers have done with them), you’ll start to see the kinds of possibilities they offer.

These ideas are just a starting point. The only limit to what flams can do for your drumming is your creativity.

How Do You Practice Flams?

Ok. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how you can really master flams. I’m going to give you three rudiments using different rhythms to practice to get comfortable. As I mentioned before, it’s easiest to start on the snare or practice pad to keep things simple. As you gain comfort, move your flams around the kit and experiment.

While you’re practicing, you’ll quickly notice that one of the big challenges is setting up the flam. It’s normal for a flam to force you to play the grace note with the same stick that just played a normal stroke. The challenge is resetting your stick to prepare for the flam. The trick is to absorb impact from the preceding stroke with your hand and prevent or limit the recoil and get your stick into position a little faster.

In other words, if you know you have to play a grace note (a note that begins low to the drum) and you play a louder note right before it, stopping the stick from bouncing back upwards is going to be the most efficient way to get your stick into the proper position.

The easiest way to get a feel for this is to slow way down and really work out the feel of the flam. Slowly increase the speed, bit by bit, and you can build muscle memory that will enable you to throw flams into your playing without a second thought.

With that covered, let’s talk about some exercises:

The Single Flam

The first is the single flam. This is one of the essential rudiments, and it’s worth spending time on it. You’re just alternating flams. Start nice and slow and gradually speed up.

The Swiss Triplet

The Swiss triplet is next, and you’ll find that it’s an amazing technique for a lot of great drum set ideas (Tony Williams used to use this rudiment with wonderful results). 

Two great drum set applications (both of which I’ve stolen from jazz drummers) are:

  • Separate your hands and play the right hand on the floor tom and the left hand on the high tom. Execute the Swiss Triplet from that position—it will sound great. Move your hands around the kit, keeping them split up between different drums. Try turning your snares off too. It will sound great.
  • Play the Swiss triplet on the snare drum, but move your right hand to the ride cymbal for the first of the three triplet notes of each group of three. Sounds killer.

The Single Flammed Mill

The single flammed mill might seem like an obscure rudiment, but I’ve found it very useful.

For me, this rudiment was always a way to play 16th notes and easily add a flam at the beginning of each group of four.

I never found it easy to make that idea sound good (like how I heard John Bonham play it) until I learned to play this rudiment. And when I learned it I thought, “So THAT’s how Bonham did that!”

Many seasoned musicians will tell you that you should study the piano to learn the notes, but you should study the snare drum to learn the beats.

Examples in Music

While you’re practicing, it also helps to draw on clear examples. You can see how professional drummers use flams, hear them directly, and learn from the context of famous music. I’ve selected three examples for you. The first is from the legendary rudimental drummer Rob Carson. This video is a chance for you to hear just plain flams, played by a true master. The video covers all 40 rudiments, and the flams start at 10:30.

Here’s the video:

Next up is a more practical example. What do flams sound like in music? Perhaps the most famous example of all time is brought to us by the Beatles. In “Ticket to Ride,” Ringo is not being flashy or trying to overwhelm audiences with technique. He’s trying to use a whole lot of flams to build a sound and style, and it works. As with all of Ringo’s playing, his use of flams here serves the music.

Here’s the video:

The third example will show some flam chops in the context of extraordinary drumset play. This solo by Tony Williams has a ton of great technique and sound. You’ll hear some great use of flams early in the solo.  The players in the group include Stan Getz, Chick Corea, and Stanley Clark–a bit of a “super-group” if you ask me.

Here’s the video:

FAQ

I think I’ve given you most of what you need to know in order to get started with flams. That said, I get a lot of repeat questions when students are getting started, so I want to cover them for you here. You’ll notice that the questions have a lot in common, and it’s okay if they are already on your mind. I will answer in a few different ways to be thorough, so you have as much help as possible. In other words, there may be a little bit of repetition here because people ask the same question in different ways, so please bear with me on this.

Many seasoned musicians will tell you that you should study the piano to learn the notes, but you should study the snare drum to learn the beats.

How Do You Notate Flams?

Flams are noted in music by a grace note and a regular note, tied together, on a single line (or space). It looks like this:

Many seasoned musicians will tell you that you should study the piano to learn the notes, but you should study the snare drum to learn the beats.

What is a Flam in Music Notation?

In music notation, a flam is the combining of a grace note and a regular note, and it can fit into any rhythm. In the example below, the flam is represented by the grace note and the following sixteenth note at the beginning of each group of four sixteenth notes. Have a look:

Many seasoned musicians will tell you that you should study the piano to learn the notes, but you should study the snare drum to learn the beats.

What Does a Flam Look Like on Sheet Music?

It looks like this:

Many seasoned musicians will tell you that you should study the piano to learn the notes, but you should study the snare drum to learn the beats.

See, I told you there would be some overlap. But you get the message.

Thanks for learning about flams with me.

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