The Twofold Path – Part 2: Building Chops

In Part 1, I laid out a little bit of my background thought process on this journey of “learn to shred, then don’t.”

The first part of that ideology, then, is the shreddery – that is, chops, technical facility, speed, complex sticking, and so on. For me, this is an area of weakness that I’m gradually chipping away at – but I’ve never really been a “shredder.” I do, however, want to be…

We’ll get to the why question in a moment – but first, let’s talk about how.

It really isn’t THAT tough to build speed, chops, licks, etc., as long as you’re willing to spend the time and exercise some patience. This isn’t a short journey, but you should probably know that by now…

I’m not saying it will come quick, necessarily, but the road to ripping isn’t all that complicated:

• Pick a pattern
• Break it down stroke by stroke
• Go slow, focus on evenness and clarity
• Repeat a gazillion times

Then you pick a new pattern, sticking, ostinato, whatever… and do it again.

There’s no secret here, no magic method. Sure, there are elements of technique that will help and pieces of conceptual understanding that are prerequisites for certain subdivisions or stickings, but the fact remains – as the Buddy Rich quote goes – “You only get better by playing.”

You gotta put the time and effort in, it’s a simple as that.

Putting The Pieces Together

The next piece of the puzzle is something I’m just starting to grasp onto: fluidity between ideas. That is, mixing and matching the patterns you’ve practiced, improvising on the kit and your “new licks” show up in pieces without a conscious effort to shoehorn them in…

Here are some GrooveScribe links to some 16th note triplet licks I’ve been working on. If you’re not hip to Mike Johnston’s GrooveScribe, you should be!

Idea #1
Idea #2 
Idea #3

These are all bits I’ve been working on individually, grabbed/adapted from various sources, and I’m finally (after months) starting to be able to see how they fit together, to combine ideas, to simply think about the subdivision – and not the specific sticking (I’m not quite there yet).

Full disclosure: #3 is taken directly from a now defunct YouTube channel of some seriously slick drumming. Here’s the video:

The ultimate goal here is fluidity, and the way to get there is by working out the smaller pieces, one at a time, then making new exercises out of a couple of those building blocks, then others, gradually adding more and more blocks to your “tower.”

Eventually, you’ll have a conceptual understanding of how these pieces fit together, coupled with the physical ability to execute the various stickings and patterns you’ve worked… And the ideas can flow like water!

The same is true with speed, subdivision, whatever. The further you push it, the more you work at it, the more accessible it becomes.

Okay… But why?

The Ferrari Metaphor

I’ve heard Nick Ruffini from Drummer’s Resource mention this concept a whole handful of times… An idea he got from the incredible drummer and historian Daniel Glass (I’m paraphrasing a little):

“Would you rather be in a Ferrari cruising down the highway at 60mph with plenty of headroom, or in a Pinto going 60 totally maxed out?”

The point is that Ferrari is doing what it needs to do (for drummers, playing a given piece of music) with all the room in the world to tear away at twice the speed…

And THAT, friends, is the main reason to get your chops up. It’s not so you can go crazy every minute of every song, but rather so you have the headroom too, should the situation require.

Think about it, if you can blaze single strokes at 250bpm, play wonky polyrhythms, rip linear 16th note triplets around the kit… You should (at least in theory) be able to hold down a basic groove in your sleep!

It’s also worth mentioning, keeping in theme with this metaphor, that people really like Ferraris – they’re powerful and fast, eye-catching and impressive…

Vroom Vroom...
Vroom Vroom…

They are also notoriously expensive, not terribly “utilitarian,” and not really something suited for everyday driving. It’s a specialty item – and I think “chops” should be seen in the same vein. They’re great to have, and if you want to blow someone’s wig back, they’ve got the firepower to do it… But most of the time you’re driving 60, not 175. Dig?

If nothing else, putting time and effort into your raw facility on the kit is going to have long-term value on even your simplest playing.

And, if we can be totally honest (and take a step back from the VERY true, but sometimes unrealistic “serve the music always!” claim many of us like to make) – sometimes the fireworks are just cool.

Maybe it’s in a solo or a shed session, or maybe it’s just a particularly humongous section of a tune, and you want to let ‘er rip… There’s not anything specifically wrong with that (we’ll touch more on responsible shredding in the next part), as long as it has SOME kind of purpose.

If you want this kind of stuff in your bag of tricks, whether it’s thunderous, heavy-metal style double kick and toms, linear triplet “gospel chops,” or high-speed, Tony Williams jazz madness, the approach is ultimately the same: start slow, and do it A BUNCH.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing. At least a chunk of my practice time has been about developing speed and power and all around shreddiness… And I can tell it’s working. A year ago, I wouldn’t have even been able to start something like this:

A video posted by Mike Schertenlieb (@muxmike) on

I said in Part 1 that “chops” are the harder part for me – but that’s not entirely true. For my own experiences as a drummer, I’ve definitely spent more time just grooving than working on licks, but as I mentioned above, the methods for growing that kind of technical facility are pretty straightforward. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Next time, we’ll talk about the “other side” – the actually important stuff for music making, for making people dance, for getting hired, and so on – the almighty ideals of groove and pocket. These things are harder to study, harder to fine tune, and are way more of a mental game than a physical one.

Where chop playing may be more “difficult” in a technical sense, the nuance – and really, totally vague nature – of “groove” makes it a field of study that lasts a lifetime.

See you in Part 3!



5 thoughts on “The Twofold Path – Part 2: Building Chops”

  1. Great read Mike! By learning the chops we also have to have discipline. The chops in a sense are just taking a step farther with our vocabulary and like you said “giving us more headroom”. Loved this man! Can’t wait for part 3!

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