Marching Bass Drums

The bass drum section consists of anywhere from one to even eight or more bass drums, though most modern drum lines use five. Each drum of a different size is tuned to produce a different pitch from the next so that a single, melodic instrument is created. The bass drum is often one of the more difficult instruments to play because you aren't only trying to blend with four other players, but rather playing your own part that may be either independent or unison to theirs. It also takes more muscle movement to initiate a stroke. Because of this, bass drummers should develop good skills in rhythm, counting and subdivision as well as listening.


The normal grip for a bass drummer is not much unlike that of a tenor player. The mallet itself rests upon the bottom of the fingers and the thumb forms a fulcrum with the index/middle finger resulting in a stereotypical "matched grip." This grip is then moved vertically where the bass drummer would appear to have a "french" (Timpani reference) or thumbs up grip. It is imperative that the bass drummer have a fulcrum rather than a "baseball bat" grip, a common mistake. In short, the thumb should rest on the "top" of the mallet handle.

One of the biggest differences in the matched grip for bass drummers as opposed to Snare or Tenor drummers is that Bass Drum utilizes more of all four fingers on the mallet, whereas Snare and Tenors incorporate more finger control to produce more complex rhythms and diddles.

The grip can be adjusted depending on the technical demands of the parts. For instance,Bass Drummers 1 and 2 may have parts that are nearly as technically demanding as snare or tenor parts and would therefore utilize more of the standard matched grip, incorporating more finger control.

Set Position

The set position is one of the most important yet underrated parts of playing in a marching drumline. It is the first position the audience will see you in. For bass drummers, set position is with the mallets and hands drawn back to the body, with the mallets perpendicular to the ground, resting on the rim of the drum. To ensure stability, you may lightly grasp the rim with your fingertips. It is important to keep the mallet vertical at all times.

Playing Area and Position

Bass Drum Playing ZoneThe normal playing position is for the mallet to hit in the center of the head. Because the instruments are graduated in size, this position will feel different for each player depending on both the size of the drum and the size of the player. To find the proper playing position either look in a mirror or have someone place the head of the mallet in the center of the drum. To find the proper arm position, begin by gripping the mallet properly, with the arms hanging comfortably by your side. Next, simply bend the arm at the elbow until the forearms are parallel to the ground. The position of the hand, wrist, and mallet should not change. This playing position should feel very relaxed and natural. From this position, we will adjust the carrier and stand so the center of the bass head is lined up with the head of the mallet. The upper arms, shoulders and neck should remain relaxed at all times. Some extension of the upper arm may be necessary for the largest drums and conversely, the upper arm may need to be drawn back slightly on the smallest drums.

Once the drum has been positioned to fit the player, bring your forearms in so they touch the bass drum rim. Memorize what part of your arm touches the rim so you will be able to always find the center of the bass head. (Use this only as a guideline to tell whether or not you are playing the drum in the right area. Do not however, rest your arm on the hoop at any time because this can inhibit your stroke.) The size of the drum will determine whether your forearm, wrist, or fingers make contact with the hoop.

The desired sound is a short but resonant, "punchy" sound. At times, for a more resonant sound, you may play off center. This approach works well when a smooth buzz roll is required.

Since bass drummers march sideways (parallel to the sideline) one bass drum head is facing the front of the field and one is facing the back of the field. When the drum is struck, the sound is forced "through" the drum. Therefore, in order to push the sound towards the audience, most single notes should be played with the "back" hand, that is, the hand that is behind the drum. This all depends on where the bass drum section is on the field in relation to the 50 yard line as well as the sideline. It is important that the bass drummers be able to see the drum major at all times while keeping the drum in the proper position. As a general rule, bass drummers should point their drums to the 50 yard line. Therefore, if the bass drum line is on Side A, and the bass drummers are facing the 50 yard line, then their LEFT hand will be their primary playing hand. if the bass drum line is on Side B, and the bass drummers are facing the 50 yard line, then their RIGHT hand will be their primary playing hand. Because of this, it is important that bass drummers be able to play all parts using both their left and right hands.


Bass Drum StrokeThe bass drum stroke consists of a LEGATO forearm rotation. All strokes are initiated from a simple rotation of the forearm. The mallet moves in a semicircular (or less depending on the dynamic markings, accents, etc.) motion where the diameter would be perpendicular to the ground. In other words, turning your forearm so that your palm would face up. The back of the wrist should be in line with the forearm; there should be no break in the wrist when you. There should be no extra arm motion as you play, only forearm rotation. Let the weight of the mallet help with the rotation.

As bass drummers, we play AGAINST gravity. You can practice this by sitting with your arms resting on a table, as if in playing position. Rotate your forearms outward so that your palms are facing up, and then rotate back to playing position. The motion we use for bass drumming is almost always legato. However, there are instances in which the music calls for a different type of sound and, accordingly, a different stroke style.

Be very careful not to hit the rim with your hand – it hurts!

Stick/Mallet Heights

Stick heights should always be only one thing: Uniform. Heights vary with different dynamic levels, and more arm becomes incorporated as the volume increases, but ALWAYS key in on this: You must get the most sound out of the drum at any given dynamic. This means that varying the height of the mallet more than the strength in which you hit the drum will provide a more projected, even sound.


Stick heights affect the velocity and thereby the dynamic level of the stroke. Use the following guide as a starting point for determining stick height in relation to dynamic markings. These will be further defined or modified in rehearsals.

Pianissimo – 1”

Piano – 3”

Mezzo Piano – 6”

Mezzo Forte – 9”

Forte – 12”

Fortissimo – 15”



Keep a nice, vertically erect posture when carrying the bass drum. Due to the weight of the largest drums, there is a tendency to lean backwards, but this should be avoided. The actual weight of the drums is deceptive because of the apparent mass of the instrument. Remember, most of the size is just air. Bass drums are certainly bulky and do tend to put a different sort of stress on the body than a set of quads, so some amount of exercise such as sit ups and crunches should be undertaken in order to develop the core strength necessary to carry the drum. As with any heavy object, lift the instrument using your legs and not your back. Once you are standing erect, the drum can be carried quite comfortably.

Player Head Position - Because bass drummers march "sideways" their heads (and eyes) must be turned in order to see the drum major and present to the audience. Bass drummers should get used to turning their head and listening in this manner.

Ensemble Blend

This simply refers to the section sounding more like one multi-pitched instrument and less like five different players playing five different instruments. The easiest way to achieve this is to have the same interpretation up and down the line. Practice technique so it becomes so instinctive that you can concentrate on the music more. No one bass drummer should play louder or softer than the other drummers in any musical passage. Dynamics are always played within the context of the music. Strive to listen to the other players and balance your playing so that each part blends into the section.

Instrument Care

Resting instruments

If possible, keep the instrument on its carrier and rest the carrier on the ground, keeping the drum from making contact with the ground. Otherwise, carefully sit the instrument upright, resting the bottom of the drum. Extra care should be taken to sit the instrument on a clean, dry place and to avoid dirt at all costs. Inspect the drum bottom, sides, rims and lugs and clean carefully. Avoid sliding the instrument (even slightly) across concrete or other abrasive surfaces.

Bass drum rims are made of wood and are very susceptible to scratches. Moving the drum carefully, lifting as opposed to sliding, will reduce this effect, but some scratching cannot be avoided. To maintain the appearance of the drum, each player should keep a black marker for touching up the rims of their drum, especially prior to each performance.

Drum Heads

Bass drum heads are made of plastic. These heads are durable, but can break and eventually wear out. Care should be taken to prevent cuts or scratches and the drums should only be played with bass drum mallets.

BASS DRUM HEADS SHOULD NEVER BE HIT WITH SNARE DRUM STICKS. Snare sticks can dent bass drum heads very easily, thereby ruining the drum head and the tone of the instrument.


Bass drum mallets are covered with a hardened felt material. This material can become permanently soggy if it gets wet. If it begins to rain during rehearsal or in the stands, cover and protect the head of the mallet.

The secondary set of bass drum mallets called “Puffs” are covered with a soft wooly wrapping which produces a warmer tone with less punch and articulation. Puffs are generally used for ballads or softer or less rhythmic passages, or for special effect.

Mechanical parts

Lugs: Lugs maintain the tension on the drum heads. When the lugs become loose, the tuning of the head is affected. Lugs must be inspected to assure that proper tension is maintained.

Lubrication: All mechanisms must be properly lubricated to function properly. Lubrication is best applied with simple oil.

Dirt: Dirt can easily get into mechanical parts. Dirt is abrasive and can cause parts to wear out quickly. All dirt or sand must be cleaned off of every part of the drum.

Dirt can especially collect on the lugs and lug casings on the bottom of the drum, or where the drum might otherwise be placed on the ground. Always try and set the instrument on the carrier first, but if the drum is set on the ground, check these areas and clean them thoroughly.

Cleaning the instrument

Before each performance, each drum should be thoroughly cleaned to remove fingerprints from all metal parts. Bass drums heads are very visible to the audience, so their appearance must be highly maintained. Brand logos should be clean and level when the drum is carried. Fingerprints should be cleaned off prior to all performances. Keeping the hands off of the drum heads will make this process easier.

Dust and Dirt can also accumulate on the interior portion of the wooden rims, usually on the bottom of the drum. Always keep the instrument clean, but take note of this often overlooked area.