Drummers often think of their left foot merely as a large paperweight whose sole purpose is to hold the hi hat cymbals together. In this article, I hope to explore some of the possibilities that you may not have considered - possibilities that can enrich your playing, expand your rhythmic horizons, and enhance your ability to communicate pulse to the other musicians in a band.
There are four fundamental sounds you can make using only the left foot: the "chick"; the "splash"; the "crash"; and the "sizzle." The "chick" is the easiest to explain, and the easiest to perform. Simply push down on the toeplate with the ball of your foot, and hold it down. You'll hear a short, tight sound as the cymbals touch one another and squeeze together.
To perform the "splash," simply push down quickly on the toeplate with the ball of your foot, and as soon as the cymbals make contact, remove your foot from the toeplate so the cymbals touch gently and briefly. You want the cymbals to ring, so be sure that they don't remain in contact with each other for more than a fraction of a second.
The "sizzle" is basically a cross between the click and the splash. Bring the cymbals together using the ball of your foot, and allow them to bounce against one another for a fraction of a second. However, don't completely release the pressure with your foot. You want the cymbals to remain in gentle contact with one another, one vibrating against the other.
The final technique is the "crash," a variation on the splash. Here, instead of using the ball of your foot, you use your heel. Strike the toeplate low, down near the hinge, and use a forward motion with your foot rather than an up & down motion. You want the cymbals to come into complete and sharp contact with each other, followed by an immediate release of the foot. Think of it as a strong glancing blow. This results in a similar sound to what you'd get striking a crash cymbal with a stick. Just be careful to aim your toes off to the side of the footplate, or you'll bang your feet on the stand.
These four sounds make up most of the sounds available with just a foot and a hi-hat. Of course, there are variations and gradations that mix the sounds, but these are the fundamentals that we'll be applying as we move into the next portion of the article. I'd recommend that you spend some time with a hi-hat and no sticks, so that you can develop the ability to produce these sounds consistently before you move on to the exercises. The exercises will be hard enough to perform once you have mastered these four techniques - learning the techniques and the exercises at the same time will only add to the difficulty.
Now let's look at some of the ways you can use your left foot to accompany and interact with the music you're making on the rest of the drumset. The most basic accompaniment that your left foot can provide is simple quarter notes. Try a few favorite rock beats with the right hand on the ride cymbal, while your left foot plays quarter notes on the hi-hat.
You can also try soloing over quarter notes with the left foot. This can be tricky, so take your time. As you get more comfortable with this, try adding an occasional bass drum, but avoid the temptation to let your bass drum fall into an identical quarter note pattern.
The next step would be to learn the standard 2 and 4 jazz hi-hat pattern.
The simplest and most common method is the "heel-toe" technique. Here, the heel of the left foot strikes the heelplate of the pedal on beats 1 and 3, while the toe comes down on the toeplate on 2 and 4. Using this method, the leg is basically still bouncing on every quarter note, though the resulting sound has changed.
Be careful using this technique. Since you're only hearing the hi-hat on 2 and, it's easy to get sloppy with the heel on 1 and 3. You won't be able to hear it if your heel is always early or late or if it wanders randomly. Pay attention to these "silent notes," and make sure they're in time. Even if you can't hear an irregular puse from your heel, it can't help but communicate that "wandering" feel to the rest of your limbs.
The 2 and 4 hi-hat is the backbone of jazz and some Latin playing. It can be challenging to improvise with your hands and bass drum while maintaining steady time with your left foot on 2 and 4. This is an essential technique if you're considering playing in any jazz situation. Most horn players will tell you that they listen mostly for the drummer's hi hat, particularly if the bass player is playing anything other than straight quarter notes.
You should also become confortable playing the hi-hat in 3/4 time. The hi-hat can be played ineither a straight, 3/4 waltz pattern (on beats 2 and 3 - example A below), or with a jazz waltz feel, on the 2 only (example B below).
Once you've mastered the basics, the next step would be to start using the hi hat as an equal limb in your playing. Instead of using it just for support, try to begin to think of the hi hat sound as another "voice" available to you as you compose melodic or rhythmic lines on the drumset. Carter Beauford of Dave Matthews band uses the hi hat sound extensively as a tool to spice up his playing, although usually he uses his hands to achieve the effect. You can just as easily use your foot for these accents, thus freeing up your hands for other tasks.
Probably the best example of this style is John Guerin, who played with Joni Mitchell for many years. Listen to "Help Me," or almost any song on the Court & Spark album. Listen to the way John substitutes the hi hat for the bass drum in many of the beats he plays. Notice how this change makes the music sound so much looser, and how it helps the band flow.
Another amazing example of this technique, and the beautiful effect it can achieve, was demonstrated by Alex Acuna, on Lyle Mays' self-titled solo album, particularly on the song "Highland Aire: Ascent."
To develop a facility with this type of playing, start out by playing 8th notes on the hi hat with the foot, gently bouncing your leg.
Practice this while your other limbs improvise freely over the steady left foot. Start out slowly until your leg muscles get used to this kind of activity.
Next would be to apply the heel-toe technique to 8th notes. Here, the heel comes down on 1, 2, 3, and 4, while the toe strikes on the "&s" of each beat.
Work on this until it's second-nature. Try soloing over it with just the hands, and then add the bass drum. Finally, move on to full rock or jazz patterns with the remaining limbs.
You should repeat all of these exercises using the other three fundamental hi-hat sounds. First try the exercises with each sound individually; then try the various combinations of sounds.
Remember the crash sound made by striking the toeplate with your heel, then letting your foot glance off to the side? If the crash sound is played in a quarter note pattern, you can pretty much imitate the percussion section of a high school marching band all by yourself. Once you've got the hang of making the crash sound, try to combine it with the chick. If you play a chick on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4, and play a crash on the "&'s," you'll create a "disco" feel with your the left foot.
If you remember the song "Crazy on You" by Heart, there's a section where the disco beat is played on the hi hat while a tom tom figure is played above it. I would imagine that this was accomplished by overdubbing, but you can do a similar thing with your left foot by yourself.
There are infinite variations of these exercises. Experiment and find the techniques that feel best to you. Remember, the hi-hat is the only instrument on most drumsets with the ability to completely change the sound it produces. The possibilities for expression are almost endless. Your left foot doesn't need to be just a paperweight.